Higher Law and Disunion: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Eight

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Andrew Butler, former messmate of David Rice Atchison, told the Senate that all his hopes lay with Franklin Pierce. It fell to the President to step in with the military, disperse the free state government, and so prevent civil war. A cynical person might argue that relying on Franklin Pierce to do the right thing amounted to admission of defeat. Butler might agree. He didn’t want shots fired in Kansas because he knew “one drop of blood” would likely end the Union, but in saying so he returned to an earlier theme:

I have such confidence in the good sense of the country that I believe republican institutions might survive the present Union. Really it is broken already; for the spirit which cherished it has been extinguished, and the very altars upon which we ought to worship have been profaned by false fires.

Here Butler anticipates Lincoln’s mystic chords of memory and recalls Calhoun’s cut ties of Union. He rightly sees the nation as a thing that can only last so long as belief in it. Like many Americans in both sections, he now looked at a series of broken promises, violated understandings and rounds of mutual recrimination that pushed him toward the conclusion that the Union did not deserve saving. Back in the day, men had

a hardy morality, which dealt with events as they were. They had a wisdom which knew how to accommodate itself to circumstances, and did not lift themselves so high that they saw more than others, and sought ethereal regions because the earth was too good for them.

In other words, those Higher Law people could shove it. The framers, pragmatists to a man, saw and accepted slavery. They made no great effort to change or challenge it, but rather conformed themselves to its particular demands for security. Generations of later scholars would disagree, but the tide of research has gone against them. Butler doubtless ascribed to the framers any number of novel constitutional doctrines they wouldn’t recognize or would find dubious, but the general thrust of his argument holds. Even the most sympathetic scholars admit that the famous framers antislavery credentials rest more on intention than action.

Franklin Pierce

Of course, Franklin Pierce had delivered for slavery before, doing much to start the entire Kansas mess. He could do it again. Should the President feel so inclined, Butler had advice for him. In his place, Butler

would serve a warrant on Sharpe’s rifles, and if Sharpe’s rifles did not answer the summons, and come into court on a day certain, or if they resisted the sheriff, I would summon the posse comitatus, and I would have Colonel Sumner’s regiment to be part of that posse comitatus.

Gentle Readers, I am not a lawyer. I can’t tell you if Butler here means to use one of the odd legal fictions where the common law treats property as persons or if he just chose a clever turn of phrase. Either way, he means to send the 1st Cavalry to disarm the free state movement. This would prompt “reflection” amongst the antislavery enthusiasts. Butler didn’t say just what they would reflect on, but one imagines he meant them to consider how easily an unarmed man can get himself shot dead. That in mind, they would “give over their delusions.” If Pierce couldn’t do that, then Butler recommended his state

Go out of the Union, and make arrangements with others to form such a government as you can live in with honor and dignity.

 

Only Franklin Pierce Can Save the Union: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Seven

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Andrew Butler told the Senate, in essence, that he saw Kansas as another Texas. If the South did not have it, then it would turn into the launching point for a war against slavery. He indicted John Hale’s opposition to David Rice Atchison’s gaggle of proslavery filibusters as a continuation of Hale’s opposition to annexing Texas. Hale could hardly disagree. Butler didn’t quite leave things there, insisting that the annexation proved more a boon to the North than the South as a free trade Galveston would have fed imported goods into the South and evaded Yankee tariffs. Hale and his fellows ought to thank the slave states for bringing Texas into the Union.

And anyway, did Hale and company want to give Texas back?

They might say so, but they would be rebuked about as effectually as any public men could be rebuked whenever they appeared to that judgment. These are hard questions, I admit. I ask them, would they agree that England should take Texas and exclude slavery, or that Texas should continue to be a separate republic; or would they expel her from the Union if in their power?

Hale or some friends might remark in private about how they’d do better without Texas. I know some of my political comrades have, just as the other side would like to be rid of California or Massachusetts. But to suggest giving land annexed into the United States to Britain, the hated antithesis of all American liberty, made for a potent charge. It had extra credibility in this context because American abolitionists understood Britain as an ally in their struggle, a fact not lost on the white South.

That “gravamen” dispatched, Butler proceeded to the next:

Suppose the so-called [free state] Legislature assembled in Kansas on the 4th of March, absolutely hoisting the banner of treason, rebellion, and insurrection, what is the President to do? I tell you, sir, as much as the gentlemen to whom I allude denounce the President, if he should not interpose his peacemaking power in Kansas, that Legislature will be opposed, and opposed by men as brave as they are, with weapons in their hands, and the contest will be decided by the sword.

If Franklin Pierce didn’t step in, proslavery violence would surely ensue. That would then spread, with Butler citing efforts to organize a military expedition to Kansas in his own South Carolina. Those “young men who will fight anybody” would start a bloody contest that put the Union at risk. Only Franklin Pierce could stop it. He had to act, or

he would be guilty of a criminal dereliction of duty […] for by interposing, he can cave them from the consequences of this issue.

It fell on Pierce to save antislavery Kansans, traitors all, from the “consequences” of their actions. Proslavery militants have little agency in Butler’s account. He doesn’t quite call their reaction one they can’t resist, but comes close. They act not just as a political opposition to the antislavery party, but also something more elemental. Here Butler dips into the favorite language of the obviously culpable, somewhere between “mistakes were made” and “they made me do it.” Antislavery people, or the President, could do something to stop them but proslavery men had no power to stop themselves.

Dreams of a British Texas: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Six

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

From his discussion of David Rice Atchison’s remarkable benevolence and restraint in saving the people of Lawrence from a proslavery mob led by David Rice Atchison, Andrew Butler moved on to another matter. In considering John P. Hale’s rhetorical assault on his friend Dave, Butler came to what he called “the gravamen” of Hale’s position. That gravamen, Texas, had much to do with both Hale’s own past and present matters in Kansas. Franklin Pierce had read Hale out of the New Hampshire Democracy for opposing annexation of the Lone Star Republic on antislavery grounds. Butler struck right to the point:

I will put my questions, however, to the Senator from new Hampshire, […] Would he consent that Texas should have become a British province, with the certainty that England would place that province in the same condition as its West India islands, and with the certainty that her policy would be to make war on the institutions of Louisiana and other southern States? Would he take the part of England in such a controversy, sooner than of those who have given us our liberties and our rights? Would he consent that Great Britain should take possession of Texas, and make war, like a roaring lion seeking whom it may devour among its neighbors? Would he consent to that, on an acknowledged condition only that it should not have slaves, and should be pledged to make war on the institutions of the southern States? Would he agree to make war on his southern confederates on such conditions and through such agencies?

John Hale

After the initial attempt to secure annexation on semi-independence from Mexico failed, the Texans let the matter drop for some time. It came back in the 1840s. That time, Sam Houston played a complicated double bluff. He courted a British protectorate over his nation and offered to emancipate its slaves should that protectorate come. At the same time, he told Americans that the British had offered his fragile republic protection against Mexico on the condition of emancipation. Texas needed protection from Mexico and the financial windfall that a British subsidy for emancipation would bring. Houston himself might have accepted either outcome, but an abolitionized Texas presented an existential threat to slavery in Louisiana. The Tyler administration keenly appreciated the political usefulness of the story Houston told, whether the members believed it or not and annexation squeaked through the Senate by means of a joint resolution of Congress and amid great controversy. Butler presented Hale’s historical position and in so doing invoked his present one. John Hale would literally take the part of Britain and establish an abolitionist Kansas from which antislavery radicals could strike into Missouri, now playing the part of Louisiana.

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Butler imagined a far more romantic, crusading antislavery effort than existed prior to 1860. Border clashes did happen, but few in the white North imagined anything like John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. On the Kansas front, only Ely Thayer in the Emigrant Aid Company took earnestly his plan to replicate the freeing of Kansas by sending Yankees to colonize Virginia. To the degree that keeping Kansas free would undermine slavery in Missouri, antislavery writers imagine a largely passive process where the enslaved and white population growth did much of the work until a political movement within the established order worked a transformation over the Show Me State as had happened in Pennsylvania, New York, and other northern jurisdictions.

 

Antislavery Ingrates: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Two

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

We left Andrew Butler, David Rice Atchison’s old housemate, opining on Kansas matters to the United States Senate. He began by castigating John Hale (R-NH), for calling out the Supreme Court and Franklin Pierce. They had not, per Butler, contradicted their principles or gone whole hog for slavery. The Senator from South Carolina admitted, however, that if Roger Taney had done so then that would not warrant an objection from him. With all that throat-clearing and about three columns of the Congressional Globe under his belt, Butler moved on to discussing his old friend. Atchison’s senatorial enemies, Hale included,

attributed to him a ferocity and vulgar indifference and recklessness in relation to the affairs in Kansas, which is refuted by every confidential letter which he has written to me, and which is not in conformity to the truth.

Butler’s friend surely wouldn’t lie to him. If Atchison denied misconduct in private letters, it ought to settle things. Bourbon Dave didn’t make himself anyone’s enemy, not even Kansans who arrived courtesy of the Emigrant Aid Societies. Missouri’s former senator might have “the attributes of a conqueror of that class of people” but Butler didn’t cast Atchison as an Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. Rather he would conquer the hearts of his foes:

Let those who asperse him settle around him as neighbors, and if their houses were burned down and assistance were required, he would be the first man to render them assistance, and he would conquer them by his kindness, by his justice, by his good sense, and by generosity.

Antislavery Kansans might disagree, rightly noting that Atchison had a large role in directing the blue lodges that campaigned against them and authored many of their sufferings. What Atchison’s men didn’t bring over from Missouri, his allies in Kansas conducted on his behalf. Butler must have anticipated, or already heard, that charge because he turned it around in a passage ripe with perverse reasoning:

There was never a better illustration of his [Atchison’s] character than the conduct he displayed in the expected tragedy at Lawrence. I know the fact, and I state it on my authority, as a truth not to be disputed, (because I have his letters in my drawer,) that, when that controversy arose, General Atchison was absolutely called upon to attend General Robinson’s command, and he went, with a positive pledge on the part of those with whom he was associated that he should rather be the Mentor than the leader; and he has written to me that but for his mediatorial offices, the houses of the people of Lawrence would have been burnt and the streets drenched in blood.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Butler spoke in early March, before the sack of Lawrence. He refers here to the Wakarusa War, where Atchison did help calm the proslavery forces bent on the town’s ruin. He neglects that Atchison also acted as a leader and organizer of those forces. Nor does it matter much to him, if he knew, that Atchison defended seeking peace on the grounds that the free state leadership had outmaneuvered the proslavery side and would win the public relations war if bloodshed ensued just then. Bourbon Dave boldly stood up to his allies and told them that they had lost this round.

All of that made the latter-day calumniators of Atchison who wanted him “immolated on the altar of fanatical vengeance” into vile ingrates. The people of Lawrence and their friends in the Senate ought to thank Atchison; he saved their people and their town from the ravages of his own men. We should hope for neighbors of such quality.

Youthful Indiscretions: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part One

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

A Closer Look at Atchison, parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

We left David Rice Atchison anticipating the historical consensus on Franklin Pierce as president. The proclamations against the free state party, even if they had empty swipes at Atchison’s own cross-border activities, raised the president’s stock to slightly better than indifferent. When Wilson Shannon failed to move against the free state government’s legislature in March of 1856, all of a month later, the ex-Senator looked at Shannon’s consultations with Pierce and realized that the pleasant Mr. Pierce had failed again. Just as expected, the President told people what they wanted to hear and declined to live up to it after they left his sight.

More than Border Ruffians, embattled Kansans, and Emigrant Aid Company boosters read Pierce’s law and order proclamation. Lately a Senator, Atchison still had many friends in Washington. His antics provided grist for those opposing the administration’s position on Kansas and thus prompted Bourbon Dave’s associates still in office to stand up in his defense. This sets us on a path that will lead to the great Kansas set piece that took place not in the troubled territory or its anxious neighbor, but the chamber of the United States Senate.

On February 28, Atchison’s F-Street messmate Andrew Butler wrote to Bourbon Dave that

A debate is going on, here, that would amuse you very much if you were present. You have a place in the picture; and a prominent place.

Butler aimed to answer Atchison’s foes, which he did on March 5. This takes us to the Congressional Globe, that three-columned horror of tiny print that historians rarely miss a chance to complain about. In imitation of my betters, I will say that Butler’s speech on that day takes up nine columns between pages 584 and 587. If you want to read along, the Globe comes organized by Congress and session. The following hails from the 34th Congress, 1st session.

Butler’s speech began on an odd note. RMT Hunter -another F Streeter- complained that the Senator from South Carolina did not feel well. Could the Senate maybe postpone the Kansas debate until tomorrow? Several Senators moved for Monday instead, but John B. Weller (D-CA) said he wanted the day for a military appropriations bill. That in mind, Butler stuck it out

with a view to make a very few remarks in order to relieve the Senate from any impression which might be made on it by the statements made here on the responsibility of Senators, or by newspaper communications, in relation to the part which my friend, General Atchison, has acted in Kansas affairs. I intend no more

John Hale

Nineteenth century politicians promising brevity rarely deliver. Butler opened with half a column on the pregnant circumstances, the danger of civil war, and other boilerplate. Then he castigated John Hale (R-NH) for some remarks me made. Hale ought to have known better, in light of his long service, but Butler cast him as “a committed advocate to a sectional, fanatical organization” and thus obligated to repeat things beneath him. Hale had called the Supreme Court “the citadel of slavery.” As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Butler took that personally. His long “intercourse” with Roger Taney told him that the Court stood for the Constitution, not slavery per se. He then waxed Biblical on antislavery theories of higher law, by which Old Scratch persuaded Eve to want a forbidden snack.

Of course Butler didn’t mean that the United States Constitution had a divine pedigree or that Supreme Court rulings came god-breathed from Taney’s pen. Fallible men made mistakes. He had in mind Taney’s ruling on Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, which granted states the power to pass laws impeding the recovery of fugitive slaves. Butler, like everyone else, stood for a court above politics. Putting itself above politics meant that the Court would agree with the Senator any time he found it important, also just like everyone else.

Franklin Pierce

Butler then wandered off into a discussion of Hale’s complaint that Pierce contradicted himself between his response to the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island, wherein many rejected the vintage 1600s charter of the colony and demanded a more modern constitution. Pierce had sided with an illegal government against a legitimate one then, but not for Kansas. The Senator took some time to distance himself from Pierce, but insisted that as an American he owed the president some deference. The chief of the New Hampshire Democracy might take certain stands not becoming “the Chief Magistrate of this Confederacy.” In the White House, one ascended from a partisan warrior to the judge of all parties. And anyway, Pierce

was then comparatively a young man, and that having cultivated the lessons of liberty which his ancestor had taught him, much, in the language of Mr. Burke, is to be pardoned to the spirit of liberty. Another thing is to be said, that the judgment in relation to Dorr had not then been formed.

In other words, young Mr. Pierce of the New Hampshire Democracy didn’t know any better than to shelter a rebel leader. Franklin Pierce, age thirty-eight, had a head full of campus-style radicalism and anyway, the nation hadn’t come to a consensus on Dorr yet. One can’t blame “that deluded young man” in light of Dorr’s numerous “distinguished sympathizers.”

Atchison on Pierce: A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Five

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Gentle Readers, Atchison previously appeared in this series largely as an actor either on the front lines of the Kansas struggle or not far removed from them. He missed the day to day strife by remaining most of the time at Platte City, but he took an interest in southern militants who came from the east to join his crusade and took a direct hand both times that proslavery armies came to Lawrence. He also served as a promoter for the escapade in his last journey to and from Washington as Missouri’s senator. The return to Kansas meant that his work as a lobbyist took place on pen and paper, but Atchison kept it up. He corresponded with friends, interested parties, and Franklin Pierce.

Atchison’s biographer, William Parrish, has the late senator among others who wrote the President to enlighten him on the perfidy of the Free State Movement. I had suspected such a role for Bourbon Dave, but never had evidence. Parrish’s footnotes provided some. In Holloway’s History of Kansas, the author relates that as of February, 1855,

The Border chiefs did not forget to keep themselves right with the administration at Washington. That was an object of great concern with them. They sent a special messenger to represent Kansas matters to the President and his cabinet.

Holloway declines to give more details or a citation of his own, though that doesn’t set him apart from most nineteenth century historians I’ve read on Kansas matters. He merely points to a Pierce-connected paper repeating the usual claims that the proslavery side did nothing wrong and the antislavery side committed all manner of villainies. (Parrish also cites Roy Nichols’ Pierce biography, pages 443-5. To my regret, I lack a copy.) It appears that, while Pierce would probably have come down hard against the free state side even without the help, he issued his proclamations against the Free State Movement in early 1856 with information on hand from Atchison and other prominent border ruffians.

This all delighted Atchison, who wrote Stephen Douglas on February 28. It transpired that Bourbon Dave had his doubts about the pleasant Mr. Pierce, fearing that the Young Hickory of the Granite Hills would bring a soft touch and pliant will to the White House. Now he saw some much-needed spine in the administration. But Atchison didn’t fall in love like a modern television pundit, taking any trifle as an excuse to wax poetic on a politician’s virtues; he knew about the system from the inside. Pierce’s stand for slavery tipped Atchison in his favor over the other prospect, James Buchanan, but he told Douglas that he, “will not put myself to any extraordinary trouble about either.”

Franklin Pierce

Wilson Shannon went to Washington to consult with the president on Kansas’ troubles, arriving shortly after Pierce issued his second proclamation that so pleased Atchison. He got back, at Pierce’s insistence, in time for the free state legislature convening on March 4. Then Shannon failed to do anything to break up the gathering and Bourbon Dave cooled on the President for it. He wrote an Abel R. Corbin

If the General Government would only leave Kansas to the nurture of the ‘Border Ruffians’ we would soon have peace in that quarter, but as Genl Pierce has taken the matter out of our hands God knows what will come of it. I do not complain of him, but I believe his motives are good, but I doubt his policy.

Political enemies often tar one another in terms that count less for their literal meaning than the dislike expressed. Uncertain allies can receive the same treatment. We should read Atchison in context of that, but also aware that other politicians who worked with Pierce expressed similar concerns. Douglas and the F Street men got the president’s agreement to back the Kansas-Nebraska Act in writing because they feared he would tell them what they wanted to hear and then promptly forget. Contemporaries call the president pleasant with the implication that they didn’t have much nicer to say, particularly about his intellect. Dim bulb or not, I’ve yet to find any historian who holds Pierce in high regard. Most likely his contemporaries had more than political concerns about him.

“The prosperity or ruin of the whole South” A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Three

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2

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.

Daniel Woodson

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.

Horace Greeley

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.

A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Two

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

 

We left David Rice Atchison, Senator from Missouri, invisible in the records. Between February second and twentieth of 1855, he drops off the map. During that time, Lewis Cass believed that Atchison toured the South soliciting support for his crusade in Kansas. Large rallies would have generated news reports, but if Atchison came to a state capital quietly and talked to fellow politicians behind closed doors, we might never know. Outside of Missouri and Washington, few people likely knew him on sight. He appears again back in Missouri, possibly in St. Louis on the twentieth and definitely in Jefferson City by the twenty-second.

Bourbon Dave arrived to disappointing news. The Missouri legislature had just voted to postpone choosing a new senator. Until that point, Atchison may have expected easy reelection. It turned out that his battle with Thomas Hart Benton had cost him the support of many Democrats, enough together with Missouri’s Whigs to deny him a clear majority. With nothing much to do in the state capital, he made for the border the next day. He had Kansas to save for slavery, after all. Elections for the legislature would take place on March 30 and he could hardly miss that. On the twenty-fifth, Atchison went into Kansas in the company of “eighty men and twenty-four wagons.” He came packing two Bowie knives and four pistols, just for himself. The proceeds of his movement, in fraud and intimidation, amounted to control of the legislature of Kansas.

Robert Morse Taliaferro Hunter (D-VA)

Atchison wrote his F Street messmate, Robert M.T. Hunter, celebrating the victory and asking for ten thousand southerners to come and consolidate their victory. If they could “take possession of and hold every acre of timber” then Kansas could never go against slavery. Missouri could swing half of the ten thousand, he believed, but the rest of the section had to do its part. If the section failed Atchison, then it would lose Missouri and, soon after, Texas and Arkansas. With them gone, the South would have to concede the territories entire to freedom.

But none of this made Atchison “a Bandit, a ruffian, an Aaron Burr.” Atchison did not, he would have his friend know, preside over a regime of violent hooliganism. Instead he saved the lives and homes of antislavery Kansans by restraining his men. Where he went, nothing violent transpired. He couldn’t claim any responsibility for other places, but he assured Hunter that only the most impudent got “the hickory.”

One must suspect Atchison of polishing up his reputation here, but the Howard Report found only violent threats where he personally went. He may, as he did when proslavery forces moved against Lawrence, have acted to restrain his followers just as he claimed. He still got the mob in position where it could do harm and we ought to understand the border ruffians as part of a movement he started, organized, and led. The two do not cancel out, but only together form a complete picture of Missouri’s senator.

Andrew Butler of South Carolina, another of Atchison’s late messamates fabulously declared

the advent of Kansas shall be to the living Atchison a Star in his varied galaxy of life.

A young friend or relation of Butler’s had just gone off to Kansas and Butler asked Atchison to look after him.

James Mason

James Mason, author of the Fugitive Slave Act, proved less effusive. He heard rumors that people in Kansas wanted Andrew Reeder deposed in favor of a more pliable governor. The proslavery side should not use their victory as an excuse to color outside the legal lines. Instead, if Reeder proved intransigent against the proslavery legislature, then they could charge him with various offenses and ask his removal. Atchison had anticipated Mason’s advice, bending Franklin Pierce’s ear on the issue through his old friend, classmate, and present Secretary of War. Jefferson Davis had his back, to the point where the papers referred to a coalition of the two men against Reeder. In the summer, Pierce fired him at the request of Kansas’ legislature.

In the mean time, Atchison’s Platte County men destroyed the Parkville Industrial Luminary for objecting to how Missouri had outright stolen Kansas’ legislature. Parrish, Atchison’s biographer, stresses that he has no evidence the man himself took part in the destruction, but also notes that the Squatter Sovereign praised the act. Given the close personal and political relationship between the brothers Stringfellow and Atchison, it seems unlikely they would have done so if Atchison objected. Instead they advised continuing the campaign against antislavery papers elsewhere in Missouri and, as they later would, in Lawrence.

Atchison’s reelection campaign also got off to an odd start. A proslavery convention met at St. Louis between the twelfth and fourteenth of July. It heard a motion that Atchison and his old law partner Alexander Doniphan, leading contenders for the Senate seat, give speeches. Atchison tried to give them a pass, aiming to keep the convention a proslavery affair rather than introduce partisanship into things. Doniphan, a Whig, followed his lead. The convention wouldn’t hear of it and appointed a committee, which Atchison again refused. The usual order of such things seems to have involved such refusals, but then one reconsidered when a committee affirmed that the convention really wanted you to speak. Maybe Atchison proved himself in earnest in the hopes that it would win him popularity enough to keep his post in the Senate, but Parrish rightly points out that he didn’t give up on Kansas after realizing that he would not again serve as senator. Rebuffed, the convention turned to the favorite pastime of nineteenth century mass meetings: drawing up a set of resolutions. Over in Kansas., the free state men did the same.

Unanswered Questions about the Sack of Lawrence

Wilson Shannon

We left Wilson Shannon explaining the sacking of Lawrence to Franklin Pierce. He said, essentially, that sometimes people get a little excited and a lot of pillaging happens. What could you do? After the fact, he kept a promise he had made to Lawrence before this all began. Now that they had disarmed, thanks to Sheriff Samuel Jones riding into town and collecting what arms he could at the head of a small army, he ordered Colonel Sumner of the 1st Cavalry to dispatch men from Fort Leavenworth to guard Lawrence. For good measure, he also ordered a company for Topeka.

This all looked bad, of course. Shannon, charged with maintenance of law and order in Kansas, had permitted armed invasion, the pillage of one of its towns, and the destruction of a considerable amount of property. What kind of governor did that? He knew his conduct would come under scrutiny, both by antislavery figures outside Kansas and by proslavery politicians looking for a fall guy. Much of Shannon’s letter suggests that he understood the president as one of the latter. He got the job in the first place because Pierce fired Andrew Reeder for mismanaging the ascent of slavery, after all. Toward the end, the governor made the subtext into text:

I have relied solely on the forces under the command of Colonel Sumner, in order to maintain peace and good order in the Territory and enforce the execution of the laws. I have furnished no posse to the Marshal, nor have I been called on by that officer to do so.

Pierce had asked if Shannon drew on the force under Colonel Cooke out at Fort Riley, which the governor had not done. The stress on exclusivity suggests both that Shannon wanted the president to know he hadn’t gone mad with his new power to summon the army and that he hadn’t repeated his blunder of the winter and given proslavery forces a pretense to invade under his authority. Nor had I.B. Donaldson come to Shannon and asked for a posse, which could have come from the ranks of the 1st Cavalry. He hadn’t approved any posses since the small force sent into Lawrence with Jones on the occasion of his shooting, weeks before. Pierce would have to understand that Shannon did everything he could and simply did not deserve the blame for what happened after. The buck did not stop there.

All through this, I have wondered just how much of the story Shannon told honestly and how much he worked to excuse himself. The governor doesn’t appear to have outright lied, though he may have mistaken some things. He wrote for an audience that had every reason, including a past bungling, to hold him accountable and so we must expect him to paint himself in the most favorable light. But the matter of Donaldson’s posse remains ambiguous. Did Shannon firmly suggest he take the military instead of summoning any proslavery man with a grudge to move on Lawrence? He might have seen Lawrence as a problem that the posse would take care of for him, as suggested by his indifference to the town’s plight while it remained under arms. That would encourage him not to press the matter. Donaldson clearly turned him either way, but Shannon could still have ordered Sumner’s men out to serve as a kind of peacekeeping force; he tried to do just that during the Wakarusa War.

And why did Donaldson refuse the aid Shannon might have offered him? Concern for his safety makes perfect sense in light of how Lawrence treated Samuel Jones. Shannon told Pierce that the Marshal feared the soldiers might tip off the men he aimed to arrest, but if Donaldson feared that then why wait weeks to move? Why issue a proclamation calling for the largest posse he could possibly assemble? Donaldson deserves the lion’s share of the blame for bringing in his posse, but what did Shannon really do to deter him? During at least days closeted together in Lecompton, they must have discussed Lawrence. What did they say? Did all of this go according to plan and get disavowed later? Or did Shannon try his best and get outpaced or outmaneuvered?

I don’t know.

Governor Shannon’s Peace

Wilson Shannon

We left Wilson Shannon, second governor of Kansas Territory, explaining what had happened to Lawrence to an impatient President Franklin Pierce. The posse of proslavery men, hundreds strong, ran amok for hours. The governor explained that the antislavery party headquartered in Lawrence had driven them to distraction. They could not rest easily until reducing the Free State Hotel and the town’s two printing presses to ruins. No one died -Shannon either ignored or didn’t know of the proslavery man who died when a piece of the hotel fell on him as it burned- and the governor dismissed the property damage as the result of incidental exuberance and brief failure of the officers on the ground, not design. Trust him and note the fine raiment he chose for his posterior.

I.B. Donaldson gathered a suspiciously large posse to begin with and then made no protest over its transfer to the control of a known proslavery hooligan with a grudge against Lawrence, Douglas County sheriff Samuel Jones, but the federal marshal himself got in and out of town without any destruction. He left with prisoners in tow, taking them straight to Lecompton. There Governor Shannon waited. On having news of Donaldson’s success, the governor finally stirred himself to concern about Lawrence’s fate:

As soon as I was advised that he [Donaldson] had dismissed his posse, and without waiting for further information from Lawrence, I addressed a letter to Colonel Sumner, at Fort Leavenworth, calling on him for three companies of United States troops -one company to be stationed at Lawrence, one at this place [Lecompton], and one at Topeka.

Shannon wrote to Sumner on May 21, 1856; he probably put pen to paper as the rampage took place. Aside from knowing that Donaldson had arrested the men he came for, his letter to the colonel reveals

The Sheriff has also got through making arrests on warrants in his hands, and I presume by this time has dismissed his posse.

Franklin Pierce

That dates the composition of Shannon’s letter into the evening, but he may have presumed on both counts and written Sumner what he expected to happen rather than what he knew. If Jones arrested anybody in Lawrence on that day, I haven’t seen reference to it in any sources with local knowledge. If he wrote in anticipation, Shannon could easily have written earlier and sent his missive during the afternoon.

Either way, Shannon wanted Sumner to get the lead out. He should dispatch his three companies -a hundred men each, on paper, but probably only thirty or so effective at any moment- “with as little delay as possible.” Shannon anticipated that more warrants would come and someone would have to go back into Lawrence to serve them. The military force would secure the peace, which he expected tested again when those warrants appeared in the hands of sheriffs and marshals.

The armed organization to resist the laws would seem to be broken up for the present, so far as the town of Lawrence is concerned, but there is danger that this formidable organization may show itself at some other point, unless held in check by the presence of a force competent to put it down.

Governor Shannon wanted to preserve the peace, or at least a peace. Ever since he came to Kansas he had written and acted on those lines with clear sincerity. He feared the result of a pitched battle between proslavery and antislavery militias, both for Kansas and the nation at large. If nothing else, a chaotic Kansas reflected poorly on him personally. Wild carnage did not suit him in the slightest, but he only exerted himself energetically to prevent bloodshed during the Wakarusa War, where he bore personal responsibility, and to dispatch Sumner’s men against antislavery organizations. In doing so, he followed closely the president’s own policy.