The Fuss and William Phillips, Part Six

William Phillips

William Phillips

Parts 123, 4, 5

The Leavenworth proslavery men took William Phillips over to Weston, Missouri. There they tarred and feathered him, shaved half his head, rode him around on a rail, and then staged a mock auction where a black man sold him for a quarter of a cent. He earned their immediate opprobrium back at the end of April for an imagined role in the shooting of Malcolm Clark by Cole McRea, though that concern clearly fell by the wayside quickly. The more serious threat, in the eyes of Leavenworth’s proslavery party, came from simply having in their midst a man they fancied an abolitionist. Already he had caused Andrew Reeder to set aside the election that Missourians stole for the proslavery party fair and square. What would he do next?

But John McNamara’s In Perils by Mine Own Countrymen suggests a further complication. He reports that The Platte Argus, the paper of David Rice Atchison and the Platte County Self-Defense Association, expressed considerable displeasure that after their men stole the election

they found a Yankee Lawyer bold enough to run up and spike their gun! The charge of the light brigade at Balaklava was child’s play compared to this! Everything was to be done over again.

Artillery crews had the responsibility to spike field pieces they couldn’t save to deny their use to the enemy. A cannon will fire for whoever loads and shoots it, and in the nineteenth century most artillery saw use as direct fire against the enemy. Consider that artillery batteries would form part of the line, or sit closely adjacent to it, and you can see the urgency of ensuring they could not quickly or easily convert cannons to their own use. This usually involved a literal spike shoved into the breech. I haven’t examined any spiked artillery myself, but I had a teacher who did and declared that a hundred and forty years after, the spike would still not budge.

The Missourians did, of course, did do it all over again in Leavenworth come the special election. They did not engage in their repeat performance happily and without protest, though:

“The Platte Argus” generated, and shot its lightning, and rolled its thunder weekly against the cowards of Leavenworth City. When its battery would be too highly charged with electricity to hold a week, it was obliged to let off in “extras” against the devoted of Leavenworth! “The Argus” “doubted whether there was a true friend of ‘the goose’ in Leavenworth.” “If there are any of the faithful there, why is the traitor Phillips permitted to live!” It continually harped against “the Leavenworth Herald.” “The ‘Herald’ must not call itself the advocate of ‘the goose’ while that traitor Phillips lived in the same town in which it was published.

The “goose” meant slavery, of course. Asking if one stood “all right” by it served as a password during election stealing, as did “all right on the hemp.” Nichole Etcheson explains the reference in Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era:

To Missourians, Kansas-Nebraska was a “gift,” a special treat like a “Christmas goose.” Missourians preserved that sense of delighted receipt of an unexpected present in the term they used for the Kansas issue, “the Goose Question.”

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The Herald, paper of the editors who signed on to the resolutions against Phillips, published apologies and insisted that it had no control over whether William Phillips lived in Kansas or not. The Argus wouldn’t accept such excuses:

Come, “Mr. Herald,” stir your stumps, the Diplomats of the Army of Occupation in Kansas, “The Weston Regency,” the “Self-Defensives” are after you with a long pole! Give an account of your stewardship.

I don’t have access to the Argus archives to check, but these sound more like genuine quotes or close paraphrases than the dialog that McNamara imagines elsewhere. He credits this with inspiring the Herald’s editors to stage Phillips’ lynching. It might have. In some districts, Kansas’ proslavery men agreed to set aside their own choices and vote for men that the Missourians nominated for public office. They may very well have feared for their own safety, since failure to deliver something might easily come to look like cooperation with the hated abolitionists.

But I think McNamara oversells this, and not just because his account invites some skepticism in general. The Missouri papers could not predict the murder of Malcolm Clark. That did not constitute all of the grievance against Phillips, or even the most important part, but it did prompt the proslavery Kansans to their first direct action against him. It reads to me more as an additional factor among the others. The Herald editors did not lynch Phillips and may not have driven the movement to do so at all. But if the lynching got the Argus and its mob across the river off their backs then so much the better for them. It paid off; McNamara reports that after Phillips received his tar and feathers the Argus endorsed the Herald as sound on the goose.

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