The Bible, Torch, and Sharpe’s Rifle: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Four

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left Andrew Butler inveighing against the Emigrant Aid Societies for foiling David Rice Atchison’s surefire plan to win Kansas for slavery. From there, he took the requisite swipe at Andrew Reeder before moving into a full airing of grievances from the Missouri Compromise onward. Just like Atchison’s border ruffians, antislavery Yankees had driven the sober, sensible white men of the South into a fury. Every time the South gave something to get something, the North broke faith. That the South had a proven record of getting almost everything it wanted in every sectional clash didn’t enter into it. Following that, Butler accidentally told the truth:

Now, I am willing to propose a game of fair playLet the opinion of the people, as it may be formed in the process of territorial existence, determine the character of the State, and whether the State presenting herself for admission shall admit or exclude slavery be no bar to her admission.

Sir, that compromise, as it has been called, has never been observed.

Nor, Butler might have added, did anybody care if it had. Compromise-minded politicians advanced popular sovereignty with a wink, well aware that in the absence of laws to the contrary slavery would expand at least at the margins of the already enslaved states. At best, one could say they didn’t care either way. Southern politicians certainly didn’t vote for the policy on the grounds that it would create more free states. Those who opposed instituting a vote on the issue, including John Calhoun, did so on the grounds that popular sovereignty might inadvertently create free jurisdictions.

Still, Butler maintained the fiction. If anyone actually tried popular sovereignty, ignoring contradictions within it like just when a territory could choose to institute or ban slavery and what status the institution had on the ground before any laws on the question passed, then

In regard to the Territory of Kansas, I think it might well have been left a debatable ground-neither to call it a slaveholding nor a non-slaveholding State. It was an occasion when we might have cemented, in some measure, the bonds of the ancient brotherhood; but no, sir, we find that gentlemen come in with the Bible in one hand to preach against slavery and the torch in the other. That is the attitude in which they present themselves in the temple of our common deliberations-the torch in one hand and the Bible in the other-the pulpit and Sharpe’s rifle. Under the banner of theology, incendiaries march, with torches in their hands, proclaiming God’s will but doing their own.

Butler may have told a little more truth then he knew here. Most references I have seen to violence by antislavery men involve burning the homes of proslavery colonists. Literal torches did their work in Kansas, though they appear to have done it to cabins with no one inside or where the occupants had due notice and could flee. At least to date, no one appears to have burned alive. The violent clashes that end in death usually originate with proslavery actors. Some of those involve personal disputes that turn deadly, but when a proslavery militia kills an antislavery man absent such a dispute we can’t fairly pass it off as a consequence of rough frontier living. The same would hold true in reverse, which will come soon enough.

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Gallant Manslaughter and Mercenary Homicide: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Three

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2

According to Andrew Butler, the people of Lawrence and their friends in the Senate owed David Rice Atchison a debt of gratitude. Recognizing that the antislavery party had outmaneuvered the army he helped bring to destroy the town, Bourbon Dave talked them down. A hero like that did not deserve the kind of castigation employed against him one bit. Even failing that, everyone in the chamber had to know old Davy for a solid sort. Yet

Gentlemen have attributed to him a ferocity of unexampled character-an attribute that cannot assimilate to his nature. Throughout the whole contest he has always said that he was in favor of-to use his own expression-“the competition of preemption settlers.” He believed that if competition had been left to itself, and if there had been no hostile demonstration on the part of the northern societies, Kansas would have been settled by neighbors knowing each other, and who would have less objection because they did know each other; and that in the end, perhaps, there might be a few negroes, probably an “old mammy,” or some favorite servants for household purposes, or some field-laborers, contented in and bettered by their condition. He supposed that there might have been a population of that sort, and such as the masters would not like to desert, and such as they would not commit to the Abolitionists.

Butler further allowed that Atchison envisioned a Kansas with some masters, but nothing one could call slaves. Instead they would have “servants” who benefited immensely from their station. Those servants would just stand liable for sale if someone’s debts got too bad or whipping if they disobeyed. Nineteenth century paternalism included the strap for white dependents, fair enough, but comparing that status of wives and children to that of slaves misses the whole point. White Americans didn’t sell their own loved ones.

Atchison may well have believed all Butler said he did; it fits well with what other proslavery Missourians have said about Kansas. Such ideas also lay out the always appealing coin flip program where heads mean one wins and tails that the other loses. If those Yankees had not organized to colonize Kansas for themselves, then Missourians would have had the territory for their own and no strife would have ensued. But since antislavery northerners refused to accept Kansas for slavery without contest, the competition became unfair and Missourians had to pitch in to settle things properly.

Butler made no bones about that either:

I am not going to put on an equality, or anything like an equality, the movements and conduct of those who have gone to Kansas with Sharpe’s rifles in their hands, and the Missouri “border ruffians,” as they have been termed. they are not in pari delictu. [sic]

Pari delicto, which the Congressional Globe reporter misspelled, means “in equal fault”.

Looking at the records of the proslavery and antislavery organizations to March of 1856, Butler found a microcosm of sectional characters. The “westerners” (proslavery Missourians) showed their “daring gallantry,” “open hospitality” and never drew their swords except in the heat of passion. Any murders they did, you really had to count as manslaughter.

Those calculating Yankees did things the other way, plotting from “a distance of a thousand miles”. They dispatched men with uniform weapons of the finest sort, not rude sidearms and shotguns for personal defense. They came not to settle, but to drive away other settlers. Good southerners committed manslaughter, but these northerners killed them in an act which “would much nearer approach a mercenary homicide.”

Antislavery Ingrates: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Two

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

We left Andrew Butler, David Rice Atchison’s old housemate, opining on Kansas matters to the United States Senate. He began by castigating John Hale (R-NH), for calling out the Supreme Court and Franklin Pierce. They had not, per Butler, contradicted their principles or gone whole hog for slavery. The Senator from South Carolina admitted, however, that if Roger Taney had done so then that would not warrant an objection from him. With all that throat-clearing and about three columns of the Congressional Globe under his belt, Butler moved on to discussing his old friend. Atchison’s senatorial enemies, Hale included,

attributed to him a ferocity and vulgar indifference and recklessness in relation to the affairs in Kansas, which is refuted by every confidential letter which he has written to me, and which is not in conformity to the truth.

Butler’s friend surely wouldn’t lie to him. If Atchison denied misconduct in private letters, it ought to settle things. Bourbon Dave didn’t make himself anyone’s enemy, not even Kansans who arrived courtesy of the Emigrant Aid Societies. Missouri’s former senator might have “the attributes of a conqueror of that class of people” but Butler didn’t cast Atchison as an Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. Rather he would conquer the hearts of his foes:

Let those who asperse him settle around him as neighbors, and if their houses were burned down and assistance were required, he would be the first man to render them assistance, and he would conquer them by his kindness, by his justice, by his good sense, and by generosity.

Antislavery Kansans might disagree, rightly noting that Atchison had a large role in directing the blue lodges that campaigned against them and authored many of their sufferings. What Atchison’s men didn’t bring over from Missouri, his allies in Kansas conducted on his behalf. Butler must have anticipated, or already heard, that charge because he turned it around in a passage ripe with perverse reasoning:

There was never a better illustration of his [Atchison’s] character than the conduct he displayed in the expected tragedy at Lawrence. I know the fact, and I state it on my authority, as a truth not to be disputed, (because I have his letters in my drawer,) that, when that controversy arose, General Atchison was absolutely called upon to attend General Robinson’s command, and he went, with a positive pledge on the part of those with whom he was associated that he should rather be the Mentor than the leader; and he has written to me that but for his mediatorial offices, the houses of the people of Lawrence would have been burnt and the streets drenched in blood.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Butler spoke in early March, before the sack of Lawrence. He refers here to the Wakarusa War, where Atchison did help calm the proslavery forces bent on the town’s ruin. He neglects that Atchison also acted as a leader and organizer of those forces. Nor does it matter much to him, if he knew, that Atchison defended seeking peace on the grounds that the free state leadership had outmaneuvered the proslavery side and would win the public relations war if bloodshed ensued just then. Bourbon Dave boldly stood up to his allies and told them that they had lost this round.

All of that made the latter-day calumniators of Atchison who wanted him “immolated on the altar of fanatical vengeance” into vile ingrates. The people of Lawrence and their friends in the Senate ought to thank Atchison; he saved their people and their town from the ravages of his own men. We should hope for neighbors of such quality.

Youthful Indiscretions: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part One

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

A Closer Look at Atchison, parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

We left David Rice Atchison anticipating the historical consensus on Franklin Pierce as president. The proclamations against the free state party, even if they had empty swipes at Atchison’s own cross-border activities, raised the president’s stock to slightly better than indifferent. When Wilson Shannon failed to move against the free state government’s legislature in March of 1856, all of a month later, the ex-Senator looked at Shannon’s consultations with Pierce and realized that the pleasant Mr. Pierce had failed again. Just as expected, the President told people what they wanted to hear and declined to live up to it after they left his sight.

More than Border Ruffians, embattled Kansans, and Emigrant Aid Company boosters read Pierce’s law and order proclamation. Lately a Senator, Atchison still had many friends in Washington. His antics provided grist for those opposing the administration’s position on Kansas and thus prompted Bourbon Dave’s associates still in office to stand up in his defense. This sets us on a path that will lead to the great Kansas set piece that took place not in the troubled territory or its anxious neighbor, but the chamber of the United States Senate.

On February 28, Atchison’s F-Street messmate Andrew Butler wrote to Bourbon Dave that

A debate is going on, here, that would amuse you very much if you were present. You have a place in the picture; and a prominent place.

Butler aimed to answer Atchison’s foes, which he did on March 5. This takes us to the Congressional Globe, that three-columned horror of tiny print that historians rarely miss a chance to complain about. In imitation of my betters, I will say that Butler’s speech on that day takes up nine columns between pages 584 and 587. If you want to read along, the Globe comes organized by Congress and session. The following hails from the 34th Congress, 1st session.

Butler’s speech began on an odd note. RMT Hunter -another F Streeter- complained that the Senator from South Carolina did not feel well. Could the Senate maybe postpone the Kansas debate until tomorrow? Several Senators moved for Monday instead, but John B. Weller (D-CA) said he wanted the day for a military appropriations bill. That in mind, Butler stuck it out

with a view to make a very few remarks in order to relieve the Senate from any impression which might be made on it by the statements made here on the responsibility of Senators, or by newspaper communications, in relation to the part which my friend, General Atchison, has acted in Kansas affairs. I intend no more

John Hale

Nineteenth century politicians promising brevity rarely deliver. Butler opened with half a column on the pregnant circumstances, the danger of civil war, and other boilerplate. Then he castigated John Hale (R-NH) for some remarks me made. Hale ought to have known better, in light of his long service, but Butler cast him as “a committed advocate to a sectional, fanatical organization” and thus obligated to repeat things beneath him. Hale had called the Supreme Court “the citadel of slavery.” As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Butler took that personally. His long “intercourse” with Roger Taney told him that the Court stood for the Constitution, not slavery per se. He then waxed Biblical on antislavery theories of higher law, by which Old Scratch persuaded Eve to want a forbidden snack.

Of course Butler didn’t mean that the United States Constitution had a divine pedigree or that Supreme Court rulings came god-breathed from Taney’s pen. Fallible men made mistakes. He had in mind Taney’s ruling on Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, which granted states the power to pass laws impeding the recovery of fugitive slaves. Butler, like everyone else, stood for a court above politics. Putting itself above politics meant that the Court would agree with the Senator any time he found it important, also just like everyone else.

Franklin Pierce

Butler then wandered off into a discussion of Hale’s complaint that Pierce contradicted himself between his response to the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island, wherein many rejected the vintage 1600s charter of the colony and demanded a more modern constitution. Pierce had sided with an illegal government against a legitimate one then, but not for Kansas. The Senator took some time to distance himself from Pierce, but insisted that as an American he owed the president some deference. The chief of the New Hampshire Democracy might take certain stands not becoming “the Chief Magistrate of this Confederacy.” In the White House, one ascended from a partisan warrior to the judge of all parties. And anyway, Pierce

was then comparatively a young man, and that having cultivated the lessons of liberty which his ancestor had taught him, much, in the language of Mr. Burke, is to be pardoned to the spirit of liberty. Another thing is to be said, that the judgment in relation to Dorr had not then been formed.

In other words, young Mr. Pierce of the New Hampshire Democracy didn’t know any better than to shelter a rebel leader. Franklin Pierce, age thirty-eight, had a head full of campus-style radicalism and anyway, the nation hadn’t come to a consensus on Dorr yet. One can’t blame “that deluded young man” in light of Dorr’s numerous “distinguished sympathizers.”

Atchison on Pierce: A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Five

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Gentle Readers, Atchison previously appeared in this series largely as an actor either on the front lines of the Kansas struggle or not far removed from them. He missed the day to day strife by remaining most of the time at Platte City, but he took an interest in southern militants who came from the east to join his crusade and took a direct hand both times that proslavery armies came to Lawrence. He also served as a promoter for the escapade in his last journey to and from Washington as Missouri’s senator. The return to Kansas meant that his work as a lobbyist took place on pen and paper, but Atchison kept it up. He corresponded with friends, interested parties, and Franklin Pierce.

Atchison’s biographer, William Parrish, has the late senator among others who wrote the President to enlighten him on the perfidy of the Free State Movement. I had suspected such a role for Bourbon Dave, but never had evidence. Parrish’s footnotes provided some. In Holloway’s History of Kansas, the author relates that as of February, 1855,

The Border chiefs did not forget to keep themselves right with the administration at Washington. That was an object of great concern with them. They sent a special messenger to represent Kansas matters to the President and his cabinet.

Holloway declines to give more details or a citation of his own, though that doesn’t set him apart from most nineteenth century historians I’ve read on Kansas matters. He merely points to a Pierce-connected paper repeating the usual claims that the proslavery side did nothing wrong and the antislavery side committed all manner of villainies. (Parrish also cites Roy Nichols’ Pierce biography, pages 443-5. To my regret, I lack a copy.) It appears that, while Pierce would probably have come down hard against the free state side even without the help, he issued his proclamations against the Free State Movement in early 1856 with information on hand from Atchison and other prominent border ruffians.

This all delighted Atchison, who wrote Stephen Douglas on February 28. It transpired that Bourbon Dave had his doubts about the pleasant Mr. Pierce, fearing that the Young Hickory of the Granite Hills would bring a soft touch and pliant will to the White House. Now he saw some much-needed spine in the administration. But Atchison didn’t fall in love like a modern television pundit, taking any trifle as an excuse to wax poetic on a politician’s virtues; he knew about the system from the inside. Pierce’s stand for slavery tipped Atchison in his favor over the other prospect, James Buchanan, but he told Douglas that he, “will not put myself to any extraordinary trouble about either.”

Franklin Pierce

Wilson Shannon went to Washington to consult with the president on Kansas’ troubles, arriving shortly after Pierce issued his second proclamation that so pleased Atchison. He got back, at Pierce’s insistence, in time for the free state legislature convening on March 4. Then Shannon failed to do anything to break up the gathering and Bourbon Dave cooled on the President for it. He wrote an Abel R. Corbin

If the General Government would only leave Kansas to the nurture of the ‘Border Ruffians’ we would soon have peace in that quarter, but as Genl Pierce has taken the matter out of our hands God knows what will come of it. I do not complain of him, but I believe his motives are good, but I doubt his policy.

Political enemies often tar one another in terms that count less for their literal meaning than the dislike expressed. Uncertain allies can receive the same treatment. We should read Atchison in context of that, but also aware that other politicians who worked with Pierce expressed similar concerns. Douglas and the F Street men got the president’s agreement to back the Kansas-Nebraska Act in writing because they feared he would tell them what they wanted to hear and then promptly forget. Contemporaries call the president pleasant with the implication that they didn’t have much nicer to say, particularly about his intellect. Dim bulb or not, I’ve yet to find any historian who holds Pierce in high regard. Most likely his contemporaries had more than political concerns about him.

A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Four

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left David Rice Atchison’s senate seat empty, as it would remain until 1857, and the man himself fully engaged with Kansas affairs. He won the apparently permanent emnity of Thomas Hart Benton’s wing of the Missouri democracy by orchestrating the senior senator’s involuntary retirement in coalition with the Whigs. Atchison probably considered Kansas the more important matter, and likely a road to finding himself in Washington again someday. He had refused to actively seek reelection. But Bourbon Dave still found time to resent the situation. On December 14, 1855, he wrote that the Missouri legislature lacked

the moral courage to elect me, a majority of them would prefer my election to that of any other person yet they have not the moral courage to do it

Atchison had the votes but failed, somehow, to have the votes. He went on to tell his correspondent that the press would implicate him in the late Wakarusa War. He doesn’t seem to have minded that so much, as a man who led two hundred armed men into Kansas on that occasion might well have. Atchison couldn’t help himself,

but when I do move in earnest here will be a noise louder than thunder or I am mistaken.

And furthermore:

Before the moon shall fill her hours twelve times you shall hear more from me.

More from Atchison, thunderous or not, included a public statement declaring he would not accept any elected office. Bourbon Dave’s papers explained that he withdrew from the Senate race in order to help the Missouri Democracy reunite. But if Atchison wouldn’t answer Missouri’s call, which he probably would not have received anyway, then at least a few in the South would answer his. In the fall of the year, the emissaries that his people had chosen to fan out across the South looking for proslavery settlers. They had some success, if never as much as they dreamed.

Georgia’s governor recommended a Southern convention if Congress failed to accept Kansas as a slave state, a proposal Atchison endorsed. A Southern convention naturally invoked memories of Nashville. Get enough angry southerners together and they might decide to do something drastic, so the nation had best concede the territory. Everyone, except the slaves, would win:

This course on the part of the South will save Kansas to the South-save bloodshed, civil war, and perhaps a dissolution of the Union itself.

In January, Missouri’s former senator followed that letter up with another, repeating the call for immigration:

Let your young men come forth to Missouri and Kansas. Let them come well armed, with money enough to support them for twelve months, and determined to see this thing out. One hundred true men would be an acquisition; the more the better. I do not see how we are to avoid civil war; come it will. Twelve months will not elapse before war-civil war of the fiercest kind-will be upon us. We are arming and preparing for it. Indeed, we of the border counties are prepared. We must have the support of the South. We are fighting the battles of the South. Our institutions are st stake. You far Southern men are now out of the nave of war; but if we fail it will reach your own doors, perhaps your hearths. We want men-armed men. We want money-not for ourselves, but to support our friends when the come from a distance.

Atchison may have intended to follow his own advice. He mentions that he might soon move to Kansas and the Squatter Sovereign reported the news the same month. According to them, he would arrive with two hundred of his closest friends. There his slaves would farm and he would collect the profits. The paper even claimed that Atchison had moved to the territory.

Robert S. Kelley

Parrish looked into the matter, noting that Stringfellow and Kelley kept up that story through 1856. For a Kansan, Atchison did a great deal of living in Missouri. With no family of his own, he kept rooms at a Platte City hotel. He probably also rented rooms in Atchison and may have used them, but Parrish looked deep into the land records and never found evidence that Atchison bought a parcel. In my own research, Atchison always comes over from Missouri rather than down from his namesake town. The Sovereign could claim that the senator had the same basis for residence in both jurisdictions, but it doesn’t look like he lived that way.

Whether Atchison ever had serious plans to make himself a Kansan or not, others did. Late April brought the largest group of southern colonists, Jefferson Buford’s organization, arrived to do their part in saving Kansas for slavery. When Southerners came through, Atchison took an interest in them. South Carolinians particularly drew his eye and he personally housed the children of friends and others who came in their company. Corespondents asked him to advise the young men they sent on “where to settle, how to vote, and if necessary, when to fight.” Atchison the man did as asked, showing new arrivals around Atchison the town. When they came with money for him to use, he let them keep it but stood ready with advice on how to best spend their funds. In turn, the new arrivals admired Atchison well enough to honor him at banquets.

 

“The prosperity or ruin of the whole South” A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Three

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2

Proslavery Missourians and antislavery Kansans had a parallel series of conventions in their respective jurisdictions. We left David Rice Atchison, late senator from Missouri, firmly turning down the effort to turn one into the start of his reelection campaign. Bourbon Dave had given up on Washington, at least in the near term, in favor of saving Kansas for slavery. Through it, he would also save slavery in Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, and spread it to the other territories.

In the summer of 1855, almost everything turned out to Atchison’s liking. His border ruffians had secured the Kansas legislature for their own men. They ousted Andrew Reeder, who had defied them. Between governors, Daniel Woodson filled in and he had already proven his proslavery bona fides. That Franklin Pierce passed him over to appoint Wilson Shannon did not thrill the Missouri border, but Shannon soon earned the endorsement of Atchison’s Kansas-based organ, the Squatter Sovereign. The fall brought invitations for Atchison to go east and speak for the cause, as he had probably done during the winter. He declined them, citing obligations at home, but answered with a letter that made his case.

We (“the border ruffians”) have the whole power of the Northern states to content with, single-handed and alone, without assistance and almost without sympathy from any quarter; yet we are undismayed. Thus far we have bewen victorious and with the help of God, we will still continue to conquer. … The contest with us is one of life and death, and it will be so with you and your institutions if we fail. Atchison, Stringfellow and the “border ruffians” of Missouri fill a column of each abolition paper published in the North; abuse most foul, and falsehood unblushing is poured out upon us; and yet we have no advocate in the Southern press-and yet we have no assistance from the Southern States. But the time wilol shortly come when that assistance must and will be rendered. The stake the “border ruffians” are playing for is a mighty one. … In a word, the prosperity or ruin of the whole South depends on the Kansas struggle.

Atchison’s biographer added the emphasis, which neatly encapsulate’s the ex-senator’s view of the question. He certainly wrote it to exhort and guilt his fellow southerners into action, but he believed it too. Those who invited him might never have expected Atchison to turn up -such invitations often served more as a way to request a public letter- but even if they did he had work to do and probably didn’t think Kansas could spare him. The rise of the free state movement in the fall proved Atchison right.

Daniel Woodson

To answer that threat, establishment figures in Kansas tired to take a moderate tone with their Law and Order party. They positioned themselves as moderate alternative to Atchison’s hooliganism in November. At the end of the month, Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow. The ensuing strife put those hopes to rest. Daniel Woodson wrote straightaway to Kelley and Stringfellow at the Squatter Sovereign, who he could depend on to pass word into Missouri and Kansas had a new invasion. The territorial secretary especially asked that his friends bring “the Platte City cannon.” The letter crossed the border and came into Atchison’s hands. He read it to a mass meeting at Platte City, then took two hundred men into Kansas to join the campaign against abolitionism.

Yet Atchison’s rhetorical, and occasionally physical, militancy fell short again. When Wilson Shannon negotiated a settlement with the free state leadership at Lawrence, he and Albert Boone took the governor’s side in talking down the army that Atchison had himself helped gather. His argument then had less to do with principal than public relations. The antislavery side had maneuvered things so that if the proslavery men struck, they would appear as the aggressors. Without Governor Shannon’s blessing, withdrawn thanks to the settlement, turned an irregular militia into a lawless mob that would destroy the Democracy come election time and put “an abolition President” in power.

Horace Greeley

Not that this mattered to Atchison’s Missouri foes. Still a potential senator, they castigated him for plotting the destruction of the Industrial Luminary and voting in Kansas, the latter of which forfeited his Missouri citizenship and disqualified him. Failing reelection, the Missouri Democrat thought Atchison might forge some kind of breakaway proslavery nation. Atchison’s biographer, William Parrish, found no evidence for any of this. In the Democrat’s pages, even the convention where Atchison refused to make the affair into an election event proved his perfidy; the paper recast it as a failed attempt at the same. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune declared that the Squatter Sovereign’s masthead endorsed Atchison for president on the Know-Nothing ticket. The paper did endorse Atchison for the presidency, until he told them to stop, but always and only as a Democrat.

With all that going on, Missouri’s General Assembly again convened to elect a senator and again failed to manage the feat. Both houses of the legislature agreed that they should hold an election, but could not agree on a time for it. Moments of legislative grace like this did much to explain why these same bodies would eventually vote to strip themselves of the power to choose their senators in ratifying the Seventeenth Amendment. Atchison’s seat in Washington remained empty until 1857.

A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Two

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

 

We left David Rice Atchison, Senator from Missouri, invisible in the records. Between February second and twentieth of 1855, he drops off the map. During that time, Lewis Cass believed that Atchison toured the South soliciting support for his crusade in Kansas. Large rallies would have generated news reports, but if Atchison came to a state capital quietly and talked to fellow politicians behind closed doors, we might never know. Outside of Missouri and Washington, few people likely knew him on sight. He appears again back in Missouri, possibly in St. Louis on the twentieth and definitely in Jefferson City by the twenty-second.

Bourbon Dave arrived to disappointing news. The Missouri legislature had just voted to postpone choosing a new senator. Until that point, Atchison may have expected easy reelection. It turned out that his battle with Thomas Hart Benton had cost him the support of many Democrats, enough together with Missouri’s Whigs to deny him a clear majority. With nothing much to do in the state capital, he made for the border the next day. He had Kansas to save for slavery, after all. Elections for the legislature would take place on March 30 and he could hardly miss that. On the twenty-fifth, Atchison went into Kansas in the company of “eighty men and twenty-four wagons.” He came packing two Bowie knives and four pistols, just for himself. The proceeds of his movement, in fraud and intimidation, amounted to control of the legislature of Kansas.

Robert Morse Taliaferro Hunter (D-VA)

Atchison wrote his F Street messmate, Robert M.T. Hunter, celebrating the victory and asking for ten thousand southerners to come and consolidate their victory. If they could “take possession of and hold every acre of timber” then Kansas could never go against slavery. Missouri could swing half of the ten thousand, he believed, but the rest of the section had to do its part. If the section failed Atchison, then it would lose Missouri and, soon after, Texas and Arkansas. With them gone, the South would have to concede the territories entire to freedom.

But none of this made Atchison “a Bandit, a ruffian, an Aaron Burr.” Atchison did not, he would have his friend know, preside over a regime of violent hooliganism. Instead he saved the lives and homes of antislavery Kansans by restraining his men. Where he went, nothing violent transpired. He couldn’t claim any responsibility for other places, but he assured Hunter that only the most impudent got “the hickory.”

One must suspect Atchison of polishing up his reputation here, but the Howard Report found only violent threats where he personally went. He may, as he did when proslavery forces moved against Lawrence, have acted to restrain his followers just as he claimed. He still got the mob in position where it could do harm and we ought to understand the border ruffians as part of a movement he started, organized, and led. The two do not cancel out, but only together form a complete picture of Missouri’s senator.

Andrew Butler of South Carolina, another of Atchison’s late messamates fabulously declared

the advent of Kansas shall be to the living Atchison a Star in his varied galaxy of life.

A young friend or relation of Butler’s had just gone off to Kansas and Butler asked Atchison to look after him.

James Mason

James Mason, author of the Fugitive Slave Act, proved less effusive. He heard rumors that people in Kansas wanted Andrew Reeder deposed in favor of a more pliable governor. The proslavery side should not use their victory as an excuse to color outside the legal lines. Instead, if Reeder proved intransigent against the proslavery legislature, then they could charge him with various offenses and ask his removal. Atchison had anticipated Mason’s advice, bending Franklin Pierce’s ear on the issue through his old friend, classmate, and present Secretary of War. Jefferson Davis had his back, to the point where the papers referred to a coalition of the two men against Reeder. In the summer, Pierce fired him at the request of Kansas’ legislature.

In the mean time, Atchison’s Platte County men destroyed the Parkville Industrial Luminary for objecting to how Missouri had outright stolen Kansas’ legislature. Parrish, Atchison’s biographer, stresses that he has no evidence the man himself took part in the destruction, but also notes that the Squatter Sovereign praised the act. Given the close personal and political relationship between the brothers Stringfellow and Atchison, it seems unlikely they would have done so if Atchison objected. Instead they advised continuing the campaign against antislavery papers elsewhere in Missouri and, as they later would, in Lawrence.

Atchison’s reelection campaign also got off to an odd start. A proslavery convention met at St. Louis between the twelfth and fourteenth of July. It heard a motion that Atchison and his old law partner Alexander Doniphan, leading contenders for the Senate seat, give speeches. Atchison tried to give them a pass, aiming to keep the convention a proslavery affair rather than introduce partisanship into things. Doniphan, a Whig, followed his lead. The convention wouldn’t hear of it and appointed a committee, which Atchison again refused. The usual order of such things seems to have involved such refusals, but then one reconsidered when a committee affirmed that the convention really wanted you to speak. Maybe Atchison proved himself in earnest in the hopes that it would win him popularity enough to keep his post in the Senate, but Parrish rightly points out that he didn’t give up on Kansas after realizing that he would not again serve as senator. Rebuffed, the convention turned to the favorite pastime of nineteenth century mass meetings: drawing up a set of resolutions. Over in Kansas., the free state men did the same.

A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part One

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison looms large in the story of Bleeding Kansas. A man of his beliefs and inclinations, living just across the line in Missouri, would have probably taken part regardless of his national prominence. Though all but forgotten today, except for the false trivia about his serving as president for a day, in his time Atchison enjoyed a national following. After Calhoun’s death, he served as one of the most high-profile spokesmen for extreme proslavery politics. He had the high esteem of his peers in the Senate, who elected him president pro tempore, unanimously, during what many consider that body’s golden age. He appears in antislavery sources as a crude drunkard, probably with some justice, but Atchison also received a fine education and served ably as a lawyer and judge before his political career. In the former capacity, he worked to defend the Mormons from their hostile Missourian neighbors. We may know far more about him, except that most of his papers went up in smoke in a house fire. Thus when William Earl Parrish took Atchison as his subject, he produced a spare monograph that remains the Senator’s lone biography. Parrish leans heavily on Atchison’s ease in making political friends to underline his abilities, while not neglecting that Bourbon Dave put them to work in the service of slavery.

Parrish traces Atchison’s involvement with filibustering Kansas from its start. He joined with the Stringfellows, close friends of his, in calling for a meeting to discuss Kansas matters and plan a response to the Emigrant Aid Company in the summer of 1854, with the ink barely dry on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That meeting formed the Platte County Self-Defense Association, which accepted B.F. Stringfellow’s Negro-Slavery, No Evil. as its manifesto. As soon as Atchison got home from Washington, he took up control of the Self-Defensives. They used their group as a model in establishing the blue lodges that spread across Missouri and joined with a separate group Parrish calls the Kansas League, which operated inside the territory. Then the Senator came into Kansas to speak at his namesake town, just before they began selling off lots.

Atchison’s organization did not elude national notice. Amos Lawrence wrote him in March of 1855, asking the Senator to rein in his followers. Lawrence made no bones about their conflicting purposes: Atchison wanted slavery in Kansas and Lawrence wanted it out. But he asked that the two sides have a fair fight of it and assured Atchison that his organiztion did not actually have a vast legion of militant Yankees bent on conquest. If his side failed, Lawrence promised that antislavery Kansans would accept a loss in good grace “but they will never yield to injustice.”

Amos Adams Lawrence

Atchison answered in April, two weeks after the legislative elections where he and his conducted one of the largest and most flagrant frauds in American electoral history. He had no regrets:

You are right in your conjecture that I and my friends wish to make Kansas in all respects like Missouri. Our interests require it. Our peace through all time demands it, and we intend to leave nothing undone that will conduce to that end and can with honor be performed. If we fail, ten we will surrender to your care and control the State of Missouri. We have all to lose in the contest; you and your friends have nothing at stake. You propose to vote or to drive us away from Kansas. We do not propose to drive you and your friends from that Territory; but we do not intend either to be voted or driven our of Kansas, if we can help it; for we are foolish enough to believe we have as much right to inhabit that country as men from New England. Neither do we intend to be driven from Missouri, or suffer ourselves to be harassed in our property or our peace, if we can help it. At least we will try and make you and your friends share some of our anxieties.

At the time of the first delegate election, Atchison stumped across western Missouri. He told the people of Weston in to do their duty, anticipating what he would write to Lawrence in the spring:

When you reside within one day’s journey of the territory, and when your peace, your quiet, and your property depend upon your action, you can, without an exertion, send 500 of your young men who will vote in favor of your institutions.

That day or shortly thereafter, Atchison ran a convention of the various blue lodges in Weston which nominated John Wilkins Whitfield as delegate.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Bourbon Dave didn’t leave things sit with that, of course. He skipped the first few weeks of the new term of Congress that began in December of 1854. Instead of Washington, Atchison went to Independence where he presided over a meeting to choose blue lodge emissaries to fan out across the South and replicate his work. Some would send men, but Atchison would take money and propaganda too. B.F. Stringfellow drew Virginia (his home state) and Maryland as his assignment. Platte and Buchanan counties would pay his travel expenses. He traveled back east with the Senator.

At Atchison’s request the Senate had elected Jesse D. Bright, a friend of Atchison’s from university days and who represented Indiana whilst owning slaves and a plantation in Kentucky, as his replacement. Bright offered to resign in Atchison’s favor, but the Missourian turned him down. He did little in the Senate, and missed sessions entirely toward the end of January. Parrish couldn’t find proof of it, but suspected that Atchison went with Stringfellow to lobby Virginia and Maryland. The Senator likely last served in his official capacity in Washington on February 2, 1855. Afterwards, he drops off the radar for about twenty days again. The papers, national and Missourian, took no note of him except for the latter complaining that he had vanished.

The absence drew some attention after the fact. Gideon Welles confided to his diary (in a volume I can’t find online) that he asked Lewis Cass after Atchison in that time. A mutual friend told Cass that Atchison had gone

on a tour through the Southern States, concocting measures with the Governors and leading men at the South to make Kansas a slave state.

In Defense of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Gentle Readers, some of you might enjoy my prose but I suspect you keep reading for the history. That history comes from a mix of original research on my part and the work of others, who guide me to documents and further work through their footnotes. A typical post begins with my reading what a historian has said about something, checking those footnotes, and then reading the sources if I can access them. In the course of that, I also come on things by chance. If you read the acknowledgements of any history book, you’ll find long lists of colleagues, archivists, and others thanked. Still more fill the citations. Every work of history owes much to unnumbered collaborators from librarians to mentors to students, friends, and family.

And they cost money. I do my research through an internet connection, but I can do that because of you. For decades the United States has used tax dollars to fund historical research in much the same way, albeit rather less generously, as it does science. Those countless historians digging through the archives often do so with government grants. If you look through the citations of any history book, except perhaps the most narrow and technical works, you will find numerous references to widely-scattered archives. Even if one has the good fortune to live near an important archive, others always remain that require travel expenses. That’s gas for your car, your airfare, hotel costs, and historians have long accustomed themselves to eating while they do all of this. Grants and other federal funds make meeting those expenses far easier, especially for the vast majority of historians who lack the considerable wealth of the few academic superstars who regularly hit the bestseller lists.

If you have ever read a history book published in the United States in the last fifty years, you have almost certainly read a work that received support from our government many times over. In addition to the historians themselves, the United States funds many of the archives used. It has funded work I do here, by way of the digitization projects which have made so many documents available to me. I lack the funds and ability to travel to Kansas or Missouri where I might find bound volumes or loose issues of those nineteenth century papers. I journey to them through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. If you have a local museum, university, college, historical site, or library, then your community probably has had funding from them too. The NEH has a search function you can use to find what it has done for your town.

We have a public library here with an impressive local history room, which received $6,000 in 2009. To the best of my knowledge it doesn’t have any interesting slavery-related materials, but I have had occasion to use it all the same. Last fall, my father saw a news report about the anniversary of a plane crash. He vaguely recalled the event but not any details, so one Tuesday we hopped in the car and got over to the public library, which hosts the collection. I thought we would probably have to go through the microfilm and we found the proper reel, but we no sooner did that than a librarian came over. She told us that they kept clippings from the local newspaper for aircraft disasters. In less than five minutes, we sat down in a pleasant little room with one of the gray archival boxes you see in the documentaries. We came away with almost everything we needed to know. My father wanted to know about a monument that the families had built on public land. The librarian knew a few local people who studied that kind of thing and put me on the phone with one, who gave us directions. That NEH grant paid for our afternoon’s research and facilitated a thoroughly pleasant afternoon together.

The loser of the 2016 presidential election got to be president anyway. This past week he submitted a budget which does not merely cut the NEH, but actually eliminates it on the grounds, presumably, that the NEH has never killed a sufficient number of people as to impress him with its hard power bona fides. I consider it eminently worth keeping, and vastly increasing, simply for the good work it does. You can’t put a dollar value on the greater understanding of ourselves that the humanities provide. But if one insists, then the NEH consumes such a tiny part of the four trillion dollar budget that eliminating it wouldn’t pay for a brand new aircraft carrier or some other war-winning gadget for a war we have yet to embark upon. If one feels an overriding need to slash spending for its own sake, then the president might well look at his own travel budget. His weekend jaunts to his vacation home in Florida have already cost us millions, rather more than almost every historian will ever see.

The cuts to the arts and humanities will not kill anyone, which is more than I can say for most of the cuts that Trump prefers, but they do strike to the heart of this blog’s mission. I hope you will join me in condemning them and making your opposition known.