Sheriff Jones Goes to Topeka With the Devil’s Eyes

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

At the end of January, the free state party had in hand a constitution for Kansas. They had elected men to serve under that constitution. If they had garnered rivals from within their movement, then they won handily at the polls all the same. Along the way, they had also come near to a pitched battle with proslavery forces, to say nothing of the many clashes between proslavery and antislavery Kansans on an individual level. They had the governor’s blessing for their militia and the president’s condemnation. Laurels like these might prompt some of us to take a break, but they knew that they remained under the gun.

That fact must have been on many minds as a result of the late elections. Come March 4, 1856, the officers of the free state government would take office. That would put the leadership in one convenient spot doing the very thing that Franklin Pierce had told them they should not do, under threat of military intervention. Someone might try something.

March 4 came on a Tuesday in 1856. Monday that week, according to the pamphlet Organization of the Free State Government in Kansas (PDF),

the “big guns” of the Free-State party were fired off with great effect in Constitution Hall-the room in which the Free-State Constitution was framed-at Franklin Pierce and other creatures of the Slave Power at Washington city. Mr. Stephen Sparks off Easton-a member of the House and leader of the fight in defence of the ballot-box there on the 15th of January-was called to the chair and presided.

The pamphlet related a very brief version of Sparks’ travail, getting the date wrong. Sketches of each principal followed. Charles Robinson, the author tells us, cut the figure of a perfectly disinterested statesman with questionable oratorical skills. James Lane, “a beau ideal of the political intriguer” cut a military figure and undercut his “fluent” speaking with “want of earnestness”. Lieutenant Governor Roberts had an “uncommonly hard, and dull” voice. He would not “set the Missouri river on fire.” The author made it clear that the intriguer Lane and flame-retardant Roberts hailed from the Democracy.

The free state men denounced Pierce and spent some time Monday discussing what they ought to do with their new government. Tuesday brought Lane, as chair of the executive committee, swearing them in. All the while, they had an audience:

The immortal bogus Sheriff Jones, a tall, muscular, athletic loafer, with a cruel Mephistophelean expression, clad in the Border Ruffian costume-blue military overcoat, large boots, a skull cap and a cigar in mouth-was present at the organization, and amused himself and the members both, by writing down the names of the Senators and Representatives as they took the oath.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

One has to account for the performance of manly bravado in these things, but everyone had to know that Jones wouldn’t arrest them then and there. In the midst of scores of free state men -more than thirty Representatives and eleven Senators alone- Jones could hardly make a credible threat. He and the new legislators might very well have cracked plenty of jokes at one another’s expense. The author had the last word. He had seen the legal legislature meet as well and, unsurprisingly, found the present gathering far superior to to that band of

drunkards, blasphemers, and gamblers […] personally as ignorant and unpolished as their “acts” demonstrated they were unprincipled and violent

Jones, with Satan as his copilot, could sit there and scribble names all he liked. Kansas had a government, however illegal, of sober and principled antislavery men now.

 

Republicanism in Kansas, and in Jim Lane

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Charles Stearns wanted everybody to know that they should disregard the supposed Anti-Abolition free state ticket in the January elections. Its advocates used to be for abolition, but changed their minds and swung right. He left it to implication that they did so for base and venal reasons. But in swinging right to oppose the main free state slate, the Anti-Abolition men went further. Their opposition, after all, included a heterodox collection of National Democrats, Whigs, Republicans, National Sovereignty, and Squatter Sovereignty types. They hailed from states North and South. They had voted to keep free blacks as well as slaves out of Kansas. Little united them save their opposition to slavery in Kansas, and even that common cause rested on a tangle of meaningful contradictions. Most notably, while many free state men opposed slavery itself, others would have accepted it if only Kansans had the chance to settle the issue for themselves and only crossed over after repeated Missouri-based interventions.

The platform of the other dissenting free state ticket, Young America, appear even more opaque. They wanted the same men to hold the same offices as the free state convention had agreed to, but with two revisions. While both tickets insisted that some men they aimed to replace had withdrawn fro the election, the Young Americans particularly stressed it. Their name suggests a strong Democratic alignment, which their contemporaries could not have missed. Young America, in the middle nineteenth century, stood for an aggressive, expansionist United States. The nation might spread through wars or the exploits of filibusters like William Walker and John A. Quitman, but it would expand and so bring freedom to a waiting world.

If the Young Americans had a point beyond that their men wanted offices badly enough to split from the free state party to do it, then they might have seen the groundwork laid for a development unfolding very before after the January 15, 1856 election that rejected their nominees. George Brown’s Herald of Freedom for January 19, reports that on Saturday last (January 12, the date of his previous edition)

The great Republican party of the North, whose battle cry is “No more Slave States,” with whose political success the material welfare of Kansas and all our hopes for an immediate admission are inseparably united, was organized in this city […] at a large and enthusiastic mass meeting

This did represent a change from past the past strategy of claiming no party but antislavery for Kansas, but it can’t have surprised many. Prominent free state leaders had identified with the Republicans for some time, if by no means all of them, and the GOP had taken in dissenting Democrats. That didn’t mean they forgot their old politics on issues aside slavery, but by the start of 1856 they had to know that a place existed for them in the new coalition. The party of no new slave states and the party of no slave state of Kansas would naturally run together.

Brown notes the platform emphatically endorsed Congress’ power over slavery in the territories. James Lane, among others, endorsed it. These men

all National democrats-endorsed the platform as reported, and thus repudiated Squatter Sovereignty the cardinal doctrine of the “National” Democracy! -Kansas evidently is a healthy climate for the mind as well as body!

Brown used the occasion to remind his readers of Lane’s dubious history. He came to Kansas after having voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Once there, he tried to set up a Kansas Democracy. By accepting the creed of congressional power to decided slavery for the territories, he had come a long way indeed.

 

Finding a Speaker

We left the 34th Congress deadlocked on who to elect Speaker of the House. Until they did, they lacked a presiding officer and could hardly get any business done. Someone had to become Speaker, but the administration’s candidate couldn’t get the required majority. The opposition coalition of Know-Nothings, Free Soilers, Whigs, Republicans, and anti-Nebraska Democrats together had the votes to fill the seat, but such a heterodox group has its own problems finding the right man for the job. They agreed on not accepting Franklin Pierce’s choice of William Richardson, but little else.

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

After Richardson won a plurality and, consequently, lost the first ballot the opposition made a go of uniting around Lewis Campbell, an Ohio Whig. Campbell earned their esteem through an attempted filibuster against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the last Congress. Things went so well back then that Campbell nearly found himself physically attacked. That had to count for something, right?

Apparently not enough. Giving it another try after Campbell also failed to command a majority, a large group of Republicans settled on Nathaniel P. Banks. Banks, a Massachusetts man, had the kind of pedigree that would inspire mixed emotions in such a fraught time. In the Bay State, he had stood as a Democrat but then combined with free soilers. Lately Banks had hopped parties again, moving over to the Know-Nothings. That made him a traitor twice over, to more orthodox Democrats, and might look shifty to his latest band of allies. But his career also spanned contentious spectrum of party politics in the middle 1850s.

Bank’s fellow Know-Nothings preferred Kentucky’s Humphrey Marshall and without them he didn’t have a majority either. When Marshall’s run ended similarly, they tried Henry Fuller. The votes went on and on, with no winner emerging. Every ballot came with a new round of recrimination. The Republicans laid into anti-Nebraska men who opposed Banks, which naturally endeared them to their targets. The southerners and administration Democrats had their own frustrations in the minority, still voting for Richardson ballot after ballot.

William Aiken (D-SC)

William Aiken (D-SC)

The 34th Congress opened on December 3, 1855. Yet on the 24th, Allan Nevins reports that with the sixty-eighth ballot,

Banks has 101 votes, Richardson 72, and Fuller 31, with eleven for minor figures.

As part of the process, congressmen quizzed the candidates. Nevins relates how a Mississippian asked Banks if he believed in racial equality. Banks

responded that it seemed to be the general law that the weaker of two juxtaposed races was absorbed or disappeared altogether. “Whether the black race … is equal to the white race, can only be determined by the absorption or disappearance of one or the other, and I propose to wait until the respected races can be properly subjected to this philosophical test before I give a decisive answer.”

Nathaniel Banks

Nathaniel Banks

The House thought that pretty funny, but it probably didn’t win Banks any votes.

With the grinding process, the constant rounds of fruitless questioning and votes, and endless speeches, one might expect tempers to flare. Congressmen had assaulted one another on the floor before, and would again. But only Horace Greeley took any lumps, and he took them away from the floor of the House. I sought further details, but haven’t found a copy of the New York Weekly Tribune for February 2 online.

The battle for the Speakership wore on through December and January, not ending until the start of February when the House voted a rule to elect the Speaker with a plurality. Nathaniel Banks at last prevailed, 103-100, over South Carolina’s William Aiken, Jr. In settling on Banks, the opposition coalition had not repudiated nativism, but the majority within had clearly chosen an antislavery nativist, from Massachusetts no less, over proslavery or indifferent candidates available to them from climes further South. A victory barely managed out hardly made for a grand triumph, and Banks would use his powers in a decidedly impartial way, but the opposition had moved at least a small step beyond single-issue rejection of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and toward a consolidated party.

The Disunited 34th Congress

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Dunn’s proslavery men left the Sparks home cruelly disappointed. They came to shoot a man and found him still away. That would not mark the end of Stephen Sparks’ trouble with Kansas’ slavery enthusiasts, but he managed to dodge the immediate threat. Reese Brown had less luck. The latest violence came from the free soil elections of January 15, where Kansas’ antislavery voters made Charles Robinson their governor and filled the other offices that the free state constitution had created. This development, like others in Kansas, did not go unmarked on the national stage.

As the events within Kansas have dominated our narrative for so long, we have to rewind the clock a bit to catch up with happenings elsewhere. Since the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Democracy had taken a beating. The Whig party continued its collapse. In the North, Democrats often followed suit. Those who didn’t cast themselves as foes of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the trouble it had brought. The anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party seemed, for a moment, poised to take the Whig’s place as the second party of American politics but had a serious competitor in the form of the new Republican party and its fortunes soon faded.

As 1855 wound down, the first session of the 34th Congress opened on December 3. For the first time, Republicans took seats in the Capitol. In the Senate, the Democrats outnumbered them two to one. Just across the building, one might as well have entered a new world. Franklin Pierce could count on a majority of 158 in the last House. The anti-Nebraska opposition now had a majority of 117. That might not have upset the House Democrats too much, as they knew their party’s disarray and probably didn’t have much hope of getting everyone back together and taking the customary whip. The last time that happened, they repealed the Missouri Compromise and eighty-four percent of those who voted for it found themselves in need of other employment. They might do better to find some moderate Republican who they could then blame for the House’s inevitable failure to get much done.

The Pierce administration had other ideas, and ensured that the Democratic caucus passed resolutions declaring the late elections a vindication of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, doubled down on religious freedom in terms offensive to the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, and pledged the Democracy to a hard line on both. The Democrats hadn’t entirely lost their minds. After some early reverses, they took encouraging results in some later elections as signs that they hadn’t entirely destroyed themselves. With the same kind of excellent judgment that led them to take elections they largely lost as signs of public approval, the Democrats settled on William A. Richardson, of Illinois, as their man for the Speaker’s chair. Richardson had managed the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act last Congress, which made him exactly as popular with the anti-Nebraska majority as one would expect.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Richardson simultaneously won and lost the vote. On the first ballot, the House gave him seventy-two votes. No other man came within twenty of that total. But the House rules required that the Speaker have a majority, not a mere plurality. The rules assumed two parties, but the 34th Congress had rather more than that. Just how much more, few could say. The Congressional Globe considered the mess beyond recovery and dispensed with the usual custom of listing men by party allegiance. In Race and Politics, “Bleeding Kansas” and the Coming of the Civil War, James Rawley reports the Tribune Alamanac’s best guess:

79 Pierce Democrats, of whom 20 were northerners, 117 anti-Nebraska man, all of whom were northerners, 37 Whigs of Americans [Know-Nothings] of proslavery tendencies, all but 3 of whom were from slave states. Of the 117 anti-Nebraska Congressmen, 75 had been elected as know-Nothings.

Allan Nevins gives a different arrangement in the second volume of his Ordeal of the Union:

The House membership was roughly classed as 108 Republican, 83 Democratic, and 43 Know-Nothing or American.

Though the numbers don’t agree, to the point of using different categories, they tell a similar story. The Democracy had lost its majority to someone, but no one quite knew who.

Know-Nothingism and anti-Nebraska sentiment often existed in the same person, part of the problem in classifying them, but they did not necessarily do so. Nor did party allegiance mean that when they did, nativism took precedence. Many Know-Nothings ended up as Republicans, some in suspiciously short order. Some probably joined specifically to subvert the organization in antislavery directions. They co-existed with men who felt otherwise and who had latched on to nativism as the issue to push slavery back out of the national discussion. As the seventeen candidates running against Richardson for the Speakership attest, the Opposition did about as well at agreeing on things as the Democracy did.

So long as the Speakership remained vacant, the House couldn’t commence its business. So long as the House couldn’t get to work, much of the national government ground to a halt. Soon much of Washington waited on the outcome.

Examining the new AP US History standards

Last year, the standards published for the AP US History program aroused ire from people who believe they did not sufficiently flatter students, inculcate patriotism, and introduced them to notions that American history involved at least as much conflict between groups as it did consensus. These standards threatened to teach history, a discipline that does not propose to make one feel good. Proposals to review or ban the program in turn drew protests from students in Denver. States considered dropping the program entirely. The Republican National Committee declared the standards

a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects

The RNC went on to complain that the standards left out various named individuals and did include

a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history, including the motivations and actions of 17th -19th -century settlers, American involvement in World War II, and the development of and victory in the Cold War

With states threatening the College Board’s profits, the non-profit made the business decision one would expect and produced standards (PDF) more in line with the whitewashing that the RNC, et al, demanded. I could write another post about how we should not look to history with the expectation that it will make us feel good or the costs of doing so to our understanding of the past. Those who demand feel-good national myths rarely concern themselves with such trifles as all that, especially when the costs fall on those they dislike.

I’ve written that post already, so instead I dug up the standards to compare the two. I can’t say that I’ve undertaken a thorough examination of the hundred-plus pages of each, but I dug into the specific content material as that appears to have caused the most controversy and I feel most competent to comment upon it.

In discussing the three-sided contact between European explorers and imperialists, African slaves, and Native Americans, the 2014 standards require students to learn that

Many Europeans developed a belief in white superiority to justify their subjugation of Africans and American Indians, using several different rationales 

From a strictly historical perspective, I don’t see anything at all objectionable about this statement. Europeans developed a belief in white superiority. They subjugated, however imperfectly and often with far more difficulty than traditional accounts admit, Africans and Indians. The College Board gave a direct, clear, precise standard for AP teachers to use.

The equivalent section of the 2015 standards runs in this vein:

Extended contact with Native Americans and Africans fostered a debate among European religious and political leaders about how non-Europeans should be treated, as well as evolving religious, cultural, and racial justifications for the subjugation of Africans and Native Americans.

One comes away with the impression that this debate never reached any clear conclusion. From this a student could take gather that white supremacy, while present, did not form a decisive influence. A competent, well-informed teacher would, of course, expand on standards. A standard can only express a generality, not replace the person at the front of the room. But the expansion demanded by the new standard would involve essentially restating the 2014 standard. How would this constitute an improvement?

By hiding white supremacy under the vagueness of “racial justifications” the College Board only makes it easier to miss and at least implies to teachers that their students do not really need to know it. “Racial justifications” could mean anything, up to and including the exact things that proslavery. The new standards replace precision and clarity with a generality apparently designed to conceal what it should instead reveal. Call me eccentric, but I think students would benefit immensely from hearing the words “white supremacy” in a history class instead of “racial justifications”.

From 2014:

The abundance of land, a shortage of indentured servants, the lack of an effective means to enslave native peoples, and the growing European demand for colonial goods led to the emergence of the Atlantic slave trade.

Reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority, the British system enslaved black people in perpetuity, altered African gender and kinship relationships in the colonies, and was one factor that led the British colonists into violent confrontations with native peoples.

And 2015:

As chattel slavery became the dominant labor system in many southern colonies, new laws created a strict racial system that prohibited interracial relationships and defined the descendants of African American mothers as black and enslaved in perpetuity.

The 2015 standard has one thing to recommend for it: it tells exactly how slavery operated. But this hardly redeems the rest of the sentence. Neither standard would win prizes for directness. The “British system” did not enslave anybody; British people did that. The new standard, however, hides the actors and obscure their reasons. Slavery “became the dominant labor system” and “new laws created a strict racial system”. These things apparently just happen. New laws come to us like the wind and rain. Labor systems thrive or fail like the tides. Far be it for us to imagine that people chose to enact and enforce new laws or preferred one system of labor over another.

Here we have 2014 again:

 

By supplying American Indian allies with deadlier weapons and alcohol and by rewarding Indian military actions, Europeans helped increase the intensity and destructiveness of American Indian warfare.

2015:

Interactions between European rivals and American Indian populations fostered both accommodation and conflict. French, Dutch, British, and Spanish colonies allied with and armed American Indian groups, who frequently sought alliances with Europeans against other Indian groups.

Looking closely, one can see the same content. However, the new standard makes it sound much more like the Indians brought conflict upon themselves. Reference to increasing conflict, to say nothing of its intensity and destructiveness, ends up buried under reference to accommodation. One doesn’t write like this when one can help it; the College Board could do so as recently as last year.

The presence of slavery and the impact of colonial wars stimulated the growth of ideas on race in this Atlantic system, leading to the emergence of racial stereotyping and the development of strict racial categories among British colonists, which contrasted with Spanish and French acceptance of racial gradations.

Perhaps I missed it, but I find no equivalent of this statement in the 2015 standards.

In 2014, the College Board said:

Many white Americans in the South asserted their regional identity through pride in the institution of slavery, insisting that the federal government should defend that institution

In 2015?

Regional interests often trumped national concerns as the basis for many political leaders’ positions on slavery and economic policy.

They must have hired a fair number of Futurama fans at the College Board in the past year, as they clearly see technical correctness as the best sort. We lost reference to regional identity, substituting instead “interests”. One could take a position on slavery as an expression of regional interest, but it seems we must think it one of many rather than the defining regional interest of the white South. By writing the South out of the standard, the Board obscures both the most powerful regionalism in the land and sweeps the cause for it under the carpet. Furthermore, the new standard reads like an implicit indictment of anybody who got excited about slavery, for or against.

In 2014, students should have learned

Resistance to initiatives for democracy and inclusion included proslavery arguments, rising xenophobia, antiblack sentiments in political and popular culture, and restrictive anti-Indian policies

In 2015, they should instead learn nothing of this. I found no reference to rising xenophobia, anti-Indian policy, or racism appears in the section on how the nation struggled to practice the ideals it preached.

Moving on to economics, the 2014 standards require students learn that

Southern cotton furnished the raw material for manufacturing in the Northeast, while the growth in cotton production and trade promoted the development of national economic ties, shaped the international economy, and fueled the internal slave trade

But this year:

Increasing Southern cotton production and the related growth of Northern manufacturing, banking, and shipping industries promoted the development of national and international commercial ties.

It would not do to mention the workers in a discussion of economic development. The new section on regional economic development, despite emphasizing distinctiveness of the regions, writes the slaves out. Mighty white of them.

I could probably go in this vein at still more tedious length. The new standards technically include much of the relevant and supposedly “divisive” material in the old. I found a few isolated places where the 2015 standards did a better job, most conspicuously where they improved on 2014 in characterizing Southern resistance to Reconstruction as violence, but overall the College Board did a much better job last year.

In the new standards, the authors obscure the much of the content. This serves teachers and students alike very poorly. If the exams will still expect the same degree of mastery, then teachers don’t know it from the new standards and so can’t prepare students as well as they with the old. If the exams expect less, or themselves talk in bowdlerizing circumlocutions, then students remain poorly served. Universities will, and ought to, expect much more of them. Given that the AP program justifies itself and the College Board’s status as a non-profit as a preparatory endeavor, this should have settled things decisively in favor of 2014-style standards.

A good teacher can and will do better than this. Every standard must include some degree of generality and none can replace the person in front of the kids. In theory, the more general standards could open up flexibility for the best-equipped teachers. We don’t have quite the dearth of excellent instructors that some would have you believe. However, not every class or every district ends up with the best teachers in the best places doing the best they can. Exceptional individuals get that way by exceeding norms, not conforming to them. Thus we have standards to begin with, rather than simply trust the judgment of every teacher absolutely. They establish, at the very least, a common baseline below which instruction should not sink. In putting dollars before students, the College Board has measurably lowered that floor this year.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

The end of the world has not come. People all around the world believe comforting lies instead of hard truths about their national pasts. No set of standards will change that. But good historical education should play its part in fighting against that tendency. It should challenge and engage with all the energy that the past has to offer. It should draw attention to nuance and complexity, the animating passions past and present. It should help children become adults who can imagine themselves in different stations, understand the perspectives of others, and recognize both welcome change and horrifying persistence in life. If they, and the adults intervening on their theoretical behalf, want instead to just feel good about themselves then they might find that in any number of endeavors. Should loved ones, hobbies, and the myriad species of entertainment available to us do not themselves satisfy on that front, then I don’t know how history could even if we accepted that it should.

But having gone this far, we should ask what the insistence that history should make us feel good suggests. We all know that history comes oversupplied with things we’d rather not have around. I’d rather live in a world that never heard of slavery, genocide, all the injustices and all the Hitlers and Calhouns who happily practiced, endorsed, and defended the lot. I suspect that some of the College Board’s critics would like the same. The inevitable collision between empathy and atrocity takes its toll, even for those of us spared by long decades, skin color, and other unearned advantages from the pain of dismembered families, broken bodies, and stolen lives. Our ancestors did not leave us a world where these things just didn’t happen. Pretending to such a past, or that all the things we’d rather not have to know about constitute odd quirks safely consigned to the past serves none of us who condemn them. Rather facilitating ignorance abets those who look at past horrors and see in them something to resurrect.

For more than we’d probably like to think, I suspect the “only the good parts” version of history has that as an intended feature rather than an unfortunate consequence. How else could they call discussion slavery and white supremacy “divisive”? What about them divides people today? To have division, we must have at least two parties deeply committed to irreconcilable positions. If these issues do divide, they only separate people who support, defend, and excuse all the beatings, rape, mutilations, and theft from those who do not. We all have our crosses to bear, but we have the great luxury at this remove to easily choose division from proslavery Americans. Even with that light a burden, some of us can’t go so far.

Like so many things, that speaks volumes about us all, the culture we inherited, and the one we continue to make.

 

 

Politics at Topeka, Part Two

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

We left the Topeka Convention split into ersatz parties. The body concerned itself with writing a constitution for Kansas, which they would send on to Congress for deliverance from all the proslavery men had imposed upon them. To write a constitution, the revolutionaries had to decide on its contents and there differences between them appeared. Charles Robinson’s more radical abolitionists met at the Chase House. James Lane’s moderates gathered at the Garvey House. Both seem to have collected in the attics. Both also had their frustrations. Lane had his scandal and abortive duel.

Robinson’s Republicans had a less conspicuous failure. Given Kansas’ history of election stealing, going all the way back to the first election held in the territory and continuing as recently as the month of the convention, October of 1855, the question of who could vote in Kansas might seem like one easily settled. People from Missouri most definitely could not. The Topeka Constitution specified that every voter in the free state Kansas must

have his habitation, domicil, home, and place of permanent abode in the State of Kansas, for six months next preceding the election at which he offers to vote; who, at such time, and for thirty days immediately preceding said time, shall have had his actual habitation, domicil, home, and place of permanent abode in the county in which he offers to vote, and who shall have resided in the precinct or election district for at least ten days immediately preceding the election

Voters had to live in Kansas, really live there rather than just make a claim or swear to intention to settle. The six months in the territory would exclude the usual border ruffians. The requirement to live a month in the county and ten days in the district would curb any attempt by proslavery Kansans to steal elections by internal movements.

The first of Robinson’s frustrations, is probably the one he expected the most, came here. The Constitution specified the voters came in only two kinds: white males and “every civilized male Indian who has adopted the habits of the white man”. Robinson reports that

A small segment of the members were thrown completely outside of all healthy political organization by voting for negro suffrage. Their names were R.H. Crosby, G.S. Hillyer, Amory Hunting, O.C. Brown, Richard Knight, Phillip C. Schuyler, and C. Robinson.

Seven votes out the fifty men elected to go to Topeka might not thrill modern sensibilities. If some others supported the principle of equal suffrage, they did not consider it worth marking themselves out as dissenters by voting with Robinson and company. Still, but nineteenth century standards, even the small turnout looks a bit admirable and certainly forward-thinking. Some of the same seven, whom Robinson doesn’t name, went still further:

as if to make their political damnation sure, [they] voted to strike out the world “male” as well as “white” from the constitution.

Sarah Grimké

Sarah Grimké

They deserve some credit from us for that, but it speaks to more important facts than our moral estimations of the long dead. The abolitionist movement had a large overlap with the nineteenth century women’s movement. As a movement concerned with public morals and reform, abolitionism occupied a gray space in the normally separate spheres of nineteenth century male and female life. Politics remained a world for men, but in their role as moral educators women could take a position within it all the same. Many availed themselves of that opportunity, just as they did with the temperance movement. We should thus understand the motion as an expression of solidarity as well as personal sentiment.

This in turn led to proslavery men castigating abolitionists as weak men dominated by the “weaker” sex. The women themselves received extensive condemnation, damning them as emasculating shrews who sought to force Southern manhood into “submission,” a duty that fell exclusively upon women and slaves. Likewise proslavery men cast them as hysterics who could not comprehend the nuances of politics. They further resorted to crude jibes at their appearance and speculation as to how traveling lecturers really made their money. If all of that sounds depressingly familiar, it should. A century and a half without slavery and a century with women voting have not freed half the species, our mothers, sisters, daughters, and other loved ones from the same sort of scorn for daring presume themselves as good and their opinions as worthy of consideration as those of a man.

Dueling at Topeka, Part Two

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Despite Charles Robinson’s best efforts, we left James Lane and G.P. Lowry with a duel scheduled for eight the next morning. Lowry said something about Lane and a Mrs. Lindsay. Robinson declined to give details, save to say that it involved some scandal and he had helped Lane settle up with Mr. Lindsay. Robert Collins’ biography, Jim Lane: Scoundrel, Statesman, Kansan refers to Lane’s “lecherous” reputation in conjunction with the Lindsay affair. He also relates an episode with a “Mrs. Buffum” who asked pay for her services which Lane could not provide. Disenchanted with the transaction, she drew a pistol, challenged Lane, and chased him through the streets. Collins goes on to say that both stories “came with little proof”. True or not, Lane apparently took the Lindsay rumor as serious enough to warrant a public resolution. Lowry apparently felt confident enough of the matter to wager his life on it, or at least that he wanted others to think he would.

Challenge and acceptance could in themselves satisfy would-be dueling partners. Both showed the world that they felt strongly and would risk injury, so whatever agreement they came to thereafter deserved some respect. But neither man backed down. The night passed and in the morning, Robinson relates that

a message appeared and desired to change the hour from eight o’clock to eleven o’clock. This evidently was the beginning of a back-down, as the convention would be in session at that hour, and most likely Lane would have some friend posted to stop the duel.

These things had a ritual to them. A notionally outside interruption to events could serve to call the thing off. Robinson probably didn’t need hindsight or a deep knowledge of dueling culture to recognize delaying tactics when he saw them. Nor did Lowry, who accepted the change. The convention commenced and half an hour before the time appointed, Lane rose and gave what Robinson called “one of his windy harangues”. He spoke until the time came, then closed, claimed his hat, and started for the duel.

Instantly Judge Smith arose, in great apparent agitation, made the announcement that he had learned a hostile meeting was in contemplation, to which some members of the convention were parties, and he desired “to move the adoption of the following resolution,” which had been previously prepared in due form. This resolution apparently created a great sensation, and proposed to expel any member of the convention who would be a party to such a meeting, either as principal or second.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Such a resolution could give both men a face-saving way to back down. They had a higher charge to their constituents and a duty to Kansas, for which they could sacrifice their grudge. The convention approved unanimously. Robinson, accepting that he had acted as Lowry’s second the night previous, chose “to conform to the resolution” and so passed his role to J.F. Legate.

Legate was in his element, and demanded a fight or an ignominious back-down and apology on the part of Lane. It is needless to say the apology and back-down came to the full satisfaction of the challenged party. This was the first and last duel in Kansas

This kind of ritual brinksmanship and choreographed de-escalation occurred often enough in duels. It seems that the challenge and acceptance formed not the immediate precursor to the clash of arms, but rather one step of several along the road to a non-violent resolution. People really did duel one another from time to time, as Andrew Jackson and Thomas Hart Benton did, but the theater of honor could serve in lieu of the field of honor easily enough. If that theater sounds like the stage for an absurd, swaggering farce with far too much risk of going wrong to us, then it prompted eye rolling and shock from some quarters at the time as well.

Dueling at Topeka, Part One

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

James Lane managed to exact his pound of flesh in the Topeka convention’s acceptance of popular sovereignty, however little Charles Robinson and his Republicans liked it. In that respect, at least, the convention would sound as Democratic as its members. But this did not satisfy him. Robinson reported in The Kansas Conflict that Lane also had the convention’s chair to serve as vindication against rumors swirling about. The rumors failed to cease and Lane thus required more satisfaction. As Robinson had it, with his customary charity toward the ex-congressman from Indiana, “he must put a gag in every man’s mouth.”

G.P. Lowry, late of the Kansas Legion and once Andrew Reeder’s private secretary, came up to the attic of the Chase House. There he found Robinson and his fellow abolition-minded Republicans. Lowry related that Lane had challenged him to a duel. Would Robinson serve as his second?

Robinson, who refers to himself in the third person throughout his account

was indignant that the Free-State cause should be tarnished by such transactions, and said it must not be permitted. He utterly detested duelling, knew nothing of the code, and would have nothing to do with it.

One wonders how much of this Robinson put on for posterity. The actual job of the seconds in a duel involved as much negotiation to prevent the duel as it did facilitation. He might genuinely not have known, but he proceeded to act as a second all the same:

thinking he could shame Lane out of the business, [Robinson] went to the Garvey House attic to see Lane. there he found him trembling with fear, or shaking with the ague, so as visibly to move the cot on which he lay. On being reproved for bringing disgrace upon the party, he said Lowry had been repeating the scandal about himself and Mrs. Lindsay, and he had determined to put a stop to it at once and forever.

Lane determined that then, but Robinson reports

Notwithstanding Lane had gone to Robinson’s house early in the morning and begged of him to assist in preventing Lindsay from shooting him, and though Robinson had endorsed a note to effect a settlement, yet not Lane would try to make believe there was nothing to the matter, and he was bound to stop all such talk. After dwelling upon the folly of such a course, saying that if he should kill Lowry, it would not stop the scandal nor vindicate him in public estimation, and if Lowry should kill him he would fare no better, Lane replied that he could do nothing about it, as Parrott was his second and the whole matter was in his hands.

If Lane sounds unstable, perhaps he should. His battle with depression ended in an 1866 suicide. Robinson might have embroidered the account to make him look worse, but the mix of self-sabotage and avoidance rings true to this fellow sufferer. We can’t know Lane’s mind, but he might have settled with Mr. Lindsay and then thought matters concluded until Lowry said something. Lane could have then thought he could never escape from the scandal, unless he did something drastic. Anything to get out of it all could have sounded good in the desperate heat of the moment.

Robinson’s pleas did not move Lane. The parties found a Major Robert Klotz to “superintend” and set the time for eight the next morning.

Politics at Topeka, Part One

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

On October 23, 1855, delegates of the people of Kansas met in convention at Topeka to write a constitution. They had no lawful authority, but as many had attended their questionable election as had voted in the election that the legal government of the territory called for a week prior. If one subtracted Missourians who had no right to vote in Kansas but did anyway, the convention could likely claim a healthy majority of Kansans in support. They came from near every state in the Union and included men born in England and Ireland. William Phillips waxed eloquent for a paragraph about their antecedents. Charles Robinson had a more qualified view of the delegates’ excellence. In The Kansas Conflict, he writes

The convention to frame the constitution met as provided, and the game of personal politics opened at once. The play was serio-comic from the first, often verging upon the tragic or ridiculous. The only officer of importance to be elected was president of the convention. To this position Colonel Lane, of course, aspired. As an evidence of his resources and political ingenuity, he based his claims to the highest office in the gift of the members on a damaging scandal. He asked for votes as an endorsement and vindication of his character. The Free State of October 29th makes this comment:

“It will be seen in another column that the constitutional convention has met and elected its officers. They, of course, put in the chair a certain individual, in order to counteract the effect of a true report that was abroad that might injure him, and as he declared that he would sink to hell rather than be defeated, we are rather afraid he will ‘sink’ anyhow, notwithstanding his success.”

Phillips doesn’t mention any rumors chasing Lane around Kansas in relation to his convention presidency, but he also wrote in late 1856 when Lane still lived and Kansas remained contested. Robinson wrote in 1892. He would have felt far less pressure to gild the reputation of a dead man. (Lane shot himself in the head in 1866 and died from the injury ten days later.) With Kansas matters settled, he likewise would have had little need to present a united front. But on the other hand, Robinson clearly did not think well of Lane at all. He led the Republicans of Kansas and Lane the Democrats. Phillips could have dismissed the scandal on political grounds, but Robinson could also have dusted it off to settle old scores.

William Phillips

William Phillips

In any event, Robinson reported that the convention divided almost at once between conservative and radical factions.

The first had headquarters at the Garvey House, and the second at the Chase House. Slate-making was at once inaugurated at the Garvey House, while the radicals at the Chase House accepted the situation with good-nature, as they were willing to forego all honors and emoluments of office if they could only secure a free State.

I suspect that Robinson’s group would have liked a few offices for themselves. But if they did not accept losing out on patronage quite as gracefully as he chose to recall, then Phillips describes them as willing to accept a fair amount of compromise and rather less interested in offices than Lane’s. We need not choose between praising their purity or damning their corruption. Robinson’s contingent could have an interest in offices, which he downplayed in later years, and still care more about keeping slavery from Kansas than securing those offices.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Issues played their part. Of these, Robinson first names a resolution “endorsing squatter sovereignty and Democracy generally.” Given his capitalization and the context, it sounds like Lane wanted to make the convention into an explicitly Democratic gathering. By endorsing popular sovereignty, he would align his party with the national party mainstream and keep consistent with his own vote in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Robinson even has his group bringing out “old campaign literature” to make the point. Lane made this into a test: If you would not sign on to his resolution, you could not have a place on his slate. Thus those who had ambitions for office must reconcile themselves to running, officially or otherwise, as Democrats.

The other issues deserve their own posts, which shall come next week.

Understanding C. Stearns

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Parts 12, 3

I have spent some time wondering what exactly went through C. Stearns’ mind when he penned his letter to the Herald of Freedom. One can read them as the work of an antislavery man resigned to defeat, one resentful of some of the leaders of the movement, one trying to show proslavery neighbors with guns in hand that he had nothing to do with those Lawrence crazies, or even as a proslavery man writing entirely in bad faith. Last night I came across this passage from Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual at Corey Robin’s blog:

Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.

For an intellectual these habits are corrupting par excellence. If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life it is the internalization of such habits.

Stearns wrote with a fair bit of intellectual condescension, much of which I have declined to quote.  He could find only venal and emotional motives to explain the antislavery party’s move to make their own state. The ringleaders wanted the benefits of public office. Passion drove them, not good sense. Faced with the total capture of the territorial government by proslavery men and their thoroughgoing attack on white freedoms, occasionally graduating to attacks on white lives as well, he advises his supposed allies to essentially take all that comes as if lives and freedom did not hang on the line.

I only know Stearns from this letter. If anybody knows more, I’ll happily hear it. But to judge from the letter, Stearns sounds very much like Said’s corrupted intellectual. I don’t think that he harbored secret antislavery beliefs. He certainly understood the situation well enough to fear the proslavery party’s wrath, something that will come out in future posts. But, despite his denials of “egotism” he clearly fancies himself a man who sees far more clearly than others. He even signed his letter “Yours for the supremacy of reason.”

None of that makes Stearns’ letter unimportant. He still represents diversity of opinion among antislavery Kansans. He might very well have put into writing the doubts many expressed in private but would not send to the papers. With the friends of slavery very much in ascendance and known to prosecute their case with violence, it hardly requires a coward or a fool to worry about how things might go badly.