Proslavery Scruples and the Sack of Lawrence

William Addison Phillips

William Addison Phillips

William Phillips and the Lawrence memorialists both take pains to inform their readers that not every proslavery man came to Lawrence to rape or steal. Their officers, as they had back in December, wanted an orderly mob that would only molest direct political enemies. They had court orders to suppress the free state papers. Though it appears no direct order to destroy the Free State Hotel existed, Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury had condemned it and suggested removal. Alice Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas holds that Jones’ men only acted against it because he lied and claimed they had such an order.  Etcheson’s much more recent book of the same name doesn’t comment on the question.

As the memorialists put it:

We believe that many of the captains of the invading companies exerted themselves to the utmost for the protection of life and property. Some of them protested against these enormous outrages, and endeavored to dissuade Samuel J. Jones from their perpetration. Many used personal effort to remove such property as was possible from the Eldridge House before its destruction. Among those stood prominently Colonel Zadock Jackson, of Georgia, who did not scruple either in Lawrence or his own camp to denounce the outrages in terms such as they deserved.  Colonel Buford, of Alabama, also disclaimed having come to Kansas to destroy property, and condemned the course which had been taken. The prosecuting attorney of Douglas county, the legal adviser of the sheriff, used his influence in vain to prevent the destruction of property.

They might have included David Rice Atchison among the leaders with scruples. Phillips’ version had him direct the bombardment of the Free State Hotel, and Bourbon Dave didn’t mind a good scrap, but he had helped Wilson Shannon end the Wakarusa War. He could have understood his role there as part of the legitimate purpose of the mob and still condemned the outrages that took place once the posse had finished with the building. Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas has him active on that front, but she references unpublished correspondence and a biography of the senator dating back to the Sixties, neither of which I presently have access to.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

A proslavery account Phillips shares, published first in the Lecompton Union, expands on the point:

Before entering town our commanders instructed each member of his company of the consequences befalling the violation of any private property. As far as we can learn, they attended strictly to these instructions. One act we regret to mention – the firing of Robinson’s house. Although there is but little doubt as to the real owners of this property [They believed the Emigrant Aid Company owned Robinson’s home.] yet it was a private residence, and should have remained untouched. During the excitement, the commisary, of Col. Abell, of Atchison city, learned that it was on fire, and immediately detailed a company to suppress the flames, which was done. Once afterwards, we understand, Sheriff Jones had the flames suppressed, and the boys guilty of the act were sent immediately to camp; but with regret we saw the building on fire that night about ten o’clock.

It bears noting in all of this that the proslavery force displayed these keen scruples, albeit imperfectly, in the defense of the property of fellow white Americans. A corporation dedicated to opposing them could have its rights trampled. The Free State Hotel and the Herald of Freedom both fit that description, as Emigrant Aid Company money kept them afloat. Miller’s Free State may have fallen under the rubric of “close enough”. Private looting and personal crimes, including the most horrific, could call into question just why they had come to defend slavery in the first place. An attack on property must call into question just how seriously they took the right to human property.

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