The State of the Union in 1855: Filibustering

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce


Franklin Pierce’s third annual message progressed from bland assurances that all went well to a set of real grievances against the United Kingdom. Relations with the world’s great superpower, with whom the United States had twice fought wars, understandably take pride of place. Only after updating Congress on them did Pierce address tension with other powers. He didn’t care for Denmark’s insistence that the United States pay a toll to pass through Danish waters and trade in the Baltic. Some matter with the French consul at San Francisco had come to a satisfactory resolution, as had a dispute with Greece over seizure of American property.

Then Pierce turned south of the border once again:

With Spain peaceful relations are still maintained, and some progress has been made in securing the redress of wrongs complained of by this Government. Spain has not only disavowed and disapproved the conduct of the officers who illegally seized and detained the steamer Black Warrior at Havan, but has also paid the sum claimed as indemnity for the loss thereby inflicted on citizens of the United States.

That did made for good news on both sides of the Atlantic. The Black Warrior controversy threatened briefly to spark a war, with Pierce making dire threats. That the whole thing came out of the Spanish governor’s desire to warn off American filibusters, most notably Mississippi’s ex-governor John A. Quitman, gave the situation an ironic twist. In other Cuban news, Pierce happily related that the Spanish would pay an indemnity for prematurely cutting off duty free access to the island’s ports back in the 1840s. He expected Madrid would soon gave satisfaction on the matter of another steamer, the El Dorado, as well. All in all, Pierce saw the Cuban situation as one of improvement. That must have frustrated the filibusters to no end.

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

Speaking of filibusters, 1855 brought with it William Walker’s Nicaraguan expedition. Pierce didn’t mention the Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny by name, but anybody who followed the news could figure out who he meant. After a homily about respecting the sanctity of neighboring republics, the sort of thing that General Pierce observed most studiously during the Mexican War, President Pierce took aim at their instability:

obstacles have arisen in some of them from their own insufficient power to check lawless irruptions, which in effect throws most of the task on the United States. Thus it is that the distracted internal condition of the State of Nicaragua has made it incumbent on me to appeal to the good faith of our citizens to abstain from unlawful intervention in its affairs and to adopt preventative measures to the same end, which on a similar occasion had the best results in reassuring the peace of the Mexican States of Sonora and Lower California.

William Walker and a few hundred men marched into Baja California and claimed it as the Republic of Lower California in 1853. Shortly thereafter, without setting foot within it, Walker annexed Sonora to his republic and renamed the country after it. The Mexican army objected and chased Walker back over the border. A San Fransico jury took eight minutes to acquit him on charges of levying an illegal war against Mexico. He had, after all, only levied an illegal war against Mexico. Walker had gone to Nicaragua, at the invitation of one of the parties to its civil war, back in May of 1855. By the end of the year he had effective control of the country. Prominent filibusters who had operated in Baja California and Sonora, then moved on to Nicaragua made for a fairly small demographic.

Reading Pierce one likewise sees that, while he avowed American responsibility for keeping order and friendly relations, his “best results” ended with an acquitted filibuster happy to have another go and justified filibustering in general on the grounds of foreign lawlessness. He cast the United States as a good neighbor of the sort that might just see you overwhelmed by your real estate portfolio and help out by relieving you of vast swaths of land. Don’t we all want friends who see us in need and don’t wait around until we collapse in desperation before pitching in to help?

The State of the Union in 1855: A British Imposition

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce opened his third annual message with complaints that the British had violated the agreed-upon neutrality of Central America. The British claimed otherwise, insisting that they had only agreed to future neutrality and in no way prejudiced any of their current claims to the region. They might have made a better case had they not actively expanded their influence after signing the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, but come the turn of the decade London will finally scale back its involvement all the same. The perfidies of Albion reached further than Central America. At the same time as the United Kingdom disregarded neutrality and the sovereignty of independent states south of the border, it had done so right in the United States.

If you ask an American about the first modern war, you’ll probably hear about the Civil War. It involved technology on a new scale, with railroad and telegraph lines taking on both military significance and carrying news back inform a more engaged public. Ask a European about modern war and you’ll learn that the Crimean War did much the same in the mid-1850s, up to and including such Civil War innovations as ironclad ships.

By the time Pierce wrote his message, the Crimean War had gone on for more than a year. In the nineteenth century, the United States took a generally firm neutral stance toward European disputes. They had nothing to do with us and we wished nothing to do with them, most particularly their large and professional armies which could land nearly anywhere along the American coast and do as they liked in the face of our vast, sparsely defended frontiers. A relatively small European army had burned the White House in living memory. Pierce stated the American consensus when he declared that the United States expected foreign powers to keep their warfare to themselves and let Americans do as they liked:

Notwithstanding the existence of such hostilities, our citizens retained the individual right to continue all their accustomed pursuits, by land or by sea, at home or abroad, subject only to such restrictions in this relation as the laws of war, the usage of nations, or special treaties may impose; and it is our sovereign right that our territory and jurisdiction shall not be invaded by either of the belligerent parties for the transit of their armies, the operations of their fleets, the levy of troops for their service, the fitting out of cruisers by or against either, or any other act or incident of war. And these undeniable rights of neutrality, individual and national, the United States will under no circumstances surrender.

Neutrality did not require a Jeffersonian embargo, though. The United States permitted citizens to transport sell their wares to belligerents, including weaponry. Americans could even transport foreign soldiers. But you did such things at your own risk and, consequently, they did not implicate Washington. Many Americans had taken the risks and reaped the profits. None of that caused any problems that Pierce saw fit to mention. Nor had foreign armies transited American soil or foreign warships come unwanted into American waters. Americans had even managed not to help belligerent powers base privateers or fit out military vessels in domestic ports, something the nation couldn’t claim at all when it came to filibusters.

The rub came when the British recruited on American soil. American neutrality law forbade mustering expeditions to go join foreign wars just as it did outfitting warships for them:

they provide not less absolutely that no person shall, within the territory or jurisdiction of the United States, enlist or enter himself, or hire or retain another person to enlist or enter himself, or to go beyond the limits or jurisdiction of the United States with intent to be enlisted or entered, in the service of any foreign state, either as a soldier or as a marine or seaman on board of any vessel of war, letter of marque, or privateer. And these enactments are also in strict conformity with the law of nations, which declares that no state has the right to raise troops for land or sea service in another state without its consent, and that, whether forbidden by the municipal law or not, the very attempt to do it without such consent is an attack on the national sovereignty.

The War of 1812 had not come again. The British asked for men, rather than abducted them. But they had gone beyond stopping ships on the high seas and instead recruited right on American soil. This might not make for a second burned White House, but agents of a foreign government recruiting for one of their wars within the United States clearly ran afoul of the neutrality laws. To permit them would, like indulging filibusters, encourage other powers to understand the United States as a willing co-belligerent. Such a state of affairs could easily draw the United States into battles not of its choosing. Permitting it to go unchallenged would surrender control of American foreign policy to the United Kingdom, a situation befitting a colony or a protectorate but not a nation which deemed itself independent and sovereign.

The Blue Lodges, Part Five

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Jordan Davidson told the Howard Committee, with a bit of pride, that the members of the proslavery Blue Lodges had done right and, they believed, lawfully in coming over and voting in Kansas’ elections. He further had a rather different view of the organizations than did either people in Kansas or other members. Davidson insisted that the men of the lodges swore an oath against the use of violence. This might come down to his lack of scrupulous attendance. If he missed as many meetings as he suggested, then Davidson saw very little of his fellow proslavery men in action. Alternatively, the lodge members could have sworn that oath and broken it. They might have claimed the same kind of abstract self-defense that justified defiance of law in Benjamin Stringfellow’s Negro-Slavery, No Evil:

The security of our slave-property was not alone involved; our very lives were endangered. The negro-thief, the abolitionists, who induces a slave to run away, is a criminal of a far more dangerous character than the house-breaker, or the highway robber, — his crime of a far higher grade than that of the incendiary — it ranks, at least, with that of the midnight assassin. To induce a slave to escape, involves not merely to the master the loss of that slave, of that amount of property; but it brings in its train far more serious consequences. Other slaves are thereby induced to make like attempts; a hatred for their masters, whom they begin to regard as their oppressors, is thus begotten; and this, too, often is followed by arson and murder.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

While we can’t say that Stringfellow spoke for Davidson’s Pleasant Hill lodge officially, as he had for the Platte County Self-Defense Association, both the similarity of the two groups in politics and the general tenor of the proslavery movement argue that they had similar ideas. With that in mind, Davidson and others could swear themselves to obedience to the law and restraint from violence but then defy the law and resort to violence. They could, in words they would not have much appreciated, have cited a Higher Law.

That higher law might have come into play within the group as well. J.C. Prince testified that he feared for his safety if he told the Howard Committee all he knew about the Blue Lodges. Davidson testified to an oath against telling the group’s secrets:

The penalty for violating the rules and secrets of the order was all the honor a man had. A man, by violating the secrets and rules of the order, was liable to stand in society beneath the dignity of a gentleman, but to no personal injury, except as they might take a notion to inflict it. There was nothing said in the oath or forms of the society about inflicting personal harm upon delinquent members.

One can read that either as further to the effect that the lodges demanded no violence of their members or that they demanded no violence officially. Davidson says only that the oath and forms did not require violent retaliation, not that it never happened or that the group’s bylaws forbade them. He carefully outsourced any violence that might come to the unspecified, general society rather than to the particular society in question. This distinction might have cleared his conscience or proved useful in a court of law, but could end in broken bodies and stolen lives all the same.

The Blue Lodges, Part Four

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Parts 1, 2, 3

W.P. Richardson would only tell the Howard Committee that he would not tell them about the Blue Lodges that plotted to control the future of Kansas. J.C. Prince told some, but admitted he would not tell all he knew because he had sworn otherwise and feared retaliation. John Stringfellow, clearly proud of the lodges’ work, told the committee all manner of things that everybody who lived in Kansas or Missouri could have seen for themselves. He went on, however, to deny much logistical coordination between the lodges. The committee’s remaining witness on the issue continued in much the same vein.

Jordan Davidson testified that

There is a secret society in the State of Missouri, for the purpose of introducing slavery into Kansas Territory. The proper name of the society, as recognized by its own members, is “Social Band,” “Friend’s Society,” and by some the “Blue Lodge” and “The Sons of the South.”

Davidson had never seen any written bylaws of the group to say that it had a single official name. Nor, he admitted, did he often attend meetings. He had too much work to do in the day and wanted rest too much at night to put on regular appearances. But he felt confident to speak to the group’s general nature, goals, and activities. Specifically:

The order compelled no man to come into this Territory and vote.

But the order did go over and vote. When asked directly of the Blue Lodge served as a way to organize men for election stealing, Davidson agreed almost without qualifier:

The greatest weight it had was in this way, for protection when we did get here; that when we got into a scrape we should not fall foul of each other. The friends of the society were friends to slavery in the south, and to extend it here if we could do it by lawful means.

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Lawful means concern Davidson repeatedly in his testimony. He declares the lodges “governed by law,” indulging in “no compulsion beyond the law” and saw “nothing in it contrary to the law”. Davidson

never heard any of the leaders of the invasion of the 30th of March say it was illegal to come over here and vote. I heard an investigation of that matter in the lodge. One of the members asked how they could come here and vote lawfully, if they were objected to as not citizens of the Territory. The answer was to squeeze it in somehow, and if we could not get to vote, there was no violence to be used.

All of that sounds like protesting a bit too much. Davidson declares that he himself viewed voting in Kansas as right by the law, but even if we take that at face value then others in his lodge had their doubts. Otherwise, why would they require a discussion? Why admit that if challenged, they should find some way to “squeeze” the votes regardless? Some of that can come down to an assertion that Kansan voting scruples simply must yield to Missourian. Then a Missourian need not accept the legitimacy of examining his credentials. He might even feel free to simply lie.

Davidson further testified

Some of the wisest of our party, I suppose, did not fully believe that voting here was lawful, but they contended that it was right as there were a good many others coming here to vote; I considered it right myself, and came here of my own accord.

What we consider right often differs from what we find lawful. In such cases, we generally think it right to ignore the law. The border ruffians did the same. Davidson agreed with them and came of his own free will. But his invocation of right here, in light of his repeated insistence on the lawfulness of election stealing, suggests that he meant more than that he came to Kansas and did what he thought right. One must remember that Davidson testified under oath before a committee of the House of Representatives. The “here” to which he came meant Kansas, but not just on the occasion of the election. He came back to testify, apparently without a summons, and with a clear conscience. His testimony thus has an air of defiance to it: He came and told what he knew, as he liked, with pride. By implication, Davidson dared them to do something about it.

The Blue Lodges, Part Three

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Parts 1 and 2

W.P. Richardson stonewalled when asked about the Blue Lodges. J.C. Prince told some, including that he feared to tell all, but spent much of his testimony making a claim and then qualifying it back nearly to oblivion. Several of his statements read as denials that he hoped the Howard Committee would understand as stating the opposite. John Stringfellow, his proslavery bona fides unassailable, testified at greater length. He began by rehearsing the claim that his brother made all the way back in Negro-Slavery, No Evil that the free soilers started the whole mess by organizing the Emigrant Aid Society. Before that, thanks to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, all expected that Kansas would come into the Union as a slave state.

That proslavery men held this story as orthodox dogma does not mean that they lacked facts on their side. It had always taken affirmative legislation to bar slavery from entering territories. The absence of restriction ensured a future presence all the way back to the Southwest Ordinance that created Tennessee. If popular sovereignty meant, rhetorically, letting the people decide then those who defended it as such had very good reason to know just how the people would decide. Territorial settlement operated on the de facto principle of slavery national and freedom sectional.

Emigrant Aid meant cheating to proslavery Missourians, who then resolved that they would lose Kansas if they stood idle. With the business couched in defensive terms, Stringfellow dated the founding of the Blue Lodges to October, 1854. He might have believed all that himself, though I’ve seen references to Blue Lodges forming in the summer of 1854 and it seems likely that he knew what his brother spent the summer occupied with, but he went on to argue

The members of these societies knew each other, and in public and private pledged to use all honorable means to make Kansas a slave State. They raised no more money than for the incidental expenses of their meetings. The condition of affairs of Kansas were discussed in these meetings. We consulted and talked about the mode of carrying out our object, which was by voluntary emigration. With respect to the then approaching elections means were taken to prevent underhanded advantages, which we feared would be taken to control the elections in favor of the free State party. Part of the means taken was to come into the Territory from Missouri to prevent or counteract illegal voting on the part of hired voters from the east and other free States.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

These honorable means included carting cannons over the border, attacking polling places, shooting guns at suspected free soil voters, and hiring their own voters, facts that the Committee knew from other witnesses. One could consider paying border ruffians an incidental meeting expense, but it seems much more likely that Stringfellow intended himself understood as denying that any payment for border ruffian activities took place.

Stringfellow testified that the societies, while mostly a Missourian phenomenon, extended into Kansas “to a limited extent”

they were united associations, with officers, and they communicate with other societies through their officers. The design was to direct or advise rather than to assist persons where to settle in the Territory.

Thus the word could get around about where proslavery men had best go to find friends, or needed to go to carry precincts. So things remained until the March elections. Since then

public organizations or aid societies have been formed all through the slave States, so far as I can learn, to enable settlers favorable to the institution of slavery to reach the Territory without assuming any control over their acts after they get here. Several gentlemen have left the Territory and the border of Missouri since March election in 1855, and visited the slaveholding States and addressed the people, urging the importance pecuniarily and publicly of a proslavery emigration to Kansas Territory.

Those organizations did their work well enough, Stringfellow said. He pointed to increased southern emigration in the spring of 1856 as proof, but he put it down

more to the general belief in the importance of such emigration rather than to the societies or Missourians.

The Blue Lodges, Part Two

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Part One

W.P. Richardson stonewalled the Howard Committee when asked about the proslavery secret societies who had invaded Kansas, stolen its elections, used their ill-gotten majorities to pass tyrannical laws, and thus driven many Kansans into the arms of the free state movement. Other witnesses did better, though J.C. Prince confessed that he

should not like to tell all I know about this society, because I think it would result to me injury; and that is one reason, though not the only one, why I dislike to answer in relation to the matter. One other reason is, that the members of the society take oaths to keep secrets those matters.

Nineteenth century Americans placed more stock in oaths than we do, so we should not entirely dismiss Prince’s reference to keeping his word. He said he would and doing so may have genuinely meant a great deal to him. But nor should we discount the potential threat to his person. He spoke, after all, of men who stood ready to prosecute their case with cannons. They ran Frederick Starr out of Missouri and destroyed George Park’s printing press. In Kansas, they had seized Pardee Butler, tarred and feathered William Phillips, and apparently terrorized Lawrence sufficiently that the free state men got together for mutual defense. Prince didn’t have to wonder if they’d back violent threats with violent deeds; he knew it for a fact. Men like Robert Kelley and John and Benjamin Stringfellow, to say nothing of David Rice Atchison, meant business.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

But all the same, Prince would testify some of what he knew:

I know that there was a secret society in Missouri. I knew it in the fall of 1854; but I do not know whether it exists now [May, 1856] or not. I think of the party who went to Fort Scott in November, 1854, to vote, some ten or fifteen were members of this society, perhaps all, for aught I know. The society is a pro-slavery society, and the object is to get none but pro-slavery men into office; and, I suppose, it had reference to making Kansas a slave State. They had signs and pass-words, or something similar, by which we would know each other to be members of that society. The members of this society take an oath when they join the society, administered by one of the officers of the society. The subject of the oath is to keep secret the proceedings of the society, and make Kansas a slave State, the best way they can.

The free soil men of Kansas may not have required the illustrative example of their opponents when organizing their own groups, but if they did then they clearly had it. However, this tells us not much more than we could have gathered from reading eyewitness testimony of the election stealing or Negro-Slavery, No Evil. More interesting, Prince testifies to the scope of the Blue Lodges:

I do not know that this pro-slavery society exists in any State but Missouri; and I do not recollect that I have ever heard. I have understood that the society existed pretty generally in Missouri, though I think it has pretty much died away now. […] I do not know that they ever raised any money, or paid any expenses for that purpose, or ever sent out any communications for the purpose of getting up votes here. They discussed in the lodges the question of sending voters here to make Kansas a slave State. I do not know, of my own knowledge, of how many belonged to the society in Missouri, but I have heard the number, though I do not now recollect it, though it was a very large number.

Prince’s hemming and hawing comes right before he invokes the danger to himself. I get the impression that he remembered rather more than he let on. He alternates between making a claim and swiftly walking it back. He remembers that a large number of people belonged to the group, but can’t say how many. He thinks the society existed and operated, but also that it no longer does. He knows they went to Kansas, but can’t testify that they received payment for it. Whether the Blue Lodges had died away by spring of 1856 or not, Prince still feared them if he said too much.

The Blue Lodges, Part One

John Sherman

John Sherman

Happy Juneteenth. I plan to write something on the depressingly traditional way one white American chose to celebrate it this year for Monday.

Having spend a fair bit of time on the free state militias that grew up in Kansas during 1855, it only seems fair to explore their opposite number. They operated as Blue Lodges, Sons of the South, the Social Band, the Friend’s Society, and probably under other names. The Howard Report includes testimony from eleven men on secret societies, but most of them spoke about the free state side rather than their antagonists. Only Jordan Davidson, John C. Prince, William P. Richardson, and John Stringfellow had anything to say about border ruffian organization.

Of those four, Richardson proved the least candid. His testimony consumes only a single page. John Sherman, brother of a then unremarkable officer named William, asked if Richardson belonged to any secret society aimed at “the extension of slavery into any territory of the United States”. Richardson answered in a remarkable subversion of the verbosity of the age:

I decline answering that question.

Even if Richardson would not admit to membership, would he testify that such a society existed?

I decline answering that question.

Sherman pressed on, ignoring the denials. Did such a group have anything to do with elections in Kansas? Did they, perhaps, send cash or recruit voters to go over for the day?

I decline answering that question.

Then Sherman finally dragged a new sentence out of Richardson.

Question. Would your answer to these questions, by the rules or obligations of such a society, impose upon you any penalty or danger of violence, or would it tend to criminate you?

Answer. It would subject me to no pains or penalties. I think it would be improper in me to answer these questions, but not that there is anything dishonorable about it, I do not think the committee have any right to ask me any such questions, and, therefore, I respectfully decline answering them.

Congressman Sherman heard Richardson’s denials before the affair with H. Miles Moore and so can’t have had that in mind. Nevertheless, he had reason to suspect that Richardson feared punishment if he told all. He knew from John C. Prince’s testimony on May 9, 1856, six days prior to Richardson’s, that the former

should not like to tell all I know about this society, because I think it would result to me injury; and that is one reason, though not the only one, why I dislike to answer in relation to the matter. One other reason is, that the members of the society take oaths to keep secrets those matters.

With Richardson stonewalling, Sherman pressed on. Did Richardson, who declined to otherwise comment on secret societies, know of any rule they put out requiring men like him to refuse cooperation with the Howard Committee and other outsiders? His tongue loosened by the last inquiry, Richardson finally let a few more words free:

I decline answering that question, upon the ground that the committee have no right to ask me such questions.

Richardson came back the next day and added that he had not properly understand Sherman’s question, but in the day since he had come to do so. Thus he parted with still more of his dear words:

I know of no such thing.

Glad he cleared that up.

The Lawrence Convention: Resolutions, Part Two

John A Wakefield

John A Wakefield

We left the Lawrence convention of free state Kansans with its grievance stated and its first few resolutions. These addressed fellow Kansans, urging them to set aside other issues and unite on the slavery question, but also struck a conciliatory note toward the Missourians who might invade to stop them by pledging that they had no designs to meddle with the Show Me State’s slavery. For matters within Kansas bounds, the convention had less conciliation in mind and more resistance. They did not and would not view the bogus legislature as a legitimate body and thus would not feel any obligation to follow its laws. Legally elected members should resign their posts to emphasize that and further deny the legislature to meet in Pawnee its legitimacy.

They did had more still to say. If the Missourians would not accept Kansas for the Kansans

in reply to the threats of war so frequently made in our neighboring State, our answer is, WE ARE READY.

Bring it on, Missouri. At this point they adopt a course reaching beyond mere passive resistance. The free state men declared themselves ready to fight. As resolutions themselves don’t shoot guns or throw punches, they laid out a more affirmative program:

Kansas has a right to, and does hereby invoke the aid of the general government against the lawless course of the slavery propaganda with reference to this Territory.

I don’t know what they expected Franklin Pierce and his very southern cabinet to do, even if they somehow prodded him to action without Jefferson Davis there to twist his arm. But they did try. If they flirted with revolution in declaring themselves unbound by territorial law, then they also reached out through more official channels for help. Maybe they only meant to give cover to their resistance, falling back on the claim that they had tried to do things the proper way and found the government deaf to their pleas. But if Pierce did stir himself to beneficial action, so much the better.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

That said, nobody waited on the president. The free staters set themselves to organization building:

a Free State Central Committee be appointed, and that each election district shall be entitled to one member, and each district having two councilmen, shall be entitled to two members.

This committee might have come out of the resolutions meant as the nucleus of a political party, but it could easily transform itself into more. The proslavery party had its blue lodges in Missouri from the very start, but their opponents could build organs in Kansas itself to work through.

More than the convention-goers recognized the potential for such an organization. This notice ran immediately beneath the resolutions in the June 30 Herald of Freedom:

We regret to learn that measures were taken by a few persons on Wednesday evening last, to organize the Democratic party in this Territory. Such a movement can result in no good to any one, but may do much damage. There is but one issue pending in Kansas, and that issue must be settled before others are precipitated upon us. The movement looks to us like an effort to suppress the public will, and we hope it will not be successful.

While Democrats might have a passively proslavery ideology, that did not make every Democrat a slavery enthusiast. Nor did every free state man in Kansas feel a paramount commitment to the cause. The organization of a separate party, especially the Democrats, presented a significant risk. They might very well siphon off a fair number of presently free state men and take them back closer to the national mainstream.

The Lawrence Convention: Resolutions, Part One

John A Wakefield

John A Wakefield

The free state men in Kansas had a problem: The proslavery men hijacked their territorial government and, by the letter of the law, had their seats in the legislature fair and square. They broke the law to get there, but did constitute the legal legislature of Kansas. The residents of Lawrence thus called together a convention to discuss how they should respond to the problem. The body to meet in Pawnee just a week after they did consisted of Missourians and Missourians’ anointed candidates, thoroughly committed to an enslaved Kansas and thoroughly hostile to any real or imagined abolitionists. It did not represent a majority of Kansans. What could they do? The Lawrence Convention, which included some of the free state minority who would head off to Pawnee the next week, had some ideas.

They declared themselves in favor of a free Kansas and

urge upon the people of Kansas to throw away all minor differences and issues, and made the freedom of Kansas the only issue.

No Democrats, no Republicans, no leftover Whigs for Kansas. The politics of the territory should and would hinge entirely upon the slavery question.

we claim no right to meddle with the affairs of the people of Missouri, or any other State, but that we claim the right to regulate our own domestic affairs

On first read, that might look like a simple disclaimer to avoid charges of hypocrisy. But the Missourian filibusters who controlled Kansas’ elections did so on the grounds that Kansas, abolitionized, would serve as a base for the underground railroad and potentially for actual raids into Missouri to steal slaves. The free state men did articulate a consistently principled position, but the resolution also demonstrates an understanding of Missourian concerns and at least a rhetorical attempt to defuse them. They would make themselves good neighbors to slavery of the Missourians could extend the same courtesy to freedom.

we look upon the conduct of a portion of the people of Missouri, in the late Kansas election as a gross outrage upon the elective franchise and our rights as freemen, and a violation of the principles of popular sovereignty; and inasmuch as many of the members of the present Legislature are men who owe their election to a combined system of force and fraud, we do not feel bound to obey any law of their enacting.

This took things a step farther. The free state men had called the legislature illegitimate, and would eventually settle on terming it the bogus legislature, but now resolved that a bogus legislature amounted to no legislature at all. It had no authority over them, whatever its legitimate legal forms, due to its fundamentally illegitimate constitution.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Such a resolution at least flirted with revolution. If the free state party did not recognize the authority of the legal legislature then what authority did they recognize as governing the territory? Andrew Reeder would make for a poor figurehead, as he seems still resolved to carry out his official duties. Those would require him to work with the legislature.

What about the eleven free state men who would have seats at Pawnee, at least for a few days? As some of them attended the convention and one, John Wakefield, chaired it, they had a suggestion:

Resolved, That the legally elected members of the present Legislature be requested, as good and patriot citizens of Kansas, to resign and repudiate the fraud.

Their very presence in the company of the others granted the latter legitimacy. For them to resign as a group would demonstrate thoroughly that the free state party had nothing to do with the bogus legislature and give further rhetorical cover to resisting its laws.

The Lawrence Convention

John A Wakefield

John A. Wakefield

The attack on Andrew Reeder by Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow constituted a new escalation in Kansas-related violence. A proslavery man had now raised hand and drawn pistol not just against a fellow civilian, but against the lawful governor of the state. Coming as the attack did just days before the opening of legislature, where his brother John would soon sit, Stingfellow’s assault served notice to any who had not already gotten the hint that the proslavery party would not content itself with holding a controlling interest in Kansas. Rather they must have it all.

But one hardly needed a crystal ball, or to read the Squatter Sovereign’s proclamations on the necessity of purging the territory, to know that the proslavery men would not read their dominance of the legislature as cause to compromise. Nor would they feel any timidity about turning their new powers upon the free state Kansans because they came by that power dishonestly.

The free staters could count. They knew very well that they would face a proslavery majority intensely hostile to them and their interests, whether it allowed their victors from the May special elections to sit or not. This put them into a difficult situation. Even before the legislature purged all its free state members save for Samuel Houston, it had the paradoxical combination of legal legitimacy and actual illegitimacy. By all the laws of the nation, its members had won their seats. They won them illegally, but had the certificates of election all the same. When they gathered on the second of July, they would take those seats and proceed to legislate even if they represented the wishes of only a minority of actual Kansans. That kind of thing might fly in South Carolina, where the political class imbibed a kind of hostility toward democracy that would have impressed some of the more authoritarian men of the century previous, but it would not suit most other corners of the United States at mid-century.

JH Stringfellow

J.H. Stringfellow

What could they do? They had a legislature simultaneously legitimate and illegitimate. They sent a protest to Congress, insisting that the popular sovereignty proclaimed in the Kansas-Nebraska Act required defense against Missourian invasions that proposed to “enslave” free, white Kansans. Congress did not oblige. On June 8, free state citizens gathered in Lawrence and discussed the problem. The June 30 Herald of Freedom reports

An animated discussion was kept up till a late hour. Prior to adjournment a committee was appointed to invite the several representative districts in the Territory to send five delegates from each to an adjourned convention to be held in Lawrence on the 25th of June, “to take into consideration the relation of the people of this Territory bear to the Legislature about to convene at Pawnee, &c.

Delegates came from the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and ninth districts. At an informal morning session, they appointed John (parts 1, 2) Wakefield (parts 1, 2, 3) their chairman and Jesse Wood secured a place on the committee of permanent officers. Both men would take their seats in at Pawnee exactly a week later. The legislature would expel them two days thereafter.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

With their officers appointed, the convention proceeded that afternoon to writing and voting through resolutions. They stated the problem bluntly:

certain persons from the neighboring State of Missouri, have, from time to time, made irruptions into this Territory, and have by fraud and force driven from and overpowered our people at the ballot box, and have forced upon us a Legislature which doe snot represent the opinions of the legal voters of this Territory; many of the members of said Legislature not being even residents of this Territory, but having their homes in the State of Missouri; and whereas, said persons have used violence toward the persons and property of the inhabitants

The named officers of the convention could have come straight from the pages of the Howard Report. These men had not merely seen things done, but in some cases had personally suffered assault, intimidation, and destruction of property. They knew the score and resolved to do something about it.