Back to Lawrence

The rules for guests at the Free State Hotel, May 10, 1856

We left Lawrence behind on the back in May of 1856. A proslavery posse rampaged through the town, burning homes, destroying printing presses, and razing the Free State Hotel. They did all of this on a quest, officially, to apprehend free state leadership for whom Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury issued warrants and then to arrest people who participated in the shooting of Samuel Jones, or who rescued Jacob Branson from his custody, or just to destroy the hated antislavery party in their headquarters. Every reason pointed worked equally well as pretense, though the indiscriminate and opportunistic nature of the attack suggests that most of the mob preferred the last. Their officers struggled to restrain them from general pillage.

After all that fell out, Governor Wilson Shannon finally stirred himself. He behaved suspiciously all through the lead up to the attack on Lawrence, indicating that he might have expected and hoped things went badly for the antislavery town. Shannon could have furnished Israel Donaldson with a posse drawn from Colonel Sumner’s command. (I know of no relation between the E.V. Sumner who led the First Cavalry from Fort Leavenworth and Charles Sumner.) Everyone on the ground seems to agree that the military would provide more disciplined, reliable service. Either Shannon didn’t offer the cavalry to Donaldson -he shies away from saying that he did- or Donaldson refused him. When explaining himself later on, Shannon would surely have mentioned such an exculpatory refusal. As it happened, he dispatched them only once he knew that Lawrence had felt proslavery wrath.

Wilson Shannon

Shannon explained his action now as aimed at preventing all-out war in Kansas, which he believed would soon lead to a general civil war. By placing companies at Lecompton, Topeka, and Lawrence he would get them between the combatants. Shannon would also greatly appreciate it if the military would disperse and disarm the free state militias, which he continued to believe constituted the real problem for his territory. The Governor need not explain that all to Franklin Pierce, who agreed with him, but the president had complained of not receiving adequate updates on the situation and Shannon needed to look good for the boss.

Across the political divide, Kansas antislavery party had appearances in mind too. Donaldson had come to Lawrence with a federal posse, under his authority as a US Marshal and serving warrants from a federal court. Attacking him would have meant rebellion against the United States, something which they had to avoid the appearance of to both keep the heavy hand of Washington from descending on them and maintain public sympathy in the North. Furthermore, with debts still owed for all their military action in the Wakarusa War and the inconvenient season -the busy spring rather than the more idle winter- they lacked the means and men on hand to make a real fight of it.

They adopted a strategy of nonresistance out of those circumstances. Many antislavery men griped at that course, deeming their leaders cowards. With lives, family, property, and futures in Kansas all at stake sitting out the fight was a tall order. Even in the best of times, nonviolence while under violent threat requires a great deal of personal conviction and discipline. We can too easily forget now that the nonviolent Civil Rights movement engaged in direct action with the expectation that activists would be attacked, beaten, and even killed. Simple dignity and decency didn’t move white Americans in their favor; horror at their suffering on the television every night did.

 

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