Governor Shannon’s New Army

SJ Jones

Samuel Jones

When the free state legislature chose to defer enactment of any legislation it passed until it secured Kansas’ admission as a state, with the free state men in charge, they did so of a mind that the President of the United States considered them traitors. They might soon face arrest, a fact that could have hardly slipped their minds with the notorious Samuel Jones taking their names down as they swore their oaths of office. They might actually have committed treason. Legal niceties had hardly stopped Missourians from coming to steal their elections and in hopes of razing their towns, but the border ruffians did not operate under the color of law the way that the United States army would if Franklin Pierce gave the proper orders.

Pierce had already done something to that effect. The March 15, 1856 Herald of Freedom reminded its readers how all had hoped that Colonel Sumner would come from Fort Leavenworth to Lawrence’s rescue back in December. Sumner had not come, despite Wilson Shannon’s entreaties. Sumner said at the time that he lacked instructions from Washington and did not feel confident to act on his own authority. Now he had those instructions, which the paper printed news of by way of a letter that Secretary of State William Marcy wrote to Governor Shannon. He attached a copy of Sumner’s orders and Pierce’s law and order proclamation.

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

Pierce, Marcy averred, did not think Shannon’s situation so dire as to require the use of federal troops. He should call upon them only as a last resort, but

if it becomes indispensably necessary to do so in order to execute the laws and preserve the peace, you are hereby authorized by the President to make requisition upon the officers commanding the United States military forces at Forts Leavenworth and Riley

Shannon would only use the power in “extraordinary emergency”, Marcy insisted, but he had it. If the immediate establishment of the free state goverment didn’t justify calling out the troops, then some future clash might. Shannon tried desperately to secure Sumner’s aid to save Lawrence and so had established precedent that he would use the military if possible. Once the Cavalry rode, where would they stop?

George Brown put a positive spin on all of this. He insisted that Pierce’s proclamation

is not so villainous a document as the telegraph reports make it, and as for the instructions to Gov. Shannon, they are all we could expect, or even desire. While the Governor abides by the letter of those instructions, it will afford us pleasure to sustain him. Our State organization will be in no way of Gov. Shannon. Until an attempt is made to enforce the laws enacted by that body, they are harmless. If they adopt a code of laws which commend themselves to everybody’s sense of justice, and they are everywhere obeyed, how can Gov. Shannon, or anybody else, find fault?

Brown had a strong interest in painting the free state government as perfectly innocuous, but even in doing so he hedged carefully. If they adopt laws and if those laws comport to everyone’s morals, why would they give cause for objection? And if Shannon followed the letter of Franklin Pierce’s proclamation, rather than its avowedly proslavery spirit, all would work out.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

But would Shannon follow the letter of the president’s instructions? When he came to Lawrence’s rescue, Shannon had shown himself not quite the proslavery partisan everyone had feared. Maybe he had gotten right by popular sovereignty when he saw how far things had gone, but Shannon had helped save Lawrence from a private army of hooligans which he had unwittingly mustered himself. When they went to Lawrence, they went to serve warrants that Shannon had seen issued. A public army legally under his control presented a different scenario entirely. Likewise the governor can’t have loved the news of a rival government to his own, headed by men he probably thought had tricked him. His charge to, in Brown’s words,

put down insubordination on the one hand, and prevent invasion on the other

might mean no more Charles Dows, Thomas Barbers, Samuel Collinses, or Reese Browns, but it could also mean calling out the army to break up the government at Topeka. Insubordination, to Shannon, might very well mean wildcat state governments as much as proslavery violence. Even if he struck at both equally, that would leave the Kansas that stolen elections had already wrought. That Kansas had slavery baked deep into its laws.


“Martyrdom on the scaffold or the stake”

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Robinson concluded his first message (PDF) to Kansas’ new legislature with some further remarks on their situation. Everyone had seen Sheriff Jones taking names down as men came forward and swore their oaths of office. They might have exchanged some jokes or tossed a few insults his way, but everybody knew Jones meant business. Robinson didn’t name him, but none could have had to guess for long just who he meant when the new governor said

It is understood that the Deputy Marshal has private instructions to arrest the members of the Legislature and the State officers for treason as soon as this address is received by you. In such an event of course, no resistance will be offered to the officer.

The last time someone, Samuel Newitt Wood, offered resistance to Jones it ended with an army outside Lawrence. For all the bellicose language common in such times, the free state movement had barely gotten clear of that without a battle they might well have lost or, failing that, won at the expense of bringing the United States Army down on their heads.

The standards of manly performance would not allow Robinson to admit to that in so many words, but nineteenth century discourse permitted him other avenues:

Men who are ready to defend their own and their country’s honor with their lives, can never object to a legal investigation into their action, nor to suffer any punishment their conduct may merit. We should be unworthy the constituency we represent did we shrink from martyrdom on the scaffold or at the stake should duty require it. Should the blood of Collins and Dow, of Barber and Brown, be insufficient to quench the thirst of the President and his accomplices in the hollow mockery of “Squatter Sovereignty” they are practising upon the people of Kansas, then more victims must be furnished. Let what will come not a finger should be raised against the Federal authority until there shall be no hope of relief but in revolution.

If the vampiric president descended upon them, Robinson told the free state men to stand ready. Should Pierce throw a war, they ought to come. Should he martyr them, they died for righteousness’ sake and could claim whatever patriotic and heavenly blessings such an office would convey. Kansas had hard times yet ahead, Robinson averred, but together and putting their faith in the Almighty, “His wisdom who makes ‘the wrath of men praise him'” they would make their Kansas into the Kansas, a state of the Union free twice over. Their Kansas would have no slaves and no black Americans alike, preserving it for them and their posterity. To that cause, the Governor need not add, they would commit their lives, their liberty, and their sacred honor.

Nathaniel Banks

Nathaniel Banks

It must have made for a rousing read, thick with the patriotic and religious sentiments most potent to Robinson’s audience. But the bold words had to come with more than a hint of desperation. Jones would probably try nothing then and there, but what would happen down the road? The free state men had stuck their necks out, then stuck them out still further, in the hope that Congress would come to their rescue. That same Congress finally agreed on who ought to serve as Speaker of the House after a solid two months of debate, finally settling on a Know-Nothing antislavery man called Nathaniel Banks. They elected him on a plurality, not a majority, and it took one hundred and thirty-three ballots. The question of the free state government’s legitimacy could not hope to be any less explosive than that.

Trouble at Easton, Part Three

Around six o’clock on January 17, 1856, proslavery men in Easton, Kansas Territory, made their first serious go at the free state polls. They had come up and made threats before, but the close of the election and consequent dispersal of armed free state men emboldened them. They rode up and demanded the ballot box, at which point a group of free state men came out and formed a line against them. Joseph Bird and Henry Adams, two of the defenders, gave fairly restrained testimony to the Howard Committee about the confrontation. J.C. Green, another in the line that evening, told a bit more:

Towards night a party of men came up within a hundred yards of Mr. Minard’s house, where the election was held. They appeared to be generally armed, and were yelling.

Green and the others made their appearance

and told them they must come no further. They then stopped and used a good deal of abusive language. The one who seemed to be in command of the party coming up, told them to charge several times, but they did not do so. After standing a short time, they turned and went back.

Stephen Sparks, another man on the line outside Minard’s and of whom we shall hear more, agreed:

I heard some one of the crowd, who appeared to be the leader, say, “Charge on them, God-damn them! I ain’t afraid!” About this time our men had nearly formed themselves from the door to the road. Upon seeing our force they halted, and returned without further difficulty.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The proslavery party in Kansas often come across like deranged maniacs, particularly the rank and file who we see almost exclusively through the accounts of their enemies. Prominent men had more to lose and so often acted with a small measure of circumspection. David Rice Atchison, who promised to murder every abolitionist in Kansas, ultimately backed down at Lawrence and worked to defuse the situation. He must have hated it and fumed at how those blasted abolitionists outmaneuvered him, but Bourbon Dave helped reel in his boys all the same.

Green doesn’t name the leader of the proslavery men; he may have been a locally prominent individual who also had much to lose. If he did, he thought Easton a hill worth dying on. His men disagreed. The folk wisdom about bullies seems pertinent: they didn’t mind an unfair fight but the other kind could get one of them killed. Maybe some of them had molested George Wetherell up at Leavenworth the month prior or gone off in hopes of destroying Lawrence, but in both cases they expected no fight or a very uneven one.

They might, in fact, have expected something more like disciplining slaves. An enslaved person could not fight back. Failing that, Southern communities often policed white dissenters from slavery by mob action. With the exception of Patrick Laughlin’s killing of Samuel Collins, every violent scrape that I’ve yet looked into in Kansas came in about much like that: an uneven fight from the beginning where the victim had few friends to come to his defense.


Burying Thomas Barber, Part Two

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

We left the interment of Thomas Barber with James Lane giving a political speech. That might sound crass to us, and some who braved the December cold that day might agree, but Barber died at the hands of a proslavery man in a relatively one-sided armed conflict between Kansas contending parties. Barber and his killer lacked any claim dispute, unlike Charles Dow and Franklin Coleman, and had not sought out a clash as Samuel Collins had. Nor had he even died in the conduct of his duties in the defense of Lawrence. Rather the proslavery men shot him on his way home. Barber chose the antislavery cause and died for it.

After Lane, Charles Robinson spoke. He commenced by assailing the face-saving fiction that Wilson Shannon insisted upon:

‘Misunderstanding’ the facts and the temper of our people, as well as their tactics, the Executive recently gave the signal for another [invasion], and the armed hordes again responded. our citizens have been besieged, robbed, insulted, and murdered; and our town threatened with destruction for two whole weeks, by the authority of the executive, and, as he now says, in consequence of a ‘misunderstanding.’ A misunderstanding on the part of an Executive is a most unfortunate affair.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

While a hostile army waited outside town, Robinson might go along with all that. Now that doom did not hang over Lawrence, he saw no need to continue. Instead he recast the Wakarusa War as a plan on Shannon’s part to steer the free state movement into collision with the United States military. If he went beyond the facts in carrying the Governor’s plans so far, one can hardly blame him. Shannon supplied the pretext by which forces marched against Lawrence and his government included men eager to have the Missourians on board and to do more than put Jacob Branson back in the hands of Samuel Jones. The Governor then called for the 1st Cavalry out of Fort Leavenworth to play a part. We might take Shannon at his word that he planned to use the Army to save Lawrence, but Robinson didn’t have the Governor’s correspondence on hand. Nor can we fault him too much for holding a low opinion of Shannon’s honesty on such matters.

This consideration led directly to another. Who must they blame for Thomas Barber’s untimely death?

Report says Thomas Barber was murdered in cold blood by an officer or officers of the Government who was a member of the Sheriff’s posse, which was commanded by the Governor, was is backed by the President of the United States. Was Thomas Barber murdered? Then are the men who killed him, and the officials by whose authority they acted his murderers. And if the laws are to be enforced, then will the Indian Agent, the Governor, and the President be convicted of, and punished for, murder. There is work enough for the ‘law and order’ men to do, and let us hear no more about resistance to the laws till this work is done.

The enforcement of the law, Robinson noted, required “all Missouri must be aroused, and the whole nation convulsed to serve a peace-warrant on an unoffending citizen.” Might they hope the same with a man dead? In a just world, they might. In a world where everyone hewed to the same principles in the same way, they would. The people of Lawrence, in such a world, would soon see at least the man who shot Barber, the aforementioned Indian Agent, on trial. They might even see those who had command responsibility over him, like Wilson Shannon, on the dock.

But Robinson and his neighbors lived in territorial Kansas, where their foes did not regard the death of an antislavery man as regrettable at all. For proslavery men to accept justice for Thomas Barber’s memory, they would first have to accept that they could do wrong in killing an antislavery man at all. They aimed to do no such thing, instead understanding themselves as dispatching dangerous criminals. If they undertook the task with transparent glee, then who could fault the righteous for enjoying their wrath?

Burying Thomas Barber, Part One

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

While John Stringfellow and Robert Kelley stewed over their loss on the Wakarusa, but people of Lawrence had the matching triumph to enjoy. They not only survived, emerged from the crisis with official sanction for their military companies. Given now close it came to destruction, one can hardly begrudge them a party. A man did, however, lose his life to their enemies. Thomas Barber died during the siege. With hostile forces dispersed, they took the time to remember him.

The Herald of Freedom eulogized Barber as

a person of very exemplary character, formerly from Ohio. He was forty-two years of age, a gentleman of large property, and leaves a devoted wife to mourn his loss.

A viewing took place before the close of hostilities, from which Lawrence took an edifying example:

Those who looked upon his cold and ghastly form pledged themselves anew before heaven that they would drive the demon, who could commit such barbarities in the name of law, from the Territory, or they would die in the attempt.

Making allowances for the desire to put on a manly display, and for George Washington Brown’s understandable desire to talk up the resolution of the defenders, the fact remains that what happened to Barber could have happened to anyone. If people didn’t quite fall to their knees and rededicate themselves like something out of a revival meeting, then they could look on Thomas Barber and see proof that the situation required the last full measure of devotion.

Thereafter, Lawrence gave Barber a temporary burial. The arrival of peace occasioned a more proper interment, recounted in the December 22 Herald of Freedom. Some time had gone by since the funeral, but George Brown explained that he could not print on account of his paper freezing and the exposed state of his office. I think we can forgive him.

At the funeral, James Lane

read an interesting address in which he detailed the origin of our difficulties with Missouri, and traced them to their termination. He showed that Mr. Dow and Mr. Barber were the first martyrs of freedom in Kansas, and as such, monuments should be erected to their memory.

The audience would probably have expected Dow and Barber to come together, but Barber’s death came under rather different circumstances that Dow’s or the two other free state deaths to date. Those took place in the context of personal disputes. One could understand them as private arguments exacerbated by politics. Even when Patrick Laughlin killed Samuel Collins, the affair played out on the level of individuals and in the context of Laughlin accusing Collins of involvement in the Kansas Legion. Barber met his end at the hands of a hostile proslavery army, while himself enrolled in an antislavery force. While not a huge escalation, Barber’s death pushed things some measure further than they had gone before. The dreaded direct clash between militants had come, if not yet on the grand scale feared.

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.

Resolutions of the Law and Order Party, Part One

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Shannon goes to Leavenworth: parts 1, 2

Wilson Shannon went off to the Law and Order Convention at Leavenworth, where he presided and won the crowd with a rousing speech in defense of the laws of Kansas. He notionally represented Douglas County, home of the infamously free soil Lawrence. This news would have made an unwelcome surprise for most of the people living in the county.

A nineteenth century public meeting would hardly pass without resolutions. Writing and approving such resolutions constituted their main business, aside from the speeches and liberal helpings of food and drink. The Law and Order men did not make themselves an exception. As one would guess from their chosen name and past resolutions calling the convention, they framed themselves as thoroughly establishment gentlemen

believing the constitution of the U.S. and the Law passed in pursuance thereof, are sufficient for the protection of our rights, both of person and property, and that in the observance of the same, are vested our only hopes of security for Liberty and the Union, and that we will maintain the same at all hazzards.

Out of context, this all comes across as bland conservative piety with a bit of vigorous nineteenth century manhood at the end. They may as well have endorsed the hallowed platform of Mom and Apple Pie. But none at the time could have missed that they invoked the Constitution to specifically link it to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, from which the legislature derived its authority. By extension, the works of the legislature had the same imprimatur. Fraudulent elections or not, proslavery men commanded the recognized, legal authority in the Territory of Kansas. Their power thus reached back up through the Kansas-Nebraska Act to the Congress and the Constitution that established it.

Invocation of constitutional niceties went only so far. No less then than now, we all fancy the Constitution to read precisely as we intend to do, forbidding any other course. Thus they further endorse the laws of Kansas as adequate to secure their rights, including property rights. By this they may have also meant rights to their homes, land, and conventional belongings, but also their right to what people of the time called property in man. This, they would maintain “at all hazzards.”

There too, the subtext of the resolution extends beyond conventional piety. The convention made this clear in its next resolve, which declared that in every form of government

Monarchial, Aristocratical, Democratic, or Republican, the liberty, the life, and the property of no individual is safe unless the Laws passed by the properly constituted authorities are strictly and freely obeyed.

As little as we care for their actual ends, the law and order men have a point. Even the finest laws written with the most careful sensitivity to human rights do no more than entomb what they propose to defend if the people fail respect and obey them. This holds as much true for laws abolishing slavery as for laws instituting it. Thus:

we hold the doctrine to be strictly true, that no man, or set of men are at liberty to resist a law passed by a legislative body, legally organized, unless they choose by their actions to constitute themselves rebels and traitors, and take all the consequences that legitimately follow the failure of a revolution.

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward

The free soil men would probably answer back that they obeyed higher obligations, perhaps even William H. Seward’s Higher Laws for the real radicals, but also that they did so firmly seated in the American tradition of protest. They rebelled against an illegitimate authority and its tyrannical actions, whatever the legal forms of legitimacy. The made themselves into rebels against it, but by no means traitors to the United States. One can go back and forth like this indefinitely, with both parties insisting that they cast the tea over the side while the other passed the Stamp Act.

We should not, however, understand their expressions of fidelity to American tradition as insincere. Both parties understood themselves as defending the right and good against great peril. The free state movement had erected an illegal shadow government which acted in all the ways it could as though it had legal power over Kansas. This might sometimes make for an idle show, but we should not forget that they also had an armed militia and one of its members, Samuel Collins, had just tried to kill a proslavery man. This had the look of a genuine crisis as much from a proslavery perspective as the opposite.


Friends of Law and Order in Doniphan, Part Two

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

We left the October 30, 1855 Squatter Sovereign reporting on the local meeting in Doniphan to select representatives for the Law and Order Convention to meet at Leavenworth. The gathering chose its delegates and further published a series of resolutions deeply informed by the late revelations from Patrick Laughlin regarding the Kansas Legion. With Laughlin then nursing a would acquired in his fight with Samuel Collins and at least two other participants in that brawl present, both of whom took part in drawing up the resolutions, they had a great deal on their minds. For once, the claim that abolitionists meant to personally murder proslavery men, women, and children in their beds seems like something they might genuinely believe in the offing.

While the committee worked, the general body of the meeting had Laughlin’s story read to them. When they came back with their resolutions, the statement of purposes cited the threat of armed abolitionists directly. Of six resolutions, only two did not reference Laughlin or the Legion in some way. One endorsed the law and order meeting and the last instructed the Squatter Sovereign to print the Doniphan proceedings.

Almost every public meeting seems to have a resolution about printing and the Leavenworth endorsement serves as little more than a procedural matter, we can fairly take the Donpihan resolutions as all about Laughlin’s news. One called on Wilson Shannon to suppress the antislavery militia, another demanded that the attorney-general arrest the Kansas Legion’s ringleaders. But all of this didn’t seem quite clear enough, so the group also resolved

That we place most implicit confidence in the statement of P. Laughlin, Esq., in exposing the murderous designs of the secret organization of the Free-Soil-Abolition party […] and that he is a gentleman of good character and high respectability, and will receive the thanks of the people of Kansas and the Nation at large, for exposing to view the treasonable designs of a secret organization, who seek to plunder the country in civil war and drench the Nation in human gore.

They believed in Laughin so deeply, in fact, that they named him one of their delegates to the convention.

This all fits very comfortably with normal proslavery polemics, but we should not let ourselves forget that the people of Doniphan had a real out break of violence in their streets less than a week prior that ended with one man dead and another wounded. We have only proslavery versions of events, but we can take it for granted that that rendering circulated freely in the town. There, Collins seems to have violently accosted Laughlin on multiple occasions. At least in the story, and possibly in reality, he lived up to the stereotype of the madman abolitionist bent on destroying whites. Thus the meeting further resolved

we most cordially invite every law abiding citizen, without distinction of party, to join us in upholding the Laws of our Territory and the Constitution of the Nation, that the horrors of a bloody civil war may be averted, and our country preserved.

Just as the group in Leavenworth which called the meeting tried to sound moderate by appealing to universal concerns about order and independent of party, so too did the Doniphan group. There they soon faced the same problem as their antecedent did. To endorse the laws of Kansas hardly made one into a moderate acceptable to all parties.

Friends of Law and Order in Doniphan, Part One

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Back at the start of October, before Patrick Laughlin told all the Kansas Legion’s secrets to the newspapers, Samuel Collins called on him to recant, the two got into a fight that left Collins dead and Laughlin stabbed, generating a flurry of editorialscounter-editorials, and related writing, a group of proslavery men got together in Leavenworth and called for a somewhat more moderate course. They focused their criticism on the free state movement’s blatantly illegal and potentially treasonous program of setting up a wildcat state government. They would stand for law and order, albeit the kind that abetted slavery. With the law and order convention scheduled for November 14, 1855, local groups around Kansas had to get together and select men to go if they wanted representation. The Squatter Sovereign for October 30 covered such a meeting in Doniphan, held hot on the heels of Samuel Collins’ death.

Per the Sovereign, “a large number” of the county’s citizens gathered at Dr. O. Brown’s office. Unless two doctors named O. Brown lived in Doniphan at the time, which could have happened, that office also saw Laughlin and Collins’ preliminary scuffle the night before their fatal confrontation. The Laughlin connection did not end there, as the meeting named James Lunch and James F. Forman among the county’s representatives. Lynch fired a shot during the Laughlin-Collins fight. Forman knocked Collins’ gun away.

As one did at these things, the meeting appointed a committee to draw up resolutions to take along. While they did their work elsewhere, the meeting’s Secretary, John A. Vanarsdale,

read the disclosure of P. Laughlin, relative to the Free-Soil-Abolition party, which had a thrilling effect on the attentive audience.

With Collins’ death and Laughlin’s injury so recent, everyone must have heard something about it already. But not everyone read the papers, or read them in a timely fashion, so they must have attended the news eagerly. It would certainly set them in the proper mindset for battling antislavery Kansans. If the Law and Order men at Leavenworth said that the free state movement threatened anarchy, then the men at Doniphan could take their late experience as proof of the danger.

If anyone missed the connection, then the committee made it clear when they introduced their resolutions:

Information has come to light from a reliable source, that there is in our midst a secret organization of what is called the Free-Soil-Abolition party, having for its object the overthrow and subversion of the liberties of the people of Kansas; and whereas, arms and munitions of war have been sent into the Territory by the people of Boston, for the purpose of butchering our wives and children, one hundred thousand dollars have already been collected and sent here to their friends to prosecute their hellish designs; and whereas, secret agents are stationed in some parts of the Territory to give the signal of war and to commence the bloody work of butchering our families, burning our houses and destroying our property

One wonders how much of that they meant literally. Usually proslavery Americans invoked this kind of destruction as the result of a slave revolt, but Kansas had precious few slaves to launch one. However, given the late revelations of an armed secret society it seems more credible than usual that the authors understood the Kansas Legion as aimed at just that goal. “Abolitionists” might not wait for slaves to do their dirty work as a consequence of emancipation, but rather pursue emancipation through the murder of proslavery whites.

The committee called on Wilson Shannon to prevent all of this by placing Kansas “in a state of defensive warfare.” They then named names, taking them straight from Laughlin, and

most respectfully call upon the Attorney-General of this Territory to commence, by legal process, a suit against the above named persons, and bring them to a fair and speedy trial

Decapitating the Kansas Legion would certainly make a sounder night’s sleep for those who really did believe its members aimed to embark on a campaign of murder. They all at least arguably stood in violation of various Kansas laws, to say nothing of the general laws against murderous conspiracy. Even an impartial party could make a fair case against them on the latter grounds.

The Herald of Freedom on Patrick Laughlin, Part Two

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Part One

George Washington Brown had a great deal to say about Patrick Laughlin in the pages of the November 17 Herald of Freedom. He published a report of Samuel Collins’ death at Laughlin’s hands, but gave over a considerable portion of the issue to related matters. Under the headline “Pat Laughlin’s Exposure”, Brown laid into Laughlin’s original article in the St. Joseph Cycle. He introduces it as the work of “a son of Erin, calling himself Pat Laughlin”.

the pro-slavery press are nearly frightened out of their boots on account of it. Pat says, “blessings I have not enjoyed since I became connected with this secret order.” His object in making the development was that he might “have some sleep on an easy conscience.”

Brown relates how Laughlin, by his own admission, swore that if he revealed as a perjurer and traitor. Therefore, Brown writes:

Pat stands before the country, according to his own showing, as a “perjurer before heaven, a traitor to his country, subject to the scorn of all men, the frown of devils, and utter abandonment of God,” else a falsifier and libeler, and wholly unworthy of credit the best way he can fix it.

The oath did include those words, so Laughlin could hardly complain that Brown treated him unfairly. Laughlin had to either lie in exposing the Kansas Legion or have made himself a liar in swearing his oath. Either way, Brown could fairly claim that Laughlin indicted himself. Who should believe such a man?

While Brown’s offering of the perjurer now vs. perjurer then distinction, he ultimately insisted that Laughlin lied from start to finish, inventing it all:

If Pat’s statements were true, the Free State men of Kansas are thoroughly organize don a military base, and are well qualified to resist the usurpations of the “border ruffians.” If they believe the tale they will not dare, as they value their lives, to send another marauding expedition into the interior of the Territory. We give it as our private opinion that there is something on which to base the story; that it is not wholly a fabrication; though we are suspicious that much of it arises from the fertile imagination of this worthy son of Erin, else from that of his amanuensis.

Brown did a great job of having it both ways. Laughlin invented everything, he insisted. However, even if he hadn’t, Laughlin made himself a liar so he should not be trusted. But if one did trust Laughlin, then he hinted to his readers that the free state men did have an armed organization. Maybe it didn’t match Laughlin’s account, but if it did then Missouri men should stay clear for their own safety. And even if it fell short, who could say how far short? Small bands of border ruffians might just find themselves with a nasty surprise all the same.

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to “take over” American life

Brown concluded with a gratuitous dig at Laughlin. An Irish immigrant might not speak English. Many in the nineteenth century came from the western reaches of the island where the language had not quite come to dominate yet. But Laughlin had lived in the country for years and interacted successfully enough with anglophones.

Failing that, Laughlin must have had an amanuensis, who wrote under his name. Here Brown reversed the usual complaint proslavery men made of slave narratives. Some better-educated person had written, presumably inventing along the way, on behalf of the slave. Everyone knew they couldn’t produce such work on their own. It would go well beyond the facts to say that the Irish had it as bad as slaves, or that they served as slaves (PDF), but nineteenth century Americans proved versatile enough to express their prejudices similarly from time to time.