The Fifteenth District, Part Three

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Fifteenth District, parts 1 and 2

Joseph Potter had one other peculiarity to share about happenings in the Fifteenth District. That peculiarity concerned not the spectacle of a member of the congressional committee tasked with investigating Kansas troubles including a contributor to the same troubles, but rather Potter himself.

Potter lived his life, at least up through 1856, in the Border South. He came to Kansas from Missouri honestly, back in October of 1854. He voted in the election for delegate back in November and supported the proslavery Missourians’ favorite, John Wilkins Whitfield. Nobody had to take him by the lapels and shake him. No one threatened him. Nobody stuck a gun in his face. Potter honestly preferred the proslavery candidate that day.

This already puts him in rare company among Howard Committee witnesses, so far as I’ve seen. Very few proslavery men seem to have come to testify. Most of those appear to have held elected office in Kansas at the time and so their absence would have probably have made them look quite guilty. They generally adopt the line that nothing untoward happened or blame the free state men for any trouble. Now and then one makes an attempt to justify discrepancies between the poll books and the census by appeal to recent immigration or accuse the February snows of preventing an accurate count.

Potter’s notoriety on that front, however, goes only so far:

I voted for General Whitfield at his first election, but on the 30th of March I fell over the fence and became a free-State man.

Did he really change his mind that day? Nobody stopped him from voting and so earned his spite. Nobody threatened him, but

I got over the fence that day because I thought we had men enough in Kansas to regulate our own affairs, and would have preferred to do so, and I fell over the fence in consequence of seeing so many there I thought were non-residents.

John Wilkins Whitfield

John Wilkins Whitfield

The Howard Report claims that Border Ruffian election stealing alienated previously unaligned Kansans, but here we have an example of it saying so in his own words. Potter must have seen much the same  back at the November election. The committee appears to have asked him about that, prompting a fascinating consideration of how Potter came to think differently before proverbial straw broke his back:

I was at the election at Pensenau’s on the 29th of November, 1854, and voted for General Whitfield. I saw some strangers there, but they did not throw me over the fence, as the sight of strangers on the 30th of March did, because I had not then begun to study into matters right. I do not know that the charge was made that I was a free-soiler before the 30th of March, though I must say I began to get pretty tolerably softened on that subject before then. I had begun to look into public affairs, and had about come to the conclusion that I would rather live in a free State than a slave State. I had come to that conclusion pretty much before I went to the election of the 30th of March, though I had not fallen over the fence then.

Potter lived previously in Kentucky and Missouri, both of which had consolidated slavery regimes. Kentucky had a notable debate over emancipation early in the 1850s, and the institution may have struggled to dominate Missouri, but in both states it formed a part of everyday life. It makes sense that Potter would just take it for granted and in such a place he might have had trouble finding antislavery arguments even if he had previous doubts. But removing to a place where the white populace had not clearly decided on slavery, where he did have access to antislavery opinion, and where he could literally see slaveholders and their supporters come over the border and overrule his right to self-government apparently generated a political awakening in him.

Frustratingly, Potter doesn’t go into detail about his change. It seems clear that he did not think slavery itself immoral, though he may have. He doesn’t treat us to any consideration of the fate of the slave. To the degree he speaks of motivation at all, it relates to Missourians coming in and dictating to him who should staff his government and what policy it should have. This immediately invites connection to Southern localism with its attendant suspicion of outsiders and distaste for their meddling in domestic affairs, but it would not do to take the Southern association too far. Northern fears of the slave power conspiracy appealed to something very similar, though they often cast the outsiders in more economic and political terms as slaveholding despots rather than by geographic association. Furthermore, though the antislavery movement never reached the heights to which the proslavery movement did in asserting local supremacy over national law, they did occasionally talk about nullifying things like the Fugitive Slave Act. Wisconsin’s high court went beyond talk, ruling it unconstitutional and thus unenforceable in the state. The Taney Court, of course, disagreed.

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