Sheriff Jones goes to Lawrence

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

December of 1855 found Lawrence, Kansas Territory, partly cut off from the outside world by a hostile army of perhaps 1,500 Missourians. They came, ostensibly, to help Sheriff Samuel Jones serve some warrants and really for the righteous joy of inflicting grievous harm upon Kansas’ free state movement. That harm would, they imagined, help secure slavery in Missouri as well as its neighbor and generally reinforce the proper order of life: whites enslaved blacks and whites who didn’t like it had best carry themselves beyond the reach of a mob. This constituted the first principle of their de facto constitutional theory, whatever folderol about states’ rights or the consent of white men they might care to trot out.

In these dire straits we might imagine that those besieged, however incompletely, adopted a similarly hostile tone. One could hardly blame them, given they literally had proslavery men taking shots at their town for fun. They armed themselves, including with a smuggled cannon, and built earthworks for their defense. But the free state men also sent emissaries to Wilson Shannon asking that he call off the whole business. They threatened to go over his head and seek relief from Franklin Pierce and the Congress as well. In pursuit of the latter aim, they drew up a memorial and got it through the lines.

The memorial gave a relatively fair account of events. Governor Wilson Shannon had “without any justifiable cause whatever” summoned “the militia of Kansas and Missouri” against them. Shannon did have cause, if not one quite proportionate to the response. Free state men had obstructed the operation of the law and Shannon had every reason to think it the opening of an organized campaign. Furthermore, the people of Lawrence rightly understood themselves as having little as a group to do with the Branson affair that got Jones his warrant and sent him against the town. Some of their residents participated in the rescue of Branson, and they did so in line with the antislavery tactics that much of the town endorsed, but no civil authority in Lawrence blessed them before or after. If the militia of Missouri did not formally come, then organized or semi-organized groups from that state did all the same.

One could argue that Lawrence harbored Branson’s rescuers, except that most of them lived in the Hickory Point area. The rest had moved on, save for Samuel Wood. Lawrence harbored the ringleader in the sense that he remained at home in town and they didn’t rush to hand him over to Sheriff Jones. Nor, of course, they did feel obligated to do the same for anybody on Jones’ growing list of warrants.

William Phillips

William Phillips

Did Jones need an army to overcome Lawrence’s indifference? Maybe. Jones, his proslavery bona fides well-established, could cloak himself in those warrants and say he did nothing more than his duty. If one of the militia officers under his command had ambitions to more, that didn’t mean Jones did. That he took a polling place by gunpoint months ago didn’t mean he had gone off the deep end again, even if it didn’t augur well. But the sheriff himself proved that he didn’t care much about the warrants. At the same time as he sent worried missives to Missouri and, incidentally, Governor Shannon about how all Lawrence rose in revolt against him and he could not do his duty safely without an army at his back, Jones paid a peaceful visit to Lawrence. William Phillips tells the story:

That it was no part of Jones’ object to make peaceable arrests is clear from the fact that he came into Lawrence on the first of December, and went about the streets without any one paying the slightest attention to him,-that is, to molest him. Mr. S.N. Wood, who, at first refused to leave town, and said they could arrest him, accosted Jones, and invited him to dinner. Jones never said a word about having writs against him. He was evidently in town merely on a military reconnaissance.

The bit about Wood inviting Jones to dinner sounds a little too good to take seriously. It would fit very well with the kind of humor that seems especially popular among nineteenth century Americans. One can picture Wood smiling as he made an offer and Jones fuming at his impotence against the mockery. That Jones could visit Lawrence seems entirely reasonable, given the townspeople would have hardly wanted to provoke a confrontation by molesting him. Their general interest in treating the Branson affair as a private matter between Jones and his quarry reinforces the point. That Jones would come into town and go out without doing the duty he supposedly felt so keenly also seems entirely in keeping with his demonstrated character. Jones wanted revenge and a proslavery victory, with his official duties serving only as the pretext for both. He might have come into town entirely on hopes of earning another indignity which would justify immediate retaliation. The perfidious townspeople of Lawrence added another sin to their record in refusing to oblige.

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