The Third District, Part Three

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Third District, Parts 1, 2

Kansas’ Third District’s lone free state judge of the election for the legislature, Henry Burgess, found that his two proslavery counterparts and the mob they had would not let him leave the polls. He only heard that the owner of the house, who had threatened to beat him with a cane. All of this came just shy of a year before Preston Brooks turned caning into a national sensation. Burgess and the proslavery judges could not agree on the oath to which they had to swear one another. He thought it perfectly legal and they thought it beyond the governor’s authority to demand that they only let actual residents of Kansas vote.

But now that they had him as a prisoner in all but name, the proslavery judges had a compromise for Burgess. They out voted him, so why not do it their way? Burgess agreed in principle, but then one of the proslavery men realized that he could still cause problems for them. They pressed Burgess further: Would he write a report to the governor stating his agreement to their variant oath? Furthermore, would he sign off on the returns?

I said I would if they would allow me to send up with the returns a statement of the facts. This they would not accept, and proposed that we should resign, and allow the people there to elect judges to suit themselves. To this I objected, because the highest officer in the Territory had appointed us to that office-the highest trust in the Territory-and refused to vacate my seat.

No one said anything about telling Andrew Reeder any facts, not to mention how if they all resigned, the Missourian mob would just appoint a full panel of proslavery men.

Someone came in and checked on the judges, telling them they better get the lead out. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, three men came in and politely informed the panel of the restless non-natives.

Their language was gentlemanly. They said that if the election should not go on, they would not be responsible for the consequences that might result from it. They then retired. In about ten minutes more, I should think, another deputation waited upon us, and the speaker then was a rough, uncouth man, in language and manner. He wanted to know what in hell was the matter that the election could not go on; and that we had better be getting out of there pretty damned soon, or we would catch hell.

Watts, one of the proslavery judges, told him that they had no trouble at all except for this one judge…and stared across the table at Burgess. The uncouth man then answered

if he knows what is good for himself, he will be getting out of here pretty God damn soon, or he would catch hell.

Yet the impasse remained. The proslavery judges wanted to steal the election. Burgess refused. One judge proposed they all resign, since as ministers their inability to get things settled reflected poorly on Christianity. The crowd agreed to give them ten minutes but

Very soon we heard cried, outside, “Five minutes left.” I had heard prior to this, from outside, “We have given them ten minutes, and then, damn them, we will put them out,” and the reply, “Good! there are only ten minutes left them, dman them.” I heard the remark, “Hang the damned abolitionist, damn him, hang him;” and then from others, “Hanging is too good for him.” They sang out, “Three minutes left,” and “Two minutes left.” When the two minutes was sung out, Mr. Stateler rose and said, “I will not stay here any longer-I will not be responsible for the consequences.”

Burgess asked the other judges if they thought the crowd would really do something. Watts said they would not but Stateler apparently thought otherwise. Watts suggested again that they all resign, but Burgess still would not  yield. Resigning would imply some kind of endorsement. But clearly they could not go on as they had. He told Watts to go to the window and tell the crowd they would retire and leave things to them, letting them have their way but denying them official imprimatur.

Burgess didn’t catch what Watts actually told the crowd, but they cheered and he saw the mob setting up a new election panel as he left. Unlike some other mobs, this one let a free state judge go unmolested. Burgess didn’t give them a chance to change their minds, but rather left directly.

The border ruffians had their election, stolen from Kansans fair and square, but they had not heard the last of Henry Burgess.

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