The Fuss and Pardee Butler, Part Four

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

Parts 1, 2, 3

Pardee Butler had the courage to walk into Atchison, Kansas on August 16, 1855 and go around telling people that he favored a free Kansas and expected to vote to that effect. He further told the editor of the Squatter Sovereign, Robert S. Kelley, to his face that he cared not at all for the paper’s violent, often literally, tone. Kelley had just a few months before endorsed the whipping and driving from Kansas of another man who spoke against slavery. He came to Butler the next day at the head of a group of six armed men and challenged Butler to sign a collection of resolutions from the paper endorsing the whipping of that previous unfortunate and promising the same, or fitting with a noose, for any further “abolitionists” who dared come in their midst.

Butler, like any sane person, did not meet Kelley’s gang with a happy smile. However bravely he forged on until that point, now they had guns that they thought to use on him. He started reading the resolutions aloud to buy himself time and spotted a crowd outside the boarding house. Hoping for some impartial witnesses in the crowd, Butler decided on involving them. The version he gives in the Herald of Freedom has him simply get up and walk out. Butler’s Recollections more fully explains things:

Whatever should be done would be better done in the presence of witnesses. I said not a word, but going to the head of the stairs, where was my writing-stand and pen and ink, I laid the paper down and quickly walked down the stairs into the street.

Reading between the lines a bit, it sounds like Butler let on that he might sign the resolutions as a way to get around the gang. Then he dropped them on his writing desk and headed for the door. If the crowd did not include some friends, then at least he made it clear of the boarding house and could make a run for it. Butler doesn’t say that he planned any such thing, but given circumstances I can’t imagine it didn’t cross his mind. At the very least, moving outside gave him the option. Signing might have spared him, at the cost of his reputation, but also might have formed the ironic prologue to his lynching.

But the gang caught up to him on the street. He told the Herald:

Here they stopped me, and demanded “will you sign?” I said “No!” They seized me and dragged me to the river, cursing me for a d—-d abolitionist, and saying to me they were going to drown me.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

At the river, the mob apparently hit a snag. In Recollections, Butler relates

But when we had got to the river they seemed to have got to the end of their programme, and there we stood. Then some little boys, anxious to see the fun go on, told me to get on a large cotton-wood stump close by and defend myself. I told the little fellows I did not know what I was accused of yet.

By this point, the crowd had grown to thirty or forty. Butler knew very well why the mob had him. But opening a discussion might buy him more time and the act could convince some who hadn’t heard him going about Atchison the day previous that the mob had an innocent, or at least a foolish, man rather than a slave-stealing abolitionist they must execute. Not everyone who endorses violent resolutions has it in them to practice what they preach. The hesitation at the river suggests that Kelley and company might have settled for giving Butler a scare, at least with so many additional witnesses about. The more Butler talked, the more he put a face on their victim and so invoked their sympathy. Coaxing such an emotion out of proslavery radicals might seem a thin reed to grasp, but they had him entirely in their power. Butler did not have the luxury of many options to choose from.

The Fuss and Pardee Butler, Part Three

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

Parts One and Two

When Robert S. Kelley and his well-armed friends accosted Pardee Butler at his boarding house in Atchison, Kansas, they demanded he sign off on some resolutions that Kelley’s paper had published. These involved the case of a man who, like Butler, had spoken against slavery in Kansas. For his trouble, the slight J.W.B. Kelly received a flogging at the hands of burly Grafton Thomasson. He then learned that he must leave Kansas at once and obliged. Butler knew the resolutions on sight, as he’d read them in the Squatter Sovereign, but we’ll have to look elsewhere. Butler’s Recollections don’t give a firm date for the whipping of Kelly that I could use to chase down the originals, but he quotes them in his testimony to the Howard Committee.

Whereas, by recent occurrences it is now known that there are among us agents of the underground railroad, for the express purpose of abducting our slaves; and, whereas, one J.W.B. Kelly, hailing from some infernal abolition den, has, both by words and acts, proved himself a worthy representative of such an association; and, whereas others in the vicinity, whose idle habits and apparent plenty of money, induce us to believe that they are hirelings of some infamous society; believing it due not only to ourselves, but to the adjoining portion of Missouri, to rid ourselves of so great an evil

They had slave-stealing abolitionists among them. This imperiled not just the security of Kansas, but also that of Missouri. Thus these good proslavery Kansans must take action. The committee indicted J.W.B. Kelly, making sure to note that he came from the infernal abolition den of Cincinnati. The miscreant had

upon sundry occasions, denounced our institutions and declared all pro-slavery men ruffians

But as reasonable, gently disposed men

we deem it an act of kindness to rid him of such company, and hereby command him to leave the town of Atchison in one hour after being informed of the passage of this resolution, never more to show himself in this vicinity.

Nice guys, right? But if Kelly abused their generosity and did not oblige, then the second resolution declared

we inflict upon him such punishment as the nature of the case and circumstances may require.

While Kelly and Butler shared the sin of speaking out for a free Kansas, the resolutions necessarily concerned only Kelly. They didn’t know at the time that they would need to harass another person. Still, the committee had foresight about such things.

Resolved, 3d, That other emissaries of this Aid Society who are now in our midst tampering with our slaves are warned to leave, else they too will meet the reward which their nefarious designs justly merit-hemp.

The invocation of hemp speaks volumes. Plantations in Missouri grew mainly hemp. At the March elections, men proved their proslavery bona fides and secured their right to vote by declaring themselves “all right on the hemp.” Now the committee at Atchison declared that if one did not come around “all right on the hemp”, they would get you right around the neck with it.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

But Thomasson whipped Kelly rather than hanged him. Did the committee object? Not at all:

we approve and applaud our fellow-townsman, Grafton Thomasson, for the castigation administered to the said J.W.B. Kelly, whose presence among us is a libel on our good standing and a disgrace to the community.

An unrepentant antislavery man thus had at least four options: He could recant and repent, abandon Kansas, receive a whipping, or be strung up from the nearest tree. Looking forward again, the committee declared

That we have commenced the good work of purging our town of all resident abolitionists, and after cleansing our town of such nuisances, shall do the same with settlers on Walnut and Independence creeks, whose propensities for cattle stealing are well known to many.

The more one reads of this the more impressive Pardee Butler becomes. He knew full well that the men of Atchison could do such things. He read it in the papers and when they came to him on that August day, they brought clippings with them to remind him. Yet he went to Atchison and spoke his mind the day before, then faced down the armed mob and still refused to yield.

The Fuss and Pardee Butler, Part Two

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

Before I go forward with Pardee Butler’s story, I should clarify where I’ve taken it from. I began intending to use primarily the September 8, 1855 issue of the Herald of Freedom. Butler wrote in describing events shortly after they transpired. His Recollections came out thirty years later and benefited from the editorial hand of his daughter. Between the normal frailty of human memory, the desire of children to have their parents remembered well, and the very different political environment of the time, I would normally weigh the earlier account more heavily. I ended up doing otherwise as it became clear that, even if the later account includes some embroidery, it also includes details that Butler alluded to but did not fully recount in 1855. For example, Butler has Robert Kelley as the chief protagonist accosting him in the boarding house. The version in the paper emphasizes Kelley’s role so heavily that one can miss that he refers to the initial party with plural pronouns. “They” came up to him and demanded he sign a list of resolutions. It seems reasonable in light of that to augment the account with the fuller details of six men with guns. I hope my switching back and forth between sources, which I shall try to mark clearly, doesn’t cause any confusion. If it does, feel free to get in touch with me via the comments.

We left Pardee Butler spying a group of witnesses waiting for him outside the boarding house. He reasoned that whatever happened to him, best it happen in public view. Someone in the crowd could speak up in his defense. Kelley and company might have gone too far for the other residents of Atchison. At the very least, he could make it clear that the proslavery men accosted him rather than the other way around. But Kelley’s gang demanded that Butler sign on to a series of resolutions from Kelley’s paper, the Squatter Sovereign. If he complied, they might have just let him go. This might sound obscure to us, but if Butler proved a problem thereafter, Kelley and company could wave his signature around and so prove him a liar or coward. Putting your name to something could mean  much more in those days than it does now. They would also enjoy the satisfaction of enforcing their political dominance by coercing conversion, however limited, out of an enemy.

But where did those resolutions come from? Why them and not others? Butler’s Recollections includes an explanation of the situation that prompted them. An enslaved woman owned by one Grafton Thomasson drowned herself. This could not, of course, come down to anything to do with her status. Some abolitionist had to get it in her head that she should do such a thing. Butler thought otherwise and discloses that Thomasson liked his alcohol and became “desperate and dangerous” when in his cups. The minister declines to speculate as to what happened between Thomasson and his slave, save to remark that it never became public. One can read between the lines.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

Out of this matter arose some dispute between Thomasson and a J.W.B. Kelly, a lawyer late of Cincinnati. It appears from context that Kelly suggested that slavery itself prompted the woman to drown herself, or perhaps specific misconduct of her owner. Thomasson would not stand idly by and let such words pass unchallenged. Thus

Thomasson, a great big bully, flogged Kelly, who was a small man, of slender build, and weak in body. A public meeting was called, in which resolutions were adopted praising this big bully for flogging this weak and helpless man; and then this Kelly was ordered to leave, and was not seen in Kansas afterwards.

Pardee Butler knew the resolutions from reading the paper. Kelley’s use of them made it clear what they intended for the minister to see himself in J.W.B. Kelly’s shoes: sign on and submit, or sign on for a flogging and running out of Kansas. If the community would back a large man, a known violent drunkard, against tiny little Kelly, then they would have little trouble giving a minister his licks.

The Fuss and Pardee Butler, Part One

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

On September 8, 1855, subscribers could open their copies of George W. Brown’s Herald of Freedom and read about an affair sufficiently infamous by that time that Brown simply introduced it as “Rev. Mr. Butler’s Statement”. Butler, a minister and farmer, had tried his luck in Iowa and Illinois previously and came to Kansas just that spring. Butler settled all of twelve miles from Atchison, home of John Stringfellow’s Squatter SovereignHis letter to the Herald came, however, from the steamer Polar Star on the Missouri River.

People do move about. Some had gone to Kansas, found that its luxuries came in the prestige brands of oversold and entirely fictional, and gone back home. Butler did not count himself among their number and his letter contained the circumstances of his departure. Satisfied with the cabin he had built, on August 16, Butler went into Atchison planning to get on a boat and leave Kansas only to fetch his family. There he did business with Robert S. Kelley, who served as Atchison’s postmaster in addition to editing the Squatter Sovereign under Stringfellow. As people do, they got to talking. Butler wanted to buy some extra copies of the Sovereign to take with him back to Illinois as “some evidence of what was going on.”

I said to Kelly, in the presence of Arch Elliot, Esq., “Sir, I should, sometime since, have become a regular subscriber to your paper, only, I do not like the spirit of violence that characterizes it.” He said, “I look upon all Free Soilers as rogues, and that they are to be treated as such.” I replied, “Well, sir, I am a Free Soiler, and expect to vote for Kansas to be a Free State.” He said, “I don’t expect you will be allowed to vote.”

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

You knew where you stood with Robert Kelley. The conversation ended there and Butler, his steamer delayed, spent the day in Atchison speaking freely about how free soilers had every bit as much right to come to Kansas and say their piece as anybody else.

In his Recollections, published the year of his death, Butler reported that he had spoken his opinions freely in Atchison later that day. Over the night, Kelley got together a meeting to discuss what they should do about, or rather to, this free soiler in their midst. They came to a decision and enacted it the next morning and went to the boarding house.

I had been sitting writing letters at the head of the stairs, in the chamber of the boarding-house where I had slept, and heard someone call my name, and rose up to go down stairs; but was met by six men, bristling with revolvers and bowie-knives, who came up stairs and into my room.

Kelley led the band. He, as Butler recounted to the Herald of Freedom:

presented me a series of resolutions, cut out of the Squatter Sovereign, and pasted on a sheet of white paper, and demanded that I should sign them.

We can’t expect Kelly to set the type, fire up his press, and run a single sheet for the benefit of Butler, even if he had a day to do it; setting type takes quite a bit longer than sending a job to your inkjet. Butler didn’t seem to mind the improvised copy, but did think that he ought to read something before he signed it. After a quick glance, he knew he had come into trouble.  To buy time to think of a way out, the minister began to read the resolutions aloud. Recollections gives a fuller account on this point than the letter to the editor:

But these men were impatient, and said: “We just want to know will you sign these resolutions?” I had taken my seat by a window, and looking out and down into the street, had seen a great crowd assembled, and determined to get among them. Whatever should be done would be better done in the presence of witnesses.

The Fuss Continues

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

In discussing Wilson Shannon’s arrival in Kansas, I passed over another matter that I want to address before moving on. To hear Wilson Shannon tell it, Kansas had few problems and they all boiled down to the insistence of antislavery men upon remaining in Kansas, remaining antislavery, and having a fair contest for the territory’s future. If they all just got up and left, things would sort themselves out. One can argue about what Shannon might have done to help them, or just in for the preservation of the white man’s democracy in general, but Shannon asked no such questions of himself. His curious denial amounted to pleading guilty to the indictments of George W. Brown’s Herald of Freedom, and free soil men everywhere. This had to rankle not just in light of the proslavery party’s election fraud, its outlawing antislavery sentiment and excluding people who held such beliefs from holding office or serving on juries, but also in the face of continued violence against free soil Kansans.

Back in May, the special election at Leavenworth saw a fresh round of fraud. Andrew Reeder’s judges of election knew their duty well enough, but also their fates if they objected. They “should be mobbed” and “there would have been a fuss” had they insisted that only legal voters vote. They needed only consult the edifying example of William Phillips to know that. Other examples also presented themselves. The Howard Report includes testimony from an Edward Oakley that

I came out here and landed in Kansas city the first day of April, 1855, with my father, Joseph Oakley, and settled near Lecompton. The town site was laid out, but there were no buildings there. We settled about a mile from the town line. My father’s house was burned by S.J. Jones and his party, on the 28th of May, 1855, while my father was about on his way to Michigan. He and his party had, some two or three weeks before, burned down Mr. Samuel Smith’s house. I was in my father’s home, with Mr. Smith and others, when Jones and his party came up. After the house was set on fire one of Mr. Smith’s sons and a neighbor, by the name of Grout, went to the house and took the goods out of it. I saw the man get up on the roof and set the shingles on fire, but was not near enough to recognize who it was.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

S.J. Jones had, at the elections in March, stormed the polling place and demanded the judges of the election allow all who came to vote, no questions asked, or he would shoot them dead. One supposes that he had a reputation to maintain. For such exploits, the legislature made him a sheriff. Others behaved similarly. Alice Nichols describes the Kansas that greeted Wilson Shannon:

in Lawrence, Hickory Point, and Kickapoo; in Tecumseh, Black Jack, and Easton; in Osawatomie and Trading Post, as in Atchison and Leavenworth, mouths that owners insisted on opening were daily closed with fists. The bright Kansas sun was forever glinting on brandished arms and the blue air was made bluer still with oaths and threats.

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

Not every fistfight makes the history books, but clearly Kansas lived up to the rough reputation of the American frontier far more than one would like. But what in another territory might come down to a series of personal grudges became in Kansas, thanks to Phillip Phillips, Archibald Dixon, David Rice Atchison, Stephen Douglas, and Franklin Pierce, not to mention the votes of James Lane and Wilson Shannon, an existential battle for the future of the land. Proslavery and antislavery Americans took up the cause. If their battles did not involve cavalry companies and artillery barrages, they could still terrorize.

The proslavery men had an advantage here. Long accustomed to the use of violence to police white opinion, inspired by a mortal dread of the race war that must come if black Americans lived free from fear and bondage, and surely taking reassurance from their command of the territorial government, they struck with confidence. On August 16, they descended upon Pardee Butler, a farmer and preacher who had only arrived the past spring.

Brown on Shannon, Part Four

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3

Wilson Shannon dismissed every grievance that the free soil men had against the proslavery party and their consistent disregard for the sanctity of the ballot box, the legitimacy of elected office, and every other right and process of American democracy save the advance of slavery. They proposed, in the eyes of the free state movement, to enslave white men in order to protect their rights to black lives. But Shannon did quite tell them to drop dead. If they had a real argument, they could avail themselves of the courts.

Brown did not find that persuasive. Rather the opposite, the Herald of Freedom’s editor took it as an affront:

The Governor bids the people of Kansas to seek redress in the Courts of Justice, or at the ballot-box. Is it his intention to add insult to injury? The Courts of Kansas are the tools of the Legislative Assembly elected by the mercenaries of the slave power, and of course will do their bidding. The Supreme Court of the Territory has a majority of pro-slavery men upon the bench, one of whom was the constant adviser of that body during its session, and it is believed passed his opinion on all laws before they went through the forms of Legislation, and both gave an extra judicial decision to the constitutionality and legality of the laws enacted by that body in advance. What hope, then, from the Courts?

Brown had the facts on his side. Franklin Pierce gave the Kansas Supreme Court a proslavery majority. Unlike his first attempt to give it a proslavery governor, he found the right men for the job. The Assembly’s laws granted to itself the power to appoint all judges and insisted that any seeking the job swear oaths to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act and otherwise protect slavery in Kansas. The free soil party could sue but would hardly get a fair hearing from a tribunal so constituted.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Shannon also suggested that great American remedy: taking it to the polls. Of course the Legislature arrived at the polls ahead of them with provisions permitting Missourians to legally vote and so removing future cause to contest stolen outcomes. Furthermore, voting in Kansas put a free state man at considerable risk and required him to accept the power of the bogus legislature over his life. Thus Brown held

The ballot-box: We hope to get redress there, but not through that corrupt and oppressive engine, as made by a bogus Legislature. No man can approach that ballot-box without doing violence to his birth-right. He becomes a vile slave-a tool for base-hearted and villainous men, who degrades himself to such a condition.

The free soil party had their own solution to the problem, of course. They would call their own elections, vote their own tickets at their own polling places under the supervision of their own judges of election. So they would completely absent themselves from the forms of legitimacy embraced to sanctify the frauds and force at past elections and make their own substance of legitimacy in the consent of the white, male governed.


Burning headlineThe spinning newspaper with the banner headline informs us that horrible things have happened. We must all look and know them so we remember our capacity for evil. In remembering, we tell ourselves that we do our small part toward ensuring such things do not happen again:

Insurgents seized a man, tortured him with a red-hot poker, gouged out his eyes, and castrated him before burning him alive.

Extremists tied a married couple to a tree, making them hold hands as their mob chopped their fingers off, to give away as souvenirs. Not content with those trophies, they set in with a corkscrew to dig out plugs of flesh. Only then did the militants relent and burn their victims alive. The radicals and their supporters alike made a picnic of it, enjoying refreshments as they watched the spectacle.

This news comes not from CNN or any other modern news outlet. Nor did these events transpire in some distant land where they speak differently, accents aside. The castrated man, Lation Scott, died in Dyersburg, Tennessee. The married couple? Luther Holbert and his wife, of Doddsville, Mississippi. Nor did those who tortured and murdered them come from abroad, shouting strange slogans in an unfamiliar tongue. If they happened today, in some other country, the news would report them in much the same voice. The news did, however, report such things back in the day. Some genuine headlines accompany this post. They communicate the obscene excitement accompanying the events better than I could.

I have these accounts from the Equal Justice Initiative’s new report on lynching in the South. Between 1877 and 1950, they count nearly four thousand victims of lynching, ranging from individuals like Lation Scott to massive attacks that claimed the lives of hundreds. The New York Times supplies a map of those lynchings. One of those took place in Arkansas, on the Mississippi Delta. The Daily Beast has the story, beginning with some horrible framing:

In 1919, in the wake of World War I, black sharecroppers unionized in Arkansas, unleashing a wave of white vigilantism and mass murder that left 237 people dead.

John Hartfield will be Lynched by Ellisville Mob at 5 o'clock This Afternoon

John Hartfield will be Lynched by Ellisville Mob at 5 o’clock This Afternoon

I know that one needs to sum up the entire story in a line or so to meet journalistic conventions, but doing so in such a way invites questions about whether the Beast’s editors think the victims had it coming. They did not unleash a wave of white terror. The whites did. The remainder of the article does much better, explaining how the sharecroppers, exploited by their white landlords, did what exploited workers the world over do to get redress: they organized a union. The owners, like employers in every land and at every time, did not welcome this development. Better pay meant money taken straight from their profits. Those vile unionists wanted to steal their rightful property, which the owners had properly stolen from their laborers in one of the most hallowed traditions not merely of the South, but of the United States in general.

There was nothing “peaceable” about the methods used to demolish the sharecroppers’ union. Late on the night of September 30, 1919, the planters dispatched three men to break up a union meeting in a rough hewn black church at Hoop Spur, a crossroads three miles north of Elaine. Prepared for trouble, the sharecroppers had assigned six men to patrol outside the church. A verbal confrontation led to gunfire that fatally wounded one of the attackers. The union men dispersed, but not for long. Bracing for reprisals from their landlords, they rousted fellow sharecroppers from bed and formed self-defense forces.

The planters also mobilized. Sheriff Frank Kitchens deputized a massive white posse, even setting up a headquarters at the courthouse in the county seat of Helena to organize his recruits. Hundreds of white veterans, recently returned from military service in France, flocked to the courthouse. Dividing into small groups, the armed white men set out into the countryside to search for the sharecroppers. The posse believed that a black conspiracy to murder white planters had just been begun and that they must do whatever it took to put down the alleged uprising. The result was the killing of 237 African Americans.

The local whites could not do it themselves. They got help from the War Department, which dispatched six hundred soldiers at the governor’s request. Men crossed over from Mississippi to pitch in. The union men fought back, but numbers and superior arms overwhelmed them.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has called white supremacy a kind of theft. We don’t usually frame it quite that way, but he has it absolutely right. White America has stolen from black America labor, property, success and lives with which we instead enrich ourselves. So the cannibal dynamo turns their misery into our happiness. That dynamo doesn’t exist independent of us; it is us. The violence did not just happen, but rather people who look like us chose to make it happen. They felt not shame, but pride and satisfaction. No one went to jail. If white, one could collect a finger or a plug of flesh from Luther Holbert and walk away feeling enriched.

By and large we don’t remember those atrocities. In the hundred and fifty years since the end of slavery, we instead ask why black Americans don’t do better. It suits us better to forget that we have prevented them from doing better and made our success out of the wreckage of black lives. Best we forget, lest we suffer pangs of conscience.

Negro Jerky and Sullen as Burning Hour Nears

Negro Jerky and Sullen as Burning Hour Nears

Or we could remember and perhaps do better. We have a good museum in Washington, part of the Smithsonian, all about the Holocaust. Go see it if you have the chance. But we have no unit of the Smithsonian for slavery, an American institution for more than two hundred years and utterly central to the development of the United States. In the American History Museum, which you can skip, you will find displays about presidents, first ladies, and George Washington sculpted as a Greek god. We choose to remember those things, not the others. Washington had his eight years and slavery its two centuries, but with sufficient editing we can turn Washington into an Olympian object of veneration.

Certainly we cannot teach our children the uncomfortable parts of our past. Today news came to me that a House committee in Oklahoma has voted to defund the state’s AP American History program, which would amount to an effective ban on it. Why?

Fisher, who has been active in a church-and-state organization called the Black Robe Regiment, said the AP U.S. history course framework emphasizes “what is bad about America.”

I don’t recall my own AP American History course as very long on the bad about America, but perhaps they’ve improved in the many years since. I have written on this before, but the facts remain the same. The Oklahoma committee, like the Denver school board, doesn’t want students to learn complexities and nuance. Instead they must believe the United States either perfect or close enough to call it that all the same. History class should not present difficult questions or raise consciousness, but rather suppress both in a lily-white stream of sunshine and flag waving. Should history teachers give children the skills to understand complicated issues and turn a critical eye on their own society, who knows where it would end?

That sunshine can’t come through clouds, so the clouds have to go. It can’t come in different colors. The shadows it casts must pass without scrutiny, taken for granted like a Whites Only sign. Such signs, ex officio, remain on the covers of plenty of history textbooks. The lynchings from the EJI report, their great popularity in their day, and how they went unpunished say things about America, past and present. Remembering them doesn’t put a neat little bow on history, raising past injustices only to declare them resolved in the grand tradition of American progress where, born immaculate and perfect, the nation only gets better. They confront us with our national shortcomings.

The EJI support memorializing the victims. They should have monuments to fill that curious lacuna in the American landscape. We have monuments for the Civil Rights Movement. We have monuments for Confederate soldiers, including one I saw in Massachusetts. Yet even where scores died no monuments exist, as people of the right color died at the hands of people of the other right color, each group in its proper place. A plaque here and a statue there will not change the world but just as forgetting four thousand lives feasted on by white mobs says something about us, so would choosing to remember them instead. It might even say that, in some small and tenuous way, we have had our fill of such lives and wish to stop claiming them as our own.

But that does require that white Americans acknowledge that we have all received stolen goods and so have a responsibility beyond that of well-meaning bystanders to do what we can to ameliorate the wrong. Progress on that front has come with agonizing slowness and great controversy, most infamously involving the greatest political realignment in recent American history and most famously the Civil War. We should accept the country we have and not think about alternate visions, whether for better or worse. Otherwise we might have to ask what kind of country we actually have, at what costs we have it, and whether we should allow it to continue as we have.

The first great historian of slavery and the South, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, got a few things badly wrong. He thought slavery a benevolent, paternal, and tragically inefficient and backwards institution. But he did find a kind of consensus, however unwittingly. Writing in the 1920s, he identified white supremacy as the central theme of Southern history in a famous essay of the same name.

Phillips wrote long ago. The field has moved on. He particularly missed the centrality of white supremacy outside the South. Writing today, he might instead title his essay The Central Theme of American History. When the American ISIS rampaged across the South, busting unions and burning people alive, the rest of the white America filled our pockets and looked away. When thousands of black refugees flooded out of the South, fleeing white terror, we got into the lynching business ourselves to remind them that we had a white man’s country, by us and for us. Many of us, if not so many as in past decades, want to keep it just that way.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Preventing children and adults alike from putting the picture together ably serves such goals. If they can’t count on our malice, then they can count on our ignorance. Toss in a large helping of desire for peace and quiet, popular once upon a time on the Missouri frontier, where it saturates the writing of proslavery men, and then again in Alabama, not so long ago, and it might seem like things will never change. They might not, but if so then we have again said something about ourselves. We have said that the American ISIS and all its gains must prevail. This must remain a country for the white man and the Klan, the Red Shirts, and their many auxiliaries had it right. We have chosen and voted in our myriad ways to keep it that way.

That choice falls not on impersonal forces beyond our control, but in ourselves. It would mean discomfort. We would have to take sides. But we do both of those things anyway. White America usually chooses to make black America pay the price, with everything from grotesque violence and our carefully-curated, genteel forgetfulness. Maybe that makes sense to members of the Denver school board or the Oklahoma House committee. I know it made sense to proslavery writers in the nineteenth century and defenders of segregation in the twentieth. Might we at last wonder if we picked the wrong side? We have such clarity when we condemn ISIS, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda. The horrors at home receive a few passing mentions, often full of equivocation or calibrated to avoid the larger questions they present.

Growing up white and American means you get to take that for granted; I know I did. Despite learning better, I probably still do in more ways that I care to count. It takes uncomfortable work to curb the habit. It takes more than a book or memorial or post by some random internet person. The slaveholder’s lexicon comes built in: runaways, not slaves who stole their lives back; race riots, not pogroms built on white terrorism; plantations with their nice houses and gardens; not slave labor camps like something out of Siberia. Even the word lynching doesn’t do the reality justice. Terrorism might, but even that seems too abstracted from the gross realities of cutting off fingers and pulling plugs of flesh out by corkscrew to keep as souvenirs.

Three thousand people came to see a man burned alive. If they did that in some other country, it would be the one thing every American knew about that country and we would cite it for decades after as the defining trait of that foreign land. No American old enough to have heard of it forgets that the Germans had the Nazis and killed the Jews. To at least a generation, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. To another, Muslims flew planes into the Twin Towers. In our memories, those moments stretch on to eternity…so long as someone else has the dirty laundry worth airing.

While we can attribute this to a universal reluctance to grapple with complex issues and resistance to confronting things that don’t reflect well on people we imagine as somehow a part of ourselves, that only sanitizes things for the perpetrators. Yet even granting that, other countries have done much better. In school, German children learn all about the Nazis and the Holocaust. I understand they have special classes just on it.

Americans can’t even manage a National Museum of Slavery. Some of those who prefer the version of history espoused lately in Oklahoma City and Denver stress the import of American exceptionalism. Why not meet them halfway? History teachers should encourage students to understand American exceptionalism: Exceptional Americans made an empire for slavery. They came by the thousands to watch a man burned alive. They came and took fingers and corkscrews of flesh to remember the day. They posed for the pictures with the hanged bodies, like they would with a prize deer or trout. They smiled and laughed and ate their picnics while human ash rose up to the sky, burnt offerings as much as anyone that rose above camps in Europe.

We wrote those chapters into the story of us just as we did all the other things. If a full accounting leaves us with more bad than good on the balance sheet, we should find fault not in the math but in ourselves.

Brown on Shannon, Part Three

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Parts one and two

George Brown did not buy Wilson Shannon’s claim to impartiality. The new governor of Kansas had, after all, given a proslavery speech to introduce himself to Kansas. He even did so in enslaved Missouri. Furthermore, Shannon found no time to object to Brown’s reporting until, as Brown had it, word of his tactlessness reached Washington and generated opprobrium in the Pierce administration. Nor did Shannon’s lengthy denial do any more than reiterate the positions which Brown reported of him in the very articles under contention.

But people do look at the same actions and interpret them differently. Maybe Shannon came in a proslavery man, something one might also say of Andrew Reeder, but then quickly learned that the proslavery party amounted to a bunch of drunken hooligans with as much respect for the white man’s democracy as the worst despots of Old Europe. Much can happen in a month, especially in territorial Kansas.

John Wilkins Whitfield

John Wilkins Whitfield

Shannon did not list any acts of his during that month which would speak to his impartiality and disinterest. He had good reason not to, given what he had actually done with his time. Brown reports that Shannon, the impartial and disinterested, endorsed and himself voted for John Whitfield as Kansas’ delegate to Congress. As in the year previous, Whitfield ran on an openly proslavery platform. Indeed, he ran as proslavery “and nothing else“. He even campaigned on the fact that he had given the first public speech in favor of slavery in Kansas. Shannon further promised to preside over a proslavery gathering at Fort Scott. All the while, Shannon

studiously avoided anti-slavery towns, and association with anti-slavery persons, and public reception from the actual settlers in the Territory.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Everyone from Shannon to Brown to Franklin Pierce knew what side Shannon declared for. Brown boasted that he could have sworn affidavits from free soil and proslavery men alike on the matter. But Brown would accept all of this and take Shannon at his word, if only he would

show by his public acts that he is in favor of the principles of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, and will favor the action of a majority of the actual residents of the Territory in settling this vexed question.

Such impartiality would amount to siding with the free soil movement, but given the ways that the proslavery men had trampled the principle of popular sovereignty into the ground a friend of democracy could hardly do less. When the facts all align on one side, those who try to stand in the middle do not take a principled stand for moderation but rather ally themselves with the wrongdoers. Politics lacks the certitude of math, what with having to manage messy humans, but one recalls the old adage about one party insisting the two plus two makes four, another insisting it makes six, and the moderate who suggests five. A genuine gulf existed between those who construed popular sovereignty as a fig leaf to bring slavery in and dare others to vote it out and those who saw it, even if they might prefer no slavery, as an invitation to a fair contest best settled at the ballot box. Someone had to lose.

Shannon did not have any such thing on his agenda. Brown would not let him off for endorsing the legislature

not one of whom would have occupied a seat in the Legislative Assembly of Kansas Territory, could the principles of the Kansas-Nebraska bill have prevailed.

Thomas Hutchinson

Thomas Hutchinson

Nor could Shannon pass the buck to Andrew Reeder. His predecessor might have issued certificates of election to a majority of them, but

They obtained their seats by fraud, and have enacted a code of laws which every free State voter of Kansas would choose to die before he would obey. Gov. S may array the forces of the Federal Government against us, and may crush us with superior numbers; but we say to him, -and we but speak the united voice of eight-tenths of the residents of the Territory, -You cannot enslave us! We know our rights, and no extra-judicial decision of the Supreme Courts, no arbitrary determination of Executives, nor no power of the General Government is sufficient to wrest them violently from us.

Brown went on to invoke the memory of the Revolution to remind Shannon what Americans did “where Executive authority came in conflict with popular will.” Shannon should look up Thomas Hutchinson in his history books. A revolutionary mob drove that long-ago governor of Massachusetts from his house and ransacked it, making off with many of his belongings. He and his family narrowly escaped.

Should Shannon keep up as he had, the free state men might prove that they could raise a mob as well as their proslavery opposites. Brown went on, of course, to say at once that he never expected things to go that far. But something had to give.

Brown on Shannon, Part Two

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Wilson Shannon, new governor of the territory of Kansas, gave his maiden speech as governor to a crowd in Westport, Missouri, on September 1, 1855. George W. Brown’s Herald of Freedom reported on his arrival commencing with the issue of September 8. The next edition, on September 15, included a bullet point summary of Shannon’s speech:

  • The institutions of Missouri and Kansas, for the betterment of both, must “harmonize”.
  • The legislature of Kansas, elected by force and fraud, stood as the legitimate authority in Kansas.
  • He must thus vigorously enforce its laws.
  • And the free state movement amounted to no more than a band of fanatical nullifiers who he would, at most generous, simply ignore.

A report with the full text of Shannon’s remarks appeared in the Herald of Freedom on September 28. Furious that Brown used his remarks to paint him as a proslavery man, Shannon wrote out a lengthy correction letter and sent it to Brown in time for the Herald of October 27. One must wonder what inspired this curious haste. Even with poor infrastructure and nineteenth century communications, it probably didn’t take a full month for Shannon to read the paper, write his answer, and send it along. Given further that Shannon’s denials amount to restating the positions which the Herald of Freedom credited him with and a more thorough still repudiation of the free state movement, one wonders why he wrote at all. Shannon certainly hadn’t spent his time correcting proslavery papers who called him one of their own.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Brown advanced a theory to explain both Shannon’s action and its pacing. I don’t know if he had the facts on his side here, and he supplies no sources that I can see to check. Further it sounds like the kind of thing a free state man would badly want to believe, facts or otherwise. But Shannon’s delay does require some kind of explanation. The Herald of Freedom had one of the larger circulations in the territory. He couldn’t have just missed its reports for a solid month.

As Brown has it

The news [of Shannon’s remarks] was sent East, and was the subject of remark in every part of the country. The President’s Cabinet, while in session on a grave diplomatic question, learned the facts, and were indignant at the procedure of their official. Secretary [of State] Marcy was reported to have shown his ill-humor at the occurrence publicly. It was not until after these facts were returned from the East that Gov. Shannon even hinted at a denial that his speech was not truthfully reported.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Considering that Pierce had just fired Andrew Reeder for impartiality that, given the proslavery party’s virtual monopoly on political wrongdoing in Kansas, tilted him in the direction of the free soil men, one struggles to imagine that he and his cabinet felt all that incensed at Shannon’s policies. They may, however, have cared very much about his tactless approach. The administration took considerable pains to dismiss Reeder officially for his land speculation. For Shannon to come out so openly proslavery may have made things difficult for the northern Democrats, who had already taken a pounding over Kansas and so prompted purely tactical disgust.

Brown on Shannon, Part One

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Offended, either by the accuracy or inaccuracy of George Brown’s reporting of his speech at Westport, Missouri, the new governor of Kansas wrote Brown defending himself. Wilson Shannon insisted that he had not thrown all in for slavery in Kansas. Quite the opposite, any such declaration or partisanship on his part contravened the principle of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that Kansans should decide for Kansas to have slavery or not. He voted for just that principle in the House in 1854 and remained firm on it now. But Shannon, like many Democrats of the era, adopted at best a position of indifference and inaction. Even if he meant every word of his letter, and a reasonable reader should have some doubts, that inaction generally tilted in slavery’s direction. It surely did in Kansas, where Shannon happily repudiated the free state movement, called their positions absurd, and then had nothing of substance to say against obvious proslavery misdeeds.

Brown printed Shannon’s letter, along with another dealing with a story regarding him and a red petticoat from his Ohio days, on October 27, 1855. The petticoat story, regrettably, sounds not quite so entertaining as one might hope. As for the rest, Brown saw fit to print a lengthy editorial along with the letter. He began with the usual pleasantries: Kansas missed Andrew Reeder very much, but had high hopes for Shannon. Brown asked around and investigated the new governor, deciding that a man of principle would come to govern Kansas. The territory needed just such a man. The proslavery press apparently vented its displeasure at Franklin Pierce for the appointment, and anybody they hated couldn’t be all bad. Brown recounts how he eagerly received each piece of news by telegraph: Shannon left Ohio. He reached St. Louis. Deliverance seemed at hand.

On the first day of September last, Gov. Shannon arrived at Kansas City, and on the afternoon of that day accepted a public reception from the people of Missouri at Westport. On his way up the river, distinguished persons, it is said, were in the habit of introducing themselves to the Governor, closing with a flourish, “We are the ‘border ruffians’ spoken of by Gov. Reeder.”

What business did the incoming governor of Kansas have in breaking bread with Missourians? But that aside, Brown heard that Shannon did not seem thrilled to meet border ruffians. Such news inspired small town boosterism:

We dared to hope that Lawrence, the most populous and central place in the Territory, might be temporarily made his head-quarters, and we began to cast about to see what could be done towards furnishing him with a suit [sic] of rooms worthy of such an officer.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The cartoon hearts soon fell from the eyes of Lawrence’s free soil men. They learned from “a gentleman of undoubted veracity, of much ability, and competent to do justice to his subject” just what Shannon said at Westport. Missourians must naturally extend slavery into Kansas, for only that could cement the ties of commerce and neighborly amity that must exist between the two jurisdictions. Shannon himself, per the paper’s informant, “was eager and desirous to see those institutions so extended.”

Brown noted that the people of Westport understood Shannon’s speech as an endorsement of border ruffian filibustering. So too did every antislavery man present who he asked. Even Brown’s opposite numbers editing proslavery news papers

so understood him [Shannon]; and so published in their respective journals. The Frontier News-published at Westport, where the speech was made, -the Squatter Sovereign, whose editor, we believe, was on the ground, and, as we before remarked, the entire border press came out and corrected themselves in regard to Gov. Shannon’s position, and represented him as sound on the slavery question.

Clearly nobody thought Wilson Shannon anything but a proslavery man after his speech. Who did he think to fool? Why even try, when Brown’s readers would have no trouble learning Shannon’s actual positions by simply not nodding off for the length of his tenure in office?