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?

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