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.

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