“Or kill every D—–d Son of a B—h there” The Arrest of Samuel Wood, Part Two

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

 

We left Lawrence on April 19, 1856, with Samuel Jones placing Samuel Wood under arrest for seizing Jacob Branson from him way back in December. Wood had left Kansas for a while thereafter, but on his return Jones soon got word and came to do his duty and get his revenge. Wood appeared inclined to comply, asking only that Jones let him see his family before they departed. That didn’t sound too bad, but Jones wanted Wood to accept his authority and insisted on a promise that Wood give himself up after the visit. Wood would have none of that, so Jones refused permission. Wood twisted free and bounded for the house.

John Speer saw, and participated in, what happened next:

Jones jumped for him [Wood] and caught him by the collar just as he reached me at the door; when, impromptu, and apparently without reflection, I caught Jones by the throat and wood by the coat collar, and saying, “Get away, Wood.”

Wood saw the wisdom of that, but relieved Jones of a revolver before departing. Jones had deputies with him. Merrill’s True History of the Kansas Wars lists only one, which I reported before, but Speer insists on three. They might both have it right, as Jones might have gone to town with one person and had others join him there. James B. Abbott “laid one of them down on the ground very hard.” Charles F. Garrett “swung another off the porch by the coat tail.” I don’t know how that maneuver works, but it sounds uncomfortable. Samuel F. Tappan “throttled” the last.

Jones, just as delighted as one would expect given his circumstances. According to Edward Fitch (PDF),

Jones raved and swore some and said he would have S.N. Wood or kill every D—-d Son of a b—h there

The crowd, enchanted by Jones’ repartee, tried to offer their own graceful converse: “Put him in the river!” Speer tried to talk the Lawrence crowd down, advising them that proslavery men should have the outrage market cornered. One of the deputies then cried Uncle, at which point Jones and friends departed.

If you remember the events of the Wakarusa War, you know that Jones doesn’t take this kind of thing laying down. When Wood relieved him of Jacob Branson, Jones called in an army. He wrote to Missouri and then to Governor Shannon, setting in motion the siege of Lawrence. Coming near to a bloodbath apparently didn’t leave Jones much more satisfied than it had Robert S. Kelley, but the sheriff of Douglas County had some creativity in him. The last time, he dallied long enough for Lawrence to amass defenders. For a second try, he aimed to serve his warrants before anyone knew they needed an army again.

The Arrest of Samuel Wood, Part One

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Back in late November, 1855, Samuel Jones and a posse arrested Jacob Branson in the middle of the night. Jones, the Douglas County sheriff under the territorial government, earned his fame by threatening to execute judges of election, couldn’t see fit to make a man ride through the November chill in his skivvies. Samuel Newitt Wood and some other Kansas Legion members came to Branson’s aid, rescuing him from Jones and taking their officer into Lawrence. Jones in turn got Wilson Shannon to call out the militia against the Emigrant Aid Company’s town, resulting in a siege that Shannon, Missouri’s David Rice Atchison, and others barely kept from turning bloody. All of this because Branson’s friend and boarder, Charles Dow, came on the wrong end of a deadly claim dispute with a proslavery man, Franklin Coleman.

The good people of Lawrence had asked Branson to go on his way back before the militia descended upon them. They requested the same of Wood, who obligingly returned to Ohio. There he raised money for Kansas. Wood returned to Kansas on April, coming to Lawrence on the 18th. By coincidence, the Howard Committee arrived in town the day prior, taking up lodging at the Free State Hotel. One can read partiality into that, and probably ought to, but Lawrence did not suffer a glut of available housing. Axalla John Hoole, originally from South Carolina, came into Kansas on the 5th. He settled in Douglas

after staying at that nasty Abolition town of Lawrence for a week. This is called a City, but there are only four little log houses in it, but it is laid out into lots for a town, and I expect one day it will be. […] almost everyone I met was profane

Hoole and his wife ended up boarding with the Ellison family, declaring the patriarch “the most enthusiastic Proslavery man I have met with.” For a South Carolinian, that makes an extraordinary distinction.

Amenities aside, the middle of April brought Samuel Wood back to Lawrence. Samuel Jones still had the warrant for his arrest from back in November and determined to serve it. Per Merrill’s True History of the Kansas Wars, Jones had intended to make for St. Louis until he got the news. Duty and pleasure, or at least the satisfaction of revenge, called him to Hoole’s nasty abolition town. He felt confident enough to go with a single deputy.

John Speer, future author of The Life of General James H. Lane saw most of what happened next:

Being informed by Charles F. Garrett that Wood was arrested in the law office of James Christian, I walked in a perfectly perfunctory manner toward the office, all the time persuading Mr. Garrett to keep out of the difficulty, as he and I were in business, which any interference would break up. His reply was: “But if they take him to Lecomtpon, they will kill him.” “Oh,” I said, “there is more danger that Jones will be thrown in the river than that he will be allowed to take him away; and there are plenty of young men, whom nobody will ever be able to identify, who will rescue him without us involving ourselves.”

Speer changed his mind on seeing Jones holding Wood by the wrists. Wood asked if he could see his family, promising he would come back after all of ten minutes. Jones could surround the house if he liked. I don’t know what kind of house Wood had, but even a sod hut might grow a second way out given ten minutes and a sufficiently committed digger. Jones didn’t buy it and asked if Wood would willingly give himself up. In other words: did he really plan to come back? Reading between the lines a bit further, did Wood promise to come back unarmed if he did?

Wood replied: “No, I do not recognise your right to take me; but I will put myself in precisely the position I am in now.”

Jones understood that as a no and refused permission.

“I will go,” said Wood; and suiting the action to the word, with a sudden twist of his hands, he jerked loose, quickly making for the door.

Good News and Bad News, The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part Four

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left the New England Emigrant Aid Company in dire financial straits. J.M.S. Williams wrote to Ely Thayer, demanding he pay his fair share. He had gotten them into this whole business, but spent none of his own money on it. With the company near broke, operations in Kansas grinding to a halt for lack of funds, and the directors already out of pocket, something had to give. At the board meeting of December, 1855, Thayer opened his coffers:

I told the committee that it was very pleasing to me to hear from their own lips their confession of error in substituting the charity plan for the old business charter. Had we retained the latter and made investment in Kansas City, which our own work would have built up, we could have easily become a very formidable power against slavery, not only in the territories, but in the slave states as well.

He did tell them so. Business antislavery hadn’t raised the hoped-for funds, but it did recognize that investors wanted something for their trouble. The accounts of well-off men from Massachusetts could only go so far. Thayer then proposed to go big: the company would hire him through May. If he raised more than $20,000, then he would take 10% off the top as his fee. The Board agreed and Thayer hit the road again, focused on New York and Boston. He hoped to get $100,000, just as he had in 1854, and pick up $40,000 more in Boston.

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Thayer had big dreams. He brought NEEAC into the black again at $5,287.62 on hand. He took a commission of $5,158, so Andrews calculates that he raised at least $51,580. That made for a hefty sum indeed at the time, albeit not all that Thayer had hoped. The immediate crisis had passed by the end of May, but by then 1856 had delivered a fresh set of problems. While the Company’s finances rose, the free state effort it supported with mills, loans, and guns had taken a deep plunge. A second proslavery army had gathered on Oread Heights, named after Thayer’s school. David Rice Atchison and Samuel Jones led them to sack the Company’s town, throw the presses of the Company’s paper into the river, burn its hotel, arrested Charles Robinson and George Brown for treason, and closed the Missouri river. The closure of the river meant the end of communications, so with that news Kansas went dark.

 

Debunking a White Power Meme: Was the first slaveholder in America a Black Man?

Gentle Readers, last week I dug into the question of whether African-Americans held more slaves, proportionately, than white Americans did. A white power meme I found circulating made that claim, which has the unusual benefit of factual accuracy. The percentage of slaveholders among free black Americans is greater than that of their white counterparts. The meme declines to inform the reader that the vast majority of these people held as slaves relatives whom they could not easily free. In other words, most occasions of black slaveholding in the antebellum United States happen in the context of resisting the slave system imposed upon them by whites, rather than direct continuance of it. They owned loved ones to protect them from ownership and exploitation by whites.

The latest in white supremacy

The latest in white supremacy

Which brings me to the second of the meme’s noxious claims, which lacks the warm factual coating for the first:

What about the fact the first slave owner in America was a black man?

Let’s take this from the top. Say, for the sake of argument, that no one owned a slave in the Americas until some black man came over and taught white people how to do it. Bending over backwards to the point of falsehood still leaves us with an irrelevant, if illustrative, point. However slavery originated in the New World, it became the system we remember. In that system, whites owned blacks. White skin meant freedom and black skin meant stolen labor, loved ones, and lives.

We have here a despicable case of white power projection. Whites must do nothing wrong. If white people did do something wrong, then it could only be because some black person corrupted them. This remarkable person, an alleged member of an alleged inferior race, had such power that his example seduced and corrupted thousands of whites for centuries on end. From him, and him alone, they learned the arts of slavery. If not for that example, they would have had no labor shortage, nor decided to meet it by buying the lives of “heathens” and “savages” from Africa who could turn sweat, blood, tears, and screams into money.

Maybe all of that makes sense if you believe white skin betokens moral virtue and black skin singular perfidy. Millions of white Americans still believe just that, but we don’t have to count ourselves among them. Like the fantasy of inferior races, the first slaveholder’s blackness doesn’t withstand a moment’s scrutiny. To begin with, American Indians practiced slavery on a small scale in the Americas long before any people from Europe arrived. Indian vs. Indian slavery didn’t set the pattern for whites any more than black vs. black slavery did. By the time whites came to the New World, our white ancestors already had long experience with slavery. In the later half of the fifteenth century, with the traditional supply of slaves from Eastern Europe cut off by the fall of Constantinople, the Mediterranean basin turned from using Slavs -we got our name from the practice- to grow their sugar and cotton to the use of sub-Saharan Africans.

You may remember from grade school that these explorers sought a way to the Spice Islands and China. If you learned it like I did, they left out what happened along the way. Iberian explorers bought and brought back people from their voyages. Initially, the Portuguese just landed and stole what and who they liked. The discovery of more organized and powerful states nearer the equator changed plans. Further out to sea, Iberians found Madeira, the Azores, and the Canary Islands. The last had native inhabitants, the Guanche. They had olive skin, if one wishes to keep score of such things. Lacking metallurgy and isolated for centuries, the Guanche had difficulty resisting conquest. That conquest did not go smoothly, all the same. It required decades of fighting for the Spanish to seize Grand Canary. A combination of violence and disease finished off the Guanche, to the point where only nine sentences of their tongue survive.

That left the Spanish in possession of a islands in subtropics better suited to sugar cultivation than their plantations back home. They went right to work, enslaving the Guanche and putting them to work. The Guanche didn’t last long, thanks to the violence and disease, but Europeans didn’t want to just give up making money off sugar. Soon the Portuguese brought the first black slaves to the first of the sugar islands. On these and other islands down the African coast, Europeans perfected the arts they would also practice on the other side of the ocean.

One might object here that islands in the Eastern Hemisphere don’t constitute any part of the Americas. Geography agrees, but the Spaniards took the lessons learned with the Guanche and others with them to the West Indies. They had established colonies and plantations worked by black slaves there well in advance of settlement on the mainland. A few Slavic slaves also appear in sixteenth century Havana, remnants of the old Mediterranean trade.

A person deeply wedded to white supremacy might object that Iberians hardly count as white, but even if we unwisely grant such a concession it helps them not at all. In fact, let’s take this one all the way and declare only Anglo-Saxon Protestants white. This means we must confine our inquiry to British colonies. Roanoke did not practice slavery that we know of which brings us to Virginia. (A similar process happens at about the same time in Barbados, but as both your author and you Gentle Readers know more about Virginia I shall focus on it.) The first slaves to arrive in Virginia came courtesy of the Dutch:

About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunnes arrived at Point-Comfort, the Comandors name Capt Jope, his Pilott for the West Indies one Mr Marmaduke an Englishman. They mett with the Treasurer in the West Indyes, and determined to hold consort shipp hetherward, but in their passage lost one the other. He brought not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victualls (whereof he was in greate need as he pretended) at the best and easyest rates they could.

We should take care, however, to bear in mind that the Englishmen of 1619 did not have an elaborate concept of racial hierarchy such as we have so often prosecuted. The Dutch probably intended to sell their cargo as slaves, or just didn’t care, but it seems that except for the circumstances of their arrival these twenty people faced no worse treatment than white indentured servants. One can count them as slaves, but doing so projects back a system still decades in the future.

In Virginia, we now have black indentured servants owned for a term of years by whites. Up in New England we have something else. White Englishmen arrive there not long after those twenty Africans arrive unwillingly in the Chesapeake. Samuel Maverick arrived in Massachusetts in 1624, bringing with him black slaves. If you want a first slaveholder in British North America, he makes for a good candidate. After the Pequot War, the Puritans enslaved many Indians. They sold most of the men to the West Indies but kept the women and children for themselves. The Pequot, by no common racial theory, count as black but they got very similar treatment. The 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties includes possibly the first formal slave law in British North America:

91. There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie amongst us unles it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israell concerning such persons doeth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be Judged thereto by Authoritie.

Incidentally, the seventeenth century’s spelling practices constitute one of the more prosaic reasons this blog doesn’t have a great deal of colonial America content.

One can argue that Yankees don’t count on the same grounds that we could object that even if the first enslaver in North America had black skin it doesn’t matter. The system whites imposed made black people slaves to whites. It also, from a fairly early period, saw prosecution far more aggressively in the Chesapeake and points south than it did in New England. The Middle Colonies offer an exception in the middle eighteenth century, where they appear well into a transition from societies with slaves to slave societies, but the American Revolution put paid to that and it takes us well beyond any consideration of firsts.

Anthony Johnson's mark (via Wikipedia)

Anthony Johnson’s mark
(via Wikipedia)

This brings us back to Virginia again, and the man that many people claim as the first slaveholder in the colony: Anthony Johnson. Johnson came to Virginia as a slave, found himself an indentured servant, and became free at the end of his term. He did well for himself, able to gain property and sponsor the transport of indentured servants from England. He sued a neighbor to secure the return of a black man he held as a slave, John Casor. The court sided with Johnson, indicating that by 1655 the idea of lifetime slavery had established some purchase in Virginian culture.

The court did not, however, make Casor the first slave as we would understand the term. Even within Virginia’s jurisdiction, and bearing in mind that Massachusetts has already crossed the finish line with a white enslaver, the first known case of lifetime slavery appears to come in the person of John Punch. Punch and some other indentured servants absconded with themselves. They got caught. All three received some lashes for their trouble. Punch’s companions, both white, received a year added to their time under indenture, then a further three serving the colony. Punch, a black man, got slavery for life on July 9, 1640.

“You are worth $200,000!!!!” The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part Three

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

The demise of business antislavery left Eli Thayer as a traveling promoter of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. His excessively rosy account of Kansas led to some emigrants opting to go right back home, but some stayed on in the territory and Thayer’s appearances helped keep Kansas in the public mind. The aid companies also kept themselves in the minds of white Missourians living in the plantation counties next door. NEEAC could muster dozens or a few hundred emigrants, but they had thousands of angry proslavery men with guns, knives and two cannons. After they carried two elections in a row, antislavery Kansans had quite enough.

Charles Robinson wrote Thayer to inform him

Our people have now form themselves into four military companies and will meet to drill till they have perfected themselves in their art. Also, companies are being formed in other places ans we want arms … cannot your secret society send us 200 of Sharp’s rifles as a loan till this question is settled?

The Stringfellows could go around telling everyone that the company raised legions of pauper mercenaries, but those mercenaries apparently set out for their war without sufficient arms. One would expect better of professionals. Nor did NEEAC’s directors leap at the chance to underwrite their emigrants’ military ventures. But as it soon appeared that antislavery Kansans would get no relief from Franklin Pierce, they secretly changed their minds. Robinson didn’t mean the Aid Company per se when he referred to Thayer’s “secret society”. He meant a group within it that privately raised money for arms, organized by the society’s then-current treasurer, Samuel Cabot. Amos Lawrence donated $2,700 for guns on top of what he gave to the official company funds. The Sharpe’s rifles arrived over the course of fall, 1855, often in crates labeled as books.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

As the second amendment thrived in Kansas, on both sides of the slavery question, the Aid Company did not. Amos Lawrence took over as treasurer, but quit the post in September. By April, the Company had spent $22,000. It had stock subscriptions for $26,844, but the subscribers had declined to pay their bills to the tune of almost eleven thousand dollars. It transpired that telling people their stock donation would probably not realize profit somewhat dimmed their ardor for investment. Philanthropy and patriotism only went so far. Resignation or no, Lawrence paid six thousand against the overdrafts of company agent Samuel Pomeroy. Pomeroy himself went back east on a two month tour of New England and New York that netted only $3,000.

One of the directors, J.M.S. Williams, blamed Thayer for all of this. Having paid out $3,000 already, with $800 more to go, and due to pay another $2,300, he felt that Thayer ought to kick in some of his own money too. The cash flow had dried up to the point of impeding the establishment of mills, where the company expected to realize its real gains. The company stood crippled by shortfalls. The directors had paid out of their own pockets to keep things going. Operations ground to a halt, Williams wrote Thayer,

yet you are worth #200,000!!!! You have done more to palce us all in this position than any other and ought to take hold in earnest and relieve us.

 

Eli Thayer Goes on the Road: The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part Two

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

We left Eli Thayer demoted from a leader of his own invention, the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company, to a promoter of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. His signature idea, to subsidize free state settlement in Kansas to keep slavery from the territory’s bound and then try to roll it back elsewhere, whilst turning a handy profit, fell by the wayside. Conservative Whigs with deep pockets took over, dropping Thayer’s business antislavery strategy for a more conventional charitable frame focused entirely on Kansas. This brings us to July 24, 1854.

By this point, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had Franklin Pierce’s signature and the expansion of white settlement had begun. The word in Missouri had it that Thayer’s operation had its five million on hand and twenty thousand impoverished Yankees ready to turn slave stealing Hessian just down the road from Missouri’s plantation belt. Proslavery Missourians organized for self-defense, with future Squatter Sovereign editor John Stringfellow telling St. Joseph

To those having qualms of conscience, as to violating of laws, state or national, the time has come when such impositions must be disregarded, as your lives and property are in danger, and I advise you one and all to enter every election district in Kansas … and vote at the point of a Bowie knife or revolver.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

The endless hosts of Yankee Hessians numbered twenty-nine. They departed Boston on July 17, with Thayer escorting them to Buffalo. He admitted that he had not mustered the legions he hoped, but you had to start somewhere. At Buffalo Thayer parted company with the expedition, but Charles Robinson and Charles Branscomb joined up. They had gone out in advance to scout locations and see about group rates for transportation. That scouting mission determined the site of Lawrence, named after the Emigrant Aid Company benefactor and slayer of business antislavery, Amos Lawrence. The company fronted a newspaper there, George Brown’s Herald of Freedom. Whilst touring to solicit donations, Thayer took care to have stacks of it on hand.

While settlement got going in Kansas, Thayer started on his lecture circuit on earnest. Past efforts had focused on Massachusetts and New York, but he now traveled all over New England. Over the three years from September of 1854, Thayer traveled north of six thousand miles and gave above seven hundred speeches. He and his companions, most often Charles Brancsomb, would arrange promotion in the local papers in advance. Thayer would give his spiel to a mass meeting and set up a Kansas League. It appears the leagues did the main work of finding people willing to go, whilst Thayer focused on exhortation and fundraising.

Thayer had an ambitious pitch, to the point where NEEAC’s leadership asked him to tone it down. They had no mind to carry the fight from Kansas into the slave states, but Thayer sold the enterprise as one which would free Kansas as the first step. Then they would press on to Missouri and Virginia, whilst also pushing out to make more free states in the west. Thayer extravagantly claimed that they could free Kansas in a year and then add a new state on top each year thereafter, and the stock would pay off whatever the directors thought. This required representatives of the company to walk back their spokesman’s remarks and distinguish between his ideas and their own.

Thayer’s boosterism, combined with the usual wild claims of an earthly paradise just aching for you to go settle it, did little to please those who took the plunge. Many emigrants pronounced Kansas a humbug and went home. At the time of Thayer’s first big tour, Lawrence boasted “one log cabin, one shake house, and a conglomeration of hay houses.” All the same, little had yet transpired in Kansas to make for interesting news. Thayer’s traveling show helped keep the territory in the public mind until the real struggle kicked off.

The Rise and Fall of Business Antislavery: The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part One

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Between the Howard Committee and the Buford Expedition, plenty of people have lately come to Kansas Territory. Before them, Missourians went across the border. Many meant to stay, but many also meant to control Kansas’ elections or murder abolitionists and make it home for breakfast. In all this, I have largely left out the people who offered the proslavery forces their casus belli: the Emigrant Aid Company. To a great degree that comes down to the historians I have relied upon. Concerned with matters largely internal to the Kansas-Missouri border, it matters less to their narratives how antislavery Americans arrived in the territory than what they did once present. A few paragraphs suffice. But a kind friend has supplied me with Horace Andrews’ Kansas Crusade: Eli Thayer and the New England Emigrant Aid Company, the hot release of December, 1962.

Andrews points out that as the Kansas-Nebraska Act worked its way through Congress, a sense of inevitability set over certain quarters of the North. Slavery got what slavery wanted and they appeared impotent against the new advance. The Democracy had its house in order, a few dissidents aside, and would continue to do as it liked as the nation’s dominant party. Who could stop it? Eli Thayer of Worchester, Massachusetts though himself the man for the job. He ran a school for women, the Oread Collegiate Institute, for the four years prior to considerable success. In that time he supported the Free Soil party to the end and took a term in the Massachusetts legislature. All this made him prominent enough that the state legislature would grant Thayer his corporate charter, creating the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company.

Thayer advocated what he called “Business antislavery,” to separate it from the tried-and-failed methods of ordinary politics and moral suasion. If Stephen Douglas insisted that popular sovereignty would settle Kansas’ future, then Eli Thayer would take him up on that. Thayer’s business antislavery gained a significant convert in the person of Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian minister and advocate for settling antislavery men in Texas to turn the state around. Hale had never come up with a concrete plan for doing that, but Thayer thought he had one. Thayer expected to sell stock in his company, use the money to subsidize emigration, and make a profit in the process. Andrews doesn’t go into just how, but presumably Thayer imagined that the company would invest in or found town companies just like many similar projects.

Amos Adams Lawrence

Amos Adams Lawrence

There came the snag. Thayer and his associates could drum up plenty of interest but not much money. The organizing committee itself refused to buy the stock they proposed to sell. Nobody seems to have believed that the five million dollar capitalization authorized would appear and many looked askance at the idea Thayer had to take the crusade into the slave states after they saved Kansas for freedom. At the instigation of Amos Lawrence, from whom Lawrence, Kansas, got its name, plans changed. Lawrence preferred a charitable operation with no expectation of future profit. If the stock wouldn’t generate dividends anyway, why pretend otherwise? And what if it did? Didn’t that suggest a mercenary outlook on the part of good-hearted antislavery men bent on saving the Union?

The Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company thus gave way to the New England Emigrant Aid Company on July 24, 1855, complete with a well-off board of Massachusetts luminaries for directors. Thayer got the news on his way home from a tour in New York where he raised $100,000. NEEAC, now institutionally controlled by conservative Whigs rather than New England radicals, had the form of a corporation but functioned like a charity. It took in gifts, rather than investments. Thayer himself took a demotion from leading light to a promotional speaker.

Representing Kansas and the Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The question of what to do about Kansas continued to occupy the Congress in March of 1856. Would the nation stay the course with the bogus legislature and its laws, authorizing them to write a constitution with slavery and come into the Union down the road? Would they roll back the clock to last year or the year before, wiping aside all the territory had done and starting from scratch? Or would they admit the illegal free state government making their Kansas into the Kansas, free of slavery and blacks? Unsurprisingly, no more consensus existed on Kansas then than two years prior when Stephen Douglas, at the behest of Archibald Dixon and the F Street Mess, repealed the Missouri Compromise and started the mess.

John Sherman

John Sherman

The continuing debate over what to do with Kansas addressed the question of its future, immediate or otherwise. It also bore on Kansas’ present. John Wilkins Whitfield and Andrew Reeder had both arrived in Washington and presented their credentials to the House of Representatives. Kansas, entitled by law to one non-voting delegate, now had two. Choosing between Whitfield, the proslavery Indian agent twice elected to the post by fraud, and Reeder, the former governor elected by the free state government in an illegal election, meant choosing between the two governments. The House’s Committee on Elections asked the authority to call for papers and testimony on the question. Southerners objected. The House had a northern, anti-Nebraska majority. That majority had its cracks, but if it investigated then few could doubt the eventual verdict.

James Orr (D-SC)

James Orr (D-SC)

To forestall that risk, James Orr (D-SC) suggested that the House yield the question to a pair of southern lawyers. They would naturally judge Whitfield the more qualified man and seat him. Nobody fell for that. On March 19, over the unanimous objection of the South, the House voted to authorize an investigative committee of three men. One Democrat, Mordechai Oliver of Missouri, and two Republicans, William A. Howard of Michigan and John Sherman of Ohio would go off to Kansas and inquire into just what had really gone on in the troubled territory. Their report, published at the start of July, provides an invaluable source for Kansas’ first two years.

While the majority speaks clearly to what conclusions it would reach, the Howard Report would give Congress something firmer than newspaper reports and letters from constituents to judge matters. Everyone understood that newspapers had a firm partisan slant, one way or another. Testimony given under oath might hold more water. Even hostile witnesses before the committee surely lied, omitted, and evaded, but most I’ve read seem to have held themselves to a more stringent standard than they might in letters or editorials.

 

 

Debunking a White Power Meme: Did free blacks really own more slaves than whites?

Gentle Readers, studying the things I do often brings one in contact with the part of the internet which has forgotten its real purpose as a source of gentlemen’s special interest media. The nineteenth century insulates me to some degree from modern expressions of white supremacy, though not so much as one would hope. White power devotes its tremendous creative energies to strategy more than ideology, even when not spreading lies about the Confederacy. What I do see of modern racist discourse consequently has tight connections to proslavery and anti-Reconstruction arguments, the latter of which I have begun to familiarize myself with.

I haven’t found any proslavery writing that justifies slavery on the grounds that more free blacks than whites owned people, though I found a meme that does:

The latest in white supremacy

The latest in white supremacy, coming soon to a Facebook feed near you.

The stock photo of a darker-skinned gentleman looking puzzled by whites should feel guilty about slavery, which the text insists lays at the feet of black people, deserves credit for taking the logic of white supremacy to a nauseating conclusion. It implicitly both excuses whites by the proxy of a black man and encourages us to see ourselves deserving of an apology from black Americans for our national ancestors enslaving theirs. Ordinarily, our narratives grant no agency at all to non-whites; we treat them as objects which we act upon so consistently that it takes conscious effort to do otherwise. We learn our whiteness in schools, from our media, and every other cultural channel available to us.

Yet the moment white agency involves white people behaving in ways we have decided that we must, at least in mixed company, condemn, white agency vanishes. Then we must speak of black agency. Black people in Africa sold slaves to us, which washes away any injustice we might have done. We find the real racists with black skin, just as we find the real miscreants in every other possible sin. In this crazy, upside-down world it doesn’t matter that whites bought black slaves, but only that blacks sold them.

A full debunking of this meme would run very long. I may make a series of it, but today I want to focus on the first the first factual claim:

A greater percentage of free blacks owned slaves than whites.

This kind of argument would have made no sense to someone in the middle nineteenth century. I don’t know that any antebellum white considered that a mitigation of slavery, as it turned their racial caste system on its side. Black skin meant enslaved, not enslaver. That the slaves still had the “right” color would not have charmed them much. They did not understand black slaveholders as entering a class with themselves, even if those same free people of color sometimes aspired to that role.

The author of the meme found a real fact, rare enough for white supremacists, but naturally used it in a profoundly misleading way. Just taking it on its face, you would think free blacks constituted the great slaveholding caste of American history. We may know otherwise, but the presentation encourages us to let that slide by. They accounted for a trifling fraction of the number of whites who owned slaves, not even close to a significant fraction of all free people of color in the Antebellum South. The author asks us to ignore almost every slaveholder, indeed the nature of American slavery as a race-based caste system itself. We may as well declare the Pacific Ocean one vast desert, neglecting all that water.

Our author also neglects the multitude of ways in which slavery still constrained the lives of free black Americans. In no way did being free, but black, make many black Americans even near-equals to white Americans. In slave states, where the great majority of them lived, free blacks led lives still governed by the slave codes. They and their children lived in real fear of being kidnapped and sold as slaves somewhere far away. Whites and white law frequently, though with notable exceptions, restricted to low status and/or economically marginal work. Their marginality extended, thanks to the system whites built, to treatment often similar to slavery. In many slave states, especially in the later antebellum, freeing a slave required deporting the slave from the state at the owner’s expense. The whites literally wanted them gone, rather than around to contradict how black skin inherently meant enslaved, and whiteness alone made one free. At the least, this meant separation from homes and loved ones, just as a slave sale did. The impulse to purge the land of free blacks recalls twentieth century forced population transfers.

One finds successful, even wealthy, free black Americans in the historical record but they appear few in number. Many of these tried to make distinctions based on their lighter skin color, inherited from rich white fathers. They don’t make fair representatives of free blacks in general, and still faced considerable disabilities on account of their ancestry. In rare conditions, enough free and freed black Americans lived in one place to form their own class, particularly in New Orleans and Charleston, but whites insisted they occupy a sort of middling position well short of whiteness. Most were dependent on maintaining close relations with white patrons, often their relatives, to remain in that status. Complicating this further is that in most of the Cotton States have far fewer free blacks than they the Upper South (the Chesapeake, Kentucky, etc.) where no such “brown” class develops.

This began with black enslavers, so it would do to come back to them. Free blacks owned slaves in every slave state, but it pays to mind the details. When most of us read that someone owned slaves, we probably picture a plantation, a whip-wielding master, and all the rest. We imagine the actual experience of the great majority of slaves in the United States, sensibly enough. But free blacks almost always held very modest amounts of human property. Though a few operated plantations, for the most part we find circa one or two people owned. Specifically, we find family members of the free person.

Whites insisted that freeing slaves constitute a difficult legally and socially challenge on top of any financial burden from lost investment or labor. It could literally required an act of the state legislature, something far beyond the means of a person hoping to buy a spouse or child to save them from the full horror of slavery. The more freed people appeared locally, the stronger the local whites would object and the harder they might fight to make the lives of freedpeople impossible. Purchasing a loved one could thus mean taking the least worst option.

All of this requires us to grapple with a slavery that actually existed in the real world: a system of violence, theft, torture, and rape spread across two continents by white Europeans and their descendants. The Atlantic world that whites built on constraining, controlling, and exploiting blacks does not go away because we pretended otherwise. We can imagine a strange world where cunning black enslavers coerced or corrupted virtuous whites into buying human beings. We can pretend that they sat on the shoulders of white enslavers on their plantations, whispering in their ears: whip them, rape them, steal their children. We can tell ourselves whatever stories we like, use whatever startling facts out of context might distract us. The reality remains, as we all know. Declaring ourselves innocent and demanding apologies from those we still studiously afflict for how they hurt our feelings doesn’t depart from the system we built long ago, but rather continues it. We know that too.

Three Choices for Kansas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Felix Zollicoffer had one solution for Kansas’ troubles: giving the territorial legislature advance permission to write a state constitution when they found that the territory’s population had grown large enough. Galusha Grow and the rest of the House’s Committee on Territories had another: admit the free state government to statehood at once. Before both of them, Franklin Pierce had directed the Congress’ attention to settling of matters in his annual message. Grow’s and Zollicoffer’s reports to the House come in that context as well as that of Kansas’ petition. The House’s long contention over who would occupy the Speaker’s chair delayed action on Kansas as much as it did the president’s message, but the Congress had a whole second chamber just across the way with its own Committee on Territories and Stephen Douglas as the chair. He fixed Kansas until it broke last time, so why not take another crack?

Douglas might have gotten right on that at the first of the year, but illness kept him away from the capital. The Senate naturally referred Pierce’s message to his committee, so once he did arrive he got right into things. On March 12, the Little Giant came out swinging. I couldn’t find the report online anywhere, but my sources agree on the essential points: The Emigrant Aid Companies took all the blame for Kansas’ troubles, which provoked Missouri to action. Douglas ignored what James Rawley calls the “bastard birth” of the territorial government and affirmed its legitimacy. The Topeka movement amounted to a revolution. Congress ought to appropriate additional money to enforce order in the territorial and give permission at once for Kansas to write a constitution, under the extant territorial government, when it reached the proper population. Douglas and Zollicoffer had two parties between them, the Little Giant a lifelong Democrat and Zollicoffer a Whig turned Know-Nothing, but they agreed on Kansas.

Jacob Collamer (R-VT)

Jacob Collamer (R-VT)

Vermont’s Jacob Collamer dissented, arguing that the free state movement acted only because driven to strike out on their own. What else could they do with no recourse to the polls or the law of the territory? They might have done worse still, but opted for a “peaceful, constitutional” remedy. If Congress really wanted to fix things, they should repeal the whole Kansas-Nebraska act. But if the Senate would not listen to good sense,

then declare all the action by this spurious foreign legislative assembly utterly inoperative and void, and direct a reorganization, providing proper safeguard for legal voting and against foreign force.

Collamer took a conservative course. He defended the free state movement, but did not endorse its application for statehood. That would sidestep all the difficulties with its irregular nature and the extant legal government of Kansas.

Thus the Congress had three solutions before it: Douglas and Zollicoffer, who hewed to the same line as the administration, proposed largely leaving Kansas in the hands of its present government. It would become a slave state in due course. Grow and the majority of the House committee advised immediate statehood under the Topeka constitution, which would ensure a free and lily white Kansas. Somewhere on the center and leaning antislavery, Collamer advised a do-over, rolling the clock back to either before the first Assembly elections in March of the previous year or all the way to May of 1854 when the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law.