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.


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