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Kansas: The Prelude to the War for the Union
Lessons in Popular Sovereignty
by Spring, Leverett Wilson


The first territorial governor of Kansas was Andrew H. Reeder, of Pennsylvania, a mild, easy, rhetorical, admirable man, of good intellectual parts, well reputed as a lawyer, a national democrat, and an enthusiastic advocate of popular sovereignty. A complete assortment of customary officials -- judges, secretaries, marshals, surveyors, land commissioners -- was fitted out in Washington. One or two gentlemen of leisure, reckoning, though wholly without their host, on a dearth of local candidates, accompanied these dignitaries with the design of standing for any desirable office the territory might offer.

Reeder arrived at Fort Leavenworth October 7th, where a public reception -- given by pro-slavery partisans, who viewed the new governor as nothing more than their tool -- and a wordy, noisy address of welcome awaited him. In responding, Reeder courteously referred to the reception as "a foreshadowing of kindness and confidence " which he hoped to receive from citizens of the territory. His talk, however, was not wholly given over to eulogy and congratulation. The spirit of violence which was already beginning to stir he denounced with the fluent boldness and confidence of inexperience. "I pledge you," he said, "that I will crush it out or sacrifice myself in the effort." It was an heroic avowal that failed to kindle any enthusiasm whatever among the auditors.

The governor sensibly prefaced his work in Kansas by a tour of observation which consumed some weeks. He was anxious to get his knowledge at first hand -- an ambition that did not favorably impress the gentry concerned in the Leavenworth reception. They regarded themselves as entirely competent and were more than willing to furnish information on any point of Kansas affairs. Then followed a partition of the territory into districts, and the election of a delegate to Congress November 29th, 1854.

This first Kansas election never attained the notoriety of the second, which took place four months afterwards, yet both experiences present the same characteristic features -- large and elaborate expeditions from Missouri to stuff territorial ballot boxes with illegal votes. No defense or apology has ever been put forward for these extraordinary proceedings except the necessitarian plea of fighting the devil with fire. The opinion universally entertained on the border in 1853 and in the earlier months of 1854, that the safety of slavery in Missouri and its ultimate expansion into Kansas would be assured simply by the repeal of restrictive legislation, showed unmistakable signs of weakening in the resolutions adopted at Salt Creek Valley. Subsequent events tended to increase and exasperate the alarm. Rumors now flew thick and fast on evil wings that the Emigrant Aid Company and the kindred organizations, which sprang up with a tropical luxuriance throughout the North, were pushing "military colonies" into Kansas, primarily to protect it from pro-slavery inroads, and secondarily to attack Missouri. It is true that the Boston company, in the enormous breadth of its original scope, mapped out some such prospectus which gave rise to a good deal of discomposing talk. "Free-state men," said B. F. Stringfellow, "before we resorted to aggressive measures, openly boasted in the streets of Weston that they would drive slavery out of Missouri." Discussions in Congress added fuel to the fire, and as a consequence there was no small stir along the border. "When the people of Missouri," said Mordecai Oliver, defending his constituency in the House of Representatives, "saw these proceedings on the part of these intermeddlers in the affairs of Kansas and in contradiction of the principles of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, they were roused -- I confess it and confess it with no spirit of humiliation, but with pride and to the honor of my people -- they were roused to an indignation that knew no bounds."

Anger is well enough in its place, but it would have been wise for these furious Missourians to make sure of their ground before proceeding to extremities. A little investigation would have established the fact that the Emigrant Aid Company never bought a firelock or furnished its patrons with warlike equipments of any sort; that it simply opened a western emigrant agency, a perfectly legitimate transaction which broke none of the commandments ethical, political, or interstate. Though at a later day -- after the first two election experiences -- members of the corporation in a private, individual way contributed-freely toward the purchase of Sharps rifles for the use of free-state settlers, the corporation itself religiously held fast, through the whole period of its operations, to the unmilitary functions of an ordinary transportation bureau. Had the Missourians followed the Massachusetts example and poured into Kansas as actual settlers rather than as crusading ballot-box stuffers, their fortunes would have thrived the better.

There was comparatively little at stake in the election of November 29th -- nothing more than the choice of a delegate to Congress, and that for a fractional term. Besides, the pro-slavery candidate, J. W. Whitfield, a tall, strongly-made, rather prepossessing but thick-tongued Tennessean, holding the office of Indian agent, was not particularly objectionable. Whatever partisan sentiments he may have cherished were kept out of sight, and unquestionably he would have been elected, had the Missourians stayed at home. But rumor and demagogues roundly abused the ear of the border. Western Missouri was armed and equipped to assail abolitionists in the territory. For this purpose Blue Lodges -- a species of semi - secret, counter - Massachusetts societies designed to operate at Kansas elections -- had been extensively organized. To allow so much froth and fume, so much stir and alarm, to end in nothing might present an uncomfortable parallel to the historic feat of marching up the hill and then marching down again. The leaders chose to do something superfluous rather than nothing at all. The 29th of November at all events would afford opportunity for a little experimenting to see what seeds of promise lay in the Blue Lodges. So seventeen hundred and twenty-nine Missourians invaded different election districts and cast as many gratuitous ballots for Whitfield, who received his credentials and appeared in Washington as the first congressional delegate from Kansas.

The incursion from Missouri was not the only peculiar suffrage feature of the election. Rumors got abroad that Whitfield designed to impress an aboriginal "Native American" vote into his service. The fact of his being an Indian agent lent plausibility to the canard. Some enterprising Yankee hit upon an expedient to forestall any advantage that the pro-slavery party might expect from extensions of the franchise in that quarter. Learning that a certain Delaware chief had recently enunciated his views on the relative merits of Yankees and Missourians -- "Good man heap -- Yankee town. Missouri --- bad---heap --- heap --- heap! -- d--n um" it occurred to him that here might possibly be a neglected field of politics worth cultivating. Unfortunately his bright thoughts were somewhat belated. They did not fairly dawn upon him until the evening before election. However, he rode over to the Delaware Reservation in the morning, assembled the braves, and expounded to them their unappreciated political privileges; confidently argued their right to vote, and proposed that they should instantly assert it at the election in progress that very day. The Indians drew off by themselves and entered upon a council over the matter which went on interminably without apparent signs of conclusion. The opportunity for "Native American" or for any other phase of suffrage was rapidly disappearing, and at last the exasperated Yankee, in no very conciliatory or complimentary dialect, demanded some sort of answer. Finally, the oldest chief arose and, appareled in a solemnity never surpassed by the judiciary of Tartarus, said --"Tinkum four days -- den vote heap -- heapum! sometime --- may be!"

But the most astonishing exhibition of popular sovereignty occurred in the spring of 1855. During the preceding February the authorities took a census of the territory, which showed a population of 8,601. There were figured out 2,905 voters, a majority of whom came from slave states. Alexander H. Stephens made effective use of this fact in a speech in the House of Representatives July 31st, 1856. "This census," he said, "gives the name of each resident legal voter in the territory thirty days before the March election.... I have counted every name on the census roll and noted the section of country from which the settler migrated, and I find that of those who were registered as legal voters of the territory in February, a month before the election, 1,670 were from Southern States and only 1,018 from the entire North. There were 217 from other countries.... The inference which I draw from these facts is that there was a decided majority of anti-Free-Soilers in the territory ... in the month of February." Mr. Stephens erred in classing all immigrants from Southern States as pro-slavery in sentiment. A not inconsiderable element among them preferred that Kansas should become a free state.

Both sides appreciated the importance of securing the legislature which was to be elected March 30th. Success in that matter would be a decisive victory. In Missouri the excitement surpassed all foregoing experiences. The orators were abroad in their most tempestuous mood, denouncing abolitionists and Eastern corporations which sought to destroy the domestic institutions of Missouri. Voting machineries had been tested and worked to the satisfaction of the experts who devised them. To meet the present emergency, it was only necessary to put on a little higher pressure. Blue Lodges bestirred themselves energetically. There were recruitings, organizations of companies, drills, armings, as if some great military expedition were afoot. Those who could not give personal attention to the preservation of law and the purity of public franchise in Kansas were exhorted to assist in paying the bills. At a meeting in Booneville, held for the purpose of raising money and enthusiasm, a half-tipsy planter stumbled up to the speaker's table, and, flinging down a thousand dollars, said, "I 've just sold a nigger for that, and I reckon it's about my share towards cleaning out the dog-gauned Yankees."

The Missouri expounders of popular sovereignty marched into Kansas to assist in the election of a territorial legislature -- an unkempt, sun-dried, blatant, picturesque mob of five thousand men with guns upon their shoulders, revolvers stuffing their belts, bowie-knives protruding from their boot-tops, and generous rations of whiskey in their wagons.

Six thousand three hundred and seven votes were polled on this memorable 30th of March election -- nearly eighty per cent. of them by Missourians, who, of course, swept the boards. In a military point of view the expedition was managed effectively, and succeeded in distributing pro-slavery voters through the territory in such bulks as were needed to overcome opposition. The invaders did not, as a general rule, molest actual residents unless they showed fight. Judges of election who meekly accepted the situation and received all ballots offered were seldom set aside. In cases where they objected to Missourian theories of suffrage they were promptly removed, and their places supplied by men whose scruples of conscience did not lie in that direction.

At Lawrence there was an illustration of the milder sort of displacement. One of the judges insisted that the first Missourian who presented himself at the polls should swear that he resided in Kansas. The fellow hesitated. He evidently stumbled at the ethics, lately sanctioned by high pro-slavery authority, that in dealing with abolitionists scruples of conscience were an impertinence. The leader of the gang, seeing there promised to be an awkward hitch in the programme, ordered him to retire and presented himself at the polls, that the on-looking crowd might have the benefit of his elucidating and inspiring example. "Are you a resident of Kansas?" asked the election judge. "I am," the Missourian replied. "Does your family live in Kansas?" persisted the former. "It is none of your business. If you don't keep your impertinence to yourself I 'll knock your d--d head from your shoulders." The judge, considering his usefulness gone, retired, and thenceforward everybody voted who felt so disposed.

At Bloomington there was an exceptionally successful Bedlam. The judges exhibited obstinacy for which there seemed to be no specific except bowie-knives and revolvers. They persisted in theories of suffrage altogether too illiberal and narrow for the times. It was intimated that their resignations would be accepted -- a hint which they neglected to act upon. Finally, to expedite affairs, a borderer drew his watch and announced a five minutes' period of grace -- then resignations or death. The five minutes expired and nothing had been done. An extension of one minute was allowed, during which the judges decamped.

In the main there was but slight occasion for anything beyond a savage pretense of violence. Numbers, bluster, profanity, and a liberal display of fighting-gear completely cowed opposition. The visiting voters returned to Missouri, feverish with triumph "we've made a clean sweep this time" Border newspapers rioted in extravagances of felicitation. "Abolitionism is rebuked," one of them screamed, "her fortress stormed, her flag draggling in the dust." But dashing into the territory with a braggart, rub-a-dub publicity, and casting four thousand nine hundred and eight votes in a total of six thousand three hundred and seven, turned out to be a ruinously expensive victory.

In Western Missouri the policy of invasion received a practically unanimous support. Dissent meant trouble for the dissenter. It drew suspicion and unpopularity upon him if nothing worse. The "Parkville Luminary," venturing to question distantly and mildly the expediency of forcing slavery upon Kansas, was summarily quenched in the Missouri River. Now and then an intrepid, outspoken man, with clearer, less jaundiced vision than his neighbors, made head against the universal frenzy. One person of this stamp, old Tom Thorpe, of Platte County, Missouri (a remarkable specimen of frontier independence), appeared before the Congressional Investigating Committee in 1856. "Whenever there was an election in the territory," Mr. Thorpe testified, "they were fussin' roun' an' gettin' up companies to go, an' gettin' hosses an' wagins. They come to me to subscribe, but I tole 'em that I was down on this thing of votin' over in the territory, an' that Tom Thorpe did n't subscribe to no such fixins. They jawed me too about it -- they did; but I reckon they found old Tom Thorpe could give as good as he got. They tole the boys they wanted to make Kansas a slave state; an' they tole 'em the abolitionists war a commin' in; en' that the Emigrant Aid Society Company & Co. war pitchin' in; an' they 'd better too. You see they took the boys over, an' they got plenty liquor, an' plenty to eat, an' they got over free ferry. Lots an' slivers on 'em went. A heap of respectable folks went with them. There's Dr. Tibbs, lives over in Platte, he used to go, an' you see they 'lected him. The boys tole me one time when they come back says they 'We 've 'lected Dr. Tibbs to the legislature ;' an' says I 'Is it the state or the territory?' An' says they 'The territory.' Says I, 'Boys, ain't this a puttin' it on too thick? It's a darned sight too mean enough to go over there and vote for them fellers, but to put in a man who don't live there is all - fired outrageous.' There's my own nephew -- he come all the way up from Howard County to vote. He come over to see me an' our folks as he went along. I says to him -- says I, 'Jim Thorpe, hadn't you nothin' better to do than to come way up to vote in the territory?' Well he tole me that they want buisy at home, an' that they got a dollar a day an' liquor; an' says I, 'Stop, Jim Thorpe, that's enough; you can't stay here in my house to-night an' nobody can that goes for votin' in the territory. I tell you what, boy, I 've always been down on that kind o' thing. I ain't no abolitionist neither. I tell you I'm pro-slave. I'm dyed in the wool an' can't make a free-soiler; but mind what I say, if the boys keep a cuttin' up so I 'll come over to the territory an' 'nitiate Betsey.'"

The events of March 30th disturbed free-state settlers profoundly, and well they might. Dr. Robinson wrote A. A. Lawrence April 4th -- "the election is awful, and will no doubt be set aside. So says the governor, although his life is threatened if he doesn't comply with the Missourians' demands. I with others shall act as his bodyguard."

But there was no general movement of protest against the irregularities of the election. From six only of the eighteen election districts did remonstrances appear. This was a negligence that the "Democratic Review" energetically rebuked. "What did the Free-Soilers do? Did they protest? Did they deny the legality of the votes? Not a bit.... Here was an admirable chance for the Free-Soilers to prove how much they love order, law, and regulated freedom. It could hardly be supposed that they would miss so fine a chance to immortalize their law-abiding tendencies. But really and truly they let it slip. They were drowsy over it. Jupiter nodded."

There was some excuse. It lay in the isolation of the little towns, in difficulties of communication necessary to concerted action, and in the hazard that attended the business. One man who was active in pushing a protest got into trouble. William Phillips, a Leavenworth lawyer, prominent in an effort to have the election set aside, because, among other things, "the New Lucy, a boat, on the morning of the day of election started for Leavenworth from Weston with citizens of Missouri," who "did vote at the polls of the sixteenth district, and then immediately returned on said boat to Missouri," was brutally mobbed. As a sequel to tar and feathers, head-shaving, and riding on a rail, a negro sold the unfortunate lawyer at auction" How much, gentlemen, for a full-blooded abolitionist, dyed in de wool, tar and feathers and all? I low much, gentlemen? He'll go at the first bid." This wretched outrage, if we may believe the "Kansas Herald," published at Leavenworth, sent a thrill of delight through the community.

Rumors that Governor Reeder designed to set aside the entire election, or at least to refuse certificates to a large number of candidates whom the judges of elections had declared elected, blasted whatever personal popularity he might still retain among the Missourians. The alienation which began with the reception festivities at Fort Leavenworth had constantly widened and deepened. Now, in the waxing bitterness, pro-slavery men freely coupled threats with denunciations. Some talked of "hemping" the scoundrel, while others felt more like "cutting his throat from ear to ear."

On the 5th of April Governor Reeder heard protests and canvassed returns. Beweaponed gentry representing both factions thronged the executive office. Free-state men, with their slender list of remonstrances, insisted that the election should be set aside, and another ordered under precautions which would make a second 30th of March impossible. Charges of illegal voting they themselves did not entirely escape, arising mainly from the circumstance that a party of Eastern immigrants reached Lawrence on the day of election, some of whom, it was alleged, voted notwithstanding the brevity of their residence in Kansas. A few of the new-comers, alarmed by the threatening aspect of affairs, immediately fled the territory. It is uncertain whether any of these fugitives went to the polls or not. Yet it is beyond reasonable doubt that the number of anti-slavery ballots cast by men, against whom charges of non-residence could be sustained, was very small. In the shifting, prospecting, to-and-fro situation considerable laxity of suffrage could not be avoided. But neither the Emigrant Aid Company nor any like Northern society ever committed the stupid blunder of sending pseudo-settlers half across the continent simply to vote. The pro-slavery representatives, however, did not find illegal voting a congenial theme. They accentuated the point that the governor could not lawfully go behind the returns -- that it only remained for him to authenticate them. Governor Reeder adopted an intermediate, halfway policy, which failed to satisfy anybody. Stickling unhappily for technicalities, he cast out the mote of eight candidates against whom protests had been filed, and ordered new elections in their districts, but ignored the beam of a great systematic, wholesale fraud. Of the thirty one members of the legislature twenty-eight were satisfactory to the pro-slavery managers. But they loudly resented the governor's interference, and their curses were almost as violent as might have been expected had it been less ineffectual. The little company of free-state men who went down from Lawrence to Shawnee Mission to act as Reeder's body-guard wished they had allowed him to take care of himself. Dr. Robinson announced that for his part he repudiated both governor and legislature -- a declaration prophetic of future free-state movements.

Reeder soon afterwards visited Washington, where his reputation needed attention. President Pierce and Jefferson Davis, secretary of war, disliked the situation in Kansas, the responsibility for which they charged principally upon the governor. Missourians posted to the capital, grew red in the face denouncing him, and would listen to nothing less than his removal. The president intimated that his resignation would be acceptable, and should not fail of suitable reward. Might not the mission to China have attractions for him? The negotiations failed. Reeder finally declined to present himself as a scapegoat to the administration and returned to Kansas.

July 2,1855, the first territorial legislature assembled at Pawnee, a town of the smallest realized attainments, situated inland on the Kansas River about one hundred and forty miles from its mouth. Preparations to accommodate the lawmakers were of a scanty and primitive character. Rev. Thomas Johnson, long time missionary to the Indians at Shawnee Mission Manual Labor School and president of the council, states that "nearly all the members of the legislature had to camp out in the open sun, and do their own cooking without a shade tree to protect them; for there were no boarding-houses in the neighborhood excepting two unfinished shanties." The gentry came prepared for roughing it, as they brought an unprecedented assortment of legislatorial fixture -- pots, kettles, sauce-pans, provisions, and tents.

The supplementary elections ordered by the governor and held May 22d, since the pro-slavery party did not contest them, resulted in a complete free-state victory. At the outset, therefore, the legislature contained twenty-eight pro-slavery and eleven anti-slavery members. As a preliminary move in the policy of repudiation, strong pressure was brought to bear upon the latter to prevent them from taking their seats. These efforts were unsuccessful, except in the case of Martin F. Conway, who was finally induced, after a good deal of reluctance and hesitation, mainly through the insistent if not imperative urgency of Dr. Robinson and Colonel Kersey Coates, of Kansas City, to send in his resignation to the governor as member of the council. Mr. Conway's highly-charged phrases and defiant sentiments show no trace of the dubious, irresolute state of mind that preceded his discussions with Robinson and Coates. "Instead of recognizing this as the legislature of Kansas," he wrote June 30th, 1855, "and participating in its proceedings as such, I utterly repudiate it, and repudiate it as derogatory to the respectability of popular government and insulting to the virtue and intelligence of the ages... I am so unfortunate as to have been trained to some crude notions of human rights -- some such notions as those for which, in ages past, our foolish ancestry periled their lives on revolutionary fields.... Simply as a citizen and a man I shall, therefore, yield no submission to this alien legislature. On the contrary, I am ready to set its assumed authority at defiance, and shall be prompt to spurn and trample under my feet its insolent enactments whenever they conflict with my rights or inclinations.

To the homespun, brown-fisted, doing-its-own work legislature at Pawnee Governor Reeder addressed a sonorous and courtly message. He exhorted the statesmen there convened "to lay aside all selfish and equivocal motives, to discard all unworthy ends, and in the spirit of justice and charity to each other, with pure hearts, tempered feelings, and sober judgments," to enter upon their duties.

The legislature, as soon as an organization had been effected, gave attention to the ten remaining anti-slavery members. Nine were summarily unseated and their places filled by the men to whom Governor Reeder denied certificates. A solitary Free-Soiler -- S. D. Houston -- kept his place until July 22d, when he retired, as "to retain a seat in such circumstances would be ... a condescension too inglorious for the spirit of an American freeman," and left the legislature unvexed by political heresy or schism.

At Pawnee the legislature attempted little except the expulsion of obnoxious members. After a session of only four days -- reports that cholera had appeared in the neighborhood materially contributing to the discontent -- there was an adjournment to Shawnee Mission, where it reassembled July 16th.

It was this adjournment which led Governor Reeder to break with the legislature. Though the members of it had been elected by notorious invasions from Missouri, that scarlet political offense could be absolved; he could still hope that they would escape all unworthy conduct, "save that which springs from the inevitable fallibility of just and upright men; "but when in the phrase of Toombs of Georgia," they removed from Reeder's town to somebody else's town," then was there committed a monstrous and unpardonable sin. To be in the wrong place destroyed the constitutionality of the legislature. The circumstance that Governor Reeder was financially interested in the success of Pawnee, which the action of the legislature ruined, furnished his enemies with a convenient text for abusive discourse. Yet the more probable explanation of the matter is that, repenting of his blunder in failing to set aside the March election, he took advantage of the adjournment, which was at the expense of some technicalities, as the most plausible excuse at hand for parting company with the legislature.

Nothing in the work of the legislature at Shawnee Mission has any flavor of originality -- unless the slave-code be excepted. A natural instinct led it to transfer to Kansas almost in bulk the statutes of Missouri. That was in harmony with Atchison's frank confession -- "I and my friends wish to make Kansas in all respects like Missouri." The pro-slavery managers steeped their slave-code in despotism. Uncertain of the future, confronted by vague, indefinite perils -- perils which, like clouds on the horizon no bigger than a man's hand, might dissolve or blacken the heavens with storm -- they went nervously to work and ran into absurd extremes of precaution and stringency. In their code two years of imprisonment would expiate the crime of kidnapping and selling into bondage a free colored man, but death was denounced against him who aided in the escape of a slave. To question the right of slave-holding in Kansas might draw upon the querist's head pains of felony. A citizen could be disfranchised should he decline taking oath to support the Fugitive Slave Law -- thus impertinently enlarging the area of penalty in a federal enactment. The statesmen at Shawnee Mission succeeded in making "the enunciation of the great and eternal principles of liberty a penitentiary offense." Their code struck at the liberty of the press, at freedom of speech, and the sanctities of the ballot box. And not the least singular feature of this extraordinary legislation is that according to the official publication of 1855 the territorial governor had no power to pardon offenses against it. In the act of Congress organizing the territory of Kansas it was provided, that the governor "may grant pardons and respites for offenses against the laws of said territory, and reprieves for offenses against the laws of the United States until the decision of the president can be known thereon." In "The Statutes of the Territory of Kansas," printed at Shawnee Mission in 1855, the congressional act of organization is republished, and from design or accident the clause is made to read -- the governor "may grant pardons and respites for offenses against the laws of the United States, until the decision of the president can be known thereon." Free-state men charged that the mutilation was intentional, and one of their first measures on getting possession of the legislature was to order the publication of a correct copy of the organic act.

The legislature and its allies successfully prosecuted their quarter with Governor Reeder, who received notice of his removal from office August 15th. In the fight they had effective aid from the territorial supreme court, which decided the removal of the capital to be constitutional. The grievances, which did duty in public as the cause of Reeder's removal, were charges of delay in reaching the territory and in getting the government under way, of usurpation, lack of sympathy with the people, and land-speculation; but the real difficulty was that he did not submit tamely and obediently to pro-slavery dictation.

Governor Reeder's administration ran its troubled course in less than a year. It achieved no very signal success. That were perhaps impossible in the condition of the territory -- hopeless as a child's freak to stamp out a spring bubbling up under stones. Unquestionably it was beyond the reach of a man, without preeminent endowments of insight, adaptation, or executive force -- a stranger to border life, suddenly thrust into the wilderness with a commission to smother outbreaks of the irrepressible conflict.

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