We first met David Rice Atchison as Missouri’s senator. Unlike that state’s other long-serving man in he Senate, Thomas Hart Benton, Atchison took a firm proslavery position. This eventually alienated him from Benton, who preferred studied silence on slavery, and the two men went from cooperation to bitter enmity that culminated in Atchison and his supporters in the Missouri legislature joining forces with the Whigs to oust Benton from his seat. Benton had served Missouri in the Senate for as long as Missouri had a seat in that body and promptly came back to Washington to occupy a seat in the House.
Atchison celebrated his triumph by abandoning his customary opposition to organizing the territory west of his plantation home on the Missouri frontier. When Stephen Douglas got together an eleventh-hour attempt to organize that land in the spring of 1853, going so far as to ask the Senate to vote then and there and debate later so he could get the bill passed before its session expired. The session ran out all the same, but Atchison had changed his stripes. He cited inevitability and the impossibility of repealing the Missouri Compromise, but also that he may have had a few too many drinks.
Then Atchison went home and got an earful. They supported a proslavery man and they expected him to stay that way. Under no circumstances could Atchison remain proslavery if he would accept a den of slave-stealing abolitionists next door to their plantation homes. Bourbon Dave got right with slavery and went back to Washington demanding concessions from Douglas, which eventually culminated in a Kansas-Nebraska Act that struck down the Missouri Compromise Atchison considered a permanent fixture of American law just a year before.
Atchison’s exertions in Washington, and then back on the Missouri frontier resulted in the loss of his Senate seat, tying his future tightly to that of slavery in Kansas. If he could show that he’d won Missouri’s slavery the security its practitioners craved, then they might take him back in a few years. They had, ever all, elected a man with similar proslavery credentials to fill his spot. So Atchison found himself at the head of an army of 1,100 men in March of 1855. They swept through the Fourteenth District (parts 1, 2, 3, 4), where they set aside the local proslavery ticket for one of their own and Atchison loudly proclaimed that his men would vote or
kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district
They voted and moved on, coming to the Eighteenth District. It seems there that Atchison saw no cause to repeat his murderous threats. He did, however, misplace his army. I don’t know quite how, as armies and car keys don’t have much in common, but stranger things have happened. A week before the election, he appeared on the doorstep of Arnet Groomes:
General David R. Atchison stopped with me to stay over night. A partner of Mr. Johnson, of Platte City, a General Dorris, introduced me to General Atchison. One of them asked to stay, and I refused; he said he had a company of men and had lost them, and wanted to stay all night. I said I was not fixed to do so. He said he would let his horses stay in the lot without anything to eat, and he would lay down on his blanket. I then said he could get down, and I would let him have what little I could.
How the mighty had fallen. A year ago, David Rice Atchison and his friends had control over the Senate. Now he had to beg to sleep on the ground in the middle of nowhere.
Groomes relented and let them into his house. Atchison and his companion quizzed him: had he seen their missing army? No, but he had passed through St. Joseph and seen them start into Kansas. They told him that they had asked around and nobody seemed to know where their wagons had gone.
Then Atchison did something that might have been innocent, but comes off decidedly creepy:
General Atchison took me with a candle to look in his blankets for a Bowie knife he said he had lost, and while he was looking for that I saw the handles of two or three Bowie knives and some revolvers. They were not on his person, but in his blankets, and he said he had lost one of his Bowie knives. I turned away when I saw that, as I was surprised to see a man with more than one knife or pistol.
I don’t know if Atchison genuinely lost a knife and wanted help finding it or not, but a stranger taking his host out in the dark and showing him a little arsenal like that has a strong hint of menace. Without using the words, Atchison let Groomes know that he could handle himself and came ready for trouble if Groomes offered it. This to a man who just opened his house to strangers.