That One District of Seven, Part One

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Six of the districts where Andrew Reeder set aside the returns of March 30, 1855 and called for a new round of voting for the Kansas legislature proceeded well enough. Nobody came over from Missouri to terrorize the voters, attack the polling place, or show off their collections of knives, guns, and cannons. One could almost think we’d left Kansas behind. But that leaves one district of the seven, at Leavenworth.

To hear some of the witnesses tell the story, nothing untoward happened there either. Amos Rees, as mentioned yesterday, insisted that “[t]he slave party took no interest in it”. Maybe Rees had the right of it with respect to Leavenworth’s local proslavery party. He could also have meant only to describe the behavior of the men who would otherwise have contested the election, not voters or proslavery men at large.

Matt France, one of the judges of the election for Leavenworth, saw something else:

There were a great many persons that voted that day, that I believe were non-residents of the Territory. I was well acquainted with the men of this district, and I had not seen those persons since, and had not seen them before. There was a boat came in that day, the name of which was “Kate Kassel.” There were some men came to the polls soon after and voted. Some voted one ticket, and some another. There were different colored tickets used that day by the different parties, so that we could distinguish them. The other strangers voted the pro-slavery ticket, which I think was of a green or bluish tint. The free-State ticket was white.

Reading this carefully, it seems that the boat delivered a mix of voters. The other strangers must refer to Missourians, the men France didn’t recognize. That would fit with a consistent proslavery vote on their part. The Kate Kassel appears to have run a normal route rather than a special charter as had happened back in March and so one would expect a diversity of voters upon it. By calling them strangers, though, France implies also that he didn’t know them. Had some free-state men gotten in on the vote fraud?

William Adams, who counts himself among the proslavery party in his testimony, appears to have thought something like that happened. He also testified that Missourians had come, whether Amos Rees saw them or not. On the Kate Kassel himself, he

saw one of the free-State candidates on the boat. I couldn’t tell what he was doing. He was on the lower deck among the hands. After that, some twenty or thirty of the deck hands came up and voted the free-State ticket. From my knowledge of the Missourians, who voted here that day, I think it was about a fair stand off.

At this point, why wouldn’t free-state men get in on the vote stealing? They knew very well that Andrew Reeder had not tossed out all the fraudulent election returns, and couldn’t bet on a second round of special elections if the Missourians struck again, so they might yield some of the moral high ground but in so doing come off with another seat or two that better represented the will of actual Kansans.

Such deeds fall short of the heroism we hope for in historical figures that have our sympathy, but the past doesn’t neatly divide into the perfectly virtuous and perfectly villainous. Election fraud, if on a far smaller scale than the Missourian’s operation in Kansas, had a long and distinguished history on the American frontier. The deeds themselves may have stunned New Englanders accustomed to more orderly exercises of the franchise, but out in the west a rougher standard more accepting of drinking, brawling, and very flexible standards of residence prevailed.

One should not take this too far, of course. Atchison went over with a band, pledged to bloody murder if necessary, but told correspondents that he refused to vote himself. Purge Kansas of antislavery men in fire and blood? Sign Bourbon Dave up. Voting? That just asked too much. One should, of course weigh this against the fact that if he had then his famous name would appear in a poll book. On a broader front than the concerns of one senator, even westerners saw what the Missourians did in Kansas as excessive.

Nichole Etcheson recounts western objections on page 60 of Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era:

A Kentuckian wrote, “How any virtuous and patriotic man can justify the lawless and armed mob of Missourians who went to Kansas to control the elections, is marvellous to me.” Another Southerner wondered “how the Missourians can expect to be sustained by any persons who have the slightest pretentions to fairness, or even to civilization.” Missouri state legislator George R. Smith publicly declared, “Important as I consider it to my own interest in slaves that Kansas should be a slave state, I would not violate the laws of my country to make it so, nor would I advise others to do so.

The Howard Committee’s summary includes reference to the Kate Kassel’s arrival and men from there voting, but doesn’t call out any of them as free-staters voting illegally. Whether they cheated or not, it hardly changed the result. William Adams might have thought the parties about even, but Leavenworth produced 560 proslavery votes to 140 for the free-state ticket. The Missourians could cheat bigger and better, even if this time around they restricted it to the one district.

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