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.

What is history for?

John Brown

John Brown

When I had fewer years but more hair and acne, I read James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. Through a collection of essays on the most popular survey texts of American History, Loewen tore apart the conventional way that one learns history in high schools. He turned over rocks that the texts would have you believe didn’t even exist, given their complete silence on the subject. He shed light on the deep rifts in American culture and the profound struggles over how the nation ought to behave, scraping back layers of whitewashing so thick that even a teenager already interested in history had entirely missed them. Given how thoroughly even our most dire struggles get sanitized, this proved quite the revelation.

Loewen argued, so far as I can recall now, that the erasure of genuine conflict and its reduction to something more like a squabble over what to have for lunch created essentially feel-good pablum, mostly for white boys, and nothing at all for anybody else. The resulting product bored almost everybody and came off as a collection of trivia. One teacher I had in high school even called the material as much. That trivia collection suited me just fine, as I’ve long liked trivia, but it does raise the question of why anybody would bother. It has since lost its appeal to me in favor of what I consider a deeper inquiry.

It seems children in Denver don’t care for the trivia collection pablum version of history. They have one up on yours truly at that age. There’s much more, and far more useful things, to take from a history class. Their school board disagreed, insisting that their program should include mostly lies their teachers tell them, presenting

positive aspects of the nation and its heritage. It would establish a committee to regularly review texts and course plans, starting with Advanced Placement history, to make sure materials “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights” and don’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

In the class I’m taking, Eric Foner described this kind of thing as the hobbit’s view of history. A classmate kindly transcribed his words:

In one of my favorite books of history of a kind, The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien, he writes about the hobbits quote “hobbits like to have books filled with things that they already knew set out fair and square with no contradictions.” Of course this is a joke. The hobbits didn’t actually know anything. They knew virtually nothing about the world around them but they were satisfied because they had a familiar view of their own history. People like familiar stories. That’s why the term revisionist historian is a term of abuse out there in the public.

Didn’t Governor Christie the other day accused his critics of being revisionist historians? But to us that’s what we do. That is our job as historians to be revisionist. That is to say, to rethink the past, to think about new perspectives, to add new approaches. That’s what historians are supposed to do. But the point is familiarity is not the measure of the truthfulness of historical accounts.

I understand that the Denver affair seems to have wound down, with the board backing off at least until the journalists look away, but the demand for a hobbit’s history recurs throughout the country. Children should believe, to paraphrase David Blight (who does not support this approach at all, I should add) that America, born perfect, then became more perfect still in a steady, unending march of freedom.

But what if the ultimate test of citizenship for much of the nation’s history hinged on the color of your skin?

What if patriotism has generally meant eagerness to go to war, a zeal to suppress dissent at home and support of filibustering and other piracy abroad?

What if the free market involved company towns that paid company scrip, not real money, which you could only use to shop at the company store? What if the free market involved workers locked in a factory as it burned around them and burned them to death? What if the free market produced bosses who hired the mafia to bust up strikes?

What if authority demanded that the law give some people as property to other people, to sell, beat, rape, work to death, or otherwise use like farm animals? What if that authority got its legitimacy from stolen elections, by force, by elections in which few concerned parties could actually vote?

What if the law required you to help arrest and take back to slavery a person who stole himself or herself away? What if it demanded you speak no word against slavery? What if it treated mere public disagreement with the administration as treason?

Does the end of civil order justify the preservation, even the extension, of those and innumerable other injustices? Many people in the past thought so. Apparently some still do.

If I stood before the Denver school board, perhaps I would need to tell them that I did not invent these hypotheticals myself.

The board’s program speaks volumes. It offers not a word in favor of accuracy, nor complexity, nor nuance. Students would not hear about the costs of the free-market system, only its benefits. They would not hear about abuses of authority. They would hear nothing about the denial of individual rights to, for example, four million slaves, to women, to immigrants, to other racial minorities, to socialists and communists, to union organizers, or any of the other people who haven’t counted according to someone in the past. They would hear that civil order is civic virtue, regardless of its nature, that one should presume every law righteous, and that one should view anybody engaged in protest as suspect and alien, fundamentally illegitimate int heir methods and goals as they tend to disorder and strife.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The most hated man in America in the 1950s and 1960s had some words about this:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councileror the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”


I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

On its most basic level, the board’s program and those of like-minded individuals across the country aspire to cultivate that negative peace. People should know their place. Facts that reflect poorly on the nation, that undermine patriotism, that require children to consider complicated and diverse points of view, should be denied to them. This way they will not grow up into adults who continue in the habit of asking uncomfortable and inconvenient questions.

History as pablum does worse than not teaching it does. Rather than offering students simple ignorance, it promotes the false impression that one knows what one does not. To teach a good parts only version of history amounts to denying the bad parts exist and so encourages blind repetition of them. If we have always exhibited perfect righteousness in the past, why should we think we’ve suddenly done wrong now? For that matter, if we have such perfect righteousness all down our history then why should we think anything that we, as a nation, have done should cease?

This does mean that history will make people uncomfortable. A fuller telling will raise inconvenient questions. It will not flatter anybody’s ideological preconceptions. Most people of the antislavery movement, people who probably everybody today admires and counts as ideological ancestors, had truly awful attitudes toward black Americans. David Wilmot made it very clear that he didn’t care in the slightest about the welfare of slaves:

I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, no morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause and rights of white freemen. I would preserve to free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor.

Others considered white racism so insuperable, or black neighbors so undesirable, that they saw no chance of black and white Americans living in peace together. Thus they supported the removal of black Americans back to Africa, no matter how many generations had gone by between their ancestors’ kidnapping and the day of exile. Even antislavery Americans engaged in what we might consider a heroic, direct, sometimes violent struggle against slavery at risk to their own lives don’t come down to us as perfected saints.

John Brown made history before Harper’s Ferry not by attacking a proslavery paramilitary band, but by hauling proslavery civilians out of their house at night and murdering them for their presumed past and future votes against the policy he preferred. He did not with that start the guerrilla war over Kansas, but he pushed it into a new and more violent phase. The same John Brown rescued nearly a dozen slaves and took them safely off to Kansas, a claim desperately few white abolitionists could make.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Does John Brown count on the side of positive aspects of American history or the negative? What about David Wilmot? What about Abraham Lincoln, who even during the war tried to get a black American colony going on an island off Haiti? I don’t mean to put all these men on the same level as Jefferson Davis, Robert Lee, or Nathan Bedford Forrest, but I have no doubt that someone could scour up ways that each of the latter led exemplary lives. In Lee’s case, entire books already exist on the subject. Anybody, with sufficient editing, becomes a demon or a saint.

Doing history well and developing a robust understanding of the past, and thus how it has shaped our present, doesn’t come easy. It requires us to confront imperfections in our heroes, blind spots in our ideologies, and the often savage limits of the promises America allegedly made to everyone. Does that make for better citizens? I hope so, but I think it worth doing either way. Life often requires grappling with complex issues long after the classroom passes into memory. Where better to hone those skills than in the study of actual complex issues faced by actual people, often in ways that reverberate down the years to us? You can’t understand the present without some appreciation of how we got here. That requires grappling with complexities, among people we want to make heroes and villains alike, that the Denver board and their like-minded confederates elsewhere seek to prohibit.

Those complexities will lead us all down uncomfortable roads. We may not come out better for it; people do study the past intensely and well and go on to happily repeat its worst horrors. But not making the effort only increases our odds of doing so. If history does not strike the reader as a worthwhile pursuit in itself, then I offer the chance to reduce our odds of doing worse as ample justification for its study all the same.

Once More with Mark DC (@FilmCriticOne on Twitter)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

I apologize once more for interrupting the narrative, Gentle Readers, but I do think the ability to engage with critics is important. I previously gave Mark DC this response. As you can see from his comments there, he found it insufficient and accused me of various colorful offenses. His chief complaint, leaving aside his speculation about my sex life, appears to derive from his understanding of Bleeding Kansas as something like this:

Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, funded an army of 1,700 Texans who David Rice Atchison took into Kansas on a campaign of murder and other terrorism to ensure the newly opened territory became a slave state.

I disagree with this thesis and thus must have some kind of personal interest in whitewashing Atchison for your benefit. Quite why I would do this puzzles him at least as much as it puzzles me.

Mark bases his argument on a speech of Atchison’s which I had yet to read when he presented it to me. I’ve done that now. It is an extraordinary document that I will have much to do with in the future. However, that speech and the deeds ensuing come yet some time ahead in the narrative from where I have yet reached. Atchison spoke on May 21, 1856. I don’t know that Mark could miss this since the page he linked to on his blog has the date clearly marked. So far my narrative on Kansas matters has yet to reach May of 1855. I have concerned myself almost entirely with the election of November of 1854 and the census of February, 1855. You may, Gentle Readers, judge for yourselves whether trying to stick to a chronological narrative constitutes whitewashing past events up until the point where they receive their due coverage in the timeline. For my part, I find the suggestion absurd.

The flag of Texas

The flag of Texas

Furthermore, Mark refers to 1,700 Texans. The standard number of Missourians who crossed to vote in the delegate election of November, 1854, stands at around 1,700. I presume from this that Mark refers to the delegate election. I find no mention of Texans in the eyewitness testimony I have read, but frequent reference to Missourians. Furthermore, the witnesses report that they recognized many by name and face from their own time living in Missouri. Nor have I encountered mention of any particular flags in the testimony related to the November election. Atchison’s speech has some, but that preceded the sack of Lawrence in 1856. He describes to a solid red flag with a single star in the middle. That does not describe the Texas flag, then or now. As you can see from the adjacent image or, I am told, from looking almost anywhere within the Lone Star state, the Texas flag has red and a star, but also blue and white just as set down in Texas law during its days as an independent nation.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

Mark’s reference to Atchison enjoying the support of the administration also fails for lack of context. The speech does have Atchison calling his mob the agents of the administration, but in this particular case they fancied themselves deputy US Marshals and used the pretense of serving a warrant on some men in Lawrence to cover their invasion. James McPherson explains it in Battle Cry of Freedom, in a chapter that takes its title from Charles Sumner’s famous speech, The Crime Against Kansas:

Proslavery Judge Samuel Lecompte instructed a grand jury to indict members of the free-state government for treason. Since many of these men lived in Lawrence, the attempt to arrest them provided another opportunity for Missourians, how deputized as a posse, to attack this bastion of Yankee abolitionists. Dragging along five cannon, they laid siege to the town on May 21. Not wishing to place themselves in further contempt of law, the free-state leaders decided against resistance. The “posse” of some 800 men thereupon poured into Lawrence, demolished its two newspaper offices, burned the hotel and home of the elected free-soil governor, and plundered shops and houses.

I will doubtless have more to say about the speech when I get up to the sacking of Lawrence, but I think this situation in itself adequately explains Atchison’s claims of official sanction, especially given how he cites the US Marshal specifically:

You have endured many hardships, have suffered many privations on your trips, but for this you will be more than compensated by the work laid out by the Marshal

Very few in number at the time, US Marshals had wide power to deputize people in the field. That this one deputized Atchison’s mob doesn’t mean that Washington signed off. Such a claim would require additional support.

Finally, one more matter. I have not previously found it necessary to set out any particular standard for comments on this blog. I do not think that Mark’s posts warrant one now. However, they are well below the caliber of discourse to which I aspire and their intensely insulting, belligerent attitude has continued without abatement even when met with courtesy and a sincere desire to learn more and understand his position. He fills his own blog with similar invective. I do feel obligated out of my desire to never cease learning, but my tolerance for the level of vitriol that Mark has lobbed my way is at its end. I do not care for it personally and I do not care to subject my readers to any more of it.

Provided Mark finds it in himself to behave in a more civilized manner, he is welcome to continue commenting. If he persists as he has, I will remove those comments as I see them.

A Response to Mark DC (@FilmCriticOne on Twitter)

Gentle Readers, further exploration of George Goode’s speech against Frank Blair will have to wait for a day. I have received some criticism that I feel deserves a response. I love to see comments on the posts and other feedback. It’s nice simply to know if someone likes what I’m writing, but they’re also a chance for me to learn things and get better at this. I am, as I said way back, an amateur. My archival access reaches only as far as my personal bookshelves and my internet connection. I hope to be educational and interesting, but even if I fall short of that this blog gives me occasion to further educate myself.

All that said, Mark sent these tweets in response to my post here. Sorry about the language.

The tweets sent

The tweets

The language aside, Mark has a few reasonable questions. I will begin by taking the first two tweets together, which I understand to pose this question: Why have I merely referred to David Rice Atchison’s (and others’) efforts to stop Kansans from voting and not also discussed their murdering, terroristic, treasonous ways?

I have taken the vast majority of my account of what happened in Kansas on the day of the November, 1854 election for delegate directly from the Howard Report. The House of Representatives commissioned it and gathered testimony from numerous witnesses to the actual events. I used its summaries to guide me to the testimony I shared on this blog, as the testimony could benefit from better organization and I’ve yet to have the time to sit down and read every word from each witness. Those summaries pointed me to the abuse of John Wakefield, the threats made against W.F. Johnston, and the human wall which prevented antislavery people in Leavenworth from voting. They also called out to me the staggering fraud in the Seventh District.

If that testimony included an account of David Rice Atchison, or anyone else, committing murder at the polls then I did not see it. If I missed it, then I regret that intensely and ask to be pointed to the correct spot. I would go back and make at least one post using that material. Who did Atchison murder? When and where? I’m ready and willing to learn.

I do consider the intimidation campaign and the threats made terroristic, but through it unnecessary, given that I quoted some of the more violent ones and a proud defense of the use of violence to preserve slavery (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), to use the adjective itself. The words speak for themselves. Here from Atchison himself:

you know how to protect your own interests; your rifles will free you from such neighbors. … You will go there, if necessary, with the bayonet and with blood.

And here his lieutenant and author of Negro-Slavery, No Evil, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow:

I am ready to go, the first hour it shall be announced that the emigrants have come, and with my own hands, will help to hang every one of them on the first tree.

Which leaves us with the question of treason. I do not think that, at least so far as my narrative has yet reached, Atchison or anybody else has committed treason. They have certainly stolen an election. They have certainly behaved as violent thugs. They will do so again in the future. But I take pains to keep to a roughly chronological approach here. I try not to introduce too much from later in time in order to help convey the sense of events as they unfold and make it easier to understand historical actors and the choices they made at particular moments. As history provides no shortage of injustices, I have no doubt that future misdeeds will feature on this blog as the narrative reaches them.

That said, I do consider the confederates who appear at the end of the decade traitors. They staged a rebellion against legal, legitimate authority in order to preserve and extend slavery, one of the most loathsome and contemptible causes I can imagine. It fights for the top spot on my personal scale of moral horrors only with genocide itself. I don’t think that I’ve whitewashed it at all on this blog. Just recently I went back and revisited the subject through Frederick Douglass’ narrative. Nor do I think that I failed to plumb the depths of slaveholder motivation, considering utterly reprehensible suggestions like how they should prefer slavery because it gave white men a ready supply of non-white women to rape. There are many other posts in this vein, but those two come immediately to mind.

Which brings us to the second set of concerns. I do think it matters that Jefferson Davis, David Rice Atchison, Stephen Douglas, and Franklin Pierce cooperated to repeal the Missouri Compromise and so expand slavery. I’ve written about that before. However, I find that criticism incomplete and lacking in nuance. It appears that Douglas, Davis, and Atchison pressured Pierce into signing on. That doesn’t lessen his culpability in my mind, but does change the nature of his involvement. The complaint likewise neglects the important roles of Archibald Dixon and Phillip Phillips in the affair. With regard to a conspiracy, I don’t see the work that went into passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act as all that different from that done for any other legislation. I also don’t think it’s clear that Douglas was himself a proslavery man per se. He appears to have cared very little either way and all his bills to organize Nebraska previous to 1854 left the Missouri Compromise intact. If anything, Stephen Douglas strikes me as a committed westward expansion and Pacific railroad man who needed proslavery support and had no problem with courting it. This does not, of course, excuse his willingness to do so.

Did those principals conspire to kill people? I think that Atchison did, but not while in Washington. It’s obvious that his group and others in western Missouri pledged themselves to violence on slavery’s behalf, but I don’t know that he put heads together with Pierce and Douglas and they exchanged tips on how to best shoot someone or organize a paramilitary band. Douglas later deplored the violence in Kansas, though he always hurried on to the fiction that antislavery forces started it.

Finally, I care not at all for the names of Lee’s pets, hypothetical or otherwise. I have far more interest in the whippings he ordered for his slaves and how thoroughly they refute the notion that he was some kind of benevolent slaveholder. I don’t much care what Jefferson Davis said or didn’t say about honor either, though the broader topic of how southerners understood their codes of conduct might come up in the future.

Does that suffice to answer your concerns, Mark?

On the Choice of Real Estate

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

I have the sense that I’ve pushed the notion that the South chose Kansas over Cuba to the point that a reader could take it too literally. While the choices of various Southern leaders, and Franklin Pierce, certainly brought about that outcome in the end it  bears repeating that the choice here did not amount to the same thing as going to a store and picking one or the other off the rack. At no point did Jefferson Davis, by the grace of Calhoun King of the South, or anybody else have before them the explicit decision and power to take one place or the other for the benefit of American slavery.

To the degree that antebellum Southerners did make conscious choices that led to having a chance for slavery in Kansas but precluded stealing Cuba, they made those decisions together only because the Kansas crisis and the Cuba crisis happened largely at the same time. The best opening for Quitman’s filibusters came in the wake of the Black Warrior Affair and the Africanization panic (parts 1, 2, 3, 4). The seizure of the ship in particular gave them some cover against Northern objections, something Franklin Pierce surely understood when he strongly implied that he would start a war over it in his message to the House in March of 1854.

But that same month, the Kansas-Nebraska Act made it through the Senate after a seventeen hour marathon session that went all through a Friday night and into Saturday morning. The bill hit the House, where it would have the harder fight, just as the Cuba crisis really blew up. Confronted with both questions, both deeply entwined with slavery and thus deeply perilous, the Pierce administration seems to have walked back its steal first Cuba policy. We know that Pierce switched to trying to buy Cuba from the new instructions to Soulé in Madrid, but how much success he expected from those negotiations we can’t know.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

That amounts to something like a deliberate choice, but if someone in the Pierce Cabinet made that choice explicitly, that person did so at a late date. All through the spring and summer, as Kansas-Nebraska debates raged in the House, as the Anthony Burns affair (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) sprung up, as the bill finally passed, and as the reaction set in in the North, Pierce seems to have maintained a course directed toward getting Cuba somehow. As late as early August, he repeated his saber-rattling message to the House. Only in November, after the Democracy took its electoral beating does Soulé receive his dressing down and the Ostend Manifesto went public, does Washington appear to completely give up the idea of a Cuban annexation. The costly Kansas controversy appears to have forced the administration to yield on the dream of a Caribbean empire.

Thus Samuel R. Walker’s eleventh hour plea for support in the pages of DeBow’s Review really did come at the last possible moment. Later that winter, Pierce had Quitman down to Washington and laid out for him just how thoroughly the Spanish had reinforced the island. By that time, the Democracy had bigger problems than an emancipated, Africanized Cuba. It had Know-Nothings and Republicans to face.

Trading Cuba for Kansas

John A. Quitman

John A. Quitman

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and revisited.

Back when I returned to the subject of Cuba filibustering, I said that I wanted to explore just how the South chose the questionable prospect of slavery expanded into Kansas over the sure thing of slavery in Cuba. I don’t think that I ever came out and said how that choice happened. This seems like a good moment to go back and unpack the narrative a bit.

Essentially, expansionist-minded Southerners had two opportunities to spread slavery in 1854 and 1855. They could bring the institution to Kansas, or they could bring Cuba with the institution to the Union. Each place had its attractions. If Cuba came into the Union, it must come in as a slave state. It already had slavery, so no one could complain about losing territory promised over to free soil. Even an eleventh hour emancipation poison pill from the departing Spanish could easily be reversed. Unlike the American Southwest, Cuba came thick with slaves and so no one could reasonably call it an undeclared region.

All in all, Cuban slavery looked very secure. The Spanish might threaten, cause panics, and inspire resolutions against the Neutrality Acts and conspiracy theories about British involvement (parts 1, 2, 3, 4), but a swift conquest would moot those fears. A fleeting emancipation could easily end with slavery reinstated. Geography would keep slave-stealing abolitionists away and offer self-stealing slaves fewer places to run. If the John A. Quitman and his filibusters could achieve a swift conquest, especially if aided by local revolts, it seems very reasonable to conclude that slavery would persist without disturbance on the island.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

If Quitman could win his game of Grand Theft Island, the Union might not instantly accept Cuba. The Cubans might not instantly accept the Union. But the example of Texas, always on their minds, argued that if Cuba could maintain some kind of de facto independence long enough then somehow, annexation would come. While Texas came in at the price of a war and amid great controversy, nobody proposed giving it back. The imperialistic, missionary attitudes of nineteenth century Americans, convinced that progress expanded with the nation’s borders, could easily ensure that. Would Franklin Pierce, Jefferson Davis, Caleb Cushing, and Stephen Douglas really refuse Cuba offered up on a silver platter?

But much hangs on that little word ‘if’. If Quitman could take Cuba, if a revolt erupted that he could sail to aid, if he could sail, if he had the ships and men, if the law did not intervene, then all of this might come to pass. Kansas did not have slavery. Bringing it there would involve a fight. But no one save Indians would question the right of Americans to the land.

The Kansas question revolved not on whether expansionists could prevail against a foreign power and then smoothly consolidate their gains into the Union, but rather on whether they could prevail against other Americans. With Kansas adjacent to the Missouri black belt, drained by the same river, and slavery-friendly Missourians possessing a geographic leg up on the competition, that must have looked like the better gamble. Even if Southerners largely understood Kansas as a Missourian issue which they, as fellow slaveholders, had a duty to advance that still left them united in a way that filibustering did not. Lawless filibusters might come off as lovable rogues and high-spirited patriots in Louisiana, but many sections of the South looked on them less charitably than on legitimate, honorable military conquest or lawful purchase of more land (parts 1, 2, 3) from Mexico.

Looking back, we can say that the South made the wrong choice. We know that the North’s fury over being sold out did not abate but instead fueled the foundation of a new, avowedly antislavery party. We know that party nearly won the presidency in 1856 and did in 1860. We know that the KansasNebraska Act brought Abraham Lincoln back into politics. They did not. With the two options before them, Kansas could very reasonably look like the safer bet. The South had dared Northern outrage, won, and endured the backlash over the fugitive slave act. Slavery in Kansas might ensure its spread, with time, to Utah and New Mexico. With a gloss of popular sovereignty, especially if freedom prevailed north of Kansas, they could reasonably have thought that everything would blow over.

From the Pens of Filibusters, Part Three

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

From the Pens of Filibusters: parts 1, 2

Samuel R. Walker, associate of Cuba filibuster John A. Quitman, took to the pages of DeBow’s Review in November of 1854 with a last-ditch effort to drum up support for taking the island from Spain. He began by emphasizing its importance to the Union and articulating a domino theory of emancipation: Should the slaves of Cuba receive their freedom, it would inflame the slaves of America to rebel. The South could not risk such a thing and to save itself from racial annihilation might have to break the Union. But taking Cuba by force would only ensure that Cuban emancipation proceeded. Thus the United States could not war upon Spain to seize the island, despite what Pierre Soulé and company thought in the Ostend Manifesto and Franklin Pierce briefly pondered.

Walker moved to the obvious second option. Couldn’t the United States buy Cuba?

The plan of acquiring Cuba by purchase, if not obnoxious to all the objections which attach to its acquisition by conquest, yet many of these, applicable in the latter case, apply with equal force in the former; with this insuperable objection on the part of the Southern States, that it would introduce into our Union a State burdened with such decrees as have been already ordained, as well as such as might be hereafter enacted by the existing government, respecting the status of the negro, between this and the date of purchase. All these the power purchasing would be compelled to maintain and to carry out. All of these are and would be at war with a proper administration of the domestic policy of the South.

Walker had a point. Any purchase deal would be negotiated in advance and take place on a scheduled date. One does not buy islands by going out to Islands-R-Us and picking one off the shelf on a whim. The Spanish could poison the deal after the fact with some kind of emancipation policy. Once freed, the former slaves would need re-enslaving and that struggle would probably involve great effort. It might erupt into an island-spanning slave revolt to inspire slaves across the water in the United States to join in. That struggle would also surely create a dramatic controversy in Washington. The South might prevail then, as it had before, but that victory could be another of the Pyrrhic kind which it spent the 1850s perfecting.

But really, purchase discussion amounted to a sophisticated way to accomplish nothing and feel otherwise:

This question, however, will never arise. Spain will never sell Cuba. It is not probable that her overweening pride will be drowned in her avarice, when so large a portion of the purchase money will go to her creditors, and not into the pockets of her corrupt administration.

This naturally brought Walker to the obvious conclusion for a filibuster:

If we get Cuba, we must get it in another way; and the road is open. Let but the United States Government hold off, and Cuba will free herself in a short time. So long as the government of Spain has to deal only with a domestic foe, she will be confident in her strength to quell the revolution, and will not, we may hope, discover her error, until too late to remedy it; but the attack of so powerful an adversary as the United States will, on the very first hostile demonstration, bring down the decree. If we acquire Cuba, we must acquire her as we acquired Texas.