What Shannon Signed

Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson

This post did not go on the time scheduled for reasons that elude me, Gentle Readers. I’m sorry for any confusion due to referring to its contents before you had a chance to read them.

At the gathering celebrating the end of hostilities against Lawrence, some hours into the night, Charles Robinson rushed up to Wilson Shannon. He had news of proslavery men marching on the town at that moment. The free state leader urged Shannon to sign a paper authorizing his and James Lane’s forces to repel the attack. Shannon protested that they needed no word from him to defend their lives and property, but Robinson pointed out that many thought Lawrence home to a gang of rebels spoiling for a fight. The Governor’s blessing would dispel such impressions. Robinson put a paper in Shannon’s hand and he signed it, “without any critical examination.”

A few days later, when Shannon wrote his account of events for Franklin Pierce, he declined to mention the episode at all. At the time, he told George Douglas Brewerton, Shannon understood the paper as a one-time authorization to meet a specific threat. But what did he sign? Sara Robinson provides a copy:

To Charles Robinson and J.H. Lane: You are hereby authorized and directed to take such measures, and use the enrolled forces under your command in such manner, for the preservation of the peace and the protection of the persons and property of the people of Lawrence and vicinity, as in your judgment shall best secure that end.

A single paragraph consisting of one run-on sentence doesn’t seem like much for Shannon to read, even in a rush. Maybe Robinson’s penmanship did not rise to the occasion. Maybe Shannon had a few too many, as William Phillips suggests, or had too long a day. Maybe the Governor did read it, but didn’t care to admit a poor choice; he had made others. Whatever he claimed later, Shannon clearly signed an open-ended grant of authority. In effect, Shannon gave the free state movement one of the best gifts it could hope for. Their questionably legal militias now had the imprimatur of the highest territorial authority.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Had an attack come that night, or the next morning, this might have come to nothing. No one could fault Shannon too badly for blessing men acting in self-defense, though someone surely would have tried. The Governor had no such luck:

On the next morning after this transaction took place, upon the most diligent inquiry, I could not learn that any force whatever had ever made its appearance before Lawrence upon the previous night; and on a full inquiry into the matter since, I am now satisfied that there was no hostile party at any place near Lawrence on the night of the 9th.

Someone lied to Shannon and the free state men got a sweeping grant of power from him for it. Charles Robinson, the most obvious suspect, told Brewerton that he had the word from “the officer of the guard.” He clearly hadn’t seen anything himself, instead spending the night at the party. Whether some panicky sentry imagined an attack or someone chose to invent one and passed word on, the sources available to me don’t give any hint.

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