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.

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