The Proslavery Politics of Robert E. Lee: The Testimony of Wesley Norris

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

Gentle Readers, we previously talked about Robert E. Lee’s proslavery views some time back. In revisiting the subject, I want to emphasize that even if Lee preached abolitionism to his dying day he did not make Confederate policy. Nor did his views inform the choice to secede, whether for Virginia or anywhere else, or prove influential when the Confederacy wrote its constitution. Lee gained influence over the Confederacy during the war, serving as its ex officio head of state, but reducing the Confederacy to a creature of his mind and wishes profoundly misunderstands the Civil War.

As people do see the Marble Man as the essence of the Confederate States of America, his views on its cause will keep coming up. Tradition, which routinely trumps history, holds that Lee did not own any slaves himself. This may hold true for Lee at some point in the 1850s, but we know he owned people in his own right as late as 1852 and considered buying more in 1860. He also had control over the slaves he inherited from his father-in-law along with Arlington, whose will required their freedom within five years. Lee took almost all that time to get around to it. In the meantime, he functioned as a slaveholder. For most of it, he also lived at Arlington and managed slaves directly. Tradition paints Lee as a generous, lenient enslaver.

Tradition has not met the acquaintance of R.E. Lee. For the most part, Lee’s arrival at Arlington represented a significant decrease in the quality of life for those that he now enslaved. The future general abandoned the Custis and Washington tradition of respecting slave families, hiring slaves out to distant parts of Virginia. Lee chose to interpret Custis’ will so as to require funding the bequests his father-in-law proscribed in advance of releasing any slaves. He ignored the part where Custis said the bequests should come out of sales of land, rather than the labor or lives of slaves. Fairness demands we note that Custis also made a bit of a mess with his will, referring in it to land he might not have owned and not considering how its provisions might interact with Virginia law. But no force of nature made Lee act as he did, even within its confines. He had five years to keep the Custis slaves and what he did to them or, in the case of freedom, declined to do for them in those five years rightly falls on his shoulders.

Lee’s treatment of the slaves, many of whom seem to have believed with some reason that Custis intended them freed at once upon his death, drove some to steal their bodies from the estate. One of them left behind testimony of the affair. I quote it in full:

My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Custis; after the death of Mr. Custis, Gen. Lee, who had been made executor of the estate, assumed control of the slaves, in number about seventy; it was the general impression among the slaves of Mr. Custis that on his death they should be forever free; in fact this statement had been made to them by Mr. C. years before; at his death we were informed by Gen. Lee that by the conditions of the will we must remain slaves for five years; I remained with Gen. Lee for about seventeen months, when my sister Mary, a cousin of ours, and I determined to run away, which we did in the year 1859; we had already reached Westminster, in Maryland, on our way to the North, when we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done. After this my cousin and myself were sent to Hanover Court-House jail, my sister being sent to Richmond to an agent to be hired; we remained in jail about a week, when we were sent to Nelson county, where we were hired out by Gen. Lee’s agent to work on the Orange and Alexander railroad; we remained thus employed for about seven months, and were then sent to Alabama, and put to work on what is known as the Northeastern railroad; in January, 1863, we were sent to Richmond, from which place I finally made my escape through the rebel lines to freedom; I have nothing further to say; what I have stated is true in every particular, and I can at any time bring at least a dozen witnesses, both white and black, to substantiate my statements: I am at present employed by the Government; and am at work in the National Cemetary on Arlington Heights, where I can be found by those who desire further particulars; my sister referred to is at present employed by the French Minister at Washington, and will confirm my statement.

Lee partisans have insisted that Norris invented all of this. They call him an embittered ex-slave trying to libel the reputation of a great and good man, or else a simpleton used by the abolitionist press to do the same. Norris’ words do come to us through a white reporter and appear in an abolitionist newspaper. However, Elizabeth Brown Pryor looked into the case while researching Reading the Man. As she puts it, “all of its facts are verifiable.”

Let’s walk through that. No one contests Norris’ status as a Custis slave. Lee hired him out, away from friends and family. Shortly before Norris, his sister, and their cousin fled Arlington, Lee answered resistant slaves by “overpower[ing]” them. Lee could have a heavy hand with people he believed of similar worth to his own, as he demonstrated in his years as West Point’s martinet commander. With slaves, he quickly exhausted any tolerance he might have had for challenges to his authority.

While some papers ran exaggerated stories that had Lee seize the whip and lash a girl himself, Norris’ version lacks that detail. Nor does he depart from straight, matter of fact recounting of events. They left Arlington after seventeen months, just as Norris says. He has the right number of slaves at Arlington and correctly names his jailer and place of capture. He probably has the overseer right too, naming him Mr. Gwin when the man rendered it himself as McQuinn. The two names sound similar enough and Norris probably only ever heard it spoken. He similarly omits the Washington from George Washington Parke Custis’ name. we know that Arlington had a whipping post and an eyewitness confirms the use of brine to salt the sounds of Lee’s victims.

Norris even has the constable’s name right. A Dick Williams appears in Lee’s account book, where the general-to-be notes “to Richard Williams, arrest, &c of fugitive slaves-$321.14”. Pryor puts that number in context:

The sum, which did not include transport of the slaves to Hanover County-Lee paid another $50.53 for that-is exceptionally large. We know that Lee’s standard reward for returning runaways was ten dollars per slave. The previous year, Lee’s accounts show that he paid Williams only $57.25 to arrest and detain three other fugitives, and another $37.12 to transport them to Richmond. The costs for the earlier capture had also been inflated by the need to keep them in jail two months. The services rendered by Williams in relation to the Norris party must have been extraordinary to command a fee nearly six times as high as those paid the year before.

Lee’s father-in-law spent his money freely. Lee did not and, given his intense interest in the estate’s finances, likely would not have made an exception here. Williams did something to get all that extra cash. The local constabulary did hire out its services for slave discipline, so the “&c” would reasonably include it. The sort of harsh punishment that a slave overseer refused to apply sounds like the kind of thing one would charge more for. Whether the number of lashes, the brine, or the trouble of having Lee watch as he worked might have inspired Williams to charge more, or Lee to give more in expectation of it. Any other explanation seems less probable and more out of character for Lee.

By the time Norris talked to the paper, he had little to fear from Lee or gain from unfairly tarring him. Slavery, for himself and four million other black Americans, had gone. As he has so many particulars right, I see no fair reason to doubt him except a prior commitment, facts be damned, to Lee’s virtue or the singular perfidy of black Americans.

Lee denied it anyway, albeit in vague and summary terms. He declined to over more than a blanket dismissal. Given Lee knew just what had happened, and what he wrote in his ledger, and what he had in fact done, we can’t credit his denial as we can Norris’ story. He might simply have lied. Pryor relates elsewhere that after the war he undertook an effort to rehabilitate the Confederacy, though it came to little, and encouraged others to do the same with more success. He also told a Congressional committee that he believed in gradual emancipation and always had. The Lee of the 1850s would hardly have agreed, unless we consider upon divine intervention as gradual as the twenty or so years typical of actual, enacted plans of emancipation.

Or Lee might have objected to some small part of the content. Pryor speculates that the version of the story where Lee loses control of himself, seizes the whip, and goes to town himself might have crossed a line. Lee prided himself on self-control. For the word to get out that he had lost his temper, true or not, would demean Lee in his own eyes. Gentlemen did not throw decorum to the winds and take bloody vengeance on inferiors. They employed people of a lower class for that work. Even if he had, and I stress that the part where Lee takes the whip for himself has the least credibility and it makes no sense for Norris to include all he had and omit that one element, Lee would likely have understood the claim as a singular, egregious attack upon himself. The rest might easily have fallen out of mind as an ordinary part of his day, as normal and unremarkable we find putting our shoes on or the daily commute.

Either way, by the ordinary standards of historical inquiry we can’t credit Lee’s denial more than Norris’ testimony. The evidence firmly supports the enslaved, not his enslaver. We do no injustice to Lee to believe it so. Rather, knowing all we do, we would wrong Wesley Norris to think otherwise.

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“Many an abolition bone will be bleechen in the sun” The Proslavery Version of Jones’ Shooting, Part One

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

Update: The Squatter Sovereign does have its own version of the story, which I looked right at and missed. Sorry.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time on how the free state people of Lawrence understood Samuel Jones’ shooting, almost certainly by one of their own, on April 23, 1856. But Kansas had two parties, one of which liked to operate across the Missouri line as well. The Squatter Sovereign reported on Jones’ shooting in its April 29 issue. John Stringfellow and Robert Kelley’s paper didn’t bother with their own version of events, instead relying on the Weston Argus of April 25. Under the headline “WAR IN KANSAS,” the Argus informed its readers that “[t]he traitors of Kansas, are again under arms.”

We imagine that fields of conflagration and carnage fumes of sulphur and blood, will rise before the fantastic vision and salute the acute olfactories of a few deluded fanatics, (or rather, we should say, scoundrels and hypocrits,) on reading the above caption. The howl of fanaticism, the cant of hypocracy, will again sweep over the country. […] But this time it was not the “Border Ruffians,” whose footsteps on the virgin soil of Kansas, were so lately marked by “blood, rapine, and murder,” that are called upon. No: the United States troops, “who keep step to the music of the Union,” are to deal with these lords of humanity.

The invocation of the military looks forward and backward simultaneously. Soldiers had gone into Lawrence with Jones. Might they go in again? The Argus clearly thinks they ought to, as its version of events works hard to incriminate the entire antislavery movement:

Ex-Governor Reeder, on his arrival at Lawrence, obeying the instructions of Seward, Banks, & Co., summoning all the courage of his dastardly soul, harrangued the fanatics of that place, counceling resistance to the civil authorities, to disregard the laws of the Territory, and place themselves in open rebellion!

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

Senator William H. Seward (R-NY)

Reading that, you’d think that William Seward and Nathaniel Banks put out a hit on Jones. The Argus doesn’t say so, but it draws a clear connection between national and Kansas-based antislavery, with the national movement calling the shots. One could get the idea that nobody in Kansas objected to all the election irregularities and violence until some Yankees poured poison in their ears.

Only after Reeder’s rabble-rousing, the Argus would have us know, did Jones enter Lawrence. He came to arrest Wood and company not for the rescue of Branson, but rather because they had stolen some poll books. This may have surprised Wood and Jones both. On reading it I did some investigating, but found only references to the Branson rescue. That said, the Argus implicated the Speaker of the House and Kansas free state Senator. To this point, it had entirely neglected to connect another antislavery leader to the shooting. Time to remedy that:

On the arrival of Mr. Jones in Lawrence, Robinson, the California murderer, counselled them to resist, and there deluded individuals accordingly refused to accompany Mr. Jones.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

My other accounts don’t mention Robinson as a decisive factor here, but if Wood and company asked advice of him he would have surely told them to resist. I’m afraid I haven’t found anything on the idea that Robinson killed someone in California.

Faced with resistance, the Argus told its readers that Jones sought military aid from Wilson Shannon, which he did. The paper observed that Lawrence’s “shivalrous gentlemen-shivalrous at a distance” may have cause to thank the governor. Shannon called out the army rather than “the malitia” for

if the stern yeomanry of Kansas Territory, are again called upon to leave their fields and families and march to Lawrence, to crush out treason and rebellion, it will be no child’s play. As much as they dislike to shed the blood of those who claim to be American citizens, we warn them now, that in the last resort, many an abolition bone will be bleechen in the sun and many a traitor’s carcass will be suspended between heaven and earth.

A small note on spelling here, Gentle Readers: I customarily render quotes as they appear in my copy, including unusual nineteenth century spellings. The Argus has more eccentric spelling than most.

 

Governor Robinson Explains the Jones Shooting

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Lawrence Responds: parts 1, 2, 3, 4

The free state governor, Charles Robinson, lived in Lawrence. When he addressed the mass meeting condemning the shooting of Samuel Jones, Robinson spoke to the people in the room on the morning of April 24, 1856. He also addressed the Howard Committee, whether members attended or not; they had come to town only days prior. Beyond that, he surely knew that his words would go out in the Herald of Freedom and so reach the wider nation. Some of his prevarication makes sense only in that light. No one actually in Lawrence in the previous few days would believe that that Jones had received a placid, largely compliant reception. Men seized the sheriff, took his pistol from him, and helped the men he came to arrest escape. Jones in turn introduced the United States Army, in the persons of a squad of dragoons, into Lawrence with a credible claim that he required their protection to do his job.

Robinson needed a version of events which condemned the shooter, essential to the largely non-violent reputation of his movement, and exculpated Lawrence in general. He hit on the obvious idea, which he claimed he had learned the facts supported, that proslavery men planned everything in advance to discredit the antislavery cause. He had circumstantial evidence of something similar happening back in the Wakarusa War, but he offered no specific information about the latest Jones affair. Instead, he argued that in the great battle between slavery and freedom, one life counted for little. If proslavery men made him a martyr, Robinson accepted that fate in the name of his cause. Jones might have done the same, or taken a bullet from someone who made the choice for him:

If the slave power of this country, in order to possess this Territory, required that Mr. Jones should lay down his life, or be exposed to the shots of his friends, then Mr. Jones must expose his life, then those shots must be fired.

Proslavery Americans did occasionally kill their own to defend slavery, but usually only those they suspected of breaking ranks. Far more often then murdered enemies they imagined as outsiders: Yankee missionaries, immigrants, and above all the slaves themselves. Robinson’s explanation might not hold water, but it does speak to the inherently violent nature of a slaveholding society. The enslaved do not accept their station, but rather the enslavers force it upon them in an unending struggle of domination. That form of governance, so much a feature of everyday life, seems all the more natural for its ubiquity. Why wouldn’t it eventually apply to white men too?

If one didn’t believe that, one could loop back to Robinson’s invocation of war. The Governor had a record as the less violent of the prominent free state men. He counselled peace and reflection to the point of tedium. But he had come to accept martial trappings through his leadership role in the Kansas Legion. In taking office as governor, he advocated the formation of an official free state militia. In wars, people die. Leaders sacrifice the lives of their soldiers to achieve larger goals, which the soldiers agreed to when they signed on. Jones might not have rushed to make himself a martyr, but in the military framework Robinson sketched out the sheriff might plausibly have put himself into such a situation.

And if one didn’t believe that, then Robinson suggested the $500 reward from free state funds that the meeting adopted. Would he really hazard paying out good antislavery dollars to convict one of their own? He can’t have known, though he may have suspected, that posterity would never quite figure out who shot Jones.

 

Charles Robinson on the Jones Shooting

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Lawrence Responds: parts 1, 2, 3, 4

We left Lawrence resolved to look seriously into who shot Sheriff Samuel Jones in the back on the night of April 23, 1856. They might have even meant it, regardless of how many free state people in the town believed Jones deserved a good shooting. On behalf of the free state government, Charles Robinson offered a $500 reward for the arrest of the guilty party. After Andrew Reeder’s speech and the resolutions, he answered the loud call to speak to the public meeting. I don’t mean to go over his speech in fine detail, but it deserves a look.

The free state Governor began on a less than conciliatory note:

We are engaged in a sort of warfare, in this State of Kansas, but it is an honorable warfare on our part, and will will never, as individuals, as a community, or as a party let ourselves down from an honorable position; we will never change ourselves from honorable enemies, to cowardly assassins. No honorable man could justify any such course.

Robinson had spoken of war before, but to do so now strikes an especially radical note.

Hugh Cameron

Hugh Cameron

These words also have more than a hint of aspiration about them. Robinson hewed to the line that someone had put this whole situation up to discredit his movement, just as he affirmed that the Wakarusa War back in November and December had resulted from proslavery scheming. He didn’t make that connection gratuitously or entirely without basis in fact. The gloriously hirsute Hugh Cameron appears to have gotten his justice of the peace commission in exchange for warrants to arrest Jacob Branson’s rescuers. Whether the inciting events came from a plot or not, Jones himself might well have gotten Wilson Shannon to make it one. Jones came back to Lawrence at the start of the late troubles to arrest Samuel Wood, the leader of Branson’s rescuers. One needn’t be a free state partisan to connect those dots.

All the same, Governor Robinson determined to get to the bottom of things. He told the crowd that he had looked into things himself and found, so far as he could determine, a proslavery plot. But since “[w]e all understand this” Robinson felt no need to “go into particulars.” The Governor then recapped the Wakarusa War anyway. Politicians always love the sound of their own voices, but Robinson had a particular audience in mind: the Howard Committee.

A committee comes here from Washington to investigate this matter, and see how we have been treated; to see who are the oppressed, who are the wronged; to see who are in the right. The very moment they plant their feet upon the soil of Kansas, that moment these outrages begin to be fomented. Everything has been quiet up to that moment.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

This, as I have mentioned before, doesn’t quite stand scrutiny. Jones came to Lawrence at essentially the first opportunity on news of Wood’s return from Ohio. Robinson must have known better. A man of his stature in Lawrence would have had the news of an important free state arrival, from the Herald of Freedom if nothing else. The free state Governor follows up an at least misleading statement with a likely outright lie:

The people treated him civilly, so far as I know. I never happened to meet him, but I have learned of no commotion. There has been some little excitement, perhaps, but the community generally have been willing to let him goon and make his arrests.

Robinson can’t have expected that to fool anybody with the denial and the doubletalk about excitement. Something happened, but trust him it didn’t really count. Ok? It strains credulity to imagine that he didn’t know Jones’ foes resisted him to the point of violence. He passes all of that off as “[s]ome individuals” refusing arrest. And anyway, whatever happened no one could pin it on Charles Robinson. He took the opportunity to note that he

happened to be out of town last evening, and I suppose I shall not be charge with the offence committed then.

 

Investigation and a Reward: Lawrence Responds to the Jones Shooting, Part Four

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left the standing room only mass meeting on the morning of April 24, 1856 passing the resolutions that such gatherings always produced. The people of Lawrence had little love for Samuel Jones, Sheriff of Douglas County, but they wanted everyone to understand that they hadn’t conspired to shoot him dead. Quite the opposite, they regarded his shooting as an attack upon them. Some miscreant put two bullets through their reputation, as well as the proslavery sheriff. Whatever went on between Jones and Lawrence, it did not justify attempted murder in cold blood. If they found out who did it, they would gladly turn the shooter over to the proper authorities.

But they did bury that commitment in qualifiers. “If possible” they would turn over the guilty party, if they found him and if they followed through. Lawrence had shielded fugitives from justice before and tipped them off when the law came. Would the good people of the town really break precedent on behalf of so infamous a villain as Jones?

G.P. Lowery must have expected people to ask those questions, as his final resolution promises more than words:

a committee of five shall be appointed whose duty it shall be to investigate the circumstances connected with this deplorable occurrence, and, if possible, to ferret out the guilty agent; and we pledge ourselves that, although no responsible as a community for this act of a depraved individual, we will use our best efforts to show to the world that we have no sympathy for crime in any shape, and are prepared to treat the perpetrators with that stern justice which shall not stop to inquire whether they are friends or foe.

Maybe they meant every word of that. Probably no one in Lawrence wanted to bear responsibility for the shooting, collectively or individually. The committee of five, Lowery, G.W. Deitzler, James F. Legate, Norman Allan, and Samuel Sutherland, did go to work, “busily.” on the question. The Herald of Freedom includes a request from them for people to come forward with information. If that didn’t suffice, the meeting added a unanimous resolution, in addition to the previous, that the free state government would give a reward of $500 “for the apprehension and conviction” of the shooter.

Sixteen decades later, we still have no idea who shot Samuel Jones that night. That doesn’t mean the committee didn’t take its job seriously. The preservation of Lawrence and the antislavery cause could easily have outweighed the loss of one hothead. But they may have also found Lawrence generally disinclined to name names. The shooter could also have left town before the public meeting convened, opting not to take his chances.

 

Recent Reading (Septemeber-October 2016)

Gentle Readers, I feel like a tour of the bookshelf wouldn’t hurt. We left off back in August, where I had just finished Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. Since then, many pages have flown, and occasionally crawled, by.

I followed up Foner with Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Berlin made for a complicated, occasionally confusing, but valuable read. He does what he says in the title, taking us from the first enslaved arrivals to about 1800. He further does so in a regional format, separating out the Mississippi Valley, the Lower South, the Upper South, and the North for individual treatment. Berlin breaks each down into a rough sequence of generations, around which he organizes the book. The generation format proved very helpful in charting both regional differences and development over time. Berlin’s Mississippi Valley rushes through the tentative states of feeling out a slave system into an early plantation boom, which then falls apart in the face of a large slave revolt and only re-emerges as a slave society toward the end of the book. His North looks at first like it will always have only marginal slavery, only to ramp up and begin to resemble the South in the middle of the eighteenth century. It may have gone all the way, but the Revolution intervened and cut off the supply of new slaves. The Upper and Lower South chart more familiar courses, but distinguish themselves meaningfully toward the end where the less numerous free people of color in the Lower South, largely concentrated in cities, develop into something like a distinct class between black and white. In the Upper South, freedpeople find themselves instead forced to stay at the bottom with the slaves.

All of this makes for many moving parts. In doing so, it helpfully complicates a picture of slavery necessarily oriented more toward the mature late Antebellum system. The generalities largely hold, but highlighting the exceptions and nuances gives a far deeper understanding of just how slavery functioned with the constant tension between enslaver and enslaved. Berlin’s use of the term negotiation for that raised my eyebrows. He considers it problematic himself, taking pains to stress that the enslavers hold all the cards and he means nothing like a negotiation between equals. Berlin’s meaning becomes clear easily enough, all the same. The enslaved constantly want to exert control over their lives, protect their families, and secure what safety and prosperity they can. Enslavers want to eradicate that control and completely reduce their human property to the status of livestock, but the practical inability to govern or supervise every second of their lives makes that quest impossible. Looking at slavery like that does not minimize its cruelty, but does stress how real people with conflicting goals pushed against one another (and the enslaved almost always lose, but make important gains on the margins) in a constant dynamic rather than a static system of dominance.

From Berlin, I set into Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. Gentle Readers, I did not think I could like Lee much less than I did before I started. Pryor showed me otherwise. Please don’t read this as suggesting she wrote a hit piece. Frequently Pryor shows remarkable sympathy for her subject. His endless career frustrations and time spent away from his family clearly weigh on him. He has obvious talents as an engineer that often go neglected or wasted. He encourages loved ones to avoid the military and thus the mistakes he made. But Lee also has a petty side. His West Point cadets knew him as a martinet. He could do little for his friends, while expecting them to do much for him. He only dislikes slavery because he finds managing slaves disinclined to obey him and doubles-down on the cruelty as a remedy.

Pryor wrote a good, important work. One comes out the end of it with a much stronger understanding of Lee the man. But her format works against her on occasion. She insisted she would not write a biography, but then essentially did. Each chapter begins with a letter from or to Lee, usually in full. Sometimes full exchanges see print. They proceed in rough chronological order through his life. She does her best to make each chapter’s biographical essay and analysis about its own distinct subject, but they inevitably blend together. I might have had an easier time with it if she went with more standard thematic chapters, though it would come at the cost of understanding the arc of the Marble Man’s life. Given I don’t intend to read any other Lee biography, I can’t complain too much.

About halfway through Pryor, an acquaintance suggested that the two of us read Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 together. I happily agreed, even breaking with my usual practice to write real reading notes on each chapter. The book deserves all the praise it gets, though I feel Foner regrettably neglected to integrate the widespread violence into the story as much as he might have. Foner’s admiration of and inspiration by the twentieth century Civil Rights movement shines through on every page, to the point where one could slip and forget that politics happened as much or more with bullets, rope, whips, fists, flesh, blood, and terror as with ballot boxes and elected officials. I doubt Foner himself would write it that way today; he stresses the violence more in recent lectures he’s given. At some point I intend to revisit the era through more recent works that do highlight the violence more.

After Foner, I finished Pryor and then went on to Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War by Michael Morrison. I went into Morrison expecting largely old news, given how my studies for the blog have gone. Sure enough, I found parts where he reiterated things I already knew for pages on end. It happens to everybody once you start reading in depth about a subject. But Morrison brought an attention to party politics to bear that turned a theme of previous works into the dominant narrative thread. Doing so linked together more firmly many things I knew in general, particularly with regard to the breaking of the Democracy. That kind of history has gone somewhat out of fashion, for many good reasons, but getting a fresh dose of it proved extremely helpful to me.

Skipping ahead a few books, we come to River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson. After multiple books about white politics, I wanted something with a stronger slavery focus. Johnson delivered. His book concerns itself deeply with slavery, including frequent quotations from slave narratives. These form the center of the book, but on a broader level Johnson asks an unusual question. Most antebellum surveys begin at Sumter and work backwards. We know what happened, so how did we get there? Johnson focuses far more on on the world of possibilities open to the Mississippi Valley enslavers. He asks not what they seceded from, but rather what they hoped to secede to. Secession, while clearly the most important of the dreams they contemplated, comes at the end of a forest of options.

Of those, Johnson focuses the most on filibustering. That focus got me to read the book, as few historians treat filibustering as more than a sideshow. In doing so, Johnson paints a Deep South that has filled up as far as many of its boosters think it can manage. They need more something or the rising price of slaves means that white solidarity may soon crack as disgruntled nonslaveholders realize their economic mobility will never come. The Mississippi Valley defined itself on the move, improvising, expanding, lying, cheating, exploiting with no end in sight. But the might have dome to an end after all. Filibusters might open up new horizons once more. Poor whites could move to virgin land and buy slaves to work it. New Orleans merchants fretting over the railroad redirecting trade could look forward to a Caribbean empire centered on their port. Like Berlin, Johnson has a keen eye for the dynamism of the systems in play. He also has a keen appreciation for irony and symbolism. Nor, in all of that, does he for a moment let you forget that he talks about the dirty business of real lives spent for money; no amount of literary flourish obscures how Johnson writes about a world filled with horrors.

I’m on a podcast! Again!

Gentle Readers, the second half of my episode of the AskHistorians Podcast released yesterday. It picks up right where the first left off. About halfway through we get into new territory, shooting past Felix Zollicoffer and into the break-up of the Democratic party. We finish out in April, 1861. Listening back to it, I can tell that my voice was failing but I had a ball all the same.

Corrections

  • The first time I mentioned Polk’s election, I said it was in 1846. It’s 1844, as I said on later occasions.
  • Houston and Bell both concerned themselves with the issue of displacing Indians, but Houston somewhat more so. Bell expected the Indians to go off west and quietly die for us. Houston held out hope they could be assimilated.
  • Celia killed her owner with a hefty stick, not a fireplace shovel. She burned her owner in her fireplace, crushed the bones she could, and got his grandson to scatter the ashes outside for her. The bones she couldn’t crush she hid under the fireplace.
  • South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, not December 21.

Addition: Franklin Pierce’s wife is Jane Appleton. I forgot her name in the moment.

Now what’s the appropriate time to wait and give others a chance before I pitch an episode again?

Resolutions: Lawrence Responds to the Jones Shooting, Part Three

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Parts 1, 2

Andrew Reeder continued his speech to the Lawrence meeting by abandoning the pretense that no one knew just who had shot Sheriff Jones the day before. He pointed to all the sympathy and respect they had gained in the free states by eschewing violence. Would they throw all of that away? In a political environment where antislavery Americans had seen far more vilification than their proslavery opposites, in North and South alike, he had a point. Things had gotten progressively better for them in the North since around 1848, and especially since 1854, but that shift could reverse at any time. A collision with the United States government would surely remind Americans of the recent era when they saw opposition to slavery as tending toward disunion. Shooting Jones might not have done that, but had the bullet found a United States dragoon it might have done the trick. So might an open insurrection.

Reeder made it clear that he said not a word of this out of any love of Jones or his politics, but he continued on the theme for another column and change in the Herald of Freedom. Along the way, he reminded the people of Lawrence of most of what had happened in Kansas in the past two years. According to the paper, he frequently had to stop for applause. But then the meeting had business to get to. You didn’t hold a mass meeting in the nineteenth century without some resolutions to put the assembly on the record. G.P. Lowery had a set prepared:

the attempt made in our town last evening upon the life of S.J. Jones, Esq., whilst claiming to act as the Sheriff of the county, was the isolated act of some malicious and evil-disposed individual, unexpected and unlooked for by our community, and unsustained by any portion of them.

Isolated and unexpected, maybe. Lowery probably could have found plenty of people in the room that morning who believed Jones had it coming and didn’t feel any guilt about his shooting. They might fear the dangerous consequences to the town, but can’t have shed many tears for Jones. Thus the second resolution:

notwithstanding the unpleasant relation which existed between Mr. Jones and our citizens, if the attack could have been foreseen or considered at all probable, we would have neglected no means to prevent or defeat it; we deeply sympathize with the wounded man, and will afford him all the aid and comfort of our power.

They probably would have. Even when proslavery armies nearly surrounded Lawrence, the leadership worked to avoid a pitched battle. As that work involved restraining hotheads within their own ranks, who didn’t much care for how the proslavery men took potshots at them, we know that sentiment didn’t touch every heart.

we deeply regret that the perpetrator of this deed is unknown; and if known to us, we would unhesitatingly expose and denounce him as the criminal

and

it is due to the reputation of our town, and loudly demanded by the deep and universal indignation which pervades our community, that the guilty author should, if possible, be sought out and surrendered to justice

These resolutions promise a great deal and nothing at all. They would expose and denounce the shooter, if they knew him, and hand him over for justice, if they could find him. Maybe they would, but Lawrence had previously ensured fugitives from the law in their community got enough advance warning to escape capture. They did it for Jacob Branson and Samuel Wood in December. They did the same for the men who helped Wood escape only days before. Indignation, deep and universal, only went so far.

 

 

Driving Out the Demon: Lawrence Responds to the Jones Shooting, Part Two

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

When someone shot Sheriff Samuel Jones in Lawrence, unofficial headquarters of Kansas’ free state movement, the people of Lawrence knew they had a real problem on their hands. Back in December, Jones had tried to destroy the town over a far less personal affront. He came to Lawrence on April 23 as a result of those prior proceedings, to arrest men who had prevented his arrest of the leading figure in his last indignity, Samuel Wood. Whoever pulled the trigger, the wrath would fall on the whole town. Maybe they couldn’t prevent that, but they tried. At a mass meeting the morning after the shooting, Andrew Reeder told the town that the attack on Jones constituted an attack on them as well. They had tried to work within the system. This broke that precedent, which alone stood between them and violence.

Proceeding on that theme, Reeder held that 

The sincere and heart-felt sympathy that they [Lawrence] have always had, has been given because they were always in the right -that blood upon our soil, that cried for vengeance, has been that of our friends- that those whose hands have been stained by murder and assassinations have been our enemies and oppressors- It was a matter of pride and congratulation, that in our ranks were men who denounced crime, murder, and assassination, though they were ready and willing, on all occasions, to shed their blood for their political rights

Virtuous Lawrence could have nothing to do with the shooting. It did not represent them, but some other people of lower character. Communities tell themselves this sort of thing whenever some violence erupts, outsourcing their dearest sins to some foreign foe. In exchange for that charity, we ask only that everyone believe it. Our wrongs belong not to us, but someone else. You can hear it whenever we have a mass shooting or act of white terrorism.

Reeder then reminded Lawrence that he had stood to vindicate free Kansas before. Back in December, when the telegraph carried the proslavery line, Reeder defended them in Washington. He didn’t know better at the time, but did it because he knew the character of the free state men. “Subsequent events” proved him right, not prior knowledge. What held true once would hold true again. Or would it?

An entirely new phrase has come over the state of things. The demon of murder, blood-shed and crime seems to be struggling to get out of the ranks of the enemy and enter ours-to enter this paradise to poison the foundations that underlay the reputation of the Free State party, of staining the flag of freedom, blackening our character, and undermining our cause. In God’s name, let it be driven out, and keep our banner unstained.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Officially, either no one knew who shot Jones or some proslavery person did it. Maybe some in Lawrence believed that, but they can’t have numbered many. Reeder’s phrasing reveals what most everyone knew. He might say that the demon of murder struggled to get into their ranks, but he goes on to say they need to drive it out. One can’t drive out something not yet in. His appeals to the good name of the free state party speak further to the point. They wouldn’t sway a proslavery man in the audience, but might induce a murderous free state partisan to keep further bullets to himself. Nor would a proslavery listener have cared much for how

The blood of your brothers have cried from the soil for vengeance.

Nothing in this makes sense in light of an external foe. Reeder, and everyone else, knew someone on their side had shot Jones. They had that demon of murder not struggling to get in, but already within them.

Lawrence Responds to the Jones Shooting, Part One

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Twenty-five years later, John Speer and Samuel Jones could have a nice chat about the time Jones got shot. Speer wanted to know if Jones thought he did it. Jones reassured him otherwise. They slap each other on the back, talk about the crazy old days, and part as friends. At the time, neither Jones nor the people at Lawrence had that sort of detachment. The town had paid before for Jones’ mere frustrations, coming near to destruction. The sheriff had few fans, but fewer still wanted the violent wrath of proslavery Kansas and Missouri to descend upon them. The Herald of Freedom flatly denied that any antislavery man fired the shot and insisted more plausibly that

the public sentiment of this city condemns, in unmeasured terms, the assassination. No sympathy exists for the men who thus violently undertook to deprive Jones of his life. Not that there is any particular love for him-for he is hated as cordially as it is possible for men to hate a scoundrel-but there is a love of Order, of Law, of Justice and Peace in our people-and murder and outrage, assassination and brutality, meet with a prompt and unqualified condemnation, by whoever perpetrated.

One can hate a person a great deal and not want them dead, fair enough. George Washington Brown went on in that theme for a while, inveighing against “the Border Ruffian party” for “this last stroke of villainy?” What evil would prove too much for them? The next evil firmly in mind, Brown declared that no one could hold Lawrence responsible. The townspeople had nothing to do with the shooting except the misfortune of living near to it. Furthermore, they disavowed the shooting “immediately and unanimously” and condemned it “in the strongest terms.”

For proof of all that, the paper printed the proceedings of a public meeting. Jones caught his bullet around ten on the night of April 23, 1856. The next morning notice went out for the citizenry to meet in the hall over Faxon’s store, twelve and a half hours after the attack. The Herald reports a packed room, which elected Andrew Reeder to the chair. Reeder then gave a speech. Kansas first governor and latest would-be free state senator condemned the shooting as

an outrage on the individuals of this town, upon the public sentiment and reputation of the town, and a still greater outrage upon our cause. That cause was one which sought no aid or countenance at the hands of assassins, for it was too holy, too strong, and too just to need such assistance.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Self-involved or not, Reeder opened up on reasonable enough grounds. No one in Lawrence could change what happened to Jones. They had to worry about what would happen to them. Reeder proclaimed that the free state party

wanted the help of the Lord, and not the devil; the help of honest, well meaning men, not of murderers and assassins; the help of orderly, law-abiding, though determined men, and not of outlaws and murders. They wanted the sympathies of their friends in the Free States, who have stood up and justified them, and that sympathy they must obtain by pursuing such a course as would not give any one cause to charge them with wrongdoing and injustice.

One can read this as a piece of political propaganda and not go wrong. What Reeder said, he said for public consumption. He calls out the audience abroad in the free states as well as those in Lawrence that April morning. But this also sends a message to whoever did shoot Jones: You have put us in danger, not helped. It further honestly states the free state strategy. They did not want, and honestly feared, armed conflict. They had militias for self-defense and may have burned proslavery houses, but in the main they adopted a peaceable and careful strategy of circumspection. Even after they established their own government, they voted not to enact any laws until they had approval from Congress. At almost every turn, men like Reeder, Charles Robinson, and James Lane tried to work within the American, if not the Kansan, system.