Donaldson Answers Lawrence, Part 1

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

J.B. Donaldson had an army, which he called a posse, massing at Lecompton to move against Lawrence. The people of Lawrence asked for help from Edwin Sumner, of the 1st Cavalry. Citing his orders to only act on the request of Governor Wilson Shannon, he said he couldn’t. They asked Shannon. He told them no. That left appealing to Donaldson himself, which a public meeting did on May 14. They promised that he could serve any process he had in Lawrence without trouble, so he did not need that posse. Furthermore, they didn’t know exactly what Donaldson wanted of them. However, since the town had armed men all about harassing travelers, might the Marshal do something about that?

The US Marshal wrote back on the fifteenth:

From your professed ignorance of the demands against you, I must conclude that you are strangers, not citizens, of Lawrence, or of recent date, or been absent for some time; more particularly when an attempt was made by my deputy to execute the process of the First District court of the United States for Kansas Territory against ex-Governor Reeder, when he made a speech in the room and presence of the Congressional Committee, and denied the authority and power of said court, and threatened the life of said deputy if he attempted to execute said process; which speech and defiant threats were loudly applauded by some one or two of the citizens of Lawrence, who had assembled at the room on learning the business of the marshal, and made such hostile demonstrations that the deputy thought he and his small posse would endanger their lives in executing said process.

That barely resembles Reeder’s version of events and the minutes of the Howard Committee reveal no such dire confrontation. The former Governor might have mocked Fain and said something to the effect of “go ahead and try” in the presence of friends, but Donaldson’s version sounds like much more. All that may have taken place, but I’ve only seen claims to it here.

Donaldson didn’t buy Lawrence’s promise of peaceful cooperation either, demanding to know just “what has produced this wonderful change in the minds of the people?” The scales had surely not fallen from their eyes with regard to the laws of Kansas. Donaldson suggested that they changed their spots because those who he had warrants for had fled. Failing that, the people of Lawrence promised to comply with “legal” actions:

may it possibly be that you, now, as heretofore, expect to screen yourselves behind the word ‘legal,’ so significantly used by you?

In other words, Donaldson might come and then find that Lawrence deemed his work illegal. That prospect failed to excite, especially when combined with his knowledge

that the whole population is armed and drilled, and the whole town fortified; when, too, I recollect the meetings and resolutions adopted in Lawrence, and elsewhere in the territory, openly defying the law and the officers thereof, and threatening to resist the same to a bloody issue, and recently verified in the attempted assassination of Sheriff Jones while in the discharge of his official duties?

Donaldson ignored the distinction between Lawrence’s commitment to respect federal authority and its repudiation of the territorial government. To him, it probably didn’t matter. He likely saw Jones as an officer of the law, just like him, and didn’t care to hazard his life on the careful parsing of some abolition fanatics. That doesn’t necessarily make him a partisan hack eager to destroy the town, but at some point one has to look at the size of the “posse” he expected to help him out and wonder. One can’t put a firm number on this, but Donaldson did not need hundreds of men to guarantee his safety in Lawrence. A few dozen likely would have done the trick, especially if the men he wanted had fled as he suspected. Lawrence need not put up a fight to save people already clear of capture. It looks like still like Donaldson either had grander plans from the start or didn’t much care if his army engaged in some extracurricular depredations while he did his work.

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