Did Atchison really say that? Part One

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

People in the past, like people now, could have a distant relationship with the truth. They might admire it from afar but not care to draw so near as to get any on them. Sometimes the record exposes them easily, but we don’t always win the source lottery. Events in Kansas often happened on a rather smaller scale and consequently with fewer witnesses, and fewer still willing to come forward while strife continued. The struggle for the territory’s future made the stakes high enough for otherwise honest people to stretch the truth even before one factors in the degree of score-settling that must accompany the emotionally and violently charged environment. Thus Alice Nichols begins her Bleeding Kansas with this acknowledgement

Eastern newspapers sent correspondents to cover the troubles in Kansas Territory and to them we are indebted for colorful writing. There may be invented dialogues in this book, invented quotations, even invented appraisals of the Kansas weather and the Kansas countryside, but, if so, they are the inventions of the reporters and diarists who lived a hundred years ago. To these vivid writers, I wish to express my gratitude.

As do we all. But Patrick Laughlin’s testimony on free state men exaggerating their accounts comes to mind as another possible instance of invented quotation. Laughlin named Dr. G.A. Cutler as one of those.

when I procured the statements of “free State men,” it was the last of September or first of October. I reduced them to writing, except Dr. Cutlers; and I am not certain whether that is or not. I went to them to solicit their statements, except in and about Doniphan. I reduced them to writing as they told them to me. They were not sworn, as I understood.

Longtime readers might remember Cutler not just as one of those who helped initiate Laughlin into the Kansas Legion, but also one of the witnesses who spoke to the Howard Committee. His testimony, in fact, brought me to the Howard Report to begin with. I came on this line first in James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: 

There are eleven hundred men coming over from Platte County to vote,” [Atchison] told his followers, “and if that ain’t enough we can send five thousand-enough to kill every God-damned abolitionist in the Territory.

McPherson found Atchison’s line from Allan Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union, who had it direct from the Howard Report. William W. Freehling uses it in The Road to Disunion, Volume Two: Secessionists Triumphant as well. A great deal of the research that goes into this blog comes from chasing quotes like this through the footnotes to the original.

Now we know that G.A. Cutler, who quoted Atchison, could stretch the truth. We have it direct from Laughlin, who counts him among the free state men he knew to have done so. This throws the Atchison quote into some question. Did Cutler make it up? He might have, but I don’t think so. I cannot claim certainty, but I see two good arguments for the quote’s general accuracy, the first negative and second positive.

On the negative side, Laughlin makes it clear that he gathered testimony about events in and around the October, 1855 delegate elections. He says himself

These statements were got to give information as to the contest between Reeder and Whitfield for delegate, and also to injure the pro-slavery cause.

While that doesn’t require Laughlin’s informants to confine themselves to the subject, it puts his information into that context. Cutler has Atchison coming over and sounding off his murderous ambitions in March of that year, on the occasion of elections for the Legislative Assembly. Thus one can’t take his claims of exaggeration as necessarily speaking to events much earlier or more remote than that election. They may include such remarks, but it appears they did not concern him specifically. Also on this front, Laughlin’s examples of exaggeration concern numbers and armament of Missourians, rather than specific words or deeds. If he knew for a fact that his sources put words into the mouths of prominent border ruffians or invented acts for them instead of simply expanding the scope of what really happened, then Laughlin would have had every reason to share those cases with or in preference to those he did supply.

Furthermore, Laughlin himself suggests that he may have taken those statements in bad faith. He says that he gathered them on September 30 and October 1, 1855 but that he changed his mind about the free state party shortly after arriving home in Doniphan from the Big Springs Convention of September 5. He told the committee that

I did not communicate my intention not to organize any more regiments to any one until some time in October, when I left the free State party and have since acted with the pro-slavery party.

It sounds like Laughlin took it on himself to spy for the proslavery men. That may make his information especially useful, as he could give a fair account of the free State party men speaking unguarded. But it also means we have to take it with some care. By this point Laughlin also had a strong personal dislike for his informants related to their secret society activities. None of this entirely impeaches Laughlin’s account, but those concerns should qualify the natural impulse to generalize it from specific testimony around the delegate election.

This has run long. The positive case for Atchison saying what Cutler claimed will have to wait for tomorrow’s post.

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