The Proslavery Election Boycott

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Howard Report told the House of Representatives that of the seven districts where Andrew Reeder, armed with evidence and formal complaints, set aside the elections of March 30, 1855 and ordered new ones, six districts conducted fair elections free from any border ruffian filibustering. Reeder’s action prompted strong objections on the proslavery side, which believed he had no power to cast out any election results. The integrity of those elections owed something to the scruples of Missourians, though not quite on the grounds that they’d subverted enough democracy for the season.

J.H. Day testified:

The candidates of the pro-slavery party considered that the governor had no right to set aside the election of the 30th of March, 1855, and order a new election; and they took but little interest, and left the people to do as they pleased about it. […] I never heard the legality and fairness of that election questioned by any one, unless in this way-that the governor had no right to order it.

William H. Adams agreed:

We did not consider that election as a legal election, as the candidates had before been elected.

As did Amos Rees:

The slave party took no interest in it, thinking that Reeder had no right to set aside the former election, and took but little interest in it; and I may and may not have voted myself.

Lucian J. Eastin had it from the proslavery candidates themselves:

I heard one of the pro-slavery candidates say, on the morning of the election, that he was not a candidate, and this was the expression of all three of the candidates-that they did not recognize the right of Governor Reeder to set aside that election, and, therefore, they considered the election was invalid.

They did have at least a narrow legal point to stand on here, but one must admit also the obvious self-interest involved. The proslavery men won their election, by whatever means, and so had no reason to consent to any attempt to run it over again. If they won, they stood only to gain what they already had. If they lost, then by participation they gave legitimacy to taking their victory away. Why snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? Day, Adams, Rees, and Eastin all testified to the view from the Leavenworth district, but the fact that the Howard Committee could find no one willing to testify that other districts saw any problems with the special election suggests strongly that the border ruffians in Missouri and proslavery Kansans alike, by and large, boycotted the election.

Their boycott did not greatly help the free state cause. Free-state men went from having zero seats in the legislature to picking up six of the contested districts. This still left the proslavery men with what Nichole Etcheson calls “an overwhelming majority.” The material available in the Howard Report doesn’t give me a clear enough picture of what the reconstituted legislature would have looked like with those six of seven contested districts going over to free soil men to offer an exact whip count. Some elected more than one member of the council or the house. Others overlapped with adjacent districts that did not have their returns set aside. The data surely exists and perhaps some historian has done the work down to the person. I started the project but soon realized that it would take more time than I presently have to give it.

The proslavery party did not exert themselves greatly because they saw Reeder’s special elections as illegal. Participation would also have legitimated any possible defeat. But it further seems clear that even if they lost all the special elections, the proslavery party would still have a commanding majority. If the free staters won a few seats instead of zero seats, how would it really matter in practical terms? In light of these concerns, I defer to Etcheson’s judgment and expertise.

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