Trouble at Easton, Part Eleven

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

On the morning of January 18, 1856, Reese Brown and his free state compatriots started for home. They came to Easton to defend the polls, but the number of defenders proved sufficient that save for two incidents the day prior involved mostly drinking. They lined up outside the polls to answer a proslavery charge that never came and, about midnight, rode to the rescue of Stephen Sparks when he tried to leave and the proslavery men cornered him against a fence. The latter incident brought about a short gunfight, with both sides taking cover at nearby houses and exchanging fire at long range in the dark. Sparks’ son suffered minor wounds. Two proslavery men did worse, one of whom would later die. The shootout ended with the free state men retiring back to the polling place, at the house of a Mr. Minard.

While they retired to Minards’, Dr. Edward Motter sent word to Kickapoo. He feared for his life, as people lately shot at often do, and begged help in the person of the Kickapoo Rangers. The Rangers came, meeting Brown and his party on the road. They got on both sides of the party and charged forward, surrounding them. Shouting chaos ensued, where their leader temporarily lost control. He regained it only to find free state man George Taylor on the ground, a proslavery man with an axe poised above.

Taylor explained how he got into such a position:

When we got to the top of a knoll, we saw another party-I should think of a hundred men-who were at a double log-house. We walked on up the road to where they were. Directly one of them came to me and told me he wanted my rifle. I gave it to him. I was standing among the crowd about five minutes, and the man who took my rifle came up to me and knocked me down, and several hit me while I was down. he caught hold of my hair, and when I raised up I saw him trying to hit me with a hatchet. I raised up and pulled away from him. I dodged about then for some time, and he followed me with his hatchet.

Taylor made for a priority target because, according to Joseph Bird, he alone held a Sharp’s rifle. Henry Adams and an unnamed proslavery man came to Taylor’s rescue:

I sprung there and caught the hatchet in time to prevent its hitting Taylor. Some person on the other side of Taylor caught Gibson [the attacker] about the same time, and pulled him round out of my reach. It was one of his own party, trying to prevent his killing Taylor, which he seemed bent on doing. Gibson made a second blow at Taylor’s head, and one of his own party caught the hatchet. He then commenced hacking Taylor’s cap to pieces, which was on the ground.

Gibson had to endure the cruel disappointment of murdering only a hat just then. He really wanted to do in Taylor. Plenty of proslavery men talked a big game about such things. Some meant it quite sincerely. Gibson makes for the first I’ve seen so committed that he aimed to hack to death an unarmed man. He sounds frankly unhinged. Adams advised the proslavery leader, Captain Martin, to put a guard on Gibson lest he take another crack at murder.

Adams thought others in the group more of Gibson’s mind than Martin’s and convinced the Captain to separate his captives from the more dangerous sorts before they headed back into Easton as prisoners.

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“A man who had a hatchet struck at his head” Trouble at Easton, Part Ten

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Reese Brown and his company had quite a time. Through they passed hours of general inactivity with drinking during the election of January 17, 1856, they finally got the expected fight when proslavery men attacked Stephen Sparks. The immediate rescue didn’t bring exchange of fire, but one came as soon as proslavery and antislavery men could separate far enough for it. They exchanged rounds at long range, in the dark of night, and took cover within some nearby houses. In the exchange Sparks’ son suffered minor wounds. Two proslavery men did worse. One of the latter, a man named Cook, would die from a gut shot.

Fearing for his safety, Dr. Edward Motter sent to Kickapoo for help. The Kickapoo Rangers came, trapping Brown and some of his men on their way home from Easton. Brown tried to warn them off, but the Rangers had numbers on their side. J.C. Green described the encounter in rather retrained, summary terms. Henry Adams provided the Howard Committee more detail:

When we were about half way from Easton to Leavenworth, we met two wagons loaded with men, and one of the wagons was drawn by four animals-mules, I think. They hailed us to know where we were from, and wanted us to stop. There was a double track, and Mr. Brown drove by them without stopping. Shortly after we passed them, we saw another and a larger party in front of us, two wagons, and about thirty on horseback. The party in the wagons we already met, shouted to those in front of us, and they answered by shout, and then all rode around and surrounded us.

Green’s account broadly matches that, but the way he tells it you could almost think that the men from Kickapoo executed some kind of smooth battlefield evolution and, after some consternation, Brown surrendered. Adams speaks to the genuine chaos of the moment, with men not just maneuvering but also charging forward to fully envelop the group.

Brown’s party dismounted and raised arms as the proslavery men rushed forward, “levelling their guns and shouting.” Adams inquired, amid “a great deal of noise and disorder,” as to who had charge of the Rangers and Pierce Risely pointed him to a Captain Martin. Martin heard his name and rode over. Adams asked if he could get control of his men. Guns brandished or not, no one on the free state side seemed keen to fight it out just then. Martin obliged, “partially succeeded,” and the crowd settled enough that Adams

turned round and saw George Taylor, one of our party, on the ground, and two or three men were around him, and partially over him, and he was making an effort to get up. As he got up, his head came in sight, and a man who had a hatched struck at his head.

“They had got us and were going to hang us” Trouble at Easton, Part Nine

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The gunfight at Easton on the night of January 17-8, 1856 ended inconclusively, with the free state men returning to the site of the late polls at Minard’s house rather than heading home. Stephen Sparks’ son suffered minor wounds. Two proslavery men had more serious injuries, one shot through the leg and the other in the stomach. Dr. Edward Motter tended him for some time that night, but “through fear” left at three in the morning. Motter did more than go into hiding, though:

Believing that our place was in danger, I sent an express to Kickapoo. Mr. Kookogey sent an express to Messrs. Johnson & Lyle, of this city.

Kickapoo served as the home base for the Kickapoo Rangers, a proslavery militia who the free state party took seriously. Reese Brown, Stephen Sparks, and the other guards at the Easton polls came with the expectation that they would try something. Motter set out to prove them retrospectively right. Kookogey’s missive would bring, among others, J.M. Lyle. He served an official in the bogus legislature and played a role in the lynching of the more obscure William Phillips. Given the already warm relations between armed proslavery and antislavery Kansans in the area, what could go wrong?

On the other side of the dispute, J.C. Green came into Easton with Reese Brown. He didn’t join the others in rescuing Stephen Sparks, but after Brown left his company heard the “considerable firing.” Brown, Sparks, and company returned to Minards and there stayed until morning. They had some breakfast and started out.

After riding about six miles, we met two wagons filled with men, who told us to stop. Mr. Brown told the driver to go on, and we passed them; and then their two wagons turned about and followed us. Some of them jumped out of their wagons, and said they would see if we would not stop. We then jumped out of our wagon, and Mr. Brown, I think, told them if they wanted anything to come on. We then saw in the road in front of us some forty or fifty more men armed, some with horses and some with wagons. They had stopped at a house near there. We kept walking along until we came up to them. They began cursing us, saying that they had got us, and were going to hang us.

Brown, Green, and company had met the Kickapoo Rangers, and probably some men out of Leavenworth too, that Motter and Kookogey summoned. Green doesn’t name them as such, but none of the witnesses I’ve seen mentions another large band of proslavery men coming into Easton on the eighteenth. He recognized Lyle among their number.

At its most, Brown’s company boasted around twenty men. By the time they met with the Rangers, Sparks and probably others had separated from them. The proslavery men had the advantage in numbers and superior positions, both ahead of and behind the party. Whatever else one might say about the shortcomings of free soil Kansans, they knew how to count and understood their precarious situation. The Rangers insisted that everyone hop into a wagon and come with them back to Easton. Brown’s men objected, but on the grounds of safe transport rather than out of a desire to hazard a fresh gunfight. The Kickapoo men conceded the point and divided Brown’s company between two wagons.

The Kickapoo Rangers remained mindful of their own safety too. One of them spotted Green’s revolver and asked its surrender:

I told him I would give it to the captain of their company, if they had any captain. He said they had, and that his name was Martin. Presently Martin came along on horseback by the side of the wagon, and I gave him two revolvers. I had one in a belt, and the other I had in my pocket.

In short order, Brown’s party found themselves back in Easton. This time they ended up in Dawson’s store, which connected to Dr. Motter’s office.

“My son was wounded and knocked down” Trouble at Easton, Part Eight

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Thursday last, I promised a some gunplay. A mistake and my regular schedule got in the way, but we have come to the gunfight at last. Stephen Sparks had his confrontation with the proslavery men at Easton. Reese Brown and his men came to his rescue. The two groups mingled and moved along, but parted at a fork in the road. Brown smelled trouble coming and urged Sparks, his son, and his nephew into the center of the free state group. It took three tries, but Sparks finally obliged. At the same time, Brown

was marching backwards looking towards the other crowd, conversing with them not to fire, and told them that if they did, he would return fire.

I don’t know what kind of conversation Brown had whilst walking backwards and shouting across a distance between sixty and eighty yards, but the proslavery men found it unpersuasive. They opened fire. The antislavery men returned the favor at Brown’s order and “a great many guns were fired.” This went on for some time, though Sparks understandably doesn’t have a clear sense of just how long. He had more pressing things on his mind, both in his personal safety and that of his loved ones:

My son was wounded and knocked down, within six or eight feet of men, at the second fire, but he raised again and fired. He would wounded in the arm and head slightly.

Sparks doesn’t say just how the gunfight ended, but it seems that his side prevailed as they “marched back to Minard’s” rather than fled or retreated while still under fire. Resounding victory or no, they chose to go back to Easton rather than take Sparks home and disperse.

Edward Motter, who had trailed behind the proslavery men at a distance, had a bit more to say. He hung back out of the expectation that hot lead would fly, though he pins responsibility on Brown’s men rather than his own side:

We arrived at the forks of the road, where an Indian trail led off, and they had got between 80 and 90 yards ahead of us, when there was a pistol fired from Brown’s party.

With all due respect to the Doctor, and fully cognizant of judging him too harshly before, I don’t buy this. It doesn’t make sense for the free state men. Who had what they came for and aimed to leave the area behind, would suddenly turn and open up. Sparks could hardly have missed a gunshot in close proximity to himself, and reports distinctly seeing the proslavery men shoot. Given the considerable distance and darkness, with everything happening past midnight, he must have seen the muzzle flash. He could have lied on behalf of his rescuers, but his version fits better with the situation than Motter’s.

Motter might have told a stretcher. People in the past, just like people today, lied often. He leads with the implication that he saw the first shots, but continues to indicate the opposite:

I came up while the firing was still going on. I stepped behind a stump, and as I did so, a man I took to be Mr. Sparks fired at me with both barrels of a double-barreled gun, loaded as I thought with buck-shot, from the way they rattled against the fence. While I remained behind the stump, there were four rifles shot into the stump, of course by some of Mr. Brown’s men.

Quite how Motter would identify Stephen Sparks in the dark and dozens of yards distant, I have no idea. He admits some doubt on the point, but clearly wanted the Howard Committee to think he had good reason to suspect it.

Motter, like Sparks, doesn’t go into how the exchange ended. He had more to say about the proslavery casualties:

One man named Richardson, on the pro-slavery side, was shot in the leg, the ball penetrating the anterior portion of the leg, striking the tibular bone, and glancing off, and lodged in the posterior portion of his leg.

After the shooting, Motter retired to his office and got word

that Mr. John Cook was shot; I went over to see him and rendered services as a surgeon. He was shot, the ball entering the groin, and passing out in the upper portion of the hip-bone. I proved the wound, and found it had cut the posterior portion of the colon; striking the spine, and passing up and cutting off the posterior portion of the right kidney. I remained with him until, through fear, I left the place about 3 o’clock that night, and did not come back until the next day between 12 and 1 o’clock.

When the arc of our history bends toward injustice

Internal Enemy CoverThe popular account of American history begins with a collection of demigods in powdered wigs. They discourse eloquently on political theory, making timeless arguments that hateful reactionaries scorned. Therefore, they embarked upon a gentlemanly war that ended in triumph. The French might have had something to do with it, but only to show that even the ossified Ancien Regime could see the fundamental justice of the patriot cause. Then passes a brief era of which we speak little, then the Constitution. In George Washington’s blessed administration, some arcane matter involving who rooted for or against the French Revolution animates passions. Alexander Hamilton, the dastard, has something to do with that. The Federalists careen off the rails, setting themselves up as rightful masters and march happily toward authoritarianism. Then Thomas Jefferson saves the nation in 1800. The Federalist assault on civil liberties comes and goes so quickly that it largely serves to demonstrate the (Jeffersonian) Republican Party’s righteousness. The nation has imperfections, but it doesn’t do to think too much on them. Anyway, they all worked themselves out. The United States, born perfect, became more perfect still. We take the march of freedom as our central theme. The arc of our history bends toward justice.

Most people probably know that freedom didn’t rise the same for everybody, even if we don’t care to admit it. Federalist, Democrat, and Whig all did little enough to liberate slaves. It took a second, rather different, set of Republicans to do much in that direction and then only under uniquely dire circumstances. We could add women and Native Americans to the list of people left out in freedom’s march. The usual phrasing, “left out,” implies oversight. No one set out to deny large portions of the human family any deserved spot in the sun. It just happened, ok? We administer our injustices best when we imagine them as a kind of natural phenomena. Nobody sends the wind and rain; you can’t blame someone for them. Nor could you expect some kind of reparation for the damages they inflict.

Failing that, we can rationalize. If a certain group of Americans don’t succeed as well as another, we attribute it to inherent inferiority. We might call it culture these days, but employ essentialist language entirely in keeping with older racial and national theories. In doing so, we transform an accident into someone else’s just do. If we can’t have innocence, then we can claim a kind of just vengeance. We life in a righteous world, which rewards deserving and undeserving with what they have coming.

The language of racial inferiority, like that of injustice as a natural disaster, communicates a fixed state. Whether deliberately or not, white Americans left others out or behind. If our ancestors did wrong, then they didn’t actively make things worse. Students of Indian history would rightly quarrel with that. Most of us probably know that disease killed most Indians, even if recent scholarship demonstrates convincingly otherwise. But Black Americans came here as slaves. They had nowhere to go but up. Surely nothing white Americans could do could make their lives worse than the brute fact of slavery already had. However talented we imagine our national ancestors, even they had limits.

But what if they did? What if the advance of white freedom depended not merely on black deprivation, but on increasingly common and severe deprivations? In reading Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia 1772-1832, I have come on a clear case of just that.

I remember reading in my textbook, lo those many years ago, how the revolution unleashed a wave of freedom across the land. Americans, free from the dead hand of wicked Britain, liberated themselves through revising their constitutions, broadening the franchise, and other innovations. They even manumitted large numbers of slaves. The post-independence emancipations, all the way up to New Jersey’s in 1804, fit neatly into the narrative. If you read my textbook or one like it, you might have seen reference to the abolition of primogeniture and entail as well. Taylor explains how these worked:

Entail and primogeniture mandated that a great landowner pass on a landed estate (including slaves) intact to one heir, usually the first-born son, rather than divide that estate equally among all of the children. Perpetual in the male line, an entail barred any heir of any future generation from subdividing and selling or otherwise devising the property in parts. The owner had to preserve the estate for his eldest son and could not even mortgage it to borrow funds. The lone exception came when a generation had no male heir to inherit; in such cases, the daughters inherited jointly and divided the estate: considered a tragedy by a legal system that cherished the continuity of wealth in the male line. Aristocratic in design, entail and primogeniture sought to preserve a great estate through the generations. During the colonial era, Virginia’s great planters emulated the English aristocracy by entailing three-fourths of the lands in the Tidewater. Very few entails could be broken by later generations without great expense to navigate through a complex legal thicket.

Taylor, Alan (2013-09-09). The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (Kindle Location 704). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

If this sounds like a recipe for permanently consolidated wealth and large numbers of well-born, but discontented white men, you have heard correctly. How could a gentleman of expectations get ahead when denied a reasonable share of the patrimony? This meant little to farmers of modest means, but it burned at the well-off. During the revolutionary era, those Virginians campaigned hard for the abolition of such laws as vestiges of the aristocratic past unwelcome in the new, democratic and republican age. White men deserved equality in rights. Entail and primogeniture required inequality. They should set their own course in life, but the laws fixed them to the states determined by their ancestors. They couldn’t sell their estates, or any part, or even take loans against them. How much more backward could one get?

Well off, white Virginians could scarcely expect a worse problem short of a slave revolt or abolition. Of the three fates, they had scarce experience with revolts and none with abolition, but quite a lot with restrictive inheritance laws. In abolishing the two (entail in 1776, primogeniture in 1785) they expected that the division of large estates between many heirs would bring about greater equality for white men and that the freedom to manage estates as one wished would serve as a good in itself. To the disgust of the crustier Virginians, the reformers had it right. Estates did divide. Enslavers had the freedom to manage their property as they saw fit. Freedom marched on.

Those estates, however, included people. So long as entail held, an enslaver could not sell off any slaves he came to by inheritance. Instead he had to keep them together with the rest of his property. This meant that enslaved people, though still subject to most of slavery’s horrors, could expect to remain together with their families and children. The architects of the old system of inheritance didn’t intend that outcome, but it happened all the same. The new market-oriented, white egalitarian freedom meant an end to that:

The reformed inheritance laws promoted a surge in the sale of slaves by owners seeking cash. During the 1780s, 40 percent of slaves advertised in the Virginia press had been sold at least once before in their lives: up from 24 percent during the 1760s. Virginia planters increasingly valued slave children for future sale. Richard Blow assured his son, “I think it useless to raise up families of them for any other purpose but to sell.” Jefferson deemed “a woman who brings a child every two years as more valuable than the best man on the farm. What she produces is an addition to capital, while his labor disappears in mere consumption.”

Taylor, Alan (2013-09-09). The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (Kindle Locations 741-746). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The division of estates broke slave families and rendered those which remained more tenuous. You don’t have to read many slave narratives to recognize that enslaved people felt the loss of loved ones as keenly as anybody else. They often listed it alongside whipping as one of the key horrors of their lives. The end of entails freed enslavers to commence the great forced migration from the Upper South into the Cotton Kingdom which so thoroughly dismembered families in the decades to come.

In addition to that, the new laws simultaneously expand the number of enslaving Virginians. While the number of slaves held in vast estates shrank, giving more white Virginians a direct financial stake in slavery only increased their already strong practical attachment to it. The practice of renting out slaves to others grew as well, further entrenching bondage within the Old Dominion:

After the revolution, the renting of slaves increased as a means for masters to profit from surplus slaves, in contrast to manumitting them, which brought no financial reward. Many widows hired out their inherited slaves to derive an income while avoiding the rigors of supervising and punishing them. Executors of estates also rented out slaves to support orphans until they came of legal age. During the 1790s a farmer could rent a prime male field hand for $ 31 per year, about a tenth of the cost of buying such a slave. And an adult woman cost only about $ 11 per year, compared to $ 200 for a purchase. As renters, common men could acquire slave labor more readily than by purchase. The surge in postwar hiring further spread slaves among the white households of Virginia.

Taylor, Alan (2013-09-09). The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (Kindle Locations 757-762). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The dislocation and disruption of someone else’s life proves a far easier burden to bear than sudden changes to one’s own. When fewer people owned slaves or directly oversaw them, abolition must seem much more possible. The more people own slaves, the more they will object to challenging the system. They had a cultural stake as free white men regardless, and we should not downplay its significance, but adding a material stake to slavery could hardly do other than encourage them to defend bondage more devotedly.

Virginia probably wouldn’t have abolished slavery in the Revolutionary era anyway; it had far more slaves and enslavers than any of the states that did. But by liberalizing its inheritance laws, the Old Dominion both enhanced slavery’s durability and made the lives of a great many of its slaves more insecure and generally worse than they had hitherto endured. The advance of freedom for its fortunate sons came not just on the backs of already mistreated human property, but also through greater abuse still. To grow their freedom required shrinking the already tiny freedom of their slaves.

A Vindication of Edward Motter

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

 

Gentle Readers, I’ve made an error and I’d best correct it before continuing. I previously said that Stephen Sparks’ version of the night of January 17-18, 1856 made no mention of Dr. Edward Motter and his attempt to defuse the situation. It turns out that he does, though he tells that part out of chronological order, in response to cross-examination, and in a page of testimony that your author managed to misplace while rifling through the multiple witnesses in the Howard Report. I print lengthy materials for ease in marking passages and transcription. Their page numbers help, but testimony on a subject often comes out of order or with significant gaps for other matters so a missing page doesn’t immediately raise any red flags.

For the record, Sparks says this about Motter:

Dr. Motter came to me in Dawson’s there, when more than twenty-five or thirty men were standing around me making threats, and said to the company, “as Mr. Sparks is on his way home and has got thus far, let him go.” He requested that of the company, and then went round between me and home, and the last I saw of him was standing there in the lane.

With both men agreed, I see no reason to retain any doubts about Motter’s testimony on the point. The doctor came forward and urged the other proslavery men to let Sparks be.

Sparks also commented on another part of Motter’s testimony that I found dubious. In Motter’s version, the free state men challenged him and then he wrote back. The doctor frames it as a personal matter between him and some drunken antislavery hooligans. Sparks doesn’t quite confirm or deny that narrative:

I do not know as any messages were sent by the men at Minard’s down to the men at Dawson’s to provoke them. I heard nothing of any challenge being sent down to the pro-slavery men to come up and fight. I sent none myself, and I never heard of any, though there might have been.

Stephen Sparks didn’t see anything, but wouldn’t rule out some kind of provocative note. This makes for far from a definitive statement on the existence of a note prior to Motter’s challenge, and Motter still suspiciously left the ballot box out of his version of events, but that he thought the scenario plausible bears notice.

One last thing: Motter found Sparks’ route home very suspicious, as it took him right past the proslavery men who he knew hated free state types and had spent all day fuming and drinking over the election. Sparks’ later testimony explains the path:

I could have gone from Mr. Minard’s house on a bee-line home, which would have been nearer home than the way I went, but it would have been over rocks and drifts. I went down the road I usually go-and go yet.

That doesn’t sound like Sparks went off in some display of machismo, or deliberately trolling for a fight. He just took the longer, but easier, path. Motter knew enough to find the choice suspicious, or at least reckless, but might not have appreciated the rough ground that Sparks would have to negotiate in the dark.

I don’t think that any of these points alter the narrative a great deal, but they do reflect somewhat better on Edward Motter than my previous read did and I do my best to keep these posts as accurate as I can.

 

“The fire was opened upon us,” Trouble at Easton, Part Seven

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

We left Stephen Sparks, son Moses, and unnamed nephew in the corner of a fence, surrounded by a proslavery mob armed and demanding their surrender. Sparks, himself armed, declined to oblige. When they tried to force the issue, one making a go for Moses’ gun, Stephen intervened and wrestled it back. He would come quietly over his dead body, literally telling the proslavery men that if they meant their threats they must shoot him. Whether Sparks’ bravery or the close quarters decided the issue, no one fired.

No one left either. What happened next depends on whether or not one believes Edward Motter. He told the Howard Committee that he and Mr. Kookogey

immediately ran down to where Sparks had stopped, and got on the fence and made a speech, that they should let the old man go on home; that it would not do to commit any violence on him. Ten or twelve of the men were about leaving, when Sparks commenced cursing and swearing about something-I could not tell what. I went to him, and tried to persuade him to go home, and he refused to go.

In Sparks’ version, Motter doesn’t make an appearance. They could both be right. Motter doesn’t mention the fence corner and Sparks refers to a few times when his adversaries withdrew and consulted amongst themselves. Motter’s speech might have taken place during one of those times. We can’t know whether Sparks said something that goaded the mob into further bedeviling him, but Motter previously went out of his way to make Sparks look bad on the matter of choosing his route home and probably invented a first insulting note to justify his own threats against the polls. On the balance, I think it more likely Motter invented Spark’s belligerence.

According to Sparks, the standoff lasted “some fifteen minutes.” Then Reese Brown arrived. According to J.C. Green, they got word from a Clark Tritt, who left with Sparks but apparently parted ways with him before the confrontation. Sparks doesn’t name him, but does refer to a man who was riding his horse and went back to share the news.

The first I saw of Brown he was near by, and his party afoot, stretched across the road, and inquired if I was there. I answered that I was. He told me to march to him. I started and was about halfway when Sam. Burgess caught hold of my shoulder. I told him to let me go, and prepared for defence, and he did let me go. He marched forward around me, and my son and nephew also came into the ring.

On close reading, the “he” in the last sentence must mean Brown, not Burgess.

Brown told his men to march back, and all did so, friend and foe going together in a crowd, I being in the centre. Then we went to the forks of the road; there the other party took the straight-forward road, and we, with Brown’s party, turned to the left.

With the exception of likely warning shots, the more intense phases of this affair happened at relatively close range. As the parties diverged, that range opened and the risk of friendly fire ebbed. Brown appreciated the fact keenly:

About forty or fifty yards, Brown urged me to walk in, as they were going to shoot. This he told me three times distinctly. The last time, I told him I would obey him. He was marching backwards looking towards the other crowd, conversing with them not to fire, and told them that if they did, he would return fire. When we were about sixty or eighty yards off, the fire was opened upon us.

 

“God damn you, I could smash you” Trouble at Easton, Part Six

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Around midnight, on the night of January 17-18, 1856, Stephen Sparks decided that the proslavery men would make no attack on the ballot box at Easton, Kansas. He, his son Moses, and his nephew started for home. Their path took them by where the proslavery men had nursed grudges and drinks for hours. They rushed out and surrounded the Sparks party, taunting them but letting them proceed for a time. Moses advised that they give it up and go with the proslavery men, but Stephen thought better of it and kept along.

The Sparks’ path turned to the south, at which point it seems the proslavery men fell back and consulted amongst themselves. Sparks “got several rods ahead of them.” For a moment, he might have thought the worst behind him. Then the proslavery men

burst loose with a good many threats and cursings, and followed me. I kept on my usual pace, and kept the boys close by me. They again stopped to consult, and then the crowd came on and made a heavy charge on me, and their common expressions were, God-damn him, shoot him! kill him! damned abolitionist! There were then two guns fired.

Sparks wheeled and brought up his own gun, but Moses “dissuaded” him. They started again. Sparks doesn’t give a clear sense of the distance involved, but it seems considerable despite that heavy charge. Maybe they ran up a certain distance, and stopped short while someone fired warning shots. If he saw a man take aim and fire deliberately at him and his family, one imagines Spark would have said so.

Another turn brought Sparks about on the road leading to, and I presume past, Dawson’s house. There

part of the crowd formed a line across the lane, so that I could get neither way, and were making towards me. My son and nephew, at my suggestion, got into a corner of the fence-a rail fence, staked and ridered. We were there at bay, and were prepared to make the best defence we could. I reasoned with them, and said there were plenty of my old neighbors in Platte county with them; that I knew I would not surrender to a drunken mob. Benjamin Foster then fetched his fist in my shoulder, and said, God damn you, I could (or would) smash you. I then told him to stand back, and told him if he laid his hands on me again he would regret it.

Sweet reason did not move Spark’s old neighbors or the rest. They insisted on “general surrender” and that the group go back to the grocery in their custody. In the very unlikely event that Sparks missed their armament previously, they brandished guns and pistols. If Sparks declined to surrender, they would put the weapons to good use.

I told them to shoot. No gun was fired there. I said they must shoot me, as I would not give up to a drunken mob. David Large then took hold of my son’s gun and demanded that he should give it up. He refused, and in their struggling I presented mine, and told him to let go. He did so. They then, with threats, hallooed several times

So far, proslavery men have harrassed Stephen Sparks, fired guns at him, threatened him with further gunfire, and cornered him and two children in the corner of a fence. They closed to within arm’s reach. At this point, ballistic reticence makes good sense no matter what the mob’s intentions. In a mixed up brawl, they could end up shooting, or shot by, a friend.

Trouble at Easton, Part Five

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The dispute over the ballot box at Easton, Kansas on January 17, 1856, had gone from armed threats to passing notes. The proslavery side, in the person of Dr. Edward Motter, held that the free state men under Reese Brown sent him an insulting note and dared him to come answer it. He wrote back that he would come in due course. According to the free state side, they sent no such note but Motter and company sent an anonymous one demanding the ballot box held at the house of a Mr. Minard. On receiving that, Minard and company declined to give an answer unless someone signed a name to it. The free state men tell the more plausible story, though it seems reasonable enough that some of them might have insulted Motter. Under what sounds like close questioning, Motter later on admitted that all the day’s trouble arose out of the election.

Henry Adams, one of the free state men who turned out to defend the polls that day, told the Howard Committee that after the affair with the notes things largely subsided. A few men came by and talked with Minard, one for “about an hour” but nothing came of it. Stephen Sparks, another of the defenders, testified that the note named him and Minard. He agrees with Adams that proslavery men called at Minard’s house thereafter, naming a Mr. McAlear that Adams also mentioned:

Mr. McAlear then came up, and Kookogey with him, to reason with us, and said it would better for us to give up the ballot-box, or it would turn out worse.

Threats or no, the expected clash did not come. Sparks, like Adams, decided “there would be no difficulty.” Motter certainly hadn’t come up armed and demanding satisfaction. The proslavery men had tried intimidation. When it failed, they declined to take on the large band of free state men who stood ready to meet them. With the hour nearing midnight, Sparks, his son Moses, and his nephew chose to start for home. The path through Easton took Sparks past Dawson’s store.

The proslavery men saw him coming. As Motter told it,

About 12 o’clock Mr. Sparks came down, and instead of going directly home he walked at least a quarter of a mile to come down where our men-the-pro-slavery party- were. He knew that his most bitter enemies were there and intoxicated at the time. I was sitting in the office, in company with Mr. Samuel J. Kookogey, Samuel Burgess, and Dr. Kennedy, when he passed by. I heard some one outside exclaim, “there goes old man Sparks, with his rifle on his shoulder.”

Sparks doesn’t mention going out of his way and without a period map I can’t say if he did. Motter could have mistaken the directions or Sparks might have erred in his navigation. He could also have chosen to walk by just to show that proslavery men didn’t frighten him. Either way, he didn’t get the warmest reception:

When getting near Dawson’s store, I saw several men, and heard several say, “God damn him, there he is,” and called old man Sparks, and said they had got me now. There was a great deal of talk, and the men had been drinking. I walked on and came near the store door; several men threatened me very heavy, and demanded that I should surrender. They were then all round me, some in front and some behind, and on each side.

Something like a drunken, gun-toting playground taunting session seems to have ensued, as Sparks says they surrounded him but let him keep moving on his way for a while. Among the taunts, they invited Sparks to have a drink with them. None of this makes for an easy time for children, as your author knows from experience, particularly with enemies on every side. To look at one means losing track of another who could do anything to you. Adding guns and alcohol can’t have made it more pleasant. Nor would Sparks’ concern for his son and nephew have lightened the load.

Moses Sparks

wanted me to surrender, but I spoke to him low, and told him to keep near me and close by my side.

The Positive Necessities and Good Evils

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Gentle Readers, should you excite my jealousy by going into the archives or bump shoulders with me at the Library of Google, you will find condemnations of slavery in abundance. You can read Thomas Jefferson’s indictment in Notes on the State of Virginia, which abolitionists took for a time as a foundational text. No Southerner could dismiss the Sage of Monticello as an ignorant foreigner., though plenty came to question his judgment. Over his life, Jefferson owned north of six hundred slaves. In his personal correspondence, which I found through Monticello’s helpful article on the subject, Jefferson proclaimed slavery a “moral and political depravity” and “hideous blot” upon the nation. He even rightly identified it as the greatest threat to the Union’s survival.

Leave the section with the founders’ papers and go a few decades to the side. There you’ll find antislavery Americans rehearsing the same themes. They too condemn slavery. They, like Jefferson, hold that it degrades the morals of the enslaver. It threatens the Union. It must go. To rid themselves of it, these Americans did not propose immediate emancipation. They advocated indirect measures to set slavery on the road to extinction, particularly in ending the Atlantic slave trade and banning it from the territories. When Congress could ban the import of slaves, Jefferson urged it to do so at the earliest opportunity, The idea of keeping it from territories goes back to his Northwest Ordinance, though the third president later changed his mind on the wisdom of that.

Neither Jefferson nor later generations of antislavery whites expected to see much progress in their lifetimes. Slavery would fade over ages, helped along by plans of gradual emancipation. From Maryland and Virginia all the way down to South Carolina, whites would free their slaves. Those slaves would go somewhere out of sight and mind, rather than remembering

ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.

LincolnOn the surface, Jefferson doesn’t sound very different from Abraham Lincoln. Neither proposed direct, hostile action against slavery where it already existed. Both saw emancipation as the project of a decades to come. The antislavery movement of the late Antebellum recognized the similarity and claimed Jefferson’s project as their own, understanding themselves as taking the next logical steps. As people who consider slavery an evil and naturally look in our past for praiseworthy opposition to it, we might very well agree. We might even argue that these men differ from the more radical abolitionists only on questions of tactics.

Closer consideration, however, shows something different: Thomas Jefferson pulled a fast one. His condemnation of slavery, however sincere, comes only in its defense. The Necessary Evil argument for slavery ran thus: We have this awful slavery. We dream of a day, long hence, when we shall be rid of it. We endorse the high principle of graduated emancipation, so gradual as to come up on the calendar quarter to never. In practical terms, with slavery that already exists rather than some hypothetical future slavery which someone else would have to deal with in the West, the necessary evil school stands for slavery in perpetuity. The argument might grant some points to advocates of genuine antislavery, but it does so in the course of forestalling the practical advance of the latter: Yes, we agree with you that slavery is bad. But what can we do about it? Along the way, of course, they planned to keep reaping the profit from reaping the bodies of enslaved people. As problems go, we must all agree that having great fortunes thrown your way ranks near the top. Slavery, to necessary evil advocates, did not amount to an unqualified good. It did, however, beat all the alternatives they understood as available to them. By preserving them from race war and endowing the enslavers with considerable wealth, the necessary evil had a decidedly positive and good application.

Jefferson and his generation kept faith with the argument through thick and thin. They held to it when it seemed slavery might just really go away on its own in an era of sinking tobacco profits, despite the trade business in rice and cotton down in the Carolina and Georgia lowcountry. They continued when the cotton gin opened up the inland South to cotton cultivation, when Andrew Jackson and company violently purged the old Southwest of Indians, and slave labor camps spread across the American empire. With new markets in need of slave labor, many Upper South enslavers could take their tender sentiments and cry all the way to the bank.

Then things changed. A new generation of enslavers, most prominently in the person of John C. Calhoun, responded rising antislavery sentiment in the North and the Missouri and Nullification controversies by articulating a new theory. They called slavery a Positive Good. No longer did they cede rhetorical ground and admit, even in theory, that slavery ought to end. Instead it should go on forever not simply for lack of a means to emancipate, but because slavery benefited the slaves too. They learned civilization and Christianity. It lifted them from African squalor and put them to useful work. In fact, slavery did far better for them than free labor did for whites:

I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Positive Good arguments came initially, as they do now, as a shock. The nation had agreed. Every good American hated slavery and wanted it gone. Now this man from South Carolina, who looked like a cross between Beethoven and a supervillain broke the rules. The argument took a long time to catch on even in the South. As late as the last years before the Civil War, particularly in the Upper South, Necessary Evil argument never went entirely out of style.

But the seeds of  predated Calhoun’s infamous speech on the subject. Calhoun preached the Positive Good gospel to the Senate in 1837. In 1814, Thomas Jefferson trotted out remarkably similar arguments:

Nor in the class of laborers do I mean to withold from the comparison that portion whose color has condemned them, in certain parts of our Union, to a subjection to the will of others. even these are better fed in these states, warmer clothed, & labor less than the journeymen or day laborers of England. they have the comfort too of numerous families, in the midst of whom they live, without want, or the fear of it; a solace which few of the laborers of England possess. they are subject, it is true, to bodily coercion: but are not the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers & seamen subject to the same, without seeing, at the end of their career, & when age & acciden[t] shall have rendered them unequal to labor, the certainty, which the other has, that he will never want? and has not the British seaman, as much as the African been reduced to this bondage by force, in flagrant violation of his own consent, and of his natural right in his own person? and with the laborers of England generally, does not the moral coercion of want subject their will as despotically to that of thei[r] employer, as the physical constraint does the soldier, the seaman or the slave?

Jefferson took free and unfree labor as practiced by the United Kingdom as his point of comparison where Calhoun and others would point to urban workers in the North, but the argument otherwise runs the same: an employer has no reason to treat his employees well. They live always on the edge of starvation, one firing away from utter destitution. They thus depend on their employer’s whim in a way that Jefferson imagines not very different from how slaves suffer under his own whims. If the British can impress sailors, then why not Americans enslave Africans? If the Royal Navy flogs a sailor, then how does it differ from his overseer putting stripes on some slave’s back? Note, however, that Jefferson doesn’t simply call the situations comparable. He goes a step further and declares the slaves better off: They have better food, warmer clothes, and don’t work near so hard. Only in the negatives does Jefferson find similarity. Otherwise, slaves come out better off.

A sentence later, Jefferson realized he might have revealed to much and disavowed any intention of advocating for slavery. Should one take his word on it, one might also come to the relief of an inconvenienced Nigerian prince or find an investment in bridges of particular interest.

Calhoun couldn’t have said it better himself. The antislavery movement could never agree, preaching instead the moral, political, and economic superiority of free labor. The Jefferson who loathed manufactures and cities could never go along with that. If this doesn’t transform him into Calhoun in drag, then it does clearly place the two men and their schools of thought close together and fundamentally aligned. Both want to preserve slavery where it existed, believing it and the culture it produced superior to free labor despite the occasional imperfections writ large on the bodies of the enslaved and small in the paranoia of the enslavers. The rhetorical shift matters; it aroused considerable controversy within even South Carolina, but we should not mistake that controversy for a genuine and thoroughgoing antislavery movement within the section. Nor should we confuse the rhetorically-convenient qualms of some Southerners with a willingness to align with outsiders in some kind of shared antislavery project. Whether advocating necessary evil or positive good theories of slavery, the speakers remained the peculiar institution’s committed defenders.