“If he arrested me, he did so at his peril” The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Four

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Parts 1, 2, 3

A Mr. Fain, late of Georgia, had a grand jury subpoena for Andrew Reeder, Kansas’ first governor and present delegate to Congress under the free state government. He took it to Reeder on the evening of May 7, 1856. The delegate decided that he didn’t care for an arrest just then, pointed to irregularities in the warrant, and sent Fain on his way. The next afternoon, he saw Fain in Lawrence. Reeder’s “Georgia friend” came to town with an armed posse. He went upstairs to speak with Mordechai Oliver, the Howard Committee’s lone proslavery member.

He soon came into the room and informed me he had an attachment for me.

The room in question housed the committee’s proceedings. They had gotten to their fourth witness of the day and eighty-seventh overall, Joseph Steward. He had information for them on the elections for the Kansas legislature. Reeder declared, as he had the day before, that he had privilege from arrest thanks to his status as Kansas’ delegate to Congress and asked the committee to protect him. The Howard Committee had that power and Congress had sent them to Kansas with a sergeant-at-arms specifically so they could arrest anybody who tried to interfere with their business and haul the guilty party off to Washington for contempt of Congress proceedings.

But Reeder tells that the committee felt otherwise:

They decided they had no power to interfere, but Howard and Sherman expressed a positive opinion in favor of my privilege from arrest; Oliver differing from them on that point. I then stated how I was privileged, made a full explanation, and declared that I would protect myself, and warned the officer that if he arrested me, he did so at his peril.

That sufficed; Fain took Reeder at his word and departed. He had a posse with him, but may not have wanted to seize Reeder in front of the congressmen. Given how well Sheriff Jones’ arrest attempt had gone for him not that long ago, and Fain’s previously-expressed concern for his safety probably played a major role in his decision. Jones got shot while in the company of United States soldiers and Fain lacked such an exalted bodyguard.

Reeder’s travail did not end there. He and the free state leadership agreed that Reeder should submit to arrest in time, which would put him in Lecompton without bail for at least six months. The delegate got word that if he went, he would be “in danger of nightly assassination and daily insult.” Given the option between fighting the good fight, either in Kansas or Congress, and risking his life “in some miserable dog-hole”, he would rather pass on the latter. That evening he wrote to Governor Shannon and Lecompte promising that if he had their guarantee of safety and ability to return to his work on the committee at the end of his questioning, he would come before the grand jury as required. He did that on the advice of unnamed friends and likewise mulled with them whether he should wait on an answer, ready to fight it out if the posse came, or quit Kansas.

Reeder’s friends came to no consensus for him save that if the US military got involved, as they had on Jones’ behalf, he must submit.

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“I was not yet ready to be arrested for treason” The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Three

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Parts 1, 2

We left Andrew Reeder, Charles Robinson, and probably the antislavery members of the Howard Committee. They had news of indictments handed down against Reeder, Robinson, and most everyone else who held office in the illegal free state government of Kansas territory. They agreed that Reeder should submit to arrest, as his national reputation would make him an ideal rallying point for the free state party’s friends abroad. Robinson should get out of Kansas and set to work raising money, men, and guns. It might come to armed rebellion at last. If it did, the free state men resolved to fight it out and hope for the destruction of the proslavery territorial government. They had to act soon, or Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury would have the entire leadership imprisoned before the fall elections.

Reeder’s diary puts this all as happening on May 7, 1856, a Wednesday. Next, “toward evening” a Georgian named Fain called on Reeder and “very politely” told the delegate that he had a subpoena for him.

I requested him to let me see it, and he handed me a copy. On looking at it I discovered that it was very irregular in form, and, as I was not yet ready to be arrested for treason, I determined not to obey it. I accordingly so informed the officer, giving, as the reasons, my privilege as Delegate in Congress, and the informality of the subpena.

The Congress itself hadn’t decided on whether or not Reeder had any privilege as delegate, but he persuaded Fain not to make an issue of it. Instead the Georgian took his leave and came on Reeder’s grand jury informant, James Legate. Fain asked Legate where he might find Charles Robinson. Legate told him that Robinson had gone off to Topeka. Fain felt sure enough in Tecumseh, but Topeka worried him. He asked if he could go and conduct his business there in safety.

Legate mischievously told him he did not know, that he must run his own risks, which so alarmed the Georgian that he at once turned back to Lecompton. The same evening we went back to Topeka; stayed till after breakfast the next day.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Reeder doesn’t say it in so many words, and Robinson declines to note his movements in detail, but it sounds like Legate told Fain that Robinson had gone while the governor remained nearby. Reeder’s “we” might or might not include the governor, but he says that Fain “was told” Robinson had gone rather than that the governor actually had.

Possible Delegate Reeder found himself back in Lawrence later on May 8. There he continued his work representing the free state side before the Howard Committee, starting at two in the afternoon. He didn’t shake Fain for long, though. He reports that he

saw my Georgia friend of yesterday come in and go up stairs for a consultation with Major Oliver, and some friends; had a small posse with him, all armed.

How to be a white supremacist

Gentle Readers, let’s talk white supremacy. We do that almost all the time here, but usually in the context of other things. That makes it easy to let some details slip through the cracks. I think most Americans get the most basic idea: whites come first, everyone else possesses debatable humanity. I realized a few weeks back, in the course of talking with others, that I ought to pay more attention to the myriad ways that simple idea wends its way through our lives.

Most people would probably agree that an individual who expresses belief in the racial superiority of whites or the inferiority of non-whites to whites counts as white supremacist. The guy in the brown shirt with the red armband and the other guy in the white hood believe things like that. We have agreed, at least in mixed company, that this makes them monstrous. They believe in horrible things and countenance historical atrocities and present injustices which we righteously condemn. They have no fit place in polite society and we have an obligation to do what we can to contain them and limit the harm they do, so far as we can do so and remain faithful to other vital principles. If they wheel out racist pseudoscience, whether vintage nineteenth century or the more recent sort, that makes them a hard case. Sometimes they receive a kinder hearing than they should, but mostly the convention holds. We should call those people out and keep to our norms. Such clear expressions of racial hatred serve as calls to action and precursors for new horrors. People may do harm with or without our saying so, but they will understand silence as permission.

We do not, however much we may wish otherwise, live in a world where villainy so eagerly announces itself. Admitting that puts us in a bind. In making those who express open racial animus into pariahs, exiled by their deplorable ideas, we easily slip into a second corollary. Something we consider so vile, we cannot imagine occurring with any great frequency. We imagine racists as freaks, so different that we can’t imagine knowing them. We have made racism into a crime near unto murder, yet with no victims. Someone far away or long ago did horrible things, but we finished that and now we have sad, hateful remnants who don’t really warrant our attention. Racism simultaneously counts for a great deal and doesn’t matter at all. It then makes no sense for us to go looking for it.

By we, I must clarify, I mean myself and other white Americans. We have the luxury of these conventions written on our skin. Their costs we carve into the lives of others. I have done it myself more times than I care to remember. We have arranged our civilization to let us do it without thinking, but even when we choose thoughtlessly, we still choose. Suffer me this story to illustrate:

The worst physical injury I have yet endured came when two boys pushed me down on the playground. I landed with my left hand forward. Rather than catching myself, the radius and ulna both broke. My hand drove up between them and one of the bones lay lengthwise across the back of it. The doctors told us that I had one of the worst fractures they ever treated without operating. It still hurts when it gets cold sometimes, almost a quarter century later. I can’t imagine many people I have actually met whom I have cause to like less than those two boys, who suffered no punishment for doing it. But I have known since the day it happened that they did not come at me thinking that they would break my bones and leave me with occasional pain for decades after. They set out to shove me away, perhaps to the ground, but not to rearrange my skeleton.

Some part of that day will always be in the present tense for me. Others have suffered far worse with a grace I can’t muster; I don’t write this to ask your sympathy for childhood pains. Rather hope you can understand that what those boys meant to do on the playground didn’t matter. Their not meaning to hurt me did not preserve me from harm. No amount of good intentions saved my bones and spared me fleeting pain. Even had they simply bumped into me in the hall, not meaning to lay a hand on me, the bones got broken. I felt, and sometimes still feel, the pain of the moment. That matters. We live with the things done to us in flesh and blood far more than we ever will the intentions that drove them.

We can perform white supremacist actions without conscious intention to do so; I know I have. We can say, perhaps honestly, that we didn’t mean it. People get hurt all the same. I maintain that we do so more often than not, habitually privileging the interests, concerns, and ultimately the lives of white Americans above those of anybody else. The people of Flint have poison coming out of their faucets because white people chose to allow it. They suffer not an iota less if we meant otherwise. The government of Michigan, my state, poisoned them all. It has lately appealed a court ruling that the state must deliver that water to residents, rather than make them come to collect their daily rations. No one made the state file that appeal; they chose it, knowing that the less accessible they make drinking water the more likely they are to force the residents to use the poison flowing from their taps all the same. Flint has a majority black population. A mostly white government with a mostly white constituency prefers poisoning them to supplying them with basic necessities, even when that government has only itself to blame for the poisoning.

Say that the people of Michigan did not vote for this. (We didn’t, though when we voted as we did we could reasonably have expected a cavalier attitude toward black lives.) Say that the state government did not mean for it to happen or didn’t know it could. (They knew.) It doesn’t matter. Flint’s residents of all ages got to drink poison all the same. Pleading good intentions will not change that, though it does an admirable job of distracting us from white supremacy in grotesque operation.

Keeping on the theme of water, an oil company wants to build a pipeline through North Dakota. It would have run right by Bismarck, the state capital. The people there believed that this would put their drinking water at risk. Oil does tend to spill; pipes do fail. In response to the concerns of Bismark’s people, which we can all understand, the pipeline got rerouted through a Sioux reservation, Standing Rock. The Sioux, who know something about living on the business end of genocide for the past few centuries, objected too. They would also prefer that they and their children did not drink poison, as well as that an oil pipeline not run through their sacred lands. For some time now they have conducted a large, peaceful protest against the construction, to which the police have responded with violence. That includes spraying water on the protesters at night, in November on the high plains, which ought to count as lethal force all by itself.

I understand that many people stand to make a great deal of money off this pipeline, including the man who lost the late presidential election. But when the people of Bismarck objected to the route endangering their water, plans changed. Ninety percent of the people who live in that city can boast white skin, which goes a long way. The Sioux cannot, so they get to have their children poisoned and their holy places despoiled. Their resistance, not that of Bismarck, brought down the heavy hand of the law. Here, as in Flint and as we do in countless other times and places, people made a decision. White children don’t deserve poisoned water. No one will drive a pipeline through one of Bismarck’s churches. The Sioux have no such immunity. Their concerns, lives, and culture don’t count any more than the people of Flint do.

It may be that some of the people who made the decisions for Flint and North Dakota exulted at the thought of afflicting minorities. If I have learned anything from the research I do for this blog, I have learned to never underestimate the power of pure malice. But it doesn’t matter if they acted with depraved hearts, they did what they did. We can’t know fully the minds of others, however much we try, but they write their actions on the bodies of their victims. The rest of us must make our own choices then. Even if we can’t follow every issue and understand each controversy, we decide when they come before us. We can refuse to allow such things to happen in our name or we can turn away and tell stories about well-meaning mistakes and oversights, reducing those genuinely harmed to an irrelevant detail. A band of neo-Nazis or Klansmen might harm people by the score, but all of us standing by play our part in far greater crimes. A gang can kill dozens or hundreds; policy, silent assent, and willful blindness reach millions.

“We will wipe out the damned Territorial Government” The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Two

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

James F. Legate served on Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury. After they voted to arrest the free state leadership and destroy the Free State Hotel and suppress Kansas’ antislavery papers, he went to warn Kansas’ former governor and present free state delegate to congress, Andrew Reeder. Reeder and the leadership put their heads together at Lawrence and decided that they might soon need to fight with guns as well as words. They made emergency plans to call together the state legislature to bulk up their institutions and endow them with a stronger legal basis. Governor Charles Robinson would go East “to raise men and arms”. Except for the travel plans, Robinson already did that job as the Emigrant Aid Company’s agent in Kansas. Reeder would stay behind and submit to arrest, his high profile making him the ideal choice for public relations.

They talked about organizing the militia and how armed resistance might soon come, but what came next seems less clear:

We did not determine what we would do as a last resort in case the General Government took the field against us, and gave us the alternative of backing our or levying war against them. This would not be the silly sham treason for which indictments are found now, but actual treason at least in the latter, although as holy and glorious in spirit as the dawn of the Revolution of ’76. Robinson declares that at least we will wipe out the d—-d Territorial Government absolutely and effectually, and to this we all assented.

In one respect, this demonstrates a shift in free state thought. They might actually go to war with the United States, a course they had refused to consider in public or private. To hear it from Robinson, the most peaceable of the group, speaks volumes. His own version, which includes Sherman and Howard in the discussion, differs slightly:

there was a possibility of a general conflict of arms; that should it be impossible to avoid such conflict without a surrender of the Free-State cause, it must be met, and if met the Free-State men should take issue rather in defense of the State organization than offensively against the territorial.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Robinson stresses the contingency of the choice for arms more than Reeder does, but he agrees in substance. The free state governor might prefer peace, out of conviction, disposition, or circumstance, but he had asked the legislature to vote up an army and stood high in the ranks of the Kansas Legion. Battle with the United States would put them on new and much more dangerous ground, but free state militias had already mustered to fight border ruffians. In contemplating the Union itself, at least in Kansas, as an instrument of the slave power deserving forcible resistance they put themselves in line with the rescuers of fugitive slaves and diehard abolitionists in just the way they had vigorously denied only months before.

 

 

“Perhaps I should better be arrested” The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part One

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury ordered the arrest of the free state leadership, which brought their plight to a new low. Mobs had come to destroy them back in December, but that time Governor Shannon brokered a peace. He ought to have done, considering he did his best to get the border ruffians to Lawrence to start with. Now the free state men faced down the territorial judiciary. They had long feared such a confrontation, probably all the way back to the passage of the laws against antislavery politics. According to Andrew Reeder’s diary, which may benefit from some hindsight, they had the sense that the chances of legal action had lately increased. Reeder reports that on May 6, after seeing witnesses with the Howard Committee, he had tea and then returned home alone through the woods. He considered that a “rather imprudent” choice. The arrest orders went out on the day previous, though he didn’t know at the time.

The next day, Reeder again attended the Howard Committee. They adjourned at four in the afternoon and Reeder

Learned from the best authority (a grand juror and others) that the plan we had so often heard of was about being carried out, to paralyze the Free-State party; that the grand jury now in session at Lecompton had been charged by the court [….] that not only all the officers of the State Government, but all the judges of election, were indictable.

Reeder says that similar things had happened previously, but no one had pressed the case and drunken jurors lost the indictments in the street. Lecompte, who Reeder calls “a man of frivolous mind, little ability, less integrity, great perversity and indolence, and limited knowledge of the law” had presided over that court as well. Fortunately, grand juror James F. Legate, went to warn Reeder.

Armed with the news, Reeder met with Governor Robinson and Lieutenant Governor Roberts to decide how to respond. Recognizing a decapitation strike when they saw one, they resolved to move against it. Reeder tells of plans to summon the free state legislature before the proslavery men could arrest the lot. The legislature could then establish a court to order the other territorial court to release any men taken. On the more plausible and practical front, this likely presaged a clash of arms. Thus

It is agreed also that some one shall go East to raise men and arms to prepare for this emergency, and for several reasons that Robinson would better go, after issuing his proclamation for the Legislature to assemble, leaving Roberts to act in his place. I suggested that I would like to have them try one of their indictments for treason on me, and that perhaps I should better be arrested.

Samuel Lecompte

Samuel Lecompte

As the former governor, Reeder likely had the name recognition to make political hay out of his captivity. He aligned with the free state party now, but had come to Kansas a regular National Democrat bearing a commission with Franklin Pierce’s signature. No one could mistake him for an antislavery radical or a tool of New England abolitionists, both descriptions that applied justly to Robinson. They could damn Kansas’ first governor as an aggrieved spoilsman bent on revenge, but that accurate charge only made Reeder an ordinary politician. The fact that proslavery men would come for him along with the radicals would do much to prove that they had, in fact, taken it on themselves to trample the rights of all white men.

Further Action from Lecompte’s Grand Jury

Samuel Lecompte

Samuel Lecompte

Samuel Lecompte, the slaveholding Chief Justice of Kansas Territory, instructed his grand jury about treasonable behavior. If anybody in Kansas did something so wild as placing themselves in opposition to and resisting the laws of the territory, then they resisted the laws of the United States too. That made them traitors and the jurors must act even if they had no evidence that treasonable action had occurred. Organization and intent to resist counted just as much. The judge went so far as to practically order his grand jury to indict free state leaders by name, running down a list of the offices they occupied in the wildcat government. They acted accordingly, ordering the arrest of the free state leadership.

In itself, that made for a tremendous attack on the free state movement. Jailed leaders would have a difficult time leading anything. They would face considerable personal danger, both from the results of legal process and any convenient accidents that might transpire. The mere fact of their imprisonment might deter support from elsewhere in the nation, as it would then necessitate collision of a kind with the authority of the United States. But the grand jury did one better than that. It found

that the newspaper known as The Herald of Freedom, published at the town of Lawrence, has from time to time issued publications of the most inflammatory and seditious character, denying the legality of the territorial authorities, addressing and commanding forcible resistance to the same, demoralizing the public mind, and rendering life and property unsafe, even to the extent of advising assassination as a last resort

George Brown’s paper had done all of that, with the possible exception of the assassination business. So had The Kansas Free State, with whom he often feuded. The grand jury advised “their abatement as a nuisance.” In other words, the law should shut them down. The nineteenth century didn’t have our First Amendment scruples. People across the political spectrum agreed that speech of certain sorts did not suit public order and deserved suppression, much as some of us still believe of what we consider obscenity. Under that theory, southern states had often acted to keep antislavery publications from circulating.

Furthermore:

we are satisfied that the building known as the ‘Free-State Hotel’ in Lawrence has been constructed with the view to military occupation and defence, regularly parapeted and portholed for the use of cannon and small arms, and could only have been designed as a stronghold of resistance to law, thereby endangering the public safety, and encouraging rebellion and sedition in this country; and respectfully recommend that steps be taken whereby this nuisance may be removed.

I don’t recall seeing that claim except in proslavery sources, but given that the free state men had erected earthworks in Lawrence and used the hotel as a redoubt back in December, it sounds reasonable.

All of this comes together for a comprehensive program of suppression. The proslavery party would arrest the leaders of the opposition. In the nineteenth century, newspaper editors served as important agents for political parties too. Thus the papers must go as well. Then the proslavery side would take even the means of armed resistance away. A majority of Kansans might still oppose them, but without leaders or a voice to organize that resistance they could not hope to prevail.

The Chief Justice’s Instructions to the Jury

Samuel Lecompte

Samuel Lecompte

A grand jury acting under the instructions of Chief Justice Samuel Lecompte, a Pierce appointee and slaveholder, issued warrants to arrest Charles Robinson, Andrew Reeder, James Lane, and several other prominent free state men. The proslavery party now had the legal weaponry it needed to decapitate their enemies, end the free state government, and complete their paper conquest of Kansas Territory. No one could have mistaken Lecompte’s end, but his reasoning bears looking into. William Addison Phillips has the text of Lecompte’s “most remarkable charge”. It deserves a look.

Lecompte began with an ordinary statement of what a grand jury needed to do: look into any possible lawbreaking that came up and issue what indictments seemed proper. As it happened, the Chief Justice had one in mind.

Your attention will naturally be turned toward an unlawful, and before unheard-of organization, that has been formed in our midst, for the purpose of resisting the laws of the United States.

The jurors must proceed “calmly,” without concern for “the exciting state of affairs.” They had a duty to stick to their oaths and act without respect to party or person, taking only the law as their guide. In the unlikely event that someone thought Lecompte meant antislavery militia companies or some other threat to good order, he laid it out so no one could mistake him:

You will take into consideration the cases of men who are dubbed governors […] lieutenant-governors […] secretaries and treasurers, and men who are dubbed all the various other dubbs with which this territory is filling

When weighing the cases against such men, essentially the entire free state government, Lecompte told the jurors that they must take the territorial laws seriously. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, a federal statute, made the territory and established its government. The purloined territorial legislature and its officers, as well as federal appointees like Lecompte and Governor Shannon, derived their authority from that statute. The laws of the territory and acts of its officials thus inherited the authority of the United States itself. As Phillips puts it:

the United States makes laws by proxy, employing the borderers of Missouri to make the laws, inasmuch as being way out West it is inconvenient for her to come herself

To resist those laws meant to defy the Union, not some mere territorial government. To fly in the face of the authority of the United States made men disloyal and “guilty of high treason.” Thus, should the jurors find any such men who had defied the laws, by the strength of their oaths they had a duty to indict them. If the jurors found no active resistance, but organizations devoted to it all the same, then they must indict for the crime of “constructive treason”. Treasonable intention in itself sufficed.

We might take all of this as so much bluster. Talk about treason has permeated Kansas affairs in one way or another for as long as antislavery Kansans have chosen to resist their illegitimate government and Lecompte’s instructions to the jury fit neatly into that tradition. But we should not forget that he occupied a federal office of real authority. The Squatter Sovereign could gas about treason all it wanted and never have it come to much. When a federal judge deemed a person a traitor, they stood a good chance of soon decorating a gallows.

 

Thoughts on Donald Trump’s America

A couple of weeks ago, criminal and authoritarian Donald Trump lost the presidential election and so spared us four to eight years of looting the treasury and rule by open, unrepentant white supremacists, anti-semites, homophobes, and other assorted menaces to human rights, decency, and lives. His loss probably saved the tattered remains of American democracy for that same span. But white Americans don’t like that sort of outcome. We have had quite enough of this noise about non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and non-men deserving rights we feel bound to respect. So we made him president-elect anyway. We didn’t all sign on for that, but I suspect most of reading this can remember the last time the loser got to have the presidency anyway. If the American people all counted equally, we would live in a different world. We have a system that insists otherwise, granting tremendous power to mostly white, sparsely-populated states which they use from time to time to tell the rest of us that their dirt and trees count for more than our lives. Should you have heard the term “structural racism” and wondered how that worked, now you know.

Let us not deceive ourselves. Trump ran an openly racist campaign. At least one person vying for any office in the United States runs a racist, but we had norms about that. You chose policies that just happened to disproportionately harm minorities. You signaled your allegiance to white power with a code: law and order, welfare queens, entitlement cuts, small government, tough on drugs. I could go on. We all know what these things mean, but we pretend otherwise and then scratch our heads at how everyone else votes so differently from white America. They just can’t have reasons; only white people can afford those.

Those norms worked to facilitate racist outcomes, just as everything else in our discourse about “race” does. We imagine race as a thing out in the world, like the weather. What can we do about race or the rain? If we talked about racism instead, then we would have to admit that we choose it. We white Americans struck a deal with ourselves. We agreed to put some of the most egregious expressions of white supremacy beyond the pale, in exchange for keeping the rest. We agreed that the Dylann Roofs of the world had no place in our society, except for letting us denounce them and shrug off the far greater number of lives we waste at the stroke of a presidential pen or by carefully filling out the dot on our ballots. That norm didn’t count for much, but we assented to it away only after a great struggle still in living memory. We do not permit open racist intentions in our politics.

So much for that. He lost the election, but because we have a fundamentally broken system which structurally privileges whites above everyone else, the high-rent version of Dylann Roof moves into the White House in January. Scholars of authoritarianism, both the twentieth century German version and more modern, less famous brands have come forward to warn us; they do not do so lightly. They did not turn out for George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, or Ronald Reagan. He has named a segregationist with the apt name Jefferson Beauregard, a man so racist that the Republican party of the 1980s rejected him for a the federal bench, to run the executive department founded to preserve the rights of the freedpeople. He has an anti-semite as his chief advisor. He stands poised to use the American government to enrich his personal businesses, just as the masters of stereotypical banana republics do.

I believe we will have elections in 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2024; I do not expect the forms of American government to vanish. Putin’s Russia has elections too. They have done nothing to prevent authoritarianism there. We have stronger institutions, but they have endured a decades-long assault. Political parties have the job of keeping out the wildly unqualified and dangerous. They failed. The media ought to serve as watchdogs for our liberties. Instead of speaking of racists, neo-Nazis, the Klan, and all the rest, they deem Trump’s friends merely “controversial”. They wonder endlessly how they lost touch with the white working class, as though no other voters existed. In a nation where billionaires can destroy media outlets through the legal system, you don’t need censors. They’ll do the job themselves.

We imagine that democracy ends with a great crash. The world turns gray, the clouds roll in, and everyone forgets how to smile. The real world doesn’t support Mordor or any reasonable approximation. We will not wake up one day and discover that we have moved to in our sleep North Korea. Life goes on. You will probably still have friends and family. Good days and bad will come and go. Most of us will probably not have a mob rush up and clap us in literal chains. Real world oppression doesn’t work like that. It comes on little by little, small adjustments that don’t seem to mean anything. They happen to people far away, on the margins, to the hated. You get used to one and then the next comes. Things once unthinkable become ordinary, even welcome. Maybe something upsets you, but you learn to stay quiet. The rules become clear and we stick to them. We still have something to lose, after all.

You may choose not to believe me, Gentle Readers. I would gain no satisfaction from getting this right. But let me tell you something: back when I went to school, we reserved torture for the heights of villainy. Nazis tortured, not the United States. Under George W. Bush, the United States adopted torture as a matter of policy. When news of that broke, we did not unite in horror against it. Instead the administration and its defenders insisted we had done no wrong, redefining the word ‘torture’ to hide its substance and making a matter of human rights into one of simple partisanship. Trump has told us he will resume torture, and then some.

Trump’s surrogates now cite the internment of Japanese-Americans as precedent for their proposed national registry for Muslims. They expect us to take that not as a warning, but as a grounding in history they believe we should happily emulate. Come January, we have an administration which promised these things to us. If they come, they will owe their arrival not to surprise or shock, but planning.

Speaking of planning, a national registry of Muslims would serve as an ideal precursor for rounding them up into internment camps. Once we have them there, we might put them to work. If they don’t work, or prove difficult, we have the tools to deal with that too. They have already rolled out informally, as all the Klansmen and neo-Nazis, uniformed or otherwise, understand that Trump’s America has their backs. I don’t know if we will go that far, but we have already crossed more Rubicons than I care to count. The Nazis did not begin with Auschwitz, but with street thugs. They proceeded through roving bands of armed men in uniform, something Americans have plenty of experience with in the form of white sheets. The gas chambers and crematoria came late and killed fewer than those bands.

Don’t believe it can never happen here. This country enslaved four million people and only stopped after four years of bloody war. After it ended, we got almost all the way back to slavery again within twenty years and it took the better part of a century to claw our way back to measures that Reconstruction-era Republicans would have found broadly familiar. We have spent the decades since slowly rolling them back again; we just had our first election without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. The Native Americans did not kindly die of disease to free up a continent for us. We white Americans murdered our way across it and now pretend the survivors’ descendants don’t exist. Past Americans can only show us theoretical ceilings: we know that we can go this far, but we may do them one better. We should not succumb to the temptation of the barrel’s bottom; it has none. The horrors of our past and present have far more often burned themselves out in a frenzy of self-destruction or yielded to overwhelming external force than they have discovered some long-neglected scruple on their own.

None of us knows what will come, but we should open our eyes to what looks likely. We should take seriously the warnings we have received from survivors and scholars alike. I start with this one:

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.

I hope I am alarmed for nothing; being right would give me no satisfaction at all. But here I must remind you what Dylann Roof said before he went on his murder spree:

You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go

Those words put Roof one paycheck away from giving an official campaign speech. The day before he walked into that church in Charleston, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president with these words:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

Roof had only ordinary firearms, themselves all too deadly, at his command. Come January, President-Elect Trump inherits a massive national security apparatus armed with nuclear weapons. We do not have the luxury, for the sake of our lives and those of countless human beings here and abroad, of taking him lightly.

Judge Lecompte Steps In

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Given a proslavery sheriff got shot in Lawrence on the night of April 23-24, 1856, proslavery witnesses did not feel safe coming to the town to give their testimony to the Howard Committee. Business went on all the same, with the committee hearing from more than sixty witnesses in Lawrence before decamping to Tecumseh. That occupied them up through May 3, including an attempt to get Sheriff Jones’ testimony. At John Whitfield’s request, they sent a sergeant-at-arms off to Franklin to inquire if he had recovered enough to speak to the committee. Jones had not.

The committee promised to go about Kansas and find places where proslavery men might come confident of their safety, which they would do in due course. Antislavery witnesses had similar fears, backed by the well-established proclivity of proslavery settlements to harass and attack them. As John Sherman put it in his memoir

There was no difficulty in obtaining witnesses or testimony, but, as a rule, the witnesses on one side would only testify in Lawrence, and those on the other in Lecompton or Leavenworth. They were like soldiers in hostile armies, careful to keep outside of the enemy’s camp.

Both parties had good reason to distrust the other going back near to two years now, though Charles Robinson proved willing to brave the proslavery capital at Lecompton; Sherman noted his hostile welcome there. The committee’s work continued for some time, but soon faced a different obstacle. Just as a warrant for Samuel Wood’s arrest had led to Samuel Jones’ shooting and complicated the business of hearing witnesses, another set of warrants intervened.

While the committee met in Tecumseh, the United States District Court met in Lecompton. Samuel (yet another Samuel) Lecompte, who lent his name to the town, presided. He had a grand jury and meant to use it. William Phillips reports that

Lecompte, at the opening of the court, delivered a most remarkable charge to the grand jury, in which he specified that they should indict those persons for certain offenses. He urged the grand jury to do so, and not to be deterred by the fear that the laws of the territory or the process under such circumstances would not be executed; assuring them that there would be force to execute them. He also told them they must not hesitate to indict these persons because they were sincere in their opinions, and cited the early witchcraft history of Massachusetts, to prove the impropriety of being regulated by sincerity.

Samuel Lecompte

Samuel Lecompte

In later life, Lecompte would deny that he had gone above and beyond his authority or invented novel doctrines of treason, but his statement in Spring’s Kansas: The Prelude to the War for the Union makes his intentions clear:

in the madness of partisan strife, under the provocations of unprincipled leaders, when the laws of the territory were denounced as ‘bogus,’ their authority defied, and an opposing legislature, without semblance of authority, set up, when insurgent military forces were organizing, equipping, drilling-that, I say in such untoward circumstances, the judiciary should have felt called upon to instruct the grand jury upon the subject of treason, that the grand jury should have made presentments, and the district attorney preferred indictments, can hardly be a cause for wonder.

In other words, the free state leadership now had warrants out for their arrest, just as Samuel Wood had when the latest unpleasantness around Lawrence began. Samuel Jones might not serve them, but someone would soon come to town to follow in his footsteps and collect Charles Robinson, James Lane, and Andrew Reeder.

The Howard Committee’s Difficulties, Part Two

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee had a problem. They had come all the way out to Lawrence to gather testimony on how Kansas had gone so badly wrong as to end up with two governments, both of which elected a delegate to Congress. They put the dueling delegates, John Whitfield and Andrew Reeder, in charge of making the case for their respective parties. The night after their first meeting in the unofficial free state capital, someone shot Samuel Jones in the back. The attempted assassination of one of the proslavery party’s most militant field leaders in Lawrence did not make a visit appealing to many proslavery witnesses. John Whitfield gave notice that his people, understandably, no longer felt safe in coming to town.

In response Mordechai Oliver, the member from Missouri, moved

On account of the excitement now prevailing in the city of Lawrence and the surrounding country, growing out of the assassination of sheriff Jones when engaged in the lawful discharge of his duty, which assassination and consequent excitement he believes will deter parties and witnesses from coming and appearing before the committee, he objects to proceeding with the investigation further at this time at this point, and suggests that the committee adjourn to Fort Leavenworth

The Committee met in the Free State Hotel, literally discussing the assassination attempt on Jones under the same roof where he had convalesced. A note in the minutes relates that they met in the morning, but adjourned at once out of respect for his plight. They came back together to answer Whitfield’s letter and weigh Oliver’s motion. The majority went against Oliver’s motion for removal and they answered Whitfield in writing. They understood the plight of his proslavery witnesses and would accommodate them

at their earliest convenience, at any suitable place, giving you ample notice and the benefit of our subpoena to collect as many witnesses as you may desire, at such place as you may designate.

Name the place and the committee would come to hear Whitfield’s evidence. They could hardly deny the safety concerns for his people after what happened the night before and meant to go around Kansas for the convenience of witnesses anyway. However, they would not just abandon Lawrence and informed Whitfield that he ought to stay around. They had antislavery witnesses who also deserved a hearing, who had no safety concerns about the town, and Whitfield needed to come along so he could cross-examine them and help the committee learn the truth of things. If Whitfield didn’t feel personally safe enough, he could send his lawyer instead.