Sheriff Jones Goes to Topeka With the Devil’s Eyes

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

At the end of January, the free state party had in hand a constitution for Kansas. They had elected men to serve under that constitution. If they had garnered rivals from within their movement, then they won handily at the polls all the same. Along the way, they had also come near to a pitched battle with proslavery forces, to say nothing of the many clashes between proslavery and antislavery Kansans on an individual level. They had the governor’s blessing for their militia and the president’s condemnation. Laurels like these might prompt some of us to take a break, but they knew that they remained under the gun.

That fact must have been on many minds as a result of the late elections. Come March 4, 1856, the officers of the free state government would take office. That would put the leadership in one convenient spot doing the very thing that Franklin Pierce had told them they should not do, under threat of military intervention. Someone might try something.

March 4 came on a Tuesday in 1856. Monday that week, according to the pamphlet Organization of the Free State Government in Kansas (PDF),

the “big guns” of the Free-State party were fired off with great effect in Constitution Hall-the room in which the Free-State Constitution was framed-at Franklin Pierce and other creatures of the Slave Power at Washington city. Mr. Stephen Sparks off Easton-a member of the House and leader of the fight in defence of the ballot-box there on the 15th of January-was called to the chair and presided.

The pamphlet related a very brief version of Sparks’ travail, getting the date wrong. Sketches of each principal followed. Charles Robinson, the author tells us, cut the figure of a perfectly disinterested statesman with questionable oratorical skills. James Lane, “a beau ideal of the political intriguer” cut a military figure and undercut his “fluent” speaking with “want of earnestness”. Lieutenant Governor Roberts had an “uncommonly hard, and dull” voice. He would not “set the Missouri river on fire.” The author made it clear that the intriguer Lane and flame-retardant Roberts hailed from the Democracy.

The free state men denounced Pierce and spent some time Monday discussing what they ought to do with their new government. Tuesday brought Lane, as chair of the executive committee, swearing them in. All the while, they had an audience:

The immortal bogus Sheriff Jones, a tall, muscular, athletic loafer, with a cruel Mephistophelean expression, clad in the Border Ruffian costume-blue military overcoat, large boots, a skull cap and a cigar in mouth-was present at the organization, and amused himself and the members both, by writing down the names of the Senators and Representatives as they took the oath.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

One has to account for the performance of manly bravado in these things, but everyone had to know that Jones wouldn’t arrest them then and there. In the midst of scores of free state men -more than thirty Representatives and eleven Senators alone- Jones could hardly make a credible threat. He and the new legislators might very well have cracked plenty of jokes at one another’s expense. The author had the last word. He had seen the legal legislature meet as well and, unsurprisingly, found the present gathering far superior to to that band of

drunkards, blasphemers, and gamblers […] personally as ignorant and unpolished as their “acts” demonstrated they were unprincipled and violent

Jones, with Satan as his copilot, could sit there and scribble names all he liked. Kansas had a government, however illegal, of sober and principled antislavery men now.


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