Shannon Defends Himself, Part Three

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Parts One and Two

Wilson Shannon declared that he would not take a side on Kansas’ dispute over slavery, but also would not repudiate the acts of its proslavery legislature to entrench their ill-gotten gains. Did he not know about the fraud at the polls, or did he not care? If he affirmed the principle that Kansans should settle the slavery question for Kansas, then did the stolen elections not at least call the legislature’s legitimacy into question?

Shannon did not try to claim ignorance:

But it is said that there were illegal votes cast at the election of the members. It is very probable this is true. Few elections take place anywhere without some illegal votes being cast. But this is not a matter that can be inquired into by an executive officer after members have received their certificates of election, been sworn in, and served out their term of office. Could the President of the United States pronounce the acts of Congress void, and refuse to carry them into effect, because illegal votes had been cast for various members of the body that enacted them? The idea is simply absurd. But what had I to inquire whether illegal votes had been cast or not? My predecessor, who had the whole subject before him, and the means of knowing the truth, and to whose supervision the whole subject had been confided by the organic law, and under the solemn sanction of his official oath and under the broad seal of the territory, granted his certificate to each member elect, certifying that he had been duly elected.

We can give Shannon some leeway on the scale of the fraud, since he didn’t have the Howard Report to consult, but it beggars belief to suggest that Shannon had no idea of the fraud’s scale months after it took place. He doesn’t ask for such concessions, however. Instead he simply washes his hands of the matter. He could not undo the past, even had the law granted him the power to do so. Andrew Reeder had that power at the time, used it in a limited way, and then watched as the Assembly voted out the fairly elected members he had given it.

But what about those expulsions of legitimately elected, antislavery members? Did they not say something more about the legislature’s behavior? Shannon did not think so. The House and Council of Kansas had the power to judge the qualifications of their own members, end of story:

It is presumed they will always exercise it [the power to expel members] directly and in proper cases; but suppose they should not, will the absurd proposition be maintained that an abuse of this power renders void all their acts? Suppose the house of representatives of the United States should, in the exercise of this power, exclude, improperly, if you please, the whole delegation of a state, who produced their certificates of election, and admit a contesting delegation: Would any one claim that this would render void all the acts passed by that Congress, and that the President would have the right, and that it would be his duty, to nullify them, and treat them as having no binding force? No one would claim the correctness of a proposition so absurd.

Shannon held firm that no wrong worth mentioning had occurred, but even if it did he lacked the power to remedy it. He had a point with regard to undoing past wrongs, since he lacked a time machine as much as we do. But Shannon might have said that he would be vigilant at future elections, take reasonable precautions against fraud, and so forth. He could have offered at least moral support.

Instead Wilson Shannon found nothing but fault in the free state Kansans and their grievances. He might allow for a few illegalities here and there on the other side, but searched in vain for any cause for real concern on his part.


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.

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.

Governor Shannon Introduces Himself, Part Two

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Sorry for the delayed post, Gentle Readers.

Wilson Shannon introduced himself to his Kansas constituents in Missouri, which got him off to a great start building a record for impartiality and fairness. He went on to declare the free state movement, support of a likely majority of Kansans or not, revolutionary and illegitimate. Legitimacy apparently came solely from stolen elections. Shannon won more friends, if not necessarily Kansan friends, by pledging to faithfully execute all the laws of the bogus legislature, wise or otherwise. He condemned the dispute between the legislature and ex-governor Andrew Reeder over its proper location and the legality of meeting elsewhere. Indeed, just to make matters entirely clear, Shannon declared the legislature’s enactments

binding on every citizen of the territory, and would use all his executive power and authority to carry them into effect.

Here he sounds not just willing, but downright eager. But, Shannon insisted, he didn’t want to bring politics into things:

He said it was not his intention to address them on the various questions which divided the parties in the territory; perhaps he did not understand them; and he had not expected to speak on this occasion.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Having thus opined on the legitimacy of the legislature and the free state movement, Shannon then proceeded to comment on the ultimate political issue that divided Kansans and their neighbors:

His official life and career were not unknown to a portion, at least, of the citizens of Kansas. He had no intention of his political faith. he thought, with reference to slavery, that as Missouri and Kansas were adjoining states, as much of that immense commerce up the Missouri, which wsa already rivaling the commerce between the United States and some European countries, must necessarily lead to a great trade, and perpetual intercourse between them, it would be well if their institutions should harmonize-as otherwise there would be continual quarrels and border feuds. He was thus for slavery in Kansas. (Loud cheers.)

One wonders what Shannon could have done to more endear himself to the proslavery party in Kansas and their Missourian allies. He may have spoken extemporaneously, but he said what he said all the same. Kansas second Democratic governor had none of the caution or impartial principles of the first. Andrew Reeder might really have given both parties a fair shake, and certainly demonstrated unanticipated interest in holding fair elections. Wilson Shannon came to Kansas committed to the fruits of fraudulent elections and the cause which motivated that fraud.

Governor Shannon Introduces Himself, Part One

Before I get back into Kansas, I encourage everyone to go read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ response to the predictable reception that the president’s remarks in this vein at the National Prayer Breakfast:

Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

Adherents to the hobbits’ view of history do not take such things well.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Back to Kansas, then. I previously had some trouble finding other than a very brief summary of Wilson Shannon’s first public address to the people of Kansas, which he naturally gave in Missouri. In the course of looking for other things today, I found a more complete report in the Herald of Freedom for September 28, 1855, courtesy of a reporter from the St. Louis Democrat. It also appears in volume 5 of Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, with a more legible text.

A person could read the Herald’s original summary of Shannon’s speech as ambiguous with regard to slavery, if not the proslavery bogus legislature, though it would take some effort to maintain the position. The governor could have spoken from ignorance or naivete. The fuller account removes that ambiguity:

Governor Shannon began his remarks by thanking the audience for their courteous reception. It gratified him, he said, not because it was personally flattering, but because it showed that they were not disposed to decide on his official career in advance. It showed him that he might rely on “your aid” in endeavoring to overcome obstacles which he was aware existed, but hoped were not insurmountable.

A voice: “Yes, you shall have our aid.”

Shannon gave this speech in Westport, Missouri. While he might reasonably expect some Kansans in the audience, asking the help of Missourians in Missouri for his job in Kansas scans like an open invitation to further border ruffian filibustering. Shannon might need some elections stolen later on. Could the Missourians help with that? Sure thing, Governor.

But Shannon might have other jobs for them as well. He knew about the free state movement:

This was a revolutionary movement, which was greatly to be deplored. He regretted, he said, that he had arrived too late to form the acquaintance of the members of the legislature. He knew nothing of the laws passed by them, but, from the ability and patriotism of the gentlemen who composed it, he doubted not they were wise and judicious. But, even if they were not wise and judicious, open resistance and nullification of them was not the proper way to defeat their provisions. If they were unconstitutional, there were courts to appeal to, which had been created for the purpose of deciding such questions.

Courts, one should add, that the proslavery men ensured only judges and lawyers who swore to uphold slavery could serve. But even if we take Shannon at his word here and grant him perfect ignorance of the bogus legislature’s many offenses against freedom, he stood behind even bad laws. That didn’t leave him any room to disavow the oaths proscribed. The act of declaring, sight unseen, for anything the legislature had done committed him entirely to the proslavery party. He would help the proslavery men and they could, perhaps, help him with that little revolution.

Genteel Nineteenth Century Passive Aggression

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

In half an hour in Westport, Missouri, before he had crossed over into the territory to which Franklin Pierce had appointed him governor, Wilson Shannon communicated to Kansas free soilers that they would find no friend in him. According to a correspondent of the Herald of Freedom, Shannon declared for slavery in Kansas, upheld the validity of the bogus legislature and its draconian laws, and endorsed their vigorous enforcement. Shannon further endeared himself to the free soil men by refusing a request that he stay the night in Lawrence when traveling the territory on business later in September. He just had to make it to another town, some three miles distant.

The Herald of Freedom reported little amusement at the snub in its September 22 issue. He neglected to favor “the oldest and most important settlement in the Territory, as well as the most populous.” But they held out hope that he might stay on his return trip through. Lawrence set up a committee to show him a warm welcome. Perhaps the governor simply did not know about all the problems in Kansas. A little hospitality could open his eyes.

In the afternoon the masses from the country began to assemble, and by evening there was a very large collection in our streets, waiting with anxiety the Governor’s arrival. About four o’clock, P.M., it was reported he had arrived. -The crowd made their way to the Cincinnati House, where he stopped, to extend to him an enthusiastic greeting, each one determined to do his best towards making the Governor feel himself at home in Lawrence. His apparent slight in passing the place the day previous, without deigning to notice the town, was forgotten, as was the fact that he accepted of a public reception from the invaders of Kansas, while in Missouri, on his way to the Territory.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

The Herald of Freedom did not have a copy of Shannon’s remarks at Westport on hand. Could their correspondent have exaggerated or misremembered the governor’s words?

The committee, led by James Lane, went up to have a talk with Shannon. The two men knew each other from their time in Congress, so surely the governor could find time for an old colleague.

After the ceremonials, the Colonel informed the Governor of the object of the visit, and the desire of the people to address him, and to listen to a response from his Excellency. The Governor replied that “circumstances had placed it out of his power to comply with the request.”

Lane pressed the matter all the same. It would only take a few minutes, and if the Governor’s party needed to go on without him, Lane promised to drive Shannon on to catch up in his own carriage, either right after or first thing in the morning.

Shannon refused again, promising only that he would be back through Lawrence again on his way to Lecompton at the end of October. He would pass through on intensely important official business: a land sale.

These facts became known to the masses, several hundred of whom were collected in front and around the Hotel, and produced a decided impression. Many felt indignant that the Governor should refuse this mark of honor at their hands. They recalled the pleasant time they had a year previous, when Gov. Reeder had first called upon them, and accepted a pioneer dinner at their hands, and contrasted the kindness and urbanity of the one with the coldness and incivility of the other.

As Gov. Shannon entered his carriage and cracked his whip to depart, we were pained to observe that several persons, joined by a few boys, commenced groaning rather loudly, which was restrained with great difficulty by the more cool and sedate. No circumstance can occur when such indignities will be justified toward a public officer. Our citizens felt that Gov. Shannon had grossly insulted them, as well as the people of the Territory at large, in accepting a public demonstration from an adjoining State, and refusing it at the hands of those he was sent to govern; but this was no excuse for the outrage, and can hardly be offered as paliation.

One can’t read this and imagine that the editors sincerely meant every word, but they did want Shannon to come again and looked forward to his visit in October

and will then be satisfied that if his former reception was not as cordial as he had reason to expect, that the fault was partially his in rejecting the hospitalities so generously tendered to him. We trust too, that our people will convince him that however much cause they may have had for unpleasantness, it was not the intention to insult the Governor of Kansas; that on the contrary, it was only designed for the Demagogue, who had mistaken public opinion in Missouri for settled convictions in Kansas

That cleared everything up. They had nothing against Shannon personally, and respected the Governor of Kansas well enough, but that demagogue who snubbed them and declared against their interests could jolly well go to Hell. If Shannon read into the denunciation of the Demagogue who signed his name ‘Wilson Shannon’ a like condemnation of Governor of Kansas Wilson Shannon, he had only himself to blame.

Governor Shannon’s First Impression

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon arrived in Kansas to replace Andrew Reeder on the first of September, 1855. I went digging in the endnotes for a speech he gave that aroused some controversy and found myself with citations beginning in October. That seemed unlikely so I checked the Herald of Freedom issues for September. From the context and date, the paper reported first on Shannon’s arrival in the September 15 edition. Why so late? The Herald published on the first, but considering that they had to lay out the paper by hand and print it with a steam-driven press, work on that went on for some days before its release. George W. Brown, the editor, explained further that he got his news by letter dated the fifth, too late to make the September 8 printing.

Brown’s anonymous correspondent reported that

Mr. Shannon arrived here [Kansas City, MO] on the Martha Jewett, on Saturday. He was met and was introduced to both the Stringfellows, Rees, Waterson, Blair, Forman, Weddle, and other members; and saluted them, I am told, that he was a thorough doughface; or, as it is rendered in other language, “a Northern man with Southern principles.” He is apparently about fifty years old, a strong-framed, slow-moving, coarse featured person, of medium statue, ungraceful, ill at east, seemingly, among unfamiliar faces; and unendowed by Dame Nature as one of her gentlemen. He may be a true gentleman but he doesn’t look like it. Reeder and Woodson both do, on the contrary.

I know of two Woodsons involved in Kansas affairs at the time, both proslavery men. This sounds like the assessment of an objective witness, but I don’t know that many doughfaces enjoyed having the term applied to them. The author’s real opinions do not long remain hidden.

It would be vain, I think, for the free State men to attempt to reason with this man. Before he entered the Territory he unfolded his programme-but not before he entered the excited sections of Missouri.

Shannon, in a speech at Westport that went on for half an hour, declared:

1. That he believed it best for the interests of both Missouri and Kansas that their political institutions should harmonize. (That is to say because sister Missouri is afflicted with a disease it is nothing but right that Kansas, also, should be inoculated with it.)

2. That he recognized the Legislature recently adjourned, as a legal assembly; therefore,

3. That the Shawnee Manual Labor School Laws were binding on every citizen of Kansas.

4. That he would execute these laws-Lawrence nullifiers notwithstanding.

Reeder came to Kansas as an ambiguous, if leaning proslavery, blank slate. Shannon arrived clearly committed not just to slavery, but to the way in which the border ruffians had filibustered it into the territory.

Things could only go swimmingly from here on in.

Another Governor for Kansas

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Gentle Readers, I must confess a small error. As you may remember, Franklin Pierce fired Andrew Reeder for allegedly his land speculations but really his commitment to actual popular sovereignty rather than the other doctrine operating under that name which insisted slavery prevailed no matter what. Reeder got news of his dismissal on August 15. The second Lawrence convention met on that day and the one previous, so I erred to call Reeder the just-removed governor of Kansas then. Rather that the participants understood him as still the governor, if under attack, and so their defense of him makes stronger strategic sense still. Likewise their possible acceptance of James Lane’s word that Pierce stood with them seems less implausible.

Either way, Reeder’s dismissal meant that Kansas needed a new governor. Seeing the difficulties that Reeder faced, Franklin Pierce naturally learned his lesson. He should not send an inexperienced man to his first federal office in the territory, but rather dispatch an old hand. Wilson Shannon, like Jim Lane, represented a northern district and voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the House. Before that he served as Ohio’s governor, resigning that post to take become ambassador to Mexico. Nichole Etcheson calls his tenure south of the border “disastrous.” In Race and Politics: Bleeding Kansas and the Coming of the Civil War, James Rawley calls him “a small-bore politician, noted for his tactlessness.”

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Everyone has to start somewhere, and Pierce probably could not have foreseen just how badly things would go in Kansas. We might on those grounds make allowances for Reeder, who ended up trying to do a good job but lacking the skills to make the best of it. Wilson Shannon, however, had that record in Mexico. Just what happened there? I dug around my library and couldn’t find any account of it. Etcheson cites Sam W. Haynes’ Soldiers of Misfortune: The Somervell and Mier Expeditions, to which I lack access, and William Elsey Connelley’s Kansas Territorial Governors. I might acquire a copy of Haynes’ book in the future, but Google digitized Connelley’s so I have that right on hand. Regrettably, Connelley summarizes Shannon’s service in Mexico as follows:

He was appointed Minister to Mexico in this year, and entered upon the discharge of the duties of his office, but returned home on the breaking-out of the Mexican War.

I’ll muddle through. If anybody knows the story, I’d love to hear it. Connelley does provide some explanation for Shannon’s appointment, other than his membership in the right party and right vote on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It transpires that the Shannons did very well for themselves in Ohio. An elder brother went west with Lewis and Clark, where he lost a leg. Another succeeded as a merchant. Wilson studied law under two of his brothers and went to university in Ohio and Kentucky. He married the daughter of a circuit court clerk and

Much of his political advancement was the result of this marriage. His brothers-in-law were all influential men in Ohio politics. Among them were Hon. William Kennon; Hon. George W. Manypenny, Commissioner of Indian Affairs when Kansas was organized as a Territory, Hon. Hugh J. Jewett; and Hon. Isaac E. Easton. The influence of these men was exerted in his behalf.

Shannon had the right friends and relatives, including the family tie to Manypenny. But Pierce did not first consider him for the job. Connelley relates that a Pennsylvanian received the offer, but he passed by the chance to have his career ruined and life threatened in Kansas. Shannon wanted the job and campaigned for it. He arrived in Kansas on the first of September.

More resolutions and another convention

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

The free soil men of Kansas got together at Lawrence. They resolved differences amongst themselves, approved a protest to send along to Washington, and published a set of resolutions. Along the way, they also considered the questionable loyalty of James Lane to their cause. I don’t know that they resolved the last question all that well in their own minds, but apparently not enough doubted him to consider excluding him from their or future proceedings.

But the antislavery party still had some division. A General Pomeroy

being loudly called for took the stand, and thought the time had not arrived for forming a State government. He was not without hope of the new Governor. He thought it possible our best hopes might be realized. Let us not embarrass the new powers.   I believe there is yet light, though all now is dark as night. I have just come from the East, and have traveled through the free West, and I know that a determined and firm course will meet with the support of every freeman in the nation, and many of the best men of the South.

Surely the better angels of their countrymen’s natures had to come to the fore eventually. Every other kind had put in an appearance. Quite how Pomeroy thought that Franklin Pierce would appoint an impartial or antislavery governor, I can’t say. Even Lane, who had just pledged that Pierce would do right by them, didn’t suggest that much. He rose to speak against Pomeroy.

But for the moment, the free soilers showed their commitment to precedent. They would not undertake to write a constitution at their convention. They would go so far as resolutions and speeches, including endorsing their previous Lawrence convention and its resolutions, but no farther.

At this point, men like Cyrus Holliday must have deprived their barbers of some business. The convention had done just what its predecessor and every other free state gathering had done. When would they get the lead out and take action? Did they convene to any end other than to commiserate and express their righteous indignation?

Well, yes. The Herald of Freedom reports

Allusion was made to a Free State Delegate Convention, called at Big Springs, on the 25th of September next. The bills were exhibited, and the movers for that Convention-several of whom were present-expressed a desire that there should be a union of effort of all Free State men, and hoped that those in attendance at this Convention would act in concert with that.

The convention voted through a unanimous resolution to that effect.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

It bears noting that, despite an overlap in attendance, the Big Springs gathering did not flow from the Lawrence convention. The movement arose independently. In Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era, Nichole Etcheson explains:

By doing so, the New Englanders joined forces with westerners who, in what they called the Sand Bank convention, had called for the convention at Big Springs. One a sand bank of the Kansas River, some Lawrence men had held an impromptu gathering on July 17, 1855. Worried that Charles Robinson’s July 4 oration had been too extreme, they chose Big Springs […] Fifteen miles west of Lawrence, it was a convenient distance from the extremists there.

Despite others echoing it now and then, not everybody cared for Robinson’s rhetoric about white men enslaved, or bought his questionable assertion that he had not come among them to preach his abolitionism. But if they hoped to succeed, the free state men could not spend all their time fighting one another. It might very well come to nothing but another gathering, but at least the convention’s members had gone beyond suggesting the formation of a free state movement amongst themselves and taken an affirmative step toward building one.

Jim Lane’s Purity

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

The free state party met in convention at Lawrence, Kansas on August 14 and 15, 1855. The first day saw the reading of proposed resolutions and debate over them. Despite their shared revulsion at the proslavery part’s impositions by fraud, intimidation, and violence over them, they did not all agree on the best course of action. Aside the split between abolitionists and antislavery men, they differed on practical strategy, the wisdom of writing a constitution at a party meeting, organizing military companies, and whether or not the entire effort had any point if they continued as they ad. No amount of resolutions and indignation had yet freed Kansas from proslavery domination. But they could all agree that they opposed slavery in Kansas, right?

Over the night of the fourteenth, the free state men did resolve many of their differences. At least one problem remained, however. Not everyone believed that newcomer James Lane, a former congressman from Indiana who voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, spent the summer trying to organize a Democratic party, and appeared to only sign on to the free state movement when he realized most Kansans either hated slavery or hated proslavery men, really belonged among them. This came up Wednesday morning, when discussing whether or not the convention should go ahead with writing a constitution for Kansas then and there or call for a separate constitutional convention. Lane rose to speak on the subject, giving

assurances that Attorney General Cushing and President Pierce were as anxious to make Kansas a free State as any of us. “I will say more: Frank Pierce would give his right arm to-day, to insure freedom to this Territory.” He differed as to the propriety of this resolution, and would vote against it, but he had not said anything in favor of sanctioning the acts of of this Legislature; but he would go for resisting to the last extremity every enactment of that body which would be in violation of the constitution and the organic law.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Lane clearly wanted it both ways. He agreed with the free state movement and would resist with them, but not quite like this. Furthermore, he knew that the White House supported them. An anachronistic peer might have inquired as to how much of what one had to smoke to gain such knowledge. Everybody knew that “Frank” Pierce had just fired Andrew Reeder for, official explanation aside, the governor’s fidelity to the stated aim of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

A Mr. Foster rose to name to the leavings of the male bovine:

Mr. Foster reviewed the position of Mr. Lane, and said within ten days Mr. lane had declared, on certain conditions he was in favor of making Kansas a slave State. (Mr. Lane begged leave to correct the gentleman, which he did, concluding by stating that he would prefer to see Kansas a slave State in preference to seeing it an abolition State.) Mr. Foster said he would not push his charge against the gentleman further, as he was satisfied to leave the explanation with the convention.

One wonders how much good Lane’s “correction” did him. Calling on the revulsion of abolitionists at a free state meeting makes good nineteenth century sense, as most who opposed slavery’s expansion viewed them as dangerous fanatics, but it seems a strange way to establish one’s antislavery bona fides. The Herald of Freedom, regrettably, does not give the conditions under which Lane would accept a slave Kansas.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Lane might have persuaded the convention that he really did oppose slavery in Kansas all along. He might have argued against the methods of the proslavery men rather than slavery qua slavery. Either position would have spoken for other men present. Regardless, the Herald of Freedom drops the matter so presumably Lane’s purity did not constitute a deal breaker for the assembly.