That One District of Seven, Part Two

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Sixteenth District, Leavenworth, reported the only proslavery votes in the May 22, 1855 special elections. There, unlike the seven other districts, Missourians flooded in to secure the election once more. They even came by riverboat, possibly with some free state men who decided to join in the election-stealing fun. But stealing an election took more than just showing up, however much intimidation an armed mob can provide. Some of them had to go ahead and vote. This brought them up against Andrew Reeder’s judges of the election, with two of three confirmed free staters.

If things went as they did back in March, one would expect dire threats. Intransigent judges might prompt the proslavery men to attack the polling place, perhaps literally. The Leavenworth judges, Adam Fisher, Matthew France, and J.M Lyle, proved insufficiently resolute to draw retaliation. France told the Howard Committee:

The question was talked of between the judges. The decision was, as made by Lyle and Fisher, that we could do nothing else but take all the votes that were offered. No man was challenged that day, and whoever wanted to vote, voted.

and

Nothing was said about the residence of voters when they came up, at all. The election passed off quietly.

Why did they yield? France did not, testifying that he challenged voters regularly. Lyle and Fisher overruled him. Fisher, who France called a free-state man like himself,

gave, as a reason, that we should be mobbed unless we took all the votes offered.

In his own testimony, Fisher claimed an understanding of who could vote legally more in line with frontier practice and the proslavery party’s preferences. Any man with an interest in the territory could vote, whether resident or not. But regardless of that

I did not feel frightened myself, but if we had excluded the Missourians from voting I do believe there would have been a fuss.

This brought matters to the returns of the election, which the committee had before them. The paper bore France’s signature. As he signed that paper under oath, what did he have to say for himself? Back then he swore that he had a return of legal voters. Had a year of increasing strife in Kansas turned him into a radical free stater, ready to lie for the cause? Not quite:

I was under the impression that the words were scratched off when I signed it. I had scratched it off of one blank certificate, and handed it over to the other judges to be filled up, and they or the clerk filled up a certificate and handed it to me to sign, and I did so without further examination, and did not notice that it was not the same one from which I had erased the words, “by lawful resident voters,” until two months afterwards.

The other judges tricked him. A defect like having that line scratched out prompted Reeder to order new elections back in April. It might have done so again. When the committee had Fisher on hand to question, they delved into the matter with him. He declared that he signed the certificate of election without reservation but

I don’t know whether the words “by lawful resident voters” were in the certificate or not. I don’t remember whether they were in or not. […] The certificate of election appended to the poll-books in the possession of the committee seems to be like the one I signed. I do not know whether I objected to or consented to an alteration of the certificate-I did not care to have it altered myself or not.

Fisher seasoned his testimony liberally with proclamations that he didn’t know or couldn’t say with certainty one way or the other. It quickly reaches past what one might reasonably attribute to faulty memory into studied evasion. One has the impression that Fisher knew very well at the time, but took pains to ensure he could claim ignorance later. His reference to the Missourians raising a fuss may sound like something one’s grandmother might say about who got the last piece of cake, but a fuss in Kansas could mean violence. As peace and good order had not prevailed in Kansas during the year between the special election and his testimony, one can’t judge him too harshly for persisting in his cultivated ignorance.

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