“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.

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