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.

 

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