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

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Yesterday we looked at the first prong of Samuel Curtis’ test for treason as it related to fugitive slave rescues in his own Boston and, later on, to the events precipitating the Wakarusa War in Kansas. Curtis specified that one could levy war against the United States by any organized attempt to thwart the execution or enforcement of its laws by force. The fugitive rescuers surely did that. The free state movement, as of the end of 1855, had done the same if one counts the laws of Kansas as laws of the United States. If one does not, then they remained innocent. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, as customary for laws organizing territories, granted lawmaking authority to the territorial government with the proviso that Congress retained the power to review and annul such laws. Whether that makes them federal or not probably depends on where one stands. In the strictest reading, they don’t qualify. Functionally, however, they might come close enough to make little difference.

What of the nature of combinations to resist the laws, then? While the free state movement had a long paper trail, when Samuel Wood roused some men and came to Jacob Branson’s rescue he appears to have acted on his own authority. He led a militia company, but he made no effort to secure permission from the free state leadership to mount the rescue. Did relatively spontaneous acts count as conspiracy?

Curtis thought so:

Such a conspiracy may be formed before the individuals assemble to act, and they may come together to act pursuant to it; or it may be formed when they have assembled, and immediately before they act. The time is not essential. All that is necessary is, that being assembled, they should act in forcible opposition to a law few the United States, pursuant to a common design to prevent the execution of that law, in any case within their reach.

You didn’t have to plan ahead; you could treason on short notice. Curtis doubtless had in mind heat of the moment efforts to free slaves who dared steal their bodies from their rightful owners, but the relief of Branson counted too.

Of course, levying war still meant something more closely approximating war. You had to use “actual force” to graduate from talk to treason. What counted as that force? The Army of Northern Virginia qualifies and Samuel Wood’s band operated in similar ways, if on a vastly smaller scale. How big and organized did a treasonous conspiracy have to get? Not very:

It is not necessary that there should be any military array, or weapons, nor that any personal injury should be inflicted on the officers of the law. If a hostile army should surround a body of troops of the United States, and the latter should lay down their arms and submit, it cannot be doubted that it would constitute an overt act of levying war, though no shot was fired or blow struck.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Nobody shot Samuel Jones, but the threat of force worked just as well. If we grant that for the people Jones and his allies intimidated at the Kansas polls, then we can’t exclude the same tactics used against them. Samuel Wood and his men came out with guns, in a rush, outnumbering Jones and demanding his prisoner. It didn’t take a genius or a clairvoyant to know what would probably happen if he refused to yield up Branson. As Curtis wrote:

The presence of numbers who manifest an intent to use force, if found requisite to obtain their dmeands, may compel submission to that force, which is present and ready to inflict injury, and which may thus be effectually used to oppose the execution of the law. But, unfortunately, it will not often be necessary to apply this principle, since actual violence, and eve murder, are the natural and almost inseparable attendants of this great crime.

To cast a net broad enough to consider Jones acting under the laws of the United States also requires us to sweep up Kansas poll workers. Unlike the Sheriff, they had the letter of the Kansas-Nebraska Act on their side. If it did not constitute a law of the Untied States, then no act of Congress could. Jones’ menacing of them looks at least as much like treason as Wood and company menacing him. Neither incident resulted in violence, contrary to Curtis’ expectations, but they didn’t need to.


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

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

In October, 1851, Samuel Curtis gave his federal grand jury a definition of treason (PDF). He expected, in a Boston where antislavery Americans had lately rescued a few fugitive slaves from those who aimed to steal them back to slavery, that the jury might need to know. Curtis laid out a three point test: The accused must conspire. That conspiracy must involve obstructing the enforcement of a law of the United States. The conspiracy must then use force to that end. All of these applied to Bostonians who had saved enslaved Americans from recapture. Together, these things constituted levying war against the United States. They might, depending on how one read them, apply to the free state movement in Kansas as well.

Curtis did better than nineteenth century bullet points. He wanted his jurors to understand the law thoroughly and so gave a further explanation that runs to about a page of printed text. That section opened with an important qualifier:

It is not enough that the purpose of the combination is to oppose the execution of a law in some particular case, and in that only. If a person against whom process has issued from a court of the United States, should assemble and arm his friends forcibly to prevent an arrest, and in pursuance of such design, resistance should be made by those thus assembled, they would be guilty of a very high crime, but it would not be treason

In a Bostonian context, this means one could throw together to rescue Shadrach Minkins or Anthony Burns and not commit treason. Over in Kansas, Samuel Jones had a warrant to arrest Jacob Branson. He had that warrant under the authority of the federally-constituted territorial government. I don’t know if a territorial court operating under that law counts as a court of the United States rather than one of Kansas Territory, but even granting Jones the point Branson and his rescuers might fall short of Curtis’ definition of treason. They opposed the execution of the law, by force, in one particular case.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

However, if the individuals combined

forcibly to prevent any person from being arrested under that law, and with such intent, force is used by them for that purpose, they are guilty of treason.

Here Samuel Newitt Wood and company get into deeper trouble. They as much as told Jones that they would rescue anybody he came after with a warrant. Though the people of Lawrence tried to disavow the rescue of Branson, they had made rhetorical pledges to resist Kansas’ laws too. Their resistance didn’t extent to force, yet. They took pains to emphasize they resisted the laws of Kansas, not the United States. Charles Robinson, at least, understood resisting Wilson Shannon by force as resisting federal authority. Whether he meant that as a precise legal judgment or just a recognition of how Shannon might treat things, the ambiguity remains.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee, slave catcher

One might argue that the resistance to one law doesn’t really count, just as resisting on behalf of one person doesn’t count. Curtis anticipated the argument and would have nothing of it:

The law does not distinguish between a purpose to prevent the execution of one, or several, or all laws. Indeed, such a distinction would be found impracticable, if it were attempted. If this crime could not be committed by forcibly resisting one law, how many laws should be thus resisted to constitute it? Should it be two, or three, or what particular number short of all? And if all, how easy would it be for the worst of treason to escape punishment, simply by excepting out of the treasonable design, some one law.

The judge has a point. If the Army of Northern Virginia scrupulously held to the fugitive slave law, and they did so enthusiastically when they had the chance in Pennsylvania, then that hardly made them innocent of treason. Robert E. Lee commanded, among other things, the largest slave patrol in American history.

The Murder of Thomas Barber, Part Two

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Part One

Thomas Barber, his brother Robert, and his brother-in-law Thomas Pierson, rode out of Lawrence about midday on December 6, 1855. All served in the force defending Lawrence against its besiegers, but they had leave and aimed to spend at least some of it at their claims. They rode into a weak spot in the cordon about the town, where only mounted patrols kept people in or out, and seem to have expected an easy trip. Robert and Pierson had revolvers with them, but Thomas rode unarmed. A few miles outside Lawrence, they came on a proslavery patrol. When the Barber party turned off on a shortcut, it aroused the patrol’s interest and two men broke off to intercept them:

this they did by approaching us on our right, and placing themselves in front of us, or nearly so. They came up at a trot, while we were walking our horses. The remainder of the approaching party had in the meanwhile halted in full sight of us, but at a distance of from two to four hundred yards.

However innocently this all began, by now the Barbers had to know they’d come into trouble. One of the riders put his horse across the road, only yards away. The other addressed them, demanding they halt. The Barbers obliged.

After halting us, the rider on the grey horse asked, “Where are you going?” My brother Thomas W. Barber-who answered for our party-replied, “We are going home.” He then asked us, “Where are you from?” my brother answered, “We are from Lawrence.” “What is going on in Lawrence?” was the next question. “Nothing in particular,” said my brother.

Nothing but the construction of earthworks and other preparations for battle, but both sides knew that very well. Barber’s questioner probably hoped to shake loose some useful intelligence about Lawrence’s defenses or find some pretext for detaining the party further. Failing that, the proslavery men still had the useful weapon of legitimacy:

“We have orders from the Governor to see the laws executed in Kansas.” Thomas W. Barber then asked, “What laws have we disobeyed?”

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Wilson Shannon had summoned the militia. Sheriff Jones happily took Missourians into his posse. The patrollers had the law, or a reasonable simulacrum, on their side. But what laws indeed? They hardly had Jacob Branson or Samuel Wood before them. Nor had the patrol caught them in the act of antislavery politics. Nor did the law of Kansas forbid armed men moving about or earthen construction projects. The patrol’s spokesman felt no obligation to answer, instead demanding the Barbers come along with him. “My brother then said” Robert told George Douglas Brewerton:

“We don’t do it.” You won’t, hey?” said their spokesman, at the same time starting off with his horse so as to bring him on the right side of my brother-who moved his horse’s head slightly towards him, as he did so. The man drew his pistol as he started, but halted on reaching his new position to the right of my brother

Robert lost track of the other rider, on a sorrel, at this point. The spokesman’s new position obscured him from where Robert sat and, incidentally

my attention was at that moment taken up with drawing my own pistol, which was belted on behind my back, in such a manner that I was obliged to seize it with my left hand; this I did under the belief that we were about to be attacked.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The spokesman already had his gun out. Robert didn’t need much of a crystal ball to see how things would soon go.

As I was changing it [the gun] into my right hand to fire, I saw their spokesman-the man on the grey horse-discharge his pistol at my brother. I did not think at the time that my brother was hit. This man, after firing at my brother, rode right around into the road, and halted some ten paces in our rear. I wheeled my horse and shot at him, but missed; I cannot say that he returned my fire, but on changing my position I saw the smoke of the pistol of the man on the sorrel, who was still in his old position. I then fired a second barrel at him, but missed, as I had done before.

After Robert fired, the two riders drew back and conferred not quite within his hearing. Robert makes this all sound very formal and restrained, but it must have felt differently at the time. One has the sense that the intercepting riders did not expect any kind of resistance and drew back to decide what they ought to do in response. They must have decided in favor of reinforcements, as they then made for the rest of the patrol at a gallop. Robert fired after them, missing again.

The Perils of Insurrection, Then and Now

The free state movement knew that they played with fire in repudiating the territorial government and its laws. Going further and creating their own government raised reasonable questions about just how far they intended to take things. Establishing their own militia, even if for self-defense, understandably gave further cause for concern. That apparently some, like Charles Dow, went in for burning proslavery Kansans out of their claims took at least some fringes of the movement beyond rhetorical protests and into serious crimes. A group that could burn homes down at will generally deserves a serious response from law enforcement, whatever its politics. To further underline the point, a Kansas Legion man seized a lawful prisoner from a sheriff engaged in the normal course of his duties. Authoritarians often invoke the frailty of civil institutions in the name of their repressions, but sometimes reasonable people of far more democratic mores make the same invocations. Now and then, they even have facts on their side.

The entire tangled prelude to the Wakarusa War makes much more sense when one keeps this in mind. The politics of the day, and our own, make it very easy for us to throw in with the free state party all the way. We have the luxury of time and distance to insulate us from any consequences of that decision. Nobody will burn our homes down or shoot us dead for our opinions about politics in territorial Kansas. Even if we disagree with the proslavery radicals, Kansas still offered the spectacle of armed men apparently ready to pursue their agenda by force. If we admit that fact as a motivation for driving antislavery Kansans to arms, then we must admit it the other way around as well.

The free state leadership knew the risk of that very well. They, like Wilson Shannon, sought a peaceful resolution to the crisis at Lawrence. Samuel Newitt Wood, a Kansas Legion man, had gone and rescued Jacob Branson from Sheriff Samuel Jones’ custody. But he did not go with the blessing of Charles Robinson, James Lane, or other Kansas luminaries. Nor did Lawrence rush to endorse his action after the fact. Rather he and the other rescuers found themselves asked to leave town. All the warlike preparation that the Kansas Legion did could have had offensive applications, but nobody until Wood had actually used force against the legal government of Kansas. While violent threats flew back and forth, it appears that most political violence in Kansas up through the winter of 1855 happened relatively spontaneously and on a person-to-person level rather than with official imprimatur. Had such an undertaking gone off, the free state movement risked dramatic retaliation from both proslavery radicals and likely the United States military. One simply doesn’t, for example, seize public property at gunpoint and expect nothing to happen in response.

Nor should one expect such impunity. If private individuals do so, then we soon find ourselves on the express train to anarchy. Instead of civil society, one finds oneself forced to align with a gang of violent thugs for protection and hope that it extends not just to protection from them but also other such gangs. While the occasional enthusiast might cast himself as the white-hat-wearing, gun-toting hero of such occasions, in the real world the most ruthless and brutal tend to rise to the top. We have the police and, if necessary, the military to prevent that sort of thing. Had antislavery Kansans found the 1st Cavalry arrayed against them and gone to war against it, they would have found their support almost everywhere go silent. Many probably would have gone all the way over to cheering for their suppression.

Why wouldn’t they? The Constitution calls levying war against the United States treason. Antislavery Kansans could hardly better discredit themselves with the nation than to cross that line. The traditional remedy for doing so involved gunpowder and ropes, a precedent most famously remembered in the case of Lee v. Grant. Even without the benefit of that precedent, it would take a very dull free state man to miss the fact that seeking out armed confrontations risked the federal hammer coming down. Thus, by and large, the free state movement up through the Wakarusa War exercised the better part of its martial valor.

This same principle holds on a smaller scale. If we see someone wandering around with a gun outside our home, most of us will probably call the police. This doesn’t take a strange phobia about firearms, but only a basic knowledge of what a bullet can do to a human body. If you see an armed person wandering about, you expect that person intends to shoot something. The police come and discourage that, one hopes successfully and without further violence.

Except when they don’t. Not everyone learned circumspection from studying Kansas, anything else. Not that long ago, a man who stole millions of dollars from you and me had an armed standoff with law enforcement that ended to his satisfaction. That Cliven Bundy has made off with far more than a typical bank robber’s haul should, perhaps, surprise us. This kind of plot twist one expects from a supervillain rather than a real world rancher.

Now that they’ve had their Negro Seamen Act, it seems some have decided that their strange revival of nineteenth century radicalism requires its Nullification Crisis. Some of Bundy’s family members have taken up the cause of a pair of arsonists, who apparently didn’t want the help, and occupied federal property. I mean that literally, they seized United States property and hold it still at the time of this writing:

a group of outside militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters

If this happened in another country, we’d have a talk about armed militants about now. A story that begins with the line “armed gunmen seized property” generally ends with the lines “shot by police”. Yet with these armed militants, the authorities don’t seem all that concerned. One can understand hesitancy, especially given the federal government’s record a few decades back in handling standoffs, but so far it doesn’t seem that law enforcement has besieged the gunmen. Instead they’ve just asked people to stay away and monitor the situation while working for a peaceful resolution.

I could say that I can’t fault the circumspection, whether here or in 1855 Kansas. Even if people have clearly broken the law, one naturally wishes to keep violence to a minimum. One must consider bystanders, though in this case the miscreants have taken over a building that seems quite remote. It probably doesn’t hurt to take one’s time out in Oregon. As an isolated event, the affair raises concern but not necessarily outrage. Yes, we have a group of men with guns breaking the law and encouraging others to join them. This cannot stand, but it doesn’t mean we need to call in the tanks or a drone strike.

Isolated events, however, often turn out rather more connected than not. American law enforcement doesn’t operate in a vacuum. The police grow up in the same world as the rest of us, and that world has very firm convictions about who does and does not deserve consideration and leniency. Cliven Bundy does, even if he made out like a bank robber. His relatives and others probably do as well. Otherwise someone could get hurt:

A group of white adults with real weapons came up and took possession of a building they don’t own, inviting others to come and join them. They warrant great consideration. We don’t want people hurt:

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.

Thus Americans, ensconced as always in our city on a hill, demonstrate our most ancient and dear values to the watching world.

The Territorial Government vs. Lawrence

Daniel Woodson

Daniel Woodson

We left G.P. Lowery and C.W. Babcock on their way to see Wilson Shannon about the ersatz army converging around Lawrence. They passed many sets of guards and Lowery flirted with spiking an unattended cannon. When passing proslavery men on the road, they first cracked jokes about how the Yankees aimed to attack soon and the Missourians had best hurry. This grew less funny as they passed more and larger bands of armed men. What they came to next warrants a digression:

Just before daylight we passed one encampment, in which everybody seemed to be astir, and they came out into the road a short distance to meet us, and we stopped to talk with them. I recognized John H. Brady, who was the public printer of the Shawnee Mission legislature. He recognised me, and when he heard me say that I did not consider it safe for him to come up here, he called me by name, and said they could not let me pass. He then recognized Babcock, and was more certain we could not pass.

It looks like Lowery mixed up his pronouns here, as Brady clearly did the stopping. Either way, Brady’s presence with the proslavery men deserves notice. Public printing involved receiving many lucrative contracts from the government. For Brady to have the job indicates he had the full confidence of the Kansas legislature. Furthermore, public printers frequently also published newspapers and other partisan material for their patrons. In Brady’s case, Douglas C. McMurtrie says he farmed most of his printing out to presses in Kickapoo and St. Louis. Regardless of his personal involvement in setting type and running presses, Lowery and Babcock would have understood themselves in the presence of a proslavery man with close ties to the territorial government.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

They already had reason to suspect, and free state men would insist for years after, a large degree of official connivance in organizing the investment of Lawrence with an eye to the free state movement’s decapitation. They didn’t know or wouldn’t believe Shannon wanted anything less, as position he did much to aid by calling in first the militia and then the 1st Cavalry. They had Sheriff Jones and the militia generals clearly set on their ruin, which constituted proof enough on its own. With the legislature out of session, that body could not offer additional evidence against itself. Its members and associates could do so independently, of course. I haven’t seen reference to their presence in the camps yet, but remain on guard for it.

The free state men had, or would soon have, other evidence against the territorial government. In The Kansas Conflict, Charles Robinson reproduced a letter from Daniel Woodson, territorial secretary. Woodson, a federal appointee, served as acting governor when the proper territorial Governor left Kansas and between the dismissal of one and arrival of the next. On November 27, Woodson wrote to an E.A. McClarey, of Jefferson City. After a three sentence description of events concluding with “Jones is in danger,” Woodson continued:

(Private.) DEAR GENERAL: The Governor has called out the militia, and you will hereby organize your division, and proceed forthwith to Lecompton. As the Governor has no power, you may call out the Platte Rifle Company. They are always ready to help us. Whatever you do, do not implicate the Governor.

Richardson and Strickler served as commanders of the Kansas militia, so Woodson can’t mean to raise it in sending this. In as many words, the Secretary tells a Missourian to gather up his militia and come over for the job. Wilson Shannon might not have actively conspired to destroy the free state movement, using the rescue of Jacob Branson as a pretext, but his second in command clearly did.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Robinson also reprints selections of a letter John Calhoun, a relation of the Marx of the Master Class and Surveyor-General of Kansas, in the Missouri Republican. I haven’t found a copy of the full letter, but his excerpts contain the expected parade of horrors: arsons, driving women and children from their homes, and a recapitulation of the DowColemanBranson affair.

It is estimated that some sixteen dwelling houses have been burnt, all of them in the night time, with their contents, and their occupants, men, women, and children driven to the prairies without shelter or protect. The leading spirit of these lawless movements is C. Robinson, the leading spirit also of the Topeka Convention. […] It is said that he has at least five hundred men, armed with Sharp’s rifles and revolvers, determined to offer a forcible resistance to the execution of the laws. He has threatened to hang Sheriff Jones, Coleman, and others, as soon as he can get hold of them.

Calhoun thus not only states the threat to good order in Kansas, but points to its wellspring. He clearly understood that his letter would prompt Missourian intervention aimed not at Jacob Branson, Samuel Wood, or anyone else directly involved in Branson’s rescue. Rather they would come with their sights set on the free state leadership. They probably didn’t need the help, but the Surveyor-General could confirm for any wavering that they must not settle for so paltry a prize as the recapture of Branson and seizure of his rescuers. They had a larger task at hand.

Sheriff Jones goes to Lawrence

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

December of 1855 found Lawrence, Kansas Territory, partly cut off from the outside world by a hostile army of perhaps 1,500 Missourians. They came, ostensibly, to help Sheriff Samuel Jones serve some warrants and really for the righteous joy of inflicting grievous harm upon Kansas’ free state movement. That harm would, they imagined, help secure slavery in Missouri as well as its neighbor and generally reinforce the proper order of life: whites enslaved blacks and whites who didn’t like it had best carry themselves beyond the reach of a mob. This constituted the first principle of their de facto constitutional theory, whatever folderol about states’ rights or the consent of white men they might care to trot out.

In these dire straits we might imagine that those besieged, however incompletely, adopted a similarly hostile tone. One could hardly blame them, given they literally had proslavery men taking shots at their town for fun. They armed themselves, including with a smuggled cannon, and built earthworks for their defense. But the free state men also sent emissaries to Wilson Shannon asking that he call off the whole business. They threatened to go over his head and seek relief from Franklin Pierce and the Congress as well. In pursuit of the latter aim, they drew up a memorial and got it through the lines.

The memorial gave a relatively fair account of events. Governor Wilson Shannon had “without any justifiable cause whatever” summoned “the militia of Kansas and Missouri” against them. Shannon did have cause, if not one quite proportionate to the response. Free state men had obstructed the operation of the law and Shannon had every reason to think it the opening of an organized campaign. Furthermore, the people of Lawrence rightly understood themselves as having little as a group to do with the Branson affair that got Jones his warrant and sent him against the town. Some of their residents participated in the rescue of Branson, and they did so in line with the antislavery tactics that much of the town endorsed, but no civil authority in Lawrence blessed them before or after. If the militia of Missouri did not formally come, then organized or semi-organized groups from that state did all the same.

One could argue that Lawrence harbored Branson’s rescuers, except that most of them lived in the Hickory Point area. The rest had moved on, save for Samuel Wood. Lawrence harbored the ringleader in the sense that he remained at home in town and they didn’t rush to hand him over to Sheriff Jones. Nor, of course, they did feel obligated to do the same for anybody on Jones’ growing list of warrants.

William Phillips

William Phillips

Did Jones need an army to overcome Lawrence’s indifference? Maybe. Jones, his proslavery bona fides well-established, could cloak himself in those warrants and say he did nothing more than his duty. If one of the militia officers under his command had ambitions to more, that didn’t mean Jones did. That he took a polling place by gunpoint months ago didn’t mean he had gone off the deep end again, even if it didn’t augur well. But the sheriff himself proved that he didn’t care much about the warrants. At the same time as he sent worried missives to Missouri and, incidentally, Governor Shannon about how all Lawrence rose in revolt against him and he could not do his duty safely without an army at his back, Jones paid a peaceful visit to Lawrence. William Phillips tells the story:

That it was no part of Jones’ object to make peaceable arrests is clear from the fact that he came into Lawrence on the first of December, and went about the streets without any one paying the slightest attention to him,-that is, to molest him. Mr. S.N. Wood, who, at first refused to leave town, and said they could arrest him, accosted Jones, and invited him to dinner. Jones never said a word about having writs against him. He was evidently in town merely on a military reconnaissance.

The bit about Wood inviting Jones to dinner sounds a little too good to take seriously. It would fit very well with the kind of humor that seems especially popular among nineteenth century Americans. One can picture Wood smiling as he made an offer and Jones fuming at his impotence against the mockery. That Jones could visit Lawrence seems entirely reasonable, given the townspeople would have hardly wanted to provoke a confrontation by molesting him. Their general interest in treating the Branson affair as a private matter between Jones and his quarry reinforces the point. That Jones would come into town and go out without doing the duty he supposedly felt so keenly also seems entirely in keeping with his demonstrated character. Jones wanted revenge and a proslavery victory, with his official duties serving only as the pretext for both. He might have come into town entirely on hopes of earning another indignity which would justify immediate retaliation. The perfidious townspeople of Lawrence added another sin to their record in refusing to oblige.

On the Volcano Either Way

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

The situation in Lawrence always held the potential for an explosion. That Samuel Wood finally did what antislavery Kansans had promised and defied the law at gunpoint had to escalate matters. Wilson Shannon responded exactly as most people, regardless of their position on slavery, would probably have expected: he called out the militia. As he told George Douglas Brewerton, he understood the free stater men as finally beginning their

settled plan and determination to resist and bid defiance to the Territorial laws, in accordance with [their] resolutions

The statement of purpose that the Lawrence Committee of Safety issued couldn’t have done much to change his mind. Shannon sent his orders to the militia on November 27, 1855. The next day, he wrote his account of the situation to Franklin Pierce. Through all of this, Shannon said, he

presumed as a matter of course, and intended, that all these men should be drawn entirely from the citizens subject to militia duty in Kansas Territory. At that time-as the seat of difficulties (Lawrence), is distant some forty miles from the State line of Missouri-it never for a moment occurred to me that the citizens of that State would cross into Kansas or volunteer their aid to carry out her laws.

Shannon reads as genuinely surprised here. Missouri managed to reach a hundred or more miles into the territory for the Assembly elections back in March, but Shannon missed those. He might not have believed the stories of such things and didn’t have the Howard Report to go check up with. He might have dismissed the Branson Rescue as a local matter that wouldn’t interest Missouri. One has the sense that he, like Andrew Reeder before him, didn’t fully understand just how far off the rails Kansas had run. He could tell Pierce that they stood on a volcano, but he also told the president that he didn’t know when it would blow.

On the twenty-ninth, the day after he wrote Pierce, Shannon released a proclamation that listed the free state party’s offenses against law and order. They had formed military companies aimed at resisting the laws of Kansas by force. They used those companies against Samuel Jones to free Jacob Branson. Shannon calls this “a violent assault,” which doesn’t quite match what happened, but had Shannon decided to try the matter by arms, surely would have. Further the sheriff’s prisoner led a mob that burned proslavery settlers out of their homes. And finally:

I have received satisfactory information that this armed organization of lawless men have proclaimed their determination to attack the said sheriff of Douglas county, and rescue from his custody a prisoner, for the avowed purpose of executing him without judicial trial, and at the same time threatened the life of the said sheriff and the citizens

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

After all of this, Franklin Coleman finally enters into things again. While free state Kansans generally seem more interested in harming property than people, at least compared to proslavery Kansans, the mob that sought him looks very much like they intended a lynching. Ridding themselves of Samuel Jones would make for a nice bonus. Whether or not Branson then intended to see Coleman dead, it seems clear that some of the hundred or so people rooting about for him would have reduced the proslavery population of Kansas by at least one if they came on him in the night.

However much our sympathies remain with antislavery Kansans, we cannot dismiss these as light and trivial offenses. Shannon may have bungled the execution of his response and deluded himself into thinking Missourians would for once not involve themselves, but I don’t see any way he could have just let things go. He stood on the volcano either way.

Keeping Free State Promises

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

Samuel Wood took Jacob Branson from the custody of Sheriff Samuel Jones at gunpoint. He and his band of rescuers rode into Lawrence in short order and found a mixed reception. The town’s antislavery party shed no tears for Jones or his flouted authority, but feared that Jones would revenge himself upon them. The citizens threw a public meeting and appointed a Committee of Safety, which decided that the Branson affair had nothing in particular to do with Lawrence. Still, they’d best keep an eye out just in case.

They had good reason to worry, even if the hammer didn’t come down that day. Jones wrote to Wilson Shannon asking for help. I couldn’t find that letter where I expected it, with Shannon’s executive minutes, but a copy turned up in George Douglas Brewerton’s The War in Kansas. Therein, Jones informed Shannon that he should, “consider an open rebellion as having already commenced.” Shannon told Franklin Pierce that he didn’t quite buy that, but he did call out the militia for Jones.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Knowing that the proslavery men considered them traitors and that the situation could only further the impression for others, the Committee of Safety issued a statement:

We, the citizens of Kansas Territory, find ourselves in a condition of confusion and defenselessness so great, that open outrage and mid-day murders are becoming the rule, and quiet and security the exception. And whereas the law, the only authoritative engine to correct and regulate the excesses and wrongs of society, has never yet been extended to our Territory-thus leaving us with no fixed or definite rules of action, or source of redress-we are reduced to the necessity of organizing ourselves together on the basis of first principles, and providing for the common defense and general security. And here we pledge ourselves to the resistance of lawlessness and outrage at all times, when required by the officers who may from time to time be chosen to superintend the movements of the organization.

What could they do in the face of anarchy in Kansas? This would hardly persuade those already decided against the free state movement. As a matter of law, they did have a government, complete with officers, courts, and police powers. The operation of those brought things to this point. But an actual armed revolt, however small, against the established power of the territory put them in a terrible bind. They had promised resistance, including disregarding all the works of the Kansas Assembly and its officers. To repudiate them now would mean repudiating the party itself. While the free state leadership had not properly authorized Wood’s expedition, nobody really wanted to repudiate him. Like it or not, they had done as they promised in accord with their many public declarations.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Wilson Shannon understood those promises. He read their papers and knew the free state platform well enough. He cited chapter and verse of convention resolutions printed in the Herald of Freedom to demonstrate that the Lawrence radicals acted to plan. In turning their revolution from word to deed, they made it incumbent on him as the lawfully-appointed authority in Kansas to suppress it.

Tuesday turned into Wednesday without the militia turning up in Lawrence. That day, the Herald of Freedom reported

many of our people were seen in the streets in little groups, each, apparently loaded down with the implements of defence. Rumors continued to arrive of the movements of Jones, the bogus Sheriff, and his posse which he was gathering; but night found us still in being, and the town not demolished.

It might have looked on Tuesday morning like Jones would come riding into town with several hundred men to do his best Viking impression. That Jones did not appear then, astride a chariot pulled by two rams and wearing the customary horned helmet and metal brassiere or otherwise, did not mean he had given up. The delay alone might have seemed ominous, but Lawrence knew that the Sheriff moved abroad to gather his forces. The longer it took him, the more men he might have to use against them.

A Quiet Day in Lawrence

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

While Governor Shannon wrote his messages from Shawnee Mission, calling out the militia and informing Franklin Pierce of events, Lawrence did not dare stand idle. Charles Robinson saw clearly the danger that Jacob Branson’s rescue brought to Lawrence. They soon had word of Samuel Jones seeking his revenge with help from Missouri. It might have come as early as the morning after the rescue, or the free state men might have anticipated something based on their extensive past experience with Missourian meddling. Such foresight must have required roughly as much clairvoyance as predicting the location of the next sunset.

Either way, they selected a committee to see to the town’s safety. According to the Herald of Freedom, the committee had

full powers in the premises, but with the express understanding-as enunciated by the mover for the committee, who was subsequently appointed its chairman-that it was not for the purpose of aggression, or to shield any person from deserved punishment, or to resist the legally constituted authorities, but simply to resist the action of a mob from Missouri, or elsewhere, should one be directed against Lawrence.

The Lawrence men might not have intended aggression, but it stretches credulity to think that they didn’t understand themselves as shielding Branson’s rescuers as well as themselves. They might not resist the United States Army should it appear on their doorstep, but they hardly counted the territorial government or its militia as legal authorities over them. Their conciliatory position would do little to calm their enemies.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The Herald doesn’t go into detail about the committee’s working, but Charles Robinson does:

About nine o’clock Robinson made his second visit to the town, when he found a meeting of the citizens in progress. He was informed that a Committee of Safety had been appointed, of which he was a member. The committee was at once convened, and it decided that Lawrence had nothing to do with the affair, and should assume no responsibility for it as a town, although no person censured the rescuers for their action.

Robinson sounds a bit less delighted than the usual conscript at his role, but it sounds as though he prevailed for the time being. Whether he persuaded his fellows or they already shared his misgivings, they didn’t fall over themselves to make Branson’s cause their own. Nor did they stick their necks out for Samuel Wood over the rescue, though they didn’t offer him up as a sacrifice either. This all has the ring of backing slowly away from a fight.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

The sky then declined to fall. Tuesday, November 27, rolled along without proslavery hordes descending upon them. The Herald of Freedom reports that:

the several military companies were dismissed, after first taking the precaution to select a guard for the night.

The initial concern aside, maybe they thought they’d escaped the hard hand of their enemies. Lawrence had to know by the end of the day, and might have known early in the morning, that Sheriff Jones sent word to Missouri and to the governor. But they don’t seem aware that Shannon called out the militia against them yet, nor that anybody had or would come from Missouri.

Shannon’s View of Kansas’ Troubles, Part One


Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The Hunt for Jacob Branson: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

The Lawrence Revolt: parts 1, 2, 3

On November 27, 1855, Wilson Shannon issued orders for the organized northern and unorganized southern divisions of the Kansas territorial militia to converge on Lecompton. There they would place themselves at the disposal of Sheriff Samuel Jones to serve warrants against Jacob Branson and those who rescued him from Jones’ custody. Shannon specified that the militia had those duties and no more, clearly sensitive to how the use of force could go badly wrong. But Shannon’s prudence had its limits. He paints Franklin Pierce a rather dire picture of matters the next day. Kansas faced

great danger to the peace and good order of society. I am well satisfied that there exists in this Territory a secret military organization, which has for its object, among other things, resistance to the laws by force.

The Kansas Legion had military organization, at least in chapters sufficiently large, and promised essentially that. Shannon might not have known it then, but Branson served as an officer in the group. His rescues almost certainly included his comrades in arms. Shannon knew all of that for some time, as Patrick Laughlin’s revelations hit the papers a month prior and free state groups had threatened resistance of the law in martial language for some time prior. He also makes reference to “hints thrown out by some of the public journals in their interest,” which he could hardly have missed.

Until the Branson affair, he understood this all as bold talk rather than a plan of action. Some free state Kansans probably agreed with him.

Shannon didn’t know how many men the Legion boasted, but he guessed between one and two thousand

well supplied with Sharp’s rifles and revolvers, and that they are bound by an oath to assist each other in the resistance of the laws when called upon to do so.

Now that the Legion proved itself as martial as its rhetoric, he had to do something. Shannon related the story of Dow’s murder to Pierce, complete with “three to four hundred” men out to lynch Coleman. He told of Branson’s arrest in somewhat more general terms, not naming him but calling him a leader of that mob. “[B]etween forty and fifty” intercepted Jones to free his prisoner, armed with those same Sharpe’s firearms. Along the way, the proslavery families around Hickory Point, who Shannon called “law-and-order families” suffered burned houses, killed cattle, and general destruction of property to the point that all but two households fled.

Helpless women and children have been forced by fear and threats to flee from their homes and seek shelter and protection in the State of Missouri. Measures were taken by the legal authorities to procure warrants against these lawless men, and have them arrested and legally tried.

Those measures may include making Franklin Coleman and Josiah Hargis justices of the peace alongside Hugh Cameron. Though hardly impartial, Shannon could have expected them to know from experience where to best issue warrants.