The Court Season Begins

John Brown

We left John Brown and proslavery Missourians both anxious about Kansas. Joshua Giddings could promise no war, but Brown had to deal with the real prospect and the Missourians seemed bent on ginning it up even if they had to canvass the whole South for the job. Franklin Pierce declared from the White House that the free state movement constituted an insurrection and must cease or face suppression. The free state movement responded by running elections and forming a government in which Brown’s eldest, John Junior, served as a legislator. When the government met for the first time, at Topeka, Junior set to forming a set of laws for the state of Kansas.

The legislature approved of those laws, but disappointed the Browns all the same. They could pass laws easily enough, but at the urging of Governor Charles Robinson they delayed enacting them until such time as Washington accepted them as the real government of Kansas. Instead, the main affirmative act of the Topeka government involved electing two Senators, Andrew Reeder and James Lane, and dispatching Lane off to Washington with a memorial pleading the case of a free Kansas to Congress. Junior signed the memorial. He later claimed that about that time Lane also initiated him into the Kansas Regulators, aka the Kansas Legion.

Stephen Oates, the elder Brown’s biographer, notes that no evidence besides Junior’s word points to his joining the Regulators. His endnotes go into no more detail than that, which leaves me puzzled. It would fit the characters of Lane and Junior both at this point for him to have signed up. A chip off the old block, Junior didn’t shy away from militant talk. He didn’t go to the polls with a small arsenal expecting not to need it. Nor would we necessarily expect a full roster to have existed. Individual companies of Regulators and other groups may have kept muster rolls, but such an incriminating document would not circulate widely if they did.

As winter melted into spring, colonization of Kansas resumed largely from the free states. Many of the men now arrived armed and willing to fight to make Kansas free. April brought copies of the proslavery laws of Kansas into the hands of many lawyers and judges who would soon begin the court season. Junior, and many others, had broken those laws simply by saying no one had a right to own a slave in Kansas. With the opening of the court term, they might face formal consequences instead of informal brawls. The district court with jurisdiction over the Browns would meet at Dutch Henry’s tavern, a proslavery gathering place run by alleged thieves and rapists. Sterling Cato, a proslavery man, would preside. Now the Browns, and many others, might find out just how far they could go in ignoring the bogus legislature.

 

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John Brown and the Black Law

John Brown

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We left John Brown on the night of Saturday, December 8, 1855. He quizzed James F. Legate about the condition of enslaved people in the South and then got into an argument with him about the nature of prayer. A storm blew in that night. Persuaded by that, their leaders, Lane, Robinson, and Governor Shannon, the Missourians decided they would get no satisfaction and had better things to do than freeze themselves to death in the cold. They went home.

Brown didn’t trust the peace settlement, which he rightly considered the product of much conniving and a non-trivial amount of alcohol. He had no argument at all with the outcome. The proslavery men left, which made them cowards. You didn’t see antislavery men skulk off in defeat; Brown’s Liberty Guards stayed on hand in Lawrence until December 12. The victory, even if he didn’t get to kill any enslavers, buoyed John Brown enough that he wrote excitedly of the it to Frederick Douglass and others. Regrettably, I don’t have access to those letters. Stephen Oates quotes them:

“I did not see the least sign of cowardice or want of self-possession exhibited by any volunteer of the Eleven companies who constituted the Free State Force,” he said in his letter to Mary, “& I never expect again to see an equal number of such well behaved, cool, determined men.”

On the fifteenth, voters ratified the Topeka Constitution and its black law provision. Brown left no record of how he greeted the latter news. James Redpath says he took it poorly, along the way informing the reader that he first heard of Brown after the events of the Wakarusa War and so correcting a prior error of mine that put him present on Brown’s arrival in Lawrence. As Redpath has it, they first met at the Ossawatomie caucus after the affair at Lawrence. Presumably, he refers to a free state meeting to debate the merits of their constitution:

The resolution that aroused the old man’s anger declared that Kansas should be a free white State, thereby favoring the exclusion of negroes and mulattoes, whether slave or free. He rose to speak, and soon alarmed and disgusted the politicians by asserting the manhood of the negro race, and expressing his earnest, anti-slavery convictions with a force and vehemence little likely to suit the hybrids then known as Free State Democrats.

It would fit everything we know about Brown if the law did infuriate him, but he never said so in any letters we have even to his intimates. Oates argues, I think reasonably, that Brown’s anger did flash hot over the law but that he probably put it in the context of the bogus laws and saw it as an adequately lesser evil fit compared to the territorial government and Missourian invasions.

 

 

John Brown has Questions

John Brown

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Charles Robinson and others saw to it that John Brown did not finish his fiery speech denouncing the peace that ended the Wakarusa War. From their perspective, everything came to the best end. Only one antislavery man died and a general battle did not ensue. Lawrence had a very stressful time of it, but the town survived and Robinson and James Lane connived to get Governor Shannon to recognize their militia. Brown thought they gave up something material, acknowledging the supremacy of the territorial laws and government. He left town unmoved by assurances that no one had conceded anything material.

While Lane and Robinson negotiated with Shannon and other proslavery leaders, Brown had a talk with James F. Legate. (Legate previously featured here as the man who warned the free state leadership that Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury issued warrants for their arrest.) In 1879, Legate recalled spending that Saturday night with Brown. Legate had experience living in the South and Brown had many questions.

So far as I can tell, John Brown never made it further into the South than Harper’s Ferry and elsewhere in modern West Virginia. He knew about slavery from seeing enslaved people in the North of his youth and speaking to people who had stolen themselves to freedom. It took only that to convince him of slavery’s monstrous wrong, much as records of the same in slave narratives might do for us, but he had this opportunity to learn more and took it. I haven’t been able to find Legate’s own recollection from the Leavenworth Weekly Press online, but Stephen Oates summarizes:

Were they as passive as some people said? Did they have attachments with their masters? Or were they willing to fight for their liberty should the opportunity arise?

Legate did not inform posterity of how he answered, but the questions themselves point to Brown’s long-range thinking. Right now he had the struggle in Kansas, where few slaves lived to fight for their freedom. He also had Missouri right next door, with rather more slaves on hand. Maybe Brown thought he would take a trip over there in the near future. Maybe he still thought of Virginia, as he had for years.

The conversation turned then to an argument about the prayer and Legate must have found Brown as immovable on his theology as on slavery. That led to Brown praying that the Almighty would strengthen his hand against the Missourians, “enemies of God.”

Silence and Silencing John Brown

George W. Brown

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George Washington Brown left a few details out of his account of John Brown’s arrival in Lawrence during the Wakarusa War. With John Brown now deemed a madman and guilty of attacking the United States arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, not to mention Kansas much settled, the editor must not have seen much glory in associating himself with the old man. He has Brown appear in Lawrence and a military company forms around him on the spot.

Newspaper Brown omitted how he met the crusading Brown outside the Free State Hotel, gratefully shook his hand, and introduced him to the free state leadership. He received his commission from Lane and Robinson and viewed Thomas Barber’s body before going back out and dreaming up his attack plans. Then the newspaper’s account picks back up, with Brown out around Lawrence drumming up support for his plan to attack Franklin and ignoring contrary orders. It again leaves out Brown’s response to news of peace, which he suspected meant surrender.

As soon as James Lane and Charles Robinson got done telling the news, Brown mounted the unsteady platform they used to give his own speech. His biographer Villard has extracts:

He declared that Lawrence had been betrayed, and told his hearers that they should make a night attack upon the pro-slavery forces and drive them out of the Territory. “I am an Abolitionist,” he said, “dyed in the wool,” and then he offered to be one of ten men  to make a night attack upon the Border Ruffian camp. Armed with lanterns, his plan was to string his men along the camp far apart. At a given signal in the early morning hours, they were to shout and fire on the slumbering enemy. “And I do believe,” declared John Brown in telling of it, “that the whole lot of them would have run.”

John Brown

Brown might have just gotten himself and several other men killed, but the Missourians did come to Kansas with a remarkable faith that they would never face a serious fight. Villard claims that James Lane thought it was a good idea too, so one can’t attribute it entirely to Brown’s poor command of tactics. Critics and friends alike pulled Brown off the platform before he could talk everyone into something rash. Villard credits Charles Robinson with masterminding that. The Emigrant Aid Company man generally took the least militant tact when it came to actual fighting, so that would fit his character.

 

Never tell John Brown the odds

John Brown

John Brown went to Kansas to fight and he didn’t like it one bit that the antislavery leadership denied him his chance. No fool, he understood the double talk in the Wakarusa peace settlement. Charles Robinson and James Lane could say they conceded nothing, but the same language permitted others to argue that they had. This made them fundamentally duplicitous in Brown’s mind and he regretted thereafter that he abandoned his plan to go draw some proslavery blood on his own. Redpath, writing with a few years’ hindsight, add that the treaty and the Free State party’s official line

only served to postpone the inevitable conflict then rapidly approaching, and to demoralize the spirit of the Free State party. It occasioned, he thought, the death of many Northern men, whom, encouraged by this compromising action, the marauders, on their return, murdered in cold blood or in desultory warfare.

Brown may have seen it that way at the time. We can look ahead and agree with him that murders and strife came, though connecting them with the Free State party’s disinclination to hazard large-scale violence would take more doing. John Brown didn’t go around eating bugs and raving like the cartoon madman of popular memory, but he also lacked any formal military experience -in his earlier life he paid fines rather than take part in the militia- and seems largely uninterested in the practicalities of battle. He knew he needed weapons and where to use them. When to strike or how seem not to have troubled Brown too much.

Redpath tells that Brown didn’t care to hear the odds.

‘What are five to one?’ said he, ‘When our men would be fighting for their wives, their children, their homes, and their liberties against a party, one half of whom were mercenary vagabonds, who enlisted for a mere frolic, lured on by the whiskey and the bacon, and a large portion of the others had gone under the compulsion of opinion and proscription, because they feared being denounced as abolitionists if they refused?’

Maybe. People with something to fight for may fight harder, but that doesn’t ensure victory. It also neglects how many of those men Brown thought seduced by whiskey and bacon could claim just the same motives. If Kansas fell to freedom, then it may fatally undermine slavery in Missouri. In Southern thought, that would almost certainly lead to a genocidal race war. They, as white men, expected to win that fight in the end. They also knew that in such a war, their own homes and families might not survive to the end.

 

Silencing John Brown

John Brown

We left John Brown just after James Lane got him to come back from his planned assault on the proslavery forces still besieging Lawrence. Brown thought very little of the Free State political leadership. He condemned Lane as a man without self-respect and Charles Robinson as a man with no principles at all. Brown had come back to Lawrence in time to see Governor Shannon give a speech on the peace settlement, followed by calls for Lane and Robinson. Lane gave a big talk, Robinson demurred, and John Brown decided that he had things to say.

Some time has passed since we discussed the Wakarusa War at length, Gentle Readers. For right now, remember that the Free State leadership negotiated a peace essentially in secret with Governor Shannon and the proslavery militants. These same leaders constantly preached restraint even as bullets flew, asking their men to endure potshots without answering them for nerve-wracking days on end. Many must have thought that their superiors’ timidity cost Thomas Barber his life. They also suspected that this peace treaty, which no one had seen, might give up too much without a fight.

Redpath relies on William Phillips here:

Captain Brown got up to address the people, but a desire was manifested to prevent his speaking. Amidst some little disturbance, he demanded to know what the terms were.

Phillips’ strategic tact here speaks volumes. “A desire was manifested” and “some little disturbance.” People manifested their desires and made a disturbance. Phillips, himself usually taking a harder line than the free state leadership, declines to name names. He wrote his The Conquest of Kansas as much as a propaganda document as a history and it seems he wanted to acknowledge dissension in the ranks without making it too clear to outside readers. In discussing the murders at Potawattomie, Phillips blames the Indians and deems the whole affair cloaked in mystery, so it doesn’t look as though he meant to make Brown into a lone bad apple.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

If anything, Phillips casts Brown as a principled voice in just Redpath’s vein. He has Brown say that

If he understood Governor Shannon’s speech, something had been conceded, and he conveyed the idea that the territorial laws were to be observed. Those laws they denounced and spit upon, and would never obey -no! Here the speaker was interrupted by the almost universal cry, “No! No! Down with the bogus laws! lead us down to fight first!” Seeing young revolution on the tapis, the influential men assured the people that there had been no concession. They had yielded nothing. They had surrendered nothing to the usurping Legislature.

Redpath does one better and names “the politicians” who wanted Brown silent as Lane and Robinson. Though not an explicit call out, he bothers to give Brown’s precise opinions of only those two men when discussing the situation. He cites their decision to keep the text of the treaty secret as further evidence and only Robinson and Lane would have had the ability or interest in doing that.

 

 

Tact, Ingenuity, and Alcohol: The Browns go to Kansas, Part 6

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

We left John Brown bound and determined to blow up the fragile peace ending the Wakarusa War and draw some blood from proslavery men. He got together about a dozen men and started on the way, but James Lane stepped in and got him to come back to Lawrence. Lane then tried to get Brown into “a council of war”. John Brown had better things to do than listen to Lane, Charles Robinson, and company explain the delicate situation. According to Redpath, Brown answered:

Tell the General,” he said, “that when he wants me to fight, to say so: but that is the only order I will ever obey.”

In a footnote, Redpath explains Brown’s refusal by giving an account of his estimation of the Free State leadership, in Brown’s own words:

“I am sorry for friend Lane,” he remarked, as we were speaking of his blustering style of oratory; “I am afraid he does not respect himself.”

Lane did deliver the big talk and had shamelessly gone from preaching moderation to militancy when he saw which way Kansan opinion ran. He came to Kansas to restore his political fortunes and would probably have taken any course that served that purpose. Before all of this, he lost his House seat specifically because he voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Robinson had better antislavery bona fides, but also hewed to a far more cautious style of resistance. The rank and file didn’t admire his sensibilities on that point and he seems to have lacked the oratorical power to make them compelling. Brown thought, in light of Robinson’s “subsequent conservatism”

“What a pity it is, that men when they begin life, should not get hold of some fixed principles-make up their minds that they are right, and then hold to them. he did not do that. That is his fault.”

Shameless and unprincipled or not, they met Governor Shannon when he came into Lawrence and got him to sign an authorization for free state militias. Redpath admits that what Lane and Robinson got out of Shannon, both in the authorization and sending the Missourians home, did the antislavery cause good. He praises their “diplomatic tact and Yankee ingenuity” the paragraph after he writes that they got Shannon thoroughly drunk beforehand.

Redpath paints Brown as unsympathetic to the politics of the situation, but not ignorant of them. He saw in the peace settlement a capitulation. By taking endorsement from the territorial government, the Free State party acknowledged that its militias needed Governor Shannon’s blessing. They departed from the hard line that Kansas had no governor, or had one in Charles Robinson, and so compromised the purity of their position.

“To draw a little blood” The Browns go to Kansas, Part 5

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

We left John Brown at the close of the Wakarusa War. He showed up for the siege of Lawrence, armed to the teeth, and a militia company quickly formed around him. Brown then tried to convince the antislavery men to launch an attack on the proslavery headquarters at Franklin. He tried that a few times and each time it seems that the free state leadership intervened to put a stop to it. When they announced their negotiated peace, Brown had about had it with them.

Brown’s first biographer, James Redpath, told his readers all that to show how the Free State party lost their nerve. They could talk a good game, complete with a resolution to contest the slave code of Kansas “to a bloody issue.” When the bloody issue came,

the politicians quibbled; sought other grounds to stand on; “planted themselves on the law;” restrained the ardor of the people which sought to drive the ruffians homeward or to the grave; saw good Thomas Barber murdered in the open day for the crime of having visited their own; and yet, with hundreds of invaders of their soil within sight, who were sacking their cabins and robbing and imprisoning their citizens, they calmly “urged them not to allow the daily outrages to drive them to commence hostilities!”

Redpath either didn’t appreciate the political complexities, including that an outnumbered force might well lose a battle, or ignored them to paint a better picture of John Brown as the righteous man of Kansas. It would not do to admit that the bloody issue phrasing came from Andrew Reeder’s pen, in resolutions he demanded the free state party adopt as a condition of his remaining in the territory and joining with them. If anything, that might make the whole business look dubious. Careful politics don’t often make for the best public relations.

Still, Brown’s hagiographer speaks to the essential frustration of the rank and file antislavery men around Lawrence that day. They came all this way and endured considerable stress. They built earthworks while proslavery men took potshots at them. They waited for days on end. The enemy robbed their homes. We should not neglect the political grievances, but the siege had strains all its own capped off by the death of one of their fellows.

James Henry Lane

Feeling the indignity of it all, Brown tried an attack anyway. Redpath reports that

he did not hesitate to express his contempt for the “Committee of Safety”-most of them ox-intellects, vainly striving to fill an office fit for lionhearts only-and to denounce the political preachers of peace as recreant to their recent and loudly-vaunted resolutions. He went out at once with a dozen men to meet the Missouri invaders-“to draw a little blood,” as he styled it-but, at the earnest entreaties of General Lane, he returned to town without doing it.

Sworn “to drive us to Hell”

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

We left Captain Walker, a free state man, in possession of Wilson Shannon’s answer to the town of Lawrence. They had a proslavery army bearing down on them, again, and he had both the authority to call out the United States Army to defend them and a responsibility for their safety as governor of Kansas. They also asked Colonel Edwin Sumner, 1st Cavalry, first and he told them he couldn’t act without Shannon’s go ahead. The committee of safety dispatched Walker their plea for help, the same document but with Shannon’s name in the place of Sumner’s. This put them in the awkward position of acknowledging Shannon as the governor of Kansas when they had elected Charles Robinson to that office, but with lives at stake one must make sacrifices. The New York Times’ correspondent reported that Walker could not get near Lecompton to deliver the message, but secured a proslavery go between. He no sooner had Shannon’s answer than six men commenced chasing after him, firing all the way. Walker lost them in a ravine.

Samuel Lecompte ran his court and grand jury out of Lecompton, which he lent his name. He helped start this latest trouble by summoning the entire free state leadership on suspicion of treason. The Times remarked that he kept issuing summons to that town, which free state men feared to answer. Lecompte himself might happily let them stew through some months of custody before a trial that ended with antislavery Kansans dangling from a rope, but someone else could arrange a fatal accident far sooner. News of that had gotten Andrew Reeder to abandon the plan to serve as the party’s political martyr and test case. Now it must have seemed that anyone foolish enough to go would risk his life attempting just to get to the court.

Thus most of those summoned

consequently stay away; the result of which is they are being subject to a new process for contempt of Court […] the highest crime recognized by law in Kansas while Judge Lecompte is arbiter. We are becoming more suspicious that these demons meditate a night attack upon us, therefore we are keeping out strong guards, and lights are kept burning at night in our principal buildings.

The dangers attached to more than locally famous antislavery men and their agents. The Times told that the proslavery men seized a Mr. Wise, four miles south of Lawrence, and kept him until ten at night. They brandished knives at him and “pricked his vest,” but wise convinced them that he stood with them and they let him go. Before parting, he learned some of their plan. They would arrest Andrew Reeder (now fled), Charles Robinson (likewise), and James Lane (now rumored back in Kansas). Two senators-elect and a governor would make for quite the prize, which they aspired to display hanging from rope by the neck. Should they fail to secure those men,

they are sworn to commence a crusade against Lawrence and “drive us to hell.”

Lights out or not, nobody could have slept soundly on that news.

“Such neighborly considerations and eloquent innuendoes”

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Once again, Gentle Readers, please note that I have transcribed Parrott’s letter from his handwritten original and, despite the generous and extensive help of AskHistorians’ Caffarelli, I might have gotten some points wrong.

After informing his brother about the great affairs of Kansas, Marcus Parrott holed himself up in his law office with a gun and hoped for the best. He had some further thoughts about Kansas’ future. He relayed news of James Lane’s challenge to Stephen Douglas, which he called

a good trick of Lane’s. The Col is [one] excellent good shot & understands the duello. There will be no fight, but I think Lane will [rearrange or ravage] “Dregs” Southern swarth & mollify his rampant spirit, which is much delighted in metaphors drawn from the profession of arms.

Marc had heard that Lane had gotten back to Lawrence in time, which gladdened him. I don’t know who would have had charge of the town at just this point, with so much of the leadership fled. Either way, he though Lawrence could use someone who would answer Southerners in a language they understood and respected: honor and violence.

But our author also had personal news. His law practice had not gone well and Marc now hoped to make a fortune for himself in real estate:

If the impending troubles should blow over, I shall start on a trip to the Neosho river, 100 miles south to look at a town title in which I am offered an interest on good terms. […] I wrote to Father yesterday a proposition to let me have money enough to keep a good bargain when I get it. It would relieve me a great deal. If more happens that I struggle along with just enough to keep my head above water from one month’s end to another. Further the proposition with such [neighborly] considerations and eloquent innuendoes as the humble [theme] may inspire.

Marcus Parrott’s money troubles don’t change the course of history, but they do offer us a look into the day to day lives of people in territorial Kansas. Parrott came in as a professional, expecting to do well in law. His practice had not taken off, probably not helped by the disabilities the slave code put on white men who refused to declare for slavery. He wanted to try land, always a good bet in a new territory, but that required capital he didn’t have. His father apparently did, so would dear Edwin kindly lean on the old man a bit?

I don’t know Marc’s terms or the land in question, but he may have had a good deal. Undeveloped land, especially if bought at preemption rates, would almost surely rise in value in the short to medium term as Kansas filled up with land-hungry white colonists. Many a middle class man had staked a claim in a new territory, seen it develop for a few years, then sold it at a tidy profit and moved west to repeat the process.