Did Atchison really say that? Part Two

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

We left off yesterday with reasons to consider Patrick Laughlin’s testimony of free state exaggerations with some care. Laughlin had decided already to no longer cooperate with the free state party when he collected his accounts. He had a personal grudge arising from his status as an Irishman and the Kansas Legion’s resemblance to a Know-Nothing secret society that might have further colored his accounts. The accuser might himself have exaggerated. Furthermore, Laughlin interviewed men in and about the delegate election of October 1, 1855. If he named G.A. Cutler, who gave us this memorable, and popular in the literature, quote from David Rice Atchison

There are 1,100 coming over from Platte county, and if that ain’t enough we can send you 5,000 more. We came to vote, and we are going to vote, or kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district.

then Laughlin also placed his accusation in a rather later context. He had not even come to Kansas in March of 1855, when Atchison and his army of border ruffians, weighed down with alcohol, guns, and two cannons, made the speech Cutler reported.

Cutler’s quotation remains popular in the literature. It might have done so even with Laughlin’s testimony calling it into question, but one need not impeach Laughlin to believe Cutler had the right of it. David Rice Atchison rarely shrank from violent rhetoric. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom includes this line, from one of Bourbon Dave’s letters:

“We are organizing,” he told Jefferson Davis. “We will be compelled to shoot, burn & hang, but the thing will soon be over. we intend to ‘Mormonize’ the Abolitionists.

Just fifteen years before, the men of Atchison’s western Missouri had driven off the Mormons by force. Even had he not named his methods, that would make his meaning clear. William W. Freehling has a longer version of the same in The Road to Disunion, Volume Two: Secessionists Triumphant:

“We will have difficulty with the Negro thieves in Kansas,” Atchison wrote Jefferson Davis in September 1854, but “our people are resolved to go in and take their ‘niggers’ with them.” I have publicly advised ‘squatters in kansas and the people of Missouri to give a horse thief, robber, or homocide a fair trial, but to hang a Negro thief or Abolitionist, without Judge or Jury.” Since “we will shoot, burn, and hang,” Atchison assured Davis, the antislavery threat “will be soon over.”

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

The manifesto of the Platte County Self-Defense Association, which Atchison lieutenant B.F. Stringfellow wrote, defended its embrace of lawbreaking, including violence, in very similar terms:

Though we fully recognise the duty of all good citizens to obey the law, to rely upon the law, where there is no law, the right of self-defence requires that we should resort to the strong hand for self-protection. We have no law by which the expression of abolition sentiments is made a penal offence, and yet it is a crime of the highest grade. It is not within even the much abused liberty of speech; but in a slaveholding community, the expression, of such sentiments is a positive act, more criminal, more dangerous, than kindling the torch of the incendiary, mixing the poison of the assassin. The necessity for a law punishing such a crime, has not, until now, been felt in Missouri. Until such a law is enacted, self-protection demands that we should guard against such crimes.

Though written by Stringfellow, the association in general read them and voted them official approval. Atchison likely cast one of those approving votes and certainly could not have missed the document’s writing or circulation. If not quite his own, then they had to have met his approval.

Atchison might not have said exactly what G.A. Cutler recounted, but he had said things like it. By his actions he proved that he had no objection to coming over with armed bands to steal Kansas elections. He can’t have come thinking the guns merely an esoteric fashion accessory. The Cutler quote fits Atchison’s politics, his general mode of expressing them, and indeed the general tenor of other border ruffian proclamations. While we cannot say with perfect certainty that Cutler had it right or recalled the words verbatim, it seems far more likely that Atchison said them than that he did not. If he happily told a former Senate colleague and then-current Secretary of War that he proposed to shoot, burn, and hang every abolitionist in of Kansas then why should we think he would scruple at saying the same thing to a band of men committed to the same cause?

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