The Future of Missouri and David Rice Atchison

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Men of David Rice Atchison’s bent spilled over the Missouri border to make Kansas into a slave territory. They made their choice its non-voting delegate to Congress. Along the way they ate, drank, made dire threats, and physically stopped some Kansans from voting. All went very much according to Atchison’s wishes and his public suggestions. Members of the Platte County Self-Defense Association, a group Atchison helped found, had far less luck prevailing over Frederick Starr back at home before their adventure in election fraud. But their failure with Starr made success in Kansas all the more imperative. All of Missouri stood in the balance.

Most especially, for David Rice Atchison, his seat in the Senate stood in the balance. His ongoing feud with Thomas Hart Benton’s faction of the Missouri Democracy, which urged non-agitation over slavery and hoped for a freer, whiter Missouri in the future, had helped spark the initial Kansas crisis in Washington. Atchison had crossed over to replace Benton with a proslavery Whig a few years prior. That achievement put an end to a senatorial career as long as Missouri’s statehood, but Benton came right back with a seat in the House and he had many friends still in Missouri.

Fresh off the filibusters’ success in Kansas, Atchison came up for reelection. At this time, before the Seventeenth Amendment, state legislatures elected senators. Benton contested the election. So did a proslavery Whig, Atchison’s friend and west Missouri neighbor Alexander William Doniphan. In years past, Doniphan had refused an order to execute the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, at the conclusion of Missouri’s violent expulsion of the Latter-Day Saints from its bounds. The Missourians believed the Mormons abolitionists, among other things, and some of them saw their violent work in the 1850s as a continuation of the same struggle.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

The debate in the Missouri state house laid out the issue in stark terms. Just as Atchison wanted, slavery dominated the election. Benton’s lieutenant, Francis Preston Blair, Jr., spoke for him to the legislature. William W. Freehling summarizes his argument in The Road to Disunion, Volume Two. Blair

denied that Bentonians sought to abolish slavery. Rather, they sought to save white republicanism. All true republicans, emphasized Blair, believed democrats can discuss anything, from whether to rotate crops to whether to use slaves. All true unionists understand that Atchisons proslavery illegalities would smash the national republic. All true entrepreneurs wince that Atchison’s antidemocratic repressions will deter free white laborers from the Kansas plains.

All Missourians should hope for a free labor Kansas, continued Blair, because only then would Kansas and Missouri flourish., Compared to slave labor, free labor brought more people, more enterprise, and more profits to an area. Missourians, by controlling Kansans’ trade, would boom alongside the free labor neighbor. The economic takeoff would bring still more free laborers to Kansas and Missouri. Still more people would mean still more prosperity. If Atchison’s antirepublican coercions prevailed instead, Missouri would receive sparse migrants, enjoy scarce free speech, and achieve scant prosperity.

Francis Preston Blair, Jr.

Francis Preston Blair, Jr.

Further South, talk like that could get a man lynched. In Missouri, one could say such things and be a member in good standing of a powerful faction in the state government. Blair expected this argument to put Benton back into the Senate, not fit him for tar and feathers. He could very well have just read from Negro-Slavery, No Evil and declared Benton its antithesis. B.F. Stringfellow, Atchison’s lieutenant, laid out his position starkly in that pamphlet:

We have no law by which the expression of abolition sentiments is made a penal offence, and yet it is a crime of the highest grade. It is not within even the much abused liberty of speech; but in a slaveholding community, the expression, of such sentiments is a positive act, more criminal, more dangerous, than kindling the torch of the incendiary, mixing the poison of the assassin. The necessity for a law punishing such a crime, has not, until now, been felt in Missouri. Until such a law is enacted, self-protection demands that we should guard against such crimes.

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