Six Browns in Lawrence

John Brown

The news came to John Brown at Samuel Adair’s: a proslavery man killed an antislavery man. The victim’s friend and landlord Jacob Branson got together a meeting to look into the death. The murderer ran for the hills. Sheriff Samuel Jones got a posse together and went after Branson. Some antislavery men got their own posse together and took Branson from Jones. Now both sides looked on the edge of pitched battle at Lawrence, with Missourians rushing in to kill abolitionists and free state men converging to defend the town. Brown got home in a rush and sent John, Junior, to confirm the news.

Junior came galloping back in short order. He met someone on the road who said two thousand armed men massed on the Wakarusa aiming to burn Lawrence to the ground. Henry, Jason, and Oliver didn’t have it in them to go, still laid up with ague. The able-bodied men loaded up a wagon with weaponry and started out on December 6, 1855. Brown drove it while Junior, Frederick, Owen, and Salmon walked alongside. They started at five in the evening and traveled through the night. At a bridge, they kept on in the face of the enemy, not slowing and daring the proslavery men to stop them. The Missourians declined.

The five arrived to find Lawrence at arms, which brings us to where James Redpath’s account first entered our story. His grim warrior saint made a powerful first impression. Redpath wrote in 1860, aiming to defend Brown’s reputation against those who deemed him mad. Among that set stands George Washington Brown, editor of the Herald of Freedom and no relation to John. Responding to the news out of Virginia in 1859, he published an account of what people in Kansas knew of Brown. He, like Redpath, witnessed Brown’s arrival in Lawrence on that December day:

When the Wakarusa war was pending the old man and four sons arrived in Lawrence, the balance he reported sick. As they drove up in front of the Free State Hotel they were all standing in a small lumber wagon. To each of their persons was strapped a short heavy broad sword. Each was supplied with a goodly number of fire arms, and navy revolvers, and poles were standing endwise around the wagon box with fixed bayonets pointing upwards. They looked really formidable and were received with great eclat.

As Redpath said, that arrival prompted the formation of a military company under Brown’s command. Brown immediately

commenced fomenting difficulties in camp, disregarding the commands of superior officers, and trying to induce the men to go down to Franklin and make an attack upon the Pro-slavery forces encamped there.

The Committee of Public Safety had to step in several times to put a stop to that “wild project”. G.W. Brown’s version, like Redpath’s, has John Brown leave Lawrence in disgust when peace breaks out.

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Good and Bad News for John Brown

John Brown

Gentle readers, I’m not going to do a full political post today but I want to draw your attention to the attack against civilization currently pending before the Senate and encourage you to make your opposition known to your Senators. If the reasons there don’t suffice, then the GOP also looks likely to use it as a vehicle to pack the courts with the sorts of judges who think Donald Trump would make a great president. Those are lifetime appointments, so imagine Judge Trump ruling on your civil rights into the 2060s.

 

Back to Kansas. We left John Brown finding out that John Junior did him proud by breaking the gag law that the bogus legislature passed outlawing antislavery statements. He went right up to the proslavery man and declared, in as many words, that no one had a right to hold a slave in the territory. Junior dared the proslavery party to come get him. John Brown would have none of that and resolved that no proslavery man would take any son of his. Soon after hearing that news came the free state elections for delegates to the Topeka Convention. Expecting trouble, the Browns arrived armed at the polls in Pottawatomie. No Missourians appeared and no local proslavery men caused any trouble, so Brown stood by while his sons voted. Then everyone went home.

The lack of disturbance at the polls pleased Brown greatly. He wrote his wife that he thought things on the turn in Kansas. The territory has suffered powerfully, but since the Missourians didn’t show they might have had their fill of Kansas. The same optimism that drove Brown into deep debt and failed businesses appeared again. Winter followed the good news and promptly laid the Brown boys up again, with their father the only able-bodied man at Brown’s Station for some time starting in late October. He regretted that that kept him from helping the neighbors as much as he meant to. At the start of November he finally replaced the first tent on the claims with a mud-chinked structure. Salmon recovered enough to help with the second building and things looked up, or at least progressing, again.

Samuel Jones

For Thanksgiving, not yet a standardized national holiday, Brown called on his brother-in-law, Samuel Adair. With Adair and his wife at Osawatomie, Brown received the news that Kansas pitched toward a great explosion after all. Franklin Coleman, a proslavery man, murdered the antislavery Charles Dow at Hickory Point, ten miles off from Lawrence. Jacob Branson, who had put Dow up before then and served as an officer in the antislavery militia, arranged a meeting to look into the death which Coleman understood as a lynch mob. He ran for shelter with Governor Shannon and Sheriff Samuel Jones, the latter of whom drummed up a posse to arrest Branson on the strength of a warrant that Shannon arranged for him. Free staters led by Samuel Wood sprung Branson from Jones’ custody, at which point he declared Lawrence in a state of rebellion and got Governor Shannon to call out the territorial militia to suppress it. David Rice Atchison and hundreds of Missourians, informed by Jones before he bothered to let Shannon know what happened, decided they could do militia service across the border and started into Kansas bent on a fight. Deeply disturbed, Brown rushed to his sons and dispatched Junior to find out the lay of the land.

The Apology Absurd: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 9

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8Full text

Charles Sumner did not have a high opinion of the defenses that Stephen Douglas and others had for all the injustice and mayhem that had taken place in Kansas. The seizure of the territorial government by force, threats, and massive voter fraud by Missourians entirely disqualified it as a legitimate organization to his mind. But Douglas, Andrew Butler, and other senators defended them all the same. It thus fell to Sumner to pick their defenses apart. First he dismissed the Apology Tyrannical, which held that once governor Andrew Reeder recognized the election results they had to stand. Then he cast aside the Apology Imbecile, where the proslavery senators averred that -whatever happened in Kansas- the Congress and Presidency had no power to intervene.

That brought Sumner to what he called the Apology Absurd

which is indeed, in the nature of a pretext. It is alleged that a small printed pamphlet, containing the “Constitution and Ritual of the Grand Encampment and Regiments of the Kansas Legion,” was taken from the person of one George F. Warren, who attempted to avoid detection by chewing it.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Gentle Readers, I wish I could tell you more of this story. A spot check revealed other references, but only to the bare fact of Warren chowing down. You may remember the Constitution and Ritual from past posts. The Kansas Legion, aka the Kansas Regulators, organized as a paramilitary force to defend antislavery Kansans and occasionally burn down proslavery homesteads. Jacob Branson and Samuel Wood served in it. The Free State leadership denied knowledge or approval, officially. Maybe that passed scrutiny in Washington and among people sympathetic to the cause, but their connection appears more like an open secret in Kansas.

Sumner’s foes argued that the Legion justified harsh measures on the part of proslavery men. They had something like a terrorist organization about and it required dealing with. That position makes perfect sense for a proslavery Missourian or Kansas who equates opposing slavery with incitement to race war. They had to do what they did to save the community from ruin, essentially in self-defense.

To answer that, Sumner first dismissed the Legion as a “poor mummery of a secret society, which existed only on paper.” If it did exist, though, it proposed only to enlist antislavery men to defend the Constitution of the United States. How could any patriotic American object to such a goal?

Secret societies, with their extravagant oaths, are justly offensive; but who can find, in this mistaken machinery, any excuse for the denial of all rights to the people of Kansas? This whole “cock and bull story” never really happened to begin with, but if it did then so what? Sumner dismissed the Apology Absurd with “the derision which triviality and absurdity justly receive.”

 

Two Roads to Lawrence

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

When Wilson Shannon, Governor of Kansas, told the people of Lawrence that they could disarm themselves in the face of an armed foe bent on their destruction if they wanted him to lift a finger to save them, he claimed the only danger they might face came from a legally-constituted posse. Under ordinary circumstances, and if the governor had burdened himself with facts, one might not find much to quarrel with in that. For a governor to interfere with the work of the courts must raise suspicions of executive usurpation. But Lawrence faced rather more than a posse, and when confronted with a posse of United States dragoons, the town had offered no direct resistance.

Lawrence came to all of this by two roads simultaneously. Samuel Jones, the proslavery sheriff, came into the town to apprehend Samuel Wood. Wood, a free state militia officer, had rescued fellow officer Jacob Branson from Jones’ custody back in December. This even precipitated the first campaign against Lawrence. Wood declined to go with Jones and a scuffle ensued, which deprived Jones of a pistol. Wood and the men who helped him get free from Jones promptly made themselves scarce. Jones applied to the 1st Cavalry for help, securing about a dozen soldiers who went back into Lawrence with him, searched the town and surrounds, and found none of his original quarry. He arrested about ten others and camped in town. Someone shot him in the back. Jones survived, but the proslavery press reported his death.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Jones’ travail by itself may have caused the invasion, just as his previous had, but the federal government became more directly involved when Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury summoned the entire free state leadership for questioning, with execution to follow. Serving Lecompte’s warrants did not fall to Jones or his office, as he served only the territorial government. Lecompte had his appointment direct from Franklin Pierce. He presided over the First District Court of the United States for Kansas Territory and so could call on the US Marshals to handle his process. Lecompte did in the person of J.B. Donelson (also rendered as Donaldson in some sources), an Illinoisian whom William Phillips called

a comparatively illiterate and informed man,. and, judging from his manner of acting in his official capacity, totally devoid of the legal knowledge necessary to dignify his office. […] He is a man past middle age, of coarse, unintellectual face, and, from his looks, ought never to have held a station above that of town constable; he would not have been too well qualified for that.

Ugly and unqualified or not, Donelson passed the matter of Lecompte’s warrants over to a Georgian named Fain. Fain tried to serve one against Andrew Reeder, then working with the Howard Committee. Reeder dismissed Fain’s summons on technical grounds, so he returned the next day with a warrant for contempt of court. Reeder declined to go with him because he had privilege from arrest, that the summons would impede his work with the committee -Lecompte probably agreed-, and that he would find his murder while in the custody of proslavery men inconvenient just then. Meanwhile, the rest of those with warrants against them began to depart Lawrence for safer pastures. Reeder soon followed.

William Addison Phillips

William Addison Phillips

According to Phillips, Fain did not let matters sit there. Instead of going back to Lecompton to report his failure,

he went down to Franklin, where at that time a band of Southerners, under Capt. Moon, were stationed. There the alarm was given, and soon scouts were sent to Missouri to gather in the Southerners still stationed there.

Last time around, Jones had gone from losing Branson straight to Franklin to write Missouri for help. Now Fain had done the same. Where Jones could claim the mantle of the territorial government and militia for his first campaign, the second could proceed with the imprimatur of the federal courts.

“There is more abolition wolf-bait.” The Shooting of J.N. Mace, Part One

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

We left off with a retrospective on how the proslavery border ruffians had pushed indifferent and even sympathetic Kansans into the free state camp by their heavy-handed, sometimes deadly, actions to force slavery upon the territory. George Brown, or rather his associate editor J.H. Greene as Brown had left Kansas on business, published it in the Herald of Freedom as part of a general appeal for help from the East. He and his fellow free state men expected a new invasion in short order and feared that this time, Wilson Shannon would send the 1st Cavalry out of Fort Leavenworth after them as well. They came to those dire straits courtesy of proslavery sheriff Samuel Jones, who came to Lawrence to arrest Samuel Wood. Wood had rescued his fellow free state militia leader, Jacob Branson, from Jones’ custody back in December. As soon as Wood got back to Kansas, Jones went to take him in. Wood refused to oblige, leading to Jones coming back with some of the cavalry as bodyguards. Wood and his accomplices fled Lawrence in advance of that, but someone shot Jones in the back while he camped in town.

Almost simultaneously, proslavery judge Samuel Lecompte got a grand jury to summon the entire free state leadership on suspicion of treason, usurpation of office, and other charges. The jury also declared Brown’s paper a public menace which deserved suppression. Free state governor Charles Robinson left on the 9th. The free state’s senator-elect/delegate to Congress, Andrew Reeder took off shortly thereafter on learning that the previous plan for him to serve as a test case would likely end in his death.

Samuel Lecompte

Samuel Lecompte

Before he left, Brown made sure everyone got the point. After his item recapping Kansas shift into the antislavery camp, he detailed the first attempted arrest of Reeder. Then came an item on Pardee Butler’s late travails. Butler had nothing to do with the free state government except preferring it as a private individual. Brown identifies J.N. Mace as a free state man like Butler, but calls him a captain. That implies militia leadership, which might have made him a larger target. Mace came into Lawrence on April 29, 1856, to testify before the Howard Committee. That night he sat at home until his dog raised a ruckus. Mace went to see what had happened, and

walked but a short distance from the door, when several shots were fired at him, one taking effect in his leg, near the top of his boot. The shot paralyzed his leg, and so stunned him that he fell to the ground. Two persons, who were concealed in a gully close at hand, hereupon made good their escape, one of them remarking, “there is more abolition wolf-bait.”

Unlike Brown’s story of highway robbery, this has a sound ring of truth to it. Mace did testify before the Committee and by naming him Brown invites people to check his facts. Mace suffered for “several hours” before he could get back indoors. Brown called the wound “severe” but not life-threatening, so in theory anybody nearby could go see for themselves.

Charles Robinson on the Jones Shooting

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Lawrence Responds: parts 1, 2, 3, 4

We left Lawrence resolved to look seriously into who shot Sheriff Samuel Jones in the back on the night of April 23, 1856. They might have even meant it, regardless of how many free state people in the town believed Jones deserved a good shooting. On behalf of the free state government, Charles Robinson offered a $500 reward for the arrest of the guilty party. After Andrew Reeder’s speech and the resolutions, he answered the loud call to speak to the public meeting. I don’t mean to go over his speech in fine detail, but it deserves a look.

The free state Governor began on a less than conciliatory note:

We are engaged in a sort of warfare, in this State of Kansas, but it is an honorable warfare on our part, and will will never, as individuals, as a community, or as a party let ourselves down from an honorable position; we will never change ourselves from honorable enemies, to cowardly assassins. No honorable man could justify any such course.

Robinson had spoken of war before, but to do so now strikes an especially radical note.

Hugh Cameron

Hugh Cameron

These words also have more than a hint of aspiration about them. Robinson hewed to the line that someone had put this whole situation up to discredit his movement, just as he affirmed that the Wakarusa War back in November and December had resulted from proslavery scheming. He didn’t make that connection gratuitously or entirely without basis in fact. The gloriously hirsute Hugh Cameron appears to have gotten his justice of the peace commission in exchange for warrants to arrest Jacob Branson’s rescuers. Whether the inciting events came from a plot or not, Jones himself might well have gotten Wilson Shannon to make it one. Jones came back to Lawrence at the start of the late troubles to arrest Samuel Wood, the leader of Branson’s rescuers. One needn’t be a free state partisan to connect those dots.

All the same, Governor Robinson determined to get to the bottom of things. He told the crowd that he had looked into things himself and found, so far as he could determine, a proslavery plot. But since “[w]e all understand this” Robinson felt no need to “go into particulars.” The Governor then recapped the Wakarusa War anyway. Politicians always love the sound of their own voices, but Robinson had a particular audience in mind: the Howard Committee.

A committee comes here from Washington to investigate this matter, and see how we have been treated; to see who are the oppressed, who are the wronged; to see who are in the right. The very moment they plant their feet upon the soil of Kansas, that moment these outrages begin to be fomented. Everything has been quiet up to that moment.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

This, as I have mentioned before, doesn’t quite stand scrutiny. Jones came to Lawrence at essentially the first opportunity on news of Wood’s return from Ohio. Robinson must have known better. A man of his stature in Lawrence would have had the news of an important free state arrival, from the Herald of Freedom if nothing else. The free state Governor follows up an at least misleading statement with a likely outright lie:

The people treated him civilly, so far as I know. I never happened to meet him, but I have learned of no commotion. There has been some little excitement, perhaps, but the community generally have been willing to let him goon and make his arrests.

Robinson can’t have expected that to fool anybody with the denial and the doubletalk about excitement. Something happened, but trust him it didn’t really count. Ok? It strains credulity to imagine that he didn’t know Jones’ foes resisted him to the point of violence. He passes all of that off as “[s]ome individuals” refusing arrest. And anyway, whatever happened no one could pin it on Charles Robinson. He took the opportunity to note that he

happened to be out of town last evening, and I suppose I shall not be charge with the offence committed then.

 

Resolutions: Lawrence Responds to the Jones Shooting, Part Three

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Parts 1, 2

Andrew Reeder continued his speech to the Lawrence meeting by abandoning the pretense that no one knew just who had shot Sheriff Jones the day before. He pointed to all the sympathy and respect they had gained in the free states by eschewing violence. Would they throw all of that away? In a political environment where antislavery Americans had seen far more vilification than their proslavery opposites, in North and South alike, he had a point. Things had gotten progressively better for them in the North since around 1848, and especially since 1854, but that shift could reverse at any time. A collision with the United States government would surely remind Americans of the recent era when they saw opposition to slavery as tending toward disunion. Shooting Jones might not have done that, but had the bullet found a United States dragoon it might have done the trick. So might an open insurrection.

Reeder made it clear that he said not a word of this out of any love of Jones or his politics, but he continued on the theme for another column and change in the Herald of Freedom. Along the way, he reminded the people of Lawrence of most of what had happened in Kansas in the past two years. According to the paper, he frequently had to stop for applause. But then the meeting had business to get to. You didn’t hold a mass meeting in the nineteenth century without some resolutions to put the assembly on the record. G.P. Lowery had a set prepared:

the attempt made in our town last evening upon the life of S.J. Jones, Esq., whilst claiming to act as the Sheriff of the county, was the isolated act of some malicious and evil-disposed individual, unexpected and unlooked for by our community, and unsustained by any portion of them.

Isolated and unexpected, maybe. Lowery probably could have found plenty of people in the room that morning who believed Jones had it coming and didn’t feel any guilt about his shooting. They might fear the dangerous consequences to the town, but can’t have shed many tears for Jones. Thus the second resolution:

notwithstanding the unpleasant relation which existed between Mr. Jones and our citizens, if the attack could have been foreseen or considered at all probable, we would have neglected no means to prevent or defeat it; we deeply sympathize with the wounded man, and will afford him all the aid and comfort of our power.

They probably would have. Even when proslavery armies nearly surrounded Lawrence, the leadership worked to avoid a pitched battle. As that work involved restraining hotheads within their own ranks, who didn’t much care for how the proslavery men took potshots at them, we know that sentiment didn’t touch every heart.

we deeply regret that the perpetrator of this deed is unknown; and if known to us, we would unhesitatingly expose and denounce him as the criminal

and

it is due to the reputation of our town, and loudly demanded by the deep and universal indignation which pervades our community, that the guilty author should, if possible, be sought out and surrendered to justice

These resolutions promise a great deal and nothing at all. They would expose and denounce the shooter, if they knew him, and hand him over for justice, if they could find him. Maybe they would, but Lawrence had previously ensured fugitives from the law in their community got enough advance warning to escape capture. They did it for Jacob Branson and Samuel Wood in December. They did the same for the men who helped Wood escape only days before. Indignation, deep and universal, only went so far.

 

 

“Or kill every D—–d Son of a B—h there” The Arrest of Samuel Wood, Part Two

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

 

We left Lawrence on April 19, 1856, with Samuel Jones placing Samuel Wood under arrest for seizing Jacob Branson from him way back in December. Wood had left Kansas for a while thereafter, but on his return Jones soon got word and came to do his duty and get his revenge. Wood appeared inclined to comply, asking only that Jones let him see his family before they departed. That didn’t sound too bad, but Jones wanted Wood to accept his authority and insisted on a promise that Wood give himself up after the visit. Wood would have none of that, so Jones refused permission. Wood twisted free and bounded for the house.

John Speer saw, and participated in, what happened next:

Jones jumped for him [Wood] and caught him by the collar just as he reached me at the door; when, impromptu, and apparently without reflection, I caught Jones by the throat and wood by the coat collar, and saying, “Get away, Wood.”

Wood saw the wisdom of that, but relieved Jones of a revolver before departing. Jones had deputies with him. Merrill’s True History of the Kansas Wars lists only one, which I reported before, but Speer insists on three. They might both have it right, as Jones might have gone to town with one person and had others join him there. James B. Abbott “laid one of them down on the ground very hard.” Charles F. Garrett “swung another off the porch by the coat tail.” I don’t know how that maneuver works, but it sounds uncomfortable. Samuel F. Tappan “throttled” the last.

Jones, just as delighted as one would expect given his circumstances. According to Edward Fitch (PDF),

Jones raved and swore some and said he would have S.N. Wood or kill every D—-d Son of a b—h there

The crowd, enchanted by Jones’ repartee, tried to offer their own graceful converse: “Put him in the river!” Speer tried to talk the Lawrence crowd down, advising them that proslavery men should have the outrage market cornered. One of the deputies then cried Uncle, at which point Jones and friends departed.

If you remember the events of the Wakarusa War, you know that Jones doesn’t take this kind of thing laying down. When Wood relieved him of Jacob Branson, Jones called in an army. He wrote to Missouri and then to Governor Shannon, setting in motion the siege of Lawrence. Coming near to a bloodbath apparently didn’t leave Jones much more satisfied than it had Robert S. Kelley, but the sheriff of Douglas County had some creativity in him. The last time, he dallied long enough for Lawrence to amass defenders. For a second try, he aimed to serve his warrants before anyone knew they needed an army again.

“Martyrdom on the scaffold or the stake”

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Robinson concluded his first message (PDF) to Kansas’ new legislature with some further remarks on their situation. Everyone had seen Sheriff Jones taking names down as men came forward and swore their oaths of office. They might have exchanged some jokes or tossed a few insults his way, but everybody knew Jones meant business. Robinson didn’t name him, but none could have had to guess for long just who he meant when the new governor said

It is understood that the Deputy Marshal has private instructions to arrest the members of the Legislature and the State officers for treason as soon as this address is received by you. In such an event of course, no resistance will be offered to the officer.

The last time someone, Samuel Newitt Wood, offered resistance to Jones it ended with an army outside Lawrence. For all the bellicose language common in such times, the free state movement had barely gotten clear of that without a battle they might well have lost or, failing that, won at the expense of bringing the United States Army down on their heads.

The standards of manly performance would not allow Robinson to admit to that in so many words, but nineteenth century discourse permitted him other avenues:

Men who are ready to defend their own and their country’s honor with their lives, can never object to a legal investigation into their action, nor to suffer any punishment their conduct may merit. We should be unworthy the constituency we represent did we shrink from martyrdom on the scaffold or at the stake should duty require it. Should the blood of Collins and Dow, of Barber and Brown, be insufficient to quench the thirst of the President and his accomplices in the hollow mockery of “Squatter Sovereignty” they are practising upon the people of Kansas, then more victims must be furnished. Let what will come not a finger should be raised against the Federal authority until there shall be no hope of relief but in revolution.

If the vampiric president descended upon them, Robinson told the free state men to stand ready. Should Pierce throw a war, they ought to come. Should he martyr them, they died for righteousness’ sake and could claim whatever patriotic and heavenly blessings such an office would convey. Kansas had hard times yet ahead, Robinson averred, but together and putting their faith in the Almighty, “His wisdom who makes ‘the wrath of men praise him'” they would make their Kansas into the Kansas, a state of the Union free twice over. Their Kansas would have no slaves and no black Americans alike, preserving it for them and their posterity. To that cause, the Governor need not add, they would commit their lives, their liberty, and their sacred honor.

Nathaniel Banks

Nathaniel Banks

It must have made for a rousing read, thick with the patriotic and religious sentiments most potent to Robinson’s audience. But the bold words had to come with more than a hint of desperation. Jones would probably try nothing then and there, but what would happen down the road? The free state men had stuck their necks out, then stuck them out still further, in the hope that Congress would come to their rescue. That same Congress finally agreed on who ought to serve as Speaker of the House after a solid two months of debate, finally settling on a Know-Nothing antislavery man called Nathaniel Banks. They elected him on a plurality, not a majority, and it took one hundred and thirty-three ballots. The question of the free state government’s legitimacy could not hope to be any less explosive than that.

Kansas, Boston, and Treason in the Nineteenth Century, Part Four

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Curtis laid out a thoroughgoing definition of treason for his Boston grand jury back on October 15, 1851. You had to conspire to resist the laws of the United States, or their enforcement. You must use or threaten force. You didn’t have to plan far ahead or come in full military panoply, but you did have to intend to oppose execution of at least one law in all cases rather than just in a particular instance. Through all of this, Curtis has largely written in the context of the act itself and immediate perpetrators, but he did specify that treason came out of conspiracies and combinations. How far could those reach, legally speaking?

It should be known also, that treason may be committed by those not personally present at the immediate scene of violence. If a body of men be actually assembled to effect by force a treasonable purpose, all those who perform any part, however minute, or however remote from the scene of action, and who are actually leagued in the general conspiracy, are to be considered guilty of treason.

That spelled bad news for vigilance committees out to aid fugitive slaves in their escape. If we take the laws of Kansas as those of the United States, an arguable proposition but probably close enough for proslavery Kansans, then it also implicated the entire Kansas Legion. They had a military band aimed at resisting the territory’s laws, which they hardly needed unless they foresaw the use of force to resist. The Legion’s constitution specified that once a group reached a thirty men, it must have a military character. Jacob Branson, his rescuer Samuel Wood, and likely everybody of consequence in the free state movement had membership in such a combination.

The sudden burst of warrants and eager exploitation of the crisis to seize the free state leaders in Lawrence still looks like an opportunistic fishing expedition in light of this, but one with at least a plausible legal leg to stand on. Legal niceties didn’t bother proslavery Kansans and their Missourian allies all that much, but they could honestly say they observed some of the forms.

Curtis spelled it out in words that anticipate free state political activity almost word for word:

Influential persons cannot form associations to resist the law by violence, excite the passions of ignorant and unreflecting, or desperate men, incite them to action, supply them with weapons, and then retire and await in safety the result of the violence which they themselves have caused. To permit this, would not only be inconsistent with sound policy, but with a due regard to the just responsibilities of men. The law does not permit it. They who have the wickedness to plan and incite and aid, and who perform any part however minute, are justly deemed guilty

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Set aside the fact that Curtis had antislavery efforts in mind when he wrote all of this and I don’t see a great deal one could argue with. We might not reach for treason so quickly today as Curtis did, preferring some other offense, but his reasoning on each point appears sound and practical. His definitions don’t perfectly fit events in Kansas, but they come close. Given the real fear of slave revolt and already-extant inattention to the finer points of law, I come away from this with the strong sense that when most proslavery men said treason, they meant it. It served their purposes to make the claim, and some of the lawyers probably knew better, but it all fits together too well to read the accusations as entirely cynical.