A New Face in Lawrence

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

The people of Lawrence and their proslavery besiegers had a peace treaty, of a kind. Governor Wilson Shannon signed it on behalf of the opposition. James Lane and Charles Robinson signed for Lawrence. Shannon and Lane gave speeches encouraging the people of Lawrence to accept the peace they’d gotten. Given the theme of unhappy antislavery militants runs through free state accounts of events, they might have needed some firm words. They had before when Thomas Barber came back from from leave, early and dead. Could Wilson Shannon, who Lawrence rightly loathed for bringing the proslavery army to their doorstep, really cool their tempers? Probably not. James Lane might, questionable past aside. Phillips reports that he “was cheered heartily”.

The sudden outbreak of peace seemed suspicious to some. After hearing Shannon’s speech, it seems they called on Lane. Then came Robinson, who demurred. Thus Lawrence had the word of a thoroughly untrustworthy enemy, a passionate leader with a dubious past, and silence from one of the most thoroughgoing, if not particularly militant, voices on hand. Unsurprisingly, the besieged did not see fit to dance in the streets:

There was an evident suspicion among the people that the negotiations had been closed too easily, and that their leaders had conceded something.

Those suspicions found voice in a hard-eyed fifty-five year old man with a strong jaw and stronger convictions. He had failed at most everything in life; he had more failure ahead of him. He had come to the territory on the word of a son already in Kansas, to defend his family and fight slavery. He brought with him no particular fame and took no great part in the Wakarusa War. He came with four sons, arriving just as events headed up around Lawrence. According to one of his first biographers, James Redpath,

they drove up in front of the Free State hotel […] all standing in a small lumber wagon. To each of their persons was strapped a short, heavy browadsword. each was supplied with a goodly number of fire-arms and navy revolvers, and poles were standing endwise around the wagon box, with fixed bayonets pointing upwards. They looked really formidable, and were received with great eclat.

Redpath has a small military company at once formed and put under his command. The old man impressed others too, not so favorably.

From that moment, he commenced fomenting difficulties in camp, disregarding the command of superior officers, and trying to induce them men to go down to Franklin, and make an attack upon the pro-slavery forces encamped there. The Committee of Public Safety were called upon several times to head off this wild adventure.

John Brown

John Brown

This came to more than admiration in hindsight. Redpath wrote it in 1860, but William Phillips appreciated the newcomer’s passionate militancy four years earlier when he had yet to reach the height of his fame. John Brown heard Shannon and Lane. He reckoned he needed hearing too:

Captain Brown got up to address the people, but a desire was manifested to prevent his speaking. Amidst some little disturbance, he demanded to know what the terms were. If he understood Governor Shannon’s speech, something had been conceded, and he conveyed the idea that the territorial laws were to be observed. Those laws they denounced and spit upon, and would never obey-no! Here the speaker was interrupted by the almost universal cry, “No! No! Down with the bogus laws!-lead us down to fight first!”

Brown’s read does sound a great deal like what Shannon said and one could read the treaty that way without much trouble. Its careful ambiguity ensured that.

“[T]he influential men,” presumably Lane and Robinson, swore up and down that they made no concessions and yielded no principles. “They surrendered noting to the usurping Legislature.” This satisfied most of the crowd, per Phillips, but all the same the leadership chose then to keep the treaty’s terms secret. The secret endured for days, perhaps crucial days, but when the news got out it pleased few.

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