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.

The Lawrence Convention: Resolutions, Part Two

John A Wakefield

John A Wakefield

We left the Lawrence convention of free state Kansans with its grievance stated and its first few resolutions. These addressed fellow Kansans, urging them to set aside other issues and unite on the slavery question, but also struck a conciliatory note toward the Missourians who might invade to stop them by pledging that they had no designs to meddle with the Show Me State’s slavery. For matters within Kansas bounds, the convention had less conciliation in mind and more resistance. They did not and would not view the bogus legislature as a legitimate body and thus would not feel any obligation to follow its laws. Legally elected members should resign their posts to emphasize that and further deny the legislature to meet in Pawnee its legitimacy.

They did had more still to say. If the Missourians would not accept Kansas for the Kansans

in reply to the threats of war so frequently made in our neighboring State, our answer is, WE ARE READY.

Bring it on, Missouri. At this point they adopt a course reaching beyond mere passive resistance. The free state men declared themselves ready to fight. As resolutions themselves don’t shoot guns or throw punches, they laid out a more affirmative program:

Kansas has a right to, and does hereby invoke the aid of the general government against the lawless course of the slavery propaganda with reference to this Territory.

I don’t know what they expected Franklin Pierce and his very southern cabinet to do, even if they somehow prodded him to action without Jefferson Davis there to twist his arm. But they did try. If they flirted with revolution in declaring themselves unbound by territorial law, then they also reached out through more official channels for help. Maybe they only meant to give cover to their resistance, falling back on the claim that they had tried to do things the proper way and found the government deaf to their pleas. But if Pierce did stir himself to beneficial action, so much the better.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

That said, nobody waited on the president. The free staters set themselves to organization building:

a Free State Central Committee be appointed, and that each election district shall be entitled to one member, and each district having two councilmen, shall be entitled to two members.

This committee might have come out of the resolutions meant as the nucleus of a political party, but it could easily transform itself into more. The proslavery party had its blue lodges in Missouri from the very start, but their opponents could build organs in Kansas itself to work through.

More than the convention-goers recognized the potential for such an organization. This notice ran immediately beneath the resolutions in the June 30 Herald of Freedom:

We regret to learn that measures were taken by a few persons on Wednesday evening last, to organize the Democratic party in this Territory. Such a movement can result in no good to any one, but may do much damage. There is but one issue pending in Kansas, and that issue must be settled before others are precipitated upon us. The movement looks to us like an effort to suppress the public will, and we hope it will not be successful.

While Democrats might have a passively proslavery ideology, that did not make every Democrat a slavery enthusiast. Nor did every free state man in Kansas feel a paramount commitment to the cause. The organization of a separate party, especially the Democrats, presented a significant risk. They might very well siphon off a fair number of presently free state men and take them back closer to the national mainstream.

The Pawnee Land Scheme

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Reeder’s real estate dealings have hung over a few posts without further explanation. I hoped to find a better source than those I have on hand, but have so far failed. I’ve got a copy of Alice Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas in the mail that may shed more light, but it might not arrive until the middle of November. What follows comes from Reeder’s and other testimony in the Howard Report, Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era, and Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union, Volume Two.

Reeder himself begins the account with his visit to Franklin Pierce. The president

stated that the most pertinacious complaints of me had been made to him, and the most urgent demands had been made for my removal upon every ground that could be got up; that Gen. Atchison pressed it in the most excited manner, and would listen to no reasoning at all.

Atchison’s involvement speaks volumes. Bourbon Dave had no trouble stirring up others to go steal elections, and even coming with them to watch, but corrupt land deals? There he drew the line. One had to have some standards. To hear Reeder tell it

As to the charges of purchasing Indian lands and interests in towns, he said he was entirely satisfied as to the former, that it was all fair and honorable, and that hundreds had done so before me-ridiculed Mr. Manypenny’s objection to it, and said he had rebuked him when he talked to him of it; he was, nevertheless, sorry under the circumstances of this case, that I had many any purchases, as they made a pretext for my enemies to annoy him with demands for my removal.

Manypenny served as Indian Commissioner. He had negotiated the cessation of Indian lands back in 1853 which helped grease the Kansas-Nebraska wheels and drew controversy then due to his close relationship with prominent southerners and how he managed, surely by pure accident, to not extinguish Indian title to lands in Nebraska suited to a Pacific railroad. He had the job of reviewing purchases like Reeder’s, and in the governor’s case made

a most violent and high-tempered report against them upon the grounds of unfairness, as well as of technical want of conformity to the rules of the department.

This all happened back in January, by which time Atchison had let everyone know that he wanted Reeder gone. Reeder certainly looks bad in all of this, but Manypenny likewise looks short of disinterested and innocent. It sounds like Reeder tried to improperly buy Indian lands reserved, in the language of the time, to the “half-breed Kaw.” He apparently examined the land in the guise of his official business, which may have made the corruption harder still to deny. The War Department later found his partner in the deal, an officer, guilty of “irregularities” in buying the land. Manypenny’s objection probably came on both material and political grounds.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

Which brings us to Pawnee. Aside the investments in building the place up for the legislature, which Reeder had an interest in, the governor cited its distance from Missouri as the chief appeal. This prompted considerable controversy:

as soon as it was ascertained or suspected that I would call the legislature together at that place, it was at once assailed through the press and otherwise to break it down; that a free-State population recently had commenced settling in and around it; that it was obvious its natural advantages would attract emigrants; that its distance from Missouri would constitute a great objection to the projectors and friends of the foreign invasion of our Territory, whilst the same reasons would,l in a few years, make it a rallying point for northern men, and draw about it a large settlement; that this was foreseen by the Missourians, and hence their hostility to it and their determination to break it up; that I had been informed by a reputable and credible citizen of Missouri that General Atchison had written to General [Secretary of War Jefferson] Davis on the subject, and that difficulties had been started in regard to the military reserve of Fort Riley, and as to a dispute between the commanding officer there and a couple of intruders, which had so resulted that the War Department had declared it, wrongly as I believed, within the military reservation, that after a number of houses had been erected, besides a large hall for the meeting of the legislature, and after it was known throughout the States that my proclamation had convened the legislature there.

Reeder paints this as a kind of convoluted misunderstanding. He designated Pawnee the seat of government, knowing it had a fort nearby. Fort Riley had a military reserve which nobody had yet surveyed. Some settlers, before all of this, had come in and received permission to set up a town near to the fort but on land not within the unsurveyed reserve. Much the same had happened previously with Leavenworth, the military reserve’s boundaries running around the town but not quite intruding thereafter. Reeder had nothing to do with it until he arrived in the area on his tour of the territory. He and his party then received shares in the Pawnee town association as a gift. He hadn’t meant to speculate in federal lands; mistakes happen.

Conflicts over land, especially land still waiting on a proper survey, recur throughout the American frontier. Abraham Lincoln’s father removed from Kentucky to Indiana in hopes of getting more secure title to land than he could hope for south of the Ohio. The question on Pawnee seems to come down to whether Reeder made a mistake, or a “mistake”. He came to Kansas as a first-time participant in such matters, which argues for the former, but his education as a lawyer argues for the latter. His continued insistence on Pawnee rather than another settlement distant from Missouri, further argues that he had his personal profit in mind. More on that tomorrow.

The Democracy’s Slavery Problem, Part One

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Andrew Reeder went off to Washington to get help from Franklin Pierce’s administration in quelling the unrest in Kansas. Surely he could do something. Reeder suggested firm instructions to Pierce’s appointees on the ground against the Missourian filibusters who authored the strife. Furthermore, he should make a proclamation that declared their sins to the country and castigated them. Then he should pledge the administration’s full support to the preservation of Kansas for the Kansans, by calling out the Army if necessary.

Pierce declined to help. We should understand this as coming in part from his personal disposition. Pierce seems to have wanted to please everybody, quite ready to tell them all they wanted to hear and then fail to follow through. Thus Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and David Rice Atchison and the others from the F Street Mess demanded his commitment to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in writing. But one can take historical psychoanalysis too far. Between fairly calamitous reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and the ongoing struggle and embarrassment over Cuba Pierce may not have had much influence left to spend. If his proclamation did nothing, it would put Pierce in the position of having to use the military to impose order and look like a tyrant. Failing that, he would expose his impotence. Furthermore Pierce only agreed reluctantly to support the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the first place. One could even argue that Douglas, Davis, and Atchison deceived him, as they promised only to go forward with the bill and Pierce’s declaration of support if they also had the blessing of Secretary of State William L. Marcy. He might not care to preserve popular sovereignty in its name.

On top of all this, with his party taking great setbacks in the North, Pierce would feel ever more beholden to the Democracy’s Southern wing. They would not look kindly on their Yankee president taking the side of a band of filthy slave-stealers and other scum of the earth, especially not at Reeder’s bidding. It seems surplus to requirement to go off on a hunt for additional reasons that Pierce might have refused, but for Foner’s class I’ve lately read John Ashworth’s The Republic in Crisis: 1848-1861 and he sheds more light on the ideological reasons that Northern Democrats would consistently lean, by and large, in a proslavery direction. As this has far broader significance for developments in the late antebellum era, I think it worth digging a bit further.

All the way back to Jefferson, whom the Democracy claimed as something like its patron saint, down through the modern party’s establishment under Andrew Jackson, the party had a distinct pro-Southern slant. While the Democracy and its ancestors remained viable in the North, they generally saw more and more consistent success in the South. They attached themselves to the fabled agrarian interest, that of Jefferson’s farmers who worked the Earth and so were God’s chosen. By this, Jefferson meant his own class rather than the people who actually worked the Earth, but the fiction allowed for a common interest between white males and a kind of united white male populism relatively alien to both the more elitist Federalists and Whigs.

Beyond that, Ashworth identifies the Democrats as especially interested in states’ rights on the national level and limited government at home. Neither of these ideas had to defend slavery. Neither drew their appeal solely from the circumstances of a slaveholding society. Ashworth points out antecedents in the era of the English Revolution who had no experience with slavery at all.

To those, the Democracy added a strong resistance to the state dictating one’s choices in what they considered the moral realm. The state could and should make laws regarding property, but it should not seek to impose temperance. It should not appoint itself the religious tutor of the populace. It should not care what country one’s ancestors came from. (Though, of course, it should have very definite opinions about what continent they came from.) It should not impose, from outside and above, its own vision of society. This makes for enlightened-sounding rhetoric, the kind of thing we still hear today.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

At times it worked out to something we would recognize as enlightened. I doubt many of us are all that sympathetic to the temperance movement, given how swimmingly Prohibition worked out. We have yet to cure ourselves of nativism, which seems to return every few decades when the grandchildren of people from the wrong part of the world entirely decide that the newest arrivals hail from the wrong part of the world entirely, but I don’t think many of us view it as a very enlightened sentiment.

A resistance to the state imposing a moral vision on society involves such generalities that a coherent account must always come with a particular context. Laws against murder and theft impose such a vision, but most of us don’t see them as such because we take those things for granted. In fields of active controversy, one could argue for either side but more often inaction seems to manifest as at least passive support for the status quo, for better or worse, and resistance to its change.

That last point has obvious relevance when it comes to antislavery politics, but we could turn it around. Salmon P. Chase and his Independent Democrats pronounced themselves outraged at and betrayed by the attack on the status quo embodied in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, after all. In doing so they went against the choice of their party leadership, and at variance with its traditional localism, but completely in line with its resistance to a moral reform movement on the part of the proslavery men who viewed the Missouri Compromise’s slavery ban as an affront and indignity which they ought not bear.