Wilson Shannon Goes to Leavenworth, Part One

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon, the second governor of Kansas, presented himself as a neutral man. New to the territory, he had no particular commitment to the proslavery or free state party. But he had yet to set foot on Kansan soil before declaring himself in favor of the legislature’s slave codes. Whatever defects they might possess, the legal legislature had passed them and acting governor Daniel Woodson, who replaced Andrew Reeder in the interim, had signed them into law. Irrespective of their content, the forms of law gave them a kind of legitimacy. Shannon’s scrupulously proslavery neutrality further drew him into the Leavenworth Law and Order Convention, where he would preside.

Leverett Spring generously calls this “unwise” and characterizes Shannon’s affiliation with the proslavery party as an error which he would later try to correct. I hoped to have proceedings from the convention today, but the Library of Congress historical newspapers database appears only intermittently accessible. In lieu of them, I have Spring’s account from Kansas: Prelude to the War for the Union and William Phillips’ from The Conquest of Kansas. Phillips informs us that though the Law and Order men issued their call all around Kansas and had the governor, Surveyor-General John Calhoun other territorial officials attend.

The John C. Calhoun of South Carolina died back in 1850. According to Nichole Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era, John Calhoun of Kansas had lived in Illinois where he taught Abraham Lincoln to survey and befriended Stephen Douglas. I remember reading that this Calhoun had some relation to the famous one, but haven’t had luck turning up the reference.

William Phillips

William Phillips

Multiple Calhouns aside, Phillips reports that

Outside of the citizens of Leavenworth there were not more than eighty persons present, and by far the larger portion of these were from Missouri. The leading men on the Missouri border were there. The Stringfellows were officers of the convention, and several of the vice-presidents and secretaries were residents of Missouri.

The charge that Missourians dominated the proslavery movement in Kansas has some truth to it, even aside the obvious cases where Missourians intervened in numbers to decide Kansas issues. To my knowledge, Benjamin Stringfellow did not care to remove to Kansas. His brother John, however, had a medical practice in Atchison. Whether his personal habits left him more usually in Missouri or not, I can’t say. As a free state man writing while the struggle took place, Phillips had a strong interest in emphasizing the Missourian connections. However, Charles Clark’s listing of participants who held seats in the legislature at the time, thanks to Missouri votes, suggests Phillips at least correctly spotted a Missouri-minded majority in the convention’s leadership.

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Phillips considered it “singular”

that Gov. Shannon should take an active part in an assemblage where the violent Missouri borderers had the sway, and where its character as a simple pro-slavery convention was so apparent. The governor, in doing this, conclusively showed that he was the tool of the Missouri borderers, and blindly obedient in their scheme of subduing Kansas to slavery.

However, Shannon wanted people to consider himself the tool of Douglas County, home of Lawrence. He claimed to sit as a delegate from the county. This seems improbable. Spring does not repeat the accusation and I lack the documents to check it at the moment. However, claiming that he sat as a delegate from somewhere unlikely to have sent one would let Shannon appear somewhat more disinterested and fit with the pose of neutrality that the Law and Order movement preferred. If he really made the claim, then he probably got a few appreciative laughs.

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