The Fuss and William Phillips, Part Seven

William Phillips

William Phillips

Parts 123, 4, 5, 6

On the seventeenth of May, 1855, William Phillips finally got his lynching after weeks of waiting. It involved real tar and real feathers, despite his earlier suggestion that they use molasses. He probably could have waited longer, decades even, but the mob would not. Phillips had not left Leavenworth as ordered, after all. Furthermore, they had an election coming up on the twenty-first. They had Phillips to blame for that so they might as well use him to set an example for others.

Matthew France and Adam Fisher both had Phillips example in mind when they went to serve as judges of the special election. Avoiding it would have required fairly heroic measures considering only a few days had gone by. Both reference it in their testimony. If they did not go along with J.M. Lyle, their fellow judge and a member of the lynch mob, things could go very badly for them. France would take the risk, but Fisher demurred.

But one could draw a different lesson from the proslavery terrorism. It took weeks for the mob to work up to seizing Phillips and working their will. He twice before faced simple notice that he should leave, and once got out of trouble thanks to a shortage of tar and feathers and a promise that he would go eventually. When the mob did strike, they had to carry him over to Missouri to do their work and a marshal in Leavenworth tried to get together a rescue party to come save him.

McNamara reports that after his lynching

Phillips returned to Leavenworth, but the editorial corps dare not go back for some days, the indignation at Leavenworth was so great against them.

The Mayor of the city of Weston called a meeting to consider the steps, if any were to be taken, with reference to the disgraceful proceeding. The Mayor declared that he would resign, if such riotous conduct was approved by the citizens generally. A large meeting was held, and a most exciting debate took place, but the proceedings were finally disapproved of by the majority of the people.

Even in the town where the lynching finally happened, plenty of discontent apparently existed. The same area had refused to chase out Frederick Starr not that long ago. One could favor slavery, even strongly favor it, and not approve of lynching whites. Phillips himself had lived under threat for weeks without threat turning to reality. France doesn’t tell us that he took that risk by calculating from Phillips’ example, but he did have those facts before him.

Samuel Lecompte

Samuel Lecompte

The official reaction in Leavenworth leaned heavily toward approval. George F. Warren

saw Phillips the next morning. He had just finished getting tar off him and was running bullets. One side of his head was shaved. These men were never punished for this offence. They were at one time brought before Judge Lecompte and bound over to keep the peace. He said it was his duty to remove the clerk and prevent the lawyers from practicing at the bar, but he would not do it for that time. To my knowledge they were never indicted or tried. Most of them are still living in the Territory and holding office.

One can imagine Lecompte, chief justice of the territorial supreme court and speaker at one of the anti-Phillips meetings, wagging his finger at the the mob and telling them that next time he would have to pull the wagon over and come back there. They would then act properly chastised and take him out for drinks later on. A. Payne practically bragged about having impunity on the matter:

To my knowledge, no one has been arrested, tried, or examined for the mobbing of Phillips […] These acts were done by persons well known, and no effort was made to conceal the persons or the acts.

Secrecy  would have defeated their purpose. If one did not toe the proslavery line in Leavenworth, one now had named protagonists who would come and punish as they liked. No law would save you. Making a stand meant taking a serious risk, whatever McNamara told his readers about other people objecting to vigilante terrorism. Lynching would abuse, terrify, and possibly kill the victim but lynch mobs had the larger goal. Through the fear of violence they would control those would who not otherwise comply, in far greater numbers than they could ever lynch.

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.

The Fuss and William Phillips, Part Five

William Phillips

William Phillips

Parts 123, 4

We left William Phillips crossing the river into Missouri as a prisoner of the Leavenworth mob. Unfortunately, Howard Report testimony falls silent here. Nobody who took part in Phillips’ lynching or witnessed it personally cared to tell them about it. George F. Warren saw Phillips taken and volunteered for a posse to rescue him, but by the time all of three men got together, the mob had Phillips on the water and out of reach. Etcheson’s account in Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era refers to some New York Times articles I don’t have access to, so I can’t draw on them to fill in the details.

Etcheson also cites a book with a remarkably nineteenth century title In Perils by mine own Countrymen: Three Years on the Kansas Border, by a Clergyman of the Episcopal Church. One can’t fault John McNamara, who Etcheson outs in her endnote, for the anonymity. He published in 1856. I couldn’t find anything about him online, given his common name, but he may very well have still lived in Kansas at the time. That said, he cheekily included on the title page the following line from the Merchant of Venice:

What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?

McNamara answered his own question in part starting on page 50, where he takes up Phillips’ story. Before getting into this, I should add that reading McNamara requires some caution. He tells a significant part of this story through dialog. This makes for dramatic reading, but I have my doubts that he ever witnessed any such conversations. They scan as a narrative device, not straight reporting.

McNamara begins with the editors of the Herald, William Rives Pollard and William Adams. Each had put their signatures on the notice for Phillips to leave Leavenworth. The mob took Phillips to their office on discovering he had not actually quit Kansas:

“I tell you what we will do,” said each to the other, “let us betray Phillips to cross the Missouri; we shall have the tar and feathers all ready for him on the Missouri side. “We will strip him, over there, on the solitary river-bottom, clip his hair off, coat him with tar, and apply the feathers. we shall then ride him on a rail through the streets of Weston, while a drum shall be beaten, and the chivalry will cry out ‘victory'”

One struggles to read this without imagining the editors rubbing their hands together and also contemplating putting a woman on some train tracks. Whether Pollard and Adams took the lead in the plot or otherwise, it came to pass:

Phillips was enticed over the river. They did to him all that was desired. He was brought to Weston in that awful plight. They cut off the hair of his head, but his strength did not fail him-he was a Samson still. His body looked contemptible, but the soul of the man was there; they could not tar and feather that!

From Warren’s testimony, we know that Phillips received his enticement at gunpoint. Once they had their way with Phillips, shaving half his head, applying the tar and feathers and riding him around town on a rail, the mob had further plans:

Col. Lewis Burns now approached him, and tried to wheedle him to sign a paper declaring that he would leave the Territory of Kansas.

“No, sir,” said the hero, “I am in your power, you can put me into the Missouri, if you please, but I will not voluntarily leave the Territory!”

A negro was now brought forward, and commanded to sell Phillips at auction.

“How much, gentlemen, for a full-blooded abolitionist, dyed in de wool, tar and feathers, and all?”


A quarter-of-a-cent was bid, and Phillips was sold!

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

The auctioning may seem just strange to us, but think about what it said to the men involved. A black person was fit only for slavery, bought and sold at will, beaten and raped at whim. By having a black man auction Phillips off as a slave, even if only rhetorically, the mob told all who learned of it that they saw abolitionists as less than property. A black person might occupy so inferior a position in their minds as to deserve and even require enslavement, an almost infinite gulf between that person’s value and that of any white, but Phillips stood so low in their esteem as to open up a similar gap beneath him and a black man. A slave could do work for the owner’s profit, but Phillips would not serve even for that.

At most generous, this affair paints Phillips as a pest. They may not have killed him that day, but they might easily enough graduate from trying to shoo him away to swatting him dead. A committee in Leavenworth gathered after all this and unanimously passed resolutions submitted by A. Payne thanking the lynch mob and declaring

That we heartily endorse the action of the committee of citizens that shaved, tarred and feathers, rode on a rail, and had sold by a negro, William Phillips, the moral perjurer.

In their eyes, Phillips perjured himself by swearing an affidavit that Missouri men stole the Leavenworth election back in March. By this point, weeks later, dead Malcolm Clark no longer entered into things at all.

The Fuss and William Phillips, Part Four

William Phillips

William Phillips

Parts 12, and 3

William Phillips earned the wrath of his proslavery neighbors for working as a correspondent for the New York Tribune, convincing Andrew Reeder to set aside the fraudulent election returns from Leavenworth, serving in some way that no one would testify to under oath as some kind of accessory to the murder of Malcolm Clark by Cole McRea, or some combination of all three. A meeting of Leavenworth’s proslavery party, including many men of power and influence, gathered the night of Clark’s murder and resolved to order Phillips gone by the afternoon of Thursday, May 3, 1855.

Phillips left. When the mob came to see if he did as told, they found his brother but not Phillips himself. Their chosen victim had not, however, abjured Leavenworth like a properly chastised man. Instead he and George F. Warren just left town for most of the day, returning in the evening. If Phillips hoped to avoid a confrontation by just dodging the mob when it arrived at his doorstep, he underestimated their dislike of him and, one imagines, also his value to them as an object lesson in what they would do to antislavery men in their midst.

Warren remained with Phillips after they returned to Leavenworth and so witnessed the immediate response firsthand:

An hour or two after we arrived in town some one wanted to speak to Mr. Phillips in the Herald printing office.

Phillips must have known full well that the editors of the Herald put their signatures on the notice telling him to get out of Leavenworth and that this could go very badly. But according to A. Payne’s testimony, six or eight men took Phillips then. He probably had no real choice in the matter and so

[h]e went there, and I remained part of the time on the outside where I could see in and hear him them talk. They asked him to sign that paper to leave the Territory the next day at noon, at the same time holding a pistol at his head. He would not sign it. A man asked him then if he would fight. He reached his hand to him and told him yes. Some one spoke then and said the man who proposed to fight should not do so, and thus throw away his valuable life for that damned abolitionist. They then proposed to tear and feather Phillips. They could not find any tar and feathers. He told them that molasses would do just as well.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

A. Payne reports the same meeting in rather more general terms, as apparently he didn’t take part himself:

Various modes were suggested as to what means should be used to carry out the resolutions, none of which were adopted, and Mr. Phillips was released by partially promising that he would leave as soon as he could wind up his business; that is all I know of it.

The empty-handed mob did let Phillips go, but with that promise. After that he lived on in Leavenworth until May 17, 1855. Warren then tells us

Some days afterwards, while I and Phillips were helping to raise a building, there was a company of thirteen came there. They were J.M. McAlear, William Hughes, Boyle, Burnam, Pollard, Adams, Moore, heath, Lyle, Johnson, Posey, Mr. Blair, deputy marshal, and one other.

The same men, more or less, involved in the two previous meetings concerning first Phillips and then other presumed abolitionists in Leavenworth.

Hughes came close to Phillips and told him he must leave the Territory and go with him. McAlear put his hand on Phillips’ shoulder and told him he must go. All of them had revolvers. Phillips was unarmed, and only three or four of his friends were around, who were all unarmed except myself, and I had a revolver. There were but few persons in sight. Phillips made no reply to McAlear. Myself and Mr. Gould rushed towards him and was pushed back, and my pistol was taken from me by a friend of mine from Tennessee who wanted to fire, but I prevented him. They then took Phillips to the river, put him on a flat boat, and all got in and crossed the river. While they were crossing, a magistrate ordered a posse out with arms to rescue him. Only three of us appeared, and they were then crossing the river.

The Fuss and William Phillips, Part Three

William Phillips

William Phillips

Parts 1 and 2

A mob in Leavenworth decided that William Phillips, a lawyer, correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, and antislavery man, had to go. They made that decision during the night of April 30, 1855, apparently just after an altercation between Cole McRea and Malcolm Clark that ended in McRea shooting Clark. The mob imagined that Phillips had encouraged McRea to shoot, perhaps even giving him the gun. But witnesses to the event would not tell the Howard Committee that they saw any such thing. They “supposed” and believed “a general rumor”, according to A. Payne, who attended both the meeting where Clark and McRea had their dispute and the later meeting concerning what to do with Phillips.

This all sounds very sketchy, but given the mob gathered and made their resolutions to get Phillips out of Leavenworth that very night I don’t think one can deny that they considered themselves provoked by something Phillips had done then, whether they had facts or not. Per the mob’s resolutions, he had to make himself scarce by afternoon of the following Thursday, May 3. That same day, they would meet again to discuss what to do with the other “abolitionists” about. Phillips probably earned that title by writing Andrew Reeder to contest the March election results, if not before.

George F. Warren testified that the notice held the signatures of a virtual directory of Leavenworth’s proslavery luminaries:

William Hughes, now a clerk in the land office of Mr. Calhoun, surveyor-general; H. Rives Pollard, associate editor of the Kansas Herald at Leavenworth; William Adams, publisher of the same paper; D. Scott Boyle, then and now a clerk of the territorial court under Judge Lecompte; Eli Moore, deputy city marshal of Leavenworth: J.M. Lyle, chief clerk of the Shawnee legislature; D.J. Johnson, lawyer; Bennett Burnam, city surveyor; J.M. Alexander, a lawyer from Pennsylvania; J.C. Posey, a surveyor. I do not remember the names of any more.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The copy of the resolutions in the Howard Report has more names, but does not undertake to identify them. Lyle served as a judge of the special election on May 22. A. Payne, one of the committee’s witnesses, also signed it and at the time considered himself a member-elect of the territorial legislature in right of his election during the frauds of March. Whether one can pin down each name from the report or not, it’s clear that a substantial amount of influence backed the notice. These men had it in their power to make life difficult for him, lynching or no.

Per Warren, he and Phillips left on the third. Payne testifies that after the meeting where they decided how to deal with abolitionists in their midst that day, they

went to Mr. Phillips’ house again, and was told by his brother that he was not there. The committee retired, being satisfied that such was the fact.

That doesn’t make for much of a lynching. Phillips just left town and the mob considered their work done. Warren further testified, however, that in the evening he and Phillips came back to Leavenworth. He gives no reason other than the mob for their departing, so one imagines they hoped that by simply ducking the confrontation, Phillips would defuse things and thenceforward continue with his life. He can’t have expected to go unnoticed on his return, given his late notoriety and Leavenworth’s small population.

Payne, among others, spotted him:

I next saw Mr. Phillips the evening of the adjourned meeting, about dusk, in the city, near the Herald office. Some person, I don’t know who, remarked, in my hearing, that Phillips had deceived us, that he was now in town.

The Fuss and William Phillips, Part Two

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Part One

I hope yesterday’s post did not collapse into too much narrative spaghetti while I mused about interpretation without relating the events in question. Doing the latter seems exactly one day overdue.

The first legislative elections in Kansas took place on March 30, 1855. Petitions to contest those election returns had to hit Andrew Reeder’s desk by midnight on April 4, 1855. William Phillips, the Leavenworth lawyer and newspaper correspondent, got together the signatures he needed and sent off his affidavit in time. This did not much endear him to the local proslavery men or their Missourian neighbors. Adam Fisher and Matthew France both clearly understood his subsequent treatment, and the risk they might take in objecting to further Missourian election stealing, as relating to that.

The men who seized Phillips told it differently. A. Payne reported that a public meeting got things going on April 30, quite a while after Phillips sent off his protest. Even if we allowed for a very slow spread of the news, one can hardly imagine that Leavenworth just heard of Andrew Reeder’s April 6 decision to set aside their district’s election and consequently settled on plotting revenge. Payne presided over the meeting and received appointment to a committee it formed to enact its resolutions. The Howard Report includes those resolutions with his testimony:

Whereas, by facts elicited on the coroner’s inquest held over the body of Malcolm Clark, as well as from other circumstances that have come to our knowledge, it appears that William Phillips, of Leavenworth, was an accessory to the murder of one of our most respected citizens; and whereas, the conduct of said Phillips, heretofore, has fully demonstrated his unworthiness as a citizen or gentleman; therefore,

Resolved, That, in accordance with the expressed desire of the indignation meeting to-night, William Phillips be ordered to leave this Territory by two o’clock, Thursday evening next; and that a committee of ten be appointed to notify him instanter of the requisition of this meeting.

Resolved, That the notice be written and signed by the committee, who shall proceed, immediately after the adjournment, to the residence of William Phillips, and deliver it to him in person.

Resolved, That the course to be pursued in regard to the other abolitionists and to the other matters of importance, be left for the decision of the meeting of the citizens, to be held next Thursday.

The Howard Report has the notice delivered to Phillips as well, but it lists no causes for his exile. The notice bore the signature of a James M. Lyle, who also formed part of the committee that handed it over to Phillips. At the end of May he would serve as the proslavery judge of election when Leavenworth went back to the polls. Also in interesting and compromising facts about one’s impartiality, A. Payne won a seat in the Kansas legislature back on March 30.

The third resolution quoted speaks volumes, thoroughly refuting the notion put forward by D.J. Johnson that politics had nothing to do with Phillips’ treatment. That the resolutions appear over Johnson’s signature further makes it clear that he understood acting against Phillips as fundamentally linked to action against antislavery men. That said, we can’t ignore the accusation that he had something to do with the death of the aforementioned respected citizen. What happened there?

Payne would say only that people “supposed” Phillips an accessory to the murder of a Malcolm Clark by Cole McRea. One would expect more confidence from a man who later testified to his presence on the scene, also on April 30.

I was at the squatter’s meeting held on the 30th of April, at which Clark was shot. While some one was speaking at that meeting, McCrea interrupted the speaker frequently. I remarked to Mr. Clark, who was standing near me, that McCrea was not a Delaware squatter, that he lived on the “government cut-off,” as it was called, and that I thought only those interested in the Delaware lands should participate in the meeting. Clark remarked that, if McCrea was not a Delaware squatter, he would request him to retire and not to interrupt the meeting any more.

Had they convened to discuss their depriving of the Delaware of their lands, and McCrea had no interest in that land, they had a point. Had the Delaware already lost those lands, then the security of claims on them also seems not much of McCrea’s business. Perhaps some dispute over where the boundary ran existed. Perhaps McCrea’s claim adjoined the lands or he expected them to favor developments which he felt would reduce the value of or undermine its value. The testimony doesn’t say, but this sounds very much like an argument over land rights.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

McCrea agreed to go if the meeting wished him gone. They held a voice vote, but the chair could not decide on a clear majority. He thus called for a division to settle things. It came down against McCrea.

McCrea remarked that it was a damned fraud, and that it was through the instrumentality of Malcolm Clark. Clark remarked, “it is not so, sir.” McCrea told him it was a God damned lie. Clark made towards him, and I saw McCrea attempting to draw his pistol. Clark seemed to be picking up something, but I cannot say what. At this time, Clark must have seen McCrea in the act of drawing his pistol, being nearer to him than I was. Just at this time the crowd rushed in between myself and the pistol, and Clark exclaimed, “the scoundrel has shot me,” and saw McCrea running with a pistol in hand. Clark died in a few moments.

I think that I would have other words for someone who shot me than scoundrel. I suspect Clark may have as well, but people had different scruples about what they put in print or testified to in court back then. Furthermore, ‘scoundrel’ carried far more punch as an insult at the time. While I don’t propose to excuse McCrea, I think it worth remembering that Clark apparently charged him intending violence before McCrea brought a gun into things. Had events transpired differently, the Howard Report might very well have a section titled “The Murder of Cole McRea” rather than “The Lynching of William Phillips.”

What did any of this have to do with Phillips?

The general rumor prevailed, and I believe it, that Phillips had advised the killing of Clark; and the rumor prevailed, also, that he had been seen to hand McCrea something which was supposed to be a pistol.

Payne believed this, but note he doesn’t make any claim to have seen or heard any such thing. Nor did any other witness to the meeting come forward to declare that they saw Phillips in flagrante delicto. I can’t speak to the origin of this rumor, but given how quickly McCrea vanishes from the narrative one imagines he got out of town and did not come back. That left a dead body and demand for a scapegoat.

As Phillips made himself obnoxious to the the proslavery men of Leavenworth with his petition for a special election, and he apparently attended the meeting, who better to blame? Most of them likely already imagined secret abolitionist militias intending violence, and would see little unusual in using violence to protect slavery from white dissent. It would take only a small step to see this as the beginning of something larger and act accordingly. The resolutions speak to how they understood themselves as acting against Phillips in conjunction with their opposition to a free Kansas.

Phillips’ work as a correspondent may have entered into it as well. I haven’t found what papers he wrote to or any of his work to say for sure. Back at the March election a mob seized at least one man on the belief that he would report their deeds to the papers. One can’t deny that the mob convened their meeting the same night as the murder and so their perception of Phillips as an accessory absolutely informed their subsequent actions, but clearly they had more in mind than Malcolm Clark and Cole McRea.

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.

What is history for?

John Brown

John Brown

When I had fewer years but more hair and acne, I read James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. Through a collection of essays on the most popular survey texts of American History, Loewen tore apart the conventional way that one learns history in high schools. He turned over rocks that the texts would have you believe didn’t even exist, given their complete silence on the subject. He shed light on the deep rifts in American culture and the profound struggles over how the nation ought to behave, scraping back layers of whitewashing so thick that even a teenager already interested in history had entirely missed them. Given how thoroughly even our most dire struggles get sanitized, this proved quite the revelation.

Loewen argued, so far as I can recall now, that the erasure of genuine conflict and its reduction to something more like a squabble over what to have for lunch created essentially feel-good pablum, mostly for white boys, and nothing at all for anybody else. The resulting product bored almost everybody and came off as a collection of trivia. One teacher I had in high school even called the material as much. That trivia collection suited me just fine, as I’ve long liked trivia, but it does raise the question of why anybody would bother. It has since lost its appeal to me in favor of what I consider a deeper inquiry.

It seems children in Denver don’t care for the trivia collection pablum version of history. They have one up on yours truly at that age. There’s much more, and far more useful things, to take from a history class. Their school board disagreed, insisting that their program should include mostly lies their teachers tell them, presenting

positive aspects of the nation and its heritage. It would establish a committee to regularly review texts and course plans, starting with Advanced Placement history, to make sure materials “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights” and don’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

In the class I’m taking, Eric Foner described this kind of thing as the hobbit’s view of history. A classmate kindly transcribed his words:

In one of my favorite books of history of a kind, The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien, he writes about the hobbits quote “hobbits like to have books filled with things that they already knew set out fair and square with no contradictions.” Of course this is a joke. The hobbits didn’t actually know anything. They knew virtually nothing about the world around them but they were satisfied because they had a familiar view of their own history. People like familiar stories. That’s why the term revisionist historian is a term of abuse out there in the public.

Didn’t Governor Christie the other day accused his critics of being revisionist historians? But to us that’s what we do. That is our job as historians to be revisionist. That is to say, to rethink the past, to think about new perspectives, to add new approaches. That’s what historians are supposed to do. But the point is familiarity is not the measure of the truthfulness of historical accounts.

I understand that the Denver affair seems to have wound down, with the board backing off at least until the journalists look away, but the demand for a hobbit’s history recurs throughout the country. Children should believe, to paraphrase David Blight (who does not support this approach at all, I should add) that America, born perfect, then became more perfect still in a steady, unending march of freedom.

But what if the ultimate test of citizenship for much of the nation’s history hinged on the color of your skin?

What if patriotism has generally meant eagerness to go to war, a zeal to suppress dissent at home and support of filibustering and other piracy abroad?

What if the free market involved company towns that paid company scrip, not real money, which you could only use to shop at the company store? What if the free market involved workers locked in a factory as it burned around them and burned them to death? What if the free market produced bosses who hired the mafia to bust up strikes?

What if authority demanded that the law give some people as property to other people, to sell, beat, rape, work to death, or otherwise use like farm animals? What if that authority got its legitimacy from stolen elections, by force, by elections in which few concerned parties could actually vote?

What if the law required you to help arrest and take back to slavery a person who stole himself or herself away? What if it demanded you speak no word against slavery? What if it treated mere public disagreement with the administration as treason?

Does the end of civil order justify the preservation, even the extension, of those and innumerable other injustices? Many people in the past thought so. Apparently some still do.

If I stood before the Denver school board, perhaps I would need to tell them that I did not invent these hypotheticals myself.

The board’s program speaks volumes. It offers not a word in favor of accuracy, nor complexity, nor nuance. Students would not hear about the costs of the free-market system, only its benefits. They would not hear about abuses of authority. They would hear nothing about the denial of individual rights to, for example, four million slaves, to women, to immigrants, to other racial minorities, to socialists and communists, to union organizers, or any of the other people who haven’t counted according to someone in the past. They would hear that civil order is civic virtue, regardless of its nature, that one should presume every law righteous, and that one should view anybody engaged in protest as suspect and alien, fundamentally illegitimate int heir methods and goals as they tend to disorder and strife.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The most hated man in America in the 1950s and 1960s had some words about this:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councileror the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”


I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

On its most basic level, the board’s program and those of like-minded individuals across the country aspire to cultivate that negative peace. People should know their place. Facts that reflect poorly on the nation, that undermine patriotism, that require children to consider complicated and diverse points of view, should be denied to them. This way they will not grow up into adults who continue in the habit of asking uncomfortable and inconvenient questions.

History as pablum does worse than not teaching it does. Rather than offering students simple ignorance, it promotes the false impression that one knows what one does not. To teach a good parts only version of history amounts to denying the bad parts exist and so encourages blind repetition of them. If we have always exhibited perfect righteousness in the past, why should we think we’ve suddenly done wrong now? For that matter, if we have such perfect righteousness all down our history then why should we think anything that we, as a nation, have done should cease?

This does mean that history will make people uncomfortable. A fuller telling will raise inconvenient questions. It will not flatter anybody’s ideological preconceptions. Most people of the antislavery movement, people who probably everybody today admires and counts as ideological ancestors, had truly awful attitudes toward black Americans. David Wilmot made it very clear that he didn’t care in the slightest about the welfare of slaves:

I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, no morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause and rights of white freemen. I would preserve to free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor.

Others considered white racism so insuperable, or black neighbors so undesirable, that they saw no chance of black and white Americans living in peace together. Thus they supported the removal of black Americans back to Africa, no matter how many generations had gone by between their ancestors’ kidnapping and the day of exile. Even antislavery Americans engaged in what we might consider a heroic, direct, sometimes violent struggle against slavery at risk to their own lives don’t come down to us as perfected saints.

John Brown made history before Harper’s Ferry not by attacking a proslavery paramilitary band, but by hauling proslavery civilians out of their house at night and murdering them for their presumed past and future votes against the policy he preferred. He did not with that start the guerrilla war over Kansas, but he pushed it into a new and more violent phase. The same John Brown rescued nearly a dozen slaves and took them safely off to Kansas, a claim desperately few white abolitionists could make.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Does John Brown count on the side of positive aspects of American history or the negative? What about David Wilmot? What about Abraham Lincoln, who even during the war tried to get a black American colony going on an island off Haiti? I don’t mean to put all these men on the same level as Jefferson Davis, Robert Lee, or Nathan Bedford Forrest, but I have no doubt that someone could scour up ways that each of the latter led exemplary lives. In Lee’s case, entire books already exist on the subject. Anybody, with sufficient editing, becomes a demon or a saint.

Doing history well and developing a robust understanding of the past, and thus how it has shaped our present, doesn’t come easy. It requires us to confront imperfections in our heroes, blind spots in our ideologies, and the often savage limits of the promises America allegedly made to everyone. Does that make for better citizens? I hope so, but I think it worth doing either way. Life often requires grappling with complex issues long after the classroom passes into memory. Where better to hone those skills than in the study of actual complex issues faced by actual people, often in ways that reverberate down the years to us? You can’t understand the present without some appreciation of how we got here. That requires grappling with complexities, among people we want to make heroes and villains alike, that the Denver board and their like-minded confederates elsewhere seek to prohibit.

Those complexities will lead us all down uncomfortable roads. We may not come out better for it; people do study the past intensely and well and go on to happily repeat its worst horrors. But not making the effort only increases our odds of doing so. If history does not strike the reader as a worthwhile pursuit in itself, then I offer the chance to reduce our odds of doing worse as ample justification for its study all the same.

The Fuss and the Industrial Luminary, Part Seven

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Magers’ paper.

The Platte County Self-Defense Association’s mob of two hundred sent George Park’s printing press to the bottom of the Missouri River, thus silencing the Parkville Industrial Luminary’s non-agitation on slavery and criticism of the proslavery border ruffians’ intervention in Kansas. As a nice bonus for David Rice Atchison, the destruction also revenged him on Park for publishing remarks that Bourbon Dave made in his cups. The incident sheds light on the fact that the filibusters feared for Missouri’s slavery in more than an abstract sense. As B.F. Stringfellow set down, they feared they may have already lost Missouri to slavery. Certainly their failure to evict Frederick Starr for his suspected abolitionism earlier on gave them reason to wonder. An enslaved Kansas would reverse their nightmare of an abolitionist safe haven, instead giving Kansas-based border hooligans a base to police proslavery orthodoxy on the Missouri frontier.

The story could end with the Industrial Luminary’s press rusting in the river. But Park’s reaction sheds more light on the complicated nature of slavery politics in the Missouri hinterland. He circulated a letter in response to the destruction of his press, pronouncing himself

filled with the deepest concern for the events that have transpired and the passions that bear sway-premeditated as they have been, by a large and powerful secret organization.

But at the same time:

I am happy to know that the people of Parkville and vicinity took no part in it

Men from Platte County did, but not from Parkville and environs. The mob surely didn’t let Park or any associates run a census of its members, but one imagines that small town residents in a frontier area knew one another well enough by sight to spot any familiar faces. That said, Park knew the limits of his town and his own conscience. He may favor a free soil Kansas on economic grounds, but

the charge of abolitionism is false; I have never harbored such a thought, nor meditated an action, detrimental to the honor, the interests, or institutions of Missouri; but have labored unceasingly to promote her prosperity. It is true I have not believed the honor and interests of Missouri to be in that course of policy marked out by some politicians-duty has compelled me to cross their path, which has brought on my devoted head the bitterest persecution.

That stand brought a mob of Atchisonians down on Park, but not his close neighbors. Would they permit no dissent at all? Park declared his love for both sections, his desire for a peaceful Union, and reminded readers of his service in the Texas Revolution. He dared the mob to come, insisting he would not leave his home. He’d rather be consigned to the waters with his press, but even his death would not destroy freedom of the press. But

If there is no security in the land of Washington-if an American home affords no protection-if the time has arrived when this union must be dissolved, and all its kindred ties and mighty interests broken and destroyed, and drenched with fraternal blood, then let me be buried beneath the turbid waters of the Missouri, rather than live to see such a scene. God save our country!

Park’s brave words did not stop him from leaving town in the end. Magers’ paper references a circular letter dated November 8, 1855. Therein the people of Parkville protested his eviction and said they needed him back. They could decide for themselves who did and did not belong among them, even if they disclaimed abolition and free soil in the doing. Park did return, and got $2,500 in damages out of the mob, but later found himself in Illinois and did not return to Missouri until after the war.

We can take from this that the people of Parkville tolerated George Park just fine and resented the Self-Defense Association’s meddling in their affairs. His free soil beliefs might make that tolerance less than pleasant on occasion, or they may have distanced themselves from it in the name of not bringing a mob down on their heads, but they felt confident enough to take a stand in his favor. In their forebearance, they lived up to the Self-Defensives’ nightmare: Missourians who would not tolerate proslavery vigilantes dictating to them the range of permissible opinion.

The Fuss and the Industrial Luminary, Part Six

The Alton mob attacking Lovejoy's warehouse.

The Alton mob attacking Elijah Lovejoy’s warehouse.

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Magers’ paper.

The fact that George Park criticized the actions of the Platte County Self-Defense Association and other border ruffian bands who crossed into Kansas to control its elections might have in itself earned him a visit from the mob and a printing press delivered with care to the bottom of the Missouri River. Furthermore, while Park’s surname and founding of the town put the Park in Parkville, he did have the poor fortune to hail originally from Vermont in an area where most men, per Magers, treasured Virginian, Kentuckian, and Tennessean heritage instead. That he had gone off to fight for Texas’ independence, where he escaped a firing squad, might not enter into it. Nor his long and successful residence in the town that bore his name. His decision to channel Thomas Hart Benton and curse abolitionists and nullifiers alike, in the heart of Atchison Country, could not have done him any favors. But Magers suggests another factor in bringing the Self-Defense Association to the Industrial Luminary‘s office that Saturday morning. He draws on a letter sent by Frederick Starr to the New York Tribune and published on June 4, 1855. I didn’t find a letter bearing Starr’s name, but I think Magers means this. It begins by setting the scene:

On a warm day last Summer a large crowd had assembled at the town site of Atchison in Kansas to attend a sale of lots. “Dave” himself was there, and as there was much whisky and many friends, he got “glorious” a little earlier in the day than usual. So with much spitting on his shirt and making himself generally more nasty than common, the Vice-President delivered himself something after this wise:

“Gentlemen, you make a d[amne]d fuss about Douglas-Douglas-but Douglas don’t deserve the credit for this Nebraska bill. I told Douglas to introduce it-I originated it-I got Pierce committed to it, and all the glory belongs to me. All the South went for it-all to a man but Bell and Houston-and who are they? Mere nobodies-no influence-nobody cares for them.”

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

A friend of Bourbon Dave’s heard the remarks and came back to Parkville with them. George Park’s partner in the newspaper, Patterson, took the words down and published them in the next issue. The Tribune’s correspondent remarked that Atchison’s friends, though not the man himself, had sobered up by this point. His paper, The Platte Argus, published a denial but the Parkville witness shot back that he heard what he heard and any man who said otherwise lied.

It might have all ended there, but John Bell had a nephew in St. Louis who read the account and did not care for Atchison calling his uncle a friendless nobody. Said nephew wrote Atchison. Did he say it?

The tone of the letter was strongly suggestive of “the usual satisfaction.” Dave evidently thought his three hundred pounds of flesh too good a mark for a pistol-ball, and he accordingly replied to the nephew that he had the most distinguished consideration for his uncle and never said such a word about him-if he had said anything that the lying scoundrels had tortured into what they had published, he begged that it might be passed by as he was “in liquor at the time.” And thus the Vice-President escaped the vexation of personal responsibility for his language. Drunkenness is not unusually regarded as a valid plea for a lawyer to make in behalf of a client, but it seems very good for a Vice-President.

To hear the correspondent tell it, Atchison got the proper number of cold shoulders from the affair. That would surely keep it fresh in his mind. If he wrote anything like the letter to Bell’s nephew it must have galled him. The author of his troubles? Surely not Bourbon Dave or his bottle, but rather George Park’s paper. Magers writes that Atchison kept up a strong grudge against the Industrial Luminary. When Park criticized Atchison’s border ruffians, he finally had a casus belli to let him take his revenge and, conveniently, police proslavery orthodoxy at the same time.