John Speer and Samuel Jones Reminisce

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

On the night of April 23, 1856 Sheriff Samuel Jones caught two bullets. The first passed through his pants. The second took a detour through him. The men he came to Lawrence to arrest must fall under suspicion, as they had a better reason to want Jones gone than anybody. Furthermore, everyone Jones had come into Lawrence to take had a history of violence against him. He first sought the just-returned Samuel Wood, who had let an armed band against Jones to rescue Jacob Branson. The sheriff assembled his second slate of victims from those men who seized him and prevented his arrest of Wood by main force.

We don’t know who fired the shot. Anybody might have done it; Jones had made enemies of any who lived through the siege back in December. But if you want to narrow it down, then the men Jones came back to arrest make a fair group of suspects. Fleeing down during the day didn’t preclude a nighttime return to ventilate Jones. Jones deputy thought John Speer might have pulled the trigger. He might have visited the homes of everyone in the group, but Speer wrote his story down.

Jones and Speer both survived Kansas. Twenty-five years later, they met up again. Jones had gone to Texas and then on to Arizona, where he would die. But he came back to Kansas at least once, visiting Leavenworth. There he saw a man he recognized at Planter’s House:

“Is not this Mr. Speer?” He was Sheriff Jones. we passed out onto the veranda, and had a long and pleasant talk over old times. I asked him if he ever imagined it possible I could have had anything to do with the attempt on his life. Most emphatically he replied: “No. I always recognized you as a gentleman; and that was a dastardly attempt at assassination. With pleasant memories, and hearty congratulations, we parted, never to meet again.

I don’t know from being shot, thank you, but I did have my wrist remodeled in a violent clash many years ago. I remember the event quite well. Though the perpetrators suffered no more than a questioning by the school principal, I put a fair bit of effort into working out just what happened. I can’t imagine Jones got shot and didn’t devote at least some energy to the question down the years. He might have excused Speer or dismissed vague suspicions in the name of politeness, but would he have done so for a man he strongly suspected had put the bullet in him? Probably not.


David Wong, Roger Taney, and Donald Trump

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

Sorry for the late post, Gentle Readers. I felt quite unwell during my normal writing time.

Ever since Donald Trump became the nominee-presumptive of the Republican Party, the media have treated us to a stream of pieces on how we must understand his supporters. They may have picked a narcissist and clown straight out of interwar Italian politics, but we need to look on them with empathy. In principle, I agree wholeheartedly. I deal regularly with people who have done worse still, though they do have the good decency to have put themselves out of our misery. Future historians will probably feel much the same about the Trump movement.

You can’t get around it. To actually understand what drives people, especially people with politics you loath, you need to treat them as rational and sensible as anybody else. Calling them dupes or fools as much removes their agency and reduces them to a stereotype one may loathe with ease but comprehend not at all. You end up like Samuel Cartwright, explaining slave resistance as a form of mental illness. What holds true for slaves also holds true for slaveholders, though historians have traditionally had far less trouble emphasizing with them than their victims. Aside from a few black historians and radicals, the academy didn’t get on board with understanding black Americans as thinking beings capable of understanding, holding values, and acting accordingly until better than halfway through the twentieth century.

My obvious political inclinations aside, I ought to be the target audience for pieces on understanding Trump Country. I have largely avoided them, except one shared with me by a friend. There are multiple reasons for that, including my general contempt for media industry multi-millionaires who tell us they understand “real America,” the compulsory ignorance of the subject one finds in reporters parachuted in without context to pretend-report on something for thirty seconds, and skimming headlines and opening paragraphs to show how devotedly they live up to my expectations. But I did read the one. Let’s pick it apart.

A few things going in, Gentle Readers. As the numerous ads and whatever lives in the sidebar when you load up the page will show, Cracked doesn’t aim for serious journalism. (Its history pieces don’t withstand casual scrutiny either.) But now and then someone writes a piece meant for serious consideration, as David Wong has. I intend to take it as such, humor site pedigree aside.

We must begin with the title. Wong suggests that half of America lost its mind. It grabs the reader’s attention, but Wong frames his article just the opposite. He does not portray Trump supporters as insane or demented. They have real grievances, which he reduces down to a rural vs. urban divide. To prove it, he hauls out one of those red vs. blue county maps. It turns out the diverse cities, shockingly, tend to support candidates who less devoted to white supremacy. The much whiter rural counties vote the other way.

I could stop right here, but Wong digs himself deeper. He paints a picture of neglect and negative stereotyping. Urban America doesn’t care about rural America. All the television and movies have to do with cities. When disaster strikes, you’d best have a major media operation nearby or don’t expect to make CNN. We all know the stereotypes of rural life, that bonanza of inbred hicks who only take their hands off the cross they’re using to beat a LGBT person to death in order to light it on fire. I don’t know about the inbreeding -none of my business- but that sounds like my neighbors. They do not like the idea of living with people of different color, sexuality, or non-Christian religion. Wong puts those up as stereotypes, but he admits to their truth:

But what I can say, from personal experience, is that the racism of my youth was always one step removed. I never saw a family member, friend, or classmate be mean to the actual black people we had in town. We worked with them, played video games with them, waved to them when they passed. What I did hear was several million comments about how if you ever ventured into the city, winding up in the “wrong neighborhood” meant you’d get dragged from your car, raped, and burned alive. Looking back, I think the idea was that the local minorities were fine … as long as they acted exactly like us.

Wong had a more charmed childhood than I did. Casual dismissal of non-whites happened every day. I can’t count the times I’ve heard family members start a sentence, stop and visibly struggle, then finally blurt out “coloreds!” with extra emphasis just so you know what they really mean. Fairness demands that I recognize the ecumenical nature of their hatreds; they had nothing nicer to say about other people who dared come in the wrong colors or religions. But of course you’d be polite to someone’s face. Small communities can’t afford a full-on white power operation, aside local government, so we content ourselves with more petty species of viciousness. Say nothing in front of your victim, but be sure it gets out behind their backs. Plain, honest folk in real America don’t need that explained to them.

Maybe that racism seemed one step removed to Wong -who is white like me; he writes under a pseudonym- but you can’t honestly put it at arm’s length. We both learned to associate minorities with dangerous, criminal behavior and took those who didn’t rape and murder people every day for fun as deviations from the norm. I can’t imagine the victims agree.

It goes on in this vein. The white racial resentment or, to use a word more familiar to its practitioners, entitlement, just boils off the screen. Wong knows as much and acknowledges it. He doesn’t pretend that rural America has somehow, double-secret, turned into a bastion of tolerance. His quest to highlight Trump Country agency has brought him that far. But he thinks it wrong and dehumanizing to ascribe white voters’ motives to either the driving force of American history, white supremacy, or to the central institution of their communities, which he considers to be conservative Christianity. What they say doesn’t actually matter. They just hurt and lash out.

I shall not sit here and tell you that white people never suffer or rural poverty doesn’t matter. But Wong refutes himself twice over by focusing on poverty as the driving force explanation. Firstly, rural America hasn’t done well, economically, in decades. Nor has it had much cultural focus in the same period of time. If neglect drives rural voters, then we would have seen a Trump-style candidacy decades back. Indeed, we did. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan both ran white grievance campaigns. On the other side, so did Bill Clinton. Whether we look at structural factors all the way back to the Constitution or individual campaigns, nobody gets more attention. Even in the most conservative interpretation, white America has at least the whole of one political party devoted to preserving its prerogatives over the rest of the nation. These people do not lack a voice. Their politics do not constitute a wild divergence from the American norm; they are the norm. The past few decades have simply seen a shift from nigh-absolute control to a more qualified but still nearly overwhelming dominance.

Since Trump came out of normal politics, his voters don’t require a unique explanation. The same things drive them that drove the American right in 1968, 1980, 1996, or 1860. They see the United States as a white man’s country, period. Any diminution of their power counts as the most agonizing species of persecution.

But let’s turn that back around. Wong would have us believe that poverty made Trump. He admits that Trump runs on racism, which he also considers a decidedly negative personality trait. He must think the same of poverty as he casts the rural poor as a people lashing out. They can’t have acted in their actual interests, but rather poverty has driven them to it. Poverty, in other words, makes you immoral and destructive. This loops us right back to the stereotypes that Wong and I grew up believing about black people: they earned their poverty through sloth, through dependence, through crime. White people got poor for reasons beyond their control. Trust us; we have the white skin to know. For Wong to argue this, hasn’t he dehumanized the poor just as he complains that others have?

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney

Bringing this back to history, I consider taking what people say and granting them their agency bottom-line stuff. If you can’t do that, then you fundamentally do not believe your subjects full human beings. They must occupy some inferior order, to which one silently applies Taney’s corollary:

altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect

I cannot think of a more thorough way to dehumanize someone than to ignore both their words and deeds in favor of inventing some deterministic explanation that excuses them from both. To do this, you reduce them to unthinking automatons, for all the protests to the contrary. You declare that they do not know what’s best for themselves, that they cannot know. Wong’s rural poor, intended or not, are infantilized subjects. He wants us to not blame them for what they do, for the powerful hatreds they bear, because they just can’t help themselves. You don’t blame a baby for soiling a diaper, so you should not blame Trump voters for Trump.

Wong’s piece has a larger problem, though. “Poor” doesn’t begin to describe Trump’s supporters:

As compared with most Americans, Trump’s voters are better off. The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.

If those statistics reflect poverty, then I imagine plenty of us would like to sign up for some. Wong says that poor people from his home town support Trump; I believe him. But his poor voters resemble the general constituency no more than the neighbors that media personalities talk to at wealthy resort communities represent ordinary Americans.

The Hunt for John Speer

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

On the night of April 23, 1856 someone in Lawrence shot Sheriff Samuel Jones, twice. The first bullet went through his pants, the second through him. The Herald of Freedom told readers that a proslavery man had to have done it, referring vaguely to enemies Jones had made on his own side of Kansas Territory’s great issue. Outside Kansas people might believe that, but the evidence doesn’t support the proposition at all. Whatever enemies Jones might have made aside antislavery Kansans, Lawrence had no shortage of men who had made violent threats against him and had attacked him previously.

We don’t know who did shoot Jones, but the men he had come to Lawrence to arrest seem like fair enough suspects. John Speer, who later wrote a biography of James Lane, fit that description. He had intervened to prevent the arrest of Samuel Wood, the business that brought Jones to Lawrence in the first place. Jones’ deputy, Sam Salters (the fourth Samuel in the story), thought Speer a likely prospect and had the dragoons surround Speer’s home, twice.

The first time, he was insolent, abusive and profane; and I advised Mrs. Speer, if she saw his hosts coming, to make no resistance, but to barricade the door and compel him to break it down. This she did; and, as he uttered a volley of profanity, she indignantly cast a dipper of water in his face. The dragoons laid back int heir saddles, and laughed and cheered. This so provoked him that he pulled a revolver, swearing he would “kill the abolitionists.”

That went too far for the soldiers with Salters, who told him to cool it. Instead the officer, Lieutenant McIntosh, went up the the window, tapped, and asked her to let him in. Mrs. Speers didn’t cave easily

She replied: “If you are United States officer, I will; if you are a Border Ruffian, you will have to break the door down.”

The soldier confessed to soldiering, so she let him in. He conducted

a very inefficient search, pleasantly remarking about the bright morning, the babe in the cradle, and her four pretty children around the fire, and retired.

All of this makes it sound like the posse caught Speer in his home, with the inefficient search probably including winks and nods. Speer clarifies to the contrary. McIntosh declined, over Salters’ request, to search a small room. He also tells that he had met McIntosh on the road previously and they had passed without incident. It seems no bad blood existed between them and McIntosh may have thought he let Speer go by means of that incomplete hunt. Speer doesn’t say so outright, but it looks like he understood McIntosh’s actions in that light and he elsewhere declares that many of the soldiers sided with the antislavery party at the time. His mourning of the Lieutenant’s later death at the Battle of Cabin Creek, where he took the side of slavery, points to at least some gratitude for the gentle treatment of Speer’s wife and family.

“Unworthy even of the name of a devil” The Shooting of Samuel Jones, Part Two

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

We left Samuel Jones, Sheriff of Douglas County, still in Lawrence. He did not get his man, Samuel Wood, nor the men he came back to get who had helped Wood escape him. But Jones had a concession prize of six men in custody thanks to the backing of the 1st Cavalry out of Fort Leavenworth. Confident of his protection and the free state men’s respect of the United States military, Jones pitched a tent in Lawrence to stay the night. He and some other men had gone out to get a drink of water, a fluid antislavery sources might have us believe Jones understood only dimly for lack of study. Thomas Crowder and William Preston stood with Jones just then, and later testified that some men came up looking for Jones. As the Sheriff stooped mere feet away, he rose to identify himself and then stooped down again. Then

some person in a crowd standing near fired into the party, when the remark was made by P[reston] “Jones, you are shot,” and upon examination it was found that a bullet had passed through his pants without any injury.

No physical injury, anyway. The prose makes this all sound very dry and orderly. Someone took a shot at Jones. The bullet whizzed through his pantleg. Preston delivered a Shakespearean stage direction in a flat voice and everyone went about their lives. No one at the time could have missed the tension. Antislavery men had threatened Jones life all day long. He had a large, armed bodyguard of dragoons with him. Jones must have done at least some cursing, as our witnesses hint immediately after:

The party returned to the tent, where, when we commenced talking about this dastardly and hellish attempt at assassination

I expect that getting shot at tends to dominate conversation, but rude free state men would not let Jones, Preston, and Crowder have their chat about extremely recent events unmolested. A man, pretending drunkenness, stumbled into the tent and sat down. Jones told him to get lost, which he did.

in less than five minutes, as we were conversing together, Jones fell, exclaiming, “Oh!” He attempted to draw his knife and find the dastardly scoundrel -worse than a fiend- who would thus, under cover of night, attempt the life of a fellow-being; but the wound was such as to prevent his rising at all. The shot came from the hind part of the tent, and was aimed at the back of the sheriff. We have no doubt, ourselves, that the whole matter was concocted-the rascal hired for the express purpose of assassination; and that there are many persons in Lawrence concerned in this matter, who are very desirous to shield themselves behind this foul and dark scoundrel, unworthy even of the name of a devil.

Second time’s the charm, apparently. Subtlety went out the window after the first shot, if resident at all. Whoever wanted Jones dead must not have cared to ventilate his friends or his military guards, so they had to make sure they had the right spot to aim at.

The Herald of Freedom tries to blame the shooting on proslavery men who disliked Jones, implausibly enough. So far as aiming at him, George Brown argues that Jones

took a seat in an exposed condition-in an unoccupied tent, with a bright light beside him, which, through the cloth, rendered everything perfectly and plainly visible from the outside. In this position he received a bullet in his back-fired by an assassin hand.

Brown’s explanation relies on Jones not having company, which would come as a surprise to Crowder and Preston. Everything else would fit just fine. A light in a tent would give the shooter an ideal target, but shadows don’t come with name tags and the tent had three. Someone would have had to go look, either the shooter himself or a confederate.

“Here I am, gentlemen” The Shooting of Samuel Jones, Part One


Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Whether or not Samuel Jones intended to use his arrest of Samuel Wood as a provocation which would discredit the free state government, he did arrest people. If he didn’t get any that he had originally come for, then he still had someone. Most of Lawrence seems to have begrudgingly accepted that, as Jones came backed by the United States Cavalry. Not everyone in town felt that way, though. By the time he left Lawrence, Jones could boast of taking six prisoners. To that collection he added two bullet holes.

We can’t say just what drove someone over the edge. The fact that Jones rounded up clearly innocent, or innocent enough, people when he couldn’t find Wood or Wood’s abettors may have done it. The simple fact that Samuel Jones, who had brought Lawrence near to destruction months before, had come back for a second round might have sufficed. George Brown suggested that a frustrated Jones pushed things too far himself:

The ‘sheriff” became insufferably insulting; got drunk, in order the better to render himself odious; drew his revolver frequently on unoffending citizens’ courted a personal assault

Going around drawing his gun on people and threatening them does sound like vintage Samuel Jones. He rarely appears in the sources without clearly cherishing his power over antislavery Kansans. With the army at his back, the sheriff had an ideal chance to play the bully in Lawrence and demonstrate his manly credentials. They would submit, like slaves. He would dominate, a true master.

Whatever drove them, some of Lawrence went off-script. Merrill’s True History of the Kansas Wars tells that a Colonel Preston

was taken aside by a citizen of the place, who frankly told him, that there was a conspiracy on foot to assassinate Sheriff Jones; as the day wore away, the crowd gathered in different parts of the city, became more and more open in their innuendoes, and when a man by the name of Hunt was arrested, he was called upon in the presence of Robinson, by some one in the crowd “to shoot Jones,” using expressions of wrath, and the deepest revenge ever indulged in, and the most insulting language to some few Pro-slavery men standing near the crowds. They were offered a fight, -told, “to pitch in, and they would see sights.”

Merrill leans proslavery, but all of that sounds reasonable enough. It would strain credulity more to believe no one in Lawrence talked about harming Jones than that they did, though that talk didn’t necessarily constitute a conspiracy as such. I don’t mean to parse things too narrowly here, but talk of a conspiracy implies a clear plan by recognized co-plotters to their end. Violent talk and threats might precede and feature into a conspiracy, but do not make one in themselves.

Merrill then quotes two eyewitnesses to the foreshadowed event. “[J]ust before dark,” William Preston and Thomas Crowder wrote, after repeated threats and insults directed at Jones, Franklin Pierce, and proslavery men in general,

With Lieutenant McIntosh, we, with a gentleman by the name of Yates, went to the camp, intending to pass off time and spend the night. Soon after we had made preparations for sleeping, Mr. Jones, and one of us, [Preston] went a few paces from the tent to get a glass of water. While so engaged some persons came up and inquired where Sheriff Jones was, and made insulting remarks concerning his courage, when he [Jones] arose from the stooping posture he was in and remarked, “Here I am, gentlemen.”

Samuel Jones: Political Schemer?

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

We left Sheriff Samuel Jones in Lawrence on April 23, 1856. He arrested ten men, none of whom he had come to Lawrence to seize. Whether they did anything to resist Jones and so warrant arrest or not, he took them along. With his Army escort, Jones must have felt confident indeed as he did not immediately leave infamous den of abolitionists that had defied him to the point of risking armed battle only months before. At least this time he got some men, if still not Samuel Wood.

Lawrence acquiesced with vulgar imprecations, rather than resort to arms. The antislavery men remained keenly aware that opposing the power of the United States would put them beyond the political pale. An injured soldier could destroy their movement by bringing the Army down on their heads, particularly as Wilson Shannon now had the authority to call on it at will. Jones knew the lay of the land as well as anybody and decided to camp in town.

The Herald of Freedom’s version of events stresses Lawrence’s submission. They would fight Missouri and the territorial government to the end, but not the nation:

To legal authority we submit, no matter how oppressive; to an authority which was created by fraud, and violence and usurpation, if peaceable and lawful means of resistance fail, we will die in our tracks before yielding an inch.

George Brown’s paper also reported that Lawrence’s resolve on the point “disappointed and exasperated” the proslavery men. He thought Jones’ arrival and subsequent events all done for show as

The Congressional Investigating Committee was in Kansas-had already commenced its labors. They feared to trust the investigation of their course to an unbiased and honorable committee. They knew too well what the result of those investigations would be, hence the necessity of a stroke of policy, to change the course of things. -A muss must be kicked up to hinder the committee from proceeding with its work. If possible, by any means, the Committee must be prevented from reporting until after the adjournment of Congress, and of course until after the Presidential election; or if that could not be done, they must forestall its action, by placing us in an unfavorable attitude; forcing us, if possible, to abandon our strong and honorable position, for one of dishonor and aggression.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Brown understood the national political landscape, but all of this looks like a reach. Jones might well have seen those goals as desirable. He knew the politics and of the committee’s arrival as well as anybody, so he could certainly make the calculation. However, he also came for Samuel Wood at the first instant he knew that Wood had returned to Kansas. The Herald reported Wood’s return on April 19. Jones arrived to claim him the very next day, just as one would expect for a lawman bent on making a swift arrest. It seems much more likely that Jones saw his quarry had returned and aimed to seize him, with the opportunity to show the impotence of the free state movement or to bring them into collision with national power coming as a bonus. That it would all take place in front of a Congressional committee can’t have hurt, of course.

The Northwest Ordinance: The Nation’s First Antislavery Law?

Dred Scott (Wikimedia Commons)

Dred Scott (Wikimedia Commons)

If you remember and/or have flashbacks to high school history, you may remember the Northwest Ordinance. My own rusty recollection tells me that I learned the Ordinance established the system of land survey and the framework for territorial organization that would see use for the remainder of the march of white Americans across a continent and all the people who already lived there. If you live in a part of the country governed by it or its many descendants, you can probably drive out of town and navigate by a fairly regular grid of roads that owe much to the law. But mainly, the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery everywhere it reached. Thus it established a precedent for future bans on slavery in the Louisiana Purchase and Pacific Northwest. When Dred Scott sued for his freedom, he did it based on his lengthy residence in two jurisdictions where that slavery ban operated: Illinois and Minnesota. A large part of Minnesota did not originally fall in the Northwest Territory, nor even the United States at the time of passage, but legally Minnesota Territory originates in Wisconsin Territory. Wisconsin sits entirely within the Old Northwest and inherited its slavery ban through a few previous territorial enactments that go back to the Ordinance.

Thus we learn in school that the Founders, those great and good men, set slavery on a path to ultimate extinction. Antislavery Americans believed the same thing, from less ideological politicians like Abraham Lincoln to leading ideologists like Salmon P. Chase. An entire tradition of antislavery constitutionalism flows from the words

There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Restrictions on slavery’s expansion, all the way up to the Wilmot Proviso, use that language. It meant a great deal to people in the nineteenth century and as we, at least officially, declare our sympathy with those same people we carry on their position. It becomes for us, just as it did for them, a usable past. We can rest assured that our nation really did have its conception in liberty and something simply went awry sometime between 1787 and 1860.

Seeking comfort in history may make us human, but doesn’t necessarily make us good historians. What if we have it wrong? Antislavery Americans took the Northwest Ordinance as a precedent and it absolutely functioned as one down the road, but what did it look like in the 1780s? What might its slavery ban have meant to the men who voted for it? And how well did it function? Looking at these questions makes for a far more complicated picture.

We must begin with the ignoble birth of the slavery article. It came into the bill as an afterthought, at the last moment, and passed without debate. If you read the full law, you will find it replete with references to free inhabitants. For that distinction to have meaning, it must mean that the law contemplates the presence of unfree inhabitants: slaves. The law’s authors didn’t see fit to revise it to remove them, but rather voted the slavery ban through without debate that might have shed some light on their understanding of the issue. Thanks, guys.

We can say that the Northwest Ordinance protects the property and inheritance laws of the French inhabitants of the region. They owned slaves and would pass them on by inheritance. Does the property rights provision or the antislavery provision take precedence? The Confederation Congress may not have known that these people had slaves at the time, but when they and eventually the federal government confronted that issue the slavery ban collapsed into a weak ban on importing new slaves to the territory. It freed no one, but rather as a practical matter protected slavery to the degree it already existed in the territory. Nor, perhaps, should we expect otherwise of a law that could win the united votes of the southern states.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

The point of precedent still matters, but already we have a very qualified precedent that exists more retrospectively and in form than function. We must indict the Northwest Ordinance further, also on the grounds of precedent. These words immediately follow the slavery ban:

Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.

The Northwest Ordinance predates the Constitution. Thus here, for the very first time, we have a fugitive slave clause. This grants to the slave states a power they had previously lacked. Until the ratification of the Constitution, a slave who dared steal his or her body and made it across a state line might have just won permanent freedom. No provision existed under the Articles of Confederation for the recovery of fugitive slaves. When the Constitution introduced that power, it became a sticking point for anti-federalists in Massachusetts. If we grant at the Ordinance set an antislavery precedent in principle, we must also grant that it set a proslavery one in practice. Here, for the first time, slavery attains the kind of extra-territorial status which it will have down through the antebellum.

That may well have sweetened the pot enough to keep the South on board with the Ordinance, but the antislavery features of the law found frustration in another way still. The Ordinance did not grant any clear authority to any body to enforce its antislavery ban. You could sue in the courts, petition the government, or act through the legislature to protect property, but only the extremely dubious and generally inaccessible courts remained open for a person enslaved in defiance of the law. I don’t know that any enslaved person tried them when it mattered, but their prospects with a jury or courts established by a constituency that kept asking Congress to repeal the limited exclusion of slavery that did function in the territory can’t have looked good. The Indians had more avenues to defend their rights.

We must also look at what the Ordinance did not do. It did not cover the whole of the west, as a previously proposed version had. By excluding slavery from a marginal region, the South could have understood the ban as cutting off competition for slaves and in tobacco and hemp. No such ban existed in the Southwest Territory, which soon became Tennessee. Nor would any come in the lands to the south of it. Partitioning the west and surrendering the least appealing part of it might well have looked like a bargain to ensure slavery elsewhere, particularly as southerners proved more energetic in westward expansion during the very early republic. Kentucky and Tennessee both gain statehood in the eighteenth century, a distinction shared in the North only by Vermont.

This leaves us with a Northwest Ordinance that served as an important legal and rhetorical touchstone for the antislavery movement, fair enough. But the facts on the ground on either side of the Ohio or the Appalachians don’t really support an unqualified assertion that it set the nation on a path toward abolition. Rather, looked at in detail and in context, the Northwest Ordinance appears more like the other kind of precedent: an ambiguous law that does little to restrict slavery in practice while trying harder to reinforce and defend it. We might call it the first proslavery-tilting antebellum compromise as easily as the first antislavery law.

I’m on a podcast!

Gentle Readers, I have news of a personal and historical nature. As you may recall, back in the spring I was flaired as an expert on Reddit’s AskHistorians. They host a podcast, the Ask Historians Podcast, run by one of the resident Mesoamericanists. Every two weeks, he interviews one of the flairs about the historical subject of our choice. It’s one of my favorite podcasts and I heartily suggest giving it a try. The podcast is on iTunes, libsyn, and I believe several other services.

A few weeks back, I was asked to participate. My favorite history podcast asked me to talk about history, one of my favorite things to do. I spent more time considering how to respond without sounding like the creepiest kind of fan than I did on whether or not to record an episode. Our discussion went well over the expected time, which you could probably all guess would happen. It’s split in two episodes, the first of which is live now. If you ever wanted to know what I sound like, or just to hear more about the Kansas-Nebraska Act, here’s your chance.

As you can probably tell, I had a tremendous time doing it. The credit for that has got to go to the fine host, 400-Rabbits. The credit for the errors that crept in during the course of speaking while excited goes to me. I’ve posted errata on Reddit. AskHistorians has a zero tolerance policy for the behavior that makes Reddit infamous, but if you’d rather avoid it anyway I understand completely. Here are the corrections and two minor additions.


  • I referred to Enabling Acts and Organic Acts as terms used inconsistently. I recall seeing primary sources do that, but the Congress was more careful. An organic act organizes a territory, hence the name. The Kansas-Nebraska Act is the organic act for Kansas and Nebraska. An enabling act is a later law passed by Congress to authorize a territorial government to write a constitution preparatory to statehood. While speaking I confused the two as I was focused on the Wisconsin Enabling Act, which reiterated the Northwest Ordinance’s slavery ban.
  • I mistakenly referred to the Washington Territory as including modern Idaho. It’s just the top half of that. The bottom half is Oregon Territory.
  • The proposed amendment to emancipate Missouri would have kept those born after its enactment slaves until they turned twenty-five, not twenty-one.
  • I said that the sessions of Congress ran out in May. It’s actually the start of March. Slip of the tongue. I was probably thinking ahead to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act at the end of May, 1854.


  • The senators of the F Street Mess are David Rice Atchison, A.P. Butler (SC), R.M.T. Hunter (VA), and James M. Mason (VA, wrote the fugitive slave act of 1850). Their names were in my outline, but I couldn’t find them in the moment.
  • I also blanked on the names of the two of the women who feature into the narrative, which is unfortunate. Archibald Dixon’s wife and memoirist is Susan Bullitt. Stephen Douglas’ southern wife (his first, she died in 1853 and he remarried) is Martha Martin.

“Miserable and fiendish blackguardism” Sheriff Jones Visits Lawrence, Again


Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Wilson Shannon, second governor of Kansas Territory, had dealt with Samuel Jones and the free state men at Lawrence before. He hoped that putting the United States Army between the free state militias and the combination of Kansas territorial militia and random Missourians would avert the bloodshed that the proslavery men seemed set on. That time, Colonel E.V. Sumner of the 1st Cavalry refused to decamp from Fort Leavenworth for want of presidential orders. This time around, Sumner had those orders. When Shannon told him to send a small contingent to help Jones complete his arrests of antislavery men, Sumner did his duty.

Shannon’s letter to Sumner specified seven men, an officer and six others, to go with Jones. Merrill’s True History of Kansas reports that Jones got ten, under the command of a Lieutenant McIntosh. But those ten men don’t appear to have hewed to the strictly nonpartisan role that Shannon expected. They followed their orders to go and help Jones, but John Speer tells that

The troops were generally our friends, and watered their horses at all the wells where there was a horse that would drink at all; and all who knew anything they had done, got notice in time to run; and I fled for safety to the Delaware Indians.

Orders to help Jones didn’t preclude a few soldiers helping his enemies. If that didn’t get the word out, then Sumner might have done it on his own. He wrote ahead to alert the mayor of Lawrence that the Jones and his men would soon arrive. Either way, Lawrence did not happily receive Jones with soldiers at his back. The Herald of Freedom for April 26 describes Jones’ arrival three days prior:

The physical power of the General Gov’t has been used to grind us into submission to a code of bloody, barbarous enactments. A man styling himself “Sheriff of Douglas County,” comes into our town, with a portion of the U.S. Army to aid him in carrying out his objects, seizes innofensive, peaceable citizens whilst pursuing their proper employments, and without the shadow of a pretence of justice or law, drags them before a court from whose decisions neither justice nor humanity can be expected.

Merill adds that Lawrence greeted Jones and company with aplomb:

Modesty would be shocked and shame stand back abashed, were we to pen the miserable and fiendish blackguardism that was indulged in, by the peace peaceable and law-abiding citizens, against the President, Governor Shannon, and the Pro-slavery party.

He also relates that William Howard, who gave the Howard Committee its name, overheard a man offer the services of his pistol to Charles Robinson. The free state governor bid him “wait”. The Howard Report doesn’t mention that, but it seems likely enough. Merrill includes it among other threats made against Jones’ life. Nor would it strain credulity to believe that some in Lawrence openly spoke of shooting Jones.

But as Speer said, the people Jones wanted all got the word and fled before Jones and the Army arrived. He and his dragoons surrounded Speer’s house and searched it, to no avail. They spent most of the day in town, coming away with ten men that Speer declares innocent of any wrongdoing. The Herald of Freedom names six of them: John Hutchinson, E.D. Lyman, J.F. Warren, J.G. Fuller, F. Hunt, and A. F. Smith.

The unnamed four raise questions. Given the general environment of threats and sporadic force used to resist Jones in the past, they might have done something Jones deemed worthy of arrest even if they hadn’t come to his notice previously. It seems improbable that Jones would just seize random people, though not entirely out of character. That the paper describes Lawrence as “submitting without a murmur” strains credulity more. They might not have used force against the United States, but Jones likely heard Merrill’s loud denunciations and imprecations.


Wilson Shannon Successfully Calls Out the Army

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The Arrest of Wood: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Samuel Jones wrote to Wilson Shannon as he had before: Lawrence defied him. The locals proclaimed they would ignore the law and deny his authority. They resisted his attempts to arrest Samuel Wood and then Samuel Tappan by force. Douglas County’s sheriff tried twice. He even summoned a posse within Lawrence and got no one for his trouble. Governor Shannon had to give him the power, by which Jones meant military force, to do his job.

Last time around, Shannon keenly sought the help of the United States Army in resolving the crisis. It did not come, as Colonel E.V. Sumner preferred to have proper orders rather than intervene on his own authority. Since then, Franklin Pierce had placed his force at Shannon’s disposal. The Governor aimed to use it. He wrote to Sumner on April 20th:

Knowing the irritated feelings that exist between the two parties in this Territory, growing out of their former difficulties, and being exceedingly desirous to avoid the effusion of blood, or any cause or excuse for further conflict or disturbance, I have thought it most advisable to call on you for an officer and six men to accompany the sheriff and aid him in the execution of the legal process in his hands.

Seven men didn’t make for much of an army, but they did come from the Army. The free state leadership badly wanted to avoid any clash with the United States military, as that would damn them as traitors in the eyes of the nation. They knew they could get no help from the territorial government in their cause, nor from Franklin Pierce’s White House. The whole free state strategy rested on their ability to present themselves as loyal Americans who suffered the trampling of their rights in the name of slavery. An armed insurrection against the territorial government hadn’t hurt that image, but one against the United States surely would.

From Shannon’s perspective, that counted as the best reason to use the military. The locals would surely not help Jones, unless he found some proslavery locals who would likely get the idea that they gathered to ruin Lawrence and murder abolitionists rather than conduct a few arrests. It had happened before. Thus

To call on any of the citizens of the county to accompany the sheriff and aid in overpowering the resistance on the part of the defendants, that is anticipated, would most probably lead to a conflict which, when once commenced, it is difficult to foresee where it might end, but in the use of the U.S. troops, no personal or party feelings can exist on either side, and their presence will most likely command obedience to the laws.