The Fuss and William Phillips, Part One

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Update: I have since discovered that the antislavery lawyer William Phillips lynched in Leavenworth was not the William Addison Phillips who wrote for the New York Tribune. Please see here for the details.

Adam Fisher, though himself a free state man, sided with the lone proslavery judge and outvoted Matt France every time he challenged a vote in the special election held at Leavenworth on May 22, 1855 (parts 1, 2). He disliked the consequences of making trouble for the Missourians who came over to steal the election again. In Fisher’s own words:

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

France added that Fisher told him then to avoid making waves because

we should be mobbed unless we took all the votes offered.

They had reason to fear, since the Missourians came reasonably hot off the destruction of George Park’s printing press (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) on their own side of the border. But both men had a more immediate cause to worry about their safety, even if it only persuaded Fisher. As France related:

There was some excitement here at that time on political subjects. It was just after the mobbing of Phillips.

France used the same verb to describe Fisher’s warning to him and this other incident, which happened right in Leavenworth on May 17, all of five days before the May 22 special election. I don’t think we have to reach far to imagine that France understood Fisher as telling him the mob would give him the Phillips treatment. His story bears examination. Nichole Etcheson summarizes it and cites In perils by mine own countrymen: Three years on the Kansas border, by a clergyman of the Episcopal Church, pages 50-54. The Howard Report further includes testimony on the affair and its own summary. Both sources offer interesting insights on the matter.

But one should begin with the basics. William Addison Phillips, born in Scotland in 1824, worked as a newspaper correspondent and lawyer in Kansas. George F. Warren testified that Phillips

had written a protest to the governor signed by himself and a number of others.

What kind of protest? The kind that Andrew Reeder used as cause to set aside the stolen election of March 30, 1855 and order up a new one. The proslavery men, remember, did not think that Reeder had any such power to begin with. By doing such a thing, Phillips painted a huge target on his back.

That said, the Howard Committee received testimony from several participants in the events that sprang to Adam Fisher’s and Matthew France’s minds when they thought about challenging Missourian border ruffians on their illegal voting. D.J. Johnson insisted that

politics had nothing to do with it


a meeting of the citizens was called, at which I myself made a speech, and declared that if politics had anything to do with Mr. Phillips’ case, I would have nothing to do with it.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

He concluded by telling the committee

The only politics ever connected with the affair was afterwards by the newspapers.

I would ordinarily deal with alternate explanations after recounting the general events, but in this case laying out the proslavery story casts some light on an issue of interpretation I’ve had with Kansas affairs in general. The account I got from David Potter’s The Impending Crisis paints many events in Kansas as essentially normal squabbles over land that had little to do with politics per se, but which politics amplified. I still think that interpretation has some truth to it, but the more I read other historians and primary sources the more convinced I become that Potter had the main thrust of events wrong. Maybe he had a strong bias against antislavery men that influenced his opinion, just as most people now have a bias the other way. Certainly one doesn’t get far into Potter’s treatment of antislavery politics without detecting a general exasperation with the antislavery sources.

I see considerable room for nuance here, though. The testimony of some men who started proslavery but later joined the free state movement makes it clear that their conversion came on political grounds but that those grounds related only loosely to slavery. They objected more to outsiders dictating how they should run their territory than to the particulars itself. The free state movement that develops in Kansas included these men along with others for whom slavery itself meant much more and local self-government served more as a vehicle through which to resist its imposition. Both groups had a political grievance, but not quite the same political grievance despite the obvious overlap. We should remember that umbrellas like antislavery and proslavery keep dry many different heads.

With regard to Phillips, at present I think the sources indicate that the mob understood him both as an antislavery man and a villain in another matter. From Fisher and France we have clear testimony that Phillips’ politics made him obnoxious to the proslavery men. Further evidence, which I’ll come to in future posts, underlines the great importance of his sin against slavery to his eventual lynching. (Details will also follow on this; today’s post has grown much longer than anticipated.) The denials by the guilty parties do not persuade me, but do convince me that they thought he had done additional wrong on top of contesting the election.

Your input is welcome

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.