The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Three

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1 and 2

We left Franklin Coleman and Jacob Branson in a tense meeting at Coleman’s cabin on the claim they disputed. Both men had guns in hand and made serious threats, but they ultimately agreed to settle their dispute in arbitration. This had worked out before in the area and the process did not seem, at least in November of 1854, distorted by the territory’s slavery question. A tribunal with an antislavery majority had ruled in favor of a proslavery man. Coleman and Branson’s tribunal had a proslavery majority, which

decided against my partner and myself, insomuch, that instead of allowing our claim to the whole Frasier tract, amounting to two hundred and forty acres, they awarded one hundred and sixty acres to Branson as his proportion.

The decision swung in Branson’s favor, but not completely so. Coleman complained that Branson got the timber land, but he sounds largely content. According to Coleman, Branson swore that he would mark his line and abide by it. He subsequently declined to do so. Coleman and his partner, John Banks, reminded Branson of that promise. He doesn’t mention any firearms involved in the reminder, but guns or no Branson did not take it well

He said that he did not crave our friendship, and that we should never have a single foot of the lumber which grew upon the greater part of the claim. he then stated that he had measured the entire ‘Frasier claim,’ with one of his neighbors, and found it to contain but one hundred and twenty acres-called us a set of base thieves, who had swindled him out of his rights, and with whom he wished to have no intercourse, etc.

This all makes Branson sound terrible. He agreed to arbitration, albeit after threatening Coleman and his family, got the better side of the settlement, and then ignored it anyway. Coleman naturally wants to paint himself in the best light. Branson’s and John Banks’ testimony in the Howard Report begins a year after the initial encounters, saying nothing about them. William Phillips renders events a bit differently:

The first settlers of that region were free-state men from Indiana. other free-state men, from the Western States generally, and some of them from Missouri, also settled there. After the grove had been mostly taken by the settlers, some pro-slavery men came in, took claims, and some of them jumped claims already taken. In some of the cases where these claims were invaded the persons holding them had forfeited their right to them by their absence; but in several other instances the seizure was violent and fraudulent. In the same vicinity, at the lower end of the grove, on the Santa Fe road, a town called Palmyra had been laid off, and early in the summer of 1855, a party of men from Missouri came up and ordered the settlers in the place to leave it, or they would be driven away; and serious apprehensions of violence and bloodshed were entertained. The settlers mostly kept their ground. it was with much the same spirit that the pro-slavery men who came and settled in the grove were animated. One of these men, Franklin Coleman, not only took violent possession of several claims, but stole the building materials, which had been prepared by a free-state man, from another claim, and built a house for himself with them.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

If we had a time machine to go check, we might find either version of events actually happened. Phillips puts Coleman at Hickory point around early summer of 1855. Coleman has himself present in November, 1854. They can’t both have it right. Coleman describes a generally amicable coexistence between the proslavery and antislavery men in the area. Phillips gives them “many angry bickerings.” We can judge some of this as the same events reported through different biases. Phillips doesn’t acknowledge the Indiana absentees having their claims vacated by the community. Coleman admits to jumping one. But this only goes so far. Either the neighbors generally got on despite political differences or they did not. Either Coleman stole supplies, or he did not. Phillips has Coleman’s statement, which he quotes from, but doesn’t engage on the earlier confrontation at all. He doesn’t even dismiss it as a pack of lies.

Who told the truth about Coleman and Branson? Possibly both, possibly neither. If Coleman simply invented his past difficulty with Branson, then one would expect or Phillips to challenge the story. Branson might not, as he gave his testimony to the Howard Committee before Coleman gave his own. For my part, I suspect that the conflict did happen, but that both men engaged in a degree of brinksmanship. Branson might have done worse, as the silence regarding the first clash suggests that the antislavery party had reason to avoid raising the subject, but the sources I have don’t give enough of his side to make me entirely confident on the matter.


The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Two

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

We left Franklin Coleman disputing his rights to a patch of timber-rich land at Hickory Point, on the Santa Fe trail. He jumped the claim of an absentee Indianan named Frasier, quite in keeping with what others in the same area had done with the approval of the community. This approval, notably, did not depend on one’s opposing slavery. Coleman did not, but he did his claim jumping with a Free State partner, John M. Banks. All might have gone well, save that the claim Coleman and Banks jumped no longer belonged to Frasier. He sold out to Jacob Branson, who Alice Nichols names a leader of the local Kansas Legion.

Here I must briefly digress. Nichols introduces Branson in Bleeding Kansas as commanding the Legion in the area. However, Coleman dates his first confrontation with Branson to November of 1854, prior to the Legion’s founding. While Branson might very well have had the esteem of his antislavery neighbors well before that date, we should not understand him initially as a man in charge of a paramilitary company.

Less than a month after Coleman and Banks set up on their claim, Branson arrived there. Coleman told Branson about his squatting and Branson informed Coleman that he had the claim from Frasier for fifty dollars. He meant to have the land. Coleman offered to put the matter before the neighborhood for arbitration, following the precedent of past disputes in the area. Branson refused, affirming instead, per Coleman’s testimony in Brewerton’s War in Kansas 

that if the laws took a man’s claim away he would defend himself and have his claim, or ‘die right where he was.’

Coleman suggested they had nothing more to discuss then and let the matter sit. Branson did not. He came up the next day to Coleman’s house with a wagon of belongings, another free state man, and found Coleman absent. Branson found two free state men present, Coleman’s partner Banks and a fellow named Graves. He may also have found Coleman’s wife and child, as Coleman names Banks and Graves “the only men” present rather than the only people.

However many people present,

Branson and his companion tried to force his property into my dwelling. Banks requested them to let their goods stand until they could send for me; he did so, and I came immediately.

Who would have gone to fetch Coleman? I doubt either party would risk having numbers against them at the moment. Coleman doesn’t name anyone in particular, which one would expect if some neighbor had come and gone to do the favor. It seems likely either his wife or son retrieved him. Coleman came home to find Branson and Farley within. He

reminded Branson that he had said that ‘he would have my claim or die upon it.’ I then drew a single-barrelled [sic] pistol from under the head of the bed and told him that I should defend myself, and if he was determined to settle the matter in that way, I was prepared to do so.

I don’t know the specifics of Coleman’s cabin, but I can’t imagine an especially spacious one for a brand new settler. A single room with five adults and a child in it seems like a terrible place to have a gunfight for everyone except the local undertaker. The participants noticed the difficulty and remembered, protests aside, their own aversion to gunshot wounds. Farley tried his hand at mediation.

During this conversation, Branson kept his hand upon an ‘Allen’s revolver’ which he had with him in his pocket, but made no motion to draw the weapon, nor did I threaten him with my pistol, further than to exhibit it as a proof of my intention to protect myself.

In this relaxing environment, Branson and Coleman finally agreed to arbitration.

Good Intentions and Antislavery

"Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"

“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”

I write this inspired by the controversy historian Sean Wilentz caused with his editorial in the New York Times declaring slavery always a state, not a national institution. I cannot improve upon the many responses he has received, not even to say that he should know better. But arguing over whether the Constitution, the founders, or the country itself had some species of antislavery character raises the question of what one means to call something or someone antislavery.

Most often, the question probably comes down to whether or not a person expressed antislavery opinions or a policy arose from antislavery intentions. Thomas Jefferson expressed antislavery opinions; we count him as antislavery just as we would a random farmer in Massachusetts. This makes intuitive sense. We should take people at their words, at least as a starting point. Antislavery of this species, concerning itself with thought and intention as passed down to us in writing, makes for a big tent. We can include everyone who expressed a negative opinion about slavery at all, making for an appealing past where most everyone save a few degenerates knew deep down that they tolerated a great wrong. Abolition thus seems inevitable, a natural consequence of the general agreement of the white community upon it. We needed a few decades and seven hundred thousand lives to work out the logistics, but these things happen.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The intentional understanding of antislavery politics works, at least in a limited sense, for unraveling the positions of private individuals of little influence. If someone in Kansas, Illinois, or Virginia confides to his or her diary opposition to slavery then that can settle things. Most people always lack the power to greatly influence their societies one way or another and we can’t blame them for it. But we would do right to look askance at someone who preaches such doctrines, whether in public or private, whilst owning, acquiring, and exploiting slaves. Words can cost us, but actions come dearer still. When the two come into conflict, we can reasonably see the choice of action as expressing the actor’s paramount values. Thomas Jefferson freed only a small number of his slaves. Robert E. Lee freed the five slaves for which he gets undue credit because the terms of his father-in-law’s will required it and got all the work out of them that he could before doing so.

Focusing on intention alone allows us to ignore the details and frees us to bask in the joys of feel good history for white Americans. We need not inquire much about what happened to the slaves, who we implicitly deem marginal and unimportant. Instead we focus on our favorite subject: the agreed-upon virtues of white people. Here we have written ourselves a happy fable which only requires us to dismiss the lives and ordeals of black Americans as meaningless, something which we receive encouragement in every day.

We have also rendered the entire antebellum era incomprehensible. If Americans white enough to matter generally agreed on the evil of slavery and that it must end, then how did white Americans with their absolute control of the American government and all the state and local governments, preside over an era not simply where slavery endured but also thrived and expanded with the frontiers of the nation? How do we account for those decades and the remarkable sacrifice and harvest of lives that finally ended it? If such an antislavery consensus existed, surely it would not have taken decades and seven hundred thousand lives to free the slaves. Nor can such a concord explain how near half the nation spent its share of those lives not to end slavery, as if some foreign foe imposed it upon the land, but rather to preserve it.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

To dismiss the limits of the intentions-only approach to antislavery, we must disregard the reality of slavery as experienced by the slaves and prosecuted by the enslavers with the aid of the state the latter ordained, established, and operated. To advocate it requires tacit acceptance of all the previous. That in mind, we should consider such an approach not only dangerously misleading historiography but also inherently white supremacist. No law of nature requires us to assent to such judgments, so if we must accept them then we should give them their proper name.

Admitting the complexities and shortcomings of white Americans, rather than treating them as entombed saints, does not make for us the most comforting and celebratory history. It requires us to look at how our national ancestors stepped on others, stole their lives and labor, destroyed their families, and built an empire not of liberty or some high-toned Enlightenment virtues but rather from flesh and blood drawn by the lash. That unflattering picture ought to cause revulsion, but can also call upon us to do better and offer suggestions for roads forward.

Or we may go on as we always have, stolen lives in hand and supremely convinced of our white virtue. We don’t have to do that. If we cannot begin the world anew, then we still have the power to make it better. If we fail at that, then we can at least acknowledge our failure and admit that we chose it, contenting ourselves with the plunder we have assigned to our skin. We have done so often before, graciously allowing ourselves to forget each time. This exquisite virtue must tragically go unheralded; accepting a pardon admits to a wrong done. We took the flags and statues, among many other things, for granted for long enough that continuation seems far more in our “racial” character than doing otherwise.

The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part One

William Phillips

William Phillips

In the middle of November, the Topeka and Leavenworth conventions finished their respective business. The first drafted its constitution and called elections for ratification. The second condemned the first as treasonable and pledged its members to suppress the free state movement and support the existing laws of Kansas at all hazards. The conventions closed within days of one another. For all the violent rhetoric, political strife in Kansas had yet to claim many lives. Talk of secret military orders could fill the air, but no one had embarked on a campaign.

Alice Nichols sets the scene in Bleeding Kansas:

Hickory Point appeared, to men expert at despoliation, to hold great promise. It was a great grove of hardwood in a land hard pressed for building materials. Missourians had known of this place because Palmyra, at the southern tip of the grove, was on the Santa Fe Trail, and a few dozen serious settlers had brought their families there. Lawrence, however, lay only ten miles to the north and free-soil settlers soon predominated.

The area very much favored the free soilers, with a healthy chapter of the Kansas Legion and “Some hundred free-soil men in the community and fifteen or twenty pro-slave families.” With good timber land at stake and politics to further divide them, not everyone got on well. As William Phillips had it:

While the political sentiment arising from the slavery question had been the moving cause of all the difficulty in Kansas Territory, quarrels about claims have often been the means of precipitating them. The inefficiency of the authorities to preserve the rights of the settlers, the scarcity of courts of judicial officers, and the little confidence felt in what there was of these, prevented the people from securing their rights to their claims, or obtaining redress for any grievance upon them.

What could go wrong?

According to Franklin Coleman, he quit his Virginia home back in 1849 and made his way to Kansas via Iowa and Missouri. There he ran a hotel until September, 1855. Then Kansas called and he answered, wife and son in tow. He found Hickory Point

held by three Indianans, who occupied, partly by their own claims, but mostly as the representatives of certain friends of theirs in Indiana, who, though non-residents, claimed title by them as their proxies. Time passed on, and the absentee claimants neglected to comply with the requisitions of the ‘Squatter Laws’ thereby forfeiting their claims. Three of their claims were accordingly taken by Missourians, who learned that they were lying vacant, in November of 1854. Some few days after these claims had been entered upon, the absentee Indianian claimants arrived.

Yet violence did not erupt in November, 1854. Those concerned agreed to arbitration by a third party. Per Coleman’s narrative, which I have from Brewerton’s The War in Kansasthe arbitration committee had an antislavery majority. They decided in favor of the Missourians. Seeing good land available and both precedent and the local community in his favor, Coleman partnered with a Free State man, John M. Banks. Together they claimed their own slice of Hickory Point. They did their best to respect the privileges of the absentee they proposed to displace:

We notified this person that we had ‘jumped his claim,’ and as we did not wish to take any undue advantage of him, would give it up if he could show any legal right to the land in question.

Coleman seems very interesting in avoiding serious disputes over the land, even allowing for the natural tendency to cast oneself in the best light. The original claimant an Indianian named Frasier, might have let it go. However, he sold his claim to Jacob Branson for fifty dollars. Branson, who Nichols names a leader in the Kansas Legion, didn’t care to just let that money slip away. On learning Coleman squatted on the Frasier claim, Branson informed him of the purchase and his intention to take the land. Coleman, who knew Branson from his time in Kansas City, argued that Frasier had no rights to sell given his absentee status. He offered to put the matter before arbitration.

Resolutions of the Law and Order Party, Part Four

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Shannon goes to Leavenworth: parts 1, 2

Parts 1, 2, 3

Resolution text.

My apologies for forgetting to link to the Squatter Sovereign in the last few posts, Gentle Readers.

Fresh off delivering an officially sanctioned resolution of scorn for the antislavery press and endorsements of the Law and Order party remembered its original promise to serve as a moderating influence  and welcome Kansans of any political stripe, so long as they eschewed the brewing insurrection of the free state movement. With due consideration, they resolved:

we, the members of this convention, the Law and Order Party, the States Right party of Kansas, the opponents of abolitionism, free soilism, and all other ISMS of the day, feel ourselves fully able to sustain the Organic Law of the Territory, and the acts of the Territorial legislature, passed in pursuance thereof, and we hereby pledge ourselves to support and sustain Gov. Shannon in the execution of all laws, and that we have the utmost confidence in the disposition and determination of the Executive to fully and faithfully discharge his duties.

They had come a long way from refusing “to discuss the relative merits of the various political sentiments”. From the start, the Law and Order movement clearly saw itself as a proslavery endeavor. However, its founders also made efforts to appeal to universal values. This sufficed to draw in one somewhat prominent antislavery man, Marcus Parrott. Parrott served as James Lane’s second in the abortive Topeka duel. According to Patrick Laughlin, he also gave orders to fix the vote for Andrew Reeder around Doniphan. However, at Big Springs Parrott stood to oppose Andrew Reeder’s resolutions.

Writing a few years later, William Phillips described Parrott as a South Carolina born lawyer who came to Kansas by way of Ohio:

He is a young man of dark complexion and Southern temperament. He was an administration Democrat when he came to Kansas; but I scarcely feel safe in laying down dates for the opinions of this class of politicians after they have experienced “squatter sovereignty as enunciated under the Kansas-Nebraska Bill.” Of thorough acquirements and profound thought, he was yet paralyzed by the listless indolence truly Southern.

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Not the most sterling endorsement, admittedly, but Phillips thought that Parrott’s Ohio Democracy ties might help him with Shannon. No such luck:

Mr. Parrot, a free-state man, who had been an associate Democrat with Governor Shannon in this, tried to speak but was not permitted to do so. Shannon, as president of the convention, refused to notice him, and Stringfellow told him that “the convention did not want to hear a free-state man.”

You can’t say Marcus Parrott didn’t try. He had at least the potential connections to get a word in and if the Law and Order party really wanted to collect a few antislavery men to the banner, they had one right there. But they ultimately had little to offer and little interest in such a recruit. In light of this, the convention looks much more like the official marriage of the territorial government under Wilson Shannon with the proslavery party that he had consistently, if informally, linked himself to since he first came to Kansas.


Resolutions of the Law and Order Party, Part Three

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Shannon goes to Leavenworth: parts 1, 2

The Law and Order convention at Leavenworth, with Wilson Shannon presiding, published the usual resolutions of such a gathering. They pronounced themselves conservative, establishment men beset by abolitionist fanatics. They had a good word for the Constitution, another for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and a kind smile at the laws of Kansas. These, they would defend at all hazards. They had to, as no government democratic, republican, or even despotic, could endure long if it tolerated open flouting of its edicts. No one would have the freedom to judge the laws for themselves and obey only those they chose, when and how they chose, or law itself would fail before whim and caprice. The free state movement did just as they said they could not abide, setting up its own government, running its own election, writing its own constitution, and establishing its own military. This could not stand. Indeed, the movement “should be crushed at once.”

But the convention had not yet fully expressed its outrage. It resolved that the Topeka constitutional convention

called by and elected by, and composed of members of one political party, the so called “Free State Party,” and neither called nor elected by the PEOPLE OF KANSAS, would have been a farce if its purpose had not been treasonable; and any constitution presented by such a convention is unworthy the serious consideration of freemen, and if presented to Congress, as the Constitution of Kansas-should be scouted from its Halls as an insult to its intelligence, and an outrage upon our sovereign rights.

The implication that allowing antislavery politics to advance meant submission features heavily in proslavery rhetoric. Women and slaves submitted, not free men. Thus slavery’s friends, like its foes, declared that they would not tolerate their own enslavement. A white man must resist, lest he appear neither white nor a man.

Two more resolutions have good words to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, both cheekily affirming the right power of the people in the territory to decide for or against slavery for themselves free from meddling by Congress or people from other states. I imagine the men gathered in Leavenworth, fully aware that Missouri votes elected many of them to the legislature, got at least a good smirk out of those.

Then the Law and Order Party, which cast itself as a nonpartisan group and framed its concerns in at least arguably universal tones, expressed

our gratitude to the Democrats of the Northern States for their undeviating support of the true principles of Government, contained in the organic law of this territory.

The non-partisan party thus endorsed the proslavery wing of Northern Democracy. One could expect little else from a body where an appointee of that Democracy presided.

The convention disbursed “contempt and scorn” for the antislavery press for

misrepresenting the facts growing out of the organization of this Territory, all of which are calculated to mislead public sentiment abroad and retard growth and settlement and prosperity of this Territory.

Reading this, one has to remember that no one has the Howard Report to consult. Most everything a person could learn about events in Kansas came from the press and every paper in the land had an open partisan affiliation. Thus to some degree one believed what suited one’s politics. If the convention didn’t deny antislavery reports, then less committed people might take them more seriously.

Resolutions of the Law and Order Party, Part Two

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Shannon goes to Leavenworth: parts 1, 2

Territorial Governor Wilson Shannon, Speaker of the House John Stringfellow, Territorial Secretary Daniel Woodson, and other Kansas proslavery luminaries got together in Leavenworth to have a Law and Order convention. By law, they meant the law of the bogus legislature’s slave code. By order, they meant complete adherence to it. However, they had at least thin grounds to make a general appeal to moderate-minded Kansans. The proslavery party could have gone a bit too far, but the free state movement threatened revolution and anarchy:

The course pursued in this Territory, by certain persons professing to be the peculiar friends of human freedom, is at variance with all law, entirely subversive of good order, and is practical nullification, rebellion, and treason, and should be frowned upon and denounced by every lover of civil liberties and the perpetuity of the Union.

Nullification, in the middle 1850s, had yet to transform itself into the white South’s most popular dogma. If may have taken the Civil Rights Movement to manage that feat. At the time, Shannon and his fellows sat comfortably within a majoritarian tradition of proslavery rhetoric.

Free state men could argue their fidelity to the nation and its traditions of protest, but they proudly declared that they held no loyalty to the government of Kansas and pledged to disregard its laws. To proslavery men, that made for treason. Even without their commitments, the charge of rebellion looks reasonable. Kansas had a lawful government recognized by the United States and it did not meet in Lawrence.

The free soil party could further argue that the proslavery men stripped themselves of any legitimacy they might have by their cooperation with Missourians in purloining Kansas’ elections. The law and order men had heard that often enough to draw up an answer:

the repudiation of the laws and properly constituted authorities of this Territory, by the agents and servants of the Massachusetts Aid Society, and the armed preparation of such agents and servants to resist the execution of the laws of Kansas, are treasonable and revolutionary in their character, and should be crushed at once by the strong, united arm of all lovers of law and order.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

So the central argument of the free state party, that external forces had seized and corrupted the government of the territory, turns back on it. That the blue lodges organized first and rushed across the border to threaten and eventually attack antislavery Kansans did not enter into it. People arriving on Emigrant Aid money did, especially if some found Kansas less idyllic than promised and turned back for home at once. Consistency matters in these things.

At this point, I don’t know who the Law and Order convention’s organizers expected to win over. Moderate antislavery opinion aligned with the free state movement. They offered nothing except orders to do as told and condemnation of antislavery strategy in the strongest terms short of violence. Who did they have left in Kansas to persuade? Perhaps no one, but the resolutions could reach other audiences. We can read them, with their official imprimatur and invocations of conservative order, as both a defense of the proslavery party to those abroad and an effort to ease tempers among those within Kansas. On the first count, they tell the nation just how wild antislavery Kansans had run. On the second, they imply to angry proslavery Kansans that the adults have things under control and they should wait for direction rather than take things into their own hands.

A Few Good Antebellum Political Surveys

Gentle Readers, I aim for transparency here. Where possible, I link you through to the primary sources I use. You can go and read them yourselves to see if I judge them fairly or not. I also try to quote generously so you have fullest context. There’s no reason anybody can’t just dive right into the primary sources and get history from there, but I also find secondary works indispensable. A good secondary source will not just give a narrative of events, and some don’t really do narratives as such, but also a generous helping of footnotes or endnotes to plumb for further reading. I have discovered most of the primary sources I use through these notes and hunting around the internet. A lucky search can land you free copies of even paywalled journal articles from recent decades that some kind professor put up for students’ convenience. But I advise getting some grounding in the secondary literature before diving in. This way you can learn the cast of characters, the major movements, and important background concerns that a primary source may simply assume familiarity with.

You can go to almost any bookstore and find a plethora of Civil War books, but the antebellum gets rather less coverage. So today I’d like to recommend some good survey texts, all of which I’ve used in one way or another in the course of writing. I know others exist, but I can only speak to those I have read. I have also restricted my list to books presently in print and present them in rough order of readability and friendliness to a layperson.

The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War 1848-1861 by David Potter.

A classic of the field, Potter’s work shows its age in some places. His dislike for abolitionist rhetoric shows through more than once. In some places, he sounds very much like a grumpy white conservative in the Civil Rights Era. In keeping with common usage at the time, he refers to black Americans almost exclusively as Negroes. Potter has a very old school approach to history with a strong focus on political actors, which I share to some degree, but the nuts and bolts narrative communicates very well just what happened when and who did it. Potter covers the whole era in good detail for such a short work, including valuable insights about the nature of state and national loyalties and the connection between antislavery politics and nativism. Furthermore, he writes well and with a minimum of jargon. If you read only one of these books, read Potter.

Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 by Elizabeth Varon

Varon’s work only came out in 2008. She writes in a very modern, approachable voice. Don’t let her introductory words on schools of historiography and the rhetoric of disunion put you off. The opening gives the impression that one has in hand a history of ideas about disunion. While that remains a theme of the book, Varon devotes most of her attention to a general narrative. Between the greater sweep and changes in historical fashion, she spends much less time on detailed analysis of policy evolution than Potter does. However, she integrates intellectual, political, and even gender history into the narrative to a far greater degree. She and Potter will both tell you what happened and why, but Varon looks further under the hood. If gender history doesn’t sound like it has much to do with politics, then Varon’s work will prove otherwise. She has a keen eye for the use of gendered language in period sources, both by women seeking to legitimate their political involvement in antislavery causes and the counters by proslavery writers that they emasculated antislavery men. If you ever wonder what social history in its various modes has to do with more traditional approaches, reading Varon will tell you.

The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854 and Secessionists Triumphant: 1854-1861 by William W. Freehling

Recommending a two volume work takes a bit of cheek, I know. Bear with me. Freehling’s survey of Southern politics from independence until secession does not always make for the most engaging read. Freehling can write very well, but can also turn convoluted and lose you in a forest of his personal slang. If that doesn’t do it, then the cast of characters might. Both of these criticisms apply less to the second volume than the first. The first also has slave dialog written in eye dialect, which strikes me as on the edge of good taste even by the standards of 1990.

His forward to the second volume makes it clear that Freehling understands the major issues with his first and sought to remedy them. He succeeded with the dialect and uses fewer nicknames, but I still had several points where I had to hit the index or look elsewhere to help me keep the players straight. If you stick it out with Freehling, he will introduce you to a colorful cast of characters and the ways their personal lives informed their politics. He writes a great biographical sketch. Some reviewers think he goes too far in this, reducing everything to individual eccentricities, but to my reading he generally keeps a broader perspective. That perspective comes deeply informed by social history, including many insights into the minds of slaveholders and the ways in which their authoritarian habits at home influenced both sectional and national politics. The first volume, for all its problematic writing, earns its keep in the introductory chapters alone. There Freehling gives a tour of the antebellum South right down to the number of times you have to change trains.

I understand that Freehling’s explanation of Upper South secession does not meet with universal acceptance; I don’t know that he entirely convinced me with it. However, his running argument that the fear of dissent within the white South informed a great deal of sectional politics bears consideration. It doesn’t explain the entire South or hold true to the same degree at all times, but he convinced me that we should take it seriously as a factor in proslavery thought and action. We have far too an easy a time imagining the white South as monolithic. The fear of white dissent arose out of tensions within Southern society, so attention to it as a theme helps explain just why proslavery radicals both became extreme and gained followers as time went on. Freehling confines most of his writing directed at fellow professionals to the endnotes, but they make for informative reading in themselves and include at least one moment where he graciously admits to a flaw in his own work.

Resolutions of the Law and Order Party, Part One

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Shannon goes to Leavenworth: parts 1, 2

Wilson Shannon went off to the Law and Order Convention at Leavenworth, where he presided and won the crowd with a rousing speech in defense of the laws of Kansas. He notionally represented Douglas County, home of the infamously free soil Lawrence. This news would have made an unwelcome surprise for most of the people living in the county.

A nineteenth century public meeting would hardly pass without resolutions. Writing and approving such resolutions constituted their main business, aside from the speeches and liberal helpings of food and drink. The Law and Order men did not make themselves an exception. As one would guess from their chosen name and past resolutions calling the convention, they framed themselves as thoroughly establishment gentlemen

believing the constitution of the U.S. and the Law passed in pursuance thereof, are sufficient for the protection of our rights, both of person and property, and that in the observance of the same, are vested our only hopes of security for Liberty and the Union, and that we will maintain the same at all hazzards.

Out of context, this all comes across as bland conservative piety with a bit of vigorous nineteenth century manhood at the end. They may as well have endorsed the hallowed platform of Mom and Apple Pie. But none at the time could have missed that they invoked the Constitution to specifically link it to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, from which the legislature derived its authority. By extension, the works of the legislature had the same imprimatur. Fraudulent elections or not, proslavery men commanded the recognized, legal authority in the Territory of Kansas. Their power thus reached back up through the Kansas-Nebraska Act to the Congress and the Constitution that established it.

Invocation of constitutional niceties went only so far. No less then than now, we all fancy the Constitution to read precisely as we intend to do, forbidding any other course. Thus they further endorse the laws of Kansas as adequate to secure their rights, including property rights. By this they may have also meant rights to their homes, land, and conventional belongings, but also their right to what people of the time called property in man. This, they would maintain “at all hazzards.”

There too, the subtext of the resolution extends beyond conventional piety. The convention made this clear in its next resolve, which declared that in every form of government

Monarchial, Aristocratical, Democratic, or Republican, the liberty, the life, and the property of no individual is safe unless the Laws passed by the properly constituted authorities are strictly and freely obeyed.

As little as we care for their actual ends, the law and order men have a point. Even the finest laws written with the most careful sensitivity to human rights do no more than entomb what they propose to defend if the people fail respect and obey them. This holds as much true for laws abolishing slavery as for laws instituting it. Thus:

we hold the doctrine to be strictly true, that no man, or set of men are at liberty to resist a law passed by a legislative body, legally organized, unless they choose by their actions to constitute themselves rebels and traitors, and take all the consequences that legitimately follow the failure of a revolution.

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward

The free soil men would probably answer back that they obeyed higher obligations, perhaps even William H. Seward’s Higher Laws for the real radicals, but also that they did so firmly seated in the American tradition of protest. They rebelled against an illegitimate authority and its tyrannical actions, whatever the legal forms of legitimacy. The made themselves into rebels against it, but by no means traitors to the United States. One can go back and forth like this indefinitely, with both parties insisting that they cast the tea over the side while the other passed the Stamp Act.

We should not, however, understand their expressions of fidelity to American tradition as insincere. Both parties understood themselves as defending the right and good against great peril. The free state movement had erected an illegal shadow government which acted in all the ways it could as though it had legal power over Kansas. This might sometimes make for an idle show, but we should not forget that they also had an armed militia and one of its members, Samuel Collins, had just tried to kill a proslavery man. This had the look of a genuine crisis as much from a proslavery perspective as the opposite.


Wilson Shannon Goes to Leavenworth, Part Two

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Part 1

We left Wilson Shannon at the Law and Order Convention in Leavenworth, on the fourteenth of November, 1855. At the time, I had only limited access to the Library of Congress historical newspaper database. This no longer holds and so I can check William Phillips’ assertion that the governor came at a delegate from Douglas County. The Squatter Sovereign printed a delegate list that agreed with him:

Delegates from Douglas and Doniphan Counties as listed in the Squatter Sovereign

Delegates from Douglas and Doniphan Counties as listed in the Squatter Sovereign

I don’t know the exact boundaries of Douglas County as of 1855, but I suspect that neither Shannon nor former and future Acting Governor Daniel Woodson lived within them. All of those delegates had to come from somewhere. Phillips suggests that maybe three men got together somewhere and named Shannon.. The convention would hardly have scrutinized the qualifications of a sitting governor they wanted as a patron.

From the Sovereign I also learn that while chosen to represent Doniphan, Patrick Laughlin did not appear. A separate piece informs the reader that Laughlin remained confined the bed and alleges some kind of free soil midnight raid on the place where he rested to finish him off. Given Laughlin didn’t sound well before, it seems Doniphan made him a delegate as a show of support rather than with the expectation that he would attend the convention.

The convention named Shannon its president and according to the Sovereign he made one of those long nineteenth century political speeches:

more than an hour in a very able and earnest manner, and to the entire satisfaction of all present. His address satisfied all that he was an able, liberal, devoted patriot; States Rights to the back-bone. We shall not do him the injustice of attempting even a synopsis of his admirable effort.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

We don’t have to entirely take the Sovereign’s word for it. A copy, or at least a good synopsis, probably went around. It might have gone into the Leavenworth Kansas Herald, but the Library of Congress scans for that paper run out before the convention. William Phillips denounced Shannon’s words as “indiscreet and partisan,” which suggests that the convention got exactly what it wanted. Shannon, per Phillips, committed himself to

enforce obedience to the laws enacted at the Shawnee Mission; and he called upon those by whom he was surrounded to aid him in enforcing those laws. He took occasion to denounce the constitutional movement at Topeka; declaring it treasonable, and expressed his determination that such a state of affairs must not be permitted. In this speech he also alluded, in disrespectful terms, to the majority in Congress, and said that, in the next presidential election, the party with which he then acted would carry everything before them.

Levrett Spring agrees that Shannon made quite the speech, adding that he pledged Franklin Pierce backed the proslavery party.