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.

“You are worth $200,000!!!!” The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part Three

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

The demise of business antislavery left Eli Thayer as a traveling promoter of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. His excessively rosy account of Kansas led to some emigrants opting to go right back home, but some stayed on in the territory and Thayer’s appearances helped keep Kansas in the public mind. The aid companies also kept themselves in the minds of white Missourians living in the plantation counties next door. NEEAC could muster dozens or a few hundred emigrants, but they had thousands of angry proslavery men with guns, knives and two cannons. After they carried two elections in a row, antislavery Kansans had quite enough.

Charles Robinson wrote Thayer to inform him

Our people have now form themselves into four military companies and will meet to drill till they have perfected themselves in their art. Also, companies are being formed in other places ans we want arms … cannot your secret society send us 200 of Sharp’s rifles as a loan till this question is settled?

The Stringfellows could go around telling everyone that the company raised legions of pauper mercenaries, but those mercenaries apparently set out for their war without sufficient arms. One would expect better of professionals. Nor did NEEAC’s directors leap at the chance to underwrite their emigrants’ military ventures. But as it soon appeared that antislavery Kansans would get no relief from Franklin Pierce, they secretly changed their minds. Robinson didn’t mean the Aid Company per se when he referred to Thayer’s “secret society”. He meant a group within it that privately raised money for arms, organized by the society’s then-current treasurer, Samuel Cabot. Amos Lawrence donated $2,700 for guns on top of what he gave to the official company funds. The Sharpe’s rifles arrived over the course of fall, 1855, often in crates labeled as books.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

As the second amendment thrived in Kansas, on both sides of the slavery question, the Aid Company did not. Amos Lawrence took over as treasurer, but quit the post in September. By April, the Company had spent $22,000. It had stock subscriptions for $26,844, but the subscribers had declined to pay their bills to the tune of almost eleven thousand dollars. It transpired that telling people their stock donation would probably not realize profit somewhat dimmed their ardor for investment. Philanthropy and patriotism only went so far. Resignation or no, Lawrence paid six thousand against the overdrafts of company agent Samuel Pomeroy. Pomeroy himself went back east on a two month tour of New England and New York that netted only $3,000.

One of the directors, J.M.S. Williams, blamed Thayer for all of this. Having paid out $3,000 already, with $800 more to go, and due to pay another $2,300, he felt that Thayer ought to kick in some of his own money too. The cash flow had dried up to the point of impeding the establishment of mills, where the company expected to realize its real gains. The company stood crippled by shortfalls. The directors had paid out of their own pockets to keep things going. Operations ground to a halt, Williams wrote Thayer,

yet you are worth #200,000!!!! You have done more to palce us all in this position than any other and ought to take hold in earnest and relieve us.

 

Eli Thayer Goes on the Road: The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part Two

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

We left Eli Thayer demoted from a leader of his own invention, the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company, to a promoter of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. His signature idea, to subsidize free state settlement in Kansas to keep slavery from the territory’s bound and then try to roll it back elsewhere, whilst turning a handy profit, fell by the wayside. Conservative Whigs with deep pockets took over, dropping Thayer’s business antislavery strategy for a more conventional charitable frame focused entirely on Kansas. This brings us to July 24, 1854.

By this point, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had Franklin Pierce’s signature and the expansion of white settlement had begun. The word in Missouri had it that Thayer’s operation had its five million on hand and twenty thousand impoverished Yankees ready to turn slave stealing Hessian just down the road from Missouri’s plantation belt. Proslavery Missourians organized for self-defense, with future Squatter Sovereign editor John Stringfellow telling St. Joseph

To those having qualms of conscience, as to violating of laws, state or national, the time has come when such impositions must be disregarded, as your lives and property are in danger, and I advise you one and all to enter every election district in Kansas … and vote at the point of a Bowie knife or revolver.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

The endless hosts of Yankee Hessians numbered twenty-nine. They departed Boston on July 17, with Thayer escorting them to Buffalo. He admitted that he had not mustered the legions he hoped, but you had to start somewhere. At Buffalo Thayer parted company with the expedition, but Charles Robinson and Charles Branscomb joined up. They had gone out in advance to scout locations and see about group rates for transportation. That scouting mission determined the site of Lawrence, named after the Emigrant Aid Company benefactor and slayer of business antislavery, Amos Lawrence. The company fronted a newspaper there, George Brown’s Herald of Freedom. Whilst touring to solicit donations, Thayer took care to have stacks of it on hand.

While settlement got going in Kansas, Thayer started on his lecture circuit on earnest. Past efforts had focused on Massachusetts and New York, but he now traveled all over New England. Over the three years from September of 1854, Thayer traveled north of six thousand miles and gave above seven hundred speeches. He and his companions, most often Charles Brancsomb, would arrange promotion in the local papers in advance. Thayer would give his spiel to a mass meeting and set up a Kansas League. It appears the leagues did the main work of finding people willing to go, whilst Thayer focused on exhortation and fundraising.

Thayer had an ambitious pitch, to the point where NEEAC’s leadership asked him to tone it down. They had no mind to carry the fight from Kansas into the slave states, but Thayer sold the enterprise as one which would free Kansas as the first step. Then they would press on to Missouri and Virginia, whilst also pushing out to make more free states in the west. Thayer extravagantly claimed that they could free Kansas in a year and then add a new state on top each year thereafter, and the stock would pay off whatever the directors thought. This required representatives of the company to walk back their spokesman’s remarks and distinguish between his ideas and their own.

Thayer’s boosterism, combined with the usual wild claims of an earthly paradise just aching for you to go settle it, did little to please those who took the plunge. Many emigrants pronounced Kansas a humbug and went home. At the time of Thayer’s first big tour, Lawrence boasted “one log cabin, one shake house, and a conglomeration of hay houses.” All the same, little had yet transpired in Kansas to make for interesting news. Thayer’s traveling show helped keep the territory in the public mind until the real struggle kicked off.

The Rise and Fall of Business Antislavery: The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part One

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Between the Howard Committee and the Buford Expedition, plenty of people have lately come to Kansas Territory. Before them, Missourians went across the border. Many meant to stay, but many also meant to control Kansas’ elections or murder abolitionists and make it home for breakfast. In all this, I have largely left out the people who offered the proslavery forces their casus belli: the Emigrant Aid Company. To a great degree that comes down to the historians I have relied upon. Concerned with matters largely internal to the Kansas-Missouri border, it matters less to their narratives how antislavery Americans arrived in the territory than what they did once present. A few paragraphs suffice. But a kind friend has supplied me with Horace Andrews’ Kansas Crusade: Eli Thayer and the New England Emigrant Aid Company, the hot release of December, 1962.

Andrews points out that as the Kansas-Nebraska Act worked its way through Congress, a sense of inevitability set over certain quarters of the North. Slavery got what slavery wanted and they appeared impotent against the new advance. The Democracy had its house in order, a few dissidents aside, and would continue to do as it liked as the nation’s dominant party. Who could stop it? Eli Thayer of Worchester, Massachusetts though himself the man for the job. He ran a school for women, the Oread Collegiate Institute, for the four years prior to considerable success. In that time he supported the Free Soil party to the end and took a term in the Massachusetts legislature. All this made him prominent enough that the state legislature would grant Thayer his corporate charter, creating the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company.

Thayer advocated what he called “Business antislavery,” to separate it from the tried-and-failed methods of ordinary politics and moral suasion. If Stephen Douglas insisted that popular sovereignty would settle Kansas’ future, then Eli Thayer would take him up on that. Thayer’s business antislavery gained a significant convert in the person of Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian minister and advocate for settling antislavery men in Texas to turn the state around. Hale had never come up with a concrete plan for doing that, but Thayer thought he had one. Thayer expected to sell stock in his company, use the money to subsidize emigration, and make a profit in the process. Andrews doesn’t go into just how, but presumably Thayer imagined that the company would invest in or found town companies just like many similar projects.

Amos Adams Lawrence

Amos Adams Lawrence

There came the snag. Thayer and his associates could drum up plenty of interest but not much money. The organizing committee itself refused to buy the stock they proposed to sell. Nobody seems to have believed that the five million dollar capitalization authorized would appear and many looked askance at the idea Thayer had to take the crusade into the slave states after they saved Kansas for freedom. At the instigation of Amos Lawrence, from whom Lawrence, Kansas, got its name, plans changed. Lawrence preferred a charitable operation with no expectation of future profit. If the stock wouldn’t generate dividends anyway, why pretend otherwise? And what if it did? Didn’t that suggest a mercenary outlook on the part of good-hearted antislavery men bent on saving the Union?

The Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company thus gave way to the New England Emigrant Aid Company on July 24, 1855, complete with a well-off board of Massachusetts luminaries for directors. Thayer got the news on his way home from a tour in New York where he raised $100,000. NEEAC, now institutionally controlled by conservative Whigs rather than New England radicals, had the form of a corporation but functioned like a charity. It took in gifts, rather than investments. Thayer himself took a demotion from leading light to a promotional speaker.