The Klansman Wears a Mask

Klan CartoonOne snowy day in very late 1991 or early 1992, my mother parked the car in the lot down by the river. We got out and walked the half block to a decayed movie palace, now almost unrecognizable after four renovations, for one of the first films written for primarily for adults that I recall seeing on the big screen, Fried Green Tomatoes. One of the scenes therein has the spunky women in the 1930s flashbacks confront a man over his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. I no longer have a copy of the film to check, but I recall that he denies it. Like any good Klansman, he wore a mask. She pointed to his singular shoe size as evidence of his involvement. Around this time, I read ahead in my history textbook and learned that the Klan adopted its odd rituals and unique dress sense to frighten “superstitous” freedpeople.

For many years, I did not put the things together. I didn’t think much about the Klan, except as a generic group of villains. My textbook didn’t dwell on what they did to actually scare people, only that they did. In 1999, I took my one class on the Civil War, where the teacher went a bit beyond the syllabus to inform us that the freedpeople could see that Klansmen left bodies broken on the ground or hanging from trees. Their horses made the same marks on the ground as any others, not ectoplasm-filled depressions. Probably most of their victims knew, or could make a pretty good guess, as to just which of their white neighbors stood behind the mask.

You don’t hear much from the Klan proper, these days. It has gone over the past handful of decades from a respectable (to whites) organization of white men bent on defending that most sacred and inviolate of American traditions, white supremacy, from the foreign influences of equality, immigration, and integration to a national laughingstock and whipping boy. If white-robed masses once marched on Washington, now when they gather the police appear to protect them from the much larger counter-demonstrations. The familiar hoods and robes come mainly from the Klan of the 1920s rather than the Reconstruction Klan, but both used masks when they felt necessary.

The theatricality served its purposes, then and now. I suspect most of us remember the Klan, when we think about it at all, as a collection of truly vile human beings known for their odd rituals. We know that they opposed the Civil Rights movement and have a record going back to Reconstruction. We might imagine them as violent, but mainly they have these ridiculous costumes. They offer up to us the kind of evil we most like, the sort from the cliche western where every villain declares himself with a black hat and optional kicked puppy. The Invisible Empire announced itself as something clear and distinct, an evil imagined as a country one could go out and conquer or an army to destroy. It even has the kindness to come down to us as a spent and dead force, around which we can do an unearned victory lap.

This memory, so far as it goes, has more historical evidence to support it than many. The Klan did have silly costumes. When one delves deeper into the subject, the violence takes center stage. Together or separately, they can do what stories of martial valor and romantic, nineteenth century manhood do to the memory of the Civil War and distract one from the reason for the whole affair. The Klan did not congeal out of some abstract desire to do evil by their own lights any more than any other group does. They had a politics, just as the original members had had when they signed up for their Confederate uniforms. Though I’ve called them Klan politics for purposes of illustration and brevity, the Klan did not invent them. That honor probably belongs to largely unknown Europeans in the early Chesapeake who discovered, to their delight, their own whiteness and its lack in others. Whatever the name, its practitioners acted in conscious pursuit of that politics, however random and anarchic their campaign of terror might seem from our remove. Black Americans could not live free; they would make sure of it.

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to “take over” American life

The Klan, as an organization, has seen better days. Its politics have taken a beating too, but not nearly so much as we would like to think. Klan politics had a very good November this year. The Syrian refugees gave my governor, many others, presidential candidates, and congressmen a chance to put join the Invisible Empire. Few demurred. Syrians, as they share part of an address and part of a religion with ISIS/ISIL/Daesh/those murderous fanatics, must embody terrorism to the last particle of their beings. While not African, Klan politics construe the Syrian as similarly other and thus an abomination. In the Twenties, the Slav and the Catholic played the same part.

Hatred of the other in the United States probably must roll downhill to the nation’s most conspicuous other, Americans of dark skin. Even as nineteenth century Americans imagined the Irish as white, if a dramatically inferior sort of white, their racial theories and stereotyping linked them to black Americans. Scholars crafting races measured skulls and affirmed the Irish more apelike, much closer to African than the pure stock variously imagined as Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, Caucasian, and in later generations Aryan. Thus it made perfect sense to want them controlled, limited, and ideally out of the country. Irish-Americans soon learned the best way to burnish their white credentials: hatred of black Americans. Solidarity with the victim made you a victim, a race traitor, miscegenationist, or other slur of the day. Solidarity with the white supremacist made you part of the club, at least if you worked hard enough at it for long enough.

The classic form of Klan politics remains, of course. To give that up would surrender the entire edifice and leave one open to charges that one should give up the many pleasures of the centuries spent looting lives. Here too, November proved a banner month. A group of Black Lives Matter activists protested outside a police precinct in Minneapolis. Their concern, as usual, involved the police shooting of an unarmed black person, Jamar Clark. For this crime, three white supremacists arrived at the protest and shot five protesters. Since then, others have cruised by brandishing firearms and racial slurs. The perpetrators, unsurprisingly, had the usual sort of interests and affiliations. They even wore masks. One cannot, short of bringing out the white robes, burning cross, and rope, better embody Klan politics.

Klan for AmericansAnd then we have Donald Trump. Trump does not wear a mask, but when a protester disrupted one of his campaign events the crowd attacked him. Mercutio Southall committed no greater crime than engaging in a protest chant at a Trump speech. Had Trump pulled a Stephen Douglas of legend and told him off. That probably would have made the news as conduct somewhat unbecoming a presidential candidate. Calling Trump boorish barely registers more than looking askance at his coiffure, but people seeking the White House just don’t behave like that. Or so we tell ourselves. But his supporters launched themselves at Southall, shouting racial slurs and attacking with fits and feet:

I got punched in the face, I got punched in the neck. I got kicked in the chest. Kicked in the stomach. Somebody stepped on my hand

The man himself had a chance to distance himself from the altercation. The Donald could have condemned his fans’ violence. We know he likes to speak his mind. He even anticipated that one of his events might erupt in violence should someone try what Southall did. Did he take responsibility? Did he stand up and say that when he ordered the crowd to remove Southall, he did not mean to start a fistfight? Not quite:

Trump was asked to weigh in on his supporters’ actions on Fox & Friends Sunday morning. “Maybe he should have been roughed up,” he said. “It was disgusting what he was doing.”

Trump supporters have built up a record for this kind of thing. Two men who urinated on a sleeping , Latino homeless man and then beat him credited Trump as their inspiration. He declared 

that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.”

On twitter, Trump later decided he doesn’t condone violence. Maybe Trump likes to see and sign off on attacks personally, which he could do in Mercutio Southall’s case.

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Trump’s actual response involved segregating the media away from his crowds, which calls to mind how the Chicago Police killed Laquan McDonald. McDonald, running from police, went into a Burger King. There he died, with his killer pumping plenty of extra bullets into the body. This all took place last year, but it took until just now for him to face charges. In the interim, we have learned that the Chicago PD destroyed evidence and intimidated witnesses to protect one of its own. They surely regretted the lack of masks at the time, and endeavored to don them retroactively.

I suspect that I could fill a post with events like these most every month. The particulars would change; we shall not always have Donald Trump to give voice to our national hatreds. But we have done these things for a very long time and show little to no inclination to stop. Instead we take each as a carefully isolated event. None constitute a program. None tell us much about the nation. None of them have a politics. They just happen, no more to do with us than the wind and rain. We cast ourselves not as purposeful agents participant in a culture, but as the perpetually innocent and bewildered. Even people with clear white supremacist ties shooting black protesters, or even just ordinary people in church, doesn’t seem like an act of terrorism, though such behavior comes as routinely in our history as elections.

And why would it? Terrorists do things we disagree with. We respect the masks their Klan politics wear. We must, as we wear the same ourselves. To reveal them reveals us.

I have used the first person plural through this and began with a personal story, because I must include myself. The most deadly act of terrorism on American soil took place in 1995. A skinny white guy, in conjunction with another and probably some others that the FBI didn’t find enough evidence on, parked a truck full of fertilizer and gasoline next to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It exploded, as he planned, and killed 168 people. On hearing this, the day of the attack, I consulted the roll of media stereotypes in my head and assumed we would watch a band of Muslim men with beards. I did as told; as I had been trained for all my fourteen years. I too wore the mask.

We don’t have to keep wearing it. Federick Douglass used to introduce himself to crowds as the possessor of stolen goods; he stole his body. He had little choice in the matter; we insisted. We imagine we have little choice in the matter, but we also insist upon that. Most of us will never make history. We live ordinary, boring lives. Given the sort of excitement that features in notable lives, you can’t really blame anyone for taking a pass on historical fame. Maybe even all together we couldn’t turn this thing around, take off the mask, and do any better than we have. Maybe even if we did, we have arranged things too well to ever fix. We do things every day that we cannot undo.

We also do things which we say we cannot undo because we do not want them undone. We put on the mask to hide things we don’t want seen. Once slavery seemed permanent too, impossible and even inconceivable to end. Now few of us make excuses for it. The mask works for wearer too.

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Shannon and Robinson Exchange Words

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

Wilson Shannon named the offenses against law and order that prompted his calling out of the militia against Lawrence. This would please few people in Lawrence, who generally thought that they had done nothing wrong and didn’t recognize his authority to begin with. But not believing Wilson Shannon a lawful governor or Samuel Jones a lawful sheriff did not cause them to vanish in a puff of logic. They and the Kansas militia remained real, complete with their guns.

But maybe Shannon would stake out a conciliatory position? He could make assurances to Lawrence that he would ensure the militia respect their persons and property, rather than do something like sack the town. The governor knew very well that people in Lawrence would read his proclamation, so it would do to have something in there for them.

After declaring Lawrence’s sins

I, Wilson Shannon, Governor of Said Territory, have issued this, my proclamation, calling on all well-disposed citizens of this Territory to rally to the support of the laws of the country, and requiring and commanding all officers, civil and military, and all other citizens of this Territory, who shall be found within the vicinity of these outrages, to be aiding and assisting by all means in their power in quelling this armed organization, and assisting the said sheriff and his deputies in recapturing the above-named prisoner, and aiding and assisting him in the execution of all legal processes in his hands.

So much for conciliation, or even consideration. Everybody in Kansas needed to descend upon Lawrence and suppress the paramilitary arm of the free state movement. Considering the large overlap between it and the movement in general, this amounted to calling for the arrest of the lot of them. That may sound like a somewhat ungenerous read, but Shannon told the militia leadership that he expected to have warrants against the Kansas Legion’s ringleaders. Furthermore, he went on to remove all ambiguity:

And I do further command that the District Attorney for the district in which these outrages took place, and all other persons concerned in the administration and execution of the laws, cause the above offenders, and all such as aided or assisted them, to be immediately arrested and proceeded with according to law.

Antislavery Kansans broke the law, or near enough, just by existing and certainly by organizing. George Brown dared people to come for him. It would take no particular stretch to count the leadership in Lawrence as aiding and assisting in the resistance to Sheriff Jones. Once in custody, their offenses against the Kansas slave code would surely come into play. Even if Shannon didn’t aim to press charges on those grounds, Jones and other more radical proslavery men would surely push for it. They could decapitate their opposition at a stroke.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Word of the proclamation reached Lawrence that day, the twenty-ninth of November, and the Committee of Safety made an answer to it.

That the allegations contained in the proclamation aforesaid are false in whole and in part; that no such state of facts exists in this community; that if such representations were ever made to Governor Shannon, the person or persons who made them have grossly deceived him; and no association of lawless men armed with deadly weapons has ever been formed in this community for the purpose of ‘resisting the laws of the country, trampling upon the authority of its officers, destroying the property of peaceable citizens, or molesting any person in this Territory, or elsewhere, in the enjoyment of their rights.

Charles Robinson’s committee flat-out lied, so far as anyone but a free state partisan could see. But from their perspective, they told only the truth. Nobody proposed to reject the laws of the countryThe laws of the territory could jolly well go to Hell, but that quarrel involved Shawnee Mission rather than Washington. Their critics could answer, with the facts firmly on their side, that the laws of the country established Kansas’ government and its authority over them and gave force to the laws passed in pursuance thereof. Washington created the territory and its government and they remained its creatures.

On the Volcano Either Way

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

The situation in Lawrence always held the potential for an explosion. That Samuel Wood finally did what antislavery Kansans had promised and defied the law at gunpoint had to escalate matters. Wilson Shannon responded exactly as most people, regardless of their position on slavery, would probably have expected: he called out the militia. As he told George Douglas Brewerton, he understood the free stater men as finally beginning their

settled plan and determination to resist and bid defiance to the Territorial laws, in accordance with [their] resolutions

The statement of purpose that the Lawrence Committee of Safety issued couldn’t have done much to change his mind. Shannon sent his orders to the militia on November 27, 1855. The next day, he wrote his account of the situation to Franklin Pierce. Through all of this, Shannon said, he

presumed as a matter of course, and intended, that all these men should be drawn entirely from the citizens subject to militia duty in Kansas Territory. At that time-as the seat of difficulties (Lawrence), is distant some forty miles from the State line of Missouri-it never for a moment occurred to me that the citizens of that State would cross into Kansas or volunteer their aid to carry out her laws.

Shannon reads as genuinely surprised here. Missouri managed to reach a hundred or more miles into the territory for the Assembly elections back in March, but Shannon missed those. He might not have believed the stories of such things and didn’t have the Howard Report to go check up with. He might have dismissed the Branson Rescue as a local matter that wouldn’t interest Missouri. One has the sense that he, like Andrew Reeder before him, didn’t fully understand just how far off the rails Kansas had run. He could tell Pierce that they stood on a volcano, but he also told the president that he didn’t know when it would blow.

On the twenty-ninth, the day after he wrote Pierce, Shannon released a proclamation that listed the free state party’s offenses against law and order. They had formed military companies aimed at resisting the laws of Kansas by force. They used those companies against Samuel Jones to free Jacob Branson. Shannon calls this “a violent assault,” which doesn’t quite match what happened, but had Shannon decided to try the matter by arms, surely would have. Further the sheriff’s prisoner led a mob that burned proslavery settlers out of their homes. And finally:

I have received satisfactory information that this armed organization of lawless men have proclaimed their determination to attack the said sheriff of Douglas county, and rescue from his custody a prisoner, for the avowed purpose of executing him without judicial trial, and at the same time threatened the life of the said sheriff and the citizens

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

After all of this, Franklin Coleman finally enters into things again. While free state Kansans generally seem more interested in harming property than people, at least compared to proslavery Kansans, the mob that sought him looks very much like they intended a lynching. Ridding themselves of Samuel Jones would make for a nice bonus. Whether or not Branson then intended to see Coleman dead, it seems clear that some of the hundred or so people rooting about for him would have reduced the proslavery population of Kansas by at least one if they came on him in the night.

However much our sympathies remain with antislavery Kansans, we cannot dismiss these as light and trivial offenses. Shannon may have bungled the execution of his response and deluded himself into thinking Missourians would for once not involve themselves, but I don’t see any way he could have just let things go. He stood on the volcano either way.

Keeping Free State Promises

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

Samuel Wood took Jacob Branson from the custody of Sheriff Samuel Jones at gunpoint. He and his band of rescuers rode into Lawrence in short order and found a mixed reception. The town’s antislavery party shed no tears for Jones or his flouted authority, but feared that Jones would revenge himself upon them. The citizens threw a public meeting and appointed a Committee of Safety, which decided that the Branson affair had nothing in particular to do with Lawrence. Still, they’d best keep an eye out just in case.

They had good reason to worry, even if the hammer didn’t come down that day. Jones wrote to Wilson Shannon asking for help. I couldn’t find that letter where I expected it, with Shannon’s executive minutes, but a copy turned up in George Douglas Brewerton’s The War in Kansas. Therein, Jones informed Shannon that he should, “consider an open rebellion as having already commenced.” Shannon told Franklin Pierce that he didn’t quite buy that, but he did call out the militia for Jones.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Knowing that the proslavery men considered them traitors and that the situation could only further the impression for others, the Committee of Safety issued a statement:

We, the citizens of Kansas Territory, find ourselves in a condition of confusion and defenselessness so great, that open outrage and mid-day murders are becoming the rule, and quiet and security the exception. And whereas the law, the only authoritative engine to correct and regulate the excesses and wrongs of society, has never yet been extended to our Territory-thus leaving us with no fixed or definite rules of action, or source of redress-we are reduced to the necessity of organizing ourselves together on the basis of first principles, and providing for the common defense and general security. And here we pledge ourselves to the resistance of lawlessness and outrage at all times, when required by the officers who may from time to time be chosen to superintend the movements of the organization.

What could they do in the face of anarchy in Kansas? This would hardly persuade those already decided against the free state movement. As a matter of law, they did have a government, complete with officers, courts, and police powers. The operation of those brought things to this point. But an actual armed revolt, however small, against the established power of the territory put them in a terrible bind. They had promised resistance, including disregarding all the works of the Kansas Assembly and its officers. To repudiate them now would mean repudiating the party itself. While the free state leadership had not properly authorized Wood’s expedition, nobody really wanted to repudiate him. Like it or not, they had done as they promised in accord with their many public declarations.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Wilson Shannon understood those promises. He read their papers and knew the free state platform well enough. He cited chapter and verse of convention resolutions printed in the Herald of Freedom to demonstrate that the Lawrence radicals acted to plan. In turning their revolution from word to deed, they made it incumbent on him as the lawfully-appointed authority in Kansas to suppress it.

Tuesday turned into Wednesday without the militia turning up in Lawrence. That day, the Herald of Freedom reported

many of our people were seen in the streets in little groups, each, apparently loaded down with the implements of defence. Rumors continued to arrive of the movements of Jones, the bogus Sheriff, and his posse which he was gathering; but night found us still in being, and the town not demolished.

It might have looked on Tuesday morning like Jones would come riding into town with several hundred men to do his best Viking impression. That Jones did not appear then, astride a chariot pulled by two rams and wearing the customary horned helmet and metal brassiere or otherwise, did not mean he had given up. The delay alone might have seemed ominous, but Lawrence knew that the Sheriff moved abroad to gather his forces. The longer it took him, the more men he might have to use against them.

A Quiet Day in Lawrence

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

While Governor Shannon wrote his messages from Shawnee Mission, calling out the militia and informing Franklin Pierce of events, Lawrence did not dare stand idle. Charles Robinson saw clearly the danger that Jacob Branson’s rescue brought to Lawrence. They soon had word of Samuel Jones seeking his revenge with help from Missouri. It might have come as early as the morning after the rescue, or the free state men might have anticipated something based on their extensive past experience with Missourian meddling. Such foresight must have required roughly as much clairvoyance as predicting the location of the next sunset.

Either way, they selected a committee to see to the town’s safety. According to the Herald of Freedom, the committee had

full powers in the premises, but with the express understanding-as enunciated by the mover for the committee, who was subsequently appointed its chairman-that it was not for the purpose of aggression, or to shield any person from deserved punishment, or to resist the legally constituted authorities, but simply to resist the action of a mob from Missouri, or elsewhere, should one be directed against Lawrence.

The Lawrence men might not have intended aggression, but it stretches credulity to think that they didn’t understand themselves as shielding Branson’s rescuers as well as themselves. They might not resist the United States Army should it appear on their doorstep, but they hardly counted the territorial government or its militia as legal authorities over them. Their conciliatory position would do little to calm their enemies.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The Herald doesn’t go into detail about the committee’s working, but Charles Robinson does:

About nine o’clock Robinson made his second visit to the town, when he found a meeting of the citizens in progress. He was informed that a Committee of Safety had been appointed, of which he was a member. The committee was at once convened, and it decided that Lawrence had nothing to do with the affair, and should assume no responsibility for it as a town, although no person censured the rescuers for their action.

Robinson sounds a bit less delighted than the usual conscript at his role, but it sounds as though he prevailed for the time being. Whether he persuaded his fellows or they already shared his misgivings, they didn’t fall over themselves to make Branson’s cause their own. Nor did they stick their necks out for Samuel Wood over the rescue, though they didn’t offer him up as a sacrifice either. This all has the ring of backing slowly away from a fight.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

The sky then declined to fall. Tuesday, November 27, rolled along without proslavery hordes descending upon them. The Herald of Freedom reports that:

the several military companies were dismissed, after first taking the precaution to select a guard for the night.

The initial concern aside, maybe they thought they’d escaped the hard hand of their enemies. Lawrence had to know by the end of the day, and might have known early in the morning, that Sheriff Jones sent word to Missouri and to the governor. But they don’t seem aware that Shannon called out the militia against them yet, nor that anybody had or would come from Missouri.

Refugees, Fear, and the Art of Human Sacrifice

Not to be taken as a statement of American policy or values.

Not to be taken as a statement of American policy or values.

Few things have more power over us than fear. At its bidding, we disregard otherwise dear values, cast aside critical safeguards, and do horrible things otherwise inconceivable. Ordinary people will rise up spontaneously, or “spontaneously,” in great numbers to do its bidding. We need to meet the emergency, you understand, and in that state we just don’t have the time and the stakes are far too high for the ordinary way of things to handle. Not all that long ago, an American leader told us that even if he had 99% certainty that the perceived threat amounted to nothing, the 1% doubt justified anything to combat it. That anything included torture. Through the suffering of our chosen martyrs, always someone else, we become free.

Syria, a country wracked by a civil war between a vile dictator and a vile group of religious fanatics, the latter of whom the United States rolled out the red carpet for in its misbegotten war of pleasure against Iraq and bungled aftermath, naturally has a tremendous refugee problem. Its huddled masses, poor, tired, and desperate, would probably like freedom. They would certainly like freedom from the prospect of marauders with guns out to murder them and their families. Maybe they haven’t imbibed every jot and tittle of western, post-Enlightenment values, but the hope that oneself and one’s children might escape slaughter knows no borders.

I have my doubts as to the popularity of such values among Americans. Few fret at the trifling burden of preaching, but we rarely care for the weight of practice. Because an unrelated group killed a large number of innocent people in Paris a week ago, we learn that the United States cannot permit a single Syrian refugee into the country. Presidential candidates have said so. Congress has said so. The governors of many states, including my own, have said so and pledged that should refugees come within their jurisdiction, they shall do all in their power to deprive them of a chance to start anew.

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to “take over” American life

They said the same things about the Germans, a militaristic people unsuited to democratic government. They said it about the Irish, enthralled to medieval religious leaders and sworn to do their bidding. Massachusetts even deported thousands of them. Slavs and Italians infamously came from the armpit of Europe. Change the ocean crossed and one finds much the same rhetoric deployed against the Chinese and Japanese. Do a ninety degree turn and you’ll hear it about people from Latin America. Take a small step back and you’ll hear it about black American refugees fleeing the South for the dubious safety of northern cities. Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free, but not those poor, tired, huddled masses. They exhibit far too much huddling, poverty, fatigue, and yearning.

Anyone we let in must withstand scrutiny, of course. The world has no shortage of dangerous fanatics who mean to do us harm. They hate us, as the saying goes, for our freedoms and seek tirelessly to destroy them. Speaking of those, some of our would-be leaders have decided to run for Ayatollah in lieu of President, declaring that we can only trust those Syrians who we can prove sufficiently Christian. Presumably if elected, he would establish an Inquisition to assess their credentials. It worked for Ferdinand and Isabella, though not so much for the Muslims and Jews of Iberia. The Catholic Monarchs doubtless considered that working as designed. Others have advocated databases to track them. A yellow crescent badge must come up eventually. Failing that, perhaps tattoos will do the job.

Lincoln 1860We can say that these people don’t speak for us, but we keep voting for them. So it has transpired before. So it probably will again. Abraham Lincoln corresponded with Joshua Speed on the subject of Kansas back in 1855:

You say if Kansas fairly votes herself a free state, as a christian you will rather rejoice at it. All decent slave-holders talk that way; and I do not doubt their candor. But they never vote that way. Although in a private letter, or conversation, you will express your preference that Kansas shall be free, you would vote for no man for Congress who would say the same thing publicly. No such man could be elected from any district in any slave-state. You think Stringfellow & Co ought to be hung; and yet, at the next presidential election you will vote for the exact type and representative of Stringfellow. The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class, among you; and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you, and are as completely your masters, as you are the masters of your own negroes.

We can say that these leaders don’t speak for our values, but we keep electing them. I wouldn’t bet anything I wanted to keep on any governor losing an election over the Syrian refugees. Nor would many southern politicians likely lose an election for excessive enthusiasm for slavery. Of course many of us don’t bother with the conventional pieties. Only those who wish to pose as moderates need them. Speed’s rhetorical abhorrence of slavery might play well in his Kentucky, which remained as committed to slavery indefinitely in the 1850s as South Carolina did, but it wouldn’t do to sound too much like a Carolina radical.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

We can say that we face a unique threat which justifies our fear, but accidental discharges of handguns kill more Americans every year than innocents who died in Paris. Even deliberate shootings don’t warrant this sustained, organized rush for a less humid pair of trousers, no matter how clearly terroristic. Our leaders, aspirant and otherwise, have invented nothing particularly new. We have our traditions of fear, involving both “degenerate” immigrants and the horrific prospect of a freely moving black person.

Though we imagine fear as general and a concern for security as universal, both turn highly selective in practice. We do not calibrate our responses to the gravity of the threat, or to the likelihood of something happening, but rather we choose which perils we deem emergencies and which we consider merely ordinary. An understandable panic might explain immediate responses, but we maintain the same behaviors for decades on end. We don’t do calculatedly, with malice aforethought. We decide which people deserve protection and which punishment. Their deeds, real or imagined, rarely enter into it. They, whoever we choose this time around, come to us as curiously pathetic titans. They will destroy us all, but somehow remain our inferiors in every way that matters. We imagine not flesh and blood, but evil that cloaks itself in the semblance of people.

If I told you that a murderous band of sadistic rapists roamed the country at will and occupied high positions in the government, from which they exerted effective control over it, you would think me mad. I only named the slaveholders, their habits, and correctly stated their influence throughout most of the antebellum period. If I told you about a police state that aggressively monitored the internal movements of its people and vigorously suppressed dissent, would you think of Stalin’s Russia or Calhoun’s South Carolina? Security, fear’s respectable alias, demanded similar human sacrifices. So long as we imagine perfect security possible, we will continue feeding lives to it. You don’t sacrifice people you find valuable, of course. You sacrifice the expendable. Foreigners, outsiders, dissidents, anybody who doesn’t fit your vision of the good society. My governor would like to feed Syrians to what Corey Robin calls the Moloch of national security.

Moloch, if you don’t know your Bible, meant either a hollow idol in which human sacrifices burned or the god the idol represented. He preferred his feast in the form of babies. Whether this ever happened with any regularity or not, I can’t say. Imagining one’s neighbors as literally baby-eating monsters seems far too popular the world over to take at face value. Moloch features heavily in one of my favorite poems, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl:

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!

Must we keep feeding our Molochs? If starved long enough, the heavy judger of men might at last consume itself instead.

Fear of phantoms will only satisfy Moloch for so long. Eventually it will want more and fear’s apostles will eagerly provide. They know that by aligning with the security state, they have immunized themselves. Every society has a surfeit people deemed undesirable. Often they work hard to produce as many as possible. The lives burned away in all the persecuting horrors perfume the air. The screams make for a symphony. Thus Moloch blesses his faithful, orthodox practitioners of that most demanding rule: Do unto others, good and hard. The ritual ablutions cannot entirely hide their joy. At last they can run free and do as they always wished. They partake of forbidden pleasures sanctified by exquisitely selective altruism. Back in the day, priests would burn or otherwise dispose of only a part of offerings. The rest they would enjoy for themselves, thus making their living. If we pass such vast distances and find ourselves in the same place, we should wonder if we ever left.

So, as Lincoln wrote:

As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

We have come so far now that we count sufficiently white Catholics as equal, provided they join us in counting the rest as otherwise. The Russian Empire, Putin’s, Stalin’s, or the Tsar’s, awaits us, but why go? We can get it all at home. Had we come to a country born innocent, we might say that we accepted an intellectual immigration. Always broad-minded, we made room in America for a Russian police state. Our national ancestors did one better, though. They didn’t need to go study some other country to learn the arts of fear. They created it for themselves on the shores of the Chesapeake, whips in hand. They did the same in the New England forests with hot lead.

We choose not to remember that part. The nativists don’t occupy much of a position in the national memory, save as an ordeal faced by certain immigrant groups and now happily behind them. We certainly don’t recall how they got right with nativism for the next wave of immigrants, who somehow came by all the same sins that their parents never did. To join an us, they agreed to create a them. The wages of our sins thus find repose in the most popular of places: our victims.

ssstloushavana

The SS. St. Louis in Havana

The faith in a united, narrow consensus America with few great rifts between its people demands we deny the controversy. A land can hardly claim perfection at birth and endless improvement thereafter, the ne plus ultra of American nationalism, and admit Americans as a fractious, divided people. Instead it must paper over the division by deciding who doesn’t count. The American consensus endures by writing its critics and its victims out of memory. There one must recognize not merely a normal, if regrettable, tendency toward self-flattery but rather another line in the liturgy of fear. It would not do to undermine the values of the nation, to corrupt its racial purity, and enfeeble the race by amalgamation or debase it by placing equal what nature, gods, or some other mouthpiece for our hatreds declared unequal. The eternal creed goes by many names, but works its bloody way through the world over and the voyages of the damned continue. Enough of us, Joshua Speed endlessly reborn, vote to ensure it. We know where the voyages end, whether with bullets or starvation or a crematoria. No evil, however notorious, lacks for eager accomplices.

Once we told slaves to endure for all eternity. Once we said No Irish Need Apply and sought to keep them from the country while they starved at home. Once we met black refugees from the South with a northern wing of the Klan. Once we sent a ship full of Jewish refugees back to Nazi Germany. Now we tell Syrians to stay home and wait for ISIS to come get them.

Every time the warmed up the old idol and got our human sacrifices in a row, we found dissenters in our number. Now and then, we toss them in the fire with the rest. However much we may admire them, we do so from a healthy remove.  Taking sides in disputes long ended costs us little. When the same dispute reappears, we suddenly find ourselves living in the moment. What can we do? Our hands are tied. This time, like all the other times, differs so much that we can’t draw on past lessons. We pretend we can do no other, save to do mercilessly unto others. Then we contemplate our especially energetic species of inaction and declare our hands clean.

It all seems perfectly reasonable, just like that bit toward the end of Huck Finn with the steamboat explosion. Did the explosion hurt anyone?

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.

“We are standing on a volcano” Shannon’s View of Kansas’ Troubles, Part Two

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

 

Wilson Shannon called out the militia to put down a nascent uprising of free soil men in Lawrence. He understood the situation as dire, though not quite dire enough to warrant the three thousand troops that Sheriff Samuel Jones asked so he could serve process and preserve order. That didn’t mean that Shannon oversold the danger in hopes of getting more sympathy when he wrote about Kansas’ woes to Franklin Pierce. One could see the things as badly off the rails and still not think that it would require three thousand men to suppress a few hundred. But in the course of writing Pierce, Shannon made an unusual admission for someone in Kansas and outside the free state movement:

The excitement along the borders of Missouri is running wild, and nothing but the enforcement of the laws against these men will allay it. Since the disclosure of the existence and purposes of this secret military organization in this Territory, there has been much excitement along the borders of Missouri, but it has been held in check heretofore by assurances that the laws of the Territory would be enforced, and that protection wold be given to the citizens against all unlawful acts of this association. This feeling and intense excitement can still be held in subordination if the laws are faithfully executed; otherwise there is no power here that can control this border excitement, and civil war is inevitable.

While proslavery men often expressed gratitude toward their Missourian comrades and the Missourians themselves did not shy away from admitting their work in Kansas, one rarely finds a Kansan quite so open about their involvement. From this perspective, one can look at Shannon’s initial proslavery proclamations and his involvement with the Law and Order Party as a kind of prophylactic against further Missouri meddling. The regular election day invasions of Kansas had fueled free soil radicalism. By removing cause for further ballot box invasions, Shannon could have hoped to slowly calm the territory.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

None of that makes Shannon an antislavery man. He had no trouble cooperating with the legislature in all its deeds to date. He offered no remedy to the free state party save contesting elections in which they could not reasonably have any confidence. But then we could say the same about Andrew Reeder, who only joined with the free state men when the legislature turned against him. At least so far, Shannon had given proslavery Kansans no reason to see him as an enemy.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Shannon continued, averring that proslavery Kansans viewed the Kansas Legion “as hostile to all Southern men.” The Missourians who had gone over to the other side might disagree, but that probably described the rest well enough. To the degree that loyalty to slavery made one Southern, a frequent theme in antebellum writing, one can hardly argue with it at all. Nor could one argue with his supposition that unless the authorities in Kansas acted swiftly and decisively

a force will be precipitated across the line to redress real and supposed wrongs, inflicted on friends, that cannot be controlled, or, for the moment, resisted. It is vain to conceal the fact: we are standing on a volcano; the upheavings and agitations beneath, we feel, and no one can tell the hour when the eruption may take place.

On this point, most everyone of either party could readily agree.

Shannon’s View of Kansas’ Troubles, Part One

 

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

On November 27, 1855, Wilson Shannon issued orders for the organized northern and unorganized southern divisions of the Kansas territorial militia to converge on Lecompton. There they would place themselves at the disposal of Sheriff Samuel Jones to serve warrants against Jacob Branson and those who rescued him from Jones’ custody. Shannon specified that the militia had those duties and no more, clearly sensitive to how the use of force could go badly wrong. But Shannon’s prudence had its limits. He paints Franklin Pierce a rather dire picture of matters the next day. Kansas faced

great danger to the peace and good order of society. I am well satisfied that there exists in this Territory a secret military organization, which has for its object, among other things, resistance to the laws by force.

The Kansas Legion had military organization, at least in chapters sufficiently large, and promised essentially that. Shannon might not have known it then, but Branson served as an officer in the group. His rescues almost certainly included his comrades in arms. Shannon knew all of that for some time, as Patrick Laughlin’s revelations hit the papers a month prior and free state groups had threatened resistance of the law in martial language for some time prior. He also makes reference to “hints thrown out by some of the public journals in their interest,” which he could hardly have missed.

Until the Branson affair, he understood this all as bold talk rather than a plan of action. Some free state Kansans probably agreed with him.

Shannon didn’t know how many men the Legion boasted, but he guessed between one and two thousand

well supplied with Sharp’s rifles and revolvers, and that they are bound by an oath to assist each other in the resistance of the laws when called upon to do so.

Now that the Legion proved itself as martial as its rhetoric, he had to do something. Shannon related the story of Dow’s murder to Pierce, complete with “three to four hundred” men out to lynch Coleman. He told of Branson’s arrest in somewhat more general terms, not naming him but calling him a leader of that mob. “[B]etween forty and fifty” intercepted Jones to free his prisoner, armed with those same Sharpe’s firearms. Along the way, the proslavery families around Hickory Point, who Shannon called “law-and-order families” suffered burned houses, killed cattle, and general destruction of property to the point that all but two households fled.

Helpless women and children have been forced by fear and threats to flee from their homes and seek shelter and protection in the State of Missouri. Measures were taken by the legal authorities to procure warrants against these lawless men, and have them arrested and legally tried.

Those measures may include making Franklin Coleman and Josiah Hargis justices of the peace alongside Hugh Cameron. Though hardly impartial, Shannon could have expected them to know from experience where to best issue warrants.

Wilson Shannon Calls out the Militia

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Trouble at Hickory Point: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

The Hunt for Franklin Coleman: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

At Franklin, on the morning of November 27, 1855, Sheriff Samuel Jones fired off a letter to Governor Wilson Shannon. I haven’t found a copy of it, but Shannon’s subsequent correspondence makes its contents clear. On receiving the letter, he wrote orders for Major General William P. Richardson of the Kansas militia, a Blue Lodge man from way back, and Adjutant General H. J. Strickler. He told both militia officers that he had word from Jones about the Branson affair, wherein

he was met by an armed force of some forty men, and that the prisoner was taken out of his custody, and open defiance bid to the laws. I am also duly advised that an armed band of men burnt a number of houses, destroyed personal property, and turned whole families out of doors in Douglas county; warrants will be issued against these men, and placed in the hands of the sheriff of Douglas county for execution. He has written to me demanding three thousand men to aid him in executing the process of the law, and the preservation of the peace.

Jones at least doubled the number of men he faced, but houses burned and families fled. Wood and his men did swear to ignore the laws of the territory and their officers. However much we sympathize with the free state party, we must admit that this looks like a very serious situation. Responding with overwhelming force to prevent further anarchy must have seemed entirely reasonable. Shannon ordered Richardson and his command, as well as whoever Strickler could manage in his unorganized portion of the state, to

collect together as large a force as you can in your division, and repair without delay to Lecompton, and report yourself to S.J. Jones, the sheriff of Douglas county, together with the number of your forces, and render to him all the aid and assistance in your power, if required in the execution of any legal process in his hands.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

If this all sounds strange, then consider that in times of civil disturbance we still call out the National Guard for such things. When things really go badly, or in the face of heavy local defiance, presidents have dispatched the regular Army for the same role. To order out the troops risked escalation, a danger Shannon keenly appreciated. He made it clear to Richardson and Strickler that

The forces under your command are to be used for the sole purpose of aiding the sheriff in executing the law, and for no other purpose.

That proviso suggests both an awareness that things could slip quickly out of control and a wariness of the use of military companies for police purposes. It might also speak to a wariness about Jones. Wilson Shannon aimed to put many men under his command, but took pains not to write Jones a blank check. His wariness of the sheriff appears more explicitly in the account he wrote the next day for Franklin Pierce:

The force required by the sheriff is far beyond what I believe to be necessary, and, indeed, far beyond what could be raised in this Territory. From five to eight hundred men will be amply sufficient, I have no doubt, to protect the sheriff, and enable him to execute the legal process in his hands.

That may still sound like a great multitude, but back at the beginning of October 557 men voted for Andrew Reeder in Lawrence alone. The town must have had around that many able-bodied free state men bent on some kind of resistance, if not necessarily to the point of violence.

 

William Phillips and the Case of the Curious Commissions

William Phillips

William Phillips

Trouble at Hickory Point: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

The Hunt for Franklin Coleman: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The Lawrence Revolt: part 1, 2, 3

I have to back up a little bit, Gentle Readers. You’ll remember that Hugh Cameron, the impressively bearded justice of the peace, gave Sheriff Samuel Jones the peace warrant he used to arrest Jacob Branson and so bring escalate the Dow murder into a major territorial controversy. William Phillips claimed that Cameron came to issue that warrant by less than upright means:

The manner in which they had to proceed about this showed the character of the whole affair. Jones had got a commission for a justice of the peace all filled but the name; and found a man named Cameron, a recreant free-state man, of low repute, who, vain man, for the title “justice of the peace” was willing to sell what little had had of principle.

Hugh Cameron

Hugh Cameron

Charles Robinson substantially repeats the idea and Free state Kansans seem to have generally thought Cameron issued his warrant as a quid pro quo. When I related all of this, I couldn’t speak to the accuracy of the free state claim one way or the other. It would help greatly to know the date of Cameron’s commission. In the search for another document, I found reference to Cameron receiving a commission. In Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume 3, the executive minutes of the Shannon administration include a note that Cameron got a commission on October 8, 1855. He then became Treasurer of Douglas County, not justice of the peace.

Odd, but not conclusive. Just a bit further down, I found note of this series of commissions dated November 24, 1855:

Commission issued to Hugh Cameron, as Justice of the Peace for the township of Lawrence, in the county of Douglas.

Commission issued to Franklin M. Coleman, as Justice of the Peace for Louisiana township, in the county of Douglas.

Commission issued to Joshua N. Hargus, as Justice of the Peace for Louisiana township, in the county of Douglas.

Joshua Hargus probably means Josiah Hargis, one of Coleman’s friends and a member of Jones’ posse. Everyone seems to have had their own way to spell his name. Needless to say, seeing Cameron’s commission issued at the same time as Coleman’s and Hargis’ at the very least looks suspicious. But does the timeline fit?

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Jones got his warrant from Cameron on November 26 and rode through the night to apprehend Branson and take him away. If we take this at face value, then Cameron had his commission a full two days before the affair. I think we should probably not, however. We can’t ignore that he got his commission alongside Coleman and Hargis. I suspect that either the clerks got the date wrong or the commissions came back-dated a few days to lend them more legitimacy.

Leaving aside human error, does Shannon’s grant of the commissions implicate him in some questionable business too? Possibly, but he might have heard from Jones that Douglas County stood on the edge of rebellion even before the Dow murder and Branson arrest. Shannon generally seems inclined to believe whatever proslavery Kansans tell him, so he could have understood the situation as an emergency and requiring a generous helping of legal authority freshly dispensed. It would make sense for him to issue credentials to the presumed experts on the ground, especially two men he had right in front of him. He might have picked Cameron as a reliable sort, already an officeholder in the territorial government, and had Jones deliver the commission. Or he may have gone all-out in his alarm and handed Jones blank documents to fill in as needed. Neither reflects particularly well on Shannon, but likewise neither required a fool nor a fiend.