Stealing the Leavenworth County Seat, Part Two

William Phillips

William Phillips

Leavenworth, just across the river from Platte County, had the population to make a county seat. While its proslavery men mobbed William Phillips back in the spring, they lacked the power to control the town. Thus Leavenworth became, in the minds of proslavery men across the river, “an abolition hole.” Such a place could not serve as county seat. That would naturally put the county officials to some degree under antislavery influence. Many in Missouri also had investments land around Kickapoo and Delaware, Leavenworth’s rivals. Putting the county seat elsewhere would thus both frustrate antislavery Kansans and prove personally lucrative. The Missourians knew their business and got to it. William Phillips recounts that

Leavenworth polled some five or six hundred votes, which I suppose the town and county adjacent could do at that time. Between Kickapoo and Weston the steam-ferry ran free all day. Missourians poured over as they had done at former elections, being naturalized in the ferry-boat by a ceremony in which whiskey, bread and cheese, figured extensively. Kickapoo, which might have been able to poll one hundred and fifty votes, rolled up eight hundred for the county seat.

The vote stands at five to six hundred for Leavenworth. Kickapoo has eight hundred. That left Delaware, where Phillips opined “scarcely anything” stood.

At Delaware, also, they attended to their interests. A steamer was chartered to run between Delaware and any point on the other side where there were votes. Public sentiment was aroused by a band of music, free whiskey, and other edibles, and kept aroused by objurgations on the “d—d abolitionists of Leavenworth!” Delaware struck out a new feature of electioneering. Instead of being satisfied with one day’s voting, they kept their polls open and the boat running until they had time to ascertain how many votes had been polled at Kickapoo, and also as much longer as it required to make up a larger vote. By the evening of the third day they had obtained nearly nine hundred (they could not have thrown more than fifty legal votes); so the polls closed in triumph.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

At some point the assault on democracy turns over into farce. Delaware’s returns asked too much. On receipt of the returns, “the first authority” named Kickapoo the winner and condemned Delaware’s three days of polling as “unheard of irregularity”. Phillips doesn’t name that authority, but he must mean the territorial government. Leavenworth acknowledged it and so would have conducted an election under its auspices. Likewise Kickapoo and Delaware, both solidly proslavery, had no reason to do otherwise. But by refusing to name it he can deny the government some measure of legitimacy and at least partially dodge questions about why he simultaneously held the body as illegitimate and cited its authority on the election returns.

By this point, early October, the legislature had adjourned. Phillips thus couldn’t damn them for accepting Kickapoo as the county seat. However, Wilson Shannon’s territorial executive recognized and cooperated with the legislature just as Andrew Reeder’s had. To endorse them would have undermined Phillips’ position and, in a work written in 1856, might yet do harm to the free state cause in general. The same sort of consideration went into how the Lincoln administration referred to and dealt with the Confederacy.

Stealing the Leavenworth County Seat, Part One

William Phillips

William Phillips

The proslavery friends of law and order had their preliminary meeting at Leavenworth on October 3, 1855. That city occupied an odd place in Kansas politics. According to William Phillips’ The Conquest of Kansas, the people of Leavenworth largely preferred the free state party. However, the city also accepted the rule of the territorial legislature, laws and all, in order to enjoy a charter from the Kansas Assembly. Phillips relates that this position arose “partly by business considerations, and partly by timidity.” This may have made it the ideal place for a notionally slavery-agnostic movement that opposed the free state men to gather. It also made the city into a target for proslavery men who had less tolerance for the soft sell.

The Assembly failed to name the seats of each county in Kansas, which left some of them up to the citizens to decide. The men of the county went to the polls on the subject in early October:

Three points contended for the honor. Leavenworth, the largest, and now the largest city in the territory, felt sure of it; so sure that no very special effort was made. Kickapoo was another contestant. Kickapoo is a river town, being some ten miles up the Missouri river from Leavenworth. It is a cotton-wood town of the “great futurity” school, and does a heavy business in the whiskey-retailing line. The other point, Delaware, is also a river town, eight miles below. This latter place has an admirable faculty for making a great place, there being scarcely anything of it now.

Kickapoo had a strong proslavery contingent, which prevented the free state delegate election polls from operating. I’ve also seen references to a proslavery militia called the Kickapoo Rangers. It had to look like a better prospect for county seat than the questionable Leavenworth, even if the latter sat just across the river from Platte County and had proslavery men committed enough to lynch William Phillips and brag about it back in the spring. As Phillips had it:

Previous elections had taught them a lesson, and furnished a valuable precedent. Western Missouri is just over the river from Kickapoo, and many of the citizens of the former place have an interest in the latter. So it is with Delaware; many of the most deeply interested speculators in this yet-to-be-Babylon live in Clay and Platte Counties, Missouri. Under these circumstances it is not wonderful that it was not difficult to arouse an interest in this election in Missouri. Another thing against Leavenworth-it was reputed to be an “abolition hole.”

All of this reminds me a bit of the argument in John McNamara’s account of Phillips’ mobbing. He argued that the papers in Missouri condemned Leavenworth as soft on slavery and the town’s proslavery men took Phillips on in part to prove them wrong. Leavenworth’s business-minded timidity on slavery could come across, especially from Missouri, as simultaneously making it a threat and a good place to win an easy victory. Add into this the issue of Missouri men having considerable money invested in its much smaller population -Phillips insists that Kickapoo and Delaware added together and doubled wouldn’t have matched Leavenworth’s numbers- and one has a convenient and relatively compelling case to steal yet another election.

The Friends of Law and Order, Part Three

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Parts 1 and 2

The self-proclaimed friends of law and order revealed to Kansans their enemy and its goals. The free state movement would bring only anarchy and ruin to the territory. By making themselves the judge of every law, they overthrew government of all kinds. Every political and social relation would follow. They saw dire times ahead unless the patriotic people of Kansas united behind the territorial government and defended it against fanatical Yankee traitors. While they called on all Kansans to join them, they could read the papers. They knew many would name the proslavery party and its captive government as the problem that tended toward anarchy. Thus

The undersigned earnestly hope that the fanatical and insane spirit is not so broadspread, as the present aspect of things would lead us to suppose-a persistence in such a course would involve us in a collision which all good men would deprecate and strive to avoid. Nevertheless, we think the indications are such as cannot be disregarded. This rebellious and revolutionary spirit must be met and resisted, even with the strong arm of power, and better met and encountered in its inception than hereafter, when it may have acquired more strength and vitality.

The authors wrote this before the elections for free state delegate to congress and the Topeka Convention, but after the call for them. This denied them firm numbers, but they hadn’t missed the general tenor of public opinion. They alluded to it in suggesting that the legislature might have overstepped its bounds.

Even a qualified suggestion of errors, however, went only so far. The authors pulled back from it almost at once and took an ironic turn. Having admitted that most Kansans probably opposed them, they chose to wrap themselves in the flag of majority rule:

we have amongst us a class of men who are unwilling to abide by that fundamental democratic principle, that “the majority shall govern”-men who would madly plunge us into anarchy, confusion, and civil broils, (for such must be the result, if persisted in,) why, it behooves us all as good citizens, as lovers of law and order, at once to assemble and adopt some measures to arrest and turn away from us the train of evils which such a course must inevitably bring about

They meant the free state movement. The probable minority of Kansans, abetted by no shortage of “Kansans” who lived in Missouri, declared that the majority should rule. By majority they meant not numbers and not Kansans, but rather that the majorities they had arranged by crooked elections and preserved through undemocratic laws must prevail, even if more than half of white Kansas stood against them.

What should good law and order men do to arrest the tide? How could they hold back the dark? The authors proposed a mass meeting of “all law-abiding men, without distinction of party” to discuss the threat and formulate means of opposition. They even had Governor Wilson Shannon committed to attend the meeting. With his cooperation, they expected that the machinery of territorial government would work in concert with them. But only “sustained by the law-abiding portion of the community” could they maintain the rule of law.

In coming to a close, the friends of law and order once more reached out to all Kansans. After two columns in the Squatter Sovereign painting the lot as traitorous, insane fanatics, they boldly declared

We believe that many who are now co-operating with this higher-law party are good men, and not to be classed with those who would resist the legally constituted authorities of the country. To such misguided men, we would appeal, and ask them to  unite with us in opposing a course, which a little reflection must convince them is so fraught with danger to the prosperity and happiness of the whole country.

If a free state man had doubts about the movement’s strategy, and some had, then they could salve their consciences and get right with the law by coming to Leavenworth on November 14. There they would have their say and the convention in general would decide appropriate measures.

The Friends of Law and Order, Part Two

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

William H. Seward

We left the Friends of Law and Order addressing the “Law-Abiding Citizens of Kansas” on the crisis that now faced Kansas. The abolitionists had come into their midst and threatened, with their fanatical hostility to the institution of the South, to bring the entire territory to ruin. Fair Kansas, blessed with natural resources and a glorious destiny, might fall into anarchy. The free state men had, after all, declared themselves in defiance of the law, set up their own government with its own elections and soon its own constitution. They fomented rebellion, which no state could tolerate.

These concerns obviously came from the proslavery party, but the men who wrote the address in the October 23, 1855 edition of the Squatter Sovereign did appeal to universal concerns:

It is not our intention at present to discuss the relative merits of the various political sentiments entertained by those whose doctrines are now linked together, for weal or woe, in the future fate of Kansas, the home of their adoption. The mass of our people have but one common interest, the general good and welfare of the people.

Forget the politics; we simply can’t have a two governments vying for the same territory. That augured civil war. Thus regardless of opinions on slavery or on the legitimacy of the legislature, good Kansans had to come together to fight the treason growing in their midst. Whatever they thought about it

The Legislature, which framed our code of laws, was according to the admission of the Governor of the Territory, a legally constituted body.

Although that Legislative Assembly may have erred and transcended its legitimate powers, yet we hold that their enactments are binding upon every citizen until they are by the proper tribunals decided to be invalid or unconstitutional.

Andrew Reeder, the same man who had just won election as the free state party’s delegate to Congress, had signed off on the legislature. He only changed his mind when it removed from his real estate investments in Pawnee. If he thought it illegitimate simply for its membership or its irregular elections, then he would not have so easily convened, praised, and tried to work with the body.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The friends of law and order further argued that this technical, legal legitimacy entirely sufficed. If the legislature got a bit carried away, then the American system had remedies. New elections, court rulings, or even acts of Congress might correct it. But private sentiment could not:

If a different rule is to govern, why not let every man create within his own bosom a superior court to pass upon the validity and binding force of any law? Why have courts at all if they are not the proper tribunals to decide upon these questions?

So much for Higher Law doctrinesWilliam Seward could cry himself to sleep every night for all they cared. The anarchy that threatened seemed to come on a straight line from the New York Senator, through the antislavery movement, freight paid by the New England Emigrant Aid Company. Seward’s bellicose language on Kansas invited the connection. Thus

We have witnessed the declaration of open and avowed resistance, and we see in it a manifestation of a lawless and reckless spirit which will soon subvert the foundations of all law, and reduce us to the wildest state of anarchy and confusion, unless it is speedily arrested in its mad career. It counsels a dissolution of all social and political ties. It constitutes every man as the sold judge of the validity of all law […] open defiance to “the powers that be” is already proclaimed. It is needless to argue against the folly and wickedness of such conduct;- It is higher-lawism-it is Treason.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

This has a whiff of desperate exaggeration to it, but I don’t think we should underestimate their sincerity. Bonds of law included not just slavery, but marriage, property, and many other things that they understood as essential. These ties, legal and simultaneously social and political, held society back from the precipice. An attack on one thus seemed like an attack on all. Freeing the slaves would deprive white men of their property, bring about the specter of black men raping their wives and so violating the social bond of their marriages, and the slavery question threatened to sunder their political bonds as well. Free state and proslavery assemblies alike found it necessary to abjure the formation of parties affiliated with the national organizations in favor of bipartisan alignments for or against property in people.

If they really did believe slavery fundamental to society, and it seems clear that the proslavery men did, then all of this logically follows. They had built and aimed to continue building a civilization on the backs of black Americans. Tear away that foundation and what could stand?

Placing myself in the historiography

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

Gentle Readers, I planned for today’s post to include some insights from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book. I ordered it last week and expected to be through by now. When the book hadn’t arrived by late last week, I went to inquire. Then I learned that their supplier has only 1,400 copies to spread across the state, or a good portion of it, and so my order had turned into a back order with no estimated date of arrival. The good news a high demand means to Ta-Nehisi’s bank account comes joined with my small misfortune. Few have suffered so keenly as I have, of course. Future generations will remember my inconvenience in tastelessly baroque arrangements of concrete. Generations further removed still will wonder at the overweight, balding fellow on horseback with a laptop and too many books precariously balanced on his knees. I rode a horse once, if one counts a plow horse in its traces. By this same standard, I have ridden an elephant. We history bloggers lead glamorous lives, you know.

My tragedy for the ages aside, that leaves me with a Modern Monday to write. I cast about for a while before realizing that I read Coates to understand. He writes well and powerfully from a perspective that I think most white Americans have little to no experience with. We have, for the most part, very segregated lives and the culture which produced us works very hard, by design, to keep things that way. By reading him I get a bracing corrective to that which then informs my further reading of history. He helps me understand not just black Americans, but all Americans.

To the same end, I sometimes read historiography. I must distinguish this from history as one usually knows it. Historiography often, and ought, to come in history books but the two do differ. I understand historiography as the history of historical interpretation, which lately I have approached through Kenneth Stampp’s The Causes of the Civil WarThere he collects signature writings in the historiography of the war, from period documents to postwar polemics and historians all the way up to the last printing in 1991. This matters because, whatever appearances to the contrary, every historian comes from somewhere. The historian’s personal values and the culture of his or her time inform every step of the historical endeavor from what questions one cares to ask to where one looks for material to how one weighs particular evidence. In this, historians do not differ so much from everyone else.

Much of what I have read in Stampp covers ground I’ve crossed before, occasionally to the point of frustration. But reading his collection gave me cause to reflect upon my own historiographical positions. Readers may disagree, but I would place myself as a member of what I’ve lately seen called the Fundamentalist school of Civil War causation. This term, I think, postdates Stampp’s work. In his work, and past decades, people of a similar position claimed to subscribe to the Irrepressible Conflict school, after a speech of William Seward’s. Elizabeth Varon describes Fundamentalists in her Disunion! The Coming of the Civil War as following W.E.B. Du Bois:

For Du Bois, the Civil War was not only a clash of economic systems but also a war of ideas and ideologies (systems of thought). With careful attention to both the economies and the ideologies of North and South, modern “fundamentalists” such as James M. McPherson, Eric Foner, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Bruce Levine, John Ashworth, Brian Holden Reid, and Sean Wilentz have described the two sections as different and deeply antagonistic societies; all agree that slavery was the root cause of that antagonism. The North’s commitment to capitalism and modernization, these scholars explain, was the context for abolitionism and for the free labor ideology of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. The South’s commitment to staple production and slave labor was reflected in the region’s distinctive cult of honor, its preoccupation with localism and states’ rights, and its defense of social inequality.

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Full disclosure: I have read McPherson, some (and not nearly enough) Foner, and Ashworth, but not the others. They remain on my ever-growing list of scholars to read.

It follows from these premises that at the very least, one would expect intense and regular conflict between the North and South. This conflict could very probably have come to the point of war at some point, regardless of the outcomes of individual crises. We can’t rerun time and see how things might have gone in other circumstances, but viewed in light of this each crisis comes to us less as a unique thing in itself and more as part of an ongoing and never entirely subdued dispute. Contingency might have shaped how each conflict arose and what resolution came, but a resolution that brought satisfaction to one section would naturally have come at the perceived expense of the other. This would in turn lead to less tolerance for future compromises on behalf of the aggrieved, which would further alienate and undermine the position of moderates in the other section. Cycles of polarization feed upon themselves and ratchet up the tension, making alternatives once the province of a few seem increasingly like sensible options. Perhaps those drastic steps would become then the only options, leading to a rupture which no mystic chords of memory could bind back together again.

Against this school, one could array the neo-revisionists. The original revisionists, much-beloved of latter-day Confederates, blamed the war not on profound sectional differences but instead on manufactured controversy. To their eyes, irresponsible agitators of a blundering generation (for this one should generally read “abolitionists,” the fire-eaters usually got a free pass or only pro forma denunciation) invented the dispute over slavery for some other reason. It could come down to one’s personal ambitions, desire to build a political party, or esoteric and often unrelated issues like the tariff. To them, slavery played a role more as the incident of the sectional breach rather than its main cause. The neo-revisionists do not go nearly so far as this. Reviews I have read cast some doubt on Varon’s assigning David Potter and Stampp himself to this school. Having read Potter’s The Impending Crisis, I really don’t myself know where got that one from. But William Freehling, author of my much-loved Road to Disunion volumes accepts the label. In any event, this newer wave of scholars all emphasize the centrality of slavery in their own ways. They put more weight in contingency more and give more credit to individual actors, blundering and otherwise, but little dispute remains over the subject of the controversy.

This leaves us not with a question of what caused the war, but rather whether or not the people of the time could have avoided it. I don’t think so. At the very least, doing so would have taken an especially monumental change of heart on behalf of multiple deeply committed and influential actors who all stood to lose a great deal for reversing themselves. People don’t normally turn on a dime like that even without the future of the nation, as they understand it, at stake.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

I don’t know when exactly the ship sailed and the increasing forces of antagonism became an irreversible trend; none of us can know that with any certainty. One can point to the election itself. If Stephen Douglas won, would the Southern Democrats really bolt the Union? They had refused him, but by cooperating they could win concessions as they so often had. Then again, Douglas ultimately came out against them over the future of Kansas and Kansas matters kept the sectional fires burning for most of the decade before the war.

Could John Brown have saved the Union by staying home? Maybe so, as his raid on Harper’s Ferry prompted fresh panic across the South. But white southerners saw in John Brown nothing more than the culmination of all they had already observed among the Republicans.

Taking things further back, if we could remove Kansas from the equation things become less clear. Many historians, including Freehling, have taken the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act with its repeal of the Missouri Compromise as the point of no return. It broke the Whigs, ravaged the Northern Democracy, and ultimately created the Republicans. If the northern Whigs had little reason to curry favor with their southern wing, then they had at least some. The Republicans had no southern wing to appease and the thought of them creating one in the Border South helped drive the Lower South out of the Union.

But then the Whigs did not look so well before 1854. The Compromise of 1850 demonstrated that the Democracy could deliver for slavery where Whiggery could not and at least somewhat harmed the Whigs in doing so. Dispute over the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act had not gone away and proved a source of tension fruitful enough that South Carolina damned northerners as nullifiers over it in 1860. If this did not amount to a Kansas-sized breach, then the fact that it did not work as advertised agitated the South as much as its existence and operation did the North.

John Brown

John Brown

I don’t know that calling anything inevitable makes for best historical practice, as it seems to both deny agency to people in the past and to render the historian’s task moot, but at the very least I think an eventual war over slavery’s future became far more likely when David Wilmot rose and proposed that slavery should not extend to any land taken from Mexico. One can, however, step back from that and say that Wilmot had no reason to do any such thing had no Mexican War ensued. The Mexican War arose inherently, even as understood by the men who voted for it, from the annexation of Texas. That takes us back to the middle of the 1840s for the act of annexation itself, or the decade prior for when it first became a national issue.

It would not do to draw a straight line from each of these points to Sumter. Nor should we neglect the serious friction over the Missouri Compromise itself back in 1820. But I take each of these points as increasing the probability of civil war. I think that we often overstate the fractured nature of the early Republic, reading too much of the 1850s and 1860s backward and too much of colonial disunion forward. Much of this comes from reading invocations of states rights as arising from disposition and principle rather than partisanship and circumstance. I also think that a degree of paradoxical nationalism plays into things. By emphasizing the frailty of the Union, we can make the fabled experiment in self-government seem all the more remarkable for its endurance.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Considering all of this, I take the Missouri Compromise as a prototype for sectional crises, if not one immediately followed. Sectional tension over slavery then, I would argue, increasingly characterized national politics. This trend did not come without partial reverses and progressed somewhat modestly in its early years, but each controversy thereafter sharpened the lines further and so made the next both more likely and more perilous to the peace of white Americans.

The neo-revisionists might ask why compromise and pacification failed in 1860, when the Union had endured decades before then. Latter day blundering generation historians could point to turnover of politicians in both sections. Men who came of age in the Era of Good Feelings remembered something like an America without parties, dominated by statesmen they imagined disinterested. Those men retired, often to the grave, during the early 1850s. They could have done better. But then Calhoun himself, as much a product of that time as Henry Clay, rejected compromise. Nor did those men, some of whom got the idea going in their retirement, have to deal with the tensions that at least a decade of fairly steady conflict had brought to a head. Clay’s final compromise got only qualified approval, so even had his generation lived longer I don’t know that they truly could have found space to satisfy everyone on the increasingly small middle ground. Nor do I know that they should have.

The questions of the war’s inevitability and the nature of the sectional conflict do not come to us detached from other concerns but rather deeply connected. The original revisionists disclaimed slavery as a cause because they considered the institution doomed anyway or because they understood black Americans as natural slaves who required it. Both interpretations made the war fundamentally needless, hundreds of thousands dead and billions of dollars of property wasted. Neo-revisionists don’t usually go that far, though they are right to note that we make the judgment more easily in hindsight, and our modern values about racial egalitarianism, than anybody could have at the time. With respect, I argue that this holds equally true for every historical judgment. We all came from somewhere. I suspect that graduate schools now, after a decade and a half of dubious wars, have more than a few neo-revisionists attending classes just as past generations imbibing the Civil Rights Movement and fresh off victory in the “good” war filled those same classes with neo-abolitionists.

I don’t want to go into the connected questions at the same length; perhaps I will some other day. But it would do to touch on them. I do not believe, as the original revisionists did, that slavery had reached its natural limits. Nor do I think that in the long term its natural limits would have held. Without the Civil War, and without a war that lasted at least a few years, I suspect slavery would have thrived at least until the First World War. It may, in fact, have managed quite well into the second. Then the demand for labor might have strained it to the breaking point, but I don’t know that it necessarily would have. A slave can do factory labor as well as farm labor, as the Nazis well knew and as the operators of Virginia’s Tredegar Iron Works discovered. Slaves could have mined in the American West. Caribbean and Mexican conquests could have come to further expand the horizons of traditional plantation agriculture. Absent the Civil War, we might still be trading slaves today. It would take only twelve states committed to its perpetuation to quash any constitutional amendment to abolish and absent the Reconstruction Amendments and a century of jurisprudence that leans heavily upon them, I don’t see a clear road to its end in the United States.

Further, while as power-hungry as anybody else and as racist as their time dictated, I don’t understand white antislavery Americans and abolitionists as little more than hypocrites who found a convenient cause and rode it to power. The more I read of their writing and study their deeds, the more convinced I become of their sincerity. They had cynical opportunists among them, but so does every movement. I am equally persuaded that white proslavery Americans wrote, said, and did as they would in earnest. I don’t think as highly of them for it, but I don’t consider their movement any less genuine than that of their opponents.

Why does all of this matter? Perhaps it sounds like a great deal of naval-gazing. We shall go back to Kansas on the morrow, but I don’t think that one needs to pursue a doctorate in history to get something out of these considerations or pretend that we do well enough to appease advisers. These convictions do arise from studying the material. They also come informed by present circumstances. But the connections run both ways. Recognizing where a historian sits on the questions gives context to the work and so helps me process it. Knowing where I sit both guides me to subjects and sources of interest and, if probably to a far lesser degree, alerts me to places where my biases may blind me. Knowing the premises of past arguments, especially where the facts did not agree with them, helps me develop a more informed understanding than past generations could enjoy. I don’t know if it converges on truth. I don’t know if we should even consider truth the correct metric in the absence of time machines. But I feel improved for doing it.

The Friends of Law and Order, Part One

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

Proslavery men interfered with antislavery activity. This interference could take the form of fistfights, mob attacks, intercepting mail, and legislation that essentially outlawed antislavery publications and organization. The code imposed on Kansas would accomplish nothing without enforcement. Robert S. Kelley made a start at that in stopping distribution of the Herald of Freedom, but no one had yet gone down to arrest George Washington Brown, despite his deliberate provocations. They had better luck near Atchison, but winning Atchison and losing Kansas would have made for a paltry victory. Thus, on October 3, 1855, “a meeting of the friends of Law and Order” at Leavenworth convened to discuss the problem, appoint a committee, and write up a public statement.

A cloud has arisen in the political firmament, portentous of much evil to our country-a fanatical spirit engendered in some of the hot-beds of Abolitionism at the North has sprung into existence in our midst, and threatens to nullify and disregard the Code of Laws recently given by the Legislative Assembly to the people of the Territory. Open rebellion and hostility to the laws are proclaimed, and a defiance to the authority of all Legislative enactments threatened.

They had most of the facts right. If a majority of the free state men would have objected to the claim that they held to abolition doctrines, then they couldn’t argue that they had abolitionists in their midst. Nor could they deny, after so many meetings where they declared it eagerly, that they proposed to nullify the enactments of the proslavery legislature. Forming their own government and writing a constitution counted as open defiance.

So the proslavery men faced a crisis. The laws they enacted to keep Kansas safe for slavery appeared to have little force. The government they instituted for the same purpose now had a rival. Kansas seemed out of control and that anarchy would abet abolition with its economic ruin and race wars. Their enemies came together in an unholy alliance:

Men from the North, bred in an atmosphere of hostility to the Institutions of the South-and from the East, with all the bigotry of the ancient Puritans, their forefathers-and from the South, with their fiery hot blood, and impetuous temper, impotent of any restraint-and the bold Pioneer of the West, rude and uncultivated, have all met on our soil as one common centre, and now compose one distinct political organization.

Here the proslavery men had the worst of all worlds: Northeastern Puritan hatred and religious fanaticism joined to the rage of a son of the South joined to the rude, rough ways of the West. Everything a proslavery man might fear, and one thing he might otherwise have relied on, came together against him as a single body. In defiance of all expectations, these disparates maintained and strengthened their unity, “settled down with a community of mutual brotherly love.”

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Despite all of that, Kansas had enjoyed the blessings of good government. The strength of the American character and its commitment “to live in harmony and in accordance with the eternal principles of justice and right” had ruled over the “grosser passions” of Kansans to date. Kansas “advanced rapidly in all things tending to develope the greatness of her future destiny”. The “boundless resources” of the “lovely plains” promised a pleasant and lucrative future to all.

It would be unbecoming the settlers of such a domain to lose all the advantages they are sure to reap, by permitting anarchy and confusion to run riot and dispel the law-abiding portion of the community. Rather let all the lovers of Law and Order combine to resist the efforts which are now being made to throw distraction in our midst. Let us with firm composure assure those who are now opposing us, that treason cannot find a resting place in Kansas,-without a straight maintenance of law and order, there can be no security for our persons or property.

Kansas had a wonderful future ahead of it but the abolitionists would burn it all to the ground if given half a chance. It fell on good, patriotic Kansans to unite for law and order or the Black Republicans and their fellow travelers would destroy it all.

“The Laws Must be Enforced”

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

The free state movement undertook a very conspicuous business. They held elections all around Kansas for their convention at Topeka. Delegates gathered and there wrote a constitution for the territory which they proposed to submit to the voters on December 15, 1855. To run the polls, they needed judges of election and clerks. To carry the returns they needed couriers. To arrange polling places they had to communicate with people in each district. All of this might sound simple and straightforward to us, looking at it from the top down, but it took a great deal of organizing. This meant free state men moving around all of Kansas, including proslavery territory. The Squatter Sovereign, John Stringfellow and Robert Kelley’s paper, noticed. Under the headline “The Law Must be Enforced”:

We see there is a determination on the part of the Abolition papers at Lawrence, and a faction who act and think with them, to resist the Laws passed by our Legislature. This state of affairs is to be regretted, and the matter should be immediately looked into. The laws must be rigidly enforced, and that immediately or else anarchy and confusion will spread over the territory.

The laws effectively forbade antislavery activity in Kansas, so naturally the Squatter Sovereign favored strict enforcement. Laws against Missourians coming to Kansas for a day to vote did not enter into it, of course. The editors declared that the free state movement proposed “bold and daring nullification”which demanded

the attention of the officers in that section of the Territory to the matter, to perform their duty. If resistance, as is threatened, is made, then let a sufficient number be summoned, though it should take every law and order man in the Territory, and the offenders be brought to justice.

On behalf of Atchison County, Stringfellow and Kelley pledge five hundred “good and true men” to the cause. If those worthies did not suffice, then the rest of Kansas would chip in as

this rebellion must and will be quashed. If blood must flow, let it run freely. Let each individual proselite of the higher law doctrine, be singled out and brought to trial where justice will be done, though Heaven and the Union should fall.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

Immediately following the Squatter Sovereign’s bold pledge of lives, it reported “Another Outrage”. A free soiler had come around posting notices of the free soil elections on October 9. This miscreant

insulted our citizens by attempting to put up some of the aforesaid bills in this place. He was “caught in the act” and a large roll of his contraband goods taken from him and burned before his eyes. It was with the greatest difficulty that some of our citizens were prevented from hanging the culprit; but he was permitted to return after denying any knowledge of the contents of the bills and promising to “sin no more.”

Given how the citizens of Atchison treated Pardee Butler back in August, the paper likely didn’t exaggerate their fury. The messenger, the Sovereign continues, chose to depart Kansas at once and by the most direct route instead of hazarding “himself in the hands of the indignant Squatters of Kansas.”

The Topeka Constitution

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Politics at Topeka: parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Duel averted and factions managed, the Topeka Convention put together its constitution. After the customary invocation of “We, the people” and stressing that they “had the right of admission into the Union as one of the United States of America, consistent with the federal Constitution.” This has a bit of an argument to it. They claimed the right to themselves rather than wait on Washington or Washington’s territorial government. By immediately invoking the national Constitution they then emphasize that they reject only the territorial government that stolen elections had imposed upon them.

Further situating themselves in the American tradition, the Topeka Constitution declared in its Bill of Rights:

There shall be no slavery in this State, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crime.

The passage Thomas Jefferson wrote into the Northwest Ordinance and David Wilmot proposed applying to the Mexican Cession thus saw its most recent version to date. Not a word of it would please proslavery men, in Congress or elsewhere, but no one could honestly accuse the free state movement of a strange political innovation in the subject.

The convention saw a potential loophole in its prohibition on slavery. A slaveholder could possibly convert his or her human property into an indentured servant. The constitution prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude, but an indenture contracted outside its bounds might slip through. Gradual emancipation laws often included such provisions. No one born after a certain date, usually July 4, became a slave. However, the children of slaves born after that date would serve out indentures to their owners until they reached a certain age. Thus:

No indenture of any negro, or mulatto, made and executed out of the bounds of the State, shall be valid within the State.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

James Lane’s black law did not make it into the constitution, despite its popularity with the convention and with the Big Springs Convention before it. Instead the Topeka Convention passed a resolution calling on the first legislature elected under the new constitution to pass a black law and submitted the question to the people of Kansas along with the Constitution, and a provision on banking, for ratification.

This would not entrench the exclusion quite so thoroughly as putting it right in the constitution would have. That document forbade any attempt at a new constitution for five years after its passage. Including the black law would have ensured, barring the very unlikely event of an amendment to repeal it, at least five years of lily-white Kansas. By keeping it down to the level of ordinary legislation, the more egalitarian members of the convention gained the ability to strike the law down by a simple majority vote. Getting a majority to do so might take a great deal of doing, but could also have come about through withholding their support for something else until they gained repeal as a concession. Principle did not win an unqualified victory, but the compromise that Charles Robinson and the other the abolitionists accepted allowed them some cause for hope.

The constitution specified the means of its ratification. Kansans would vote on it, the black law, and the bank. Each one of those came as a separate issue, so one could vote for the constitution but against either or both of the black law and the bank. Elections would take place all over white-settled Kansas on December 15. Kansans could then have their constitution, dare Congress to refuse them in the name of popular sovereignty, and ride off into the sunset. They needed only for the proslavery men of Missouri and Kansas let them proceed.


Politics at Topeka, Part Four

William Phillips

William Phillips

Parts 1, 2, 3

With the issue of restricting suffrage to only white men and Indians who adopted their habits resolved, the Topeka Convention got into more serious matters still. Back at Big Springs at the start of September, almost the entire convention voted in favor of a black law for Kansas. This law would exclude free blacks from the territory. As the free state men wrote their constitution, the black law naturally came up again. William Phillips reports that

The article relative to the exclusion of free negroes, called the “black-law,” created considerable discussion. Many wished to include it in the constitution. This resolution was one of the humbugs, or tests, which decide nothing, while they create a party. In deciding upon its merits neither Legislature nor people took a true or comprehensive view of the question.

Where does genuine racism end and party interest begin? The black law certainly had partisan aspects. Many westerners demanded it as the price of their cooperation with the more egalitarian New England contingent. However, political interest rarely comes entirely independent of genuine belief.

To have a community of white people only is certainly desirable; but, instead of discussing this in connection with its comparative justice and humanity, the whole issue turned thus. An advocate of the measure would get a man by the button-hole, and say:

“Look here,-this black-law is a great thing. They accuse us Kansas folks of being abolitionists. Now we an’t abolitionists, are we?”

“No SIR!”

“No, sir-ee-I know we an’t; so the thing is to vote for the ‘black-law,’ and that will prove we an’t ‘abolitionists’.”

So Kansas voted for the “black-law” to demonstrate that she was not an “abolitionist.”

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Phillips’ invented dialog eschewing abolition reflects political interests. Disclaiming any abolitionism went on at Big Springs as well. We can understand that as party-building and a demonstration of the relative strength of the more western, more intensely racist contingent. It also might serve their purposes when the free state constitutions reached Kansas. A black law could shield them against some Southern fears that they would come into the Union as another Massachusetts. But by his own admission he finds an all-white Kansas preferable. Such laws had passed in western states in recent memory. In Race & Politics: Bleeding Kansas and the Coming of the Civil War, James Rawley has a New York Times reporter observe that westerners

are terribly frightened at the idea of being overrun by negroes. They hold to the idea that negroes are dangerous to the State and a nuisance, and measures have to be taken to prevent them from migrating to the territory.

If one swapped “property values” for “territory” the sentiment could come from the quiet admission of a modern realtor. Politics play their part here, but they came from a genuine, deep fear and loathing of black Americans. The James Lane and his westerners felt it more keenly than Charles Robinson and his New Englanders. They had the numbers so they prevailed.


The Watchman of Mockingbird

Go Set a WatchmanWe watched the movie in my junior year of high school, but I managed to avoid reading To Kill a Mockingbird until college. I still have the copy somewhere, but it chose this moment to vanish in the of way loose change and stray socks. I thus write without the benefit the text on hand or illustrative quotations. Please let me know if I’ve gotten some of the details wrong.

Both times I encountered Mockingbird, my teachers handed Atticus Finch to me as an anti-racist hero. If he waged a doomed, futile battle against the power of white hatred, then at least he struggled nobly in doing so. The student should feel the force of Atticus’ awesome virtue, thundering off the page in Gregory Peck’s voice from the center of the Earth. He exists for us to admire and emulate, made more of high principles than flesh and blood. Like most students, I went along with the story. I remember it engaging me fairly well in watching the movie. I found the book a bit slow and underwhelming, but then saw nothing in it that led me to reconsider Atticus the Righteous. The focus, both times through, fell less on character analysis and more on the evils of the Jim Crow South.

In subsequent years I thought little about Mockingbird. Then I read Malcolm Gladwell’s piece on the book back in 2009. He brings to mind what I had long found the most memorable scene of the story:

In the middle of the novel, after Tom Robinson’s arrest, Finch spends the night in front of the Maycomb jail, concerned that a mob might come down and try to take matters into its own hands. Sure enough, one does, led by a poor white farmer, Walter Cunningham. The mob eventually scatters, and the next morning Finch tries to explain the night’s events to Scout. Here again is a test for Finch’s high-minded equanimity. He likes Walter Cunningham. Cunningham is, to his mind, the right sort of poor white farmer: a man who refuses a W.P.A. handout and who scrupulously repays Finch for legal work with a load of stove wood, a sack of hickory nuts, and a crate of smilax and holly. Against this, Finch must weigh the fact that Cunningham also leads lynch mobs against black people. So what does he do? Once again, he puts personal ties first. Cunningham, Finch tells his daughter, is “basically a good man,” who “just has his blind spots along with the rest of us.” Blind spots? As the legal scholar Monroe Freedman has written, “It just happens that Cunningham’s blind spot (along with the rest of us?) is a homicidal hatred of black people.”

Leaders of lynch mobs, like the rest of us, do have their blind spots. In calling faults blind spots, we both universalize and trivialize them. Everyone has one, so we must all have come by each innocently. Proclivity to lynch becomes a personal quirk, like not caring to shake hands or having an annoying laugh. Atticus shamed and stopped the mob, but he also defended them.

One can argue that Harper Lee meant for us to read the scene as subtly impeaching Atticus’ character, but if Mockingbird gave any sign of such an awareness then I don’t remember it and have not seen it brought out in any of the recent articles I’ve read on the subject. The unwavering voice of righteousness thus tells us, through Scout, not merely that lynchings just happen but also that essentially virtuous people conduct them. In this light, we should consider whether or not Atticus intervened because he believed in Tom’s innocence alone. Had his client been guilty, our hero might have stayed home.

Or we might have seen a different tableau. The night falls and Atticus takes Scout and Jem to the jail. There the sheriff contrived to find himself elsewhere. Perhaps he “forgot” and left the door unlocked. In some real world lynchings, law enforcement actively and visibly cooperated. The Finches could arrive to see Tom hauled out not for the clean lynchings we see in fiction but one of the grotesques actually practiced. The mob would beat Tom, of course, but his torment would only begin there. They could stab and violate him with a red-hot poker. Given Tom had, to the mob’s mind, sullied the purity of white womanhood they would likely castrate him. Then he would go over a slow fire, screaming all the way. The members of the mob would come forward and collect cherished souvenirs: fingers for the quick and lucky, plugs of flesh for others. The town would have a picnic.

Atticus could treat Scout and Jem to lemonade. He would tell them in a voice on loan from Gregory Peck that sometimes one had to do these things. The mob had a duty, just as Atticus had had a duty to defend Tom imposed on him by the court. Our hero might cause a stir by insisting that Scout have her picture taken with the burned body, a privilege normally reserved for boys. Here too, by the code of Jim Crow, he would demonstrate his virtue.

Mockingbird CoverI have not followed the dispute over whether Harper Lee really wanted the novel she originally submitted to the publisher released. She chose otherwise for fifty years. I do not plan to read it. But like everyone else, I’ve heard that it casts Atticus as a member of the Klan for the well-off white professional and a diehard segregationist. I understand the shock and dismay for those readers who grew up loving and inspired by Atticus. From what I’ve read, the adult Scout shares it. But I don’t see the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman as fundamentally different from the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. Twenty years of narrative time could change people, but I don’t remember any evidence in Mockingbird of Atticus challenging Jim Crow. He has empathy, but largely for whites. Black characters exist to demonstrate his virtue. They know their place and rise to pay homage when he passes.

We can ask how could the Atticus of Mockingbird defend white supremacy. We might better ask how he could do otherwise. We should understand, if not excuse, him and his author as a product of their times. We should understand that Watchman Atticus has lived in the pages of Mockingbird these fifty years as well.