The news came to John Brown at Samuel Adair’s: a proslavery man killed an antislavery man. The victim’s friend and landlord Jacob Branson got together a meeting to look into the death. The murderer ran for the hills. Sheriff Samuel Jones got a posse together and went after Branson. Some antislavery men got their own posse together and took Branson from Jones. Now both sides looked on the edge of pitched battle at Lawrence, with Missourians rushing in to kill abolitionists and free state men converging to defend the town. Brown got home in a rush and sent John, Junior, to confirm the news.
Junior came galloping back in short order. He met someone on the road who said two thousand armed men massed on the Wakarusa aiming to burn Lawrence to the ground. Henry, Jason, and Oliver didn’t have it in them to go, still laid up with ague. The able-bodied men loaded up a wagon with weaponry and started out on December 6, 1855. Brown drove it while Junior, Frederick, Owen, and Salmon walked alongside. They started at five in the evening and traveled through the night. At a bridge, they kept on in the face of the enemy, not slowing and daring the proslavery men to stop them. The Missourians declined.
The five arrived to find Lawrence at arms, which brings us to where James Redpath’s account first entered our story. His grim warrior saint made a powerful first impression. Redpath wrote in 1860, aiming to defend Brown’s reputation against those who deemed him mad. Among that set stands George Washington Brown, editor of the Herald of Freedom and no relation to John. Responding to the news out of Virginia in 1859, he published an account of what people in Kansas knew of Brown. He, like Redpath, witnessed Brown’s arrival in Lawrence on that December day:
When the Wakarusa war was pending the old man and four sons arrived in Lawrence, the balance he reported sick. As they drove up in front of the Free State Hotel they were all standing in a small lumber wagon. To each of their persons was strapped a short heavy broad sword. Each was supplied with a goodly number of fire arms, and navy revolvers, and poles were standing endwise around the wagon box with fixed bayonets pointing upwards. They looked really formidable and were received with great eclat.
As Redpath said, that arrival prompted the formation of a military company under Brown’s command. Brown immediately
commenced fomenting difficulties in camp, disregarding the commands of superior officers, and trying to induce the men to go down to Franklin and make an attack upon the Pro-slavery forces encamped there.
The Committee of Public Safety had to step in several times to put a stop to that “wild project”. G.W. Brown’s version, like Redpath’s, has John Brown leave Lawrence in disgust when peace breaks out.
Gentle readers, I’m not going to do a full political post today but I want to draw your attention to the attack against civilization currently pending before the Senate and encourage you to make your opposition known to your Senators. If the reasons there don’t suffice, then the GOP also looks likely to use it as a vehicle to pack the courts with the sorts of judges who think Donald Trump would make a great president. Those are lifetime appointments, so imagine Judge Trump ruling on your civil rights into the 2060s.
Back to Kansas. We left John Brown finding out that John Junior did him proud by breaking the gag law that the bogus legislature passed outlawing antislavery statements. He went right up to the proslavery man and declared, in as many words, that no one had a right to hold a slave in the territory. Junior dared the proslavery party to come get him. John Brown would have none of that and resolved that no proslavery man would take any son of his. Soon after hearing that news came the free state elections for delegates to the Topeka Convention. Expecting trouble, the Browns arrived armed at the polls in Pottawatomie. No Missourians appeared and no local proslavery men caused any trouble, so Brown stood by while his sons voted. Then everyone went home.
The lack of disturbance at the polls pleased Brown greatly. He wrote his wife that he thought things on the turn in Kansas. The territory has suffered powerfully, but since the Missourians didn’t show they might have had their fill of Kansas. The same optimism that drove Brown into deep debt and failed businesses appeared again. Winter followed the good news and promptly laid the Brown boys up again, with their father the only able-bodied man at Brown’s Station for some time starting in late October. He regretted that that kept him from helping the neighbors as much as he meant to. At the start of November he finally replaced the first tent on the claims with a mud-chinked structure. Salmon recovered enough to help with the second building and things looked up, or at least progressing, again.
For Thanksgiving, not yet a standardized national holiday, Brown called on his brother-in-law, Samuel Adair. With Adair and his wife at Osawatomie, Brown received the news that Kansas pitched toward a great explosion after all. Franklin Coleman, a proslavery man, murdered the antislavery Charles Dow at Hickory Point, ten miles off from Lawrence. Jacob Branson, who had put Dow up before then and served as an officer in the antislavery militia, arranged a meeting to look into the death which Coleman understood as a lynch mob. He ran for shelter with Governor Shannon and Sheriff Samuel Jones, the latter of whom drummed up a posse to arrest Branson on the strength of a warrant that Shannon arranged for him. Free staters led by Samuel Wood sprung Branson from Jones’ custody, at which point he declared Lawrence in a state of rebellion and got Governor Shannon to call out the territorial militia to suppress it. David Rice Atchison and hundreds of Missourians, informed by Jones before he bothered to let Shannon know what happened, decided they could do militia service across the border and started into Kansas bent on a fight. Deeply disturbed, Brown rushed to his sons and dispatched Junior to find out the lay of the land.
Asked to come, with guns, John Brown set his mind on going to Kansas. He had no money to go and to arm himself or supply his sons who had already gone, but a quick appeal to an antislavery convention fixed that. Brown would set out on a holy mission to fight slavery, protect his children, and generally make himself and his frontier expertise available to white colonists.
His first biographer, James Redpath, stresses that Brown never meant to make his own future in Kansas. Proslavery men cast him as a fanatic for that, bent on trekking across the country to fight someone else’s battles. I doubt any said the same about Jefferson Buford. Redpath spends a page defending Brown from that onslaught. His defense amounts to the argument that Brown came to help his sons as well as to fight slavery. Furthermore, even if Brown had done just as his enemies thought and come all that way for one cause, so what?
John Brown did not dare to remain tending sheep at North Elba when the American Goliath and his hosts were in the field, defying the little armies of the living Lord, and sowing desolation and great sorrow on the soil set apart for his chosen people. Either Freedom has no rights, and the Bible is a lie, or John Brown, in thus acting, was a patriot and a consistent Christian.
At this point, Redpath has Brown finally make his trip. He catches his readers up with election fraud, the bogus legislature and its laws, which he witnessed himself. Then we go into the murder of Charles Dow and all that followed. Redpath has John Brown arrive as the proslavery army comes across from Missouri to invest Lawrence in retaliation for its citizens rescuing an antislavery militia leader who proslavery sheriff Samuel Jones arrested on dubious grounds. Redpath quotes an eyewitness to Brown’s arrival in the same town:
the old man, John Brown, and his four sons, arrived in Lawrence. The balance he reported sick. As they drove up in front of the Free State hotel, they were all standing in a small lumber wagon. To each of their persons was strapped a short, heavy broadsword. Each was supplied with a goodly number of fire-arms and navy revolvers, and poles were standing endwise around the wagon box, with fixed bayonets pointing upwards. They looked really formidable, and were received with great eclat.
In the parlance of a later era, we might call the Browns’ adornment tacticool. Gerritt Smith’s money went a long way, apparently. Some enthusiasts among Lawrence’s defenders happily formed a company around him. The Browns and their company didn’t sit idle, but under his command
commenced fomenting difficulties in camp, disregarding the command of superior officers, and trying to induce the men to go down to Franklin, and make an attack upon the pro-slavery forces encamped there.
The Free State leadership, desperately trying to avoid a battle, loved all that exactly as much as you’d expect. Brown’s attack plans would have destroyed their careful strategy to present themselves as law-abiding citizens who had nothing to do with any militancy and only bore arms in self-defense. When peace broke out, Brown “retired in disgust.”
Proslavery Missourians and antislavery Kansans had a parallel series of conventions in their respective jurisdictions. We left David Rice Atchison, late senator from Missouri, firmly turning down the effort to turn one into the start of his reelection campaign. Bourbon Dave had given up on Washington, at least in the near term, in favor of saving Kansas for slavery. Through it, he would also save slavery in Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, and spread it to the other territories.
In the summer of 1855, almost everything turned out to Atchison’s liking. His border ruffians had secured the Kansas legislature for their own men. They ousted Andrew Reeder, who had defied them. Between governors, Daniel Woodson filled in and he had already proven his proslavery bona fides. That Franklin Pierce passed him over to appoint Wilson Shannon did not thrill the Missouri border, but Shannon soon earned the endorsement of Atchison’s Kansas-based organ, the Squatter Sovereign. The fall brought invitations for Atchison to go east and speak for the cause, as he had probably done during the winter. He declined them, citing obligations at home, but answered with a letter that made his case.
We (“the border ruffians”) have the whole power of the Northern states to content with, single-handed and alone, without assistance and almost without sympathy from any quarter; yet we are undismayed. Thus far we have bewen victorious and with the help of God, we will still continue to conquer. … The contest with us is one of life and death, and it will be so with you and your institutions if we fail. Atchison, Stringfellow and the “border ruffians” of Missouri fill a column of each abolition paper published in the North; abuse most foul, and falsehood unblushing is poured out upon us; and yet we have no advocate in the Southern press-and yet we have no assistance from the Southern States. But the time wilol shortly come when that assistance must and will be rendered. The stake the “border ruffians” are playing for is a mighty one. … In a word, the prosperity or ruin of the whole South depends on the Kansas struggle.
Atchison’s biographer added the emphasis, which neatly encapsulate’s the ex-senator’s view of the question. He certainly wrote it to exhort and guilt his fellow southerners into action, but he believed it too. Those who invited him might never have expected Atchison to turn up -such invitations often served more as a way to request a public letter- but even if they did he had work to do and probably didn’t think Kansas could spare him. The rise of the free state movement in the fall proved Atchison right.
To answer that threat, establishment figures in Kansas tired to take a moderate tone with their Law and Order party. They positioned themselves as moderate alternative to Atchison’s hooliganism in November. At the end of the month, Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow. The ensuing strife put those hopes to rest. Daniel Woodson wrote straightaway to Kelley and Stringfellow at the Squatter Sovereign, who he could depend on to pass word into Missouri and Kansas had a new invasion. The territorial secretary especially asked that his friends bring “the Platte City cannon.” The letter crossed the border and came into Atchison’s hands. He read it to a mass meeting at Platte City, then took two hundred men into Kansas to join the campaign against abolitionism.
Yet Atchison’s rhetorical, and occasionally physical, militancy fell short again. When Wilson Shannon negotiated a settlement with the free state leadership at Lawrence, he and Albert Boone took the governor’s side in talking down the army that Atchison had himself helped gather. His argument then had less to do with principal than public relations. The antislavery side had maneuvered things so that if the proslavery men struck, they would appear as the aggressors. Without Governor Shannon’s blessing, withdrawn thanks to the settlement, turned an irregular militia into a lawless mob that would destroy the Democracy come election time and put “an abolition President” in power.
Not that this mattered to Atchison’s Missouri foes. Still a potential senator, they castigated him for plotting the destruction of the Industrial Luminary and voting in Kansas, the latter of which forfeited his Missouri citizenship and disqualified him. Failing reelection, the Missouri Democrat thought Atchison might forge some kind of breakaway proslavery nation. Atchison’s biographer, William Parrish, found no evidence for any of this. In the Democrat’s pages, even the convention where Atchison refused to make the affair into an election event proved his perfidy; the paper recast it as a failed attempt at the same. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune declared that the Squatter Sovereign’s masthead endorsed Atchison for president on the Know-Nothing ticket. The paper did endorse Atchison for the presidency, until he told them to stop, but always and only as a Democrat.
With all that going on, Missouri’s General Assembly again convened to elect a senator and again failed to manage the feat. Both houses of the legislature agreed that they should hold an election, but could not agree on a time for it. Moments of legislative grace like this did much to explain why these same bodies would eventually vote to strip themselves of the power to choose their senators in ratifying the Seventeenth Amendment. Atchison’s seat in Washington remained empty until 1857.
When the free state legislature chose to defer enactment of any legislation it passed until it secured Kansas’ admission as a state, with the free state men in charge, they did so of a mind that the President of the United Statesconsidered them traitors. They might soon face arrest, a fact that could have hardly slipped their minds with the notoriousSamuel Jonestaking their names down as they swore their oaths of office. They might actually have committed treason. Legal niceties had hardly stopped Missourians from coming to steal their elections and in hopes of razing their towns, but the border ruffians did not operate under the color of law the way that the United States army would if Franklin Pierce gave the proper orders.
Pierce had already done something to that effect. The March 15, 1856Herald of Freedom reminded its readers how all had hoped that Colonel Sumner would come from Fort Leavenworth to Lawrence’s rescue back in December. Sumner had not come, despite Wilson Shannon’s entreaties. Sumner said at the time that he lacked instructions from Washington and did not feel confident to act on his own authority. Now he had those instructions, which the paper printed news of by way of a letter that Secretary of State William Marcy wrote to Governor Shannon. He attached a copy of Sumner’s orders and Pierce’s law and order proclamation.
William L. Marcy
Pierce, Marcy averred, did not think Shannon’s situation so dire as to require the use of federal troops. He should call upon them only as a last resort, but
if it becomes indispensably necessary to do so in order to execute the laws and preserve the peace, you are hereby authorized by the President to make requisition upon the officers commanding the United States military forces at Forts Leavenworth and Riley
Shannon would only use the power in “extraordinary emergency”, Marcy insisted, but he had it. If the immediate establishment of the free state goverment didn’t justify calling out the troops, then some future clash might. Shannon tried desperately to secure Sumner’s aid to save Lawrence and so had established precedent that he would use the military if possible. Once the Cavalry rode, where would they stop?
George Brown put a positive spin on all of this. He insisted that Pierce’s proclamation
is not so villainous a document as the telegraph reports make it, and as for the instructions to Gov. Shannon, they are all we could expect, or even desire. While the Governor abides by the letter of those instructions, it will afford us pleasure to sustain him. Our State organization will be in no way of Gov. Shannon. Until an attempt is made to enforce the laws enacted by that body, they are harmless. If they adopt a code of laws which commend themselves to everybody’s sense of justice, and they are everywhere obeyed, how can Gov. Shannon, or anybody else, find fault?
Brown had a strong interest in painting the free state government as perfectly innocuous, but even in doing so he hedged carefully. If they adopt laws and if those laws comport to everyone’s morals, why would they give cause for objection? And if Shannon followed the letter of Franklin Pierce’s proclamation, rather than its avowedly proslavery spirit, all would work out.
But would Shannon follow the letter of the president’s instructions? When he came to Lawrence’s rescue, Shannon had shown himself not quite the proslavery partisan everyone had feared. Maybe he had gotten right by popular sovereignty when he saw how far things had gone, but Shannon had helped save Lawrence from a private army of hooligans which he had unwittingly mustered himself. When they went to Lawrence, they went to serve warrants that Shannon had seen issued. A public army legally under his control presented a different scenario entirely. Likewise the governor can’t have loved the news of a rival government to his own, headed by men he probably thought had tricked him. His charge to, in Brown’s words,
put down insubordination on the one hand, and prevent invasion on the other
might mean no more Charles Dows, Thomas Barbers, Samuel Collinses, or Reese Browns, but it could also mean calling out the army to break up the government at Topeka. Insubordination, to Shannon, might very well mean wildcat state governments as much as proslavery violence. Even if he struck at both equally, that would leave the Kansas that stolen elections had already wrought. That Kansas had slavery baked deep into its laws.
Charles Robinson concluded his first message (PDF) to Kansas’ new legislature with some further remarks on their situation. Everyone had seen Sheriff Jonestaking names down as men came forward and swore their oaths of office. They might have exchanged some jokes or tossed a few insults his way, but everybody knew Jones meant business. Robinson didn’t name him, but none could have had to guess for long just who he meant when the new governor said
It is understood that the Deputy Marshal has private instructions to arrest the members of the Legislature and the State officers for treason as soon as this address is received by you. In such an event of course, no resistance will be offered to the officer.
The last time someone, Samuel Newitt Wood, offered resistance to Jones it ended with an army outside Lawrence. For all the bellicose language common in such times, the free state movement had barely gotten clear of that without a battle they might well have lost or, failing that, won at the expense of bringing the United States Army down on their heads.
The standards of manly performance would not allow Robinson to admit to that in so many words, but nineteenth century discourse permitted him other avenues:
Men who are ready to defend their own and their country’s honor with their lives, can never object to a legal investigation into their action, nor to suffer any punishment their conduct may merit. We should be unworthy the constituency we represent did we shrink from martyrdom on the scaffold or at the stake should duty require it. Should the blood of Collins and Dow, of Barber and Brown, be insufficient to quench the thirst of the President and his accomplices in the hollow mockery of “Squatter Sovereignty” they are practising upon the people of Kansas, then more victims must be furnished. Let what will come not a finger should be raised against the Federal authority until there shall be no hope of relief but in revolution.
If the vampiric president descended upon them, Robinson told the free state men to stand ready. Should Pierce throw a war, they ought to come. Should he martyr them, they died for righteousness’ sake and could claim whatever patriotic and heavenly blessings such an office would convey. Kansas had hard times yet ahead, Robinson averred, but together and putting their faith in the Almighty, “His wisdom who makes ‘the wrath of men praise him'” they would make their Kansas into the Kansas, a state of the Union free twice over. Their Kansas would have no slaves and no black Americans alike, preserving it for them and their posterity. To that cause, the Governor need not add, they would commit their lives, their liberty, and their sacred honor.
It must have made for a rousing read, thick with the patriotic and religious sentiments most potent to Robinson’s audience. But the bold words had to come with more than a hint of desperation. Jones would probably try nothing then and there, but what would happen down the road? The free state men had stuck their necks out, then stuck them out still further, in the hope that Congress would come to their rescue. That same Congress finally agreed on who ought to serve as Speaker of the House after a solid two months of debate, finally settling on a Know-Nothing antislavery man called Nathaniel Banks. They elected him on a plurality, not a majority, and it took one hundred and thirty-three ballots. The question of the free state government’s legitimacy could not hope to be any less explosive than that.
We left the interment of Thomas Barber with James Lane giving a political speech. That might sound crass to us, and some who braved the December cold that day might agree, but Barber died at the hands of a proslavery man in a relatively one-sided armed conflict between Kansas contending parties. Barber and his killer lacked any claim dispute, unlike Charles Dow and Franklin Coleman, and had not sought out a clash as Samuel Collins had. Nor had he even died in the conduct of his duties in the defense of Lawrence. Rather the proslavery men shot him on his way home. Barber chose the antislavery cause and died for it.
After Lane, Charles Robinson spoke. He commenced by assailing the face-saving fiction that Wilson Shannon insisted upon:
‘Misunderstanding’ the facts and the temper of our people, as well as their tactics, the Executive recently gave the signal for another [invasion], and the armed hordes again responded. our citizens have been besieged, robbed, insulted, and murdered; and our town threatened with destruction for two whole weeks, by the authority of the executive, and, as he now says, in consequence of a ‘misunderstanding.’ A misunderstanding on the part of an Executive is a most unfortunate affair.
While a hostile army waited outside town, Robinson might go along with all that. Now that doom did not hang over Lawrence, he saw no need to continue. Instead he recast the Wakarusa War as a plan on Shannon’s part to steer the free state movement into collision with the United States military. If he went beyond the facts in carrying the Governor’s plans so far, one can hardly blame him. Shannon supplied the pretext by which forces marched against Lawrence and his government included men eager to have the Missourians on board and to do more than put Jacob Branson back in the hands of Samuel Jones. The Governor then called for the 1st Cavalry out of Fort Leavenworth to play a part. We might take Shannon at his word that he planned to use the Army to save Lawrence, but Robinson didn’t have the Governor’s correspondence on hand. Nor can we fault him too much for holding a low opinion of Shannon’s honesty on such matters.
This consideration led directly to another. Who must they blame for Thomas Barber’s untimely death?
Report says Thomas Barber was murdered in cold blood by an officer or officers of the Government who was a member of the Sheriff’s posse, which was commanded by the Governor, was is backed by the President of the United States. Was Thomas Barber murdered? Then are the men who killed him, and the officials by whose authority they acted his murderers. And if the laws are to be enforced, then will the Indian Agent, the Governor, and the President be convicted of, and punished for, murder. There is work enough for the ‘law and order’ men to do, and let us hear no more about resistance to the laws till this work is done.
The enforcement of the law, Robinson noted, required “all Missouri must be aroused, and the whole nation convulsed to serve a peace-warrant on an unoffending citizen.” Might they hope the same with a man dead? In a just world, they might. In a world where everyone hewed to the same principles in the same way, they would. The people of Lawrence, in such a world, would soon see at least the man who shot Barber, the aforementioned Indian Agent, on trial. They might even see those who had command responsibility over him, like Wilson Shannon, on the dock.
But Robinson and his neighbors lived in territorial Kansas, where their foes did not regard the death of an antislavery man as regrettable at all. For proslavery men to accept justice for Thomas Barber’s memory, they would first have to accept that they could do wrong in killing an antislavery man at all. They aimed to do no such thing, instead understanding themselves as dispatching dangerous criminals. If they undertook the task with transparent glee, then who could fault the righteous for enjoying their wrath?
Gentle Readers, I began delving into the strange course of the Wakarusa War back in September. Everything started when Franklin Coleman killing Charles Dow and rapidly spiraled out of everyone’s control. It came to head with an army of proslavery men, largely Missourians, and the territorial militia mustered around Lawrence. With considerable difficulty, Wilson Shannon, Albert Boone, David Rice Atchison, James Lane, and Charles Robinson managed to arrive at a settlement. During the crisis, both sides had difficulty keeping control of the men under their command. That settlement conceded little, but wars come with at least losers. Now and then they have winners as well.
Strictly looking at the terms of the settlement reveals no clear winner. The parties agreed to return to the status quo ante bellum. Did that make the whole business a frightening draw, which accomplished nothing for all the turmoil. A certain strain of history plays heavily into the futility of war, declaring it solves nothing for all the blood and treasure spent. Some wars live up to that reputation, either at the time or with the benefit of hindsight. Others have clearer verdicts, even if they rarely deliver anything worth the price in lives.
The Wakarusa War makes for a terrible war and an excellent one. Less than a half-dozen people died. No great battle took place. I don’t think that it quite lives up to the name in hindsight, and so have largely refrained from using it. When you call something a war, you expect rather more fireworks. But on the other hand, few people died. Little destruction took place. I’d quite like to have more so-called wars like it than those which cost us far more dearly. I suspect that many called upon to hazard their lives in the things would agree.
Charles Lawrence Robinson
A broader examination of the Wakarusa War shows it as not quite the indecisive affair one might suspect. The treaty settled little, true enough, but an army marched against Lawrence. That army came fired by dreams of killing abolitionists, destroying printing presses, and decapitating the free state movement. It left in its wake an intact down full of living abolitionists, functioning presses, and the free state leadership emerged undamaged.
Surviving, a friend told me a few days back, literally means “over-living” in Italian and German. If you know your Latin, you can see the sense in English too. It feels that way often enough and can make for a paltry triumph, but the free state movement emerged from its most serious threat to date unscathed. Had Lane, Robinson, and company folded then, they would probably have lost Kansas to slavery. At the very least, they would have gravely damaged their own authority and so given further legitimacy to those on the antislavery side more enthusiastic about violence. The firm of John Brown & Sons would likely have seen its stock rise.
In the end, however, the free state movement did more than survive. They took the piece of paper that Charles Robinson urged on Wilson Shannon on the night of December 9, which he signed without reading, and put it to immediate use. The Herald of Freedomreports that in short order
Eleven full companies of fifty-four each were duly registered on the part of the citizens, besides the cavalry and artillery companies, and numberless persons who were not enrolled, but held themselves in readiness to fight where they could be most effective, when occasion should demand. It is probable there were not less than eight hundred efficient men ready for service at any moment.
Shannon’s commission made Lane’s and Robinson’s command something like a legal militia, with the free state leadership not just influential but formally in charge. As such, on the afternoon of the 10th
the companies were mustered and passed under a review.
The free state movement had come into the crisis looking for a way to come out the other end alive. At the end of the day, they did far better than that. They came out with a legal respectability their paramilitaries had hitherto lacked. That might not make a great deal of difference within Kansas, but abroad antislavery partisans could point to Shannon’s commission as proof that their comrades in the territory constituted no paltry band of rebels and fanatics. They had not set themselves against the law but rather become part of it even, and especially, in the eyes of a proslavery conniver like Wilson Shannon.
The free state movement knew that they played with fire in repudiating the territorial government and its laws. Going further and creating their own government raised reasonable questions about just how far they intended to take things. Establishing their own militia, even if for self-defense, understandably gave further cause for concern. That apparently some, like Charles Dow, went in for burning proslavery Kansans out of their claims took at least some fringes of the movement beyond rhetorical protests and into serious crimes. A group that could burn homes down at will generally deserves a serious response from law enforcement, whatever its politics. To further underline the point, a Kansas Legion man seized a lawful prisoner from a sheriff engaged in the normal course of his duties. Authoritarians often invoke the frailty of civil institutions in the name of their repressions, but sometimes reasonable people of far more democratic mores make the same invocations. Now and then, they even have facts on their side.
The entire tangled prelude to the Wakarusa War makes much more sense when one keeps this in mind. The politics of the day, and our own, make it very easy for us to throw in with the free state party all the way. We have the luxury of time and distance to insulate us from any consequences of that decision. Nobody will burn our homes down or shoot us dead for our opinions about politics in territorial Kansas. Even if we disagree with the proslavery radicals, Kansas still offered the spectacle of armed men apparently ready to pursue their agenda by force. If we admit that fact as a motivation for driving antislavery Kansans to arms, then we must admit it the other way around as well.
The free state leadership knew the risk of that very well. They, like Wilson Shannon, sought a peaceful resolution to the crisis at Lawrence. Samuel Newitt Wood, a Kansas Legion man, had gone and rescued Jacob Branson from Sheriff Samuel Jones’ custody. But he did not go with the blessing of Charles Robinson, James Lane, or other Kansas luminaries. Nor did Lawrence rush to endorse his action after the fact. Rather he and the other rescuers found themselves asked to leave town. All the warlike preparation that the Kansas Legion did could have had offensive applications, but nobody until Wood had actually used force against the legal government of Kansas. While violent threats flew back and forth, it appears that most political violence in Kansas up through the winter of 1855 happened relatively spontaneously and on a person-to-person level rather than with official imprimatur. Had such an undertaking gone off, the free state movement risked dramatic retaliation from both proslavery radicals and likely the United States military. One simply doesn’t, for example, seize public property at gunpoint and expect nothing to happen in response.
Nor should one expect such impunity. If private individuals do so, then we soon find ourselves on the express train to anarchy. Instead of civil society, one finds oneself forced to align with a gang of violent thugs for protection and hope that it extends not just to protection from them but also other such gangs. While the occasional enthusiast might cast himself as the white-hat-wearing, gun-toting hero of such occasions, in the real world the most ruthless and brutal tend to rise to the top. We have the police and, if necessary, the military to prevent that sort of thing. Had antislavery Kansans found the 1st Cavalry arrayed against them and gone to war against it, they would have found their support almost everywhere go silent. Many probably would have gone all the way over to cheering for their suppression.
Why wouldn’t they? The Constitution calls levying war against the United States treason. Antislavery Kansans could hardly better discredit themselves with the nation than to cross that line. The traditional remedy for doing so involved gunpowder and ropes, a precedent most famously remembered in the case of Lee v. Grant. Even without the benefit of that precedent, it would take a very dull free state man to miss the fact that seeking out armed confrontations risked the federal hammer coming down. Thus, by and large, the free state movement up through the Wakarusa War exercised the better part of its martial valor.
This same principle holds on a smaller scale. If we see someone wandering around with a gun outside our home, most of us will probably call the police. This doesn’t take a strange phobia about firearms, but only a basic knowledge of what a bullet can do to a human body. If you see an armed person wandering about, you expect that person intends to shoot something. The police come and discourage that, one hopes successfully and without further violence.
Except when they don’t. Not everyone learned circumspection from studying Kansas, anything else. Not that long ago, a man who stole millions of dollars from you and me had an armed standoff with law enforcement that ended to his satisfaction. That Cliven Bundy has made off with far more than a typical bank robber’s haul should, perhaps, surprise us. This kind of plot twist one expects from a supervillain rather than a real world rancher.
Now that they’ve had their Negro Seamen Act, it seems some have decided that their strange revival of nineteenth century radicalism requires its Nullification Crisis. Some of Bundy’s family members have taken up the cause of a pair of arsonists, who apparently didn’t want the help, and occupied federal property. I mean that literally, they seized United States property and hold it still at the time of this writing:
a group of outside militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters
If this happened in another country, we’d have a talk about armed militants about now. A story that begins with the line “armed gunmen seized property” generally ends with the lines “shot by police”. Yet with these armed militants, the authorities don’t seem all that concerned. One can understand hesitancy, especially given the federal government’s record a few decades back in handling standoffs, but so far it doesn’t seem that law enforcement has besieged the gunmen. Instead they’ve just asked people to stay away and monitor the situation while working for a peaceful resolution.
I could say that I can’t fault the circumspection, whether here or in 1855 Kansas. Even if people have clearly broken the law, one naturally wishes to keep violence to a minimum. One must consider bystanders, though in this case the miscreants have taken over a building that seems quite remote. It probably doesn’t hurt to take one’s time out in Oregon. As an isolated event, the affair raises concern but not necessarily outrage. Yes, we have a group of men with guns breaking the law and encouraging others to join them. This cannot stand, but it doesn’t mean we need to call in the tanks or a drone strike.
Isolated events, however, often turn out rather more connected than not. American law enforcement doesn’t operate in a vacuum. The police grow up in the same world as the rest of us, and that world has very firm convictions about who does and does not deserve consideration and leniency. Cliven Bundy does, even if he made out like a bank robber. His relatives and others probably do as well. Otherwise someone could get hurt:
A group of white adults with real weapons came up and took possession of a building they don’t own, inviting others to come and join them. They warrant great consideration. We don’t want people hurt:
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.
The day after his rescue from Sheriff Samuel Jones, Jacob Branson told a public meeting at Lawrence that if they did not support his cause he would go home and face the consequences himself. He asked only that they bury him near his slain boarder, Charles Dow. Branson’s display of manly virtue surely pleased many in the crowd. In the testosterone haze, more than his potential martyrdom swirled. The Herald of Freedominformed its readers that
Others reported that the Governor had been informed of the transaction, that the self-called Sheriff had claimed he would bring an army to his aid, and that he would demolish Lawrence.
The unnamed others probably included members of Samuel Wood’s band of rescuers. They might also by the time of the meeting have had word of Jones doing as he threatened. The news would have come from Franklin, a town quite near to Lawrence. Though my map of territorial Kansas, printed in Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era, lacks a scale Franklin appears nearer to Lawrence, if somewhat further east, than Blanton’s Bridge where Wood and company took Branson from his captors. Testimony describes the bridge as only a few miles off. It seems reasonable that a rider could have carried word between the towns in short order. Samuel Jones did the same, if coming up from the bridge to Franklin rather than riding from Franklin to Lawrence.
I.A. Prather saw Jones there:
The day before Branson was said to be rescued, Mr. Wallace, of Franklin, asked me to attend to his store, which I agreed to do. After I went to the store the next morning I went to the hotel and saw Mr. Jones writing. Mr. Wallace and myself went into the room together. Before we went into the room he had told me that Mr. Branson had been rescued from Mr. Jones and his pose, of which he was one, by thirty or forty men.
At least as far back as George Douglas Brewerton, those trying to learn what happened when Wood met Jones and came away with Branson have noted wide disagreement over the number of men involved. The lower estimates, with both sides under twenty, seem more likely.
He then told me that Mr. Jones was going to send to Missouri for aid, and it was suggested that we should go to Mr. Jones to try to stop it. Mr. Wallace expressed himself opposed to sending to Missouri. After we went into the room and found Mr. Jones writing, Mr. Wallace remarked to me, “Mr. Jones is now writing the despatch to send to Colonel Boone.” Before going into the room I said, “Why not send to Governor Shannon?” I should think I was not more than two feet from Mr. Jones when he was writing what I was told by Mr. Wallace was the despatch to Missouri. The conversation was loud enough for Mr. Jones to hear, although the room was nearly as full of persons as it could well hold.
Everyone must have wanted to see the fireworks. Jones opted for the theatrical, taking his paper and walking out to hand it to a messenger. Probably Harrison Buckley did the honors. Once his messenger started, Jones told the crowd:
That man is taking my despatch to Missouri, and by God I will have revenge before I see Missouri.
Another message went off to Wilson Shannon, asking him to rouse the militia. Jones sent it after the one to Missouri. Prather thought that Josiah Hargis carried that missive.
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