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.


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