Another Resolution from Tecumseh

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

On February 13, 1856, in response to Franklin Pierce’s special proclamation on Kansas, a mass meeting gathered at TecumsehThe Herald of Freedom and Squatter Sovereign agreed that the Tecumseh meeting had a firm proslavery constituency. They also spoke with one voice on how the assembly represented a good step forward for their antagonistic causes. For George Brown’s Herald, that meant standing up for Kansas for the Kansans. For John Stringfellow’s Sovereign, it meant confusion to and suppression of the abolitionists. Kansan could be run by any combination of Kansans and “Kansans” who went home to Missouri after each election. To judge from the lone resolution of the meeting that Brown printed, he had the right of it. That resolution constituted one of the seven the meeting voted.

The Squatter Sovereign printed the whole slate. Most of them do no more than express hearty agreement with the President. This already slants things heavily to the proslavery side, as Pierce outright accused the free state movement of plotting treason. He had nothing of near so grave a magnitude to say for Kansas’ regular invaders. But in the event that anyone missed that point, the Tecumseh meeting made it clear even to the least astute:

we consider with the President in his view that “showed a [professed] movement, revolutionary in its aim and motives reach[ing] the length of organized resistance by force” to the legitimate authorities of the Territory, it must then be regarded as “treasonable insurrection” and as such be dealt with according to law.

The presiding officer then informed the meeting that, for his money, one crossed the line into treason when you took an oath of office under the Topeka Constitution.

A full reading of the story does not permit one to honestly say that Tecumseh hosted an antislavery meet, or even a meeting of chastened and discouraged proslavery men, on that day. Brown’s piece indicates that he knows of multiple resolutions and chose to print only the one, so we can’t chalk this up to incomplete information. He had the full document and chose to print at best a misleading editorial painting his enemies as in disarray and on the verge of giving up.

The editorial commentary with the resolution drips with sarcasm. From that, one could take it that Brown intended no one to take him seriously. He might further have tipped his hand by declaring that he had little “faith in the honesty” of the Tecumseh meeting’s declaration. For people living in or near Kansas, I suspect that this reading would prevail. They would have first hand knowledge, or near enough, as to the relative strength of the proslavery party around Tecumseh and ready access to the Squatter Sovereign and other local papers to get the full story. Brown couldn’t have lied to many of them about something so large and public as a mass meeting with published resolutions if he tried.

But neither Brown’s nor Stringfellow’s papers served an entirely local audience. Each paper operated in the context of a national movement, from which they frequently solicited direct support. What Brown wrote in Kansas as sarcasm, he could know full well that people back East would take nearer to face value. Furthermore, Brown writes in the same somewhat contemptuous voice he has used when reporting genuine defeats for the proslavery side rather than with the gravity he has often reported real threats. This can only be a judgment call on my part, but I think that Brown set out to mislead. Given the radical step that the free state movement had just taken in seating its government, his cause needed the legitimacy of a united Kansas might grant more urgently than ever.

One Resolution from Tecumseh

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

While the free state men got their government together, the proslavery men hadn’t sat on their hands. They too got news of Franklin Pierce’s special proclamation on Kansas’ troubles. The Squatter Sovereign and Herald of Freedom both reported on a “spontaneous” meeting at Tecumseh Court House on February 13, 1856. According to the Sovereign, that meeting constituted

the largest and most enthusiastic gathering of the inhabitants of central Kansas that had ever been held in the Territory. Pursuant to a spontaneous call that had been issued upon receipt of the President[‘]s Special Message, the settlers assembled, irrespective of party to manifest their devotion to the Union and confidence in Republican Government.

Republican in form, not party.

If you read the Herald of Freedom, you learned instead that Pierce’s proclamation had “a favorable effect” on proslavery men. At Tecumseh, “the few pro-slavery people who reside in that vicinity” got together to have speeches made at them and resolutions “very moderate in tone compared with the past, albeit eulogistic of the President.”

However many people showed up, they published their resolutions. George Washington Brown printed one of them:

we consider the present as a most auspicious time for the true patriots, bona fide settlers and conservative men of all classes to come to a perfect understanding and unite upon one Platform. The supremacy of the Laws-sovereignty of the People of the Territory, and Non-intervention with or from the people of the States.”

According to Brown, this was near to capitulation. Chastened by Pierce’s pretend neutrality, proslavery Kansans had come around to the free state cause. He editorialized in the finest grace, commencing with “Better late than never.” They ought to have gotten religion on Kansas two years prior. Instead

While you and your confederate scoundrels in Missouri have ignored the Democratic rule of Popular sovereignty, and reckless of the consequences substituted the savage law of Might, the Free State party, embracing nine-tenths of the actual settlers, have adhered to that principle steadfastly-keeping it before them as their guide […] You espouse the cause of popular rule too late in the day. We haven’t much faith in the honesty of your professions; but there is some hope if you prove true in the future.

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Gentle Readers, if you remember Franklin Pierce’s decidedly hostile attitude toward the free state movement, as expressed in the very message that prompted the meeting at Tecumseh, you might wonder just of which sort of tobacco the people there had partaken. The discrepancy in the size of the meeting between the two papers, one can attribute to partisanship. It did not suit George Washington Brown’s purpose to tell the world that a large group of proslavery men lived in Kansas. But it did not suit John Stringfellow’s purpose to suggest the numbers went against his side either. They can’t both be right and in giving the same date, place, and naming the same officers for the meeting establishes that both papers had the same event in mind. Someone lied.

Acutally, George Brown did Threaten Davy Atchison

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Gentle Readers, yesterday I concluded that George Washington Brown probably did not print a threat against David Rice Atchison. John Stringfellow over at the Squatter Sovereign probably invented the line, or recast someone Brown had said of border ruffians in general as a threat on Missouri’s latest ex-Senator. Nineteenth century papers do invent dialog often enough. Go into the archives and you’ll find quite a few letters written under obvious pseudonyms, often in eye dialect, that look a mite too convenient for the paper’s editorial line. Letters from friendly correspondents generally use standard English, which makes both all the more suspicious for the contrast. A certain degree of prevarication inevitably happens in the editorials too. One must also consider that even politically aligned newspapers liked to pick fights with one another and eagerly sling the kind of mud that we would expect to find on Twitter today. Politically hostile papers had little reason to restrain themselves.

Stringfellow’s paper said that Brown promised abolitionists in Kansas would shoot Atchison dead if ever they found him in the territory with arms in hand. I ran a searches on permutations of the phrase “if ever Gen. Atchison is found in this Territory with arms in his hands, they (the abolitionists) will have him shot.” The Sovereign put it in quotation marks and attributes it to Brown. They all came up dry. I also skimmed Herald of Freedom issues for the two months prior looking for Atchison references. I found a fair number, but he rarely came up except as a villain alongside both Stringfellows and other prominent proslavery men or in conjunction with his role in the Wakarusa War.

The search and my skimming missed the piece to which Stringfellow must have referred. The January 12 Herald of Freedom has some praise of the Cleveland Plaindealer. The author, George Brown informs us,

talks like a man. We thought him always wrong, but we are glad to make a correction in his favor.

Talking like a man sounds like something you do while crushing beer cans on your forehead, bragging about your sexual prowess, or threatening violence to me. Sixteen decades’ distance have put me off on the first two points, but the Plaindealer’s Gray nailed the third. Brown quotes him, in reference to David Rice Atchison:

He, with all other residents of Missouri who have crossed the borders of that State either to vote or fight in Kansas, should be shot, if no other means can be used to prevent their intrusions.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

While not quite the kill on sight statement that Stringfellow implied, this is otherwise quite close. But Stringfellow quoted Brown by name, not some fellow named Gray back in Ohio. Brown signed off in the next lines:

We may be allowed to say that we coincide in opinion with Mr. Gray, and that Atchison will be shot like a dog, traitor as he is, if he shall be found in Kansas with arms in his hands in case of a similar outbreak to the last. The people of Kansas hold him, and his colleague-B.F. Stringfellow-responsible for all the difficulties on the border; and in due time they will compel those men to pay the penalty for their violence, if continued.

Brown’s actual statement had a few more qualifiers than Stringfellow admitted, and doesn’t exactly match Stringfellow’s quote, but the differences don’t change the gist of it. If Atchison came back to Kansas with a party of armed border ruffians, then Brown thought him adequately qualified to play unwilling host to some hot lead. Morever, Brown expressed his firm belief “hundreds” would take the Plaindealer’s suggestion when the time came.

Given the number who turned out to defend Lawrence only the month before, he might have had it exactly right.

A Free State Welcome for Davy Atchison?

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Alongside the Squatter Sovereign’s endorsement of Pierce’s third annual message and John Stringfellow’s plan to sell town shares to fund arms for proslavery militiamen ran another item. Every issue I have seen of the Squatter Sovereign, until January of 1856, ran with an endorsement of David Rice Atchison for president. The Stringfellows really liked Missouri’s lately former Senator. When they took it down, they did so at the request of the great man himself. The most illustrious border ruffian, the man who declared he would wipe Kansas clean of every abolitionist, the most instrumental figure in managing the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, declared that he had no presidential ambitions just then. But, the Sovereign reported, David Rice Atchison planned to move to Kansas. He would come with friends, slaves, and friends with slaves, and settle down in his namesake town.

I don’t know that Atchison ever did move to Kansas, even temporarily, but the news got the Squatter Sovereign very excited. It seems the rumor went around a few different times, so Atchison might have had plans and reconsidered or let on that he had such plans as a way to bolster the proslavery cause. Or John Stringfellow may have imagined it entirely. When you name your town after someone who lives nearby, you might start to expect things. Either way, the Sovereign relates that not everyone in Kansas cheered at the prospect of the author of all their woes coming to stay:

Brown, of the Herald of Freedom, says that “if ever Gen. Atchison is found in this Territory with arms in his hands, they (the abolitionists) will have him shot.” We inform the valiant editor that Gen. A. intends moving to this country in a few weeks, and whenever the traitors of Douglas county, or any other portion of the Territory, refuse obedience to the laws of the Kansas Legislature, enacted at Shawnee Manual Labor School last summer, and a posse is called out to aid the sheriff, Gen. Atchison will be found on the ground “with arms in hand,” and if you want his scalp you can have an opportunity of taking it, provided your courage does not evaporate as it did before when the militia was called out.

That the Sovereign uses quotations suggests something Brown actually wrote. Given his occasional bellicose inclinations, I can believe Brown might have. I went looking for any such proclamation in the Herald of Freedom, but found none. Stringfellow and Kelley might refer to something that Brown said rather than published, or have chosen to construe remarks he made in general as a direct threat against Atchison, but the lines look suspicious. They maintain that Brown said, rather than wrote, so they could appeal to some personal communication or spur of the moment utterance unavailable to posterity, but they frame the piece just as they would a response to a printed editorial. Clearly they intend for the reader to take a direct threat to the life of one of the nation’s more prominent politicians as something Brown went on the record about.

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

This all fits well with the proslavery line on the free state movement: lawless hoodlums devoted to general anarchy beset Kansas. The friends of law and order must take a firm stand against them or those fanatics would burn the whole territory, perhaps the whole Union, to the ground. Their movement, though it might seem full of lawless hoodlums, acted strictly for defense. The placement of the piece so close to Stringfellow’s filibuster fundraising plan further underlines the point: Buy his town shares so proslavery men can have their guns, or the opposition might go so wild as to kill a senator.

“War! War!”

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow

John Stringfellow and Robert Kelley told the readers of their Squatter Sovereign that the settlement of the Wakarusa War meant nothing. The abolitionists might have survived the crisis, but the proslavery men could suffer a disappointment or two and still win the larger struggle. They expressed their commitment to the fight for slavery in Kansas through their admiration of Franklin Pierce’s message to Congress and then made its form explicit in the column adjacent. Stringfellow and Kelley had decamped from Atchison, suspending the paper for the duration, in order to do their part against Lawrence. Now they would do better. Under the headline “War! War!” the Speaker of the Kansas House wrote:

It seems now to be certain that we shall have to give the abolitionists at least one good thrashing before political matters are settled in this Territory. To do so we must have arms; we have the men. I propose to raise funds to furnish Colt’s revolvers and other arms for those who are without them. I propose to do so without taxing any one but myself. I will sell some shares of town stock in the Territory, (as given below,) and bind myself to invest all the money in the above articles, which shall be loaned to such soldiers as are unable to purchase them, and shall remain for such use for the space of one or two years. the arms to be used by the volunteers and militia of Atchison county when in service.

Stringfellow preferred Colt’s revolvers to Sharpe’s rifles, but he had the same idea as the antislavery party had. They, however, had a hostile government and enemies who had used force against them almost from the inception of the territory. The free state men needed to take their safety into their own hands because of men like Stringfellow. Now the Speaker of the House of Kansas, one of the highest officials in the government of the territory, went beyond rhetoric and personal involvement. He asked in public for investors to help him suppress the self-government of his fellow white men. A private propagandist might arouse alarm with such antics, but Stringfellow could not have better embodied antislavery fears short of seizing a white abolitionist and enslaving him.

But you had to do what you had to do. Back the month prior, the proslavery men got arms out of a Missouri state arsenal but that required a trip to Missouri and back, or from Missouri to Kansas at least. Nor could one gamble on the arsenal always proving so accessible. Given Wilson Shannon’s efforts to defuse the situation at Lawrence, Stringfellow may have feared the governor going soft on him as well. An independent, Kansas-based militia with its own arms would hedge against that risk.

That didn’t mean that Stringfellow abjured help from Missouri, of course. He just wanted a local arms cache for a local militia. He wouldn’t turn away Missourians who showed up for a fight. Moreover, he hoped that Missourian dollars would buy his town shares:

The stock I propose to sell will be sold at a far valuation, such as will enable the purchaser to get a good per centage on the investment. I feel assured that the wealthy friends of our cause, in Western Missouri, will be glad of the opportunity to invest.

Wealthy Missourians had paid border ruffian expenses in the past, even if Stringfellow in a separate column promised that the Kansas legislature would foot the latest set of bills. They could do it again. The Blue Lodges sought to protect their members investments, pecuniary and otherwise, in slavery in Missouri by expanding it to Kansas. Surely the prospect of actual profit in Kansas would not alienate them. John Stringfellow had good shares offered up too: two in Lecomtpon, now the capital; two more in Calhoun, seat of its county; and one in Delaware, seat of Leavenworth county. Territory and county business would help grow most of those towns. Proslavery Missourians could help the cause and make a tidy sum for their trouble.

“The so called treaty amounts to nothing”

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

The January 29, 1856 Squatter Sovereign apologized for lacking the space to print Franklin Pierce’s third annual message, though it did run items praising the president for condemning antislavery Kansans. In the course of finding those pieces, I also came across other interesting specimens of proslavery thought in the territory at the start of 1856. At the same time as proslavery Kansans received Pierce’s message, they could read this in their newspaper:

The Herald of Freedom had lately praised Wilson Shannon. John Stringfellow and Robert Kelley wanted their readers to know that Shannon hadn’t turned abolitionist on them:

it sometimes happens that when these low, mean, despicable scoundrels find that a man is incorruptible, they will endeavor to blast his character by attaching -or trying to attach- themselves to him, that he may be contaminated by their filth […] The miserable caitiffs are trying to blast the reputation of Gov. Shannon by making it appear that he is hand in glove with such wretched traitors as Lane, Brown, Robinson, and others. We can say, in good faith, to pro-slavery men every where, that Gov. Shannon made no bargain with them by which they were allowed to disregard the enactments of the Legislature

The Sovereign wouldn’t even admit that Shannon reached an accord with the free state movement, instead doubting

that the treaty as it is called, was what was actually agreed upon. The only evidence is that the freesoilers say so.

But even if an agreement did exist, Shannon had not endorsed the free state program of ignoring territorial law. And anyway, Shannon called together the proslavery army for a specific end, which they achieved:

We were ordered out by the Governor to assist the sheriff in executing legal process. The Sheriff and the Governor told us they had no further use for us, that the laws wold now be executed, and as good men we obeyed.

We, the proslavery men, had the law on our side. As law and order men, they did not stand for political hooliganism. Though they may live near a border, you would not find a ruffian among them. Pay no attention to the destroyed press, the mobbed polls, or the lynched men. You wold find the real ruffians with the antislavery sorts.

But, one might say, hadn’t Lawrence’s besiegers taken men prisoner who they later released? They had, but that could not fairly count as a concession. With the war over, the army “no longer needed or desired” them.

Nor, the Squatter Sovereign promised, would Kansas leave them on the hook for the week or more of expenses they incurred doing their duty:

as to being paid for the hay and corn used of forage, the next Legislature will make an appropriation for that, particularly as many of our own friends had to suffer in the same way -though as a general thing we desired to buy of the abolitionists, knowing that thereby we would “toll” them to the Territorial Legislature for relief. We must have an extra session for the special purpose of attending to the cries of the corn and hay robbed citizens of Douglas.

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow

When Stringfellow and Kelley talk about friends here, they mean more than political allies. They themselves went off to Lawrence. That they apparently engaged in a bit of plunder whilst away from home should not, of course, disqualify them from their due compensation. They stole what they liked from Douglas county as a matter of civic responsibility. By forcing antislavery Kansans to seek relief from the territorial government, they would compel their enemies to accept its authority. For that good work, they deserved the thanks of patriotic Americans everywhere. So get right on it and call the legislature into session, Governor Shannon. As Speaker of the House, John Stringfellow stood ready to do his duty yet again.

The inconclusive end of the Wakarusa War encouraged such arguments. The Missourians went home. Kelley confessed his cruel disappointment that Lawrence remained standing. The free state leadership walked free. The crisis passed, but in doing so it resolved nothing. This left the situation open to more than the usual amount of interpretation. The antislavery side declared victory, and got Shannon to endorse their militias, but he had not condemned the proslavery party or done anything against them save dispersing the force he summoned against Lawrence. Winning one battle need not win the war, particularly with the proslavery party frustrated but essentially undamaged.

Frank Pierce’s Proslavery Conservatism

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow

Franklin Pierce’s third annual message did not go unmarked in Kansas. The January 29 Squatter Sovereign published the editors’ regret that they lacked space to print it in full and encouraged readers to find themselves a copy elsewhere. I believe them; my copy runs to twenty-one pages. Stringfellow and Kelley did run a summary of the president’s arguments, handled in rough proportion to the original. Consequently, more attention went to foreign affairs than Kansas. But proslavery men in Kansas couldn’t just leave it at that:

we endorse the message entire. The President has taken the true State rights ground, and does the South entire justice. He has proven himself a very able and patriotic statesman. The message is the best State paper we have read for years. “Frank Pierce” will do as President for us.

The Sovereign also reported, with delight, on the message’s reception in the Columbia Statesman “a violent Whig and Know-Nothing organ.”

President Pierce is no favorite of ours. We opposed his election, and regard his administration as a failure. We believe he has attempted to “curry favor” with all factions in the Union, and enjoys the confidence of none. He has appointed abolitionists, free-soilers and fire-eaters to office, even to posts in his cabinet. Nevertheless, we take pleasure in saying this message is the crowning glory of his life. It is an able State paper, and, because of the soundness of its views and conservative tone, will cover a multitude of sins of its author.

Even their enemies loved the message. The rock-ribbed conservatism of Pierce’s message draws remark from historians as well. James Rawley quotes part of this passage, from Pierce’s closing, and fairly characterizes it as “obdurate”:

The storm of frenzy and faction must inevitably dash itself in vain against the unshaken rock of the Constitution. I shall never doubt it. I know that the Union is stronger a thousand times than all the wild and chimerical schemes of social change which are generated one after another in the unstable minds of visionary sophists and interested agitators. I rely confidently on the patriotism of the people, on the dignity and self-respect of the States, on the wisdom of Congress, and, above all, on the continued gracious favor of Almighty God to maintain against all enemies, whether at home or abroad, the sanctity of the Constitution and the integrity of the Union.

Pierce might as well have quoted Edmund Burke verbatim. The condemnation works equally well against any issue. I’ve read it in just those terms deployed on nearly every subject that makes the news. Reformers, they always say, have got something wrong with them. They innovate incorrigibly, chasing phantasms of equality, justice, rights, all empty abstractions that have so little to do with real life that we might as well speak of Narnia or Middle-Earth. That the speakers usually enjoy the same things they wish to deny others rarely interests them. Their fortunate births and circumstances proved that they deserved the whole lot. What do the rest of us have to offer? If we warranted better treatment, we would already have it.

The Statesman’s endorsement then takes a somewhat counter-intuitive, though very telling, turn:

The slavery feature of the message will attract universal attention. On this subject he administers the fanatics and agitators North and South-the enemies of the Union and domestic tranquility-a scathing rebuke. We hope it will effect them for good, by recalling them from the forbidden paths of sectional strife and to the peaceful walks of loyalty and patriotism.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

What message did the Statesman read? Pierce hardly delivered condemnations all around; he didn’t have a one for the South. Rather he depicted the section as acting entirely within its rights and still suffering endless victimization by the North.

The Statesman read same piece everyone else had, of course. They might have genuinely understood the message as even-handed, or may have just liked the pretense. No one occupies a neutral position in such matters, and favoring the status quo or the traditional American way of doing things in the middle 1800s meant favoring at least the continuation of slavery and the suppression of antislavery agitation. The white man’s peace and tranquility, ensconced in his Union, demanded no less. To oppose slavery, even in a moderate and incremental ways, departed from orthodoxy.

The Squatter Sovereign on the Wakarusa Peace, Part Two

 

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

The Christmas issue of the Squatter Sovereign marked a distinct break from the jubilance with which the editors talked of wading in the blood of abolitionists and making any who dared come to Atchison dance on air whilst wearing a hemp necktie. They endured the hardships of camp in the windy December weather, ran fresh out of alcohol, and only killed one person. All that trouble, their hopes raised, Missouri come to Kansas again, brought nothing save impotent defeat. For all of this, John Stringfellow and Robert S. Kelley laid the blame on Wilson Shannon. The traitorous governor, swearing himself once to their side, had spent his entire time on the Wakarusa preventing the very violence for which they had come. What would an honest proslavery man have to do to get some mayhem in?

Kelley and Stringfellow preferred violence but might they have settled for less? If Santa didn’t bring a massacre, might they still gain something -anything- from the whole affair?

We have heard the opinion expressed by some, that the moral effect of the policy pursued will have a happier result than a more decisive and rigorous course would have had. Talk to us of “moral effect” upon a set of low-flung pharisees, who make one job of saying their prayers and picking a pocket.

The draw of alliteration might have called that turn of phrase regardless, but it bears remembering that the proslavery party considered antislavery Kansans literally thieves. Left unchecked, they would steal slaves and with them the wealth stolen from their lives by their lawful owners. If the abolitionists’ religious impulse drove them to abolition, then it made thievery and piety into the same exercise. Proslavery men would do no better to “preach morality to the devil.”

In considering what pedagogy might just edify an antislavery man, the Sovereign regained some of the accustomed vigor:

Such ingrates are only to be controled through fear of bodily injury or pecuniary loss, and not through the ordinary channels by which the better portion of humanity are governed.

The law would not restrain an abolitionist. Nor would high principles or patriotic sentiment. As people beyond the reach of ordinary governance, in a sense beyond even the enslaved, the Sovereign casts antislavery whites as dangerous animals or depraved madmen. One must do to them what one must, lest calamity ensue. They might never, just by existing, let proslavery men sleep easily.

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Such people, to the limited degree they still fell into that category, understood only force. Wilson Shannon and his cronies had just made that force into an impotent threat, demonstrating to Kansas and the nation at large that the proslavery men would never deliver. Thus the friends of slavery could only take one course:

“Law and order” is our emblem, but when those selected to see the laws executed fail in their duty-through [word missing from my copy] of political damage or other sinister motives-it is then time for the squatters to adopt measures for the protection of their lives and property. they have forborn until forbearance has ceased to be a virtue, and now they are aroused, and determined to discard all further temporizing, and carry into effect a line of action the efficacy of which is more to be relied upon.

A convention of the Law and Order Party, planned to meet on December 7. Just as events of the Wakarusa War overtook it, and required the attention of less violent elements to defuse the situation around Lawrence, the Wakarusa Peace foreclosed whatever chance moderate proslavery men had of taking control. When the situation next required a stern proslavery answer, the Sovereign pledged Kansas’ proslavery men

will not be lumbered with officials alike timid as chieftains and nervous as politicians, but will be governed by their own sense of justice, a due consideration of what the law allows, and their own safety requires.

 

 

The Squatter Sovereign on the Wakarusa Peace, Part One

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Free State Kansas had reason to cheer the outcome of the Wakarusa War. They emerged from a crisis that could have destroyed their movement with their leadership, presses, and town intact. Better still, they came out the other end with an authorization for their military companies from no less a proslavery man than Wilson Shannon. The Governor could hardly declare in the future that they stood in defiance of the law, when he had signed off on their most radical measures.

The proslavery men knew it. They had come to destroy Lawrence and abolitionism enraged, in the words of the Squatter Sovereign by “an armed mob of Abolitionists” who took Jacob Branson from Samuel Jones’ custody and that

[s]ince that time they have drove all the Pro-Slavery settlers away from Hickory Point, burning their houses, and driving their families in the cold, and committing other depredations.

Houses did burn and proslavery families did flee the area in the wake of Charles Dow’s death and Jacob Branson’s arrest. But Sovereign cheered Shannon’s calling of the Kansas militia, happily reporting

Men are hourly passing our office with their guns on their backs, going to the assistance of the officers of the law. A large company with two pieces of cannon, have started from Atchison county. As both the editors of this paper are going to the seat of the action, we have no tie to enter further into particulars. We anticipated bloodshed, and we, the junior, expect to wake waist deep in the blood of Abolitionists.

The excitement leaps off the page. They had abolitionists to murder and, at long last, nothing to hold them back. Just a column over, John Stringfellow and Robert S. Kelley promised their readers that should an antislavery man show his face in Atchison’s environs, even to visit, they would receive “a hemp necklace, and an opportunity to dance on air.”

The happy proslavery dreams came to naught. Neither Stringfellow nor Kelley waded even to their ankles in blood. They couldn’t know that when they wrote on December 4, but in the Christmas edition of their paper the editors bemoaned how

[v]olunteers were required to render assistance to a legal officer in the re-capture of a violator of the laws, and also in the arrest of sundry persons who had laid themselves liable to serious penalties; but, after promptly and freely responding to this demand for their services, they are dismissed without even a preliminary step taken towards the accomplishment of the object for which they were enlisted.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

They came all that way and camped out in the cold for nothing. But the Sovereign knew where to lay the blame:

The design of that summons has been thwarted through the interference of the Executive. Had the matter rested with Mr. Jones, the sheriff, the result would have been different. The criminals would have been traced to their hiding places, and safely secured against the audacity of a set of God-forsaken fanatics. This would have given satisfaction, answered the purpose of the requisition, and fulfilled the ends of justice. As it is, base, cowardly, sneaking scoundrels will go unpunished and be left to perpetrate their infamous outrages whenever they may find an unprotected family.

By executive, Stringfellow and Kelley of course mean Wilson Shannon. The Governor had sold them out and capitulated to the free state movement, snatching defeat from the jaws of bloody victory.

On Bias and How to Read History, with thanks to @HankGreen

This past week, I saw a post from educational Youtuber Hank Green (@HankGreen) over on Facebook. Hank and his brother John operate the benevolent informative empire of SciShow, CrashCourse, and numerous associated channels. Hank found a quiz put out by an actual academic to tell the you how much bias influences your politics. He scored very well on it. I also took the test and beat the average by a healthy margin, though I didn’t do quite so well as Hank. Best to disclose that up front. I also don’t mean to call Hank out here. His Facebook post provided the inspiration, but dealing with bias constitutes a very large part of what I do here. Evaluating sources for bias comes in not very far under reading sources, and usually runs simultaneously with it.

If you go around the Civil War block enough times, you’ll hear plenty of accusations of bias. Historians have a bias. Sources have a bias. Interpretations have a bias. Geography itself has a bias, apparently toward the North. The implication generally runs that the guilty indicate, by the presence of bias, shown themselves utterly untrustworthy. The speaker, emancipated by that discovery, can just skip reading the lot in favor of the unbiased. There one can learn the truth. The same argument runs through almost every subject on which people have differences. We could as easily have talked about the news as historical documents, or the questions asked on the test that Hank found. The liberating power of shouting “bias!” always works.

I find the entire business frustrating, because it comes so close to a good point and then careens off into a weird mix of cynicism and naivete. The cynicism comes in with the assumption that the presence of bias invalidates all points. If we really believed that then we would believe nothing about anything including that. Rather we generally mean by it that people who disagree with us constitute a pack of lying villains we can and should dismiss out of hand. This conviction comes in tandem with the notion that those who agree with us we can accept uncritically as they have no bias. Not everybody will go to that extreme, and I don’t mean to suggest that Hank did or does, but just calling out bias and stopping there ends up in much the same place. I’ve seen others do it, and others have seen me do it, often enough.

The bias road has a third exit, which generally goes unstated: we ourselves either have no bias or can easily set it aside when we make determinations about the bias of others. After a few years dealing with historical actors and documents, on top of all the normal business of life, I have come to find the latter assumption far more dangerous. What follows from finding what one considers an unbiased source, if not that we can then accept what this source says uncritically? We have not escaped bias then, but rather elevated it to dogma.

In some perfect world, we may find that unbiased source and so come to no grief from taking it uncritically. In the world where we actually live, bias comes hand in hand with humanity. If you can think, you have bias. It comes from your upbringing, your values, your experiences, your education, how your brain chemistry sorts itself out, and literally every input into your life. All of us live in its thrall; none of us can escape. We all come from somewhere and we all take it with us into all the things we do, from the historian perched uncomfortably on the sharpest peak of the ivory tower to the latest newborn. Every stimulus gets processed according to the machinery already in place and in so doing becomes part of the machinery itself. This doesn’t make us bad. We do not acquire all our biases out of malice. But we do acquire them uncritically enough that we should do our best to keep close watch over them. As the world’s most peerless experts in fooling ourselves, that proves a daunting challenge.

So naturally, we should give it all up. If we can never escape bias, then we can never do anything worthwhile or approaching the truth. Having no solution, we must either decide we have no problem and proceed anyway or we have to call it quits. Only the second allows us to make an honest choice, though even there we come freighted with biases in favor of consistency over contradiction. I even put my thumb on the scale by calling the latter the honest choice. Or we can do something else entirely, though this comes less naturally than either of the two previous options.

John Blassingame

John Blassingame

If all of this sounds abstract, then let me give you a few examples. I’ve mentioned Ulrich Bonnell Phillips before. Phillips wrote the first real history of slavery in the modern sense. In so doing, he made one of these calculations and demonstrated very well how the cynicism/naivete dynamic plays out. Phillips had slave narratives available to him. He chose to discard them as hopelessly muddled and written as polemical works to inflame antislavery sentiment. In other words, the experiences of enslaved people as passed down to us came with bias. They couldn’t be trusted. Phillips had no trouble, however, accepting uncritically the writing of their enslavers. Those rare specimens of humanity had written objectively, free of their biases. This may sound so retrograde to us that it beggars belief, but it made perfect sense to Phillips and to a bit more than two generations of historians after him. For most of the twentieth century, the study of slavery involved very few enslaved perspectives. This held true even for historians with a far more positive opinion of the antislavery movement and black Americans than Phillips had. It took until the 1970s and the work of a black scholar, John Blassingame, for the change to begin. One still finds occasional historians who treat slave narratives as an expendable genre of literature rather than one which can tell us important things about slavery. The Economist generally likes their work.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

In my own late work, I’ve dealt with two murders committed by proslavery men against antislavery men. In both cases, the only eyewitness testimony I have found comes from proslavery sources. These naturally paint both murderers as acting in self-defense against aggressive antislavery partisans who both escalated the conflict and initiated the violence in their final, fatal encounters. Samuel Collins literally came looking for Patrick Laughlin to cause trouble. Charles Dow and Jacob Branson wanted Franklin Coleman gone so badly that they went against established custom to excuse their expropriating parts of his claim and leaving him with not enough to support his family.

Or so the stories sympathetic to the killers go. The accounts in the Herald of Freedom generally swing the other way, but George Washington Brown doesn’t claim to have any witnesses to back himself up. His decision to paint both Collins and Dow as innocents murdered by brutes seems to have come down to consulting their politics. William Phillips, the author and journalist but not the lynching victim, did much the same. Branson, Coleman, and Laughlin all lived to tell their sides of the stories but they all had an understandable interest in vindicating themselves.

How does one sort out that mess? Ideally, one could read proslavery and antislavery accounts against each other. When they agree, we can more confidently argue that things happened as described. Where they do not, we must necessarily consider both in their contexts and inevitably make subjective judgments about probability and plausibility. When I do this, I try for transparency by both admitting that I have made the judgments and sharing my reasoning. In no way do these judgments, or those of a real historian, constitute a science. In the past generation most historians have come to accept that we can’t manage any kind of perfect objectivity. Instead the discipline strives to integrate diverse perspectives in the service of mitigating the ubiquity of bias through commensurate diversity of bias.

That said, I don’t want to leave you, Gentle Readers, with shrugs and invocations of human messiness. History does not aspire to science, but it does have some best practices. I’ve already alluded to some of them, and they live in the subtext of most every post here, but I can’t go this far without offering a few suggestions. These apply to both primary sources from the era in question and to historians working from them:

A diversity of sources, as diverse as one can get, considered fairly but critically will tell you more than one source or one type of source alone. Where they differ, you can read them against one another and see what falls out. However, this often makes for an unattainable goal. We have only so much time, money, and access to information. Sources which seem consistently misleading and deceptive may not deserve the effort put into integrating them. That holds especially true for sources speaking to things that happened in some external to the author sense, but less so for sources speaking to attitudes, feelings, and perceptions at the time. If you want to know what enslavers thought and felt, you’ve got to read them even though they frequently lie even to themselves.

William Phillips

William Phillips

One should always consider who wrote a source and try to know something about the author and his or her circumstances. That includes their politics, upbringing, and their personal involvement with issues touching upon their subject. William Phillips (both of them) actually lived in Kansas and participated in antislavery politics there, which presents us with both an asset in firsthand knowledge and a liability in that they have enough personal investment to strongly encourage them to ignore or obscure facts inconvenient to the cause. Much the same holds true for Franklin Coleman and all the rest. More recent and scholarly works remain likewise a product of the same. Historians find their questions in their present, even if they dig into the past to answer them. Historical work inevitably comments on the present as well as the past. Interest in political violence, notably around Reconstruction, has had a considerable revival since September 11, 2001. Interest in moderation and consensus, along with enthusiasm for capitalism, similarly took place of prominence during the years of white prosperity after the Second World War.

One should then consider to when the author wrote. William A. Phillips published his book on Kansas with the issue still very much unsettled. Charles Robinson wrote his decades after the fact. He had more hindsight to benefit him than Phillips, as well as a less urgent need to vindicate the free state cause before the nation with the question long resolved, but likewise took a very personal role in events. Those decades further added to the natural fading of human memory. On a broader level, one should take histories written closer to the event as inherently more invested in the event than those written later. That doesn’t mean that all early works don’t deserve reading, or that all recent works do, but the earlier authors often have less access to information and frequently worked in times with different scholarly norms. Assessments we find abhorrent, like U.B. Phillips’ dismissal of the slave experience, once raised no eyebrows at all. Our own time will have the same.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

One should further consider to whom the author wrote. William Phillips, like George Brown and Robert Kelley, wrote with a national audience in mind. Kelley’s and John Stringfellow’s Squatter Sovereign hoped to elicit the sympathy and support of southern partisans for their Kansas project, whilst simultaneously stressing the evils of abolitionism to depress its appeal to wavering northerners. Phillips and Brown hoped to do the same things, but in favor of their own Kansas project. Thus they have more interest than they might otherwise in emphasizing the virtues of their own side and vices of the other. Furthermore, they might not shy away from printing lies that anybody in Kansas could spot on the grounds that many readers would not have the firsthand knowledge to recognize the deceptions.

As a person inordinately concerned with history, writing a history blog, I have naturally approached the subject through that particular lens. I submit, however, that these techniques apply just as well to sorting through the inherent messiness of humanity in other fields. We can’t figure it all out to perfection, but we need not make the perfect the enemy of the good here. Understanding better and more completely, if more complicatedly, may require uncomfortable and unaccustomed exertions, but remains within our power.