Shannon Defends Himself, Part One

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon, second governor of Kansas Territory, gave a speech in Westport where he welcomed the help of Missourians in doing his job running Kansas. He endorsed the bogus legislature and all its acts, pledging to execute them with enthusiasm, whatever form they took. All of this put him firmly on the side of the proslavery party, committed to defending and consolidating its victories, legal and otherwise, over Kansas at large. Or did it? Shannon did not think so, or at least did not want others to think that he did. He wrote George W. Brown, editor of the Herald of Freedom, in order to “rectify your [Brown’s] last paper as to myself.” Brown dutifully printed Shannon’s letter on October 27, 1855.

The editor might have printed a claim that “the governor […] comes out flat-footed for slavery” but surely Brown made an honest mistake. Shannon would

not suppose that you design to misrepresent me, or do me intentional wrong; yet it is difficult to reconcile the publication of this caricature speech, with your comment on it, with that impartiality and desire to do justice to every one, in or out of office, which should characterize the editor of a public journal. There is scarcely a single idea that I uttered on that occasion correctly or fully represented in the speech you have published and indorsed as genuine.

Shannon didn’t think Brown had it in for him, but Brown sure acted the part. To hear the governor tell it, he

did not discuss the subject of slavery, in the few remarks I made at Westport, in any aspect whatever, nor did I express any opinion in relation to slavery in Kansas or elsewhere. I did not mention the subject of slavery during my remarks but once, and that was to say that I did not intend to speak of or discuss the subject.

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

The governor considered any such remark “in bad taste and out of place” at what he saw as a politically diverse welcoming party. Such words would only sow discord. Instead, Wilson Shannon made himself into a voice of conciliation:

I spoke of Missouri and Kansas as being adjoining territories for more than 200 miles; that they were intimately connected in all the business relations of life, and must ever continue to be; that being so connected, it was the duty of the citizens of each to cultivate social and friendly relations; that nothing was to be gained on either side by keeping up a border feud, but, on the contrary, the settlement, growth and prosperity of both would be greatly promoted by cultivating harmony and the most friendly relations.

Americans who fancied a middle path had often told abolitionists and antislavery countrymen: Stop making trouble and it’ll all work out. Rarely did they have the same words for proslavery Americans. Furthermore, the border ruffians had made it exceptionally clear that they could only have friendly and harmonious relations with an enslaved Kansas. By placing free soil Kansans’ grievances on the same level as those of proslavery Missourians, Shannon accepted their premise that the two jurisdictions must either both practice slavery or both refrain. Their institutions must, as the papers had Shannon saying, harmonize.

Yet still the governor affirmed

I made no speech since my arrival in the country in which I have expressed any opinion on the subject of slavery; nor have I been placed in a position, since my arrival, where public expression of such an opinion would have been proper.

Shannon might not have said the word, but all Kansas politics flowed out of the slavery dispute. If he genuinely believed nothing he said constituted an opinion on it, he likely did so alone.

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