With Folly and Wickedness: The Peace Conference, Part Two

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The peace conference at Lawrence did not get off to the best of starts. As soon as Charles Robinson, James Lane, and Wilson Shannon exchanged pleasantries their disagreements came to the fore. Shannon wanted the Sharpe’s rifles and other weaponry that the free state men had received from abroad. He argued, quite reasonably, that these arms really amounted to company property rather than the private possessions of individuals who paid a mere pittance against their true value. Shannon soon, however, came to appreciate that he would get few guns and insisting would only bring on the conflict that he wanted to avoid.

That said, the Governor didn’t entirely give up the dream of a disarmed free state movement:

I therefore merely suggested to the committee that they should surrender their arms to Major General Richardson, and I would direct that officer to receipt for the weapons so received; it being understood that in the event of their so doing, the arms thus receipted for, should be restored, when, in the opinion of the chief executive, it could be done with propriety; or, if they preferred it, they might, in the same manner surrender, them to me.

Shannon proposed that the free state party, in the presence of a hostile army, surrender their means of defense to one of that army’s leaders and a member of the Blue Lodges. Perhaps he didn’t know about Richardson’s Lodge affiliation, but enough people knew in Kansas by the next summer that the Howard Committee summoned him to testify on the matter. He proposed this in the full knowledge that he had at best incomplete control over the proslavery army and at least a reasonable suspicion that the besiegers of Lawrence might take matters into their own hands and raze the place.

Yet Shannon apparently made the proposal in earnest. He and Richardson saw eye to eye on the weapons issue. The Governor explained to Brewerton that he intended to use the disarmament as cause to disband the forces arrayed against Lawrence. So far as it went, that made perfect sense. The Missourians and others came infuriated initially by the armed defiance of Sheriff Samuel Jones and once engaged maintained their wrath against armed antislavery men in general. Disarming the lot of Lawrence would surely please them, possibly enough for most to go home happy that smaller groups in the future could finish the work of destroying the movement.

William Phillips

William Phillips

While that might sound persuasive to us, it does require Robinson, Lane, and the rest of Lawrence to trust in the good faith of Wilson Shannon, William P. Richardson, and even Franklin Pierce. This would have made for a tall order even in the least trying circumstances. William Phillips describes Shannon at this point as a man trapped

by his folly and wickedness. He had hoped that the troops would enable him to retain his authority, hold the ruffians in check, and still crush the free-state men beneath his feet. The troops would not come to his aid, and the border ruffians, now that he had clothed them with authority, despised him, and determined to carry out their bloody purpose independent of his authority. He had no resource left but the free-state settlers, whom he had abused, and still desired to abuse and crush. But he was not prepared for the border ruffian measures, neither was he willing to shoulder the responsibility he was likely to incur.

Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson

Shannon did plenty to earn Phillips’ hostility, but allowing for that his account of the facts matches Shannon’s own. When negotiations concluded for the day, Shannon and his party repaired to the Robinson’s. There Sara Robinson met the Governor and came to largely agree with Phillips’ impression:

The governor is a gray-haired man, tall and well-proportioned. He has coarse features and a hard-looking face, generally. Nature must bear part of the blame, but the weather and bad whiskey, doubtless, come in for share. However, mild eyes and a good heighth of forehead show that naturally he is not a cruel man; but his head lacks firmness, as we speak phrenologically, and his course here, as well as elsewhere, is evidence that he is vacillating, weak, ill-suited to be the leader of other men; that he is credulous, and easily made a tool in the hands of base men; that in brief he is the exponent of the purposes and actions of the men, or party, with whom he is most thrown in contact.

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