The Other Election of October 9, 1855

William Phillips

William Phillips

On the ninth of October, 1855, the free state movement had their first proper election. With 2,849 votes, they named Andrew Horatio Reeder, late governor of Kansas, their delegate to Congress. This came a week after the Kansas Assembly’s election put John Wilkins Whitfield in the same post that Missourians had stolen for him in 1854. The proslavery candidate came in with 2,721 votes. That suggests that Reeder could have won a fair contest against Whitfield, if narrowly. The numbers argue for a closely divided Kansas, not one increasingly sympathetic to the free state movement due to the Slave Power’s undemocratic impositions.

In his Conquest of Kansas, William Phillips took issue with the official totals:

On the 1st of October, Whitfield received some three thousand votes for delegate, at the election fixed by the Bogus Legislature, and received a certificate from Governor Shannon. There is no question but what over two thousand of the votes were illegal votes. By the report of the committee upwards of eight hundred of these have been proved to be illegal; but the committee did not institute a very thorough search into this election, deeming it more important to investigate the March election. In the different precincts the people voted for delegate, throwing twenty-eight hundred and sixteen votes for Reeder. In some precincts, such as Atchison, Kickapoo, Shawnee, Church, and one or two other pro-slavery points, no vote was allowed to be taken.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

If Phillips did not have a grudge against the proslavery men for his tarring, feathering, and selling at auction then he carried the virtue of forgiveness to truly self-destructive heights. But absent his personal animus, the fact remains that the Howard Report goes into nearly exhaustive detail on the March elections. Each precinct, save a few combined, has its own list of witnesses and summary of events. The delegate elections come together in a single section with no more witnesses than the committee questioned in a particularly populous district for the prior canvas. The report further groups the delegate elections together with its general summary of the free state movement and contents itself with several tables of returns to account for the proceedings.

Further undermining the appearance of an even contest in Kansas, voters cast their ballot for more than a congressional delegate on the ninth of October. Per the rulings of the Topeka convention of mid-September, they also voted for delegates to a constitutional convention. None of my sources give a detailed breakdown of how those votes went, but it seems likely that those who would come to the free state election to vote for Reeder supported his party’s other activities as well. The convention delegates came together at Topeka on the twenty-third of October. Phillips deemed them

the most respectable body of men, in point of talent, that ever convened in Kansas; indeed, it would have compared favorably with legislative bodies anywhere. Talent and the weak vanity which apes it were there; true virtue and a more plastic school of morality; patriotism and number-one-ism; “outside influence” and a lobby; sober, staid, business habits, brandy, temperance, whiskey, prayers by the chaplain, profanity, and oyster-suppers. It lacked none of the great essentials.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Phillips’ sarcasm deserves a smile, but it speaks to a deeper and often inconvenient truth. It took a village to raise a free Kansas, or rather the project required the cooperation of diverse and often antagonistic interests and personalities united on the sole point that the proslavery party had done Kansans wrong and they could not look to its territorial government for relief. If some of them had his admiration, others did not. Like any group they came with the usual mix of principle and self-interest, abstemious and dutiful alongside hard-drinking, cynical political operatives. Neither the Charles Robinsons nor the James Lanes of Kansas could command a majority alone.

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