Gentle Readers, yesterday I concluded that George Washington Brown probably did not print a threat against David Rice Atchison. John Stringfellow over at the Squatter Sovereign probably invented the line, or recast someone Brown had said of border ruffians in general as a threat on Missouri’s latest ex-Senator. Nineteenth century papers do invent dialog often enough. Go into the archives and you’ll find quite a few letters written under obvious pseudonyms, often in eye dialect, that look a mite too convenient for the paper’s editorial line. Letters from friendly correspondents generally use standard English, which makes both all the more suspicious for the contrast. A certain degree of prevarication inevitably happens in the editorials too. One must also consider that even politically aligned newspapers liked to pick fights with one another and eagerly sling the kind of mud that we would expect to find on Twitter today. Politically hostile papers had little reason to restrain themselves.
Stringfellow’s paper said that Brown promised abolitionists in Kansas would shoot Atchison dead if ever they found him in the territory with arms in hand. I ran a searches on permutations of the phrase “if ever Gen. Atchison is found in this Territory with arms in his hands, they (the abolitionists) will have him shot.” The Sovereign put it in quotation marks and attributes it to Brown. They all came up dry. I also skimmed Herald of Freedom issues for the two months prior looking for Atchison references. I found a fair number, but he rarely came up except as a villain alongside both Stringfellows and other prominent proslavery men or in conjunction with his role in the Wakarusa War.
The search and my skimming missed the piece to which Stringfellow must have referred. The January 12 Herald of Freedom has some praise of the Cleveland Plaindealer. The author, George Brown informs us,
talks like a man. We thought him always wrong, but we are glad to make a correction in his favor.
Talking like a man sounds like something you do while crushing beer cans on your forehead, bragging about your sexual prowess, or threatening violence to me. Sixteen decades’ distance have put me off on the first two points, but the Plaindealer’s Gray nailed the third. Brown quotes him, in reference to David Rice Atchison:
He, with all other residents of Missouri who have crossed the borders of that State either to vote or fight in Kansas, should be shot, if no other means can be used to prevent their intrusions.
While not quite the kill on sight statement that Stringfellow implied, this is otherwise quite close. But Stringfellow quoted Brown by name, not some fellow named Gray back in Ohio. Brown signed off in the next lines:
We may be allowed to say that we coincide in opinion with Mr. Gray, and that Atchison will be shot like a dog, traitor as he is, if he shall be found in Kansas with arms in his hands in case of a similar outbreak to the last. The people of Kansas hold him, and his colleague-B.F. Stringfellow-responsible for all the difficulties on the border; and in due time they will compel those men to pay the penalty for their violence, if continued.
Brown’s actual statement had a few more qualifiers than Stringfellow admitted, and doesn’t exactly match Stringfellow’s quote, but the differences don’t change the gist of it. If Atchison came back to Kansas with a party of armed border ruffians, then Brown thought him adequately qualified to play unwilling host to some hot lead. Morever, Brown expressed his firm belief “hundreds” would take the Plaindealer’s suggestion when the time came.
Given the number who turned out to defend Lawrence only the month before, he might have had it exactly right.