Senator Sumner Goes to Washington

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Henry Adams, the fourth generation of his family to appear in this blog, brought the good news to Charles Sumner twice: Massachusetts chose him as its new senator. Sumner, with no previous experience in office and a stormy career as a spokesman and activist for prison reform and against war and slavery, had reason to doubt his abilities. Winning appeared relatively easy. Governing, if Sumner had any opportunity to at all, would prove harder. Washington and its politicians had displeased a much less radical Sumner on his one prior visit and he had come to public life only with some reluctance and the encouragement of John Quincy Adams.

Barely elected at all, after great struggle, and by a coalition damned by members of both national parties, Sumner lacked the wind at his back that a newly-elected man might hope for. Nor could he dream of putting his stamp on the nation while he remained a member of a tiny minority. His rhetoric, the one area where he might reasonably expect to excel, would now face opposition from skilled proslavery debaters. To employ it to any use, Sumner would have to master the Senate’s arcane rules and traditions or risk making a fool of himself.

Sumner’s embarrassments began as soon as he presented his credentials. By Senate tradition, the senior senator for one’s state presented a newcomer to the chamber. Sumner’s Massachusetts peer chose to oversleep rather than risk the wrath of Daniel Webster, leaving him to hunt down Lewis Cass and beg an introduction. Instead of the customary phrasing where a Senator begged leave to present a colleague, Cass informed the others only that

I have been requested to present the credentials of Charles Sumner, a Senator elect from the State of Massachusetts.

John Hale

Thomas Hart Benton, just defeated for re-election courtesy of David Rice Atchison, had a more sympathetic but just as disheartening welcome for Sumner. He told the new senator that all the great men had gone and taken the great issues of the day with them. Settling down into the desk previously occupied by Jefferson Davis, Sumner could look across a chamber with few allies. New Hampshire’s John Hale seemed like a shady character despite their shared party. He got on better with Salmon P. Chase. Sumner feared William Seward, who he otherwise liked, would always put Whiggery above antislavery. Hamilton Fish, Seward’s New York colleague, lamented Winthrop’s lost seat but went out of his way to make Sumner welcome.

Sumner found unlikely friends among the chamber’s Southern contingent. They knew many Yankees made antislavery speeches back home, but what went on back home didn’t necessarily translate to personal relationships in Washington. Soon Massachusetts antislavery extremist claimed Pierre Soulé as his best friend. He likewise befriended Andrew Pickens Butler, who sat next to him. Seeing in Sumner a man who knew his classics, Butler relied on him to check the quotations he planned to use in speeches. In these situations, and otherwise socially, Sumner declined to raise his antislavery opinions and instead talked or history and far-off happenings.

Soon Sumner settled, if not entirely comfortably, into the regular spin of Washington society. With everyone far from home, the political class formed their own small world with an unending cycle of dinners and other social occasions where they entertained each other in small groups for a large portion of the week. A single week of his first month saw Sumner hosted by Millard Fillmore, the French Minister, and Francis Blair. His party might earn him political isolation, and a few men rubbed Sumner wrong or took a dislike to him, but he didn’t suffer much from personal ostracism.

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A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Two

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

 

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

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

Robert Morse Taliaferro Hunter (D-VA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Mason

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

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

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

Franklin Pierce, Out of the Loop

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

The sack of Lawrence took place on a hot Wednesday, May 21, 1856. The destruction, pillage, and worse continued into the night but had abated by dawn. In the most restrictive sense, it played out over as little as four or five hours from the time Samuel Jones led his posse into town until they left again. But it took time and good cause, or at least a solid pretense, to get so many men to come over and consummate their long-held desire to do something about the infamous abolition town. The story could begin all the way back when Stephen Douglas cutting deals with the F Street Mess and Archibald Dixon. One could make a case for either, but to keep things manageable let’s focus on the immediate campaign against Lawrence that culminated on that Wednesday afternoon and evening. That also takes us back to Samuel Jones, sans posse, coming into Lawrence to arrest Samuel Wood on April 19. Failing then, he came back with a detachment of United States Cavalry and found Wood gone. He collected a few men as consolation prizes, then received a bullet in the back from someone in Lawrence gratis. On May 5, Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury made a federal case of things by ordering the arrest of various free state leaders and the suppression of the free state newspapers. The two causes came together in I.B. Donaldson’s overgrown “posse” of Missourians and Jefferson Buford’s adventurers.

That yields a bit more than a month between inciting event and the attack. During all that time, plenty of news could have passed back and forth between Kansas and Washington. One has to wonder just what the Pierce administration thought of events as they developed. The Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume IV (PDF), have an account of that. The documents begin with the news that Franklin Pierce felt left out of the loop. On May 23, he telegraphed

Has the United States Marshal Proceeded to Lawrence to execute civil process? Has military force been found necessary to maintain civil government in Kansas? If so, have you relied solely upon the troops under the command of Colonels Sumner and Cooke? If otherwise, state the reasons. The laws must be executed; but military force should be employed until after the Marshal has met with actual resistance in the fulfillment of his duty.

Shannon, absent airline travel, couldn’t have called upon the president; he might at least have written.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Later that day, the President telegraphed again. In the interim, he received word from Edwin Sumner via Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War. Pierce had a copy of Sumner’s letter to Shannon “of the 12th instant.” I think that Pierce means the letter Sumner sent on the 13th, based on his endorsement of Sumner’s policy there. The Colonel wanted a purely military posse to keep the peace and offered to furnish Shannon with however many men he required. Pierce wrote

My knowledge of facts is imperfect; but with the force of Colonel Sumner at hand, I perceive no occasion for the posse, armed or unarmed, which the Marshal is said to have assembled at Lecompton.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

Nobody looks on Franklin Pierce as a sterling example of presidential leadership or far-sighted judgment, but even he could see things had gone sour indeed and required containment. He knew that Donaldson had a posse at Lecompton but had yet to move on Lawrence, thanks to his information as of the 13th. But while he sat in Washington and wondered why Shannon hadn’t written back to him, Donaldson had gone and Lawrence unresisting people of Lawrence paid the price.

Lawrence Asks Governor Shannon for Help

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Seeing a new proslavery onslaught bearing down on them, the people of Lawrence took what action they could. They begged E.V. Sumner, who came to check on them, to bring his 1st Cavalry down from Fort Leavenworth to protect the town. Sumner wanted to oblige them, but his instructions bound him to act only when called upon by Wilson Shannon, territorial governor. Jefferson Davis’ War Department had made it clear to Sumner that he did not have authority to act on his own and he absolutely did not have it to defend Kansas from external attack.

None of this made for steady nerves and easy sleeping. The New York Times‘ correspondent wrote (PDF) about how things looked on the ground on May 12:

We are approaching near and near an awful something, that is nameless. There is such a profound secresy pervading the acts and intentions of our enemy, that we are somewhat at a loss to know the character of our doom.

I think we can all relate about now. The correspondent put Lecompton, the territorial capital, as their rallying point. More men arrived daily and on the tenth,

they commenced sending out in this direction companies of from twenty-five to fifty who encamped at various places, taking care to not get within three or four miles of Lawrence.

In response, Lawrence had convened a new public safety committee. They needed a new one because half the previous number had fled. That group approached Sumner for help when he called at Lawrence. Sumner evinced a determination “to set us right, and set Missouri right.” But he still needed Wilson Shannon to set him loose. Once that happened, Sumner believed he would have discretionary authority necessary to protect Lawrence. It would help everyone out, except the Missourians, if Lawrence would petition for Shannon to get the ball rolling.

The committee sent a copy of their petition to Sumner, with Shannon’s name in the place of his, and dispatched it via special messenger to Lecompton. That messenger, a Captain Walker,

came near to losing his life in the undertaking. He was overtaken by two men on horseback before he reached the town, one of whom rode ahead in advance of him, and made preparations to prevent him from entering their “holy city”.

No free state man could profane Lecompton, apparently. This reads a bit like they wanted to be sure he didn’t come out with useful military intelligence. But someone took his message on to Shannon all the same and came back with an answer. When Walker turned back with that answer, a party of six followed him

but he having a fleet horse, kept ahead, and by sheering off into a ravine, escaped after being fired upon several times without effect.

Instructions for the Army, Part One

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

On May 8, 1856, Marcus Parrott went up to Fort Leavenworth and had a talk with Colonel Edwin Sumner, in command, about the brewing invasion from Missouri. Since the Wakarusa War’s muddled end, Franklin Pierce had granted Wilson Shannon the authority to call out Sumner’s men to preserve law and order in Kansas. Pierce’s proclamation made only fig leaf gestures to neutrality, casting antislavery agitation as the more serious threat. But Pierce’s orders to Sumner (PDF), by way of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, charged the Colonel with aiding the territorial government against both “insurrection” and “invasive aggression.” Davis’ orders focused entirely on the things that antislavery Kansans had done, reducing the threat of Missourian invasion to a single reference in passing. In that he followed the lead of the President, or the President followed his. We don’t know exactly how things worked out between them, but at least some of the time Davis seems to have had practical control of the executive branch.

Sumner noticed the omission and wrote back to the War Department. Did they mean for him to intervene also if Shannon called on him to stop invaders from Missouri? The Governor had tried just that back in December, but Sumner had demurred for lack of authority to comply on his own. He also seems to have asked about an invasion from parts more distant, whether Jefferson Buford’s men or some sort of armed Emigrant Aid formation. Jefferson Davis wrote back via the Adjutant General’s office on March 26:

in reply to the question as to where the men may come from, or whether armed or unarmed, is not one for the inquiry or consideration of the commanding officer. It is only when an armed resistance is offered to the laws and against the peace and quiet of the Territory, and when, under such circumstances, a requisition for military force is made upon the commanding officer by the authority specified in his instructions, that he is empowered to act.

Colonel Sumner had no authority to act against border ruffians. Should Shannon call on him, he must act in concert with them. Thus Sumner visited Lecompton on May 12, a few days after promising Marcus Parrott that he would look into things. He had bad news, which he shared with the Adjutant General:

Great excitement is prevailing in the country at this moment in consequence of the Marshal and Sheriff summoning large posses, without reference to the Governor, as they say to maintain the law.

Sumner informed Shannon that he would follow his instructions when called upon, to

arrest and hold subject to the orders of the civil authorities any men in the territory against whom writs were issued; and further, that in order to preserve the peace of the country, I would place my entire regiment immediately at any point he might designate.

Shannon, Sumner thought, wanted that badly to keep the peace. He had said as much back in December and now faced a situation much the same, down to the cast of characters. But Shannon didn’t think it proper to “assume the responsibility of controlling them under civil officers”. All of this sounds like Shannon wanted Sumner to go out on a limb face the consequences of intervention against the proslavery party.

Franklin Pierce’s Duty

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce decided for thoroughness when he embarked on his quest to blame everyone but himself and other men responsible for Kansas’ plight. Andrew Reeder, a Pierce appointee, did his part. The free state movement did theirs, tending toward insurrection with their wild program to set up an unauthorized state government. If they kept that up, then Pierce told the Congress that he would have to step in. The American system had means of settling disputes; none of them involved starting your own government. If you didn’t believe him, you could ask George III.

Pierce didn’t want to come off entirely as a proslavery partisan, though. He insisted on

the undoubted right of the peaceable and orderly people of the Territory of Kansas to elect their own legislative body, make their own laws, and regulate their own social institutions, without foreign or domestic molestation. Interference on the one hand to procure the abolition or prohibition of slave labor in the Territory has produced mischievous interference on the other for its maintenance or introduction. One wrong begets another.

Pierce had it technically right: antislavery and proslavery politics did feed one another, as any divide on issues does. He neglected, of course, just how Kansas came to have such contentions in the first place. You can point to news of the New England Emigrant Aid Society as fueling the resentment of border ruffians in their blue lodges, and Pierce did, but to stop there required a self-serving, selective memory indeed. Had Pierce, Jefferson Davis, the F Street Mess, Archibald Dixon, Phillip Phillips, and Stephen Douglas not come together to overthrow the Missouri Compromise, Kansas might have remained Indian country or it might, as David Rice Atchison once accepted, have come together as a free territory. The President would have none of that: antislavery Americans from outside Kansas caused all the fuss, end of story.

To whitewash his own party’s sordid recent past, Pierce appealed to the great nineteenth century orthodoxy that geography would save the Union, if only let do its job. Irresponsible agitators thwarted the silent work of climate and soil to settle the issue, taking it upon themselves and so making the future of slavery into an issue that motivated neighboring states to intervene.

All of this poses the question of just what the President intended to do. He hinted at it before, but now declared his aim openly:

it will be my imperative duty to exert the whole power of the Federal Executive to support public order in the Territory; to vindicate its laws, whether Federal or local, against all attempts of organized resistance

Pierce added further boilerplate about baleful “encroachment from without” but given his almost perfect lack of interest in border ruffians, his defense of Kansas’ laws in their unpredecented proslavery impositions, and his regular castigation of antislavery Americans, he clearly meant such encroachment from without and resistance from within as sins of the antislavery side alone.

In taking his stand, Pierce referenced the Wakarusa War. The happy news that the rivers of Kansas did not run red failed to deter him. Things worked out that time, but what about the next?

there is, I regret to say, reason to apprehend that disorders will continue to occur there, with increasing tendency to violence, until some decisive measure be taken to dispose of the question itself which constitutes the inducement or occasion of internal agitation and external interference.

Pierce stood ready to throw all his power against the free state government, but it need not come to that. Better to settle things once and for all by having Kansas speedily come into the Union through regular, lawful means. He called on Congress to pass an enabling act, which would authorize the territorial government to hold the usual convention and draw up a constitution for swift admission. Thus the slavery question would pass completely out of Washington’s hands. That it would ensure slavery remained in Kansas would, of course, delight the most powerful faction of Pierce’s Democracy and frustrate the chief aim of his political opponents.

All that would take time, so in the interim Pierce suggested that Congress vote him the necessary money

to defray any expense which may become requisite in the execution of the laws or the maintenance of public order in the Territory of Kansas.

Pierce didn’t say in as many words that he’d like for Congress to give him the funds to break up the free state movement, arrest its leaders, and decisively hand Kansas over to the South, but few could miss the obvious inference. If the proslavery government established by force and fraud couldn’t keep Kansas sound on the goose, then the United States Army could do the job.

 

 

Debunking Bunkum

Felix Walker historical marker

Felix Walker historical marker

On February 25, 1820, Felix Walker rose to address the House of Representatives on the Missouri question: Would the Show Me State come into the Union with slavery undisturbed, or with the institution on the road to extinction? By this point, the House had heard every aspect of the issue dissected at often rancorous and tedious length. Could one more speech hurt that much?

Apparently so. The Annals of Congress, predicessor to the Congressional Globe, report that

the question was called for so clamorously and so perserveringly that Mr. W. could proceed no farther than to move that the Committee rise.

The Committee refused to rise, by an almost unanimous vote.

The Annals of Congress do not preserve Walker’s remarks, only the motion and its rejection. Any good survey of the era or work on the Missouri Compromise will tell you a bit more. Pleading with the House, Walker allegedly said that he spoke not to that body but rather for his constituents back in Buncombe County, North Carolina. In other words, Walker made a speech for the political theater of it rather than out of sincere belief in anything save that he ought to put the right foot forward. Walker’s invocation of Buncombe entered the lexicon as bunkum, eventually shortened to bunk.

Walker gave us the word for it, but politicians the world over have long practiced bunkum in abundance. A particularly cynical person might take from that that we ought to ignore all they say, or even take their spoken word as the opposite of their genuine positions. That can make perfectly good sense, as people in general do lie often enough. We also shade our meanings, exaggerate, phrase ourselves ambiguously, and otherwise craft impressions of ourselves running more to the convenient and appealing than earnest. Nor do we have the good decency to make clear just when and to what degree we do so, as that would give the whole game away. As such, we must parse things closely, looking to deeds, circumstances, and personal consistency as much as to the letter of a text. This holds true as much for the nineteenth century as any other time.

Go around the internet long enough and you’ll discover that neo-Confederates come in different flavors. They all end up in the same place, but arrive there by many roads. The low rent sorts will content themselves with denials and expressions of ancestral resentment. Yankees have always had it out for the South, hating the section for its virtue and seeking ever to degrade and debase it. The Union Army came through and stole everything not nailed down. (Especially the people.) Sherman burned every stick of upright wood between Atlanta and Savannah. (And would you like to tour one of our lovely antebellum mansions?) Grant incinerated whole regiments by exhaling over his cigar. (No one else ever drank a drop.) The North (never the United States) fought the Civil War as part of some black magic ritual to destroy states’ rights. A rendition of one’s ancestors martial prowess, real or imagined, soon follows. Though repulsive, the remarkably ignorance one finds in these types can at least make for some unintentional humor.

The clown car takes on passengers from more sophisticated environs too. Here you hear more about tariffs and very abstract talk about ways of life. Some of these people have even read period documents, which puts them in a bit of a bind:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property

The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slave-holding States.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

I could go on. White southerners agreed in remarkable volume and right up until the spring of 1865, that they fought a war to save slavery. They only changed their minds afterwards. Neo-confederates familiar with these texts, and others confronted with them, will often cry bunkum. Southern politicians, they tell us, indulged in fiery proslavery rhetoric entirely to please the rubes back home. They actually had other motives which arose from constitutional abstractions, as everybody knows that one adopts constitutionalisms out of perfect disinterest rather than as a means of achieving policy goals. Conversely, they will also invoke bunkum to explain away antislavery rhetoric on the part of Northern politicians. Those fiends had some kind of vision of an industrial, centralized United States which everyone clearly hated so they had to dress it up in more appealing terms. Put these two sets of bunkum together, as some historians have, and you find a pack of irresponsible, reckless, blundering politicians who drove the country into a needless war.

That argument appeals to some people still. A few historians, mostly getting on in years, still defend at least limited versions of it. More will defend a version of bunkum projected back further into the Antebellum. Sean Wilentz has described Federalist antislavery rhetoric as simple partisan positioning, dismissing it in short order so he can write his epic story of the Democracy as freedom’s greatest champion. An old Whig turned Republican did the actual emancipating, but he somehow embodied the true Jacksonian faith. In making that claim, Wilentz largely follows Jefferson and others of his time who imagined the Missouri controversy as a cynical play by old time Federalists to regain power on the national stage. Quite how they would have done so while not contesting the presidential race, adopting a policy that would do them no good anywhere in the South and little good in the West, and by rallying around the proposal of one of Jefferson’s own Republicans, I have no idea.

Set that aside for a moment. For the sake of argument, grant that antislavery and proslavery politicians did make bunkum speeches on the subject. They must have at least some of the time. Occasionally they kindly left us private misgivings or words to the effect of how they didn’t much care about this issue or that but chose a side in the interest of Southern honor or solidarity. The Lower South largely did this when it came to the Fugitive Slave Law. Much of the South, aside Missouri, did the same on Kansas. On the antislavery side we might cast the belief in the slave power conspiracy as something on the same order. In fact, we could stipulate that the politicians on both sides endorsed the positions and uttered the rhetoric that they did entirely to deceive. That oversells the case very badly, more so than any serious blundering generation scholar would probably support, but we may as well go all the way. Even if all of that holds true and the United States achieved in the nineteenth century the Platonic ideal of bunkum, does it really change our understanding of the sectional conflict?

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

I don’t think so. Any discussion of bunkum that limits itself to politicians and their speeches has missed the most important thing about it. Felix Walker and others like him might have made speeches in bad faith. They may have lied to their constituents and posterity in the name of their personal gain. But Walker’s constituents in North Carolina, James Tallmadge’s in New York, and all the rest wouldn’t settle for just any bunkum. Few voters in Massachusetts would swoon and toss the proverbial panties on stage for Charles Sumner, had he told them about the wonders of slavery. Nor would their countrymen in Mississippi do the same if Jefferson Davis spoke about its evils.

For bunkum to work at all, it must speak to the general interests of the relevant voting public. It must reflect their fears and hopes. As such, any successful use of bunkum indicates that, whatever a cynical politician or latter-day historian might thing, the speaker has hit on a genuine sentiment. Maybe the elected official doesn’t believe every word, but the people back home believe enough for it to matter. Insincere bunkum and genuine belief feed into one another. A practitioner of bunk helps frame the debate and set expectations for the voters, but those voters have their own active role to play in shaping the content of bunkum and thus the policies it drives. Neither party passively accepts what the other offers, but rather voters and politicians inevitably work in conscious partnership.

Did politicians indulge in proslavery and antislavery bunkum? Sometimes they must have, as we all do about any subject. We should ask the question as part of our normal interrogation of sources. Who, when, and to what degree will always remain open to interpretation. But if we stop there we write the voters out of the story, reducing the beliefs and interests of millions to the status of generic minions for the class of men that get buildings named after them. Including the millions who supported the politicians makes for a less tidy narrative, but one which tells us far more about the past than the characters of famous men. That broader story naturally implicates us as much as any historical figure, who we might otherwise imagine ourselves detached from. We produce and consume bunkum ourselves, our preferences for it speaking to our natures as much as the habits of past actors speak to theirs.

Franklin Pierce’s Third Annual Message

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Sorry for yesterday’s tardy post, Gentle Readers. I mistakenly scheduled it for the wrong date entirely.

We left the House of Representatives with a new Speaker. Nathaniel Banks claimed the office with a plurality vote on February 3, 1856, just a day shy of  two months after the 34th Congress opened. The fate of slavery in Kansas had created that struggle to begin with, as northern antislavery reaction had cost the Democracy control of the House and support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act made various candidates entirely unacceptable. Every round of voting occasioned further speeches on the question. While the Speaker’s race wore on in the legislature, the executive made its own statement on the matter.

From the very start of Kansas’ troubles, free state men had expressed their hope that if Franklin Pierce knew what had gone on he would stand with them. It suited their position to say so, as they constantly emphasized that they rejected only the bogus government of Kansas rather than the United States as a whole. They wanted nothing of treason, but rather only their rights as Americans and as promised to them by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Self-preservation and cynical positioning play their role in those declarations, but we should not confuse Franklin Pierce with Jefferson Davis or John C. Calhoun. As a New Hampshire man, his contemporaries might not have expected him to defend every proslavery excess. Furthermore, the border ruffians had sinned against the cardinal tenet of the Democracy: popular sovereignty. As far back as Thomas Jefferson, Democrats (then calling themselves Republicans) had proclaimed themselves the advocates of the common white man against distant and elite authority. Andrew Jackson, who gets the press for doing the same, largely benefited from a well-advanced trend toward greater white male democracy. As a northerner and a Democrat, Pierce must have seemed to some, like his fellow northern Democrats in Kansas, like exactly the man you’d want to sort out the entire Kansas mess.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

So far as official acts go, Franklin Pierce had not given much encouragement to antislavery Kansans. He had fired Andrew Reeder, who demonstrated at least some devotion to genuine popular sovereignty in Kansas. But officially, Pierce dismissed Reeder for land speculations. Even if you didn’t believe that reason, and I doubt many did, at least the president hadn’t called Reeder a damned abolitionist plotting servile insurrection. And the first governor of Kansas had engaged in shady land speculations involving both land reserved for Indian tribes and the United States Army. Pierce had removed a guilty man from office, if not for his actual crimes.

The President had an annual message to give to Congress. We call that a State of the Union today and expect it delivered in person, but at the time they called it an annual message and presidents sent it along in writing. Pierce opened his third on a testy note:

The Constitution of the United States provides that Congress shall assemble annually on the first Monday of December, and it has been usual for the President to make no communication of a public character to the Senate and House of Representatives until advised of their readiness to receive it. I have deferred to this usage until the close of the first month of the session, but my convictions of duty will not permit me longer to postpone the discharge of the obligation enjoined by the Constitution upon the President “to give to the Congress information of the state of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

He waited all month, not sending the message until the last of December. Custom expected Congress to have its House in order, but as that chamber hadn’t done so Franklin Pierce reached the last possible moment to do his duty. Tradition or no, he had a job to do. He assured Congress that “the Republic is tranquilly advancing in a career of prosperity and peace” before progressing to the nation’s troubles, which might imperil said advance of prosperity and peace.

Monuments and Compromise

Liberty Place monument original location

The obelisk at its original location

New Orleans has four monuments to white supremacy now slated for removal. Two of these monuments fall into the run of generic Confederate celebration. Neither Robert E. Lee nor Jefferson Davis had all that much to do with New Orleans or Louisiana, but if you can’t put up a statue or Lee or Davis as an icon of white power then what else is there? In the case of New Orleans, one could plausibly argue that Andrew Jackson does the job and has an obvious local history connection. New Orleans has a Jackson statue and, while I understand it has rightly drawn criticism, the proposed removal doesn’t include it. It does include a statue of Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard, a genuine native son.

This leaves us with the fourth monument to consider. It commemorates not the familiar war, but its less famous continuation. On September 14, 1874, five thousand members of the White League battled the state militia and local police. It took the arrival of the United States military to suppress their insurrection. People don’t just get together thousands strong and pick a fight with the state for the pure joy of battle. The obelisk celebrating the struggle did not originally come with an explanation, but the city added one in the 1930s:

United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.

In the Thirties, whites didn’t feel as obligated to talk around the issues as they often do now. The rioters in 1874 fought for white supremacy against a Reconstruction state government and they would have had it if not for the Army getting in the way. If the Confederate veterans in the White League didn’t get what they wanted at the time, their perseverance eventually won through. The obelisk generated the sort of criticism one would expect, eventually leading the city to add a new plaque contextualizing the monument. This pleased no one, and really could please no one. The city moved the obelisk, leaving it out of view until former Grand Wizard David Duke sued for its return. New Orleans relocated the it to a less conspicuous place. Now it may at last go for good. This also fails to please.

The inscription

The inscription

We have a natural tendency to look for compromises. This often means not a settlement, but rather that a sufficient number of us agree to call things settled, as it did for Henry Clay’s famous compromises. Compromising makes one feel high-minded, reasonable, and generally better than the partisans of either side. They consider only their interests. We, the compromising, nobly work to for everyone’s. It all sounds very good on paper. It might even work out that way when differences come down to small details or similar means to achieve generally agreed-upon ends. Now and then, one does find situations where the narcissism of small differences plays a large role.

More often, though, one encounters real differences in values. Our shared humanity, though it ought to move us toward large circles of compassion and empathy, only goes so far. People have different and frequently irreconcilable values. We can hide that fact under platitudes about how we all love our families and want to lead peaceful, happy lives. Some of us, given the general human proficiency for self-deception, successfully hide it even from ourselves. Sufficiently blinded, we can push for peace and comity that amount less to mutual contentedness and more to often brute enforcement of the very circumstances which render those alleged goals impossible.

The white people of New Orleans once thought the White League right to fight for white power and the preservation of as much of slavery as possible. Perhaps many still do. White Americans frequently preach egalitarianism, but just as frequently lose interest when the time comes to turn sermons into policy. That might cost us some of our capital, social and otherwise. White power didn’t require justification. It did not constitute a new or radical change, like racial egalitarianism, but rather the normal order of events. This makes it peaceful. Everybody knows his or her place and we all go along, ignoring slavery, lynching, and other perfidies. One can ignore them entirely or pretend these things just happen and have nothing to do with us, but the more honest might admit that we prefer them. They happen to the right kind of people, deserving of such treatment for whatever reasons we care to invent.

Where can one find a middle ground between those who view such things as right and those who view them as wrong? If we view white Americans’ depredations against black Americans as right, then anything that ameliorates or halts them constitutes a loss. If we take them as wrong, then anything that doesn’t constitutes a loss. For either side to claim satisfaction, the other must lose. A true compromise solution, where no one loses and everyone walks away somewhat satisfied does not, and cannot logically, exist. In this case, should we understand compromise as ideal even in principle? Or should we understand it as an expression of less overt partisanship?

Appeals for compromise, like any other appeal, might arise from cynical motives. A party that expects to lose might suggest compromise in order to preserve an implicit victory against the threat of explicit defeat. Without positive action against it, a preferred status quo will usually prevail. It has, and in order to function most anywhere short of a police state, must have the at least passive assent of those with the power to change it. To that, we can add delays, procedural complaints, and maliciously scrupulous compliance with formalities. All can do much to gum up the works while appearing neutral and disinterested enough to avoid obvious partisanship.

All of this applies to the the forest of white supremacist memorials, but I think the point more generally applicable. In reading Robert Pierce Forbes’ excellent The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath a few days back, I came on this telling point:

The second reason for slaveholders’ fear of federal revenues is at once the simplest and the most profound: they dreaded the disruption that change would bring to a closed system. The report of South Carolina’s Nullification Convention rendered a stunning judgment on the inflexibility of its slave society when it denounced the application of the American system of protection and internal improvements to “the great Southern section of the Union” on the grounds that “local circumstances” rendered the region “altogether incapable of change” (emphasis added). Nothing could better illustrate the brittleness of the slave system than this sweeping statement.[1]

South Carolina’s nullifiers might have spoken for their own especially ossified state, and surely appreciated the perceived fragility of their system, but other Southerners had a sunnier view of their section’s potential. Later generations of historians have taken a more positive (for white enslavers) one yet, noting the remarkable durability and adaptability of slave systems. That said, this still has some truth to it. Humans have a great ability to change and innovate when we absolutely must, but it takes works and might raise questions about the fundamental order of things that we find uncomfortable or intolerable. Even if we don’t consciously accept the premise that white must control black and black lives exist for the convenience of white looting, we live in a culture that does so. This holds true for Americans who have snow outside their windows right now as for those who have none. By fixating on allegedly unconnected factors, we can pretend that we have not imbibed those doctrines whilst simultaneously serving as partisans for them. We all do so often enough.

Those now protesting the removal of the Liberty Place monument and other markers of white power don’t always follow that script. I encourage you to click through and read the remarkable things that Amanda Jennings wrote in Kevin’s comments, but read them knowing that she likes her “goverment” without any n in it. I presume that her accent, like my own, doesn’t stress the letter. Jennings insists she means nuts. Should she convince you of that, you may also find her strange world where men like Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis wrote anti-Southern lies about the South in the service of “the government” quite persuasive. You may also find yourself interested in various real estate ventures and compelled to assist Nigerian dignitaries who have lost access to their bank accounts. I would advise against such endeavors, but per Jennings you should take all I write as the product of a brainwashed stooge of the government.

[1]Forbes, Robert Pierce (2009-01-05). The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America (p. 168). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

The Free State Militias, Part One

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Armed companies have often stood on the sidelines of my reading in Kansas matters. One appeared at the Fourth of July festivities in Lawrence, receiving a flag from the ladies of the town. George Washington Brown made an oblique reference to their absence at the time of his despairing letter. But it seems that many militia activities happened in secret, or at least secret enough that they don’t come yet to prominent coverage in my sources.

I had in mind these words of Brown’s

there was then no understanding with free State men for mutual protection

By October 2, 1855, such an understanding existed. That could have simply meant that they agreed to watch one another’s backs, of course, but we know from the Fourth of July celebration that a militia company operated in Lawrence at least as of July. Did it go back further? Nichole Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era dates free state activity back to February of 1855, after the first stolen election but before the more famous fraudulent Assembly elections of March. That hardly made for a tranquil Kansas overall, as Andrew Reeder reported that proslavery men had offered him death threats for waiting until early spring for those elections, but does put antislavery militia organization in advance of the attacks on the Parkville Luminary, William Phillips, and Pardee Butler. She cites a report that Jefferson Davis, Secretary of war, submitted to the Senate. The Kansas State Historical Society has it online. Etcheson’s endnote points to pages 27-30.

Davis’ correspondence dates to 1856 and concerns the use of militia companies in Kansas as adjuncts to the Army in suppressing insurrection. I don’t find there confirmation of the February date. It seems like the sort of information that might appear in the report, but if it does I don’t see it where Etcheson does. Does anyone else? I might email her directly, should I prove capable of conquering my pathological shyness and slight awe of professional historians for the moment.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Another source I got from Etcheson’s notes: John Gihon’s Geary and Kansas, a history of Kansas and the Geary administration up to 1857, the year of its writing. It gives no help on the date of founding, but does describe the work the Kansas Legion:

It is not to be presumed that all the outrages and crimes committed in Kansas Territory were the work of the pro-slavery party. That party will have a terrible catalogue [sic] for which to account; but in the great day of retribution their political opponents will not entirely escape condemnation. The pro-slavery men were doubtless the original aggressors; but their unworthy example was too eagerly followed by many claiming to be the advocates of freedom. The one party burned houses, and robbed and murdered unoffending people; and the other, in retaliation, committed the same atrocities. Buford collected a regiment of men in Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia; and Jones, Whitfield and others, bands of desperadoes in Missouri, which they brought into Kansas to pillage and destroy; whilst Lane marched in his famous “Army of the North,” whose path was also marked with desolation and ruin. The slavery faction established its “Blue Lodges,” and their opposers organized their “Kansas Legion,” both of which were secret associations, bound together by their solemn oaths, and having signs and pass-words of recognition. The only difference was, that the largest and most respectable portion of the free-state party condemned the “Kansas Legion,.” and took no part in its operations; whilst the “Blue Lodges” originated with, and received their chief encouragement and support from the most prominent, wealthy, and leading pro-slavery men, not only in the territory, but in various states of the Union.

The Buford mentioned tried to organize a Southern answer to the Emigrant Aid Companies. He sought support of state governments in vain and then managed the impressive feats of promising men land in Kansas which he did not own and conveying them there to lodgings that he expected them to pay for out of their own pockets. Thus those who believed his promises for a bright future, with perhaps a side of Yankee beating, found themselves disappointed and most soon left for home. The most leading proslavery men of the nation must, of course, include David Rice Atchison.