The State of the Union in 1855: More Central American Trouble

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

We left Franklin Pierce inveighing against the British in his third annual message. The Young Hickory of the Granite Hills complained that perfidious Albion had agreed to renounce all claims to control of Central America in exchange for the United States doing the same. This would ensure that neither power had to worry about the other using a future canal to their detriment. But then the British persisted in their protectorate over the Mosquito Coast and expanded their recognized influence over Belize at the expense of Honduras by colonizing the Bay Islands. London had agreed to do exactly the opposite of this in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850.

Or had it? Franklin Pierce called on the Great Britain to do the right thing and withdraw completely from everywhere save Belize. The British thought otherwise:

the British Government has at length replied, affirming that the operation of the treaty is prospective only and did not require Great Britain to abandon or contract any possessions held by her in Central America at the date of its conclusion.

According to London, the British empire only committed in 1850 to develop no new claims or interests in the area. What Britain had, it would retain. You can read the treaty that way without twisting yourself in too many knots. The text makes frequent reference to a future canal and how the parties will not obtain or maintain dominance over it. But nor does it include language that only brought the neutrality and renunciation provisions into operation when someone built a canal and the text often looks as much to present circumstances as to the future. Even if one granted Belize and the Mosquito Coast as properly untouched by the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, that still left Britain’s new colony on the Bay Islands as a positive advance of British influence.

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia)

Pierce, understandably, didn’t buy what London tried to sell. To him, and to posterity in general, the British position simply assumed prior rights held, up to and including the expansion of British power in Central America until such time as someone built a canal. Then the United States would just have to trust Britain to do as promised. This would make for a hard sell between nations with uneasy relations today, let alone the tense Anglo-American accord that prevailed in the nineteenth century. Pierce told Congress that he hoped for a peaceful solution still, but he saw

reason to apprehend that with Great Britain in actual occupation of the disputed territories, and the treaty therefore practically null so far as regards our rights, this international difficulty can not long remain undetermined without involving in serious danger the friendly relations which it is the interest as well as the duty of both countries to cherish and preserve. It will afford me sincere gratification if future efforts shall result in the success anticipated heretofore with more confidence than the aspect of the case permits me now to ascertain.

Pierce would love it if everything worked out, but he didn’t like the odds. Posterity, for once, vindicated him. The British wouldn’t renounce their interests, outside a Belize expanded well beyond American understandings of its borders, until the end of the decade.

 

The State of the Union in 1855: Central American Trouble

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Fed up with the House’s inability to organize itself, Franklin Pierce issued his annual message on the very last day of the year. Custom dictated he wait for the Congress to have its affairs in order, but the Constitution required him to report on the state of the Union every year. Pierce’s message dealt with a wide variety of topics beyond the Kansas question, so it offers an occasion to catch up on the other things happening in 1855.

Pierce claimed that foreign relations proceeded amicably, except where they did otherwise. He opened with the dispute over Central America which informed the destruction of Greytown, in modern Nicaragua, the year previous. (Nobody died and they soon rebuilt.) Per the terms of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, the United States and the United Kingdom mutually renounced dominion over Central America. In a time before the Pacific Railroad, the United States had a keen interest in ensuring that the easier path between its new conquests on the Pacific coast and the old Union remain free from foreign domination. Mutual renunciation of imperial designs and guarantees of the region’s neutrality meant that neither power would dominate a future canal across it. If neither side exactly won, then they didn’t quite lose either.

So long as both nations held up their end of the deal, that all worked fine. Per Pierce, the British had not. They had a colony in the area, Belize, but the understanding at the time of ratification held that the treaty didn’t involve it. The United Kingdom had previous rights to the area, though Pierce construed those rights as strictly economic. The British could “cut mahogany or dyewoods […] with the positive exclusion of all domain or sovereignty.”

London had done rather more than that:

It, however, became apparent at an early date after entering upon the discharge of my present functions that Great Britain still continued in the exercise or assertion of large authority in all that part of Central America commonly called the Mosquito Coast, and covering the entire length of the State of Nicaragua and a part of Costa Rica; that she regarded the Balize as her absolute domain and was gradually extending its limits at the expense of the State of Honduras, and, that she had formally colonized a considerable insular group known as the Bay Islands, and belonging of right to that State.

Pierce didn’t imagine any of this. The United Kingdom did maintain a protectorate over the Mosquito Coast. For a time, it even occupied Greytown at the eastern terminus of the trans-isthmus route across Nicaragua. Nor did the Court of St. James care to pretend otherwise. Instead, the British argued that they had prior rights to the Mosquito Coast based on treaties with the local Indians. Pierce found the claim preposterous, declaring that “by the public law of Europe and America no possible act of such Indians or their predecessors could confer on Great Britain any political rights.” Only American powers could treat with Indians, and then only so long as they felt like it. Maybe if Britain had cut a deal with the Spanish that would count; the word of a white power to another white power had to mean something. But Indians? Even the British could not muster sufficiently unamerican a character as to treat with them as the equals of whites.

The Bay Islands? Those belonged to Honduras and the British had there “as distinctly colonial governments as those of Jamaica or Canada.” Once more, one can’t argue with Pierce on the facts. The British really had set up a proper colony on the islands. This flew in the face of the nation’s mutually-agreed renunciations all of five years prior. What part of no colonies and no occupation had London failed to understand? That the United Kingdom had chosen to act in such a way and broke faith with the clear provisions of the treaty suggested that it aimed for a revision of the status quo in Central America very much to its favor, and to the detriment of the United States.

Franklin Pierce’s Third Annual Message

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Sorry for yesterday’s tardy post, Gentle Readers. I mistakenly scheduled it for the wrong date entirely.

We left the House of Representatives with a new Speaker. Nathaniel Banks claimed the office with a plurality vote on February 3, 1856, just a day shy of  two months after the 34th Congress opened. The fate of slavery in Kansas had created that struggle to begin with, as northern antislavery reaction had cost the Democracy control of the House and support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act made various candidates entirely unacceptable. Every round of voting occasioned further speeches on the question. While the Speaker’s race wore on in the legislature, the executive made its own statement on the matter.

From the very start of Kansas’ troubles, free state men had expressed their hope that if Franklin Pierce knew what had gone on he would stand with them. It suited their position to say so, as they constantly emphasized that they rejected only the bogus government of Kansas rather than the United States as a whole. They wanted nothing of treason, but rather only their rights as Americans and as promised to them by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Self-preservation and cynical positioning play their role in those declarations, but we should not confuse Franklin Pierce with Jefferson Davis or John C. Calhoun. As a New Hampshire man, his contemporaries might not have expected him to defend every proslavery excess. Furthermore, the border ruffians had sinned against the cardinal tenet of the Democracy: popular sovereignty. As far back as Thomas Jefferson, Democrats (then calling themselves Republicans) had proclaimed themselves the advocates of the common white man against distant and elite authority. Andrew Jackson, who gets the press for doing the same, largely benefited from a well-advanced trend toward greater white male democracy. As a northerner and a Democrat, Pierce must have seemed to some, like his fellow northern Democrats in Kansas, like exactly the man you’d want to sort out the entire Kansas mess.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

So far as official acts go, Franklin Pierce had not given much encouragement to antislavery Kansans. He had fired Andrew Reeder, who demonstrated at least some devotion to genuine popular sovereignty in Kansas. But officially, Pierce dismissed Reeder for land speculations. Even if you didn’t believe that reason, and I doubt many did, at least the president hadn’t called Reeder a damned abolitionist plotting servile insurrection. And the first governor of Kansas had engaged in shady land speculations involving both land reserved for Indian tribes and the United States Army. Pierce had removed a guilty man from office, if not for his actual crimes.

The President had an annual message to give to Congress. We call that a State of the Union today and expect it delivered in person, but at the time they called it an annual message and presidents sent it along in writing. Pierce opened his third on a testy note:

The Constitution of the United States provides that Congress shall assemble annually on the first Monday of December, and it has been usual for the President to make no communication of a public character to the Senate and House of Representatives until advised of their readiness to receive it. I have deferred to this usage until the close of the first month of the session, but my convictions of duty will not permit me longer to postpone the discharge of the obligation enjoined by the Constitution upon the President “to give to the Congress information of the state of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

He waited all month, not sending the message until the last of December. Custom expected Congress to have its House in order, but as that chamber hadn’t done so Franklin Pierce reached the last possible moment to do his duty. Tradition or no, he had a job to do. He assured Congress that “the Republic is tranquilly advancing in a career of prosperity and peace” before progressing to the nation’s troubles, which might imperil said advance of prosperity and peace.

Finding a Speaker

We left the 34th Congress deadlocked on who to elect Speaker of the House. Until they did, they lacked a presiding officer and could hardly get any business done. Someone had to become Speaker, but the administration’s candidate couldn’t get the required majority. The opposition coalition of Know-Nothings, Free Soilers, Whigs, Republicans, and anti-Nebraska Democrats together had the votes to fill the seat, but such a heterodox group has its own problems finding the right man for the job. They agreed on not accepting Franklin Pierce’s choice of William Richardson, but little else.

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

After Richardson won a plurality and, consequently, lost the first ballot the opposition made a go of uniting around Lewis Campbell, an Ohio Whig. Campbell earned their esteem through an attempted filibuster against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the last Congress. Things went so well back then that Campbell nearly found himself physically attacked. That had to count for something, right?

Apparently not enough. Giving it another try after Campbell also failed to command a majority, a large group of Republicans settled on Nathaniel P. Banks. Banks, a Massachusetts man, had the kind of pedigree that would inspire mixed emotions in such a fraught time. In the Bay State, he had stood as a Democrat but then combined with free soilers. Lately Banks had hopped parties again, moving over to the Know-Nothings. That made him a traitor twice over, to more orthodox Democrats, and might look shifty to his latest band of allies. But his career also spanned contentious spectrum of party politics in the middle 1850s.

Bank’s fellow Know-Nothings preferred Kentucky’s Humphrey Marshall and without them he didn’t have a majority either. When Marshall’s run ended similarly, they tried Henry Fuller. The votes went on and on, with no winner emerging. Every ballot came with a new round of recrimination. The Republicans laid into anti-Nebraska men who opposed Banks, which naturally endeared them to their targets. The southerners and administration Democrats had their own frustrations in the minority, still voting for Richardson ballot after ballot.

William Aiken (D-SC)

William Aiken (D-SC)

The 34th Congress opened on December 3, 1855. Yet on the 24th, Allan Nevins reports that with the sixty-eighth ballot,

Banks has 101 votes, Richardson 72, and Fuller 31, with eleven for minor figures.

As part of the process, congressmen quizzed the candidates. Nevins relates how a Mississippian asked Banks if he believed in racial equality. Banks

responded that it seemed to be the general law that the weaker of two juxtaposed races was absorbed or disappeared altogether. “Whether the black race … is equal to the white race, can only be determined by the absorption or disappearance of one or the other, and I propose to wait until the respected races can be properly subjected to this philosophical test before I give a decisive answer.”

Nathaniel Banks

Nathaniel Banks

The House thought that pretty funny, but it probably didn’t win Banks any votes.

With the grinding process, the constant rounds of fruitless questioning and votes, and endless speeches, one might expect tempers to flare. Congressmen had assaulted one another on the floor before, and would again. But only Horace Greeley took any lumps, and he took them away from the floor of the House. I sought further details, but haven’t found a copy of the New York Weekly Tribune for February 2 online.

The battle for the Speakership wore on through December and January, not ending until the start of February when the House voted a rule to elect the Speaker with a plurality. Nathaniel Banks at last prevailed, 103-100, over South Carolina’s William Aiken, Jr. In settling on Banks, the opposition coalition had not repudiated nativism, but the majority within had clearly chosen an antislavery nativist, from Massachusetts no less, over proslavery or indifferent candidates available to them from climes further South. A victory barely managed out hardly made for a grand triumph, and Banks would use his powers in a decidedly impartial way, but the opposition had moved at least a small step beyond single-issue rejection of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and toward a consolidated party.

A Celebration of Calhoun

 

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

I don’t know what I can say about Yale’s decision to retain John C. Calhoun’s name on one of its residential colleges that I didn’t say last week about Andrew Jackson, save that Calhoun’s deeds offer still less reason for celebration. The Carolina planter, despite his best efforts to the contrary, never attained the presidency and so lacked the opportunity to do some of the things Jackson did whilst in the White House. Nor did he ever command an American army, denying him a chance at fame through military atrocity. Serving as vice-president for two different presidents earns Calhoun a spot in the trivia books, but not much else.

Looked at in that light, Yale naming a building after Calhoun seems like a neutral bit of local boosterism, for whatever scant neutrality one can grant to any species of boosterism. He attended the university and went on to high office. That will get any number of mediocrities plenty of things named after them, as comparing a list of nineteenth century presidents to the names of American high schools will tell you. But electoral frustrations aside, Calhoun managed quite a bit more than mediocrity. Nor did he content himself with the horrifying, but common, practice of enslaving people. That would hardly distinguish him from other antebellum politicians, and certainly not in South Carolina. Not every wealthy or prominent Southerner traded in lives, but the vast majority did. Calhoun earned his fame by making himself the most prominent proslavery thinker in the nation’s history. Given the unique American contributions to proslavery thought, this at least puts him in the running for the most important proslavery theorist ever.

Yale named their college after Calhoun back in the 1930s, when such accomplishments still earned general praise. Times have changed, but not quite far enough. Yale’s president, Peter Salovey acknowledged as much, but decided that

Erasing Calhoun’s name from a much-beloved residential college risks masking this past, downplaying the lasting effects of slavery, and substituting a false and misleading narrative, albeit one that might allow us to feel complacent or, even, self-congratulatory. Retaining the name forces us to learn anew and confront one of the most disturbing aspects of Yale’s and our nation’s past.

Does it really, though? In an interview with the New York Review of Books, Salovey insisted that

I would not call naming a residential college for Calhoun necessarily celebrating him, although it does memorialize him.

We do name things after people in an act of mourning, to remember their losses and sacrifices; that hardly counts as celebration. But Calhoun’s losses and sacrifices came about to our manifest benefit. We ought to celebrate them, not gather somberly and declare never again. If Salovey really thinks memorial some kind of neutral alternative to celebration, he hasn’t paid much attention to how people actually behave. Nor, for that matter, does he seem to have noticed that he himself understands naming colleges after people as a form of celebration when he recounts the accomplishments of Anna Pauline Murray (“the best of Yale: a preeminent intellectual inspired to lead and prepared to serve her community and her country.”) and Benjamin Franklin, the latest recipients of the honor, in the same piece. No word about mere memorials for them.

I submit that in making such a distinction without difference, Salovey has failed to learn from the past and has instead opted for the complacent and self-congratulatory narrative. Changing the college’s name would erase nothing, but make a clear statement that Yale no longer considers the man worthy of honoring.

Salovey proposes entirely worthwhile educational initiatives to answer the university’s Calhoun problem. I have no objection to those, but so long as the name remains they pose a more serious problem still. Imagine the freshmen coming in every year and learning all about Calhoun’s lamentable contributions to American history. Let’s say that the programs do a really good job and they come out deeply informed about Mr. Slavery Is A Positive Good. Then they go outside and see the man’s name on the building where some of them live. Has Salovey’s policy given them a useful reminder of all they learned, or undercut itself entirely? Worse still, might it not send the clear message Calhoun deserves recognition not despite his awful achievements but because of them?

Maybe Salovey relishes the chance to explain otherwise to minority students coming into his university every year, but I have my doubts. Yale’s president does note that the students want the change. One might, implausibly, argue that some devlish outside agitators came in and created a problem where none previously existed. It worked for white southerners speaking of abolitionists for long enough, after all. But his answer to that comes right out of Calhoun’s playbook:

The debate about the name of Calhoun College has gone on intermittently for many years. [John C.] Calhoun was a defender of slavery, and he defended it not just as a necessary evil, but as a “positive good.” So this was not an easy decision. We listened to students, faculty, alumni, and staff. We’ve had multiple conversations among the trustees. But this isn’t the kind of question you can put to a vote. You have to decide what is the right principle for an educational institution.

Calhoun justified disregarding majorities to protect his minority of white enslavers in their vital interests. Abolition would bring them ruin, at least financially and probably literally as vengeful slaves rose up and murdered his entire class. However repugnant, we can at least grant that Calhoun and those like him genuinely believed in that threat and acted accordingly. If a mad president ordered a nuclear strike sure to bring about similar retaliation upon us, we might hope someone would ignore the majority that might have elected him in order to stop it.

You can’t put everything to a vote, fair enough. But changing the letterhead and switching some signs hardly seems like the kind of monumental change where we should necessarily proceed with extreme discretion. Nor does it pose any kind of existential threat to Yale. Nor does it erase any history, as Salovey himself knows full well. He proposed historical education, which demonstrates that he knows one doesn’t get history from a name on the side of a building.

But let’s take him at his word for the moment. If Salovey believes that having Calhoun’s name so prominent forces confrontation with his noxious politics and their connection to Yale, as well as the nation at large, then I have a modest proposal for him: why not commission a bronze statue of the man himself whipping his screaming slaves? Put it right out in front of the building; no one could miss it. I can’t imagine a more direct confrontation with Calhoun than that, short of reinstating slavery so everyone could see it firsthand.

This doesn’t make for an ideal solution, of course. That tasteless, vile statue would alienate many. It would offend any person of good sense and common decency. People wouldn’t want to live in a building near it, or perhaps even go to a university where it stands. They would read endorsement in it, understanding that we don’t cast things we hate into heroic bronzes. Even picturing it makes me feel more than a little soiled. No one in their right mind would ask a minority student to walk past such a monstrosity every day. In exposing the central reality of Calhoun’s life and work in such sharp relief, stripped away from the sanitized, generic letters on the side of the building and the bronze plaques we all ignore more often than not, does the compromise still sound so appealing? Or does it sound more like we ought make no compromise?

Many historical figures did terrible things as a matter of course. We have honored them, as often as not, for rather than despite those deeds. Nobody I’ve yet seen challenge Calhoun, or the Confederate flag, or numerous memorials to the Confederacy, demands perfection in order to get yourself a nice landmark in posterity. They all had faults, just as we do. If you lack any, help yourself to my abundant supply. We all, I hope, understand the need to situate people in their own contexts, and understand the nuance and complexities of their lives. Life doesn’t offer us perfect villains, though sometimes it seems to try, nor perfect heroes. But that doesn’t stop us from making decisions about which individuals on the whole have done more good than bad. We all draw our own lines, with nary an objective standard in sight. I don’t know that every problematic historical figure deserves having memorials removed and buildings renamed, but we commemorate far more of them than probably deserve it.

Of those we have celebrated, few come with a greater dearth of redeeming traits than John C. Calhoun. His glare might not adorn our money, but he did far more than passively inherit and then actively continue enslaving people for his profit. He called slavery not necessary and unavoidable, but good and worthy. He built an ideology around its defense that, while not unique, proved uniquely influential and unequivocal. Why continue celebrating him, unless we still think he deserves it?

The Disunited 34th Congress

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Dunn’s proslavery men left the Sparks home cruelly disappointed. They came to shoot a man and found him still away. That would not mark the end of Stephen Sparks’ trouble with Kansas’ slavery enthusiasts, but he managed to dodge the immediate threat. Reese Brown had less luck. The latest violence came from the free soil elections of January 15, where Kansas’ antislavery voters made Charles Robinson their governor and filled the other offices that the free state constitution had created. This development, like others in Kansas, did not go unmarked on the national stage.

As the events within Kansas have dominated our narrative for so long, we have to rewind the clock a bit to catch up with happenings elsewhere. Since the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Democracy had taken a beating. The Whig party continued its collapse. In the North, Democrats often followed suit. Those who didn’t cast themselves as foes of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the trouble it had brought. The anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party seemed, for a moment, poised to take the Whig’s place as the second party of American politics but had a serious competitor in the form of the new Republican party and its fortunes soon faded.

As 1855 wound down, the first session of the 34th Congress opened on December 3. For the first time, Republicans took seats in the Capitol. In the Senate, the Democrats outnumbered them two to one. Just across the building, one might as well have entered a new world. Franklin Pierce could count on a majority of 158 in the last House. The anti-Nebraska opposition now had a majority of 117. That might not have upset the House Democrats too much, as they knew their party’s disarray and probably didn’t have much hope of getting everyone back together and taking the customary whip. The last time that happened, they repealed the Missouri Compromise and eighty-four percent of those who voted for it found themselves in need of other employment. They might do better to find some moderate Republican who they could then blame for the House’s inevitable failure to get much done.

The Pierce administration had other ideas, and ensured that the Democratic caucus passed resolutions declaring the late elections a vindication of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, doubled down on religious freedom in terms offensive to the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, and pledged the Democracy to a hard line on both. The Democrats hadn’t entirely lost their minds. After some early reverses, they took encouraging results in some later elections as signs that they hadn’t entirely destroyed themselves. With the same kind of excellent judgment that led them to take elections they largely lost as signs of public approval, the Democrats settled on William A. Richardson, of Illinois, as their man for the Speaker’s chair. Richardson had managed the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act last Congress, which made him exactly as popular with the anti-Nebraska majority as one would expect.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Richardson simultaneously won and lost the vote. On the first ballot, the House gave him seventy-two votes. No other man came within twenty of that total. But the House rules required that the Speaker have a majority, not a mere plurality. The rules assumed two parties, but the 34th Congress had rather more than that. Just how much more, few could say. The Congressional Globe considered the mess beyond recovery and dispensed with the usual custom of listing men by party allegiance. In Race and Politics, “Bleeding Kansas” and the Coming of the Civil War, James Rawley reports the Tribune Alamanac’s best guess:

79 Pierce Democrats, of whom 20 were northerners, 117 anti-Nebraska man, all of whom were northerners, 37 Whigs of Americans [Know-Nothings] of proslavery tendencies, all but 3 of whom were from slave states. Of the 117 anti-Nebraska Congressmen, 75 had been elected as know-Nothings.

Allan Nevins gives a different arrangement in the second volume of his Ordeal of the Union:

The House membership was roughly classed as 108 Republican, 83 Democratic, and 43 Know-Nothing or American.

Though the numbers don’t agree, to the point of using different categories, they tell a similar story. The Democracy had lost its majority to someone, but no one quite knew who.

Know-Nothingism and anti-Nebraska sentiment often existed in the same person, part of the problem in classifying them, but they did not necessarily do so. Nor did party allegiance mean that when they did, nativism took precedence. Many Know-Nothings ended up as Republicans, some in suspiciously short order. Some probably joined specifically to subvert the organization in antislavery directions. They co-existed with men who felt otherwise and who had latched on to nativism as the issue to push slavery back out of the national discussion. As the seventeen candidates running against Richardson for the Speakership attest, the Opposition did about as well at agreeing on things as the Democracy did.

So long as the Speakership remained vacant, the House couldn’t commence its business. So long as the House couldn’t get to work, much of the national government ground to a halt. Soon much of Washington waited on the outcome.

“We will take the house; shoot Capt. Sparks at sight.”

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Angry proslavery men at the Sparks home sought Stephen Sparks, who Reese Brown had rescued the night before. They arrived at Sparks’ home before their fellows in Easton murdered his rescuer and before the man himself made it back. On arrival, they clashed with a pair of free soil men resolved to go rescue Reese. The antislavery Kansans, Francis Browning and Richard Houcks, bolted and separated. Esseneth Sparks, Stephen’s wife, saw it all.

With their quarry of opportunity gone, the proslavery men turned around and returned to the house. After an awkward moment, someone asked for orders. A Captain Dunn, the same fellow involved in the violence at the Leavenworth election the month prior and also present at Easton for some part of Reese Brown’s ordeal, gave those orders: “take the house; shoot Capt. Sparks at sight.”

Esseneth Sparks had no real defense against a band of armed men. Short of a similarly armed and numerous group; few do. She had only her son, her white skin, and the proslavery mob’s consciences to defend her. Nineteenth century chivalry could extend far enough to be some help to her. Even while besieging Leavenworth, proslavery men treated the town’s women more gently than they did the men. Whiteness provided certain immunities as well, but that sentiment could run even less than skin deep when proslavery sorts caught a whiff of antislavery in the air.

One must use the tools one has, rhetorical, or otherwise. Hearing that her unwelcome callers aimed to shoot her husband dead, and seeing them push through into the building, gambled on their pity. She told them that she had only “an afflicted son” who they might throw “into spasms right at once” and another son only twelve. Anyway, Stephen hadn’t come home. Not every proslavery American ran around in a black cape, twirling a mustache and toasting evil at every turn. Molesting a white woman and her ill child might very well prove more than they could countenance.

When I stepped to the door and looked in, I saw Captain Dunn, with a six-shooter presented at my son’s breast. I did not hear the question asked, but heard my son’s answer-“I am on the Lord’s side, and if you want to kill me, kill me; I am not afraid to die.”

Or perhaps they could countenance some violence against invalids, children, and women after all.

Incidentally, this makes the second member of the Sparks family in less than twenty-four hours to deal with a gun pointed at him by daring its owner to shoot. Stephen’s son did as his father had the night prior in Easton.

The afflicted Sparks son might not have feared death, but Dunn neglected to take him up on the matter. Instead, the proslavery captain

left him, and turned to my little son, about twelve years old, and put the pistol to his breast, and asked him where his father’s Sharpe’s rifle was, and my son told him he had none. Dunn asked him where those guns were, pointing to the racks, and told him if he did not tell the truth, he would kill him; and my son told him the men-folks generally took care of the guns.

Surely frustrated, Dunn came out. Esseneth pressed him for an explanation and

[h]e answered that they had “taken the law into their own hands, and they intended to use it.”

Intentions or not, they got no guns and no Stephen. Whether moral qualms, practical fears that some armed free state men might soon appear, or simple realization that Sparks might not risk coming home so soon moved them, the proslavery party left. They didn’t all have to go far. Esseneth knew two of the party on sight, one who lived in Leavenworth and another “raised within a mile or so of where we lived, in Platte county, Missouri.”

The Hunt for Stephen Sparks

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Reese Brown’s lifeblood spilled out from the gash in his head. He died in the early morning hours of January 19, 1856. Though free state sources often declare that he suffered numerous wounds, David Brown (no relation) found only the one. That doesn’t preclude Brown suffering quite a pummeling beforehand, of course. Most probably, his proslavery captors roughed him up fairly thoroughly. They may also have given him many solid kicks when he fell down. Neither would be particularly out of character, as George Wetherell could tell us, nor necessarily likely to leave marks for David to find later on.

Brown earned the wrath of the Kickapoo Rangers and Easton’s proslavery party by coming to the rescue of Stephen Sparks. Some may have also mistaken Reese Brown for George Washington Brown, editor of the Herald of Freedom, and objected to his living on the grounds that he ran for the free state legislature, but mainly Brown led an armed group of free state men in a battle that left a proslavery man mortally wounded. By the time of Brown’s capture, he and Sparks had parted company. The proslavery mob hadn’t forgotten him.

On the afternoon of January 18, the day after Spark’s rescue, two men outside the Sparks home got news of Reese Brown’s plight. According to Esseneth Sparks, who apparently had yet to hear of her husband’s ordeal, Francis Browning and Richard Houcks resolved to go to Brown’s rescue.

Just as they started, two men rode up and called for Mr. Sparks. I told them he was out on business. They said they had private business with him.

While Esseneth and the proslavery men spoke about her husband, Browning spotted a larger party on a rise. Understanding the threat in a large group of armed men, particularly near a known and undefended free state household, he turned back and asked them what had transpired.

They said “they did not know; there was a great excitement at Dawson’s, they had heard, but they had not been there.” They then gave the sign by firing two pistols in the air, and motioning to the party with their hands. The party then came riding on as fast as they could, shouting. When they came up, they all joined in pursuit of Browning and Houcks, shouting “kill them,” “kill them,” “kill the damned abolitionists,” and firing upon them; but they divided one going one way, round the hill, and the other the other way, and escaped.

The Murder of Reese Brown

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Captain John Martin, of the Kickapoo Rangers, did all he could for Reese Brown. The mob at Easton, including some of his own men, had enough of talk about giving Brown over to the lawful authorities. They waited long enough while he, Edward Motter, and others questioned the free state man. They came for blood, not talk. Martin delayed the final confrontation by some time, but at last the proslavery rowdies burst in and refused to depart. With some parting imprecations, Martin mounted up and started back for Kickapoo. He left Brown to the mob.

 

On the way out, Martin managed to release Brown’s companions. Under the same roof, they could hear the mob laying into Brown. Brown himself had rather less luck. Eyewitness testimony drops off at this point. M.P. Rively gave a confusing and evasive version of events:

He [Brown] was then taken out of the store by some one, I do not recollect whom; and it was proposed by some person, I do not recollect whom, that Brown and Gibson should fight, which they did. Brown fought, and Gibson knocked him down with his fist; that I saw. While he was down, Brown Hallooed “Enough.” He then got up, and I led him to the wagon and put him in it, and he went home in the wagon. That is all I recollect of it. I went off in advance of the wagon, and the next day I heard Brown was dying. I did not see the fight between Brown and Gibson when it commenced. I saw Gibson knock him down, and saw Brown strike at him. Id id not see Gibson use any weapon at that time, though I saw Gibson have a hatchet as we were going out there that day. I did not see him have a hatchet at the time of the fight. I do not know that Brown was bleeding when I helped him in the wagon, for it was about dusk. Mr. Charles Dunn helped me to lead Brown to the wagon, and Brown got in himself. […] I did not see either Brown or Gibson, at the time of the fight, have any weapon. It was about dusk, and I should probably not have seen the weapons if they had had any.

Charles Dunn had a prior proslavery adventure at Leavenworth involving free state polls.

Rively managed to see and not see everything. We can only speculate, but it seems far more likely that Rively saw most everything and declined to recall on the grounds that he might incriminate himself. He admitted to the concern when he opened his testimony. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines when he spells it out for you. At some point in the attack, the proslavery men decided Brown had had enough and bundled him up in a wagon to go home.

David Brown, no relation to Reese, lived on the claim to the west of the other Brown’s. He saw Brown “three or four hours” after the proslavery men dropped him on his doorstep. A teamster in Brown’s employ asked him to find a doctor. David obliged, securing a promise to come before returning to Reese Brown’s home around three in the morning, where he

found him in a dying condition, lying upon a pallet on the floor, his clothes literally covered with blood. I sat down, took his head upon my lap, and examined the wound. I asked him how he was; he said he was dying, but should die in a good cause. I commenced opening his vest to ascertain if there were any further wounds in his body, and he told me they were all in his head.

David checked anyway, but Reese had it right. Other sources say that Reese Brown suffered numerous serious injuries, but none of them saw his body. All that blood came from a gash

on the left side of the head, cutting the inside of the ear, and extending perhaps two inches long to the left temple, cutting off a lock of hair.

Even in the full dark of night, we might expect Rively to have noticed such an injury. It claimed Reese Brown’s life soon thereafter, with his head laying on David Brown’s lap at the time of death.

Reese Brown’s brother engaged doctors to examine the body, which they exhumed for the purpose about a month after burial. The cold preserved Brown fairly well. Dr. James Davis testified that the wound

was in the left temple, severing the temporal bone to the length of about two and a half inches. I judge that the wound was made with one blod of a hatchet or tomahawk, or some weapon of that kind. The temporal bone was opened sufficiently to admit my finger anywhere along it for two inches. I ran my fore-finger into the wound up to its second joint. I have no doubt it was a mortal wound.

Dr. J.G. Park agreed, adding that it made

about a line from the outer end of the socket of the eye, and running along towards the ear […] I ran my finger through the squamous portion of the temporal bone, which is the thinnest part of the skull bone. The opening into the skull was sufficiently large to admit my fore-finger, which I ran into the brain. Fragments of bone were sticking on the inside into the brain[…] The wound was one that must have produced death, and the only wonder is that the person should have lived so long after he received it.

If Gibson, or anybody else, managed to deal Reese Brown such a wound without a weapon then they must have had metal hands. Probably Rively, and everyone else who stuck around, saw Brown take the hatchet to the head and decided that things had gone far enough. Best get him out of the area before he died surrounded by obviously guilty proslavery men.

Potterizing Andrew Jackson

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

In The Half Has Never Been Told, Ed Baptist tells the story of Robert Potter. Born poor, in a declining section of North Carolina, Potter had few prospects. In addition to his modest birth he had the poor fortune of birth in a time when his white skin and male sex did not quite mean everything yet. The law disenfranchised most whites. The enslaver elite supported infrastructure projects designed to carry their tobacco to market, which they expected everyone to pay for. In the capital-starved antebellum South, their banks declined to extend credit to any save their own set. Their university catered only to their own sons.

With these obstacles before him, we might expect Robert Potter to vanish into the anonymous multitudes. He got lucky instead, finding a patron in the local elite who favored him with an education and arranged for him to join the Navy as a midshipman. Potter’s benefactor might have expected his man to stay bought. He might have done so, but when Potter sought office he found the old money oligarchs aligned against him. They ensured his defeat. He challenged the other man, Jesse Bynum, to a duel. Bynum refused. One dueled with peers, not inferiors. In a fit of bootstrapping straight out of American myth, “Potter ambushed Bynum and cracked his skull with a stick.”

In Potter’s and Bynum’s world, to treat a white man like an inferior came quite close to treating him like a slave:

Enslaved men were not allowed to defend their pride, their manhood, or anything else. They had to endure the penetrating of their skin, their lives, their families. Therefore the best way to insult a white man was to treat him like a black man, as if he could not strike back, and the best way to disprove that was to strike back.

Fully aware of all that, the courts indulged well-off men who felt the need to prove their manhood. They did not often extend the same tolerance to those less well off. Potter faced no legal challenge, but the threat of one joined the other indignities he suffered and put him thoroughly at odds with the oligarchy. Potter won his next election, a rematch with Bynum, and proposed a raft of measures to challenge planter dominance. His bills went nowhere, but they earned him the voters’ esteem. They sent him to Congress in 1828 and reelected him in 1832.

Between sessions of Congress, Potter came home and got the idea that his wife had cheated on him with a minister and a teenage neighbor. Polite society deemed both men his superiors. They had, at least in his mind, wronged Potter. He must avenge his honor or be degraded. Potter might have tried a duel, but he fixed on a new innovation:

On August 28, 1831, Potter kidnapped both of those men. he took them out into the woods. Then he castrated them. Then he released them.

Within a day, Potter had been captured. he was then locked in a cell at Oxford, the county seat. But from behind bars, as he awaited trial, Potter penned a defense of his actions. His “Appeal” was, he said, an effort -“as a man-as a member of society”- to explain to explain himself “to the world,” but especially “to you, my constituents.” He justified his castration of two white men, honored members of their society, as self-defense. They had tried to unman him first, “stab[bing] me most vitally-they had hurt me beyond all cure-they had polluted the very sanctuary of my soul.” Their cuckholding left him “the most degraded man” in Granville, and he now “felt that I could no longer maintain my place among men.” He had been subjected to the same humiliation that enslaved men had to endure. The only possible solution was to wipe off “the disgrace that had been put upon me, with the blood of those who had fixed it there.” Like a proper gentleman who shot someone in a duel to erase an insult, Potter believed that only an act of greater violation than what had been committed against him would erase the unmanning mark.

Potter spent two years in jail, during which time the legislature gave his wife a divorce and let her change the name of their children. He got off relatively easy because North Carolina had no law on the books to punish castration. The legislators passed one proscribing death for anybody who chose to follow Potter’s example and “Potterize” their enemies.

Potter’s sensational case speaks to the violent, honor-obsessed character of the Antebellum South. After his release, poor white men who understood Potter as one of their own put him right back into the state legislature. His plight reflected their own indignities. His solution spoke to their oft-frustrated search for redress. As white men, they deserved better; they demanded it. A cotton planter of the Tennessee elite built his political career on casting himself as their voice. When he took his oath, in front of an unprecedented crowd, Andrews Jackson bowed to the throng who had themselves bared their heads in deference.

Jackson didn’t invent popular politics. The owner of more than a hundred slaves hardly made for a common man, but he played the part. In him, poor white men saw their dreams fulfilled. In his many duels, they saw a nineteenth century superhero fighting as they did, for them. He had already “made Jefferson’s paper empire for white liberty into fact.” The genocidal Indian fighter, victor of New Orleans, epitomized their kind of America. In office, he would sweep aside Indian nations and open still more vast sections of the Southwest to slavery. Then he threw down with the crustiest of all oligarchs: South Carolina enslavers.

Jackson took the nullifiers’ action as a direct challenge to the power of a national majority. So did a Tennessee constituent, who said, delighting in Old Hickory’s humiliation of the South Carolina planter elite, “The old chief could rally force enough…to stand on Saluda Mountain [in northwestern South Carolina] and piss enough to float the whole nullifying crew into the Atlantic Ocean.” The way he saw it, Carolina’s planters blustered about mobilizing the militia and blocking federal tariff enforcement until the collected penises of Jackson’s supporters, like himself, cowed them, and they backed down.

You could drown in the testosterone, among other substances. A certain kind of man found in Andrew Jackson the apotheosis of America: bloody, bold, resolute, ready to kick every Indian ass, whip every enslaved back, kill all the Britishers, and then come home to passionately mourn his sainted wife. He might as well have hailed from Krypton as upcountry South Carolina. The white man’s white man might have hated banks and paper money. He might have broken the law to break the Bank of the United States, among his lesser sins, but we put people on money to celebrate them. As the hallowed founder of a Democratic party deeply wedded to white supremacy and singularly powerful in the South, where it rarely had more than notional competition, it comes as no surprise that when the Democracy instituted the Federal Reserve they put Jackson’s picture on its ten dollar note. He moved to the twenty, replacing Grover Cleveland, in 1928.

We put Jackson on our money because we admired him, the same reason Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln appear in our wallets. Everyone understands that, for all we might sometimes pretend otherwise; no American currency has ever depicted Benedict Arnold. We kept him there because we kept on admiring him. Now we have tentatively decided to do otherwise, pushing Jackson to the back of the bill and putting Harriet Tubman on the front. Jackson might very well have fought a duel with someone who told him his face would go on paper money, but he surely would have if told that an enslaved woman would replace him. Displacement itself would have bruised his always-tender pride. Displacement by a woman? A black woman? A slave? Old Hickory could hardly imagine a greater indignity. If the dead could truly rise from their graves in outrage, Jackson’s rattling skeleton would have put on an appearance by now. We will Potterize him.

Tubman during the Civil War

Tubman during the Civil War

That in itself deserves some celebration. After so many decades, we have come kicking and screaming to a point where this may actually happen in a decade and a half. General Jackson will have his demotion, but Tubman’s promotion deserves its own consideration. If we wish to replace Jackson with an American similarly endowed with what the more sophisticated members of the historical academy call badassery, she makes for a great choice. Tubman didn’t just steal herself to freedom, itself a harrowing, dangerous act. She went back and rescued others, freeing scores in an eleven year career. She went back armed, for her own defense but also to straighten out fugitives who had second thoughts. A single enslaved person with cold feet might expose the whole operation and put everyone back in bondage, or a shallow grave. Thus, Tubman reasoned, “Dead niggers tell no tales.” Not content with such exploits in peacetime, during the Civil War Tubman graduated from nurse and cook to army scout. One of her expeditions freed north of seven hundred enslaved people.

We have in Tubman’s life daring exploits in freedom’s name much as we might imagine in Jackson’s. If he deserves recognition for such a record, then she does as well. The question we face in these matters, whether or not we care to admit it, is not which historical figure makes for a better superhero. Rather we must ask ourselves which vision of Truth, Justice, and the American we prefer. Past generations have come down firmly on Jackson’s side, nailing their colors to the fruits of genocide and an empire for slavery.

I don’t think we’ve quit all that, or even come near to it, just yet; a new face on money will not change minds. It can only, at best, tell us that minds have already changed. Just as many of us have not found Jackson’s portrait an eloquent testimony to his character, others will find nothing to admire in Tubman’s. But it takes more than a few disaffected people to make such a change. If we have not gone so far as we would like, and will inevitably declare final victory again as we always do, then we have at least dragged ourselves some small step forward. In 2016, many Americans still find Andrew Jackson’s vision of freedom praiseworthy and want to hide Harriet Tubman’s on a new denomination that we will never print or on an obscure one used only as a novelty, but not so many as once did. We have come this far.