The Disunited 34th Congress

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Dunn’s proslavery men left the Sparks home cruelly disappointed. They came to shoot a man and found him still away. That would not mark the end of Stephen Sparks’ trouble with Kansas’ slavery enthusiasts, but he managed to dodge the immediate threat. Reese Brown had less luck. The latest violence came from the free soil elections of January 15, where Kansas’ antislavery voters made Charles Robinson their governor and filled the other offices that the free state constitution had created. This development, like others in Kansas, did not go unmarked on the national stage.

As the events within Kansas have dominated our narrative for so long, we have to rewind the clock a bit to catch up with happenings elsewhere. Since the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Democracy had taken a beating. The Whig party continued its collapse. In the North, Democrats often followed suit. Those who didn’t cast themselves as foes of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the trouble it had brought. The anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party seemed, for a moment, poised to take the Whig’s place as the second party of American politics but had a serious competitor in the form of the new Republican party and its fortunes soon faded.

As 1855 wound down, the first session of the 34th Congress opened on December 3. For the first time, Republicans took seats in the Capitol. In the Senate, the Democrats outnumbered them two to one. Just across the building, one might as well have entered a new world. Franklin Pierce could count on a majority of 158 in the last House. The anti-Nebraska opposition now had a majority of 117. That might not have upset the House Democrats too much, as they knew their party’s disarray and probably didn’t have much hope of getting everyone back together and taking the customary whip. The last time that happened, they repealed the Missouri Compromise and eighty-four percent of those who voted for it found themselves in need of other employment. They might do better to find some moderate Republican who they could then blame for the House’s inevitable failure to get much done.

The Pierce administration had other ideas, and ensured that the Democratic caucus passed resolutions declaring the late elections a vindication of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, doubled down on religious freedom in terms offensive to the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, and pledged the Democracy to a hard line on both. The Democrats hadn’t entirely lost their minds. After some early reverses, they took encouraging results in some later elections as signs that they hadn’t entirely destroyed themselves. With the same kind of excellent judgment that led them to take elections they largely lost as signs of public approval, the Democrats settled on William A. Richardson, of Illinois, as their man for the Speaker’s chair. Richardson had managed the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act last Congress, which made him exactly as popular with the anti-Nebraska majority as one would expect.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Richardson simultaneously won and lost the vote. On the first ballot, the House gave him seventy-two votes. No other man came within twenty of that total. But the House rules required that the Speaker have a majority, not a mere plurality. The rules assumed two parties, but the 34th Congress had rather more than that. Just how much more, few could say. The Congressional Globe considered the mess beyond recovery and dispensed with the usual custom of listing men by party allegiance. In Race and Politics, “Bleeding Kansas” and the Coming of the Civil War, James Rawley reports the Tribune Alamanac’s best guess:

79 Pierce Democrats, of whom 20 were northerners, 117 anti-Nebraska man, all of whom were northerners, 37 Whigs of Americans [Know-Nothings] of proslavery tendencies, all but 3 of whom were from slave states. Of the 117 anti-Nebraska Congressmen, 75 had been elected as know-Nothings.

Allan Nevins gives a different arrangement in the second volume of his Ordeal of the Union:

The House membership was roughly classed as 108 Republican, 83 Democratic, and 43 Know-Nothing or American.

Though the numbers don’t agree, to the point of using different categories, they tell a similar story. The Democracy had lost its majority to someone, but no one quite knew who.

Know-Nothingism and anti-Nebraska sentiment often existed in the same person, part of the problem in classifying them, but they did not necessarily do so. Nor did party allegiance mean that when they did, nativism took precedence. Many Know-Nothings ended up as Republicans, some in suspiciously short order. Some probably joined specifically to subvert the organization in antislavery directions. They co-existed with men who felt otherwise and who had latched on to nativism as the issue to push slavery back out of the national discussion. As the seventeen candidates running against Richardson for the Speakership attest, the Opposition did about as well at agreeing on things as the Democracy did.

So long as the Speakership remained vacant, the House couldn’t commence its business. So long as the House couldn’t get to work, much of the national government ground to a halt. Soon much of Washington waited on the outcome.

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“We will take the house; shoot Capt. Sparks at sight.”

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Angry proslavery men at the Sparks home sought Stephen Sparks, who Reese Brown had rescued the night before. They arrived at Sparks’ home before their fellows in Easton murdered his rescuer and before the man himself made it back. On arrival, they clashed with a pair of free soil men resolved to go rescue Reese. The antislavery Kansans, Francis Browning and Richard Houcks, bolted and separated. Esseneth Sparks, Stephen’s wife, saw it all.

With their quarry of opportunity gone, the proslavery men turned around and returned to the house. After an awkward moment, someone asked for orders. A Captain Dunn, the same fellow involved in the violence at the Leavenworth election the month prior and also present at Easton for some part of Reese Brown’s ordeal, gave those orders: “take the house; shoot Capt. Sparks at sight.”

Esseneth Sparks had no real defense against a band of armed men. Short of a similarly armed and numerous group; few do. She had only her son, her white skin, and the proslavery mob’s consciences to defend her. Nineteenth century chivalry could extend far enough to be some help to her. Even while besieging Leavenworth, proslavery men treated the town’s women more gently than they did the men. Whiteness provided certain immunities as well, but that sentiment could run even less than skin deep when proslavery sorts caught a whiff of antislavery in the air.

One must use the tools one has, rhetorical, or otherwise. Hearing that her unwelcome callers aimed to shoot her husband dead, and seeing them push through into the building, gambled on their pity. She told them that she had only “an afflicted son” who they might throw “into spasms right at once” and another son only twelve. Anyway, Stephen hadn’t come home. Not every proslavery American ran around in a black cape, twirling a mustache and toasting evil at every turn. Molesting a white woman and her ill child might very well prove more than they could countenance.

When I stepped to the door and looked in, I saw Captain Dunn, with a six-shooter presented at my son’s breast. I did not hear the question asked, but heard my son’s answer-“I am on the Lord’s side, and if you want to kill me, kill me; I am not afraid to die.”

Or perhaps they could countenance some violence against invalids, children, and women after all.

Incidentally, this makes the second member of the Sparks family in less than twenty-four hours to deal with a gun pointed at him by daring its owner to shoot. Stephen’s son did as his father had the night prior in Easton.

The afflicted Sparks son might not have feared death, but Dunn neglected to take him up on the matter. Instead, the proslavery captain

left him, and turned to my little son, about twelve years old, and put the pistol to his breast, and asked him where his father’s Sharpe’s rifle was, and my son told him he had none. Dunn asked him where those guns were, pointing to the racks, and told him if he did not tell the truth, he would kill him; and my son told him the men-folks generally took care of the guns.

Surely frustrated, Dunn came out. Esseneth pressed him for an explanation and

[h]e answered that they had “taken the law into their own hands, and they intended to use it.”

Intentions or not, they got no guns and no Stephen. Whether moral qualms, practical fears that some armed free state men might soon appear, or simple realization that Sparks might not risk coming home so soon moved them, the proslavery party left. They didn’t all have to go far. Esseneth knew two of the party on sight, one who lived in Leavenworth and another “raised within a mile or so of where we lived, in Platte county, Missouri.”

The Hunt for Stephen Sparks

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Reese Brown’s lifeblood spilled out from the gash in his head. He died in the early morning hours of January 19, 1856. Though free state sources often declare that he suffered numerous wounds, David Brown (no relation) found only the one. That doesn’t preclude Brown suffering quite a pummeling beforehand, of course. Most probably, his proslavery captors roughed him up fairly thoroughly. They may also have given him many solid kicks when he fell down. Neither would be particularly out of character, as George Wetherell could tell us, nor necessarily likely to leave marks for David to find later on.

Brown earned the wrath of the Kickapoo Rangers and Easton’s proslavery party by coming to the rescue of Stephen Sparks. Some may have also mistaken Reese Brown for George Washington Brown, editor of the Herald of Freedom, and objected to his living on the grounds that he ran for the free state legislature, but mainly Brown led an armed group of free state men in a battle that left a proslavery man mortally wounded. By the time of Brown’s capture, he and Sparks had parted company. The proslavery mob hadn’t forgotten him.

On the afternoon of January 18, the day after Spark’s rescue, two men outside the Sparks home got news of Reese Brown’s plight. According to Esseneth Sparks, who apparently had yet to hear of her husband’s ordeal, Francis Browning and Richard Houcks resolved to go to Brown’s rescue.

Just as they started, two men rode up and called for Mr. Sparks. I told them he was out on business. They said they had private business with him.

While Esseneth and the proslavery men spoke about her husband, Browning spotted a larger party on a rise. Understanding the threat in a large group of armed men, particularly near a known and undefended free state household, he turned back and asked them what had transpired.

They said “they did not know; there was a great excitement at Dawson’s, they had heard, but they had not been there.” They then gave the sign by firing two pistols in the air, and motioning to the party with their hands. The party then came riding on as fast as they could, shouting. When they came up, they all joined in pursuit of Browning and Houcks, shouting “kill them,” “kill them,” “kill the damned abolitionists,” and firing upon them; but they divided one going one way, round the hill, and the other the other way, and escaped.

The Murder of Reese Brown

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Captain John Martin, of the Kickapoo Rangers, did all he could for Reese Brown. The mob at Easton, including some of his own men, had enough of talk about giving Brown over to the lawful authorities. They waited long enough while he, Edward Motter, and others questioned the free state man. They came for blood, not talk. Martin delayed the final confrontation by some time, but at last the proslavery rowdies burst in and refused to depart. With some parting imprecations, Martin mounted up and started back for Kickapoo. He left Brown to the mob.

 

On the way out, Martin managed to release Brown’s companions. Under the same roof, they could hear the mob laying into Brown. Brown himself had rather less luck. Eyewitness testimony drops off at this point. M.P. Rively gave a confusing and evasive version of events:

He [Brown] was then taken out of the store by some one, I do not recollect whom; and it was proposed by some person, I do not recollect whom, that Brown and Gibson should fight, which they did. Brown fought, and Gibson knocked him down with his fist; that I saw. While he was down, Brown Hallooed “Enough.” He then got up, and I led him to the wagon and put him in it, and he went home in the wagon. That is all I recollect of it. I went off in advance of the wagon, and the next day I heard Brown was dying. I did not see the fight between Brown and Gibson when it commenced. I saw Gibson knock him down, and saw Brown strike at him. Id id not see Gibson use any weapon at that time, though I saw Gibson have a hatchet as we were going out there that day. I did not see him have a hatchet at the time of the fight. I do not know that Brown was bleeding when I helped him in the wagon, for it was about dusk. Mr. Charles Dunn helped me to lead Brown to the wagon, and Brown got in himself. […] I did not see either Brown or Gibson, at the time of the fight, have any weapon. It was about dusk, and I should probably not have seen the weapons if they had had any.

Charles Dunn had a prior proslavery adventure at Leavenworth involving free state polls.

Rively managed to see and not see everything. We can only speculate, but it seems far more likely that Rively saw most everything and declined to recall on the grounds that he might incriminate himself. He admitted to the concern when he opened his testimony. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines when he spells it out for you. At some point in the attack, the proslavery men decided Brown had had enough and bundled him up in a wagon to go home.

David Brown, no relation to Reese, lived on the claim to the west of the other Brown’s. He saw Brown “three or four hours” after the proslavery men dropped him on his doorstep. A teamster in Brown’s employ asked him to find a doctor. David obliged, securing a promise to come before returning to Reese Brown’s home around three in the morning, where he

found him in a dying condition, lying upon a pallet on the floor, his clothes literally covered with blood. I sat down, took his head upon my lap, and examined the wound. I asked him how he was; he said he was dying, but should die in a good cause. I commenced opening his vest to ascertain if there were any further wounds in his body, and he told me they were all in his head.

David checked anyway, but Reese had it right. Other sources say that Reese Brown suffered numerous serious injuries, but none of them saw his body. All that blood came from a gash

on the left side of the head, cutting the inside of the ear, and extending perhaps two inches long to the left temple, cutting off a lock of hair.

Even in the full dark of night, we might expect Rively to have noticed such an injury. It claimed Reese Brown’s life soon thereafter, with his head laying on David Brown’s lap at the time of death.

Reese Brown’s brother engaged doctors to examine the body, which they exhumed for the purpose about a month after burial. The cold preserved Brown fairly well. Dr. James Davis testified that the wound

was in the left temple, severing the temporal bone to the length of about two and a half inches. I judge that the wound was made with one blod of a hatchet or tomahawk, or some weapon of that kind. The temporal bone was opened sufficiently to admit my finger anywhere along it for two inches. I ran my fore-finger into the wound up to its second joint. I have no doubt it was a mortal wound.

Dr. J.G. Park agreed, adding that it made

about a line from the outer end of the socket of the eye, and running along towards the ear […] I ran my finger through the squamous portion of the temporal bone, which is the thinnest part of the skull bone. The opening into the skull was sufficiently large to admit my fore-finger, which I ran into the brain. Fragments of bone were sticking on the inside into the brain[…] The wound was one that must have produced death, and the only wonder is that the person should have lived so long after he received it.

If Gibson, or anybody else, managed to deal Reese Brown such a wound without a weapon then they must have had metal hands. Probably Rively, and everyone else who stuck around, saw Brown take the hatchet to the head and decided that things had gone far enough. Best get him out of the area before he died surrounded by obviously guilty proslavery men.

Potterizing Andrew Jackson

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

In The Half Has Never Been Told, Ed Baptist tells the story of Robert Potter. Born poor, in a declining section of North Carolina, Potter had few prospects. In addition to his modest birth he had the poor fortune of birth in a time when his white skin and male sex did not quite mean everything yet. The law disenfranchised most whites. The enslaver elite supported infrastructure projects designed to carry their tobacco to market, which they expected everyone to pay for. In the capital-starved antebellum South, their banks declined to extend credit to any save their own set. Their university catered only to their own sons.

With these obstacles before him, we might expect Robert Potter to vanish into the anonymous multitudes. He got lucky instead, finding a patron in the local elite who favored him with an education and arranged for him to join the Navy as a midshipman. Potter’s benefactor might have expected his man to stay bought. He might have done so, but when Potter sought office he found the old money oligarchs aligned against him. They ensured his defeat. He challenged the other man, Jesse Bynum, to a duel. Bynum refused. One dueled with peers, not inferiors. In a fit of bootstrapping straight out of American myth, “Potter ambushed Bynum and cracked his skull with a stick.”

In Potter’s and Bynum’s world, to treat a white man like an inferior came quite close to treating him like a slave:

Enslaved men were not allowed to defend their pride, their manhood, or anything else. They had to endure the penetrating of their skin, their lives, their families. Therefore the best way to insult a white man was to treat him like a black man, as if he could not strike back, and the best way to disprove that was to strike back.

Fully aware of all that, the courts indulged well-off men who felt the need to prove their manhood. They did not often extend the same tolerance to those less well off. Potter faced no legal challenge, but the threat of one joined the other indignities he suffered and put him thoroughly at odds with the oligarchy. Potter won his next election, a rematch with Bynum, and proposed a raft of measures to challenge planter dominance. His bills went nowhere, but they earned him the voters’ esteem. They sent him to Congress in 1828 and reelected him in 1832.

Between sessions of Congress, Potter came home and got the idea that his wife had cheated on him with a minister and a teenage neighbor. Polite society deemed both men his superiors. They had, at least in his mind, wronged Potter. He must avenge his honor or be degraded. Potter might have tried a duel, but he fixed on a new innovation:

On August 28, 1831, Potter kidnapped both of those men. he took them out into the woods. Then he castrated them. Then he released them.

Within a day, Potter had been captured. he was then locked in a cell at Oxford, the county seat. But from behind bars, as he awaited trial, Potter penned a defense of his actions. His “Appeal” was, he said, an effort -“as a man-as a member of society”- to explain to explain himself “to the world,” but especially “to you, my constituents.” He justified his castration of two white men, honored members of their society, as self-defense. They had tried to unman him first, “stab[bing] me most vitally-they had hurt me beyond all cure-they had polluted the very sanctuary of my soul.” Their cuckholding left him “the most degraded man” in Granville, and he now “felt that I could no longer maintain my place among men.” He had been subjected to the same humiliation that enslaved men had to endure. The only possible solution was to wipe off “the disgrace that had been put upon me, with the blood of those who had fixed it there.” Like a proper gentleman who shot someone in a duel to erase an insult, Potter believed that only an act of greater violation than what had been committed against him would erase the unmanning mark.

Potter spent two years in jail, during which time the legislature gave his wife a divorce and let her change the name of their children. He got off relatively easy because North Carolina had no law on the books to punish castration. The legislators passed one proscribing death for anybody who chose to follow Potter’s example and “Potterize” their enemies.

Potter’s sensational case speaks to the violent, honor-obsessed character of the Antebellum South. After his release, poor white men who understood Potter as one of their own put him right back into the state legislature. His plight reflected their own indignities. His solution spoke to their oft-frustrated search for redress. As white men, they deserved better; they demanded it. A cotton planter of the Tennessee elite built his political career on casting himself as their voice. When he took his oath, in front of an unprecedented crowd, Andrews Jackson bowed to the throng who had themselves bared their heads in deference.

Jackson didn’t invent popular politics. The owner of more than a hundred slaves hardly made for a common man, but he played the part. In him, poor white men saw their dreams fulfilled. In his many duels, they saw a nineteenth century superhero fighting as they did, for them. He had already “made Jefferson’s paper empire for white liberty into fact.” The genocidal Indian fighter, victor of New Orleans, epitomized their kind of America. In office, he would sweep aside Indian nations and open still more vast sections of the Southwest to slavery. Then he threw down with the crustiest of all oligarchs: South Carolina enslavers.

Jackson took the nullifiers’ action as a direct challenge to the power of a national majority. So did a Tennessee constituent, who said, delighting in Old Hickory’s humiliation of the South Carolina planter elite, “The old chief could rally force enough…to stand on Saluda Mountain [in northwestern South Carolina] and piss enough to float the whole nullifying crew into the Atlantic Ocean.” The way he saw it, Carolina’s planters blustered about mobilizing the militia and blocking federal tariff enforcement until the collected penises of Jackson’s supporters, like himself, cowed them, and they backed down.

You could drown in the testosterone, among other substances. A certain kind of man found in Andrew Jackson the apotheosis of America: bloody, bold, resolute, ready to kick every Indian ass, whip every enslaved back, kill all the Britishers, and then come home to passionately mourn his sainted wife. He might as well have hailed from Krypton as upcountry South Carolina. The white man’s white man might have hated banks and paper money. He might have broken the law to break the Bank of the United States, among his lesser sins, but we put people on money to celebrate them. As the hallowed founder of a Democratic party deeply wedded to white supremacy and singularly powerful in the South, where it rarely had more than notional competition, it comes as no surprise that when the Democracy instituted the Federal Reserve they put Jackson’s picture on its ten dollar note. He moved to the twenty, replacing Grover Cleveland, in 1928.

We put Jackson on our money because we admired him, the same reason Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln appear in our wallets. Everyone understands that, for all we might sometimes pretend otherwise; no American currency has ever depicted Benedict Arnold. We kept him there because we kept on admiring him. Now we have tentatively decided to do otherwise, pushing Jackson to the back of the bill and putting Harriet Tubman on the front. Jackson might very well have fought a duel with someone who told him his face would go on paper money, but he surely would have if told that an enslaved woman would replace him. Displacement itself would have bruised his always-tender pride. Displacement by a woman? A black woman? A slave? Old Hickory could hardly imagine a greater indignity. If the dead could truly rise from their graves in outrage, Jackson’s rattling skeleton would have put on an appearance by now. We will Potterize him.

Tubman during the Civil War

Tubman during the Civil War

That in itself deserves some celebration. After so many decades, we have come kicking and screaming to a point where this may actually happen in a decade and a half. General Jackson will have his demotion, but Tubman’s promotion deserves its own consideration. If we wish to replace Jackson with an American similarly endowed with what the more sophisticated members of the historical academy call badassery, she makes for a great choice. Tubman didn’t just steal herself to freedom, itself a harrowing, dangerous act. She went back and rescued others, freeing scores in an eleven year career. She went back armed, for her own defense but also to straighten out fugitives who had second thoughts. A single enslaved person with cold feet might expose the whole operation and put everyone back in bondage, or a shallow grave. Thus, Tubman reasoned, “Dead niggers tell no tales.” Not content with such exploits in peacetime, during the Civil War Tubman graduated from nurse and cook to army scout. One of her expeditions freed north of seven hundred enslaved people.

We have in Tubman’s life daring exploits in freedom’s name much as we might imagine in Jackson’s. If he deserves recognition for such a record, then she does as well. The question we face in these matters, whether or not we care to admit it, is not which historical figure makes for a better superhero. Rather we must ask ourselves which vision of Truth, Justice, and the American we prefer. Past generations have come down firmly on Jackson’s side, nailing their colors to the fruits of genocide and an empire for slavery.

I don’t think we’ve quit all that, or even come near to it, just yet; a new face on money will not change minds. It can only, at best, tell us that minds have already changed. Just as many of us have not found Jackson’s portrait an eloquent testimony to his character, others will find nothing to admire in Tubman’s. But it takes more than a few disaffected people to make such a change. If we have not gone so far as we would like, and will inevitably declare final victory again as we always do, then we have at least dragged ourselves some small step forward. In 2016, many Americans still find Andrew Jackson’s vision of freedom praiseworthy and want to hide Harriet Tubman’s on a new denomination that we will never print or on an obscure one used only as a novelty, but not so many as once did. We have come this far.

The Taking of Reese Brown

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Captain John Martin, of the proslavery Kickapoo Rangers, had a problem. His men took Reese Brown and his fellow free state militants prisoner on the morning of January 18, 1856, under the understanding that they had killed a proslavery man. They hadn’t quite done that, but they did hold up their end of a gunfight the night prior and John Cook, who participated on the other side, would die from a free state gunshot later in the day. On coming into Easton, the site of the previous night’s battle, Martin put his prisoners in Dawson’s store. Then he and some others, including Dr. Edward Motter, took Brown apart from the rest and questioned him.

While in the store, the free state men had other callers as well. J.C. Green testified that

I heard many of the men say that Brown should never get away from Easton alive. One man came into the store and said that Brown had as many friends in the room where they were trying him as he had enemies, and he would be damned if Brown should get away from there alive. Some one said that Brown ought not to be killed, but ought to be given up to the law. Some one then said they would be damned if Brown should get away alive.

Not everybody wanted to kill Brown, but plenty did. Both Easton locals and Martin’s Rangers included men out for blood. The release of the other free state men can’t have cooled their tempers. At some point after Brown’s questioning, a crowd formed outside the building. Martin went out to talk them down, calling on some of his less bloodthirsty comrades to help. Confident that they’d done the job, Martin went back inside.

While I was in the room some drunken men, some of whom lived out on the Stranger, some from Leavenworth, and probably one or two from Kickapoo, but none who belonged to the Rangers, broke open the door of the room and came in. Myself, Mr. Rively, and Mr. Elliot put them out again.

Martin repeats his favorite denial: Yes, men from Kickapoo came and got mixed up in everything. As a Kickapoo resident himself, he should know. But none of his Rangers had anything to do with it. Just random proslavery militants who acknowledged his authority as an officer in the Kickapoo Rangers.

Whoever came, their bursting into the room impressed the gravity of the situation on Martin’s companions:

Mr. Elliot, who was an old gentleman, advised me to come out, as the crowd would kill me and Brown both. He said he would not stay there and be exposed to such a set of drunken fools, and advised me to come away. I went out a few moments afterwards, and went into the other room where the rest of the prisoners were, and got them away while the crowd was breaking the second time into the room where Brown was.

Martin may have saved the lives of Brown’s party, but Brown remained in dire straits. He came back to Brown’s room just as the crowd broke in.

Some of them caught hold of him and tied his hands with a rope, and some tried to shoot him. Mr. Rives [probably M.P. Rively] and myself tried to protect him all we could by throwing the muzzles of the guns up and trying to take them away from them. Brown said I had done all I could do to save him, and if he was killed his blood would not be on my head. I cursed the men and told them they were doing wrong, and declared if they would kill Brown in spite of all I could do, I would not stay to see them do it.

The proslavery Captain then washed his hands of the situation, collected his horse, and rode back to Kickapoo. He insisted, truthfully, that he did all he could to spare Brown’s life. One person can rarely dissuade a lynch mob. Martin could and did prevent any immediate murder, to the point of seizing guns, but he and his lieutenant couldn’t prevail against the entire crowd.

The Trial of Reese Brown

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Kickapoo Rangers had Reese Brown and his free state men in their custody. A Ranger named Gibson made a go at an unarmed George Taylor with hatchet but one of Brown’s men and one of the other Rangers pulled him off. Gibson didn’t take that laying down. After a second try, he settled for destroying Taylor’s hat. This in mind, the Rangers’ captain, John Martin, felt quite anxious for the safety of his captives. He put reliable guards on them, as much to protect them from his others as to prevent escape or rescue. Everyone then rode back into Easton, where Martin put his prisoners in Dawson’s store.

The people of Easton did not greet Brown’s return with unanimous joy. M.P. Rively described them as “very much exasperated.” Despite that, Captain Martin insisted on a more formal exercise of frontier justice. He wanted facts before considering any serious punishment and so chose to examine Brown. The interrogation took place in Dr. Edward Motter’s office and it seems the doctor took the lead. According to Martin:

Dr. Motter questioned him as to what he (Brown) had done the night before. Brown went on to state that they had come to Easton to the election to vote, and to defend the polls if necessary; that he had understood that the Kickapoo Rangers, or the pro-slavery party, were coming there to take the ballot-box away from them. he stated the cause of the difficulty the night before, to have grown out of the fact that Mr. Sparks was going from Mr. Minard’s house home, and the news came to Mr. Minard’s that Sparks had been taken prisoner, and he went down with some 30 or 40 men to rescue him.

 

All true enough. According to Motter, Brown also admitted doing some wrong that night, though the Doctor said that Brown wouldn’t elaborate on the point and he judged the free state captain more concerned with the election’s legality than the gunfight. Neither sounds entirely plausible, but knowing himself in the power of potentially murderous enemies, Brown might have said as much of what they wanted to hear as he felt he could get away with.

Brown confessed to the exchange of gunfire, at which point Martin and company had to decide what to do next.

Myself and Mr. Elliot, Mr. Grover, and Mr. Burgess advised them to bring Brown back to Leavenworth city, and place him in the hands of the proper authorities here. There were others in the room at that time; and I went out, and the crowd asked what conclusion we had come to, and I told them. They swore that would not do, because Brown would get away as McCrea had, and they were determined to have Brown or shoot him.

Cole McCrea killed Malcolm Clark at a public meeting some time earlier. The less famous William Phillips earned his lynching from the belief that he provided the gun. Martin, and probably everyone in Kansas by this point, knew the reference. He wouldn’t have any of this unlawful execution, though:

I told them that would be wrong and cowardly, as Brown was a prisoner, and that I would be responsible for him-would take him back myself, and he should not get away. Several other men promised the same thing, and then went back into the house to get some other steady men to go out and talk with the crowd, and try to pacify them; and they did so.

Martin had every reason to paint himself as the sensible, moderate one who wanted nothing to do with needless violence. On occasion his testimony comes across as the words of a man trying too hard to defend himself. But he and hostile witnesses to the same events agree that Martin had trouble controlling his men. The man on the other side standing up for a vulnerable enemy makes for a romantic image, but our natural hostility to the proslavery party shouldn’t convince us that every one of them considered violence equally appropriate in every situation. They too had their relatively dovish and hawkish members.

 

Understanding the Kickapoo Rangers, Part Two

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Kickapoo Rangers, or a group near enough that it makes little difference, rode to the rescue. They had word of free state Kansans murdering a proslavery man and they would see justice done. The Rangers found their quarry, Reese Brown’s band of free state men, on the road outside Easton. According to the proslavery commander, John Martin, their capture occasioned

a good deal of excitement, and some questions were raised as to what we should do with them. Some of them got into a fight with one young man who had been taken in the wagon, by the name of Taylor.

Martin differs from George Taylor and Henry Adams, both of whom paint the fight as a one-sided affair that ended with Adams and a proslavery man pulling Ranger called Gibson and his descending axe away from the unarmed, prone Taylor. But Martin’s invocation of excitement implies he might have had trouble restraining his men.

That subtext runs through his testimony. Per Martin, the Rangers looked to him for advice on what to do with their prisoners. He doesn’t say it in so many words but, given the context, the options likely included letting Gibson have his way. Henry Adams testified that Martin lacked full control over his men and chose two trustworthy ones to guard them as much from their fellows as to prevent escape. Martin agreed that he did so:

They asked me if I would protect them, and I said I would, so far as I could. I requested Mr. D.A.N. Grover and Mr. Williams to get into the wagon with them, to protect them from injury, they being sober, discreet men.

Maybe Martin saw the guard as a chivalrous act designed entirely to appease his over-frightened captives, but in that case any man bar Gibson might have done. That he chose with some care, cognizant of the excited state of his company, suggests that he understood in the moment that he had a bigger problem than one malcontent.

All of this left the question Martin’s band posed to him not entirely answered. Now that they had their prisoners, what would the Rangers do with them? Martin decided they must go on to Easton, taking Reese’s people with them, in order to determine just what exactly had happened. Once back in town, Martin put the free state men

into Mr. Dawson’s store for protection against some of the men who had got to drinking and had become excited. Some were excited before we got there, and belonged to the party who had been there the night before.

I said before that none of the Rangers had firsthand knowledge of what happened with Stephen Sparks the night prior to their arrival. I stand by that. Nothing in Martin’s account of his gathering up a band of men and riding for Easton mentions firsthand knowledge. If someone knew something back at Kickapoo, I can’t imagine opting for silence and instead hoping that Edward Motter’s second letter of the night would carry the day. Someone may have met the party on the way and Martin neglected to mention them. Or he might have meant only to add the threat from Easton residents to that of his own more unruly elements and not phrased himself as clearly as one would hope. For the most part, Howard Committee testimony seems to have been given verbally. A clerk could have made a mistake in transcription or Martin might not have spoken as precisely as one would hope.

Pointing toward a fresh local menace, Rively testified that when the group arrived in Easton, they found

The citizens were very much exasperated, and it is not to be wondered at that they should retaliate; I fully expected they would.

However Martin came to understand it, he had more to worry about than his prisoners escaping or posing a threat to their captors. His men, the proslavery men of Easton, or a combination might well set aside his prudence and do something drastic. One had already tried.

Understanding the Kickapoo Rangers, Part One

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

We left George Taylor not quite the victim of axe murder. One of the Kickapoo Rangers, Gibson, set to the unarmed Taylor with the aforesaid axe but suffered the cruel disappointment of intervention by Henry Adams and a fellow proslavery man. Even the sort of person keen to join a proslavery militia had some limits, through Gibson clearly had fewer scruples than some of his comrades.

Their motivations could stand further investigation. We can generalize from other proslavery groups and expect similar concerns about the preservation of white power and slave property. The Rangers probably understood the free state movement as an insurrection that warranted extraordinary measures in opposition. But the Howard Report includes testimony from two Rangers present that day, the M. P. Rively that Henry Adams recognized and Captain John W. Martin himself. We don’t have the good fortune to hear from Gibson, and we do know that not all the party felt precisely as he did, but they give us our best approach to understanding why he felt George Taylor needed a gruesome death.

The Kickapoo Rangers rode for Easton on January 18, 1856 without a full knowledge of the confrontations the night previous. Indeed, they almost didn’t come at all. Martin received word from Edward Motter that Easton’s proslavery men required his services, but the news did not impress him:

I answered his note by telling him I apprehended no danger, and he had better go on until they commenced to fight.

According to Motter, he wrote for the Rangers to come after the gunfight. Maybe the Doctor didn’t communicate as clearly as he wanted to so soon after hearing bullets whistle by. He could also have just told the Howard Committee that he summoned help after the fight, but really done so before. Martin dates his receipt of Motter’s letter to about eleven at night on the seventeenth. We must take such times as approximate, but it still seems likely Motter wrote sometime that night rather than in a panic over the free state party’s effrontery in simply holding an election.

“About sunrise,” Martin heard from Motter again:

saying that one of their men named Cook had been killed by the free-soilers the night before. I then went down to Kickapoo, and told the men what had happened, and showed them the notes, and we concluded, a good many of us, to go out to Easton and see what was up.

Here Martin stresses that he did not call out the Kickapoo Rangers, but rather that some random citizens of Kickapoo chose to come along instead. He just had people from Kickapoo, or within a decent range thereof. One might call them the Rangers from Kickapoo, but certainly not the Kickapoo Rangers. Maybe to his mind, the distinction mattered. I have yet to find a historian who agrees. If anything, Martin might have drawn such a line to deflect responsibility from himself given what transpired later on.

M.P. Rively began his testimony with evasions:

I first saw Mr. R.P. Brown near Easton on that day, with a number of men with him, whose names I do not recollect. He was walking, but I do not recollect whether by his wagon or not. As that was some time ago, I do not recollect much that took place; not much took place while I was there. Some men had him, but I don’t know whether they were Kickapoo Rangers or not.

You can almost see him sweating in front of the committee. He told them that he came with the understanding that they had questions about elections, “not in regard to any little difficulties that have occurred in the Territory.” Rively didn’t know anything, didn’t see anything, nothing happened, if anything happened he wasn’t there. If he was there, he didn’t remember what happened. He just saw Brown hanging out, you know?

The committee informed Rively of their purpose and John Sherman, William’s then more famous brother, cut to the heart of the matter:

Q. Will true answers to questions as to what was done that day by the persons you have spoken of to R.P. Brown, tend to criminate you personally?

A. Upon due reflection, I think they might in some degree.

Rively went on to tip his hand a bit further by counting himself among the proslavery party, making his claim to ignorance preposterous, and named many names. For a man with a faded memory, he did very well. He even remembered why the Kickapoo Rangers chose to come that day:

We had no warrant to stop these men. We heard that Mr. Brown, with a number of others, had been out holding an illegal election at Easton; that there had been some misunderstanding between Brown and his party and some gentlemen who lived at Easton, and that Mr. Brown was the leader of the party who fired upon those gentlemen, killing a gentleman by the name of Cook, a pro-slavery man

All of that sounds downright plausible. None of the Rangers appear to have lived in Easton, where they could have seen events firsthand. If they did, Motter would surely have gone to them for help directly rather than write Martin. They hadn’t reached Easton before meeting Brown’s party and so probably had no other source of information. They knew that free soil men had done murder and came to find them.

The Persistent Politics of Disenfranchisement

freedmen votesMost people in the country probably know that not all that long ago white Americans had a serious problem with black Americans voting. The laws they passed rarely came out and said that black Americans simply could not vote, but a byzantine system of residency requirements, registration, literacy tests, poll taxes, bans on felons voting (when combined with laws designed to criminalize the mere act of living while black) ensured that as a practical matter the polls remained whites only. The net might not catch every voter, every time, but its everyday work and the tremendous violence backing it did the job well enough. On paper, these laws just coincidentally kept black Americans from voting. In practice, everybody knew exactly what it all meant. We had a white country, thank you very much.

Denying citizens their right to vote, however one wants to rationalize it, hardly makes for an act of love. One doesn’t disenfranchise a people one considers every bit as deserving as one’s own. Restricting the polls to white Americans requires a hatred of black Americans. White supremacy requires, at least in the long run, a healthy share of that hatred. But, as I’ve written before, it takes more than simple malice. The white power crowd does hate, but they don’t hate because some strange distillation of evil trickled into their ears and poisoned their minds. They hate with purpose.

At the end of the Civil War, white Southerners had a problem. The men they had enslaved for centuries now considered themselves deserving of the vote. This offended them on many levels, but ultimately they understood that hardly any freedperson would even think to vote as his former enslavers preferred. What would happen if they all came to exercise the franchise? In South Carolina and Mississippi, the black vote would surely have decided every election. A distinct polity comprising half the population, united through centuries of horrific abuse would win any election they cared to vote in. White southerners, bar those rare sorts willing to adapt and make some kind of common cause with their former property, would turn from the dominant to the dominated. The math demanded it. In other states, black Americans didn’t quite form majorities but did exist in such numbers as to make them a very major constituency.

As a minority very long accustomed to using their unity to exercise decisive influence in national bodies, the enslavers didn’t have to wonder how that would work out for them. A latter-day Haiti might still come to destroy them all, but even should the genocide fail to arrive the exercise of black suffrage would turn their world upside-down. That black men (and in later decades, black women as well) would come to vote constituted a dire affront on just about every possible level. White men, in the South and elsewhere, built their identities around never submitting to the dictates of another. Women and slaves submitted, not the free white male.

Those concerns bear a serious look, but they don’t tell the whole story. Running through it all, we must acknowledge slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy as a political system in themselves. Whites might have their parties and contend fiercely every election, but all whites together shared a party organized for the express purpose of depriving all blacks. They might not have understood it in precisely those terms, but it didn’t take twenty-first century historiography to get that by making black Americans into the de facto opposition party, they ensured that if permitted to vote at all black Americans wold rarely vote as the local whites preferred.

This held true in the South after the war. It also held in early nineteenth century New York, which chose to retain property qualifications for black voters even as it removed them for the state’s whites. Their gradual emancipation plan would soon mean a great more many black voters without such restrictions. The Republicans, Jefferson’s party, understood that their functionally proslavery politics and avowed southern orientation held little appeal for such voters. The black New Yorkers who already could vote preferred the Federalists. As such, they must presume any new black voters members of the opposition twice over. Thus white men in general could have suffrage, but no more black men than already did.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

The same holds true in Wisconsin, where early this month a Republican congressman admitted that the state’s voter identification law aimed not to fix the phantom problem of voter fraud, a practice singularly rare outside of antebellum Kansas, but rather to minimize the number of black Americans voting. They would vote for Democrats, you understand. That just will not do. My own state, just across the lake from Wisconsin, has a similar voter ID law enacted for the same purpose. So do many others.

Looking at this, among many other examples, I don’t know how one can take white supremacy as simply the central theme of Southern history. Much in American history has no more to do with the South than it does any other area of the nation, but I don’t know anything of significance in the national past or present that doesn’t have a great deal to do with white supremacy. When Ulrich Bonnell Phillips argued otherwise (PDF) decades ago, he didn’t cast his net wide enough.