The Governor’s Land Deals, Part Two

George Manypenny

George Manypenny

Andrew Reeder had some nineteenth century trash talk for “vile and unscrupulous slanderer” George Manypenny. The governor believed that he acted entirely properly in his land speculations and that the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs condemned. As Manypenny had dragged Reeder’s name through the mud, the governor resolved to return the favor. Unlike Manypenny, Reeder averred, he would have proof.

But Reeder set pen to paper to do more than rant at Manypenny, even if he couldn’t resist speculating as to whether Manypenny opposed his land deal out of stupidity instead of malice. Yes, Reeder served as governor of Kansas. Yes, Reeder conducted business on the side. But everyone did that and the mere fact of his office should not raise suspicion against him:

no sensible man will deny, that an individual, by accepting a public office, does not forfeit his right to buy lands and make a profit off them if he can, provided the vendor is fully competent to manage his own affairs and make his own bargains, and no fraud, deceit or misrepresentation is practiced upon him.

And if said man disagreed, Reeder wrote him off. He didn’t see it as his job “supply his deficiencies of common sense.”

The standards for corruption in the nineteenth century could fall well short of what we hope, though rarely see, in our own time. But even now presidents transact private business during their term in office, most conspicuously the now-standard book deal. I think most of us would look askance at them dabbling in real estate too, but the simple fact of it wouldn’t necessarily raise concerns about corruption.

Furthermore, Manypenny’s accusations rested on Reeder taking advantage of “wild, untutored savages”. His job was to protect Indians from swindling white men, unless Manypenny himself did the swindling. He arranged many of the treaties that ceded reservation land for white settlement in advance of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, after all. Reeder declared the men he dealt with

as competent to manage their own affairs as your or I. Louis Papin is a white man-a shrewd and intelligent Frenchman, who speaks the French and English well, is quite at home in all the ordinary transactions of life, and so far from being an Indian that he has not the slightest admixture of Indian blood, and cannot speak the language. Aubrey is precisely the same, and no more of an Indian than yourself. Their wives are daughters of Louis Gondil, a French trader, and his Indian wife-quite as intelligent, as their parentage and station would indicate, and with whom the French is their daily and domestic language.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

They speak English and French. Neither has a drop of Indian blood. Their education and whiteness assured, one can presume them as competent as anybody else. They may have married half-Indian women, but one couldn’t hold that against them. Without Indian blood did the men even fall under Manypenny’s authority?

Joseph James is the son of a white father and Indian mother, and, with his brother, the United States interpreter, is among the most intelligent of his tribe. He (as well as Papin, Belmard, and Aubrey) follows, on a moderate scale, farming and raising stock, buying and selling, when necessary; speaks English, Indian, and I think some French, and is quite as keen and shrewd in his bargains as though he were a full-blooded white man, instead of a half-breed.

Living in Kansas and dealing with the men directly, one imagines that if Reeder cared in the slightest he could very well have given the Indian tongue its proper name. He can’t be bothered. He can, however, point out just how James lives and acts like a white man. That has to count for something, right?

The other man, a Frenchman named Belmard, also married an Indian woman:

His wife, Adele, is a half-breed daughter of Clement Lasette, a French trader; has all the manners and habits of a white, is acute and intelligent, and converses well in probably two more languages than yourself. Indeed, if I were allowed to venture an opinion, I should say that Mr. and Mrs. Belmard are quite as competent to superintend your bargains as you or your agent are to superintend theirs.

Reeder had to admit that he dealt with Indians, but stood firm on how they had white men vouching for them and lived like whites in every way. They, by implication, displayed none of the ignorance, savagery, or childlike innocence that white America variously ascribed to the continent’s original immigrants.

If that did not suffice to shut Manypenny up, and silence his critics, then Reeder had a trump card. In objecting, Manypenny made himself a hypocrite:

The prices fixed by all of them [the sellers] were simply accepted by us, and are four- and five-fold the amount which, in your treaty with the Shawnees, you had just before agreed to pay for better lands; and I have yet to learn that code of morality which considers the Indian fairly paid for choice lands at 60 cents an acre, by the commissioner of Indian affairs, and is shocked at the injury inflicted on a white man with half-breed wife, when an individual pays him $3.

The Governor’s Land Deals, Part One

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The occasion of Andrew Reeder’s suspension, officially for his land speculations, seems like a good time to delve back into that matter. Not coincidentally, I also found some useful documents on the subject. I hope to provide more detail than I could previously. I found the documents in Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume 5Said volume could benefit from a more modern organization, but one can’t complain too much about a compilation from the 1880s.

The collection starts off with a letter, dated June 1855, from Reeder to Commissioner Manypenny of Indian Affairs. He reminded Manypenny of contracts for the sale of four tracts of land owned by the Kaw, drawn up on January 10, 1855, and submitted for Manypenny’s approval.

These contracts were, for convenience sake, made in the name of Judge Johnston, but it was well understood that Judge Elmore, Colonel Isacks and myself were equally interested.

Isacks lost his commission over these deals.

Manypenny looked the contracts over and reported to Franklin Pierce, dated January 15. He

recommended that these contracts be not confirmed; you allude to them as “disreputable attempts of certain official functionaries to speculate in these lands”; you characterize them as “having a demoralizing tendency upon the inhabitants of the territory, both Indians and whites”; you state that “these purchases are the result of a systematic plan to forestall competition in the purchase and monopoly, at low prices, of these reserves”; you undertake to quote from an indorse as “entitled to the fullest credit” a letter, in which it is said that the grantors have been “cheated,” and, at the close of your report, you say that they “disclose a condition of things among the federal officers which, if not rebuked, must soon produce a state of demoralization in the territory, the effects of which must be as lamentable as the acts themselves are disgraceful.

Reeder further noted that Manypenny spread the governor’s fame by ensuring that the report saw publication by the House of Representatives and thus saw general circulation. One can imagine Reeder’s delight at the nation learning of his disreputable attempts to cheat people. But we need not imagine; Reeder told us.

Under other circumstances the law and the logic of your report would make a beautiful and amusing theme, but matters of graver import exclude the discussion. You have thus raised an issue between yourself on the one hand, and myself and three of the territorial officers on the other, which must be settled, not in a corner, but in the full blaze of day and before the whole public; and it is no less grave a question than, whether on the one hand we are dishonest, dishonorable men, guilty of revolting fraud, or whether, on the other, you are a vile and unscrupulous slanderer, who does not recognize the binding obligations of truth and justice, or the sacredness of private character. You have publicly and deliberately asserted the one side of that issue, and I now as deliberately assert the other, and before I am done with you, sir, I intend to do with my assertion what you have not attempted to do, and cannot do with yours-establish it by competent proof.

One can get the impression of a bumbling, well-intentioned naif from Reeder. In office for the first time, he alone believed in popular sovereignty and wanted it to have a fair shake. His inexperience speaks for itself, even if seasoned statesmen did no better after his removal. The same man, however, could draw a pistol when attacked. He may very well have written the above in the knowledge that Manypenny, “the vile and unscrupulous slanderer,” could take it as a challenge and show up with his own gun to settle matters.

Suspending the Governor

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

With Samuel D. Houston gone, the Kansas legislature at last had the perfect unanimity for which it had long yearned. It could continue along passing proslavery laws and doing as it liked, overriding Andrew Reeder’s veto every time. The Assembly soon received still more glad tidings, as reported in the Herald of Freedom for the twenty-first of July, 1855:

It is reported that Gov. Reeder, on arriving at the Shawnee Mission, on Monday last, found a letter from Secretary Marcy, informing him that he was suspended. A meaner act, we conceive, was never consummated by any administration. Frank Pierce, for that act, deserves the detestation of every American citizen. Without manliness to ascribe his motive to its real cause, he pretends it was done for the Governor’s speculations in Kaw lands.

Reeder’s consultations with the president back in early summer made it clear that the Herald of Freedom had the right of it. Regardless of Reeder’s land speculations, Pierce’s real problem involved how the governor would not throw in wholeheartedly with the proslavery party in Kansas. He actually believed in popular sovereignty and wanted to give it a fair shake.

The Herald went on to argue that Reeder acted entirely properly, and for the good of Kansas as well as for his own pockets. Furthermore, no deal on the lands would have proceeded absent agreement from the Indian agent and presidential ratification:

it was agreed to convey certain lands to the above parties for $3 an acre, as soon as the bargain should be sanctioned by the Indian agent, and ratified by the President. Until this was done, it was no contract. The Indian agent has never sanctioned the agreement, neither has it been submitted to the President for his approval-consequently no harm has or can accrue to any one in consequence of the negotiations which passed between Gov. Reeder and his friends on the one hand, and the Indians on the other.

Pierce suspended Reeder for a crime that he not only knew Reeder had not committed, but which Reeder could not have committed without Pierce’s approval. Furthermore, the Herald of Freedom insisted, the deal would have worked out well for Kansas at large rather than just lining Andrew Reeder’s pockets:

The lands all around there could be bought from government for #1,25 an acre, but because persons could not reach the river with their produce they have been induced to settle in other localities. We were over these lands a few weeks ago and found them as valuable as any in the Territory, and yet they are entirely passed by, for the very good reason that there is no certainty of their having a market in the future on the river.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

The lands in question ran between two Indian reservations, on which white men could not legally tread. One couldn’t simply go around. By buying the lands up, Reeder could open them to white settlement and everyone, excepting the Indians, would win.

Even that did not suffice. The Herald of Freedom informed its readers that Pierce ambushed the governor:

The governor visited Washington, and was in consultation with the President and heads of departments for three weeks. Not a word was whispered to Governor Reeder about his offending. The Governor gets ready to return to the scene of his labors, but at the unusual hour of near midnight a letter is put into his hands stating that certain explanations are wanted. The Governor replies hastily, and promises a statement in full, on his arrival in Kansas. A prominent member of the cabinet in the mean-time, away down in Mississippi, charges Gov. Reeder with being an Abolitionist, and intimates that he is probably removed for that cause.

Reeder and Pierce discussed his land deals during the governor’s visit to Washington. He left with an understanding that if dismissal came, Pierce would cite the land as his cause. But the business with the midnight letter does look rather suspicious. Pierce might have meant it as a final hint for the inexperienced governor that he should resign on his own, which Reeder simply missed. Or it might have come at such a time so that it would remain unanswered while Reeder traveled.

Andrew Reeder would not long remain in office, suspended or otherwise.

The Last Free State Man, Part Two

Martin F. Conway

Martin F. Conway

Samuel D. Houston at last took the advice of the Lawrence Convention and quit the legislature some time after it relocated to the Shawnee Mission. He had not gone straightaway, before they even met like Martin Conway did. His fair victory in the March elections meant the majority could not expel him without proving themselves hypocrites. While the season for such fashion extends in perpetuity, one imagines they felt they could handle a single antislavery man. Houston did pronounce himself willing to look the other way in the face of many illegalities in the name of getting on with necessary work. People need government and in its absence, they will create it. But the government they create on the fly often looks more like a collection of warring mobsters than most of us would prefer.

Thus Houston stuck it out. But eventually one must stand up for one’s principles or lose them in favor of high-sounding, but empty, rhetoric. In his letter of resignation, Houston told Andrew Reeder just which straws broke his camel’s back:

I would call your attention to the fact that at the March election, so far as I can learn, there was not a district, not even my own, which was not visited at some point by a band of invading Missouri voters. At some points, while the polls fell into the hands of numbers and power, many of the legal voters, grieved and disgusted, retired from the place without voting. This assumption of power, so flagrant, so pervasive of human rights, so destructive to all civil order, and so utterly repugnant to the grand idea which underlays the whole republican superstructure, was, in my opinion,l a sufficient reason why I should have returned my certificate of election to you without a moment’s hesitation. But I allowed myself to yield to the solicitations of friends, the pressing wants of the country, hoping that such a moderate course would be pursued by the legislative body as would be submitted to by the people.

The majority proved unable to use the words ‘moderate’ and ‘course’ together in an honest sentence:

the legislature had no sooner been organized at Pawnee, the place to which your message had convened it, than a systematic effort was made to remove from it a portion of its members, obviously for no other reason than that their views were inimical to slavery. These members had their certificates of election from you, and composed more than a fourth part of the Kansas legislature. These real representatives of the districts from which they came, the “duly elected” members of the body, were expelled, and their seats given to those who were not legally elected. The introduction of these illegal elements into the legislature was sufficient to vitiate its doing, and render null and void all its subsequent acts.

Yet Houston did not resign on July 4, when the expulsions took place. He filed a protest, but retained his seat. What finally pushed him over the edge?

this act, so manifestly illegal, was speedily followed by another, which removed the legislature from the constitutional place of holding its sessions, and created an additional temporary seat of government for the territory. This act also obviously contravenes the express provisions of the organic act which we have sworn to support.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Someone else cared about Pawnee after all. Given Houston wrote this in a letter to Reeder, one might suppose some degree of flattery. He had a better explanation: The relocation from Pawnee put the Legislative Assembly and Reeder at loggerheads, with Reeder vetoing every bill they passed and they in turn overriding each veto. That circumstance, in light of the legislature’s obvious illegitimacy,

led me to think of resigning my seat, and probably cause your excellency to interpose your official authority to arrest legislative action. This barrier, which your position as governor of the territory demanded, and which the people had the right to expect, places the legislature in a new and embarrassing position-one in which I had neither inclination nor instructions to act.

Retaining his seat in such a situation would have meant taking a side. While Houston clearly understood himself as a member of the free state party and sharing in their grievances, until the Assembly and the governor lined up against one another he could have remained a member without controversy. The people had elected him, after all. His presence might make the majority look better than they deserved, but did not necessarily reflect poorly on Houston himself. As the legislature increasingly made itself into a proslavery organ, his membership increasingly came at odds with his convictions. Deeming his continued presence “a condescension too inglorious for the spirit of an American freeman,” Houston resigned.

The Last Free State Man, Part One

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The Legislative Assembly of Kansas, now relocated to Shawnee Mission, tried to go about its business. Andrew Reeder vetoed every bill they passed on the grounds that unless they met in Pawnee, they simply did not constitute a legal body competent to make laws. This did not convince the Assembly, which overrode each of his vetoes. It did, however go some way toward convincing Samuel D. Houston to quit the Kansas House. The majority could not very well remove him and maintain their position that only Reeder’s special elections drew their wrath. By the rules they invented to get rid of the other free state members, Houston had his seat fair and square:

Elected as I was by more than a threefold vote over my pro-slavery opponent, a gentleman of intelligence and ability

Houston knew going in that the majority would make trouble. Like everybody else in Kansas, he had not missed the massive fraud in the March elections. But he had stuck with it, submitting a minority report dissenting from the purge of his free state fellows and continuing on with the legislature to the Shawnee Manual Labor School and through most of July because

I felt that I could not honorably disregard the interests and wishes of my constituents while there remained any just ground on which I could retain my seat. This fact caused me to continue in a position from which, ordinarily, in the circumstances, I should have retired on the reception of my certificate.

Resigning would deny his supporters the representation of their choosing, paradoxically making him guilty of the same denial of their free choice that the Border Ruffians practiced. But that odd situation aside, Houston stuck with the House knowing its faults in the name of practicality:

The pressing necessities of our people in this wilderness land, destitute as we are in a great measure of wholesome laws, organizations, and all those varied benefits which result from a well regulated, civil arrangement, I felt disposed to pass over much that was clearly illegal; but I am fully convinced that, bad as it is to be without law, it is far preferable to an organization effected at the sacrifice of all that is just and noble in individual position, and all that is grand, fundamental and distinguishing in American principles.

Any government beats no government, but Kansas had the option of good government too. Houston pronounced himself ready to make many small sacrifices of principle, but only so far.

In a representative government like ours, many things may and should be passed over; but there is a point beyond which we cannot go without the most servile surrender of all our rights and liberties.

William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison

Those little sacrifices add up, until a mass of technicalities can overwhelm the whole. Houston reached the limit of his tolerance and called it quits. One can anticipate Houston’s reasons from prior posts well enough, but I think it best to look into the specifics rather than construct a generic antislavery man and project him on each historical figure. Doing that would very much mislead us with regard to many of them, especially in a place like Kansas where the lines often blur.

Andrew Reeder came to the territory loudly advertising his proslavery bona fides, but once present made himself deeply obnoxious to the proslavery party. Yet that did not make him an antislavery man like an Abraham Lincoln or a William Lloyd Garrison. Rather his commitment to popular sovereignty pushed him into alignment against the proslavery Missourians who violated its cardinal tenet, to his mind, of Kansas for the Kansans.

However, delving into Houston’s reasons just now would make for a much longer post. Instead they shall come tomorrow.

Vetoes and Overrides

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The purged legislature’s proslavery members did not care to remain in their tents and wagons in Pawnee. They had quite enough of camping in the middle of nowhere, working in a building open to the elements, and working with Andrew Reeder. They had no power to put Reeder out of their misery, but decided that they did have the power to relocate the legislature somewhere with more amenities and considerably closer to home. They chose the Shawnee Mission and passed a bill adjourning themselves to there. Reeder vetoed it on various constitutional grounds and because he stood to lose his investments in Pawnee real estate if they quit the town.

The legislature did not take that laying down. They had the power to override his veto and promptly did so. Whether Reeder liked it or not, they decamped from Pawnee and made their way to the Shawnee Mission on the Missouri border. His town remained Kansas’ capital for a mere four days. Once ensconced at the Shawnee Manual Labor School, the Assembly took up a pair of thoroughly ordinary bills. One would ban the sale of alcohol and gambling within a mile of their seat and the other establish a ferry over the Missouri River.

Reeder vetoed both bills:

I see nothing in the bills themselves to prevent my sanction of them, and my reasons for disapproval had been doubtless anticipated by you, as necessarily resulting from the opinions expressed in my message of the 6th instant.

Reeder referred to his veto of the bill to vacate Pawnee. The Kansas-Nebraska Act gave the governor the power to call the legislature and set its meeting place. For them to meet elsewhere contravened that provision. Thus, while the same men met for the same purpose and transacted the same business, they did not constitute the Legislative Assembly unless they met in Pawnee or some other place that Reeder designated.

Reeder’s argument had a few technicalities in its favor, but clearly much more went into all of this than those technicalities, or even his investments in Pawnee. The governor and Assembly came to loggerheads over who really called the shots in Kansas. The proslavery men loathed Reeder and the governor, while far from the abolitionist they imagined, probably did not lose much sleep over how he could win them over.

Which party had the power to dictate Kansas’ course? Reeder had his veto power, but the legislature had both the power to override it and a sufficient majority to do so. Just as it overrode Reeder’s veto if its move to Shawnee Mission, it overrode his vetoes of the alcohol and gambling and ferry bills.

Quitting Pawnee

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Reeder summoned the legislature across the length of settled Kansas to the middle of nowhere. They found at Pawnee that they would sleep in tents. Their capitol building had neither windows nor doors. The proslavery majority preferred the comforts of home. This, not coincidentally, meant somewhere within walking distance of Missouri. Reeder’s efforts to enlist them in his land scheme did nothing to induce them to stay. Thus the legislature first took before it achieving unanimity by expelling the antislavery members and then moved to the next most pressing matter: getting themselves out of Pawnee. Instead, they would convene at the Shawnee Mission.

They wrote and passed a bill moving the seat of government. It went to Reeder, who returned it with his veto and a message explaining why. He focused not on the money he stood to lose, at least for purposes of the official message, but rather on a provision he considered “peculiarly objectionable”:

It provides “that, until the seat of government is located by law, the governor and secretary of state (by which is doubtless meant the secretary of the territory) shall respectively keep their offices at the Shawnee manual labor school.”

That amounted to telling the federally appointed executive what to do and where to go. Reeder maintained that his authority came from Congress. The Legislative Assembly had no rightful power to dictate where he transacted business.

Then things get complicated. The Assembly designated their seat at Shawnee a temporary location. Reeder argued that they had no such power, as Congress had already set a temporary seat of government back in the Kansas-Nebraska Act:

SEC. 31.And be it further enacted, That the seat of government of said Territory is hereby located temporarily at Fort Leavenworth; and that such portions of the public buildings as may not be actually used and needed for military purposes, may be occupied and used, under the direction of the Governor and Legislative Assembly, for such public purposes as may be required under the provisions of this act.

But it further vested in Reeder the power to choose where the legislature should first meet. Thus this bill could constitute a further usurpation of his authority. If the legislature declined to meet where he summoned them, had they not acted in defiance of the law?

They could only get around this by declaring a permanent seat of government, which they had not done. Reeder granted that the legislature had such an authority and, barring a veto from him on different grounds, he must abide by any such law passed. However, the Kansas-Nebraska Act specifically required his concurrence to set a permanent seat. That meant, at least arguably, that the Assembly could not override Reeder’s veto on such a bill.

Reeder devoted most of his veto message, which I found in Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Socieety, Volume 5, to these technicalities. But the final paragraph raises other issues:

I may add that I cannot perceive the expediency of the bill. Its effect will be at once to adjourn your present session to the place mentioned, and whilst I am prepared to admit that the legislative assembly are satisfied of the existence of sufficient reasons for this step, those reasons are not apparent or convincing to me; and on the other hand, it is the loss of the time (more valuable because limited) which our organic law allots to the legislative session, and because it will involve a pecuniary loss, in view of the arrangements which have been made at this place for our accommodation.

Those arrangements, remember, constituted tents and a building open to the weather. The members of the Assembly cooked their own food over open fires. Who stood to lose money on a relocated legislature? Not so much the territory, but Andrew Reeder and his fellow investors in Pawnee.

Slavery and the Speculum

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

I sat down meaning to write more about Kansas today but instead the internet, in the person of PZ Myers, brought me new information about slavery’s role in advancing gynecological medicine. Specifically, slavery abetted the perfection of the speculum.

I didn’t know from speculums until a few years ago when PZ posted news that a reader had sent him a box of the things as a gag gift. He explained then that doctors use them to open up a woman’s private parts for examination and related how he held up a pair and gave his wife an inquiring look. This produced the intended laugh from me. I like a good, earthy joke as much as the next person. The instrument itself probably did not cross my mind once between that day and this one. Those of us born with male parts have that privilege.

The rest of this post necessarily runs heavily to horrors rather than levity. If the above upset anybody, you may want to come back tomorrow rather than continue on with this one.

But the speculum, like everything else people make, came from somewhere. Someone had to invent it, which one would imagine involved some uncomfortable experimentation. That experimentation might have crossed ethical lines we would not, but one tends to think of medical experimentation as a twentieth century phenomenon. We remember the Tuskegee syphilis studies, where for forty years the United States government observed black men with syphilis and refused to treat them. They had to see the progression of the disease, you understand. That sort of work simply did not suit white men. You needed someone expendable and in America hallowed tradition dictates that expendable lives come with black skin.

The Tuskegee study took place in Alabama. It ran for forty years, only ending in 1972 when the news leaked to the papers. By a mix of coincidence and contingency, the modern speculum also hails from the Heart of Dixie. The two things have little to do with one another, save for the medical subject matter, but if not in Alabama then both would have likely taken place somewhere with a similar history. Black Americans live mostly in the South because whites brought them there and then worked fairly hard to keep them there, before and after the Civil War.

The speculum did not take so long as that to develop, though it has many antecedents. We owe it to an Alabaman doctor, John Marion Sims. His work, even at the time, provoked considerable controversy. What could a white man do to a black woman, a slave, in the 1840s that would raise eyebrows? Sexual and sexualized violence did not suffice. Rather, Sims looked at the parts he needed to examine instead of groping about blindly:

Sims didn’t want to have to look at a woman’s genitals. “If there was anything I hated, it was investigating the organs of the female pelvis,” Sims wrote in the autobiography he half completed before he died. This was a time when men and women interacted in very strict, pre-determined ways. Early illustrations from medical textbooks show doctors examining women’s pelvic areas by reaching their arms up beneath the layers of skirts and feeling around, literally blindly.

You can imagine how well that worked. When treating a white woman, Sims realized that he actually did need to see her private parts. But how could he do that? He got an idea and decided to try it out on someone who he felt much more at liberty to experiment with, a slave woman:

He fetched a slave, had her lay on her back with her legs up, and inserted the bent handle of a silver gravy spoon into her vagina. That’s right, the very first modern speculum was made out of a bent gravy spoon.

John Marion Sims

John Marion Sims

Useful inventions have come from nauseating places before, but Sims didn’t just have a new idea and give it a whirl. He tested it on a slave woman. With the ability to see, he could go in and close the fistulas that caused the pain which brought women to his doorstep. He spent years, starting in 1845, perfecting surgical techniques to close them that would have been impossible for anybody working blindly by touch. These surgeries spared women pain and perhaps death. The vaginal examinations he made possible with his instrument, soon developed from its humble origins into the familiar object, have probably saved the lives of countless women. This blogger counts his mother among them.

Sims, however, did not have a steady parade of white women ready for him to perform surgery on. He needed expendable lives:

Sims’s early gynecological experiments were done on slave women who, in many cases, he purchased and kept as property in the back of his private hospital. Along with this violent legacy, Sims left behind a few medical advances and inventions—one of them being the vaginal speculum. While the design has been refined, the speculum women see today isn’t all that different from the one Sims used on his captive patients.

He could do what he wanted with his own property, and did so:

He performed many of his experimental procedures without the benefit of anesthesia, and some of these slave women were operated on up to 30 times.

The controversy did not concern Sims’ mistreatment of his slaves, but rather the fear that his device would turn them into sex maniacs:

The British physician Robert Brudenell Carter reinforced this fear in his 1853 book, On the Pathology and Treatment of Hysteria, writing that he had “seen young unmarried women, of the middle class of society, reduced by constant use of the speculum to the mental and moral condition of prostitutes; seeking to give themselves the same indulgence by the practice of solitary vice; and asking every medical practitioner … to institute an examination of the sexual organs.”

We would benefit most from nineteenth century values like this by leaving them in the era, but respected medical men at the time really thought like this.

Even setting aside my personal stake in all of this, I think the world better for having Sims’ speculum in it. The horrors that birthed it are not the fault of the device, but of the man. None of that, however, will undo what must have amounted to the repeated medical rape and torture of slave women to perfect the technique. Would someone else have invented the modern design eventually? Probably. That other person might have done so at a similar time or not long thereafter, thus removing questions of sparing more people by having the speculum sooner. But we do not live in that world.

Talk about how we owe the things we value to the sacrifices of the past too often focuses on sacrifices made violently by men in arms. Those heroes deserve recognition, we hear constantly. With notable exceptions, mostly for American soldiers of the wrong color, they get it. The women Sims operated on do not. They too had the wrong color. To that they added wrong sex. Even the article recounting all of this doesn’t include their names. I don’t know that anybody knows them. Yet John Marion Sims sacrificed them; we benefit from it today.

We can ignore that. Stories like this make us uneasy and nobody likes that. But if we have a place in our culture for remembering good things that came to us at tragic costs, then we have a place for those women. Don’t they deserve a monument?

That might open some floodgates. Americans have stolen a great deal, bodies and lives included, from other Americans who had the misfortune of the wrong skin color, sex, or some other sin that seemed vitally important at the time. We could benefit from owning up to our stolen inheritances. Others have paid far greater prices than a mild disquiet for them.

Quitting the Legislature, Part Two

Martin F. Conway

Martin F. Conway

Martin F. Conway quit the Kansas legislature before its first meeting, sending his resignation to Andrew Reeder on June 30. The Herald of Freedom printed that letter on July 14. He began with the reasonable argument that, as a legally elected member, taking his seat would imply that the other members also enjoyed legal election and thus constituted the legitimate authority in the territory. The proslavery legislature’s majority had done nothing of the sort:

It is a fact which has traveled the circuit of the whole civilized world, that this Legislature has been imposed upon the people of Kansas by force of arms. Those who compose it, and those whom they represent, and for whom they act, are alien enemies, who have violently seized the legislative powers of this Territory, and now seek to disguise the tyranny under the form of constitutional enactments. Their Legislature is substantially a provincial council, instituted and ordained by a daring and unscrupulous league in the State of Missouri and other parts of the South, to govern a people whose liberties they have ruthlessly stricken down. This fact has been placed beyond controversy by authentic details of concerted operations, looking to this end, and of overwhelming violence, at the recent elections, unparalleled in all our political history.

One can’t read this and not also think of the liberties that the people of Missouri had struck down in their own borders. Missouri law made black people into slaves. Now Missourians wanted to extend that law to Kansas and so enslave also white Kansans. But that did not mean that the free state men understood themselves as having a common cause with the slaves. The Lawrence convention affirmed the right of Missourians to have slavery untroubled within Missouri.

Very few white Americans anywhere had the ability, even for rhetorical convenience alone, to see themselves as genuinely sharing in the slaves’ plight. Instead, a protest like this appealed to white supremacy. The affront entailed not making people slaves, but making white people slaves. Individual Americans might differ on the former, but only a few extreme proslavery propagandists accepted even the possibility of the latter. White skin made a man free by a law written in blood on Chesapeake tobacco and Carolina rice plantations at the end of the seventeenth century.


it would be either fraudulent or pusillanimous in me to respect this as the Legislature of Kansas. I am not willing to do it. — Whatever the timorous or the time-serving may suggest or advise, I shall do nothing of the kind.

One wonders if Conway had in mind the free state men who went to Pawnee and waited until the majority expelled them. Whether he held a grudge against his fellows or not, Conway had more to say about the legislature. He saw fit to

utterly repudiate and reprobate it, as derogatory to the respectability of popular government, and insulting to the virtue and intelligence of the age.

Conway understood that his resignation had consequences reaching beyond his personal virtue and how his presence would lend the Pawnee assembly legitimacy. If he just resigned and went home, he did fairly little. He resolved to do more:

Simply as a citizen and a man, I shall, therefore, yield no submission to this alien legislature. On the contrary, I am ready to set its assumed authority at defiance; and shall be prompt to spurn and trample under my feet its insolent enactments, whenever they conflict with my rights or inclinations.

Quitting the Legislature, Part One

John A Wakefield

John A. Wakefield

The convention at Lawrence stated its case, made its protests, and insisted on the fundamental illegitimacy of any legislature elected through such frauds as had occurred. Speaking for those committed to Kansas for the Kansans and free from slavery, they condemned efforts to set up a Democratic party, fearing it might split their movement, and called for the establishment of a proper free state organization. But each resolution aforementioned concerned things they should do or things they should not do. They ran short on immediate action. Not so the resolution calling on members of the legislature legally elected to resign their seats. Here the free state party could immediately demonstrate its influence. Anybody could throw together a public meeting, but their public meeting could get results. It ought to, since some of the fairly elected members bound for Pawnee attended the Lawrence convention. John Wakefield even chaired it.

But the convention asked politicians to resign seats which they won in a fair contest. They had exerted themselves considerably, and at some personal risk given how things had gone in the territory, and won through. One does not yield such gains happily, even aside the degree of ambition normal in office seekers. Furthermore, the Lawrence convention drew participation only from six of Kansas’ eighteen districts. Men from elsewhere, even if they agreed with the meeting’s principles, might not have felt compelled to heed its resolutions. Perhaps they could have found some way to work with the proslavery majority, using their influence to moderate its excesses. They didn’t yet know that they would all soon be expelled from the body regardless.

The call for mass resignation fell on deaf ears, an impressive feat considering it emanated from some of the same men called on to resign. Only one free state member, Martin Conway, did so. He wrote Andrew Reeder a letter stating his reasons, which the Herald of Freedom printed on July 14, 1855 with its endorsement:

The letter bears the impress of manhood, and is worthy the head and heart of its author. The voice of this letter is the voice of the masses in Kansas to-day.

Martin F. Conway

Martin F. Conway

The words have lost something over the decades but people once wrote like that in earnest.

Conway began with the basic issue of legitimacy, just as the men of the convention had:

I am impelled to this course by what I believe to be due to myself, to the sanctity of law, and to the rights and dignity of the people of Kansas. In holding and exercising the trust reposed in me by the qualified voters of the 6th Council district, I would be required to unite with the body of men who are to assemble at this place [Pawnee], on Monday next, as the Legislature of Kansas, and to engage with them in making laws to govern the people of this Territory. This I cannot do without lending countenance to the authority they assume to exercise.

Conway’s legal election and consequent participation

would thereby give, by direct implication, my own sanction, and the sanction of those whom I should represent, to the validity of its pretensions; I would acknowledge it to be the Legislature to which I had aspired, and to which the people had intended to elect me, when they cast their suffrages in my favor.

Participating would look great on the legislature’s resume, but not so much on Conway’s own. He determined that the people had not elected him for such things.

The materials I have don’t tell me if Conway attended the Lawrence convention, but he tendered his resignation dated June 30, the same day as it met. He hailed from the sixth district and men from that district did go to Lawrence. But his letter makes no direct reference to the convention. He could have written it after attending the meeting, perhaps even agreeing to serve as the token immediate resignation to show the movement’s resolve when the others took their seats to see what would happen. He might have had nothing to do with the convention and simply acted spontaneously out of shared principles. He might have just not wanted to risk his safety. A person in his position might have had any, or even all, of those reasons in mind. Absent more sources, which I’d love to see if anybody has them, I can’t say with any confidence.