“We are very anxious to know what Congress is doing.”

John Brown

January of 1856 brought good and bad news for the Browns out in Kansas. John Junior won nomination and then election to the Topeka legislature. The Missourians stayed away from the Browns’ corner of Kansas even when the free staters threw that election. But the miserably cold winter also left the family destitute, low on food, and news came that the Missourians had gotten to the free state polls at Leavenworth. As part of that, they hacked to death Reese Brown (no relation). Rumor out of the Show Me State had it that they would come back as soon as it warmed up some and the snow melted. Along the way, Franklin Pierce also declared against the free state cause and that raised the specter of the United States Army stepping in.

On February 20, Brown wrote back to North Elba. He had letters from the sixth and sixteenth of January, both received just the last week.

This week we get neither letter nor paper from any of you. I need not continually repent that we are always glad to hear from you, and to learn of your welfare. I wish that to be fully understood.

Stern phrasing aside, Brown clearly missed his loved ones back in New York and wanted to hear from them constantly. We don’t write letters anymore, but before email and phone calls people wrote endlessly to one another. Then they kept the letters to read and reread, a habit intensely gratifying to historians. Someone who said they would write every day might mean it literally.

Brown held up his end of the correspondence by updating the family on how they did in Kansas. He and Salmon wrote from Osawatomie on their way back from Missouri, where they paid thirty cents for a bushel of corn.

I have but little to write this time, except to tell you about the weather, and to complain of the almost lack of news from the United States. We are very anxious to know what Congress is doing. We hear that Frank Pierce means to crush the men of Kansas. I do not know how well he may succeed; but I think he may find his hands full before it is all over.

By the time Brown wrote, he could have read Pierce’s statement in the Herald of Freedom or elsewhere. Congress might still act to restrain the president, though. We tend to focus on the presidency, with good reason, but congressional leaders had a much higher profile in Brown’s day and might well use it to make Pierce’s life difficult. The opposition controlled the House, which helped. That the opposition coalition specifically organized on anti-Nebraska principles helped still more. When he wrote, Brown knew that he had at least a few friends in Washington City and the might plausibly speak for the chamber.

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