Jumping the Governor

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Andrew Reeder faced unfriendly crowds on his way back from Washington to Kansas. One man told him of a denizen of Weston, Missouri, who promised to get together a mob and scour Kansas for the governor, fit him with a noose, and gainfully employ the nearest tree. Reeder answered back that he’d happily shoot dead any such man, even if he hanged moments later, but would not let such threats intimidate him. One resident of Weston, site of William Phillips’ lynching  (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) and home to the Platte County Self-Defense Association, had a bit more in mind than threats.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, of the Self-Defensives, authored its manifesto (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Therein he described the dire threat that antislavery men presented to Missouri:

The security of our slave-property was not alone involved; our very lives were endangered. The negro-thief, the abolitionists, who induces a slave to run away, is a criminal of a far more dangerous character than the house-breaker, or the highway robber, — his crime of a far higher grade than that of the incendiary — it ranks, at least, with that of the midnight assassin.

Give slaves ideas about freedom and they make the incredible discovery that they dislike slavery. This would sunder the bonds of affection between them and their loving masters, they of the bountiful whips that always engender the dearest feelings. Racial annihilation would accompany financial ruin. Such threats required determined men to meet them head on:

the right of self-defence requires that we should resort to the strong hand for self-protection. We have no law by which the expression of abolition sentiments is made a penal offence, and yet it is a crime of the highest grade. It is not within even the much abused liberty of speech; but in a slaveholding community, the expression, of such sentiments is a positive act, more criminal, more dangerous, than kindling the torch of the incendiary, mixing the poison of the assassin. The necessity for a law punishing such a crime, has not, until now, been felt in Missouri. Until such a law is enacted, self-protection demands that we should guard against such crimes.

The sight of Andrew Reeder, still the governor and returning to Kansas to make yet more trouble, passing through Weston proved too much for Stringfellow to bear. He marched up to Reeder and demanded

an explanation of remarks which were represented as made by him at Easton, Pa., during his late eastern tour, and whether he had ever remarked that the conduct of the border Missourians was ruffianly, &c., and whether he -Gen. Stringfellow- was embraced under that expression.

Yes and yes. A challenge like this often meant a duel in the future. Admitting to the charge almost invited one. Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era reports that Stringfellow sought his satisfaction. Reeder, “sitting in a recumbent posture” per the Herald of Freedom, declined.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Furthermore, he

gave his private opinion that Stringfellow was responsible for the excitement along the border, and that it would never have existed if not for the course pursued by him in the agitating the public mind.

If Stringfellow could not have a duel, he could at least have a fight. He

approached him [Reeder] and struck him over the head, knocking him, with the chair on which he sat, to the floor, and, according to his own version of the affair, kicked him when down.

Etcheson, with access to sources I lack, fleshes out the story more than the newspaper did:

Stringfellow leapt on him, knocking him from his chair. Reeder went down with Stringfellow on top, but managed to free himself. Both men drew pistols. Hearing the fight, other territorial officials entered the room and restrained Stringfellow.

The Herald of Freedom reports that Reeder came out of this with a “scratched or bruised” face. If Reeder needed another reason to locate the legislature at Pawnee, aside his hopes to get rich and a general desire to keep business untroubled by Missourian meddling, Stringfellow had just given it to him. While proslavery men had abused private citizens and attacked judges of election, they had never before turned their spoken threats of violence against the governor into action. By attacking a legitimate authority holding a presidential appointment they went a step closer to outright insurrection.


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