Slave “mistresses” and the Slaveholder’s Lexicon

Julian Bond (via Wikipedia)

Julian Bond (via Wikipedia)

My copy of Between the World and Me arrived Friday. I read it at once, as we all should. If you know Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing, then you know to expect powerful, direct prose. A book allows him to deploy more of it than any magazine feature, but he does more than that in the slim space between the covers. Coates uses the epistolary format to address the reader directly. We all get to stand in for his son, more hearing him speak than reading words on a page. Even when I know what an author sounds like in person, I rarely read their writing in that voice. Coates had me doing it before the end of the first page. I hoped to share some insights of his here, but I think the work ill-served by easy excerpts. It has only three chapters and reads more like a single speech with brief pauses for breath than a conventional piece of non-fiction. The experience of reading it reminded me more of hearing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl performed, a beautiful eruption of thought and emotion rather than tamed sentences and paragraphs. I can’t do it justice. I considered just writing a review and moving on.

Then Julian Bond died. Via twitter, I learned how the New York Times chose to report on Bond’s ancestry in an otherwise decent obituary:

Julian Bond’s great-grandmother Jane Bond was the slave mistress of a Kentucky farmer.

This line, brought to mind several passages from Between the World and Me. “Slave mistress” sounds almost like a strange sort of job title. The law of white Kentucky, enacted and enforced by white Kentuckians, made Jane Bond a slave, but something else made her a mistress. Nobody forces anyone into an extramarital affair, but rather the principals engage willingly and as partners. The harm done falls on someone else, an absent spouse. But as a slave, Jane Bond did not have the luxury of any such consent. The law of Kentucky took that from her and placed it in the hands of the man who raped her. It did this not by some accident or oversight, but with the knowledge that he and others would do exactly that.

To call Bond a mistress requires one to read from the slaveholder’s lexicon. It literally whitewashes the whole affair, to the point that it can slip past an inattentive or uninformed reader. Much of our language does that, with conventional phrasing chosen to obscure rather than reveal. Coates began with a consideration of such things:

The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing-race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy-serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.

In obscuring these ugly facts we may slave our consciences, but we do so at the cost of making common cause with those who broke the bones, whipped the backs, and exercised the full power the law gave them over black bodies of both sexes. I say at the cost and not at our cost, as we have ensured that we do not pay the price for such things. As Coates says:

“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons.

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

We can imagine Bond’s owner as a farmer. In a strictly literal sense, he might have owned a farm. But Thomas Jefferson owned a farm too. When he praised those who worked the earth, he imagined a very different set of people than those who worked the earth outside his window. He may as well have lived on a different planet from them, except when he called them in to cook his meals, do his laundry, clean his house, and satiate his lusts. Those people, in Coates words, “born out of mass rape, whose ancestors were carried off and divided up into policies and stocks” did not share in Jefferson’s sometimes fleeting prosperity. He experienced slavery as a wellspring of pleasures: status, wealth, and power. With a few hundred on hand, all of Jefferson’s slaves must have run together. How many of us could keep so many people straight? But

Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, as a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. “Slavery” is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved. She can hope for more. She can imagine some future for her grandchildren. But when she dies, the world-which is really the only world she can ever know-ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history. Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains-whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.

Maybe some slave mistresses felt genuine attraction to the men who owned them, but even if they did they could not go entirely willingly to those men. Their owners held the power of life and death over them as surely with whip or gun in hand as they did with pen poised over a contract to sell away their loved ones or with a mere crooked finger. To refuse meant not vicious words or a dirty look, but death and destruction. The slave, made from the ruin of a person, could still have all the normal thoughts and feelings of a person, but rarely dared express them in full. Even if she did, they meant nothing to the man the law said owned her body. The enslaved fled from that reality when they could and dared, William and Ellen Craft specifically to spare their children such a fate. Knowing this, antislavery northerners declared the entire South a giant brothel. Mary Chesnut reports that the high society women of Charleston gossiped about it. One need not plunge deep into the history to know this, but only think about the most basic, brutal facts of slavery.

These hard facts all vanish in the Times’ obituary. It concerns Bond and not his great-grandmother, so we should not expect it to plumb the depths quite as Coates did. But if Jane Bond mattered enough to deserve a mention, than she mattered enough to deserve an honest one. It would have taken no more than an extra word or two to write instead that she served as the sex slave of a Kentucky enslaver. No one would misunderstand that or miss its significance. It would only have broken the rules of the white American syndicate.


The Murder of Samuel Collins, Part Four

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee


Parts 1, 2, 3

Free state man Samuel Collins, a steam sawmill operator at Doniphan, Kansas, met Patrick Laughlin on the street at about dawn of October 25, 1855. He and Laughlin clashed the night before at a doctor’s office over Laughlin’s revealing the secrets of the antislavery Kansas Legion. Come the morning, Collins saw Laughlin and approached him from behind with shotgun in hand. Laughlin’s own armament included a pistol and a bucket of flour. Collins, abjuring the benefit of surprise, called out to demand Laughlin recant. Laughlin declined and Collins pulled the trigger. His gun did not fire, so he rushed up and pulled a bowie knife, brandishing it at Laughlin’s throat and repeating his demand. Laughlin still refused to recant, at which point Collins stabbed him in the side. Laughlin fell back behind another man, James Foreman, and Collins tried the other barrel of his shotgun. This one fired, but Foreman got his hand on the barrel and knocked it aside before the discharge. Collins injured the ground at Laughlin’s feet. By this point, John or James Lynch had come out. Collins had threatened him the night before as well, so Lynch joined the fray with a shot wounding a fence across the street. Then he and Collins closed and used their guns as clubs, breaking both weapons. Collins beat Lynch to the ground.

That ended Lynch’s account of the confrontation. Allen B. Lyon saw more:

It was not until Mr. Collins attention was drawn towards Mr. Lynch that Mr. Laughlin attempted to draw a weapon. I had been watching him very closely, wondering why he did not do it before. After Mr. Collins had knocked Mr. Lynch down, he turned round and advanced towards Laughlin, with the barrels of his gun raised for a blow. Mr. Laughlin had his pistol out and fired at Mr. Collins, who dropped his gun barrels, and clasped his arms around his breast, and cried out, “Oh, Lord!”

Collins collapsed and died soon after. Collins’ son knocked Laughlin down just after the Irishman fired. Collins’ nephew lobbed a chunk of brick at Laughlin, grazing his hair. But then Laughlin’s relations intervened:

Mr. Laughlin’s brother ran up at this moment, and seized the pistol which had fallen out of the hands of his brother, and fired at Mr. Collins’ nephew, who was running away, and the ball just grazed the side of his neck. He then turned and presented the pistol at young Collins, who had knocked his brother down, who threw up both hands and asked him not to shoot, that his father was dead, and he desisted.

The combatants parted and Lyon examined Collins. He found the free state man “shot in his right side”. Survivors and bystanders carried away the wounded and dead, but left behind quite the tableau:

The ground was covered with blood, like one had been butchering a hog, and I thought there were at least three persons killed-Collins, Laughlin, and Lynch.

The excitement continued, with Doniphan “in a state of disquiet and alarm for some weeks afterwards”. Threats, or rumors of them, against Laughlin and Lynch, swirled about. Lyon told the Howard Committee that he did not hear any of the threats himself. Laughlin convalesced in James Foreman’s home and people said that someone had tried to break in and finish Collins’ job. That got a guard put up until the proslavery men could carry Laughlin across into Missouri. The sheriff that Laughlin and Lynch hoped would step in, thanks to the peace warrant they secure the night before, arrived minutes after the fight concluded.

Lest one wonder if this confrontation arose from personal difficulties, with the politics only an aggravating factor, Lyon testified that Laughlin, Lynch, and Collins had lived in Doniphan some time and got on well before. This changed only when Laughlin exposed the Kansas Legion and, consequently, Collins’ role “as colonel of the Doniphan regiment.” Lyon thus deemed the affair “a political difficulty.” I see no cause to dispute him on that count, though I do regret that it appears only proslavery witnesses gave testimony on the matter.


The Murder of Samuel Collins, Part Three

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Parts 1 and 2

We left Patrick Laughlin, the Irish-born Kansas Legion member who exposed its activities to the general public, walking down the streets of Doniphan and away from free soil sawmill operator Samuel Collins. The two had a confrontation, and may have exchanged gunfire, over Laughlin’s exposure of the Legion the night before. They both made dire threats before that. The morning of October 25 found Laughlin and John (or James, the Howard Report calls him both) Lynch, who previously considered Collins a friend, with a peace bond against Collins. Allen B. Lyon came on the scene on his way to breakfast at a local hotel.

Collins had a shotgun in hand, both barrels cocked. Lyon, who had witnessed the near-altercation the night before, put two and two together easily enough and knew Collins meant both barrels for Laughlin’s unguarded back. He tried to distract the free soil man, but Collins paid him no mind and called out to Laughlin:

“stop, God damn you, and take back everything you have said, or I will put sixteen through you”

Laughlin did not stop. Collins followed along, repeating his insistence that Laughlin recant his publication of Kansas Legion secrets. Eventually Laughlin had enough of this. He

turned round, and stood with a bucket of flour on his arm, and told Collins he had nothing to take back, and nothing that he could take back.

Collins closed to within six yards, took aim, and pulled his trigger. The gun did not fire.

In a hotel, presumably the same one where Allen Lyon planned to get his breakfast, John Lynch ate his own. He heard yelling from outside. Someone said Collins aimed to kill everybody in town. Himself a person in the town, as well as one who Collins had threatened violence against less than twenty-four hours earlier, Lynch considered himself a target. He went to the window for a look.

Back outside, Lyon told the Howard Committee that Collins did not consider matters closed when his gun failed to fire:

He then rushed upon Laughlin, cursing furiously, drew a large knife from his breast, flourished it in front of Laughlin’s neck two or three times, demanding that he should take back what he had said.

At this point, Lynch came out. He saw Collins “flourishing” the knife. Lyon saw rather more. When Laughlin again refused to recant, Collins

plunged the knife into Laughlin’s left side. Laughlin staggered several steps back, retreating from him. Collins then drew up his gun again, and presented it at Laughlin; and as he pulled the trigger, Mr. Foreman got his hand upon the barrel of the gun, and forced the muzzle down, and the contents entered the ground between Laughlin’s feet.

Lynch exited the hotel that scene, though he didn’t see Laughlin wounded. He

could not say what Mr. Laughlin was doing, but I thought he was dodging behind Mr. Foreman, who seemed to be trying to intercede between them. This was between thirty and forty feet from the hotel, perhaps fifty feet. As my life had been threatened the night before, I seized my gun when I got up from the breakfast table, and took it with me out of doors, and when I got to the corner of the hotel in sight of the parties, I fired it in the direction of Mr. Collins.

Lyon heard Lynch’s shot hit a fence on the far side of the street. Lynch and Collins closed with each other. According to Lyon

Mr. Collins immediately wheeled round, throwing up the breach of his gun, and advanced. Mr. Collins struck at Mr. Lynch, who received the blow on his gun, and the breeches of both guns were broken off; the next blow Mr. Collins knocked Mr. Lynch down.

Lynch agreed that Collins knocked him down. He claimed to know nothing of the affray thereafter, though he told the Howard Committee that in light of the threat to his life he considered this all self-defense.

The Murder of Samuel Collins, Part Two


The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

On October 25, 1855, Patrick Laughlin came to the office of Dr. Oscar Brown. He convalesced for fifteen minutes before Samuel Collins and some friends came in. Both men abided some time, but eventually Laughlin got up and confronted Collins. It transpired that Collins called Laughlin out on the street the day prior and insulted him. This had to do with Laughlin’s involvement with and then public exposure of the free state Kansas Legion, a group he had joined out of disgust with the proslavery party and then quit because it reminded him too much of the Know-Nothings. Collins insisted that he had given no insult, but when Laughlin persisted in the charge he allowed that Laughlin “a damned liar and a damned perjured scoundrel” who “had published infamous lies to the world.”

Laughlin, shockingly, found this an unpersuasive defense. Collins rose up to answer him again, presumably with more than words, but another man in the office, Howard Committee witness Allen B. Lyon, took hold of him. Collins sat back down, but then rose once more and informed Laughlin to gird himself for the morrow.

James Lynch, who testified that he considered himself and Collins “on very friendly terms” despite differing over slavery, sat on a chair between Laughlin and Collins, though facing away from the latter. When Collins drew near, Lynch asked that the irate free soil man “not run over” him. Collins answered

“Damn you, I will kick every rib in you out of you.” I could not say anything, I was so embarrassed at that. I remained in the chair and did not leave the office until Mr. Collins had left it. As Collins left the house, he stood in the door and shaking his finger at me, he said “Damn you, I will take your life.” I made no reply to him and he left.

Lyons confirms this story, down to the rib kicking and murdering threat. He disagrees on who left first, insisting that Lynch preceded Collins. Lyons further adds that

Collins made a statement in regard to Laughlin, that he understood James Foreman had given Laughlin a cow to change his politics, and publish this exposition.

I’ve seen other references to Laughlin receiving a bribe to change his stripes. For a man of his modest means, a cow would be a pretty good inducement. However, it also sounds like the sort of story one would circulate about one’s enemies whether true or not. Nor should we discount Laughlin’s own version. As an Irishman in mid-nineteenth century America, he likely had good reason to be very wary of anything that smelled like Know-Nothingism.

After both men left the room, Lyon says that

we heard the report of a gun, and then while we looked out of the window, I saw the flash and heard the report of two guns, apparently in the yard of Mr. Collins’ house.

Lynch doesn’t mention this at all, but I don’t see much advantage to Lyon in inventing it. One could read the affair as Laughlin and/or Lynch firing on warning shots, or otherwise, at Collins’ house. Lyon tells us that Laughlin had a gun with him in the office. Alternatively, Collins could have gotten home, seen them on the street, and fired warning shots of his own. Both might have happened, with Collins firing warning shots and Lynch and Laughlin returning fire.

Whatever happened with the gunshots in the night, Lynch and Laughlin secured a peace warrant against Collins. Lynch delivered to the sheriff with the expectation that come morning Collins would appear and they would require protection.

Around sunrise, Collins’ son, whom Lyon refers to as “young Mr. Collins” called to re-measure some lumber that Collins had sold Lyon. He thought they hadn’t done the measurement correctly and wanted to verify. Young Collins did some measurements and went home.

Laughlin at that time was standing in the main street of Doniphan, about twenty steps from me, talking with Mr. James Foreman and some others. A few minutes afterward, I started to breakfast. When I got to the corner upon which the hotel stands, I met Mr. Collins, his two sons, and a nephew. Mr. Collins had a double-barrel shot gun in his hand, both barrels cocked. Mr. Laughlin was walking directly from Collins, about twenty yards in advance, with his back towards Collins.

The Two William Phillipses (with thanks to @hjenks670)

William Phillips

William Phillips

Gentle Readers, two nice things happened yesterday. Hank Jenk (@hjenks670) reached out to me via Twitter to talk sources. He’s interested in William A. Phillips, found the blog, and hoped I could help him shine some light on Phillips’ early years. As you know, Phillips has lately served as a star of this blog’s narrative. He involved himself in the free state movement, participated in the Topeka convention and other important events, and wrote of his experiences in fairly pleasant prose with occasional dashes of humor. All of this makes him an especially attractive source. I gave Hank a thumbnail annotated bibliography of my Kansas sources and my best guesses on where he might have further luck, delighted to have the chance to help.

Incidentally, if any of you have questions, spot errors, or just want to talk history, you’re welcome to reach out in the comments section or via twitter. The blog has an email address as well, just the blog’s name at gmail. I decline to type it out in a likely futile attempt to frustrate automated marketing operations.

I think that I first came to William Phillips through the story of his lynching. It remains my preferred touchstone for identifying him and situating him within Kansas affairs, deeply informing my interpretation of his work. I mentioned this to Hank in talking about my sources. He wrote back to inform me of a regrettable error that I’ve made and then complicated through repeated reference. Hank studies William Addison Phillips, born in Scotland on January 24, 1824. Phillips came to the United States with his family and settled on a farm in Randolph County, Illinois. He gave up farming for journalism, eventually working for Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune. In that capacity, he came to and reported from Kansas. Somewhere along the way he also studied and practiced law. This Phillips wrote The Conquest of Kansas and, to my knowledge, everything else that I’ve credited to William Phillips. So far, so good.

But a mob did not lynch William Addison Phillips at Leavenworth for the temerity of challenging the vote fraud there on the occasion of the March elections, for bringing about the special election of late May, or anything else. I went back looking and confirmed that a man named William Phillips suffered the mob’s seizure, transport to Missouri, shaving, tar and feathering, riding on a rail, and mock auction for the princely sum of one half cent. One of my sources calls this Phillips young. William A. Phillips turned thirty-one the year of the lynching, which doesn’t sound very young. Maybe Phillips had a youthful demeanor and didn’t look his age, but I’d more readily believe that of a man in his middle twenties than one past thirty.

The lawyer William Phillips of Leavenworth sounds a bit implausible. In a territory with only a few thousand white inhabitants, two men could have the same name. But two men had the same name and both practiced law? That seems less probable still. But coincidences do happen and a further look convinced me that this one had.

In Bleeding Kansas Alice Nichols writes of some proslavery men burning houses. I hadn’t noticed this story before as Nicholes presents it in her chapter 20, nearly a hundred pages away from her treatment of the Topeka Convention and further still from her brief reference to the Phillips lynching. Those proslavery men, Emory’s Regulators, came to the home of the second William Phillips:

Free-soilers who defended their property were sometimes killed. The week before, William Phillips, the lawyer who had once been tarred and feathered and auctioned off by a slave, had attempted to defend his home. he and his brother-in-law saw the Regulators approaching, so they grabbed guns and fired. Both shots counted. Two Regulators fell dead. The others stormed the house and killed William Phillips, right before his wife’s eyes.

A historical marker makes the same connection, dating Phillips murder to August 28, 1855. If William Addison Phillips died then, he managed to resurrect himself in time to attend the Topeka Convention. Failing that, his remarkably animate body toiled on for nigh forty years with no one the wiser. These have to be separate men with the same name and profession, a fact which I missed in reporting the lynching and have subsequently referenced mistakenly almost every time William Addison Phillips has figured into a post.

Clearly I had the wrong man and so misled you. I’m sorry. I’d rather have had it right to start with but better to know, write the correction, and go forward than persist in the mistake. Thanks for setting me straight, Hank.

A deeper understanding of white supremacy

Anthony Johnson's mark (via Wikipedia)

Anthony Johnson’s mark
(via Wikipedia)

I suspect that if one asked most white Americans what the word “racism” meant, they would say that racism entails hatred. People fear and loathe a racial other. From this, it follows that they both personally mistreat the objects of their scorn and accept and support similar mistreatment practiced by others. From the hatred, all else flows. However deeply one understands the vacuity of racial categories, people clearly built up identities around fitting in one and hating people in the other. We learn in school, from the media, and well-meaning people in our lives that we should condemn such hatreds because, at least in part, no one has any control over what category they end up in. We have the parents we do who had the parents they did, all the way back. Hating someone for their choice of biological parents seems perverse and absurd, as no one has any such choice.

A few years ago, I would have told you the same. I think what I sketch out here describes the general, well-intentioned white moderate-to-liberal understanding of racism. It casts racism as an attitude and feeling, with attendant theories, about something called race. Consequently, a generous application of tolerance and empathy could cure it all. Bring a white racist into a black community. Talk to the people. Look at their kids. They have all the same hopes and dreams anybody else does. They have struggles, but so do the rest of us. The scales fall away from the racist’s eyes. The Grinch hears the Whos singing and his heart grows ten sizes, breaking the x-ray machine.

It works in fiction. Maybe sometimes it works in real life too, but I think that this narrative relies on the idea that the notion that people adopt the hatreds they do out of some irrational reason. They have real empathy for people different from themselves, but have found ways to redirect or suppress it. Fundamentally fragile, those rationalizations collapse at once on contact with the facts. Compassion prevails because ultimately we understand that people hate for bad reasons and good thoughts can chase out the bad.

What if they don’t? The enslaver could walk around the plantation every single day and see the enslaved at work. At a whipping, the enslaver could hear the screams of pain and pleas for mercy. An enslaver might hear the same screams in his bedroom, or see the terror in the eyes of his victim. It would take no effort at all to likewise see the meager joys that slaves struggled for at the margins of the system, that they loved and hated, dreamed and feared the same as any person. These mysteries require no initiation to learn, but rather would pour in through every sense the human body possesses. Enslavers could tell themselves lies; they might even believe them. But they could not miss the essential humanity of their prey.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

On the contrary, understanding that humanity and exploiting it put slave “wenches” into white beds and more and more bales of cotton in the barn. Because slaves could think ahead and understand cause and effect as well as any free person, their fear and pain could be turned on them in ways that would never have worked for non-human livestock. You cannot threaten a horse with being sold down the river. It has no language to understand the threat. If you beat a cow it will not produce more milk. But you can terrorize people. You can wage a war against them. They can understand the threats and connect the pain to specific behaviors. They can read the cotton scale and know if they came in light and what beating would come if they did. An enslaver profits not despite his lack of empathy, but because of it. The mistreatment comes not from a lack of understanding, but arises out of a deep understanding of the slave’s humanity. One who could not effectively terrorize would not profit as one who did have such talents.

From the perspective of the enslaver, most everything done to the slave makes good sense. Every whipping serves a rational purpose. A whipped slave will learn to mind and not abscond, fearing whipping more than remaining. The more terrible the punishment, the more deeply one learns the lesson. Each drop of blood becomes a drop of profit. Mistreatment can arise out of hatred; hatred will sustain it. But the interest in profits and advantage, financial or otherwise, remains. As long as they exist, someone will seek them. We all feel our own pain rather more keenly than that of others, after all. Things we would never accept become the smallest levies upon others. Rationalizations will follow, but rationalization must always come after the decision. We do not seek to justify what we have rejected, but only things we have done and imagine ourselves doing.

Looking at it this way, the conventional narrative has cause and effect reversed. We did not hate and thus forced black Americans to the bottom of the national totem pole. We hated because we set them there and forbade their advancement. All of this, I imagine, sounds like so much theory. It comports well with political preferences I have expressed before. One could easily sketch an alternative theory of racism. Against the alternative, I offer this account from Alan Taylor’s American Colonies. 

Taylor discusses the Chesapeake in the middle to late 1600s. The colony had no slave code until 1670 and consequently no established baseline as to how one must treat the few African slaves on the ground. Some enslavers saw them as indentured servants, due their freedom after so many years. “More commonly, masters permitted slaves to acquire and manage their own property.” Thus “dozens of early slaves purchased their freedom and obtained the tools, clothing, and land to become common planters.” The state did not forbid or confiscate black gains, so

black freedmen and women could move as they pleased, baptize their children, procure firearms, testify in court, buy and sell property, and even vote. Some black men married white women, which was especially remarkable given their scarcity and high demand as wives for white men. A few black women took white husbands.

These people had names and some of them have survived:

The most successful and conspicuous black freedman, Anthony Johnson, acquired a 250-acre tobacco plantation and at least one slave. With apparent impunity, Johnson boldly spoke his own mind to his white neighbors, telling one meddler: “I know myne owne ground and I will worke when I please and play when I please.” When white neighbors lured away his slave, Johnson went to court, winning damages and the return of his property. That the authorities supported an African against whites and upheld his right to own slaves reveals that slavery and racism had not yet become inseparably intertwined in the Chesapeake. That a black man would own a slave also indicates that getting ahead in planter society was more important to Johnson than any sense of racial solidarity with his fellow Africans in Virginia.

Anthony Johnson may have had more freedom in the Virginia of the 1650s than most black Americans did in the Virginia of the 1950s. He not only escaped slavery, but lived in a society that defended his freedom and rights against the aggression of whites. His grandchildren, living in a rather different cultural milieu with more and more distinctly African slaves, quit Virginia for safer lands.

Studying the history I do rarely fills one with hope. My research interests would not delight dinner parties. Friends have asked me to tell them less, not more. One can get the feeling that white supremacy not only persists, but will and must always prevail. The logic of the system demands it. White self-interest, well aware of the numerous advantages that our skin bestows upon us, will never materially surrender a single one. We have, after all, a proven road to racial equality: school integration. We celebrate its de jure end have rejected its de facto termination at all hazards. Confronted with the stolen property in our hands, we imagine ourselves as hard-working, self-made individuals. Someone else, as we saw in the news reports on post-Katrina New Orleans, does the looting.

When I read Johnson’s story a few years ago, it brought tears to my eyes. I mean that literally; I sat with book in hand and teared up. I don’t admire Johnson’s slaveholding any more than I would a white man’s, but I saw in him proof that we did not have to always do as we have done. We could have done otherwise. We could still do otherwise. Forty years of fighting integration need not continue. No law of nature requires them. The sky does not rain down injustice; we do. It follows that we can stop. If white America really wanted to end the fruitless “discussions on race” and fix whatever problems we imagine exist within “the black community” that we also imagine, we could do it.

But the plunder of lives enriches all those of the right color. We do not all benefit equally, but we all do benefit. Our ancestors arranged the system that we and we, their faithful stewards, maintain it. We accept it as the default, automatic as breathing and so natural we have made it simultaneously invisible enough to take for granted and visible enough for us all to feel it. I have felt it when pulled over, late at night, on suspicion of drunk driving. I actually knew I had a police car behind me and paid too much attention to it in my mirror rather than the white line at the road’s shoulder. It never crossed my mind that the officer would do me harm. He didn’t even ask to see my registration before he let me go. I feel it now and then when my father and I walk into a restaurant near the State Police post and see the uniformed men with guns in abundance. The presence of so many armed men doesn’t thrill me, I have the luxury of fearing a fatal misunderstanding only in the abstract. The police rarely do so much as look twice at us.

Taylor concludes

A dark skin became synonymous with slavery, just as freedom became equated with whiteness. In the eighteenth-century Chesapeake colonies almost all blacks were slaves and almost every slave was black (with the exception of occasional captive Indians). A Virginian remarked, “These two words Negro and Slave had, by custom, grown Homogeneous and Convertible.”


Newly obsessed with racial difference, Chesapeake whites felt more equal despite the growing inequality of their economic circumstances. The new sense of racial solidarity rendered white Virginians indifferent to the continuing concentration of most property and real power in the hands of the planter elite. By increasing the capital requirements for tobacco cultivation, slavery gave competitive advantage to the already wealthy planters, discouraging the smaller planters, who had to rely on the labor of their own families. The more restless and ambitious young commoners moved westward or southward in search of the frontier opportunity to build farms out of the forest.

So went the South and, ultimately, the nation. As long as we imagine an identifiable group that has it much worse, distinctions between those we imagine within our own group seem far more trifling. White Americans rarely received whippings. No one sold our children or forced those children into separate and inferior schools. No one excluded them from the suburbs. On the contrary, the American state helped us and did all in its power to ensure we would have every advantage if not over one another, than over those we imagine not worthy of consideration. Their lack of freedom, then and now, liberates us. We have not had it any other way.

The Murder of Samuel Collins, Part One

William Phillips

William Phillips

October of 1855 proved a busy month for Kansas. On the first and ninth, the territorial government and free state movement had their elections for delegate to Congress. Missourians stole a county seat decision from Leavenworth, placing it in the hands of the much smaller Delaware and Kickapoo. The free state constitutional convention gathered and began its work at Topeka. Proslavery men trying to strike a more moderate tone met at Leavenworth and called for a Law and Order Convention. The Topeka and Leavenworth alike would not finish their conventions until November. All of that brings us to the end of the month and back to Patrick Laughlin.

Laughlin, an Irishman by birth, came to Kansas as a proslavery man but then went over to the free state side. He joined the Kansas Legion, but then found its business too much like that of the Know-Nothings for his taste. He quit the Legion in the fall of 1855 and published a pamphlet exposing its activities. In Laughlin’s own words, he

had the difficulty with Samuel Collins, at Doniphan, about the first of November last, which resulted in his death. I know that the difficulty grew out of the fact that I made such disclosures to the public as I have referred to in my testimony.

John Gihon’s Geary and Kansas and William Phillips’ The Conquest of Kansas date the killing to October 25, which would put Laughlin only a week off. Phillips sets the stage:

[Laughlin] was taken by the hand, patronized by the pro-slavery leaders, who doubtless intended to turn his peculiar qualities to account. While thus acting with these men he was secretly intriguing with the enemies of the free-state men about Doniphan, and fomenting in the bosoms of the violent borderers hostility to these men, thus endangering their personal safety. It was at this stage of affairs that Mr. Collins chanced to meet Laughlin in the office of a physician. As was natural, violent words passed between them, and there would probably have been violence of some kind but for the interference of the bystanders.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Laughlin, according to Allen B. Lyon’s testimony to the Howard Committee, came to the doctor for the usual reasons that evening. Samuel Collins, proprietor of a saw mill, came in fifteen minutes later with several friends. Laughlin did not act immediately, and Lyon doens’t say that Collins moved to seek him out. Rather some time passed before Laughlin rose from his bed and approached. He wanted to know why Collins

had hailed him on the street the day before when passing Collins’ mill, and insulted him in the manner that he had.

Collins denied it, but Laughlin persisted. He heard what he heard and could not have mistaken the speaker. The soul of diplomacy,

Collins then told he was a damned liar and a damned perjured scoundrel, that he had published infamous lies to the world, and that he (Collins) would make him take them all back; “or,” said he, “you or I, one will land in hell” -or eternity, I forget which- “before breakfast to-morrow morning.”

Samuel Collins may have chosen a more convincing way to dodge the accusation than this, but he could have thought himself telling the simple truth. Laughlin had sworn an oath of secrecy on the matter of the Kansas Legion and he did break it. That made him a kind of perjurer, even if he then told the whole truth of the Legion’s affairs.

Laughlin did not care for such fine distinctions. He knew “a damned liar” when he saw one, and he saw one in Collins. Collins, literally, did not take that sitting down and

arose from the sofa upon which he was sitting by my [Lyon’s] side, and advanced towards him. I caught Collins by the arm, and tried to persuade him to desist. He sat down, but soon got up again; told Laughlin to prepare himself; that he would be up in the morning early, and that he would make him take back all he had said and published, stating that he was not then armed, and he knew Laughlin was armed.

All of this transpired only “a few days” after Laughlin exposed the Kansas Legion. Laughlin, hardly a newspaper man, hadn’t published anything else of consequence. Answering Collin’s challenge, he stood by what he printed and “was not afraid to meet Collins in any way.”

Stealing the Leavenworth County Seat, Part Five

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Parts 12, 3, 4

Seizing the county seat from Leavenworth turned its proslavery men, at least temporarily, against the custom of Missourians coming over to decide Kansas’ elections. H. Miles Moore went all the way over to the free state movement, where he would win high office. Lucien Eastin, editor of the Leavenworth Herald did not go quite so far, but did rouse himself to damn now the very method by which he had gained his seat in the legislature. Kansans, it transpired, ought to govern Kansas after all. Having so declared, Eastin defended himself by reference to his career as a proslavery man. I doubt this pleased the editor of the Kickapoo Pioneer, which reminded him how he had come up.

The other proslavery town, all of forty or so people, took its loss as poorly as Leavenworth did. Delaware wanted the development that a county seat would bring as much as Kickapoo or Leavenworth, perhaps more as it had less to start from. Its industrious citizens kept a steamer running on the Missouri to bring voters from anywhere in its reach to the little town. The boat ran and the polls remained open for three days, learning Kickapoo’s totals and running the election long enough to beat them. A band, free food, and free alcohol entertained those who came. If Andrew Reeder had such amenities at Pawnee, he might have done better. William Phillips opined that Delaware could muster maybe fifty legal votes, but its returns included nigh unto nine hundred.

This, and a more plausible candidate in Kickapoo, led Wilson Shannon to pull an Andrew Reeder and set aside one obviously fraudulent election. This delighted the partisans for Delaware about as well as one would expect. They had stolen the election fair and square, and at some expense, after all. Their cooked count had a hundred more votes than Kickapoo could boast. What had Kansas come to if one could no longer steal an election by managing the bigger fraud? Delaware sued.

Phillips reports that

Even Kickapoo had to bite the dust before the sovereign will of “majority.” The election was referred to a court, which decided in favor of Delaware. This was, at least, consistent; for, as all the pro-slavery courts, which means all the courts in the territory, had decided in favor of bogus authority, it was not going to do to establish so dangerous a precedent as setting an election aside on account of any irregularity.

The Alton mob attacking Elijah Lovejoy's warehouse.

The Alton mob attacking Elijah Lovejoy’s warehouse.

In cracking a joke, Phillips made a broader point. For almost as long as the great controversy over slavery in the territories had raged, people proposed referring the matter to the courts. Roger Taney would have his say, but Phillips didn’t know that in 1856. He did know that the Kansas courts sided consistently with the proslavery party, all the way back to when they declared that the legislature could abandon Pawnee for the Shawnee Manual Labor School and remain a functioning legislature.

Digging a bit deeper, the principle that the proslavery minority must prevail ultimately constituted the chief tenet of white Southern political thought. They would take a majority if they could have it, but if they didn’t then so much the worse for the majority. Even the most aristocratic radicals often spoke softly about their dreams of rolling back the nineteenth century, but in practice the defense of slavery involved a great deal of trampling white republicanism. Kansas told that story to the nation writ large, but so did driving antislavery southerners from the South, the demands that northern states silence abolitionists, the Gag Rule in Congress, and the lynchings of dissenting whites.


Stealing the Leavenworth County Seat, Part Four

Lucien Eastin

Lucien Eastin

Parts 12, 3

The proslavery Missourians took from Leavenworth the county seat. Wilson Shannon’s government had just enough integrity to toss the returns from Delaware’s three day polling and award the title to Kickapoo. This outraged the people of Leavenworth, whether they had supported election day invasions and slavery or not in the past. H. Miles Moore broke with the movement over it. The proslavery editor of the Leavenworth Herald printed objections. The sudden change of sides did not go unmarked. William Phillips reports

The Kickapoo Pioneer, a fire-eating, pro-slavery paper, taunted Mr. Easton, of the Leavenworth Herald, about his sudden conversion to the purify-the-polls doctrine; and finished a somewhat sarcastic article by asking, “Who elected you to the Legislature?”

Border crossing, election-stealing Missourians elected Lucien Easton to the legislature, of course. If Missourians could decide one election, why not another? Why did their illegal votes sully the purity of the polls when making Kickapoo into a county seat but leave the ballot box’s virtue intact when they made Eastin (most sources I’ve seen use that spelling) into a Councilor? Feeling the pinch, Eastin responded in an article that Phillips quoted at some length:

Much has been said by the abolition presses throughout the country about ‘armed invasions of Kansas by the border ruffians of Missouri;’ but, as we then asserted, and still assert, they were acting solely in self-defence; and history will tell of the purity of their purposes, and of the justice of the cause they vindicated. They came here actuated by the noblest of human sentiments, determined to ward off a blow which was aimed against their institutions, and against their peace. As such, with open arms we welcome them; and, when victory crowned our common efforts, and the black flag of abolitionism was trailed in the dust, how grateful were the feelings which we experienced to those who had rallied with us to a hand-to-hand encounter with the aggressive foes!

Had the proslavery people of Kickapoo, and their friends across the river in Missouri, forgotten that Lucien Eastin had always stood sound on the goose? Douglas McMurtrie’s Pioneer Printing of Kansas, from the inaugural issue of the Kansas Historical Quarterly, informs me that Eastin’s Herald began publishing on September 15, 1854, at Leavenworth in the sense that it occupied space in the future town. William H. Adams, who ran the operation at the time, also published the Platte Argus. Adams

set the type for his first issue in the open air, under an elm tree. Some visitors to this interested scene described “four tents, all on one street, a barrel of water or whiskey under a tree, and a pot, on a pole over a fire. Under a tree a type-sticker had his case before him and was at work on the first number of the new paper, and within a frame, without a board on side or roof, was the editor’s desk and sanctum.

Williams later removed to a location that McMurtrie thought probably the only building for forty miles. The paper went way back, preceded in Kansas only by missionary papers. Its proslavery pedigree began with its connection to the Argus, David Rice Atchison’s paper of choice. Adams produced fairly unexciting proslavery prose. Then Lucien Eastin bought out Adams’ partner and turned up the rhetorical fire. Not only did he run the first proslavery paper in Kansas, Eastin had made it more vociferously proslavery than it had been in the past. Surely that should count for something.

H. Miles Moore

H. Miles Moore

His credentials established, Eastin turned to biting the hand that elected him. No proslavery man could have imagined that by assenting to Missourian invasion on the matter of the legislature they had in effect annexed themselves to Missouri and yielded all say in governance to the men of Platte County. They, firm proslavery men, did not consider themselves and their territory “for the sole use and benefit of Platte County” nor “to be made the plaything and puppet of a few demagogues and hucksters in Weston and Platte city.”

This does not make for a conversion like H. Miles Moore’s. Eastin defended his objections on the grounds of self-government, as Moore did, but if he had gone on to throw in with the free state movement William Phillips surely would have said as much after relating his position at some length. In Eastin’s case we see something on the same spectrum as Moore, if falling short of his reaction.

Stealing the Leavenworth County Seat, Part Three

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Sorry for the delay, Gentle Readers. For some reason this post did not go out as scheduled.

Parts 1 and 2

It turned out that even the official government of Kansas had some standards that it felt obligated to uphold for elections, even if it meant displeasing some proslavery men. Wilson Shannon looked at the returns for the county seat election of October, 1855, and saw that Delaware kept its polls open for three days in its attempt to deny Kickapoo the title. These scruples did not apply to Kickapoo, where a more expeditious fraud perpetrated with the aid of Missourians made that town the county seat instead of the more populous and somewhat antislavery Leavenworth.

William Phillips considered Leavenworth more antislavery than not, though also not aligned with the free state movement. It had a sizable proslavery contingent. These men, like their antislavery neighbors, wanted the county seat at their town. As the largest settlement in the area, they had a reasonable claim to it. A county seat would in time mean county courts which would require lawyers and clerks and draw more business to Leavenworth than it might otherwise enjoy. The value of their property would increase, more customers would frequent their shops, and everyone would get happily rich together. The border ruffians and Kickapoo took that chance from them.

Phillips reports that the previously proslavery editor of the Leavenworth Herald felt sufficiently aggrieved, despite his membership in “the Bogus Council of the Shawnee Mission” to take to printing homilies on the wrong the town had suffered. He had plenty of company:

All of the respectable, which means the property-holding, pro-slavery men about Leavenworth, looked solemn; so much so that their friends were seriously apprehensive that they would “ketch religion.”

H. Miles Moore

H. Miles Moore

From a man who owed his election to the border ruffian fraud on down, Leavenworth’s proslavery men had apparently had quite enough. They might like slavery, hate Yankees, and otherwise have all the correct prejudices, but they did not come to Kansas to find themselves pushed to the sidelines by their presumptive allies.

We would find H. Miles Moore among their number. His testimony to the Howard Committee confesses that he came first to Leavenworth to help steal the first delegate election back in November, 1854. He knew of preparations for the fraud at the Assembly elections the following March and saw David Rice Atchison’s company pass through. Moore’s second statement to the committee dates his permanent removal to Kansas to September, 1854 but he gave the next year in his first and had he gone over to stay before the delegate election he hardly would have needed to enter Kansas to vote illegally. The clerks who compiled the Howard Report didn’t always get the small details right. In their defense, they couldn’t work the text over electronically to spot errors.

To hear Moore tell it, the election hijacking had begun to bother him even on the day of the Assembly elections. He tried to convince free state men to attend the polls, even if he believed the Missourians “had some justification” for doing as they did. He came with them earlier, as he admits, to help secure slavery. The county seat asked too much to bear:

their course with regard to the mere local election for county seat was so high-handed an outrage upon the rights of the people of the Territory, of whom I had then become one, that I came to the resolution that I would no longer act with a party so regardless of the rights of others that they would interfere in a matter in which they could have no personal or political interest. I determined to act with the free State party so long as they were actuated by what I considered proper motives, though I would have continued to act with the pro-slavery party had they not acted as they did.

Moore went from at least somewhat proslavery over to the antislavery side, if with some cavils, and found himself off at Topeka for the constitutional convention. Reading the sources, one can’t miss the general trend of proslavery radicalism alienating its own allies within Kansas. Moore gives us a concrete example of the process almost as it happened. We can’t know the minds of every Kansan who took that journey in the 1850s, but they all had the same facts before them and through him, as with others, we can get at least a general sense of how people in his position at the time understood events.