“Kill the Yankee!” Politics and the Maltreatment of Reverend William C. Clark

William Clark could have gotten away with the crime of being antislavery on a steamboat full of Missourians. He had a close call when he stood up to defend his interpretation of the Bible against a man who insisted that the races must have had separate creations to make people so inferior as Native- and African-Americans, but it seems that once he gave his defense of Scripture things settled down. The polygenists constituted only a minority of Americans, so his audience likely understood Reverend Clark’s position as well within the bounds of acceptable discourse even if some of them disagreed strongly with it. Believing in a common ancestry for all humans didn’t require anything near so radical as thinking them equals, after all.

Discussion then turned to politics. The steamboat passengers conversed “apparently with the best humor.” The circle broke up and Clark

learned that some of them were members of that body of Solons which had been in session at the Shawnee Mission, re-enacting Draco’s bloody code for the benefit of the people of Kansas.

Clark hadn’t talked to just a random set of proslavery men; he’d hit the jackpot. Considering that even by September, the Kansas and Missouri proslavery party had built up a record of abusing antislavery Kansans he had cause to worry. He worried more when he saw people who had talked to him point him out to other passengers. Clark holed up in his room and hoped to ride things out. Come evening, he risked departing to write a letter.

While writing, three men seated themselves by me, referred in very flattering terms to the discussion of the afternoon, and gave me an invitation to lecture that evening before the passengers, on the same subjects, viz: the probable origin of the Indians, the capacity of the negro mind for improvement, and my religious and political views of slavery.

You’ve got some interesting ideas, Reverend. Why don’t you share them with the whole ship? Really, we all want to hear.

Clark didn’t buy it. He “positively refused” repeated encouragement, expecting that if he obliged he would end up in jail for inciting slave revolt on the grounds that the Polar Star had enslaved stewards. Later on, Clark heard one of the passengers say that if he’d done as asked, “they would have fixed him.”

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The proslavery men didn’t give up there. Come morning, they held forth on the various perfidies of Andrew Reeder. Clark suggested that they take a wait and see attitude toward Kansas first governor.

Immediately a man, who had been looking intently at me, to whom I had not spoken during the passage, asked me what I said. As a matter of courtesy, I repeated my words, on which he gave me a blow on my face with his fist. Almost at the same instant, a person behind me gave me a blow in my side with a slung shot, almost depriving me of the power of breathing or self-defence, and during this time of my helplessness my assailant improved the opportunity of beating my face in the most brutal manner. A host of demons, let forth from Milton’s hell, could hardly equal in spirit the language, those choice spirits which were present, as they yelled -“Kill the —— Yankee! the —— abolition son of a —–!”

The Bible and the Maltreatment of Reverend William C. Clark

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

As he explained in his letter to George Brown, the Reverend William C. Clark visited Kansas in the fall of 1855. He left in September, aiming to go back and spread the good word about the territory in New England. On the way out, he boarded the Polar Star in Kansas City. He found himself in the company of many vocal proslavery passengers and seems to have lived through a steamboat version of Thanksgiving with one’s more deplorable relations. Like most of us, he largely suffered in silence. But just like us, Clark had his limit. He hit it when a fellow passenger laid into the Bible. Said passenger, in words unwittingly echoed by Representative Steve King at the Republican National Convention, that the black race could not share any ancestry with the white because what had they ever accomplished?

Clark, a minister of the Gospel, would not let that one stand. The Bible didn’t tell any stories of parallel or separation creations of man. In standing up there, Clark positioned himself well within the theological mainstream of nineteenth century America. Even diehard proslavery theorists usually, though not always, shrank from the notion of separate creations. To defend Holy Scripture, Clark took recourse to history:

I called his attention to Hannibal the Great, who for years was the terror of Rome and the admiration of the world, he having been of Negro descent, and not of Phenician as most of the Carthaginians were; also to Hamilcar, the great mechanic-to Euclid, the father of mathematics-with some other illustrious minds that belonged to that oppressed race.

In all this, Clark did very much as most of us would probably think to. We live in a culture saturated by race talk scarcely less than Clark’s. The argument, that race as a category is incoherent for any purpose save mistreating people, runs against the grain of nearly our entire discourse. Thus one wants to build up a racial scoreboard, accepting the premise that races exist in a more than social sense and might have morally meaningful distinctions.

Clark and his audience lived in a different time. Racial theory did not fall into disrepute even in the academy until the twentieth century. He and the other people on the Polar Star lived in the heyday of racial science, which frequently involved recourse to the Bible to demonstrate its points. When Clark disputed separate creations, polygenesis, as bad theology he made himself some enemies. To his fellow passengers, he sounded like an abolitionist. They asked him just what he thought about slavery. He confessed:

When questioned upon this point (I have too much frankness in my nature, as well as respect for the honest views I hold, to dissemble on a plain point,) I frankly admitted that I was opposed to the extension of slavery, and in favor of Kansas becoming a Free State.

Since the previous conversation had involved the Bible, the natural response came at once. Didn’t Clark, a man of God, think the Bible approved of slavery? Abraham had slaves, for which “God never rebuked him”.

Yes, Clark said, but God also neglected to rebuke Abraham for having a son with his wife’s maid. David’s numerous vices barely earned a condemnation. But

when the light of Christianity shone more brightly upon the world, wherever it went, servitude, polygamy, &c. were swept away, being suited only to the dark ages.

The Latter-Day Saints of the time would have had something to say to Clark about polygamy and the entire American South could point out how the light of Christianity had not impeded slavery. But likely no one there at the time considered Mormons Christians of any species and antebellum Southerners had heard plenty of Yankees denounce them for living in the dark ages.

Steve King and the Maltreatment of Reverend William C. Clark

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

In looking over the officers at the meeting which established the Kansas Pioneer Association, George Brown’s Herald of Freedom found names he recognized from the Wakarusa War. Among them he spotted a Colonel Chiles, who had more recent adventures. He had somehow “maltreated” a Reverend William C. Clark.

Who did what now? I make a special effort to highlight occasions of actual and credibly threatened violence as signposts for how far things have gone in Kansas. Doing otherwise would make the whole affair sound like no more than the overexcited outbursts of politicians arguing over constitutional arcana, very much detached from the experience of people living at the time. They had real fears based on real events; what happened to others could very well happen to them. But I missed Clark’s travail. Let’s back up to the twentieth of September, 1855, and see what happened.

Clark had come to Lawrence, but gone back East for New England in September. Since then, he had tried four times to get in touch with George Brown about his travail

with the Algerines of America on the Polar Star. I [Clark] wrote and sent you [Brown] a long and full account the first thing I did after I was able to sit up. I should write more, but the hope of this ever reaching you seems so small that I am almost discouraged in trying.

Clark means the Barbary pirates when he says Algerines, who would abduct and enslave Europeans. They constituted a menace to maritime travel in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean for centuries, their exploits generating a whole genre of captivity narrative which he readers would have known well.

The Reverend knew that the papers had hold of his story, but travel and illness prevented him at first from setting the record straight. Clark told the reader that he traveled seven weeks in Kansas, finding its soil rich, its water pure, its scenery beautiful, and generally the best place in America. He then went home. Reading between the lines, it sounds like Clark went specifically to learn about and then promote Kansas to emigrants. On September 18, he took passage at Kansas City. The Polar Star would take him down to St. Louis.

In short order, Clark found that the other passengers had much to say about the Kansas question. Generally from the slave states, they had precisely the opinions one would expect. Clark let several untrue statements about the Free State party pass unremarked, “not wishing to have a controversy.”

On the second day of the Polar Star’s voyage, the topic of conversation turned to theology. I imagine Clark’s eyes lit up at the opportunity, much as mine do when someone wants to talk history. The discussion covered “modes of baptism, next the perseverance of the saints, &c.” People had murdered each other over such questions, but that happened long ago and far away. Nearer to home

one gentleman present objected to the divine authenticity of the Bible, on the ground that the five races of men never could have had one common parentage, objecting especially to the Indian and Negro races.

This made Clark’s objector quite the radical. Few antebellum Americans believed in separate origins for the races of humanity they imagined existing. The occasional proslavery theorist, particularly Josiah Nott, would make the argument but most thought the idea solidly unBiblical and consequently false.

Clark wouldn’t sit down and let that one pass:

Feeling an interest when I hear the Scriptures assailed, I took the liberty to reply to him, giving my views of the origin of the Indians found on this continent by Columbus, which seemed to be satisfactory to those present. His objection to the common origin of the Negro race was, that their minds had not a capacity for cultivation, and by nature were almost destitute of intelligence; and hence he thought they must have had another and inferior origin.

You can’t go very far in the United States today without hearing that theory of blackness. We don’t often phrase it in quite that way, but express the same meaning in more careful words. In noting that the Republican Party today has racial demographics not far out of line with the Ku Klux Klan, Representative Steve King asked

I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

“Than white people?” Hayes asked, clearly amazed.

“Than, than Western civilization itself,” King replied. “It’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.”

In other words, non-whites don’t deserve a place in a political party. Inferior by nature, their lacks proven by history, they could jolly well bugger off. Only whites count.

With the exception of Monday posts, and not all of those, I don’t try too orient this blog around contemporary America. But sometimes contemporary America comes on its own.

Familiar Faces at the Kansas Pioneer Association

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

The Missourians decided, belatedly, that they had best get into the Emigrant Aid Game. For more than a year, the Massachusetts, then New England, and other societies in the North had paid the travel costs of antislavery settlers bound for Kansas. They even ran a hotel or two to put a roof over the heads of new arrivals, albeit one with more sod than shingles. For the previous history of territorial Kansas, the Missourians took all that as cheating the system. Now they would cheat too. Moreover, the people of Jackson County specifically empowered their Kansas Pioneer Association to coordinate with other such groups for a wide-open slave power conspiracy. The same meeting that organized the association also called for a convention of similar associations from every county in Missouri to put their plan into operation.

As the names of the officers chairing the meeting at Lexington which set all this in motion appeared in the papers, the Herald of Freedom gave them a close look. George Brown spotted S. H. Woodson among them, who had telegraphed back to the east that proslavery men needed to come in a hurry to

aid in the subjugation of the ‘d—-d Yankees.’ His dispatches were mistaken in the East for those of the Secretary of our Territory, Daniel Woodson.

Daniel Woodson

Daniel Woodson

Two Williams Phillips before and two Woodsons now. I’ve featured a letter from a Woodson before, straight out of Charles Robinson’s The Kansas Conflict. The letter appears over Daniel Woodson’s name. The full text:

Westport, November 27th.

Hon. E. A. McClarey, Jefferson City:

Governor Shannon has ordered out the militia against Lawrence. They are now in open rebellion against the laws. Jones is in danger.

(Private.) DEAR GENERAL: The Governor has called out the militia, and you will hereby organize your division, and proceed forthwith to Lecompton. As the Governor has no power, you may call out the Platte Rifle Company. They are always ready to help us. Whatever you do, do not implicate the Governor.

Daniel Woodson

While broadly similar to the letter Brown refers to, this Woodson makes no reference to Yankees in any state of grace. Nor does it seem that he sent multiple letters, but rather one specific missive to a militia officer advising him to call out the Platte County men. I don’t think Robinson above slanting things in the slightest, but this doesn’t quite like quite the letter that Brown meant.

Brown recognized other names. N.R McMurry served as Secretary of the mass meeting. He thought that the same as the Dr. McMurry, who came out from Independence for the Wakarusa War. Colonel James Chiles presided:

Whether this man CHILES, who was President of the meeting, was the man (?) who brutally maltreated Rev. Wm. C. Clark on the Missouri river last autumn, or whether he was the person who joined with others in sending dispatches over the wires during our late war […] we are not informed

For the edification of his readers, Brown reprinted Chiles’ dispatch:

There is no doubt in regard to having a fight, and we all know that a great many have complained because they were disappointed heretofore in regard to a fight. Say to them now is the time to show game, and if we are defeated this time, the Territory is lost to the South.

That Missourians came into Kansas, first temporarily and now perhaps to stay, in order to thwart antislavery Kansans hardly made for breaking news. But by linking Chiles’ and the others’ previous hooliganism to their present enterprise in Emigrant Aid, Brown underlined that they served the same ends. And just what kind of Missourian would come over in such an operation? Would they come as ordinary settlers and then turn against proslavery impositions as others had? Maybe, but what if Chiles’ send his buddies from the Wakarusa War? They came set to kill abolitionists and hardly made for the best prospects at a change of heart.

Which leaves the matter of how Chiles’ maltreated William C. Clark. More on that tomorrow.

The Long Reach of American Fascism

I’ve written before that Donald Trump has a past. He has brought back to the forefront of American politics essentially open advocacy for white supremacy, after decades of white Americans pretending they didn’t have any real problem with black Americans. He has undone, at least for this moment, the work of Lee Atwater and his generation of PR men:

That distinction, and some others, do make the Trump campaign unique. We’ve known for decades that when fascism came to the United States it would come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. They didn’t tell us it would come in orange with a dodgy comb-over, but then fascists have a history of not living up to their own aesthetic standards; the rules apply to other people. Saying fascism would come also implies that we didn’t have it already. It appears, in fact, that Americans invented the ideology, attitude, aesthetic, or whatever thing one considers fascism best called. Before Mussolini’s train ran on time, the Ku Klux Klan crossed the finish line so early we didn’t have a name for it.

Just as we risk missing the forest for the tree in taking Trump as entirely sui generis, so we do the same in taking fascism in isolation. Fascist movements have never, so far as I know, come to power without cooperation from the mainstream right of their countries. That cooperation came come eagerly or with a general sense of disdain, but it does come. Never Trump never came to much. Nor will the ritual denunciations. We can’t know what goes on between an individual and their ballot, but even if all the famous people declaring they’ve changed parties follow through, they have shifted perhaps hundreds of votes. Had enough of them existed to stop Donald Trump from winning the nomination of the mainstream American conservative party, we would have seen it by now.

Trumpism, for all its thuggish bullying, open white supremacy, and admiration of street violence, has precious little but style to distinguish it from past runs for the presidency. I don’t need to dig back into the nineteenth century or root about in the dustbin of history for fringe candidates everybody has agreed, safely after the fact, to hate. If you want bellicose white supremacy in the vein of the murder victim getting what he had coming, take these remarks on the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.

King, you must understand, brought this on himself. By breaking the law to protest segregation, he produced the violent backlash that claimed his life. He ought to have known his place. The author of that statement then occupied no more exalted an office than that of governor, but he would go on to greater things.

Philadelphia, Mississippi has two claims to national fame. In 1964, the Klan, with help from the county sheriff and local police, murdered three civil rights activists there. I imagine that one doesn’t go on the tourist brochures, but it happened all the same. The deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodwin, and Michael Schwermer helped push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress. These laws abridged the power of state governments, particularly in the South, to behave abominably toward African-Americans.

Sixteen years later, a presidential campaign rolled into town. The candidate came fresh off his convention win, inaugurating his general election campaign in Philadelphia. I have no doubt that the people of Philadelphia, then and now, run the gamut just like people everywhere else. They deserve a presidential visit as much as anybody. But towns that even today boast only seven thousand or so people don’t have for national office candidates just drop by; I live in a town of ten thousand and we don’t get that. The campaign chose Philadelphia for a reason, and the man behind the podium made it clear just what they had in mind:

I believe in state’s rights.

I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level.

And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment.

And if I do get the job I’m looking for… (Cheers and applause)

I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.

You don’t give a speech like this in a place like Philadelphia by accident. You do it because you want everyone to know that state’s rights means white power. The speaker didn’t wear a white hood and chant about the Klan getting bigger, but he didn’t need to. When you go to Philadephia, Mississippi and tell the town that murdered civil rights workers and so convinced the nation to pass laws curbing state power to abridge civil rights that you believe in state’s rights, you tell them that you’ve taken their side. You are no partisan for the victims, nor their cause, but the declared ally of their murderers. If elected, you will do all in your power to roll back civil rights and restore white supremacy’s untrammeled rule to its most murderous extent.

The speaker in question? Revered conservative statesman Ronald Reagan. I don’t see many conservatives, or many white Americans in general, willing to denounce him.

The Bylaws of the Kansas Pioneer Association

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

After a good year of outrage at how Emigrant Aid Societies in northern states had paid the way of antislavery settlers to come to Kansas, Missourians had had enough. If Yankees could cheat by subsidizing migration of politically-reliable men, then so could they. At Jackson County court house, they formed the Kansas Pioneer Association and published their plan. Pauper mercenaries could come from near to Kansas territory just as they could from afar.

The KPA’s founders knew they needed more than hopes, dreams, and occasional extralegal violence to make a go of this. Like a good company, they aimed to sell shares and use the proceeds to fund their emigrants. They would take any sum, but if one wanted a say in how the organization operated it would cost you $20. Operations would begin in earnest as soon as they had two thousand dollars lined up. That didn’t mean they would actually have that cash on hand, but rather they would elect officers and a board of directors who could go out and requisition the funds, up to 25% of what one pledged per quarter.

All of this sounds very normal for the time, up to and including language that the Board would have full control of the funds but promised to use them for the declared ends alone, and the founders

further empower said Board to form a connection with other societies or organizations similar to this in their ends and aims, and blend all of the energies and means of this Society with those of such other societies or organizations, upon such terms as they may deem advisable.

Here the Missourians put on paper what had clearly happened informally in the past. The network of Blue Lodges which had powered their state’s previous operations against Kansas seem to have worked on strictly personal connections and mutual understanding. The expenses of boarder ruffianism came out of the pockets of the filibusters themselves and from the large planters of the area on a case-by-case basis. Now they openly declared coordination, which must have come easier for an organization with clearly legal means and ends. Contrary to proslavery protestations, no precedent of law or custom forbade organizations underwriting westward migration. What Eli Thayer could do, they aimed to do better.

“Effrontery Unparalleled!” The Kansas Pioneer Association

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Way back at the dawn of Kansas Territory, in the summer of 1854, most of the white immigrants came in from Missouri. This distinguished them from the usual first wave of white settlement in a new territory not at all. Some of them, as they reveal in their Howard Report testimony, had shifted a jurisdiction westward two or three times before. Whether they moved once or many times, nineteenth century Americans tended to stay at similar latitudes. A fair majority of early Kansans came from Missouri just the same way as early Nebraskans came from Iowa or early Kentuckians had come from Virginia. In Missouri’s not all that black black belt, the Massachusetts, New England, and other Emigrant Aid Societies broke the rules by trying to arrange otherwise. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow averred:

Were these miscalled “emigrants” poor and honest farmers, seeking a home and the advantages of a new country for themselves and families, we might applaud the charity of those who originated the scheme: were these associations fair means of deciding the contest between the friends and opponents of negro-slavery, we might admire the energy of the abolitionists: but when we find these miscalled emigrants really negro-thieves, their purpose not to procure a home in Kansas, but to drive slaveholders therefrom; that they are not freemen, but paupers, who have sold themselves to Ely Thayer & Co., to do their masters’ bidding; who hesitate not to proclaim that they are expert in stealing slaves; that they intend to follow their calling, self-defence requires that means equally active, equally efficient, should be adopted by those who are threatened.

Pauper mercenaries, dirty Hessians by way of New England, justified Stringfellow and Atchison’s Platte County Self-Defensives in breaking some rules of their own. If the Yankees could send on an army, then the South could do the same. Missouri’s army had seized Kansas’ territorial government. It had come bent on destroying Lawrence and narrowly missed the chance. In smaller detachments and with local help, it had lynched and murdered antislavery Kansans.

For the most part, the Missourians who went to Kansas and meant to stay there gravitated toward the antislavery side as their former neighbors increasingly trod all over their sacred right as white men to self-determination. Not all of them did, and the northeastern reaches of the territory remained generally proslavery, but enough found themselves sympathetic to the free state movement to turn out at its elections in numbers much larger than the legal polls saw.

As the winter of 1855-6 receded, thoughts turned to new beginnings. In Missouri and elsewhere in the South, those new beginnings might best come in Kansas. After marking the people of Jackson County as among Missouri’s most zealous proslavery invaders, border ruffians rivaling Platte County’s, the Herald of Freedom noted shared the articles of incorporation for the Kansas Pioneer Association of that county.

The Kansas Pioneers had the “Effrontery Unparalleled!” to declared their

object shall be to forward, encourage and assist, actual pro-slavery emigration to the Territory of Kansas by assisting suitable persons, who may need such aid, in removing into and subsisting in the Territory, and guaranteeing to them the means needful to purchase and pay for their land when it shall come into market.

Thus the border ruffians, who once justified their depredations on the grounds that antislavery Americans cheated by subsidizing settlement of politically-reliable men in Kansas, now proposed to do precisely that themselves. Where once they sent along weapons, if deprived of  necessary pieces to function, the Missourians would now send proslavery people, come to stay.

Pirates of the Missouri

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

We left the story of one hundred guns, two cannons, and the accessories that made them useful with a mob barely fended off and the weaponry handed over to Missourians. George Brown’s Herald of Freedom didn’t leave things end there. He admitted readily that the free state men expected that arsenal to come into their hands. They had an army to equip and feared they might soon face another one. A force of less than two thousand Missourians had brought them near to a ruinous clash only months before and since then, the free state movement had dared new provocations in bringing its constitution into force through the establishment of a separate government for Kansas Territory. With all the martial language flying about, one might expect George Brown to frame this as an enemy action. The opposing force seized a supply shipment, simple enough.

But the free state men remained intensely anxious about their project. They feared a clash with the United States Army, now at Governor Shannon’s disposal. If Franklin Pierce’s appointee, who still considered himself the head of the territorial government and the bogus legislature its legitimate elected body, chose to take their wildcat government as treasonous as the President considered it then they would have scant room to maneuver politically. As such, Brown decided that the time had come to appeal to the everyday facts of law rather than military exigencies:

The case is one of robbery, and if committed within the flow of the tide-water would be piracy. Robbery is defined by Justice Ashurst as “The stealing or taking from the person, or in the presence of another, property of any amount, with such a degree of force or terror as to induce the party unwillingly to part with his property; and this, whether terror arises from real or expected violence to the person.”

In early March of 1856, it seems the Missouri had a piracy problem. The arms smuggler had to sign his consignment over while on board the steamer Arabia, though it does sound like the transaction occurred with the ship tied to a dock. I don’t know if that would technically count as on the water or not, but close enough for titling purposes. The exchange, despite the Kansas Express’ omission of the fact, seems to have taken place under a serious threat. As such, the Missourians had progressed from stealing elections to stealing property. Given they thought an “abolitionized” Kansas would require a great deal of stealing their property, this makes for an ironic turn.

Thus the papers transferring ownership of the shipment

are not worth the paper on which they are written, and only furnish proof, in the hand writing of some of the offenders, of their guilt.

Brown, probably with far more hope than he genuinely felt, expected that a court would soon things to right and punish the guilty parties. If a Missouri jury existed that would convict any of them, it likely would have astonished everybody on either side of the Kansas-Missouri border.

“Only prevented from doing so by force”

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Readers of the March 15 Herald of Freedom could have a good chuckle at the Missourians’ expense. They intercepted a shipment of a hundred rifles and two cannons on board a steamer at Lexington. Reasoning that they ought to oblige free state smugglers, they would forward those arms to Kansas almost as their buyers intended. Rather than coming to Lawrence, Topeka, or some other free Kansas center, the weapons would come into the hands of Wilson Shannon. If he used them against the new free state government, so much the better. But the free state men had the last laugh, as their smuggler had separated the weapons slides and some other necessary equipment from the rest and sent it ahead separately. Shannon would have a useless arsenal.

George Brown had that story in large part from the Lexington Express, which told its readers that everything went on entirely above board. Nobody uttered any threats. No one suffered violent attack. They caught themselves a free state man, but “no indignity was offered to the miserable disorganizer.” His fellow passengers, though “highly incensed” behaved as civilized people.

Or did they? Brown shared more information with his readers than the Express cared to. On discovery of the arms, nineteenth century Americans did one of their favorite things and formed a committee to investigate. During the proceedings,

A proposition was then made that the guns should be thrown overboard, and a stone tied to the necks of those in attendance, and they be sent after the guns. This proposition prevailed, but was afterwards reconsidered on the recommendation of more liberal persons

The Express had it technically right; nobody did anything to the smuggler. But it seems that they very much wanted to and it strains credulity to imagine that no one told him. If it didn’t come out very quickly in the moment, then the threat must have been passed on when the angry passengers got the smuggler alone. “In a private room” they told him

he must sign certain papers, else he would be passed over to a mob on shore.

More liberal persons might not prevail when our smuggler found himself on dry land. Indeed, it seems more liberal persons didn’t want to stay on shore either. While smuggler and passengers discussed the future of his guns, that mob

was on shore endeavoring to get on board, and was only prevented from doing so by force.

The situation quite clear to him, the free state man signed over the weaponry. That made everything quite civil again; the committee even gave a receipt.

How To Find and Avoid History Books

For the most part, history comes in book form. You can learn a lot from good documentaries, recorded lectures, and the like, but the main medium for communicating history remains the bodies of trees. Sorting the good history books from the bad can take some doing. For the most part, I find good ones by figuring out a standard survey text and then digging into the footnotes. My intensive study of nineteenth century America began in the citations of Battle Cry of Freedom. Books that appear often, especially if they’re cited in other good books, usually deserve a look. Over time, one builds up a sense for this sort of thing.

Gentle Readers, mine failed me. I picked up a used copy of Stephen Puleo’s The Caning: The Assault that Drove America to Civil War. It concerns the Brook-Sumner affair, wherein Preston Brooks of South Carolina breaks his gutta-percha cane over the head of Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Sumner was seriously hurt and absent from the Senate for a few years after. I got it a few months back and just had occasion to open it up over the last few days.

Puleo is an engaging writer, sometime you get to appreciate more the more you read academic prose. I probably kept on with him longer than I might otherwise have because of that, but I quit him all the same. This might sound like a silly reason, but I needed the footnotes. Puleo has none. At first I thought he might have declined to annotate the prologue, which mostly involves scene-setting. One must make judgment calls in these things. Then I noticed he would make direct quotes and not note them. The first few chapters came and went without a single number in superscript.

At this point, I had my worries. But books on the caning don’t come around often and his came most recently. I talked myself into continuing for a while longer, though I found myself less and less able to trust him. I don’t know that Puleo wrote anything but good, solid history. His might deserve a place of pride as the standard work on the subject. But given the total lack of footnotes, or even informal indications of where he drew quotes for the most part, I have no way to tell. I enjoy only very limited access to academic journals, but I went looking for reviews all the same. I couldn’t find any, not even to say Puleo had done an awful job and scholars should avoid the book. That did it; I have too many history books I want to read, and which might serve as springboards for further research, to spend more time with this one.

I told you all of that so I could tell you this. There are many ways to find solid histories to read. One of the best, even if you don’t intend to use them as a guide to future research, is to check for footnotes and endnotes. Scholars use, and sometimes misuse, them for professional accountability. Their presence doesn’t mean you’ve got a solid work for sure, but point to at least a serious effort toward one. If something does seem dubious to you, they give you the ability to look it up. Does that quote have ellipses in a place that looks odd? It should be cited and in principle you can go find the original. Absent the notes, who knows what really went on? Maybe everything remained above-board, maybe not. You just don’t know, unless you’ve had the good fortune to have read the same sources and remember them well.

Bad books can have footnotes too, of course. A relative layperson on the subject, a category which often includes your author, might have trouble telling a good footnote from a bad one.  The other signs I look for don’t make for infallible indicators either, or I would just use them, but here are two other ways to know if you likely have a solid history on your hands.

Check the publisher. A well-known university press makes a strong point in favor of a book. Popular presses can and do release good history, even doing peer review, but academic publishers exist for that job. They will still produce poor works now and then, as one must expect from institutions run by humans, but in general one can read with greater confidence.

If you can get the book in hands, or look at an Amazon preview, then you can hopefully flip to the acknowledgements. Every author will thank family members, editors, and the like, but check for archivists and other historians. In the second case, thanks given to big names in the field should carry some extra weight but any known good authority counts for something.

Failing all these, you can try the author blurb. This takes you well into the realm of promotional text, but they rarely lie about the author’s professional affiliations. If they teach at a university, the blurb will surely tell you. If they don’t, then it might say who they studied under and/or list their degree. These don’t count as the strongest indicators, but they beat nothing.

It bears repeating that none of this guarantees finding a solid work, but they do help when it comes time to browse the shelves.