“The more abolitionists he could kill at a fire the better”

John Wilkins Whitfield

John Wilkins Whitfield

On the first of October, 1855, the legal government of Kansas held its congressional delegate election. Just as at the previous such election, Missourians came over to ensure an outcome to their liking. John Wilkins Whitfield won the office again. Things had gone very well for the proslavery side of late and the free state men pledged to sit out the election in favor of their own a week later. But material success had produced unprecedented resistance and further confirmed for the advocates of an enslaved Kansas that they faced an existential crisis. Thus they crossed from Missouri in their customary militancy.

L. A. Prather told the Howard Committee that while the Missourians he saw comported themselves without violence at the polls, they had other plans should the opportunity arise. He spotted a stalk of hemp on the rear of one of their wagons and a hemp rope hanging on a forked stick to one side. Such signs identified border ruffians to one another at past elections. Prather, new to Kansas, inquired about the display. “[T]hey said it was to hang the abolitionists with.”

Prather did not count himself among those people. A Virginian by birth, he proposed to vote for neither Reeder nor Whitfield, but to damn them both. But Prather did consider himself a Kansan and informed his fellow travelers that he did not care for their deciding his elections. His friendly companion on the road then

told me that I would be the first person rewarded with that rope; that I would be hung up if I did not look sharp. That was about half a mile below Independence. They claimed the right to vote, and that was claimed generally, and I was obliged to concede it to them, under a law of what we called the Shawnee Mission legislature, of being allowed to vote by paying a dollar a head. I put the question distinctly to different persons of that party: Do you claim to vote as residents of the Territory? And they said, no. We claim a right to vote under that law.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The Kansas Assembly had blessed future election stealing, so the ruffians had the law on their side. The sixty or so in the party Prather met must have found his distinction satisfactory, since he survived to testify in May of 1856. One of them had enough of a conscience to feel awkward despite the law. He insisted that they had a claim in the Territory, which would make them close enough to residents to vote in some other territories in the past. Another immediately answered him:

“Jim, what is the use of telling that damned lie; we are doing just as we did the 30th of March, at the last election.”

The topic of Lawrence came up and the men

said it was there determination to whip the men, tear down the damned town, and slide it into the river.

They took a break from the talk of violence to ask Prather why “the abolition party” would not vote in the election. Prather told the election stealing, Missourian invaders that Kansans expected an invasion, from Missouri, with the object of stealing the election. These Missourians would drive free state people from the polls. Better to avoid the fight by having a separate election. There, they could elect Andrew Reeder. If the irony did not suffice for another outburst, then Reeder’s name did:

Robert Grant, and two others, said, “God damn Governor Reeder; he will not be alive that day.” Robert Grant stated that he would shoot him whenever he could be pointed out to him. When I asked him if he would not feel bad in killing other men, in killing Governor Reeder, he said, “No; that the more abolitionists he could kill at a fire the better.” The party in general also expressed a great deal of vindictiveness against Colonel Lane, and threatened his life also.

Had Grant met Reeder, he would not have been the first to draw a gun on Easton, Pennsylvania’s most imperiled son.

That Prather intended to vote in the second election, even if not for Reeder, made him worse than an abolitionist. They called him “a damned southern traitor,” so restating the central southern white understanding of identity: southerners owed their loyalty to slavery. That loyalty alone made one a southerner. Whatever other distinguishing characteristics the land or people therein might have had paled in significance before one’s fealty to the proposition that white freedom required black slavery. Each stroke of the bountiful whips exalted the wielder and all those imagined of one both with him. If one didn’t like that, one had best get over the state line to a place that would tolerate such heresy.

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