The Fall of David Rice Atchison

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

George Goode (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), Frank Blair, and the rest of the Missouri legislature had it out over the place of slavery in their state’s future. Would Missouri remain a southern state, not just tolerating but endorsing and trying to expand slavery? Would it turn its back on the South and become, as immigrants flooded in and slaves trickled away, a part of the North? Would Missouri send Thomas Hart Benton back to the Senate seat that it had before, displacing David Rice Atchison in the process? Goode stood for Atchison and slavery. Blair stood for Benton and non-agitation on slavery that bled over into free soil sentiment.

The Missouri legislature had its vote and came to some grief for it. Atchison had a rival for the proslavery vote, a Whig named Alexander William Doniphan who insisted that his party would best protect Missouri’s slavery. Because he believed in the power of Missouri Whiggery, Doniphan refused to throw his support to Atchison despite their strong agreement on slavery. As a result, they split the proslavery vote and each went home with roughly 37%. Benton came in at 25%. The Missouri legislature chose slavery, but could not agree on who ought to protect it. The deadlock denied Doniphan or Atchison the 50% of votes they needed to claim the Senate seat and so it would remain vacant at least until 1857 when a new Missouri legislature would take its seats.

Some people think that we ought to go back to having the state legislatures elect senators. Problems like this, and still more interesting times when multiple men claimed to have won the legislature’s vote and appeared in Washington, demonstrate why the states agreed to give up that power with the Seventeenth Amendment. However much they enjoyed choosing senators directly, split votes and deadlocks could mean losing the seat entirely for a time.

Alexander William Doniphan (Whig-MO)

Alexander William Doniphan (Whig-MO)

Did his initial loss mean Atchison packed up and went home, forgetting all about Kansas and retiring comfortably to steal the labor and lives of his slaves? Not at all. He still believed slavery right, still believed that it must spread to Kansas to ensure its security in Missouri, and still believed Missourians like himself and his Platte County friends had every right to go over and decided the future of Kansas for the Kansans. If he and his organization could triumph there, it could only improve his chances of convincing the next legislature that Davy Atchison protected slavery better than any Whig. Barring some radical transformation of Missouri politics in a free soil direction, or some staggering and conspicuous loss in Kansas, Atchison’s border ruffian activity could only help him.

Losses have a way of motivating some people. The Platte County men took new urgency from their failure to oust Frederick Starr. Spurred on by their embarrassment at home, they moved across the border and stole Kansas’ election for delegate. Now Andrew Reeder had taken his census and soon would come an election for territorial legislature. A non-voting delegate to Congress made for a paltry trophy, but the territorial legislature would have vast power to shape Kansas’ future. With a real prize on the line and all the more reason to fight for it, Atchison and his border ruffians would not dare think of sitting out the upcoming Kansas elections.

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