How Often Did Enslavers Abuse Their Slaves?

Peter from Louisiana

Gentle Readers, some time ago I shared with you the story of an enslaved girl being brutally whipped. I did not then have the research habits I have now. In the course of answering a question about the prevalence of violence against enslaved people for Reddit’s AskHistorians, I revisited the story and gathered together some other sources I have since come upon on the subject. I have reworked portions of that post into this. None of it makes for a pleasant read. If you feel that you should take a pass on today’s post, please do so. Also please know that this post includes a vile racial slur.

One must naturally ask, if one accepts that enslavers abused their slaves, if every last one of them did it. We have a natural inclination to look for exceptions and we know from our own lives that people who do the same thing rarely ever do it to a uniform degree or in just the same way. Especially in our bureaucratized, computerized age it makes sense to ask for a normal level of brutality too, even if the victims of violence don’t have the luxury of comparing and taking their relative suffering with a philosopher’s detachment. The pain we feel, we must feel most keenly.

Enslavers, overseers, and others charged with controlling enslaved labor are people and do vary, but they and the law take violent “correction” as generally a matter of course. An enslaver who doesn’t lay it on regularly risks being thought a dangerously light touch and possibly a secret abolitionist in the minds of his neighbors. If one didn’t have the stomach for whipping oneself and didn’t have a regular person to do it, one could get the local sheriff to serve for a one-time fee. Robert E. Lee did.

Frederick Law Olmsted traveled the South and what he reports is largely consistent with the attitudes I see Southerners express amongst themselves:

The whip was evidently in constant use, however. There were no rules on the subject, that I learned; the overseers and drivers punished the negroes whenever they deemed it necessary, and in such manner, and with such severity, as they thought fit. “If you don’t work faster,” or “If you don’t work better,” or “If you don’t recollect what I tell you, I will have you flogged,” are threats which I have often heard. I said to one of the overseers, “It must be very disagreeable to have to punish them as much as you do?” “Yes, it would be to those who are not used to it-but it’s my business, and I think nothing of it. Why, sir, I wouldn’t mind killing a nigger more than I would a dog.” I asked if he had ever killed a negro? “Not quite,” he said, but overseers were often obliged to.

Olmsted’s informant gave resistance to being whipped as just cause for a murder, which is something that Northrup risks in the movie. Enslavers often quantify by the number of lashes and we find occasional reference to standard punishments so incremented, but should not mistake these for modern business regulations. Enslavers, for practical purposes, answer only to themselves. Getting between the “domestic” relationship of a man and his human property smacked of abolitionism, to the point that even people running Bible study classes for slaves with the permission and supervision of their enslavers have trouble keeping on.

Independent of Olmsted, Jourdon Anderson’s famous letter to his ex-enslaver references a similar incident:

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

One doesn’t see much outright killing, though the law rarely punished any that did happen. More often comes horrific violence, which might lead to death. The worst Olmsted, an outsider present with the knowledge of the enslavers, saw happened to an eighteen year-old named Sall. They came on her while crossing a gully, where she had hidden out. She gave an excuse for being abroad without leave, but the overseer (Olmsted’s tour guide) didn’t buy it. (She said she was accidentally locked in, then got out on her own by breaking a plank loose. Then she got up and he spotted a ring of keys.) The girl’s father, all of a few minutes away, could have settled things one way or another. The overseer didn’t feel inclined to bother.

I’m sorry; things become much worse now:

“That won’t do,” said he [the overseer], “get down on your knees.” The girl knelt on the ground; he got off his horse, and holding him with his left hand, struck her thirty or forty blows across the shoulders with his tough, flexible, “raw-hide” whip. They were well laid on, as a boatswain would thrash a skulking sailor, or as some people flog a baulking horse, but with no appearance of angry excitement on the part of the overseer. At every stroke the girl winced, and exclaimed, “Yes, sir!” or “Ah, sir!” or “Please, sir!” not groaning or screaming. At length he stopped and said, “Now tell me the truth.” The girl repeated the same story. “You have not got enough yet,” said he, “pull up your clothes-lie down.” The girl without any hesitation, without a word or look of remonstrance or entreaty, drew closely all her garments under her shoulders, and lay down upon the ground with her face toward the overseer, who continued to flog her with the rawhide, across her naked loins and thigh, with as much strength as before. She now shrunk away form him, not rising, but writhing, groveling, and screaming, “Oh, don’t, sir! oh, please stop, master! please, sir! please, sir! oh, that’s enough, master! oh, Lord! oh, master, master! oh, God, master, do stop! oh, God, master! oh, God, master!”

Gentle Readers, I don’t know how many of you have or expect to have children or otherwise count teenagers among your loved ones, but Sall had those people too. She meant the world to them and they couldn’t prevent this, who might even have to watch it happen on other occasions.

A younger child too plays a part in this episode; a fifteen year old boy accompanied Olmsted and the overseer. He watched it all, bored. None of this was new for anybody but the Yankee. Olmsted

glanced again at the perfectly passionless but rather grim business-like face of the overseer, and again at the young gentleman, who had turned away; if not indifferent he had evidently not the faintest sympathy for my emotion.

Olmsted couldn’t take it and rode off, the screams chasing him. The boy caught up to him, but not from pain or fear. The overseer came right behind, apparently finished. He can’t have missed much, if anything. “He [the overseer] laughed as he joined us.” Then he sounded off on how Sall cheated him out of day’s work. Olmsted asked if they had to do such things and the overseer made the standard argument:

Oh yes, sir,” (laughing again.) “If I hadn’t punished her so hard she would have done the same thing again to-morrow, and half the people on the plantation would have followed her example. Oh, you’ve no idea how lazy these niggers are; you northern people don’t know any thing about it. They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.

The overseer struck to the heart of it: slaves don’t like slavery. Everybody in the South knew it, for all the occasional protests to the contrary. On the scale of an individual plantation, the enslaved outnumber the whites. It takes pain and terror to keep them at work. A slave may get off easy now and then, but even treasured personal valets can end up in the fields to make sure they don’t get ideas. The occasional less horrific enslaver doesn’t change the overall system.

It makes cold economic sense. The incentives free labor operates under don’t work well in a slave system. To get more out of a person, and thus more profit, they needed whips, chains, and other tortures. Temporarily or permanently impairing the ability of one to deliver that labor may well terrorize the others enough to make up the difference and then some.

This neglects, of course, that no one yet born has ever lived the live of the perfectly rational utility maximizer that stars in so many economic calculations. Fear plays its part: slaves not terrorized into submission may rise up and murder their tormentors. We must also consider rage: how dare the slaves challenge their masters? We can never forget the white supremacy that made it all work: those people, those subhumans, dared think they had the right to gainsay a white man. Finally, we must add pleasure to our calculations. Not every enslaver went to bed each night to happy visions of whips cracking and flying blood, but people in positions of power with great discretion and little accountability have a long history of giving themselves license to do things they would otherwise find unthinkable.

Thomas Jefferson

Take it from an enslaver:

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.

The author, no prodigy, exercised his boisterous passions upon Sally Hemings. He learned those things. They are part of his manners. That fifteen year-old kid decades later learned them just as well.

We have hitherto referred to impressionistic accounts, as historical research must. We have recorded moments, not sociological surveys. In the nineteenth century, a far less bureaucratized time, people did things more casually and made fewer managerial notes. A partial exception comes from the Barrow plantation in Louisiana. Barrow might have exceeded the norms of his time, but we can’t say for sure. My source, Herbert Gutman’s Slavery and the Numbers Game, wrote in the mid-Seventies and laments that no one has done a thorough study of plantation records that have survived to find out. I don’t know if one has been done since, despite checking a few recent surveys I have. Working from the Barrow sample, he comes up with

A slave -“on average”- was whipped every 4.56 days. Three slaves were whipped every two weeks. Among them, sixty (37.5 percent) were females. A male was whipped once a week, and a female once every twelve days.

During the two year period (1940-1) for which numbers exist, Barrow whipped all but 19 of his 129 slaves. We don’t know their age distribution, but it typical then 89 or so had reached the age of ten or more. Barrow whipped 119 individual slaves.

If Barrow did not whip children under the age of five, and if children under the age of ten were fairly evenly distributed, that means that every child aged five to nine probably was whipped one or more times in 1840-1841.

Barrow’s surviving diary extends somewhat beyond the 1840-1 time frame and may not be complete. He could have done worse than we know.

More than once, for example, Barrow penned suggestive diary notations such as “had a general Whiping frolick,” “whiped about half to day,” “general Whipping yesterday,” “intend Whipping them straight, “whiped all my grown cotten pickers today.”

Whipping frolics happened at least six times.

In his fine dissertation on the slave family, Bobby Jones concluded that Barrow resorted to “practically every known form of chastisement slaveholders used.” Jones pointed out: “During his career, Barrow resorted to chains; extra work; whipping; humiliation, such as making a man wear women’s clothing and parade around the quarters; imprisonment; stocks; ‘raked several negro heads to day’; ‘staking out’; ‘hand-sawing’; and dousing or ducking in water which occurred in October and November.”

Jones thinks that hand-sawing involved beating people with the saw, teeth first.

 

We can’t know for sure if we should take Barrow as exceptional or typical, but between the numbers his records provide and the constant reference to violence in period sources, we can’t fairly say that brutality happened rarely. Violence against enslaved people looks, both from the tremendous array of sources from enslaved people themselves, their enslavers giving advice to one another, and white third parties, like the overwhelming norm. All the stories of whipping, cutting, chaining, beating, rape, and torture didn’t just come from nowhere. People, almost all white, did them all to other people, all black. They made a system of this, a great, all-encompassing world that turned blood, pain, and screams into the money that made the wealth of a nation and fed the mills off another. Other people, most other whites, took no great interest in that until the same system appeared poised to enslave them too. Most of us, myself included, have taken little notice since of the many ways it continues. We too have learned our manners.

Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part One

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Gentle Readers, we followed David Rice Atchison out of Kansas and back in time to meet his friend and messmate, Andrew Butler. Now comes time wind the clock back a little farther and introduce another important figure in the Kansas struggle. On November 6, 1850, Charles Sumner addressed (PDF page 140) a Free Soil meeting in Faneuil Hall. Sumner began by disclaiming any interest in the Massachusetts election a few days hence, as a candidate for office should in the fashion of the time. Sumner presented himself as a man concerned with “Freedom above all else.” The various coalitions his Free Soil party had made with antislavery Democrats and Whigs warranted a favorable mention all the same. Sumner turned then to the Congress.

For things have been done, and measures passed into laws, which, to my mind, fill the day itself with blackness.

Sumner held the recent passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as chief among those measures, “a most cruel, unchristian, devilish” thing. Sumner refused to call it a law, instead referring to it always as “The Fugitive Slave Bill.” The “Heaven-defying Bill” afflicted not only black slaves, but the liberty of white men by holding out the possibility of imprisonment and levying fines against them for aiding slaves who dared steal themselves. Sumner then proceeded through what he considered the law’s many constitutional defects. In considering the law, Sumner’s “soul sickens.”

what act of shame, what ordinance of monarch, what law, can compare in atrocity with this enactment of an American Congress? […] Into the immortal catalogue of national crimes it has now passed, drawing, by inexorable necessity, its authors also, and chiefly him who, as President of the United States, set his name to the bill, and breathed into it that final breath without which it would bear no life.

Millard Fillmore

Sumner spoke of Millard Fillmore, who he thought would live forever in infamy. Posterity has instead remembered Fillmore as the president most notable for his obscurity, but posterity only lived with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 for a decade before the Civil War intervened. That said, one struggles to disagree with Sumner as he lays into the Whigs’ second, and last, accidental president:

Better for him had he never been born! Better for his memory, and for the good name of his children, had he never been President!

We talk about polarization and hostile rhetoric today, but our opposition party rarely declares a sitting president ought never have existed. Even hot under the collar proslavery rhetoric rarely goes that way, though veiled threats of violence make a fair equivalent.

Sumner looked to the Bay State’s past for examples of right conduct against such enormities, imposed by so vile a president and so tyrannical a Slave Power. He found them in John Adams, writing against the Stamp Act. Adams declared that any man who spoke up in favor of Parliament’s law, however rich, well-liked, and virtuous “has been seen to sink into universal contempt and ignominy.” Someone in the crowd yelled back “Ditto for the Slave-Hunter!”

If Adams didn’t get the Puritan blood flowing, then Sumner added John Winthrop on top. He quoted the first Governor of Massachusetts:

This Liberty is the proper end and object of authority, and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest. This liberty you are to stand for, with the hazard not only of your goods, but of  your lives, if need be. Whatsoever crosseth this is not authority, but a distemper thereof.

“Surely,” Sumner said, the passions of Massachusetts had “not so far cooled” to let the submit to the Fugitive Slave Act. That old “unconquerable rage” at the stamp enforcers had not left Massachusetts yet.

Higher Law and Disunion: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Eight

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Andrew Butler, former messmate of David Rice Atchison, told the Senate that all his hopes lay with Franklin Pierce. It fell to the President to step in with the military, disperse the free state government, and so prevent civil war. A cynical person might argue that relying on Franklin Pierce to do the right thing amounted to admission of defeat. Butler might agree. He didn’t want shots fired in Kansas because he knew “one drop of blood” would likely end the Union, but in saying so he returned to an earlier theme:

I have such confidence in the good sense of the country that I believe republican institutions might survive the present Union. Really it is broken already; for the spirit which cherished it has been extinguished, and the very altars upon which we ought to worship have been profaned by false fires.

Here Butler anticipates Lincoln’s mystic chords of memory and recalls Calhoun’s cut ties of Union. He rightly sees the nation as a thing that can only last so long as belief in it. Like many Americans in both sections, he now looked at a series of broken promises, violated understandings and rounds of mutual recrimination that pushed him toward the conclusion that the Union did not deserve saving. Back in the day, men had

a hardy morality, which dealt with events as they were. They had a wisdom which knew how to accommodate itself to circumstances, and did not lift themselves so high that they saw more than others, and sought ethereal regions because the earth was too good for them.

In other words, those Higher Law people could shove it. The framers, pragmatists to a man, saw and accepted slavery. They made no great effort to change or challenge it, but rather conformed themselves to its particular demands for security. Generations of later scholars would disagree, but the tide of research has gone against them. Butler doubtless ascribed to the framers any number of novel constitutional doctrines they wouldn’t recognize or would find dubious, but the general thrust of his argument holds. Even the most sympathetic scholars admit that the famous framers antislavery credentials rest more on intention than action.

Franklin Pierce

Of course, Franklin Pierce had delivered for slavery before, doing much to start the entire Kansas mess. He could do it again. Should the President feel so inclined, Butler had advice for him. In his place, Butler

would serve a warrant on Sharpe’s rifles, and if Sharpe’s rifles did not answer the summons, and come into court on a day certain, or if they resisted the sheriff, I would summon the posse comitatus, and I would have Colonel Sumner’s regiment to be part of that posse comitatus.

Gentle Readers, I am not a lawyer. I can’t tell you if Butler here means to use one of the odd legal fictions where the common law treats property as persons or if he just chose a clever turn of phrase. Either way, he means to send the 1st Cavalry to disarm the free state movement. This would prompt “reflection” amongst the antislavery enthusiasts. Butler didn’t say just what they would reflect on, but one imagines he meant them to consider how easily an unarmed man can get himself shot dead. That in mind, they would “give over their delusions.” If Pierce couldn’t do that, then Butler recommended his state

Go out of the Union, and make arrangements with others to form such a government as you can live in with honor and dignity.

 

Only Franklin Pierce Can Save the Union: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Seven

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Andrew Butler told the Senate, in essence, that he saw Kansas as another Texas. If the South did not have it, then it would turn into the launching point for a war against slavery. He indicted John Hale’s opposition to David Rice Atchison’s gaggle of proslavery filibusters as a continuation of Hale’s opposition to annexing Texas. Hale could hardly disagree. Butler didn’t quite leave things there, insisting that the annexation proved more a boon to the North than the South as a free trade Galveston would have fed imported goods into the South and evaded Yankee tariffs. Hale and his fellows ought to thank the slave states for bringing Texas into the Union.

And anyway, did Hale and company want to give Texas back?

They might say so, but they would be rebuked about as effectually as any public men could be rebuked whenever they appeared to that judgment. These are hard questions, I admit. I ask them, would they agree that England should take Texas and exclude slavery, or that Texas should continue to be a separate republic; or would they expel her from the Union if in their power?

Hale or some friends might remark in private about how they’d do better without Texas. I know some of my political comrades have, just as the other side would like to be rid of California or Massachusetts. But to suggest giving land annexed into the United States to Britain, the hated antithesis of all American liberty, made for a potent charge. It had extra credibility in this context because American abolitionists understood Britain as an ally in their struggle, a fact not lost on the white South.

That “gravamen” dispatched, Butler proceeded to the next:

Suppose the so-called [free state] Legislature assembled in Kansas on the 4th of March, absolutely hoisting the banner of treason, rebellion, and insurrection, what is the President to do? I tell you, sir, as much as the gentlemen to whom I allude denounce the President, if he should not interpose his peacemaking power in Kansas, that Legislature will be opposed, and opposed by men as brave as they are, with weapons in their hands, and the contest will be decided by the sword.

If Franklin Pierce didn’t step in, proslavery violence would surely ensue. That would then spread, with Butler citing efforts to organize a military expedition to Kansas in his own South Carolina. Those “young men who will fight anybody” would start a bloody contest that put the Union at risk. Only Franklin Pierce could stop it. He had to act, or

he would be guilty of a criminal dereliction of duty […] for by interposing, he can cave them from the consequences of this issue.

It fell on Pierce to save antislavery Kansans, traitors all, from the “consequences” of their actions. Proslavery militants have little agency in Butler’s account. He doesn’t quite call their reaction one they can’t resist, but comes close. They act not just as a political opposition to the antislavery party, but also something more elemental. Here Butler dips into the favorite language of the obviously culpable, somewhere between “mistakes were made” and “they made me do it.” Antislavery people, or the President, could do something to stop them but proslavery men had no power to stop themselves.

Dreams of a British Texas: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Six

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

From his discussion of David Rice Atchison’s remarkable benevolence and restraint in saving the people of Lawrence from a proslavery mob led by David Rice Atchison, Andrew Butler moved on to another matter. In considering John P. Hale’s rhetorical assault on his friend Dave, Butler came to what he called “the gravamen” of Hale’s position. That gravamen, Texas, had much to do with both Hale’s own past and present matters in Kansas. Franklin Pierce had read Hale out of the New Hampshire Democracy for opposing annexation of the Lone Star Republic on antislavery grounds. Butler struck right to the point:

I will put my questions, however, to the Senator from new Hampshire, […] Would he consent that Texas should have become a British province, with the certainty that England would place that province in the same condition as its West India islands, and with the certainty that her policy would be to make war on the institutions of Louisiana and other southern States? Would he take the part of England in such a controversy, sooner than of those who have given us our liberties and our rights? Would he consent that Great Britain should take possession of Texas, and make war, like a roaring lion seeking whom it may devour among its neighbors? Would he consent to that, on an acknowledged condition only that it should not have slaves, and should be pledged to make war on the institutions of the southern States? Would he agree to make war on his southern confederates on such conditions and through such agencies?

John Hale

After the initial attempt to secure annexation on semi-independence from Mexico failed, the Texans let the matter drop for some time. It came back in the 1840s. That time, Sam Houston played a complicated double bluff. He courted a British protectorate over his nation and offered to emancipate its slaves should that protectorate come. At the same time, he told Americans that the British had offered his fragile republic protection against Mexico on the condition of emancipation. Texas needed protection from Mexico and the financial windfall that a British subsidy for emancipation would bring. Houston himself might have accepted either outcome, but an abolitionized Texas presented an existential threat to slavery in Louisiana. The Tyler administration keenly appreciated the political usefulness of the story Houston told, whether the members believed it or not and annexation squeaked through the Senate by means of a joint resolution of Congress and amid great controversy. Butler presented Hale’s historical position and in so doing invoked his present one. John Hale would literally take the part of Britain and establish an abolitionist Kansas from which antislavery radicals could strike into Missouri, now playing the part of Louisiana.

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Butler imagined a far more romantic, crusading antislavery effort than existed prior to 1860. Border clashes did happen, but few in the white North imagined anything like John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. On the Kansas front, only Ely Thayer in the Emigrant Aid Company took earnestly his plan to replicate the freeing of Kansas by sending Yankees to colonize Virginia. To the degree that keeping Kansas free would undermine slavery in Missouri, antislavery writers imagine a largely passive process where the enslaved and white population growth did much of the work until a political movement within the established order worked a transformation over the Show Me State as had happened in Pennsylvania, New York, and other northern jurisdictions.

 

Swords Drawn: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Five

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

 

We left Andrew Butler castigating antislavery Kansans for coming with the Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other. Speaking on March 5, 1856, he then turned his attention to the ominous date that had just passed: the free state legislature met for the first time on the fourth. News had yet to come in from Kansas on what befell, but Butler saw it as profoundly significant.

God knows what may be the tragedy growing out of the 4th of March, 1856. Sir, the news of what occurred in Kansas […] may bring us the intelligence which will be the knell of the institutions-I will not say of the Union-of this country; for I hope there is wisdom enough left to preserve republican institutions in durable form, should the present Union be no more.

Butler spoke like a man expecting revolution and hoping for better on the other side, not in the usual refrain that abjures the end of the Union as a calamity one must avert. At least for rhetorical purposes, the future of slavery in Kansas dictated the course of the Union. If enslavers could institute bondage by force and fraud, and subdue armed opposition, then they could feel safe. If not, they had best find a new government. With the exception of a few Garrisonian abolitionists, antislavery northerners did not go so far as that. They looked forward to a Union where slavery would have a slowly reduced role until it somehow withered away.

All of that raised an obvious question to Butler: What should Franklin Pierce do? Both men claimed, with some justice, that antislavery Kansans had taken the law into their own hands. They had raised, if not an outright rebellion, at least a kind of armed opposition to the established government of their territory. When that went poorly for them, Butler’s old friend David Rice Atchison helped save their lives and their town.

Here I will do him the justice to say that he has not heretofore passed the Rubicon with the spirit of an ambitious ruler; but if hereafter he ever passes that Rubicon, all his benevolence-and it is very large-will not enable him to overlook the taunts and insults which have been heaped upon him. If David R. Atchison shall ever pass the line again, and say as Caesar did, “I have passed the Rubicon, and now I draw the sword,” I should dread the contest, for the very reason that he who goes into matters of this kind with reluctance is most to be feared.

Atchison’s benevolence extended to leading armed men into Kansas twice, at the time of Butler’s speech. He led a few hundred with cannons in to fix the March, 1855 elections and then came back in December hoping to destroy Lawrence. He would come again in May of 1856. If Butler counts that as keeping a sword sheathed, one has to wonder just what he would consider drawn steel. Bourbon Dave might well have a terrible wrath all the same, but he showed his reluctance to battle by forming and leading military companies.

John Hale

Butler turned from his remarkable account of Atchison to further castigate John P. Hale of New Hampshire. Hale painted the South as aggressors in the matter of Kansas. South Carolina’s senator would have none of that, but he had a few things to say about Yankee aggression. According to him, perfidious Yankees bamboozled poor old Virginia into ceding the Northwest Territory and then planted free states there. Then the South capitulated again, ceding most of the Louisiana Purchase on the same terms. In all that, white Southerners

played the part of a generous parent who has only met with the scorn and contempt which want of wisdom justly deserves. It was putting a rod in the hands of others, without knowing who they were, under the hope that it would be used as a weapon of common defense, but which has been used against the donor

The white South gave and gave, from the Ohio to the Pacific, and damned Yankees used those many gifts to beat the slave states over the head. Yet now Hale cast the aggrieved section as aggressors? The section had played doddering King Lear -Butler quotes the play- long enough.

The Bible, Torch, and Sharpe’s Rifle: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Four

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left Andrew Butler inveighing against the Emigrant Aid Societies for foiling David Rice Atchison’s surefire plan to win Kansas for slavery. From there, he took the requisite swipe at Andrew Reeder before moving into a full airing of grievances from the Missouri Compromise onward. Just like Atchison’s border ruffians, antislavery Yankees had driven the sober, sensible white men of the South into a fury. Every time the South gave something to get something, the North broke faith. That the South had a proven record of getting almost everything it wanted in every sectional clash didn’t enter into it. Following that, Butler accidentally told the truth:

Now, I am willing to propose a game of fair playLet the opinion of the people, as it may be formed in the process of territorial existence, determine the character of the State, and whether the State presenting herself for admission shall admit or exclude slavery be no bar to her admission.

Sir, that compromise, as it has been called, has never been observed.

Nor, Butler might have added, did anybody care if it had. Compromise-minded politicians advanced popular sovereignty with a wink, well aware that in the absence of laws to the contrary slavery would expand at least at the margins of the already enslaved states. At best, one could say they didn’t care either way. Southern politicians certainly didn’t vote for the policy on the grounds that it would create more free states. Those who opposed instituting a vote on the issue, including John Calhoun, did so on the grounds that popular sovereignty might inadvertently create free jurisdictions.

Still, Butler maintained the fiction. If anyone actually tried popular sovereignty, ignoring contradictions within it like just when a territory could choose to institute or ban slavery and what status the institution had on the ground before any laws on the question passed, then

In regard to the Territory of Kansas, I think it might well have been left a debatable ground-neither to call it a slaveholding nor a non-slaveholding State. It was an occasion when we might have cemented, in some measure, the bonds of the ancient brotherhood; but no, sir, we find that gentlemen come in with the Bible in one hand to preach against slavery and the torch in the other. That is the attitude in which they present themselves in the temple of our common deliberations-the torch in one hand and the Bible in the other-the pulpit and Sharpe’s rifle. Under the banner of theology, incendiaries march, with torches in their hands, proclaiming God’s will but doing their own.

Butler may have told a little more truth then he knew here. Most references I have seen to violence by antislavery men involve burning the homes of proslavery colonists. Literal torches did their work in Kansas, though they appear to have done it to cabins with no one inside or where the occupants had due notice and could flee. At least to date, no one appears to have burned alive. The violent clashes that end in death usually originate with proslavery actors. Some of those involve personal disputes that turn deadly, but when a proslavery militia kills an antislavery man absent such a dispute we can’t fairly pass it off as a consequence of rough frontier living. The same would hold true in reverse, which will come soon enough.

The Prayer of the Lawrence Memorialists

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

On May 22, 1856, J.M. Winchell, Lyman Allen, S.B. Prentiss, L.G. Hine, Joseph Cracklin, John A. Perry, O.E. Learnard, S.W. Eldridge, and C.W. Babcock allegedly put their names to a memorial for Franklin Pierce. William Phillips claimed afterwards that many of the men denied any part of the thing. He might have it right or he might have helped them cover for an understandable, if less than glorious, performance. Either way, someone wrote it and sent it off to the President. The memorial summarizes events in Lawrence over about a dozen pages, with rather less color than Phillips but agreeing in the essential facts.

Petitioners, then as now, don’t write and sign these documents for their health. They hoped for, even if they couldn’t have expected, constructive action from the Pierce administration. With his term almost over, maybe the president would finally give that a try. The “unparalleled chapter in the history of our country,” and attendant “gigantic … official villainy” beggared belief. Thus, while Pierce might take some convincing,

we cherish and trust that you will hear the voice, however feeble, that pours its complaint into your ear, and exert he influence of your office to prevent the possible occurrence of abuses of power on the parts of those officials who are directly responsible to you […] and institute such a scrutiny into their past conduct as will reveal its true character and inspire salutary caution in the future.

They did in all Pierce’s name with “at least a criminal disregard of good faith” that proved them unfit for their offices. He called the shots so he took the blame, though they didn’t phrase it quite that way. Instead, they prayed for Pierce to look into the events of the last few weeks. To help him, they included official correspondence for his perusal. And until the president’s heart swelled like that of a nineteenth century Grinch, Lawrence would maintain its committee of safety. They would, of course, disband as soon as the Government got its act together and made them safe.

The authors then moved to the question of damages. The posse came in on federal authority, under the leadership of either a US Marshal (Donaldson) or a territorial official (Jones) who Pierce and his allies had long construed as federal agents. They may have even had guns from a federal arsenal. Surely Lawrence deserved compensation, which the memorialists reminded Pierce he had the authority to recommend to Congress. He had best hop to it, as

It is at present impossible to estimate this damage, as new depredations are continually being made. How long these will be permitted to continue will depend to a great extent upon the pleasure of our rulers.

By delaying, Pierce would only increase the bill. Already the mob had destroyed hotel, furnishings, two printing presses, and the livelihoods of two newspaper men. For miles around Lawrence, not a soul had escaped losing some property. The president had to make this right: restoring order, damages, and sacking the guilty, immediately. If he didn’t, someone else might try.

Proslavery Scruples and the Sack of Lawrence

William Addison Phillips

William Addison Phillips

William Phillips and the Lawrence memorialists both take pains to inform their readers that not every proslavery man came to Lawrence to rape or steal. Their officers, as they had back in December, wanted an orderly mob that would only molest direct political enemies. They had court orders to suppress the free state papers. Though it appears no direct order to destroy the Free State Hotel existed, Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury had condemned it and suggested removal. Alice Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas holds that Jones’ men only acted against it because he lied and claimed they had such an order.  Etcheson’s much more recent book of the same name doesn’t comment on the question.

As the memorialists put it:

We believe that many of the captains of the invading companies exerted themselves to the utmost for the protection of life and property. Some of them protested against these enormous outrages, and endeavored to dissuade Samuel J. Jones from their perpetration. Many used personal effort to remove such property as was possible from the Eldridge House before its destruction. Among those stood prominently Colonel Zadock Jackson, of Georgia, who did not scruple either in Lawrence or his own camp to denounce the outrages in terms such as they deserved.  Colonel Buford, of Alabama, also disclaimed having come to Kansas to destroy property, and condemned the course which had been taken. The prosecuting attorney of Douglas county, the legal adviser of the sheriff, used his influence in vain to prevent the destruction of property.

They might have included David Rice Atchison among the leaders with scruples. Phillips’ version had him direct the bombardment of the Free State Hotel, and Bourbon Dave didn’t mind a good scrap, but he had helped Wilson Shannon end the Wakarusa War. He could have understood his role there as part of the legitimate purpose of the mob and still condemned the outrages that took place once the posse had finished with the building. Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas has him active on that front, but she references unpublished correspondence and a biography of the senator dating back to the Sixties, neither of which I presently have access to.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

A proslavery account Phillips shares, published first in the Lecompton Union, expands on the point:

Before entering town our commanders instructed each member of his company of the consequences befalling the violation of any private property. As far as we can learn, they attended strictly to these instructions. One act we regret to mention – the firing of Robinson’s house. Although there is but little doubt as to the real owners of this property [They believed the Emigrant Aid Company owned Robinson’s home.] yet it was a private residence, and should have remained untouched. During the excitement, the commisary, of Col. Abell, of Atchison city, learned that it was on fire, and immediately detailed a company to suppress the flames, which was done. Once afterwards, we understand, Sheriff Jones had the flames suppressed, and the boys guilty of the act were sent immediately to camp; but with regret we saw the building on fire that night about ten o’clock.

It bears noting in all of this that the proslavery force displayed these keen scruples, albeit imperfectly, in the defense of the property of fellow white Americans. A corporation dedicated to opposing them could have its rights trampled. The Free State Hotel and the Herald of Freedom both fit that description, as Emigrant Aid Company money kept them afloat. Miller’s Free State may have fallen under the rubric of “close enough”. Private looting and personal crimes, including the most horrific, could call into question just why they had come to defend slavery in the first place. An attack on property must call into question just how seriously they took the right to human property.

The Pillage of Lawrence

Gentle readers, this post discusses sexual violence in the context that my sources present it. They gave me few details and treat the matter in a way that reads now as almost completely dismissive. I don’t mean to replicate that, but I have no more information than they gave me: a few sentences admit a catalog of other offenses. I’m sorry. If reading either that presentation or the fact itself will upset you, please take a pass on today’s post. I’ve put the relevant portion at the very end, where I hope it will not come up in any reader’s summary text to be read accidentally along with this warning.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

A combination of cannon fire, two of four gunpowder kegs exploding, and finally firing the building, Samuel Jones proslavery army disposed of the Free State Hotel. Neither William Phillips nor the memorial to Franklin Pierce put a firm time on it, but the destruction must have started after quarter after three and probably before five on the evening of May 21, 1856. The end of the hated symbol of the Emigrant Aid Company prompted jubilation from the mob. Sheriff Jones might sit on his horse and exult in his glory, but his men had a whole abolition town to vent themselves upon.

“Wild and reckless pillage,” in Phillips’ words, began at once. Where a door would not open, and not everyone had a lock or bolt, a window give way easily enough.

All the money and jewelry that could be found was taken, and also clothing. In fact, they took everything they wanted, or could carry away. Much of what they could not take, they destroyed.

Phillips, to a degree (and the memorialists somewhat more so) stressed the efforts of the mob’s officers to control them. Not all the officers scrupled so. A deputy marshal, one of many, took surgical tools. One of the Stringfellows -Phillips doesn’t say which- helped himself to two boxes of cigars, right off the shelf.

Ex-Vice-President Atchison was also seen with one of these, or another box. With such bright examples it would be needless to enter into a detail of the brilliant exploits of the rank and file.

Phillips estimates the losses near to $150,000. In addition to simple looting, the proslavery men took the papers of free state leaders and destroyed letters and family pictures. They tried to burn the Herald of Freedom building, but failed for already taking out most of what would have burned. What remained, a few brave sorts went in and doused. For the grand finale, the mob returned to Charles Robinson’s house on Mount Oread and burned it.

The discussion of sexual violence follows on from here, Gentle Readers.

According to the memorialists:

The work of pillage spread through the whole town, and continued until after dark. Every house and store which cold be entered was ransacked; trunks broken open and money and property taken at will. Where women had not fled, they were in some cases insulted, and even robbed of their clothing.

The insults to women included the everyday sort of insult which simply violated nineteenth century social mores. The proslavery men failed to confine themselves to rudeness and theft, as William Phillips writes:

There were also frightful stories of outrages, and of women being ravished. Such cases there may have been, but rare. There were villains in that posse who were certainly none too good for it.

Phillips probably knew more than he let on. What he reports as likely true stories, the Lawrence memorial takes as fact. Its closing passages refer to “women ravished in their homes.” To name a woman raped would have disgraced her and Phillips, expecting his book to have a longer shelf life and wider circulation than a petition, may have demurred to avoid further compounding their suffering. The victims of sexual violence suffer an unjust, and vile stigma in our time. They would not have had it easier in his. The last thing I want to do is treat this as, one horror amid many, but Phillips only makes it clear what happened paragraphs after, immediately following an estimate of the number of horses taken. The memorial states the fact and leaves it without elaboration.