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.

 

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