Guns, Chickens, and Checks: The Journey to Kansas, Part 5

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

John Brown had letters on hand from three of his sons when he started for Kansas. Junior told him the general situation and advised him against expecting to make money raising livestock or land speculating. He did suggest that antislavery men in the territory should arm themselves, though. Jason wrote of his and his wife’s depression at the death of their son. Salmon wanted food and summer clothes. Further correspondence kept Brown up to date on the political situation  and asked if he could raise some money to send guns to Kansas. In better news, Junior also wrote that while all the territory’s surveying had all been contracted out it went so slowly that Brown stood a chance of getting work at it all the same.

All of this goes to the elder Brown’s motivation in coming to Kansas. John Brown went to Kansas to fight slavery and help his sons. He also wanted some means of support while doing so and took a keen interest in money making opportunities, inquiring about prices and the feasibility of various agricultural operations. When Brown got news that he would probably not make piles of money and an at best qualified endorsement of his plan to work as a surveyor, he still went. A person driven entirely by pecuniary interest would have looked elsewhere. Much later, sitting in a Virginia jail, Brown told Clement Vallandingham essentially the same thing:

Vallandingham. How long have you been engaged in this business?

Brown. From the breaking out of the difficulties in Kansas. Four of my sons had gone there to settle, and they induced me to go. I did not go there to settle, but because of the difficulties.

Vallandingham then asked why Brown came to Virginia. Brown gave an answer that would fit his trip to Kansas just as well:

We came to free the slaves, and only that.

Brown made his arrangements. From Chicago, he wrote explaining the progress of his journey since leaving North Elba. He picked up a good horse for $120

but have so much load that we shall have to walk a good deal-enough probably to supply ourselves with game.

Brown traveled with his son Oliver and son-in-law Henry Thompson. He continued on this theme on September 4, by which time they had reached just into Iowa. They tarried longer in than expected in Chicago because “our freight” hadn’t arrived. That freight included guns, of which Brown had a crate from Cleveland as well, and some artillery swords. In further firearms news, he told the family that Oliver turned out to have a good aim and had brought down many free-roaming chickens for the party. Brown closed with instructions for Watson, left in charge back in New York, on how to cash a check for some cattle Brown ordered sold.

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Railroads and Rhetoric

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner went to Washington deeply unsure that he would make a good Senator. He had not liked the city or the political class on his one previous visit. He would enter the Senate as the result of what many considered a corrupt bargain and be only the third senator of his party. As such, he could hope for little in the way of distinguishing himself except rhetoric until the composition of the chamber changed dramatically. Despite his fears and some initial snubs, Sumner found himself relatively welcome in the Washington social scene. He got on well with southerners, which probably no one saw coming. His careful welcome of Lajos Kossuth that managed not to endorse the revolutionary’s cause won him wide plaudits.

With all that under his belt, Sumner might have hoped the worst behind him. In his ongoing quest to prove he had opinions on more than slavery, he rose to speak in debate over an Iowa land grant meant for a railroad. Sumner endorsed it heartily and caught fire for his trouble. The westerners might like development, but more eastern states cared much less for projects that did not benefit them directly. The Whig press in Massachusetts, so recently praising Sumner’s handling of Kossuth, turned on him. The papers castigated the new senator for favoring the West at the expense of New England.

That may seem strange, given the Whig’s enthusiasm for internal improvements, but more than partisanship probably went into it. Whigs wanted internal improvements in part because they would concentrate the population to the point where it could support the other improving projects they had in mind for the nation. A railroad in Iowa would serve the expansion of white America and consequent diffusion of white men across the continent in an unending sprawl of subsistence farming. In addition, the faster the west grew the more largely Democratic states would enter the Union. Opposing a far-flung railroad fit well into that strain of Whig orthodoxy.

Sumner pretended he didn’t care and griped that most of the papers didn’t even print his speech, but he put considerable effort into trying to convince his friends back home that he hadn’t made a blunder. Instead, as David Donald quotes him, Sumner believed he had made an “original and unanswerable” argument that constituted “the most important speech for the West uttered in Congress for 10 years.” Per Donald, Sumner had actually given the issue little thought. He mainly wanted to use the speech as a showpiece for his peers.

Senator Sumner, like many before and since, cared deeply for his image. A large man, six-two and 185 pounds, Donald has Sumner dress for the stage:

At a time when most senators wore black frock coats, Sumner affected light-colored English tweeds; his “favorite costume was a brown coat and light waistcoast, lavender-colored or checked trousers, and shoes with English gaiters.

A big man in purple pants would draw some eyes. Sumner reinforced his imposing figure with closely rehearsed, memorized speeches in an era when most men simply read theirs. (Spontaneous debate rarely visited the Senate.) Sumner accessorized with forceful gestures and by throwing his hair back. He chose an oratorical model deeply informed by the Classics, contrary to my previous impression that he had a bit of a common touch. This made Sumner a clear speaker, but also a repetitive one. He deliberately eschewed neologisms to make himself sound still more formal. After writing and revising before speaking, Sumner took another round of revisions before his work appeared in the Congressional Globe, and then would polish them again for published collections. In an age where public men took rhetoric seriously, Sumner took it more seriously than many.

More Bad News: The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Eight

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

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

Reeder’s diary.

May 15, 1856 found Andrew Reeder still closeted in a hotel in Kansas City, “elaborately cared for” by various ladies who would bring him food, flowers, “and attend to all my comforts.” All in all, Kansas’ free state delegate to Congress found it downright comfortable if he set aside the great issue of the day. He needed to be off raising support for the free state cause, not stuck in western Missouri. He also missed his “idolized, noble wife” and “precious, dearly-loved children.” That he had sent G.P. Lowrey ahead of him to bring news to his family, as well as lay down a false trail that might help Reeder escape wore on him as well. When Lowrey delivered his news, they would know their patriarch as a man on the run and in danger.

Reeder had news that the dragnet continued to tighten around Kansas. G.W. Brown remained a prisoner at Westport. Proslavery men stopped ordinary travelers on the road and stopped the mail for searching.

One traveler, coming down from Lawrence, was stopped on the road, and ordered to open his carpet-bag to see if he had any letters or dispatches from Lawrence, and, as he refused to be searched, it was cut open by the ruffians.

It would not do for the free state party to get news of their plight out in person or paper. More worrying still:

About 100 young men from the South, said to be from South Carolina and Georgia, arrived, as I am told, last evening, all armed and equipped after the fashion of Buford’s men, who, from their appearance, equipments, acts, and conversation, have evidently come, not as emigrants, but only to fight. About half of them went on to Leavenworth, and the residue landed here and went into the Territory, leaving their trunks here with Mr. Taylor, and saying that they did not want them along, as the fight would probably be over in a few weeks, and then they would go back.

Buford’s men, or a very similar group, had work ahead of him. That evening, Reeder got word secondhand from a member of the Blue Lodge that they had another invasion in the offing. They hoped to get together two thousand men and raze Lawrence for good, entering Kansas in small groups and avoiding the major roads to avoid notice until they arrived. They would take the town at night and under the pretext of enforcing indictments against its leaders. Samuel Lecompte had given them those indictments and proslavery men had come to Kansas back in December allegedly to maintain law and order. Thwarted then, the proslavery men would likely press far harder now.

Misdirection and Another Capture: The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Seven

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

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

Reeder’s diary.

We left Andrew Reeder hiding out in a hotel in Kansas City, where he received news of Charles Robinson’s capture on May 13, 1856. Knowing that the proslavery dragnet reached further into Missouri than just the immediate border can’t have settled the delegate’s mind. Up to this point, Reeder had the company of G.P. Lowery. He advised Lowery to leave without him, on the first available boat and in a disguise. But before Lowery departed, the two arranged some misdirection. Reeder

had him to write a letter directed to me at Chicago, and mail it loosely sealed, to induce the belief that I was in the States, by the way of Nebraska and Iowa, as we were confident they would open it. I instructed him also, if he got safe to St. Louis, to telegraph up here that he had heard from me and that I was safe in Chicago.

Nineteenth century postmasters did open and scrutinize mail, most famously to hunt down antislavery publicans for destruction. Settled precedent dating back to Andrew Jackson’s administration blessed such business. Since postmasters received their jobs through patronage rather than from a professional civil service, even any inclined against such censorship had strong incentive to keep in line.

Reeder remained shut up in his room, though it seems that he had plenty of attention. He writes that no less than four ladies “most kindly waited on” him and “took a lively interest in my safety.” Come evening, Colonel Eldridge brought Reeder less enchanting company: the posse which had came for him at Lawrence had arrived at the hotel. The governor turned delegate assured Eldridge that they had a warrant for Reeder valid in Kansas, but not Missouri. Their authority ended at the border and no harm could come to him from helping Reeder out. However, should they come with a Missourian officer and process in hand, then Eldridge should give Reeder up to keep himself out of trouble.

Expecting them to come, I concealed this diary, and made preparations. I remained up, till midnight, and there was a constant running up and down from the street to their room. At 12 o’clock I went to bed and slept soundly.

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Kansas’ first governor has sterner nerves than I do. He woke on the morning of the fourteenth to more welcome news. Eldridge came up and told Reeder that the posse had said nothing of him, but instead came for Grosvenor Lowery and Samuel Pomeroy, the latter an agent of the Emigrant Aid Company. But the good news came with some bad:

G.W. Brown, accompanied by Jenkins, had started for Lawrence, and had been stopped on the road by M’Gee’s party of Missourians (without any process, of course), and made prisoners. Have not learned what is done with them.

That day also brought a boat up to Kansas City which departed with great cheers from the town. Reeder thought that Robinson must have come through, but learned instead that Kansas City cheered a marshal’s party starting for Leavenworth. It says something for Reeder’s state of mind that news of an armed band heading into Kansas from Missouri came as a relief, though probably also to the fact that Andrew Reeder consistently stood for the party of Andrew Reeder. He had joined the free state movement late, when deprived of other means for political advance in Kansas, and under the condition that they make his grievance over shady land deals their own.

After a while, Reeder changed rooms for the second time. Things had quieted and the proper residents of the room had been out of it for some time. Anybody could start to wonder. At this point, Reeder hoped no one believed him present and so he might safely move on as soon as he could find a boat with a willing captain, which would remain docked through the night so he could quietly board. With Robinson captured, he needed to get moving regardless. It fell now to him to take up the governor’s mission and seek out the executives of Ohio, Michigan, and maybe even Iowa and Wisconsin to come to aid the free state cause.

The Eighteenth District, Part Three

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1 and 2

Maybe Arnet Groomes took David Rice Atchison’s missing knife and display of weaponry as just a bit of absentmindedness. Given the former senator also misplaced his army, he cuts a bit of a bumbling figure here. Possibly Groomes took Atchison’s remaining knives and guns as good reason not to make trouble. He might have just thought that if it came to a fight, he could handle Bourbon Dave and company. Regardless, he let them stay the night. The next day, they had a chat about Atchison’s purpose, revealing just what one would expect:

He said John Bold had sent for him to come up above, as there were persons coming over there all the time to take the polls. I asked what he was taking so many men up there for; and one of them said, I do not know which one, that they were going up there to guard the polls, and not let certain persons vote.

Like people actually living in Kansas that wouldn’t vote proslavery? Atchison of course meant to deter or drown out their votes, but Groomes introduces a new wrinkle distinct from the usual dreams of hordes of Emigrant Aid Society pauper mercenaries come to Kansas on false pretenses. In cross-examination, Groomes raised this interesting claim:

I judged, from what General Atchison said, that the persons referred to by John Boler were coming over form Iowa, but I do not know as that was so.

Most of the scholarship on Kansas matters focuses, for obvious reasons, on the Missourians. But I know Iowa served as a sometime base and haven for John Brown later on and recall a review of a recent book, Lowell J. Soike’s Busy in the Cause: Iowa, the Free-State Struggle in the West, and the Prelude to the Civil War, about the involvement of Iowa and Iowans. I haven’t read it, alas.

I don’t think we should take Bold/Boler’s comment entirely at face value, but some men might very well have come in from Iowa to counteract the Missourians. They hardly made their efforts a secret and spent any surprise they could have hoped for back when they needlessly stole the election for territorial delegate to Congress. Etcheson reports later on that Iowan college students chipped in to buy guns for Kansas free staters. It wouldn’t stretch credibility much to imagine earlier involvement, though the Howard Committee doesn’t seem to have inquired about such things, understandably given the scale of Missourian operations.

Groomes did make it to the election himself, if in the Fourteenth District (parts 1, 2, 3, 4), where

I saw one illegal vote given , and I objected to it very strongly. It was a man by the name of Charles Gilmor; when I objected, Colonel Craig was sitting in place of one of the judges or clerks who was gone to dinner I supposed. I objected to Cary Whitehead, one of the judges. They took the vote, and said I had no right to object. I asked them to swear him, and they said they had no right to swear him.

The First Republicans

A campaign poster for the 1860 GOP presidential ticket

A campaign poster for the 1860 GOP presidential ticket

Several groups have claimed the name Republican in American history. Thomas Jefferson’s political party, which we call the Democratic-Republicans did. So did the party that Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson made, though they eventually settled on calling themselves Democrats. We use anachronistic and partially anachronistic names to avoid the obvious confusion. The modern Republican party traces its descent to the Republicans of this post, not the other ones. In many, though not all, respects that apple fell very far from the tree. A hundred and sixty years will do that.

The discontented northern Democrats, ready to bolt their party over Kansas-Nebraska, had the Whigs waiting for them. By and large, however, they did not want to turn Whig. The Whig party had its own problems and many of them remained on all matters save slavery, traditional Democrats. Instead, they would create their own party in conjunction with discontented antislavery Whigs. This meant a serious risk to the men jumping ship, as they gave up access to party patronage and all the work they had put into advancing within the Democracy and Whiggery for many years…unless the party establishment in an area defected together. Then its existing unity would turn it into the local machine of the new party with little trouble.

Just that happened in some places, especially where the Whigs had little success. Weak parties do not inspire great efforts to save them, so relatively organized contingents of ex-Whigs rapidly turned into the leadership cadre of new Fusion, Anti-Nebraska, and People’s parties. Those names did not quite stick and the movement increasingly coalesced around the name Republican, as they defended republican institutions against slave power aristocrats. On February 28, 1854, a meeting at Ripon, Wisconsin adopted the label. At the time, the Nebraska bill had yet to pass the Senate. In July, after it had become law, the new party got together a convention in Jackson, Michigan and made the name official.

In recent decades, third-party efforts in American politics have taken on a sort of farcical air. A group of people who would count winning 5% of the national vote as a tremendous victory gather together and make speeches, pass resolutions, and have some fun while the rest of us ignore them. In 1854, the new party conventions essentially dissolved the Whig party in several states. In Indiana and Ohio, the Whigs had no convention that year and thus fielded no candidates. They barely did better in Vermont, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

Jesse Bright (D-IN)

Jesse Bright (D-IN)

The Democracy had its problems as well. In May, the Indiana Democracy convened under the leadership of Jesse Bright, Indiana’s slaveholding senator. It passed resolutions endorsing Kansas-Nebraska. The next day a different Indiana Democracy met to condemn Kansas-Nebraska and endorsed a platform against any extension of slavery and advocating the prohibition of alcohol. Over in Massachusetts, the new Republicans came mostly from old Free Soil stock just as eager to join in. They resolved to repeal the fugitive slave act, restore the Missouri Compromise, ban slavery in all territories, to stand against any territorial expansion (especially involving Cuba) unless that territory came in without slavery, to prevent the admission of any new slave states to the Union, and to abolish slavery outright in the District of Columbia.

In short, the Massachusetts Free Soilers turned Republicans proposed reversing every single gain slavery had made in the past decade and a radical rollback that would put a powerful squeeze on the institution. On the fugitive slave act alone, they proposed a course of action that the South had soberly warned amounted to a declaration of war and promised to break the Union over. If the white North could not have a free Nebraska today, then a few years down the road maybe the South could have no more slaves at all.

Kansas-Nebraska: Saving the Union

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

We look at the past with hindsight goggles. We know how things played out, so often historical figures can look like reckless fools that set themselves up for calamity after calamity and then refuse to change course. Didn’t Douglas know what F Street forced him into when it made him change his bill to suit Phillip Phillips and Archibald Dixon? Didn’t Phillips and Dixon know that they demanded measures that would help ruin the institution they meant to protect? Couldn’t they see disaster coming?

In the strictest sense, they could not. Nobody had a crystal ball. Could they have foreseen how repealing the Missouri Compromise would go over in the North? Perhaps, but it’s only with our hindsight goggles that we know so surely that the dispute over slavery animated passions like no other. People at the time could genuinely believe they provoked a brief, transient firestorm. If it helped the South save face, and helped southern Democrats keep their seats, why not concede a Kansas over to a phantom slavery that would never really develop? If saving a few southern Democratic seats against the threat of resurgent Whigs, however distant, cost a few northern Democratic seats then so be it. In the Democracy, the southern caucus had long held the lion’s share of the power. With the party’s strong hold over the South, it need not command equal favor in the North to maintain its accustomed control of the nation.

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

But what if the naysayers had it entirely wrong? The potential of KansasNebraska to swing the southwest to slavery obviously appealed to Southern men, but opening the great plains to white settlement appealed greatly to land-hungry whites. They might not desperately need it, as Bell and Houston noted, but more land to settle meant a bigger, broader future. If the advance of white settlement also meant a few tokens to slavery, that need not bother some Northern men. Most cared little about the institution in itself and less about the plight of those suffering under it. In the westernmost line of states and territories, on the banks of the Mississippi, land meant a great deal. Westerners moved out to get land and many of them could see a future for their sons and daughters one more state over. Westward expansion had the potential to become a Western issue and the core of a new Western identity, indifferent to slavery but very keen on settling the frontier.

Thomas Hart Benton, though he opposed the bill when it came to the House, had long thought that his Missouri had a more western character than southern. William Seward argued a few years before that the nation had not two sections, but three: North, South, and West. Real cultural and economic divides separated the frontier West from the settled East. The West had a rough, homespun character against the East’s settled gentility. Only recently had rail linked it to the great cities of the East. Before that, the West sold its crops down the Mississippi through New Orleans. Furthermore, much of the border Northwest had Southern people to go with its Southern geography. They almost made Illinois a slave state. In Indiana they elected a senator, Jesse D. Bright, who owned slaves in Kentucky and proved so studiously loyal to the Southern cause that the Senate expelled him in 1862. Men like him demonstrated that the Northwest had friends to slavery. An emerging western identity could dilute any opposition to proslavery politics, with the draw of white expansion distracting from any qualms about slavery expansion.

Jesse Bright

Jesse D. Bright (D-IN)

That new identity required people and states where those people could elect politicians to Congress, but here Kansas-Nebraska served admirably by throwing open the whole of the public domain. Furthermore, new western states would sprout farther from Chicago’s railroads, which had drawn Northwestern commerce eastward, and back down the Mississippi by way of the Missouri. The new West would so naturally share economic interests with the South, even if it lacked slavery. If it cared little about slavery, that difference would consequently matter little.

An alliance between new wheat and corn states west and north of Missouri and Iowa and the Cotton Kingdom could bring back the old days, with slavery’s security in the Union taking it out of the political limelight. The abolitionists couldn’t threaten it and the slaveholders would see that. Passions would cool and the nation could go back to living as thought the Mexican War never reopened the issue. This one Union-threatening, radical strike for slavery could paradoxically save the Union. It would surely revitalize the Democratic party by giving it eager supporters in the Northwest. Already the Democracy had high hopes for Iowa and Minnesota. Throw in Kansas and Nebraska and it would turn the Whigs into a tiny sectional party in the Northeast. Those extra seats could even dilute the proslavery bloc’s power to the point where it could no longer be forced into radicalism by renegade members, further safeguarding the Union by making proslavery men the happy victims of their own success.