Shannon Defends Himself, Part Two

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon defended himself to George W. Brown, who had audaciously printed a report of his speech at Westport, Missouri, wherein Shannon went all-in for slavery in Kansas. He insisted that some kind of mistake must have happened, hinting that perhaps Brown made a “mistake” rather than a mistake. He insisted that he had not spoken on slavery at all, save to say that he would not speak on it. Such statements would inflame passions and so did not suit him at all. He wanted peace and comity between Kansans and Kansans and Missourians. At no time between his speech at the start of September, 1855, and his letter to Brown at the end of October had Shannon found a proper occasion to express himself on the subject, whether in public or private.

But Shannon did have opinions. If no occasion had arisen at the time of his writing which justified their expression, he opted to make the letter that occasion. Back in 1854, Shannon represented a district of Ohio in the Congress. The Ohio Democrat voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That counted as a kind of opinion about slavery, even if Shannon didn’t find it rhetorically convenient to say as much. He voted for the bill because, as he told Brown, he considered it right on principle which would withstand close scrutiny. Which principle?

The principle of that bill, so far as the question of slavery is concerned, is that the people of each territory have the right to determine for themselves whether or not they will or will not have slavery. The question of slavery, by that bill, is referred to the free and unbiased determination of the inhabitants of the territory. I consider it to be the duty of the executive of the territory to carry out honestly and in good faith the principle of this bill, at least so far as he has any power or agency in the matter. It would not be proper, nor in accordance with the principle of this bill, for the chief executive officer of the territory, sent out by the federal government, to use any accidental influence that official position might give him to influence the public mind either one way or the other. To secure to the inhabitants of the territory, without being interfered with by foreign votes from any quarter, on both sides, a fair expression of their opinions; to abide by the will of the majority, when fairly expressed, without becoming the advocate of either slavery or free states, is the course which my judgment dictates as the most proper for me to take in the present contest.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Had Shannon parachuted into Kansas utterly unaware of anything that had transpired, and we granted him the concession that in a time of legal slavery such indifference to outcomes did constitute a kind of middle path, that all sounds very reasonable. Here, one might think, Kansas had another relatively impartial and disinterested governor of the Andrew Reeder school, committed to the logic of the Kansas-Nebraska Act: Kansans would choose for or against slavery in Kansas.

But such high-minded rhetoric did not go well with Shannon’s very next paragraph, where he repeated his endorsement of the Kansas Assembly elected by massive fraud and all its enactments. Shannon set his impartiality aside and treated questioning of the legislature’s legitimacy, at least implicitly, as an absurdity:

Do you seriously believe that the legislature was an illegal body, having no power to enact laws? Such is the ground I know some have taken, and I have been severely censured in certain quarters for holding that the acts of the legislature, within the scope of their authority, were binding.

Kansans must rule Kansans, without the influence of foreign votes from either side. But Missouri votes did not count as foreign. Missouri violence did not count as illegitimate. The technical form of legitimacy, as expressed by Reeder’s calling the legislature to Pawnee, substituted quite easily for the principled legitimacy of Kansas governed by Kansans, freely and fairly.

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