The Testimony of John A. Wakefield, Part Two

John A Wakefield

John A Wakefield

John A. Wakefield, resident of Kansas’ second district and witness to the election of November, 1854, told the Howard Committee that more than two hundred Missouri men came into his district to vote. At the time, he estimated that the entire district boasted only forty or fifty white men. The committee’s report concurred, finding only thirty-five resident voters to two hundred twenty-six outsiders.

Some other testimony in the Howard Report, from Missouri men and their proslavery friends in Kansas, emphasizes that while they came over to vote they mistreated no one. They might have come with guns, but threatened nobody. They might have lubricated themselves well, but who didn’t? If anything, they brawled more among themselves than with political opponents.

Wakefield told a different story:

Soon after the polls opened, a stranger came to me, and said he wanted to speak to me. He took me on one side, and said, “I understand you have come here to-day to challenge votes.” I told him I had not come for any such purpose, and asked him why he asked me that question. Says he, “if you challenge a vote here to-day, you will be badly abused, and probably killed; and as you are an old man, I do not wish to see you abused.” I then remarked that that kind of talk would not frighten me, but I thought it was the duty of the judges to see that all voters were legal voters.

[…]

Those men were armed with revolvers, some with guns, and a great many with clubs; and a great many of our settlers, knowing these facts, did not go to the election.

Nice election Wakefield had there. Shame if anything happened to it.

A majority of them were very much intoxicated, and they were very noisy. The language they used against the Yankees was something like “damn the abolitionists, kill them.” One of them came up to me and seized me by the collar, and said, “you are a damned abolitionist.” When I drew my cane on him, his brother came up, and told me not to mind him, that he was drunk. One of the judges then, it being right before them, invited me to come in where they were, or I would be abused. I did so, and remained there until the polls closed.

That the judges, who the crowd chose by acclamation, sheltered Wakefield speaks volumes. Given their popularity with the Missouri men, who Wakefield testified raised not one voice against their selection, they clearly leaned proslavery. Yet they intervened to protect him despite his unclear position on the issue. Perhaps Wakefield’s age played a role; he did turn fifty-seven that year. But it seems unlikely that they would intervene if they didn’t think his safety genuinely threatened. The language of the time can make it sound a bit like a minor scuffle, but members of a band of armed, drunken rowdies did seize him and threaten him. The threatened abuse could have easily come down to a deadly beating. When confronted with a large number of loud, drunken, heavily armed men promising violence it behooves one to take the threats seriously. Certainly such pronouncements have a decidedly chilling effect on voting one’s conscience, all the more so in an age before secret ballots.

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