Signed, Not Read

Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson

On December 9, 1855, Wilson Shannon made his third visit to Lawrence. With him came Sheriff Jones, General Stricker, of the Kansas militia, and a few other proslavery men. If Shannon came not with the hundreds that Robinson told his wife and the other ladies of Lawrence to prepare for, then it seems plenty of Lawrence’s own wanted their share of the fun. After spending most of the day in town, evening brought the promised revelry.

The “social gathering,” as the Governor puts it, took place at the Emigrant Aid Society Hotel, in the same rooms used for negotiations and laying out Thomas Barber:

There were but two rooms finished in the hotel; they were small, and in the third story, and were, therefore, very much crowded by the company assembled. The time was spent in the most friendly and social manner, and it seemed to be a matter of congratulation on every side that the difficulties so lately threatening had at length been brought to a happy termination.

Sara Robinson and William Phillips both have Shannon downright giddy at the party, declaring that day the happiest of his life and that he considered moving to Lawrence. The Governor had reason to celebrate, given how close things had come. I haven’t seen anything that sheds light on Jones’ impression of the party, but I doubt he felt near so happy at the resolution of things as Shannon lets on.

Nor, perhaps, did others take it as gracefully as hoped. Robinson writes that

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

A rumor came during the evening from the invading horde still lingering in the borders, and reached the watchful ear of the governor. “His militia” were so indignant with him for the truce, that they threatened him with lynching, and an immediate attack upon Lawrence. He is fearful, and lacks the boldness of a man who has done his duty. Lynching is an unpleasant mode of making one’s exit, and especially undignified to a person holding the honorable office of governor. Such a terminus to his career must be avoided.

Don’t let the prissy Victorian stereotypes fool you; nineteenth century women could have a wicked sense of humor. I imagine she wrote that with considerable relish.

But where did that rumor come from, exactly? Shannon received it from Robinson’s husband, Charles. About ten that night, Shannon told George Douglas Brewerton,

Dr. C. Robinson came to me, in a state of apparent excitement, and declared that their picket guard had just come in and reported that there was a large irregular force near the town of Lawrence who were threatening an attack; adding that the citizens of Lawrence claimed the protecting of the Executive, and to this end desired me to give himself and Genl. Lane written permission to repel the threatened assault. I replied to Dr. Robinson that they did not require any authority from me, as they would be entirely justified in repelling by force any attack upon their town; that the law of self-preservation was sufficient, and that any authority which I might give would add nothing to its strength.

The Governor had a point. Just why would they need his sign-off to defend themselves? And why written permission at that? Robinson’s account doesn’t say, though he does admit that it turned out on investigation that no such group threatened to attack Lawrence. He did give an explanation to Shannon when asked:

they had been represented as having arrayed themselves against the laws and public officers of the Territory, and that he [Robinson] therefore wished me to give him written authority to repel the threatened assault, so that it might appear hereafter, if a rencounter did take place, that they were not acting against, but with the approbation of the Territorial executive.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

That all sounds reasonable enough. Shannon knew as well as anybody that most of the proslavery men had not welcomed news of peace and they had at least talked about attacking Lawrence despite any settlement. The ink had hardly dried on the peace treaty, which Shannon had had spent “four days and nights” of “laboring most incessantly” to secure. He bemoaned the cost of “many valuable friends” in the effort. Now it would all fall apart anyway? Anybody would get a bit cross in that situation.

Shannon might also have understood himself as in danger, as Sara Robinson suggests, and he had pledged to protect Lawrence so long as they accepted the eventual ruling of a court on the territory’s laws:

I should have looked upon any assault upon the town of Lawrence on the night of December the 9th as an outrage, and wholly unjustifiable, and I should have felt myself bound, both in duty and honor, to have exerted myself to the utmost to have prevented so unwarrantable an act of violence.

What could the Governor do in such a circumstance? He’d given his word. He had every reason to believe the rumor. Charles Robinson presented him with a piece of paper, just then written, and Shannon signed it “without any critical examination.”

Sara Robinson receives good and bad news

Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson

On December 9, 1855, the people of Lawrence, Wilson Shannon, and at least a few of the leading men of the proslavery army besieging the town had more in common than biology and geography dictated. They all hoped that the army, which came hoping for war to the knife, would accept Shannon’s orders, the blandishments of their leaders, and a peace treaty that gave them nothing in particular as sufficient cause to go home. If they did as they had plotted and attacked Lawrence anyway, Lawrence would defend itself. A pitched battle between proslavery and antislavery forces would ensue. With the eyes of both sections on Kansas and its troubles, things might spiral out of control well east of the Missouri border.

A driving storm, and the exhaustion of the whiskey, might have helped some proslavery men see the better part of valor; they can’t have encouraged sticking around. Others determined to tough it out. According to Sara Robinson

many […] turbulent spirits, who had been dragged out of Missouri by their cupidity, by much persuasion, and by being told that now was the time, if ever, for the extermination of the Yankees, made loud complaints, and were determined upon a fight. Their anger towards the governor was also expressed loudly at this peaceful termination of the raid.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Robinson counted ex-Senator David Rice Atchison, the man who ensured the opening of Kansas to slavery, among the disgruntled. She reports a secondhand story of him promising that while the army could not fight just then, they would “fight some time, by G-d!” She might have uncritically reported a rumor, but Atchison could just as heavily have put on a show to get the proslavery men to depart. That would fit well with his role helping Shannon rein them in.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

By this time, Charles Robinson and his wife had not seen each other in more than a day. He summoned her to give good news and bad: They had negotiated a peace, but she and the women of Lawrence needed to get arrange refreshments for Shannon and any proslavery men who remained on the morrow. The guests might number seven or eight hundred. Mrs. Robinson declined to tell the reader of the rapture which the latter news may have brought, entirely omitting reference to spontaneous dancing, cartwheels, or any other species of jubilation one might expect. She satisfied herself with the report to posterity that

New England’s high-toned propriety would be shocked at the idea of “getting up” a party on so short notice […] What would occupy a month’s time there, and any amount of unnecessary words, is done here equally as well in an eighth part of the time, with the greater amount of pleasure coming to all.

A single night’s work seems rather shy of an eighth of a month, but the women of Lawrence got the job done. I can’t imagine many enjoyed a full night’s sleep or a peaceful Sunday. I dearly hope that they gave their husbands an earful for the trouble. Seven hundred men didn’t come in for the festivities, but they might have. Things might have gone better for Governor Shannon, though not for the poor women expected to feed the lot, if they had.

The Influence of Snow Power Upon History

Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson

Wilson Shannon ordered the proslavery militia, mob, and posse to get gone from Lawrence. They must remove and disband, the militants going home with the town intact, its printing presses undamaged, blood, save that of Thomas Barber, left unshed. Shannon had gotten them empty assurances and somehow, with the help of David Rice Atchison and Albert Boone, twisted arms far enough to get thirteen of their leaders on board. But would they abandon their siege or abandon their leaders? Shannon didn’t feel confident enough to issue his order disbanding them until a day after settling things in Lawrence and Franklin, December 9, 1855. The threat of a wildcat attack remained hanging over Lawrence, a fact prominent in Shannon’s narrative as well as those of his antagonists.

Paper alone could not secure peace. Paper and the word of esteemed men in the proslavery camp had a better chance. But the underwhelming treaty prompted those present to look for other reasons why the army lost interest. Sara Robinson described the night of December 8-9:

The night was exceedingly tempestuous. The wind raged with unequalled fury, and was full of driving snow and sleet. All of the afternoon it had been so strong and furious, that boards, ten or twelve feet long, lying in a pile back of the house, had been blown, end over end, in every direction. But the night had added violence to the storm, and scarcely anything could make headway against, or live long out in it. Our Scotch friend, Mr. Phillips, had just come in with ears almost frozen.

Sara Robinson had a house to weather the night in. In the camps, they had tents. Some of the better off might have commandeered buildings, as Shannon did, but most of Lawrence’s enemies would have had to make do with the comfort of a layer of canvas or less. Robinson reports that some of them seized an outlying building, but men came out from Lawrence and took them prisoner. They returned with charges “almost frozen.”

The Robinsons’ Scotch friend likewise appreciated nature’s particular clemency, though he also had a good word for Lawrence’s martial fortitude:

Not to negotiation alone was the country indebted for peace. Many were really terrified at the idea of attacking Lawrence when they supposed the people there were going to fight, and had slipped on, glad to get home. Then the supply of whiskey was exhausted; and on that eventful Saturday night the elements warred with peculiar bitterness against the border ruffians in camp. Night set in; it was dark as Erebus. The wind had blown from the south all day, and threatened rain; at dusk it wheeled to the north, and came down with icy keenness, and driving a snowy sleet.


In the bitter cold the adventurers stood around their camp-fires, or tried to nestle under the wagon-covers that flapped in, or were overthrown by, the furious wind. Logs were piled high on the camp-fires, and the wild gale swept the flames and sparks up through the gnarled limbs of the old oaks and walnuts of the Wakarusa bottom.

William Phillips

William Phillips

Fun times. Phillips would hardly shrink from a chance to paint the proslavery men as cowards, trembling at the martial manliness of Lawrence. Probably some did, as coming to the festivities doesn’t require quite the same courage as doing something that might get one shot. Proslavery writers frequently paint their adversaries as similarly timid, to the point where some clearly believed it. Faced with actual antislavery men with actual guns, they may have reconsidered. But having come so far, more likely trembled from the miserable cold. If their leaders could give them a face-saving excuse to leave, why not take it? Phillips admits as much in the end, deciding that

had that been a mild and pleasant, summer’s night, there would have been an attack.

The Governor Gives Orders


Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

We left Charles Robinson and James Lane obliging Wilson Shannon by coming out to Franklin. There they met and dickered with thirteen leaders of the proslavery army investing Lawrence. William Phillips, who did not attend but might have heard details from Robinson, pronounced the whole affair “a farce” and described the negotiations as “a stormy time.” Shannon, who arranged the meeting on the advice of others, described it more neutrally. Still, even he admits that it took a good three hours to get everyone on board with going back to their people with word of satisfaction. Per the Governor,

We then returned to the Wakarusa camp, which we reached at ten, P.M., where I still continued to press upon the leading men the importance of withdrawing their men, and acceding to the terms offered.

They sound less than fully persuaded. Shannon told Brewerton

It was not, however, until daybreak on the 9th, that I felt safe in issuing my orders as Chief Executive of Kansas Territory, to Sheriff Jones, and Generals Richardson and Strickler, to disband their forces.

To the questionable delight of future chroniclers, Shannon dated his orders to the 8th all the same. Sheriff Jones, the author of all Shannon’s late sorrows that the Governor didn’t write for himself, got the shortest version:

Having made satisfactory arrangements by which all legal process in your hands, either now or hereafter, may be served without the aid of your present posse, you are hereby required to disband the same.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

William P. Richardson received a somewhat more substantive missive:

Being fully satisfied that there will be no further resistance to the execution of the laws of this Territory, or to the service of any legal process in the county of Douglas, you are hereby ordered to cross the Kansas river to the north side as near Lecompton as you may find it practicable with your command, and disband the same at such time and place, and in such numbers as you may deem most convenient.

The two sets of orders do say largely the same thing, but Jones got no more than promise that he personally would suffer no interference in the future. Shannon asked Richardson to believe that the free state men had caved entirely. He also took pains to ensure that Richardson didn’t loose his men in easy striking distance of Lawrence. A well-lubricated, still angry mob might still opt to take matters into its own hands.

Orders or no, Shannon probably still wondered just what the army would do. He knew he had gained them little. Would they really just go home, even with David Rice Atchison and other leading men urging it? Just how far did the authority of those men reach?


Horseshoes, History, and Violence

Gentle Readers, if you spend any length of time arguing about politics you will soon encounter the horseshoe theory. This notion holds that ideological extremes, despite their ostensible opposition, tend to blur together. Thus a left-right spectrum actually bends along another dimension and we should understand all of those horrid radicals as essentially equivalent: violent, dogmatic, and authoritarian. This has the appeal of making the speaker, always situated at the horseshoe’s peak, into a font of sensible moderation. Neither political scientists nor political philosophers take the horseshoe very seriously, as they have committed the grievous sin from which the it grants salvation: Actually reading and thinking about politics.

Horseshoe theory came to mind this week when I thought, briefly, about Thomas Fleming’s catalog of errors. Fleming holds that abolitionists and proslavery Americans had one another caught in a vicious cycle of mutual alienation and states-raising that eventually led to the Civil War. In doing so, he largely follows the outlines of blundering generation and needless war historiography in vogue at about the time of his birth. These scholars, like Fleming, put on a show of blaming both sides for what they consider a tragic and hysteria-fueled war of choice. In practice, however, they reliably cast the abolitionists as the true villains of the piece. Fleming would have us believe that white Southerners practically begged for abolition, but stumbled into a war due to vicious abolitionist onslaughts.

Setting aside for a moment the outright falsity of Fleming’s suggestion, purely for the sake of argument, the thesis of mutually reinforcing radicalisms has a lot of horseshoe in it. It assumes that a virtuous, non-violent, tolerant center exists. This might sound like a simple, common sense proposition. In the real world things work out rather differently. Extremists, for whatever limited value that category has, do sometimes engage in violence and authoritarianism. But so do moderates. Not all moderates do so, but then not all extremists do either.

That all sounds very abstract, so let’s get some nineteenth century on the case. A moderate, in Fleming’s view and the view of an assortment of early twentieth century historians, does not have a strong opinion one way or the other on slavery. He, or rarely she, lives in a country where slavery exists. Enslavers might not ply their trade just outside the door, but the moderate knows and accepts that they do it somewhere within a polity of which the moderate considers himself or herself a part. The moderate lacks decades of forgetting to obscure the reality of enslavement:

As Frederick Law Olmstead described “the severest corporeal punishment I witnessed at the South, “a slave girl named Sall was ordered to pull up her clothes and lie on her back, private parts exposed. The overseer flogged her “with the rawhide, across her naked loins and thighs.” Sall “shrunk away from him, not rising, but writhing, groveling, and screaming, “‘Oh don’t sir! Oh plerase stop, master! please sir! oh, that’s enough master! oh Lord! oh master, master, of God, master, do stop! oh God, master, oh God, master!”

After “strokes had ceased” and “choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard, “Olmstead asked if it was “necessary to punish her so severely.’ … ‘O yes sir,” answered the lasher, laughing at the Yankee’s innocence. Northerners ‘have no idea how lazy these niggers are …” They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.”

The moderate might dismiss the writings of abolitionists on the point. The moderate might even do so while engaged as a member of a mob attacking an abolitionist troublemaker of some sort. But the moderate could look at the writings of the enslavers and see much the same sort of thing. They made no bones about all the whipping they did as a “necessary” part of managing their human property. Nor could they, as it constituted such a normal, everyday part of life in the slave states. If you didn’t care to whip your slaves yourself, you could pay someone else to do the job. You could contract with the local constabulary for the task, or employ an overseer.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

One especially famous enslaver did the both in turn, a fact remembered very well by one of his chattels, Wesley Norris. Norris, his sister, and their cousin had run away, believing the famous man who inherited them had no right to their lives. Their prior owner, they thought, promised them freedom on his death. With the new boss proved less than forthcoming with it, they stole themselves. They got into Maryland before recapture

we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

The General Lee who owned Norris went on just a few years later to his fame, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia in the Slaveholder’s Insurrection. A moderate of the time wouldn’t have read Norris either, not in the least because his account didn’t reach publication until 1866, but one would have to work very hard to miss that things like this went on in the South every day. Nor, when pressed, did enslavers even deny sexual exploitation. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow considered the rape of enslaved women a praiseworthy feature of the system:

Negro slavery has a further effect on the character of the white woman, which should commend the institution to all who love the white race more than they do the negro. It is a shield to the virtue of the white woman.

So long as man is lewd, woman will be his victim. Those who are forced to occupy a menial position have ever been, will ever be most tempted, least protected: this is one of the evils of slavery; it attends all who are in that abject condition from the beautiful Circassian to the sable daughter of Africa. While we admit the selfishness of the sentiment, we are free to declare, we love the white woman so much, we would save her even at the sacrifice of the negro: would throw around her every shield, keep her out of the way of temptation.

While moderates might not think much of these things, they happened all the same. Whatever its cause, violence leaves broken bodies and lives just the same. The strokes of the lash do not turn into a lover’s kiss any more than bullets become a warm caress because their issuers deem the cause noble. Even misunderstandings and accidents, where human agency plays a confused role or none at all, grant no such considerations.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Yet the moderate, who protests the violence of the extremes to the point of imagining them as identical and treats violence as the characteristic in particular for which extremists deserve condemnation, has at best nothing to say about the precise violence that happens every day. More often, the moderate exerted, and in many cases still exerts, great effort to legitimate just that violence. The moderate argument against violent extremism comes down not to a principled stand against violence, nor even to a conviction that it ought to be minimized. Rather the moderate wants violence to continue along exactly as it has, afflicting those it has, likely in perpetuity.

I raise this issue in part because one hears horseshoe arguments so frequently, but also to make this point: The war only began at Sumter if only believes that army-scale intersectional violence between whites counts as violence. If we omit consideration of scale, then white Americans attacked one another in clashes either over slavery or deeply involved with it on at least a steady basis back through 1855. If we omit the intersectional qualification, then we find that Southern whites violently policed dissent against slavery going back decades before. If we remove the word “white” and admit lives are lives, bodies bodies, and violence violence, then we have a longer war yet. It might not have proceeded in every era at a fever pitch, but the war of those Americans and English colonists before them upon those they deemed black stretches back through the whole history of slavery in Anglophone North America. From that perspective, we must accept the Civil War as a true revolution. For four years, the violent energies of white Americans so eagerly directed, often with pride, at black Americans found themselves wrenched from their customary frame and applied elsewhere.

I can’t know the hearts of Thomas Fleming or the historians that preceded them, but in looking at a fuller picture than they offer I find it hard to resist the conclusion that their objection to the war lies chiefly in that temporary departure from our most ancient customs. With the possible exception of Avery Craven, who I understand held generally to pacifism, they don’t mind the violence. They mind that white people suffered it.

The Conference at Franklin

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The treaty that Wilson Shannon, Charles Robinson, and James Lane signed might bind them; Lane’s speech might even have temporarily satisfied John Brown. Keeping its terms secret probably helped. But the peace so far included only Lawrence and Wilson Shannon. There remained the small matter of the proslavery army investing Lawrence that had brought the crisis to a head. Shannon knew very well that his say-so alone would not make them go home. Even the word of the prominent men with him, like Albert Boone and David Rice Atchison, might not do the job.

The Governor had a plan. Arranging things had made him late for his meeting in Lawrence on December 8, but now the time had come. In the morning, on the suggestion of a “gentleman […] most distinguished,”Shannon secured the promise of thirteen “captains” to meet with Robinson and Lane at Franklin that day. Shannon doesn’t name them, but from the number alone, he had more men on tap than just the top militia leaders. Then

Generals Robinson and Lane repaired with me [Shannon], as a committee authorized to act for the Lawrence people, to Franklin, where we procured a room and organized the committees for business. I then addressed the committees stating to them the two great objects which I so earnestly desired to accomplish, informing them of what had been done, and urging upon them, in the strongest terms, the importance of acquiescing to the arrangement which I had made, by inducing their men to retire quietly.

After Shannon told the proslavery men to stand down, Lane rose and gave his own speech. Shannon doesn’t say anything about its content, but presumably it ran to the same lines: this all came down to a terrible misunderstanding and no one wanted to kill anybody. A “Colonel Woodson of Independence” spoke after, followed by Robinson. I thought Shannon might mean Daniel Woodson, but Shannon doesn’t identify himself as such and that Woodson doesn’t seem to have an Independence connection. Presumably, an amenable proslavery leader of the same surname spoke.

The introductory speeches gave way to

a conference of three hours, during which opinions were freely interchanged on both sides, the committees concluded to withdraw and report to the men of both parties that they were satisfied, and would settle matters as I wished.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Shannon makes it sound like smooth sailing, but the three hours’ negotiation puts the lie to that notion. Robinson had a somewhat more candid version:

the Governor made a lengthy speech, without apparently satisfying the Missouri captains that he had done his duty in coming to an understanding with the citizens of Lawrence, which should leave them in possession of their arms, or in a position for defence. After a prolonged and somewhat excited debate, the stipulations, as set forth in our paper of agreement, were recited, and a majority of the captains decided that they had, under the circumstances, no right to demand our weapons, and would, therefore, retire peaceably with the men.

The proslavery men didn’t need a John Brown to tell them that the terms agreed gave little, but with their leaders vouching for it and Robinson and Lawrence before them it seems they decided they had enough. If it sufficed for David Rice Atchison, hardly a weak proslavery man, then why not the rest of them? To further smooth things over, Lane and Robinson

invited the captains to visit Lawrence, see the town, and become acquainted with our people: to which we added the assurance that if they knew us better they would esteem us more.

If nothing else, the presence of proslavery leaders in Lawrence might keep the army at bay a little longer. The thirteen held sufficient prestige in the ranks to lead them. One doesn’t easily open fire in the general direction of a person one so esteems.

A New Face in Lawrence

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

The people of Lawrence and their proslavery besiegers had a peace treaty, of a kind. Governor Wilson Shannon signed it on behalf of the opposition. James Lane and Charles Robinson signed for Lawrence. Shannon and Lane gave speeches encouraging the people of Lawrence to accept the peace they’d gotten. Given the theme of unhappy antislavery militants runs through free state accounts of events, they might have needed some firm words. They had before when Thomas Barber came back from from leave, early and dead. Could Wilson Shannon, who Lawrence rightly loathed for bringing the proslavery army to their doorstep, really cool their tempers? Probably not. James Lane might, questionable past aside. Phillips reports that he “was cheered heartily”.

The sudden outbreak of peace seemed suspicious to some. After hearing Shannon’s speech, it seems they called on Lane. Then came Robinson, who demurred. Thus Lawrence had the word of a thoroughly untrustworthy enemy, a passionate leader with a dubious past, and silence from one of the most thoroughgoing, if not particularly militant, voices on hand. Unsurprisingly, the besieged did not see fit to dance in the streets:

There was an evident suspicion among the people that the negotiations had been closed too easily, and that their leaders had conceded something.

Those suspicions found voice in a hard-eyed fifty-five year old man with a strong jaw and stronger convictions. He had failed at most everything in life; he had more failure ahead of him. He had come to the territory on the word of a son already in Kansas, to defend his family and fight slavery. He brought with him no particular fame and took no great part in the Wakarusa War. He came with four sons, arriving just as events headed up around Lawrence. According to one of his first biographers, James Redpath,

they drove up in front of the Free State hotel […] all standing in a small lumber wagon. To each of their persons was strapped a short, heavy browadsword. each was supplied with a goodly number of fire-arms and navy revolvers, and poles were standing endwise around the wagon box, with fixed bayonets pointing upwards. They looked really formidable, and were received with great eclat.

Redpath has a small military company at once formed and put under his command. The old man impressed others too, not so favorably.

From that moment, he commenced fomenting difficulties in camp, disregarding the command of superior officers, and trying to induce them men to go down to Franklin, and make an attack upon the pro-slavery forces encamped there. The Committee of Public Safety were called upon several times to head off this wild adventure.

John Brown

John Brown

This came to more than admiration in hindsight. Redpath wrote it in 1860, but William Phillips appreciated the newcomer’s passionate militancy four years earlier when he had yet to reach the height of his fame. John Brown heard Shannon and Lane. He reckoned he needed hearing too:

Captain Brown got up to address the people, but a desire was manifested to prevent his speaking. Amidst some little disturbance, he demanded to know what the terms were. If he understood Governor Shannon’s speech, something had been conceded, and he conveyed the idea that the territorial laws were to be observed. Those laws they denounced and spit upon, and would never obey-no! Here the speaker was interrupted by the almost universal cry, “No! No! Down with the bogus laws!-lead us down to fight first!”

Brown’s read does sound a great deal like what Shannon said and one could read the treaty that way without much trouble. Its careful ambiguity ensured that.

“[T]he influential men,” presumably Lane and Robinson, swore up and down that they made no concessions and yielded no principles. “They surrendered noting to the usurping Legislature.” This satisfied most of the crowd, per Phillips, but all the same the leadership chose then to keep the treaty’s terms secret. The secret endured for days, perhaps crucial days, but when the news got out it pleased few.

Shannon, Lane, Robinson, and Lawrence’s doubts

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon stood at the door of the Free State Hotel and told Lawrence’s people that they would soon, he hoped, see the backside of their besiegers. His performance, to hear William Phillips tell it, did not greatly impress them. His pronouncements received only “faint cheers”. Phillips’ hostility to the governor might have led him to downplay the reception, but Shannon told Lawrence little that would endear himself to his audience. He suggested that their leaders had submitted to him and downplayed his own role in escalating the crisis. For all of that, Shannon could only promise his moral support if the proslavery men declined to follow his orders and go home. While he had little else that he could offer, such cold comfort hardly brings rousing applause.

To similar delight, the governor closed by confiding his hope and belief

that the people of Lawrence and vicinity were law-abiding people. Indeed, he learned that he had misunderstood them, and that they wer eestimable and orderly people, but houses, it was said, had been burned, and other outrages had been charged upon the free-state men. They must remember this when they judge things. They were, perhaps, innocent, but he hoped they would abide a judicial tribunal.

One can only imagine the crowd’s rapture at such a lecture. Even people who had burned houses, and some might have heard Shannon that day, didn’t necessarily want reminders of it or welcome the suggestion that they face trial.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

James Lane spoke next. Phillips writes that Lane “was called,” which suggests that the crowd demanded him to answer Shannon or provide a verbal sign-off on the treaty. The one-time moderate declared

If we fight now […] we fight a mob. Any man who would desert Lawrence, until the invaders below had left the territory, was a coward.

Hang on, Lawrence. We’ve almost won this thing and will see it through.

Such news got a much happier reception. The crowd “cheered heartily” and applauded with enthusiasm. They called for Charles Robinson next, but the General demurred on the grounds that he had “nothing to say.” Robinson constituted the peace party from the start of the affair and may very well have come out genuinely satisfied, rather than just relieved.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Even Lane’s endorsement didn’t please everyone. He might have joined the radicals, but he had a more dubious past. How did they come to this settlement so easily? Would the proslavery men really go home for so little, or had Lawrence’s leaders conceded something in secret? Shannon’s speech, Lane’s, and Robinson’s silence could reasonably read that way. Particularly in Phillips’ and Robinson’s accounts, the free state leadership seem to control their forces nearly as tenuously as Shannon and his militia officers held their army. A group of angry men, some of them not so young and all of them with the siege and Thomas Barber’s death weighing on their minds, already ill-disposed to their leaders, could easily imagine a cowardly deal struck in secret to disarm them and surrender their cause.

A Jackass Brays in Kansas

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon, Albert Boone, David Rice Atchison, James Lane, and Charles Robinson had their peace treaty. It took them five hours of wrangling on Saturday, December 8, 1855, but they reached an agreement that suited them all at least for the moment. It conceded much, or nothing, depending on who read it, but the had a paper with their signatures on it. Now the army of Missourians and others might go home and leave Lawrence without shot leaders, destroyed printing presses, and burned buildings.

Neither Shannon’s nor Robinson’s account mention it, but William Addison Phillips relates that Shannon came out of the Free State Hotel, stood at its door, and addressed the anxious people of Lawrence. Phillips came late by a few minutes, but got the rest of it down “in substance as follows:”

There was a part of the people of this territory who denied the validity of the laws of the territorial Legislature. He was not there to urge that validity, but these laws should be submitted to until a legal tribunal had set them aside. He did not see how there was any other course but such submission to them, and it certainly was not his part, as an executive officer, to set them aside or disregard them.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

To which Shannon’s audience could have said that they had noticed, he’d best not do any urging, and they didn’t expect much from him anyway. Fairness demands that we note Shannon inherited the mess, but likewise that had done little to remedy it until it seemed the proslavery party would add white lives to its harvest. Of course, nobody came to hear Shannon and expected him to pull an Andrew Reeder and switch sides. They had more weighty matters than the alignment of an Ohio politician in mind: their lives and property. On that count, Shannon had good news:

He was happy to announce that all difficulties were settled. (Faint cheers.) There was a prefect understanding between the executive and the committee. The difficulties had arisen from misunderstanding. He would go down and disband the sheriff’s posse. he would dismiss the officers of the territorial militia, Generals Richardson and Stricklar, but would order that their forces not be disbanded until they were taken to Leavenworth, or the neighborhood of Westport. All the difficulties were adjusted, and he was willing and anxious to do all in his power to prevent a collision and the shedding of blood. He hoped that the men now in the territory and in camp below would be got out of the territory without hostilities intervening. He would do all in his power to influence them. He would urge upon the people of Lawrence to be moderate, to pursue a wise course to avoid a collision.

William Phillips

William Phillips

The good governor then enjoined the people against belligerence, at which point Phillips notes that “a jackass across the street brayed vociferously.” Politically astute livestock generally occupy the fiction section of the library. Phillips could well have invented the business, which would fit with his hostility toward the governor. He might also have used it as cover for some less tactful expressions on the part of the crowd. We can only speculate given the lack of other accounts.

Shannon then appealed on the people of Lawrence to rely on sweet reason rather than fiery passion, wise counsel difficult to heed and difficult for posterity to take from the governor considering his own misjudgments. But if they had to fight, then Wilson Shannon stood with them rhetorically, at least. He affirmed that they would soon contend not with a legitimate arm of the territorial government, but rather “a mob”. When they acted in such self-defense

They were right, and he would do all in his power to sustain them; but he hoped the men encamped would now be induced to leave, and that there would be no effusion of blood.

All of this betrays a lack of confidence in the governor’s ability to disperse the mob, which the people of Lawrence surely shared. Paper pledges reach only so far. Shannon might have a treaty, but he could only hope that the proslavery men would agree. Further obscuring his posterior, Shannon

wanted it understood that he had called on no one but the people of the territory in his proclamations. If there were Missourians here, they were here of their own accord.

Reading William Dunning

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Reconstruction scholarship had hit the news this week, with Hillary Clinton giving her questionable take on the matter. Others have written well on her poor understanding of the era and her decision that, finding herself in a hole, she had best try for China. I don’t propose to retread that ground. The customary recitation of the historiography of Reconstruction might do in its stead; it must lurk in any discussion of the topic just as the historiography of every subject does. I will probably indulge eventually, but today I have in mind something off to one side of that.

Back in fifth grade, during the fall of 1991, I read an American history textbook cover to cover. My teacher suggested it. (Thank you, Mrs. Taylor.) Between its pale blue covers I learned a great deal of history for the first time, Reconstruction included. I still remember the sepia-toned drawing of three men with bags over their heads, members of the Ku Klux Klan. My textbook told me that they used costumes to frighten freedmen away from the polls. The book might have mentioned violence as well, but if so I don’t recall it appearing to any prominent extent. I read about scalawags and carpetbaggers. These had something to do with a thing called Reconstruction, which radical republicans launched to punish the South for the Civil War. My book didn’t tell me that in as many words that Reconstruction deserved opposition and we should cheer its failure, but did make it very clear that black Americans lacked the education and character to participate in government. We had it hard in the Bush years; you had to put things together yourself. I didn’t know then and would not know for more than a decade thereafter that I’d just gotten a dose of the Dunning School. Most everyone still gets plenty of them, hence the ritual condemnations whenever Reconstruction comes up.

I make it my habit, partly as a prophylactic, to read good history before bad. As I’ve yet to undertake a serious study of Reconstruction, until now I’ve opted out of reading anything by William Archibald Dunning, his students, and fellow travelers. Today I made an exception when a lengthy article by the man himself came across my twitter feed. Why not let Dunning speak for himself? I can only scratch the surface of even the article without making this post tediously long or once again making an extended departure from Kansas, but it deserves a look all the same.

Dunning makes no bones about his position, laying it out in the opening paragraphs:

the completion of the reconstruction showed the following situation: (1) the negroes were in the enjoyment of equal political rights with the whites; (2) the Republican party was in vigorous life in all the Southern states, and in firm control of many of them; and (3) the negroes exercised an influence in political affairs out of all relation to their intelligence or property, and, since so many of the whites were disfranchised, excessive even in proportion to their numbers. At the present day, in the same states, the negroes enjoy practically no political rights; the Republican party is but the shadow of a name; and the influence of the negroes in political affairs is nil.

You could hand this list to Eric Foner or any other modern historian of Reconstruction and see them nod along with the facts, save the highlighted portion. From that axiom, all the rest that makes the Dunning School so notorious follows.

Dunning concerns himself often with the political interests of the Republican party in sustaining Reconstruction. He avoids calling partisan interest the chief objective of the undertaking by so narrow a margin as to almost say the opposite in plain terms:

by the time the process was complete, a very important, if not the most important part had been played by the desire and the purpose to secure to the Republican party the permanent control of several Southern states in which hitherto such a political organization had been unknown. This last motive had a plausible and widely accepted justification in the view that the rights of the negro and the “results of the war” in general would be secure only if the national government should remain indefinitely in Republican hands, and that therefore the strengthening of the party was a primary dictate of patriotism.

One can’t quite argue with the facts here either. A Republican government would hardly seek to redeem the cause of the movement which it just defeated. As most southern whites understood Republicans and freedom for black Americans as both utterly inimical to their interests, they would hardly vote the party of Lincoln handy majorities. They just spent four years engaged in a tremendous war where they spent blood, much of it their own, and treasure to save slavery, save white supremacy, and prevent so much as the possibility of a southern wing of the Republican Party. Consequently, any Republican party in the South must depend on black votes for its support.

If this makes the Republicans less than disinterested, altruistic paragons of virtue then we might as well ask if the majority of white Southerners did better. Dunning takes white supremacy for granted, to the point of understanding it as an interest which whites pursued out of conscious partisanship. This would leave him, at best, declaring a plague on both houses. It turns out that human beings don’t comport themselves with perfect virtue. Who knew?

Dunning makes it clear that white supremacy decided things. He considered black Americans too stupid and ignorant to competently manage politics. He doesn’t quite say that they couldn’t manage even basic freedom, but Dunning clearly had some doubts on the subject. However, he argues that Southern whites had more than racial animus informing them. They tried, if at gunpoint, black governance:

The extravagance and corruption of the state administration had become so intolerable to the whites that questionable means of terminating it were admitted by even the most honorable without question.

Dunning spends page after page on the precise mechanics of how to disenfranchise, most of them clearly amused by the ingenuity they involved. Yet he offers only this single line on the famous corruption that helped justify rolling back black freedom. We must take his word for it.

We must also take his word that violence played only a small part. Dunning admits to lynchings, and wrote in their heyday, but paints violence as the exception rather than the rule:

There was relatively little “Ku-Kluxing” or open violence, but in countless ways the negroes were impressed with the idea that there would be peril for them in voting. […] But if a party of white men, with ropes conspicuous on their saddlebows, rode up to a polling place and announced that hanging would begin in fifteen minutes, though without any more definite reference to anybody, and a group of blacks who had assembled to vote heard the remark and promptly disappeared […] Or if an untraceable rumor that trouble was impending over the blacks was followed by the mysterious appearance of bodies of horsemen on the roads at midnight, firing guns and yelling at nobody in particular, votes again were lost

If we bend over backwards on Dunning’s behalf, we might allow him a technical point. We ought to distinguish between intimidation and violence. We should not go further and treat intimidation as innocuous or, as Dunning might like us to, pretend that black Americans heard only empty threats. They could count the lives lost, the scars left, and see who hung from trees just as well as any white person. A threat might very well remain a threat only when they complied. While some whites might have made idle threats, the record argues very strongly that most spoke in deadly earnest. No one could know with confidence until hazarding it at peril of one’s life whether one had a band of blowhards or the local Klavern just looking for an excuse. The distinction between violence carried out and violence merely threatened thus, at the point when one would have to make the decision, proves fleeting.

All of this led to what Dunning considered the natural conclusion:

The negroes, though numerically much in excess of the whites, were very definitely demoralized by the aggressiveness and unanimity of the latter, and in the ultimate test of race strength the weaker gave way.

The corruption might matter, though Dunning could as well have looked at his own New Jersey or Tammany Hall just across the Hudson for examples of that, but ultimately the whites won. Thus we know for a fact that the superior race prevailed. Winners win and losers lose. Had blacks really deserved equality, they would have raped and murdered their way to it just as the whites did. The fact that whites imagined black men as rapists and murderers nearly by definition and arrayed themselves to combat these simultaneously inferior and remarkably puissant foes brings us to one of the inevitable paradoxes of white supremacy: an inferior race which requires such heroic measures to keep in its place hardly seems very inferior.

Dunning goes on, charting the restoration of white supremacy up to the time of writing. Toward the end he expresses his relief that at last, politics have advanced to the point where white Southerners need not apologize or make excuses for their actions. They can cheerfully state their business honestly and in the open:

the stronger faction, headed by Mr. Tillman, promptly took the ground that South Carolina must have a “white man’s government,” and put into effect the new Mississippi plan. A constitutional amendment was adopted in 1895 which applied the “understanding clause” for two years, and after that required of every elector either the ability to read and write or the ownership of property to the amount of three hundred dollars. In the convention which framed this amendment, the sentiment of the whites revealed very clearly, not only through its content, but especially through the frank and emphatic form in which it was expressed, that the aspirations of the negro to equality in political rights would never again receive the faintest recognition.

I don’t know that I can do Dunning’s enthusiasm for the trend the justice it deserves. Dunning never makes his disinterested academic act entirely convincing, but one can almost hear the fanfare sounding in his mind when reading this. He spends paragraph on paragraph, page after page, detailing how white Americans took back from black Americans almost everything they briefly gained. Though Dunning denied the violence, he proudly recounts the trickery, fraud, and legal sophistry deployed over the course of a generation and change to reduce black Americans from at least within sight of political equality to a state near to slavery.

In the end, Dunning unites the past and present:

the ultimate root of the trouble in the South had been, not the institution of slavery, but the coexistence in one society of two races so distinct in characteristics as to render coalescence impossible; that slavery had been a models vivendi through which social life was possible; and that, after its disappearance, its place must be taken by some set of conditions which, if more humane and beneficent in accidents, must in essence express the same fact of racial inequality. The progress in the acceptance of this idea in the North has measured the progress in the South of the undoing of reconstruction. In view of the questions which have been raised by our lately established relations with other races, it seems most improbable that the historian will soon, or ever, have to record a reversal of the conditions which this process has established.

We have come far, if not near so far as we like to tell ourselves. I needn’t delve further back than a few days to find arguments that would make Dunning smile.