Stealing Kansas’ first election

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The Howard Report describes the scene that greeted Andrew Reeder when he arrived to begin governing the territory of Kansas. Already a dispute existed over whether repealing the Missouri compromise had by default legalized slavery in the territory and so no legislature could restrict, or whether the repeal merely gave the territorial legislature the option to introduce slavery at some point. David Rice Atchison and his associates, and other proslavery filibusters and settlers had the predictable opinion: the territory stood slave until made free, and could not be made free until its constitutional convention at the earliest. This gave them plenty of time for to run off antislavery settlers and ensure only the right sort of Kansan, who might actually live in Missouri, voted in the elections to send delegates to any such constitutional convention. They would have the best democracy that thuggery could steal.

Reeder had to have an election eventually and proslavery men pushed for him  to do it immediately. They suspected that they had a strong early advantage, but that could only wane as people from farther-flung lands arrived. Best establish the entire apparatus of territorial government under their influence, staffed with men they could depend on to introduce and protect slavery in Kansas.

According to his testimony to the Howard Committee, Reeder

landed at Fort Leavenworth on Saturday, the 7th day of October, and made it [his] first business to obtain information of the geography, settlements, population, and general condition of the Territory, with a view to its division into districts, the defining of their boundaries, and the ascertainment of suitable and central places for elections, and the full names of men in each district for election officers, persons to take the census, justices of the peace, and constables.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

That ended up requiring a personal tour of the territory, complicated by the far-flung settlements and poor infrastructure. From October 14th until November 7th he traveled Kansas with a small party. That done, he

then saw that if the election for delegate to Congress (which required no previous census) should be postponed till an election could be had for the legislature, with its preliminary census and apportionment, the greater part of the session, which would terminate on the 4th of March, would expire before our congressional delegate could reach Washington; and I deemed it best to order an election for a delegate to Congress as early as possible and to postpone the taking of the census till after that election.

That decision did not please everyone:

whilst the citizens of Missouri were vehemently urging an immediate election of the legislature, the citizens of the Territory were generally of the opinion that no immediate necessity for it existed.

Reeder cites reasonable practicalities motivating his decision, but to proslavery partisans the very distinction between citizens of Missouri and citizens of Kansas might look partisan. They in turn denounced Reeder, who answered back that he answered to Kansans, not Missourians.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Atchison resolved to show him otherwise and called for five hundred to cross over from Missouri on election day, November 29, 1854, far more than that obliged. Allen Nevins describes it memorably in Ordeal of the Union:

more than 1,700 Missourians illegally crossed the boundary to vote. On horseback, on foot, and in buckboards, carts, and wagons, the well-armed slavery men crowded the river ferries in the upper counties and the muddy roads in the lower. Some went to the nearest polls while others pushed well into the interior. The more conscientious drove a stake, marked a tree, or signed a claim-register in a feeble effort to validate their votes, while others took mere mental resolve to be settlers-or simply damned the Yankees, and let it go at that. Proper judges of election were set aside in one polling place after another. Of the 2,871 votes cast, it was later estimated that only 1,114 had been legal. Out of 604 ballots in one notorious centre, 20 were legal and 584 illegal.

So much for letting the people of the territory decide for themselves. The voters, legal or otherwise, got a proslavery delegate elected to go off to Congress and scored their first public victory.

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