Honor, Pride, and Free Books at the Free State

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison gave a speech outside Lawrence, interrupted by cheers as Samuel Jones came back with the town’s cannons. Then the proslavery mob, after waiting so long, finally moved in with flags waving. Rumors of mined streets delayed them only briefly. Many of the women and children exited, some of the former looking back over their shoulders and telling the proslavery mob just what they thought of affairs.

They had come to do more than visit. Early in the month, Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury declared the antislavery papers and free state hotels public menaces in need of suppression. The mob got to that straightaway, starting with Josiah Miller’s Free State. Miller operated out of the second story of what William Phillips calls “a concrete building”. I think he means cemented stone, not a modern poured concrete structure. A store occupied the first floor and the border ruffians went there first.

One of the ruffian officers entered the store and demanded of the proprietor if there was a mine under the building to blow it up. The merchant assured him there was not, when the interrogator told him that they were going up into the printing office, and that if anything happened he would hold him responsible.

A keg of gunpowder wouldn’t blow up a building quite like a modern artillery shell, but expecting to survive the experience still sounds awfully hopeful. Satisfied, the proslavery men entered the Free State office.

The press and other articles were first broken, so as to be rendered perfectly useless, and then thrown into the Kansas river. As this was some distance to carry the articles, they got tired of it, and began throwing the remainder in the street. Books and papers were thrown in the street.

If the Free State had machinery anything like the Herald of Freedom did, which seems likely, then the proslavery men had to lug a lot of metal around just in the steam press. The lead type would only add to the fun. Since this meant free books, some of the mob helped themselves. Some officers intervened to stop that, claiming that the antislavery men would use the theft against them. William Phillips, just the antislavery man who did, must have related that with particular relish.

Colonel Zadoc Jackson, of Georgia, exerted himself to prevent the plunder, as did several others; they were prepared for the most desperate war against Freedom and American rights, but they had too much honor, or too much pride, to wish to occupy the position of highwaymen. Unfortunately, these officers were unable to prevent these outrages, or restrain the villains they had gathered up to do their lawless work.

Honor and pride had their pleasures, but free books offered still greater joys.

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Answer Promptly to Avoid Being Shot

William Addison Phillips

William Addison Phillips

Josiah Miller beat his rap for treason against the state of South Carolina, the place of his birth. The South Carolinians who found him alive while antislavery in Kansas didn’t care much about jurisdiction. That happened on the return leg of his trip with some other free state men to plead with Governor Shannon. A proslavery army bent on their destruction even then massed against Lawrence. William Phillips doesn’t give firm dates for all of this, but it must have happened on or shortly after May 15, 1865. Also around that time, he reports that proslavery men stopped another suspicious character on the road.

The next, roughly simultaneous act, stars a Mr. Weaver. Phillips identifies him as “a sergeant-at-arms of the Kansas Commission.” I didn’t find any Weavers in a quick skim of the minutes of the Howard committee, but Congress did vote them the power to take along a few trusty men just in case. He traveled that day with a member of the 1st Cavalry. They came upon some South Carolinians who considered themselves part of J.B. Donaldson’s posse, who arrested both and carried them across the Kansas river to the proslavery camp. They found Weaver’s company curious:

They questioned this blue-jacketed and yellow-trimmed hero, as to “What the devil he meant by riding through the country with a d—-d abolitionist?”

Phillips doesn’t report the soldier’s answer, but it and the uniform appear to have settled the mob on letting him go. Weaver would have to stay, which he did not care for. Instead, the sergeant-at-arms presented his identification. The proslavery men had apprehended two United States officers in the course of their duties and had best let both go at once.

His papers got a very critical examination before the captain first; then something that passed for a major, and finally every ruffian, gentle or simple, had to have a peep at them.

Peeping did not change minds. Instead, they took Weaver before their overall commander, a Colonel Wilkes. Wilkes turned to a General Craimes, who had a peep of his own.

After giving Weaver’s papers a thorough and critical investigation, the colonel, with his general, pronounced them “all very good,” and expressed as their opinion that he ought to be permitted to pass.

One can imagine a relieved Weaver rising and about to take his leave and stopping halfway through. What happened if some other group of hooligans stopped him? They might not share Craimes’ or Wilkes’ scruples. He asked for a pass. Wilkes wrote one out over his signature and

The colonel very considerately suggested to Mr. Weaver that, if he was hailed by any party, he had better answer promptly; otherwise he might be shot.

The Trial of Josiah Miller

Samuel Lecompte

Samuel Lecompte

J.B. Donaldson told Lawrence that the innocent had nothing to fear from him. His army, alias posse, would only pose any danger to those that his duties required him to apprehend and those resisted him in the course of those duties. That meant the free state leadership, all of whom had warrants for their arrest courtesy of Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury, and anyone in Lawrence who helped them. Listing those people by name may not return a list of the entire population of Lawrence as of May, 1856, but it would probably come close. Just as Donaldson would not take philosophically the threat to his life if he tried to come into town on his own, he people of Lawrence could not adopt a disinterested position toward an army converging on them and bent on their destruction. They had appealed to the military, to Governor Shannon, and finally to Donaldson himself to no avail. Running out of options and unsure they could pull off an armed resistance, it seems that some tried Shannon again.

William Phillips reports that shortly after Captain Walker’s harrowing escape with Shannon’s reply to the town, a new embassy went up to Lecompton to plead Lawrence’s case. Carmie Babcock, William Y. Roberts, and Josiah Miller can’t have hoped for much. Phillips summarizes their success in four words: “They failed, of course.” Barely out of Lecompton on their way back, they fell prey to one of the armed bands harassing travelers. It seems that Roberts and Babcock secured swift release. Miller had a worse time of it.

Miller edited the Kansas Free State, which occasionally feuded with the Herald of Freedom. Like the Herald, the grand jury declared his paper a public menace worthy of suppression. He hailed from South Carolina and in one of those small world moments, so did his captors. Recognizing him, his fellow South Carolinians

made up what they were pleased to to consider a court from amongst their own number, and, placing Mr. Miller before it, tried him for treason to South Carolina. After a hard effort some of the Carolinians, who knew him, and felt friendly, contrived to prevent his being hung, although he was found guilty. He got off after losing his horse and money.

William Addison Phillips

William Addison Phillips

Phillips identified Miller’s captors as part of Donaldson’s posse. They probably also hailed from Jefferson Buford’s expedition. He doesn’t give many details of the event, but it sounds like Miller suffered a trial much like Pardee Butler’s. One could read his friends arranging an acquittal two ways: either the mob wanted Miller dead and a few friends pulled a fast one to save him, or they wanted him to think that happened and really meant to give him a powerful scare. Mortal terror could do much, then and now, to silence political opponents.

The latter course may sound marginally more reasonable; terrorized people still live to see tomorrow. But its use does require the mob to share one mind on the subject. It only takes a few to translate threats into reality. To make such threats credible, they can’t lay far from what the mob might do anyway. Threading that needle, if they wanted to at all, required as much luck as conviction.