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February 13, 1856.



JUDGE LECOMPTE AND THE "SACK OF LAWRENCE" 479

"W's" crisis picture. Between the "peace treaty" closing the Waka-
rusa War and the April-May troubles, Kansas was remarkably
quiet. 12

On April 12, 1856, the Herald of Freedom, financed in part at least
by the New England Emigrant Aid Company, and edited by G. W.
Brown, printed an article, "The Tree State Hotel' Finished." The
construction work had started in April, 1855. In November when
the Wakarusa War began it was unfinished, but, the article went on
to explain, it benefited "our cause, even in its unfinished condition.
. . . It was into this structure the people intended to retreat, if
driven from every other position, gather around them their house-
hold treasures, and make a last desperate effort in the defence of their
lives and liberties. But fate ordered otherwise."

The article did not explain, but there had been no armed attack
upon Lawrence as the difficulties had been compromised. In the
spring, work on the building was pushed to a conclusion, "and on
this, the Twelfth of April, one year from the day the first spadeful
of dirt was thrown up, the FREE STATE HOTEL is finished." Then
followed the detailed specifications of the basement and three
stories; "stairs leading to roof, which is flat, and affords a fine prome-
nade and a splendid view of the surrounding scenery. There are
thirty or forty port-holes in the walls, which rise above the roof,
plugged up now with stones, which can be knocked out with a blow
of the butt of a Sharp's rifle."

Of course, these two independent statements by Free-State writers
do not prove that the hotel was a fortress; but they do, in an absolute
sense, prove that that assertion was not a Proslavery lie. If it was
not true, then it was a Free-State lie, invented by men closely
identified with the most influential people then directing Free-State
strategy at Lawrence. The publication of such statements to the
world was rash, and a serious error of tactics, even if true, and if
not true, a more severe censure is in order. This was not a melo-
drama played by a group of exuberant children in the barn loft on
a summer afternoon. These were adults, supposedly responsible
for their acts, and they were playing this tragic drama, not from
the stage of a theater, but in real life and to a national audience.
Only a few more days were to pass when, as in a Greek tragedy,
once the participants had made their choices, events moved with a
seemingly fatal precision to the inevitable culminating catastrophe,
and the Proslavery men were to use Free-State boasts in their own
defense as justification for destroying this alleged hotel-fortress.

12. Malin, John Brown and the Legend of Fifty-six.



480 KANSAS HISTORICAL QUARTERLY

NEW YORK TRIBUNE REPORTS

With the destruction of the Free-State presses in Lawrence, the
Free-State cause in the territory was temporarily without a news-
paper, except the Topeka Tribune. The cause was not without
newspaper publicity, however, because there were a substantial
number of letter writers for Eastern newspapers in the territory.
Particularly important were those writing for the New York Tribune,
among whom William A. Phillips, "Our Own Correspondent/' was
pre-eminent, and they injected reality into Greeley's briefing of
the situation to his editor, Dana, already quoted at greater length:
". . . we can only make issues on which to go to the people at
the Presidential election."

Three editorials in the New York Daily Tribune, May 26, 1856,
dealt with the news from Lawrence, and Kansas. The first an-
nounced that:

"The King is dead Live the King!" Lawrence, the heroic focus and
citadel of Free-State principles and efforts in Kansas, has been devastated and
burned to ashes by the Border Ruffians; but most of its inhabitants still live.
. . . A few bare and tottering chimneys, a charred and blackened waste,
now mark the site. . . .

This editorial closed with the assertion:

All this devastation and butchery, be it remembered, have been performed
in the name and by the authority of the Federal Union. . . . But it is the
United States Marshal who directs and impels the operations by which Law-
rence has been destroyed and Kansas subdued. . . .

The second editorial went further in developing the theme:

The responsibility of arson and murder which last winter Gov. Shannon
declined to take, has been assumed this Spring by the United States officials,
Judge Lecompte and Marshal Donaldson . . . with the full concurrence
of President Pierce.

. . . With two such learned and scrupulous lawyers at the head of the
movement as Judge Lecompte and President Pierce, to say nothing of the
occasional advice of Gushing and Marcy, there cannot be a doubt that the town
of Lawrence has been burned down, and more or less of the inhabitants
butchered, all strictly according to law at least Border Ruffian law. . . .

Mr. Pierce will thus present himself to the Cincinnati Convention as a
candidate for reelection, sprinkled from head to foot with the blood of the
Free-State men of Kansas, and his whole person illuminated and lighted up with
the blaze of their burning houses.

The following day came another editorial in the New York Trib-
une, based upon a Chicago Tribune story as a text, the latter being
reprinted in the news columns. Emphasis should be focused upon
the differences between this editorial and those of the day before.



JUDGE LECOMPTE AND THE "SACK OF LAWRENCE" 481

The process of retreat, if not retraction, from the assertions of total
destruction was begun. Furthermore, the Kansas fugitives who
reported the Chicago Tribune story had not actually seen what had
occurred at Lawrence.

On May 30 the first mail correspondence, direct from Kansas, was
published in the New York Tribune, under a date line of Leaven-
worth, May 22:

The war has at last begun. The legal bands of men, empowered by Presi-
dential and Territorial authority to "subdue" the settlers of Kansas because they
dared to interfere with the policy of making it a Slave State, have inaugurated
their work by an act of reckless and merciless wickedness. A citizen of Law-
rence, Mr. Wm. Hutchinson, has just come in this morning. He saw the scene
of violence from the opposite side of the river, and learned the particulars
from some men who had been in the posse, and who crossed the Kaw and
left the scene of horror in disgust.

The report continued by speculating upon the extent of the de-
struction by explaining that as the hotel and presses were in the
closest built part of the town, the whole of the town would have
been burned. Again, none of these informants had actually seen
the town in ashes. Furthermore, the internal evidence suggests that
Hutchinson was one of the fugitives whose story provided the basis
for the Chicago Tribune article printed two days earlier.

The Missouri Democrat's (St. Louis) story, "An eye-witness" ac-
count, was printed in the New York Tribune, May 30. The descrip-
tion of the events of May 21 to the point of Jones' afternoon visit
followed approximately the standard sequence, and at that point
"commenced the scenes disgraceful to humanity, destructive to
Kansas, and the end of which God only knows." Demanding the
surrender of cannon and Sharps rifles: "Jones stated he had several
times been resisted in that place attempts had been made to
assassinate him and he now declared that he was 'determined to
execute the law if he lost his life/" Pomeroy insisted that the
Sharps rifles were private property, but delivered the cannon. Jones
then notified Colonel Eldridge, the operating proprietor of the hotel,
to remove his furniture by five o'clock because the building was to
be destroyed, "that he was acting strictly under orders. The Grand
Jury at Lecompton had declared the hotel and presses at Lawrence
a nuisance, and ordered him to destroy them." While the furniture
was being removed Jones disposed of the presses, the main body of
the posse having entered the town: "Jones promised in the com-
mencement that no private property should be destroyed. But

337724



482 KANSAS HISTORICAL QUARTERLY

houses were broken open and rifled of whatever suited the fancy
of the mob. . . ."

The destruction of the hotel was then described, but the letter
writer brought into the narrative other activities, among which, the
role of Former Sen. David R. Atchison and Colonel Jackson de-
serves special attention.

G. W. Brown's house was twice set on fire, but the blaze was
extinguished:

If his house had burned, several others must certainly have been destroyed,
and there would have been danger of burning nearly half the town. Many of
the mob were bent on destroying every house in the place. . . . Atchison,
it is said, advised moderation. Col. Jackson, of Georgia, with many others,
were opposed to the burning of the hotel. . . . 13

Later in this article an important admission of error was made:
"The report that a Free-State man was killed at Lawrence, on the
21st, I think a mistake."

On Saturday, May 31, the Tribune editorialized upon the Kansas
letters printed the previous day, which, it alleged "supplied at length
a connected and authentic account of affairs in Kansas down to the
sack of Lawrence. . . ." After recounting the treason indict-
ments and the gathering of the posse, reference to "occasional mur-
ders" along with accusations against Governor Shannon, the events
of the day, May 21, were recounted, and in relation to the hotel
concluded:

. . . as Judge Lecompte's Grand Jury, the same that found indictments
for high treason, had declared it as well as the printing-offices a nuisance, and
on that ground he was determined to destroy it and them. . . . The print-
ing-offices were also destroyed, the types being thrown into the river, and
the house of the editor of one of the papers set on fire, as also the house of
Governor Robinson. ... All the houses in the town were entered and
plundered, and it was with great difficulty that some of the more discreet
among the leaders of the mob prevented the destruction of every house.

In the nine days' operations of this law-and-order posse, exclusive of the
outrages at Lawrence, fourteen men have been shot at, two killed, and two
desperately wounded, . . . and women treated with shocking barbarity.

The New York Tribune did not print a Sunday paper, so Monday,
June 2, brought a Lawrence story with a May 21 date line "the par-
tial destruction of Lawrence by an armed Ruffian mob/' the letter
being signed "Potter." Also there was a story, under a St. Louis,
May 26, date line "Lawrence is destroyed, at least a great part of
it. . . ." But there was no editorial upon these week-end news

13. Another study needs to be made of the role of Atchison, along with an examination
into the origin and the authenticity of the reports of his speech or speeches.



JUDGE LECOMPTE AND THE "SACK OF LAWRENCE" 483

arrivals. That came Tuesday, June 3, in a nine-point summary of the
Lawrence episode:

Our accounts by mail from devastated Lawrence, down to the day after
the descent upon it of the Pro-Slavery army under Sheriff Jones and Marshal
Donaldson, are now complete. . . . [Proslavery and antislavery material
has been printed.] And now we desire to call attention to the leading features
of the whole transaction, as established by the concurrent testimony of the
witnesses and narrators from all sides namely,

1. The question which has distracted and devastated Kansas is purely one
of Slavery or Freedom. Remove this bone of contention, and there would
be no shadow of contest, and no motive for any. . . .

2. The Free-State party are not struggling for equality and fraternity be-
tween Whites and Negroes. A minority of them would prefer that the Law
should know nothing of a man's color in connection with political rights; but
the majority, who are mainly from the Western States, have decided not to
expose themselves to the false accusation of being "negro-thieves" or "negro-
worshippers," and have enacted that the Free State of Kansas shall be open to
settlement by Whites only.

3. The attack upon Lawrence was purely wanton and malicious. There
were no persons in it that the Territorial authorities really wanted to ar-
rest. . . .

4. No shadow of resistance was offered to this array from first to last. . . .
Most of the furniture [of the hotel] appears in the interim to have been re-
moved. . . . The offices of the two Free-State newspapers were sacked
and their printing materials thrown into the river. Governor Robinson's house
was fired and burned, "but not by authority," says a Pro-Slavery bulletin.

5. There being absolutely no resistance to any of these outrages, only
two persons were killed. One was a man who was in Gov. Robinson's house
when it was fired, and who thereupon ran out, and, not halting when required
to do so, was shot by the incendiaries. The other was a member of the posse,
who fired a rifle-ball at the chimney of said house, and thereby dislodged a
stone, which fell on his head, and finished him.

6. The value of the property destroyed by the posse in Lawrence is vaguely
estimated at $100,000. The principal sufferers are the owners of the Free State
Hotel. . . . Gov. Robinson's loss is heavy: that of the newspaper offices
is total.

7. The posse was made up in good part of the seven or eight hundred
Southerners, collected from South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia, and led
into Kansas two months since by Major Buford . . . but not many resi-
dents of Missouri, so far as has yet been ascertained. Thus Missouri has been
relieved by her Southern sisters in the work of subduing Kansas.

8. All this has been done in the name of Law, and under the authority
of the United States. . . . [Chain of command allegedly responsible:
Pierce, Douglas, Shannon.]

9. The leading object of the Ruffians clearly is the expulsion from Kansas,
by violence and terror, of the bolder and more outspoken portion of the Free-
State settlers, the complete subjugation of the residue. . . .

People of the Free States! will you consider?



484 KANSAS HISTORICAL QUARTERLY

The instance of charges that women were treated with "shocking
barbarity," made in the May 31 editorial, is one of the rare instances
of that kind. The nature of the offences were not specified. In that
connection, one commentary is in order. Throughout the whole of
the Kansas-Missouri border troubles, crimes against women, or even
charges of such, by either side were virtually nonexistent. In a
region disorganized by bitter controversy as this area was, and over
so long a period of time, such an undisputable fact becomes one of
the remarkable aspects of border troubles, and should give partisan
controversalists pause. Just how much "disorder" did actually occur,
and to what extent did it endanger the rank and file of citizens intent
upon establishing a farm or business in Kansas?

By the June 7 issue, the editorial retreat of the Tribune was vir-
tually completed, and to divert attention and save face a new
rationalization was advanced. The occasion was the printing of
the Lecompton Union story of the Lawrence affair printed by that
paper May 24, and summarized earlier in this article. After urging
Tribune readers to read the Union account, the editor continued:

When the news first came by Telegraph that Lawrence had been attacked
and burned, we thought the outrage must arouse the country; but, now that we
have learned that there was no shadow of resistance to the Ruffians, and that
their destruction of the great Hotel and the two printing offices were judicial acts,
based upon the finding of a Grand Jury, it seems to us that the outrage was
graver and the iniquity more heinous than if the whole town had been burned
in or after a fray, as at first reported. We dare the journals which favor the
Border-Ruffian interest to copy this bulletin of their Kansas ally [The Lecomp-
ton Union], . . .

Having been obliged to admit that Lawrence had not been
burned, and that influential men, called Border Ruffians, had used
their influence to restrain the mob and to save not only the town,
but even the printing equipment and the hotel, a number of em-
barrassing questions were raised. If armed resistance was not a
part of the program, why had the Free-State men carried on a cam-
paign for approximately a year to collect money for cannon, Sharps
rifles, ammunition, to organize and drill military companies, and,
as their own writers claimed, construct the hotel in such a manner as
to serve as a fortress in which they could make a last desperate
stand? How could nonresistance now be made a major virtue?
Furthermore, now that the first sensational charges had broken
down, why were the Free-State men singling out the judiciary and
Judge Lecompte as a particular scapegoat, along with pinning the
responsibility for Kansas troubles upon the federal government at



JUDGE LECOMPTE AND THE "SACK OF LAWRENCE" 485

Washington for presidential campaign purposes? Was it that the
writers were ignorant of law, of judicial organization, of judicial
procedure, as well as careless of facts?

The technique employed by the Tribune editorials has been given
a name in the mid-twentieth century the Big Lie technique. The
form is always the same, a simple, blanket accusation, total in its
coverage: "Lawrence . . . burned to ashes. . . ." Step by
step that was narrowed down to the point where only two buildings
were identified as destroyed, the hotel, and Robinson's house. At
first, a large number of the inhabitants were reported killed, but
finally the admission was made that not one Free-State man in Law-
rence lost his life. But the first startling accusation, not the correc-
tions, lodged in the public mind. Various contradictory news stories
followed, and after the facts became available, the Tribune con-
tinued to publish sensational falsehoods. Its correspondent in
Kansas wrote, May 31, printed June 11:

Lawrence wore a changed aspect when I entered it yesterday, to what it
used to wear as the citadel of Freedom in Kansas. It was not only in the
blackened ruins of the buildings that had been burned or in the destruction and
loss that had been sustained by the inhabitants, but it no longer wore the look
of security and energetic prosperity.

PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN POLITICS AGAIN

In June, 1856, the national nominating conventions met. The
Democrats met at Cincinnati, June 2, and nominated James Bu-
chanan, of Pennsylvania. The Republicans met, June 17, at Phila-
delphia and there completed the coalition with antislavery Americans
( Know-Nothings ) , nominating Fremont, according to the plans
outlined in the Banks and Fremont letters to Charles Robinson.
Kansas had nine delegates seated in the convention, and they were
conspicuous, though not influential in the convention scene. But
the Kansas issue as personifying the antislavery impulse was the
only major one upon which the otherwise incongruous antiadminis-
tration factions could unite. Kansas was essential to the campaign
until November.

The bill to admit Kansas as a state under the Topeka constitution
was immediately brought forward, and under the Banks speakership,
passed the house, July 3. In the Democratic-controlled senate, Rob-
ert Toombs, of Georgia, proposed an amendment to the Douglas bill
of March 17, which was so framed as to "save faces" all around,
and to concede the essential points to the Free-State contention. It
proposed a fair settlement, which would have removed the Kansas



486 KANSAS HISTORICAL QUARTERLY

issue from the presidential campaign. That was the purpose of
the Pierce administration. The senate debate focus on this issue
came June 25 to July 2. Northern men brought about its defeat,
and "Bleeding Kansas" continued as the campaign issue. The
tactical weakness in the case for the administration lies in the fact
that the Toombs compromise, or something equivalent, was not
proposed in December, 1855, after the Wakarusa War, and immedi-
ately upon the convening of congress. But that had not happened,
and therefore is not history.

COLFAX CHARGES AND LECOMPTE DEFENSE

On June 21, 1856, in the United States House of Representatives,
Schuyler Colfax, of Indiana, delivered a one-hour speech, his point
of departure being an amendment he offered to the army appropri-
ation bill, the house being in committee of the whole. The amend-
ment proposed that congress disapprove the code of laws adopted
by the legislature of the territory of Kansas; disapprove also the
manner in which they had been administered, and declared that
until affirmed by the congress, no part of the military force of the
United States be employed in aid of their enforcement and that
no citizen be required, under their provisions, to act as a part of a
posse comitatus under any officer acting as a marshal or sheriff in
the territory of Kansas. Although his speech was directed primarily
at the code of laws, Colfax turned first to attack the manner in which
they were administered and enforced. Murder after murder had
been committed, he charged, "but you have not heard of one single
attempt by any court in that Territory to indict any one of those
murderers . . . neither the territorial nor the General Govern-
ment inquire into the crimes they have committed. . . ." Phelps,
of Missouri, interrupted to inquire whether or not the Free-State
men refused to obey the courts "Those very witnesses, who are in
opposition to those laws, refuse to go before the [grand] jury and
testify as to those offenses of which they are cognizant/' Colfax
replied that "The Free-State people of Kansas recognize all the
United States courts in that Territory, and they render full allegiance
to the United States authorities/' He charged that the chief justice,
Lecompte, in his charges to the grand juries, had not, so far as he
had heard, ever called attention to the murders, and to the fact
that the murderers were at large and honored by the territorial au-
thorities. Phelps pressed his point against Coif ax's evasion but the
latter pleaded encroachment upon his limited time and proceeded
with his attack upon Lecompte.



JUDGE LECOMPTE AND THE "SACK OF LAWRENCE" 487

Colfax adopted the technique first of enumerating things he did
not impute to Lecompte; lack of moral character, or lack of judicial
ability, or willful and corrupt violation of his oath those points, he
asserted would be answered authoritatively by a vote for Lecompte's
impeachment. Colfax declined to comment upon Lecompte's Dra-
conian severity "against all who advocated freedom for Kansas."
By this negative technique, Colfax accomplished his intended smear,
without leaving any opening for a reply. He then turned to positive
charges, pointing to self-interest on the part of territorial officers,
including Lecompte, in charters granted by the territorial legisla-
ture. Colfax then quoted from the National Intelligencer, Washing-
ton, June 5, the report of Lecompte's alleged charge to the grand
jury on constructive treason. In criticism of such a concept of con-
structive treason, Colfax quoted the provisions of the United States
constitution on treason, thus setting up a straw man and knocking
him down.

Colfax then reviewed his version of the indictment and arrest of
Charles Robinson and others for treason, their confinement, denial
of bail, etc. :

When the defenders of these proceedings ask us to trust to the impartiality of
courts, I answer them by pointing to this charge, and also to the judicial de-
crees of the Territory, by authority of which numbers of faithful citizens of the
United States have been indicted, imprisoned, and harassed by authority
of which the town of Lawrence was sacked and bombarded by authority of
which printing presses were destroyed, without legal notice to their owners,
and costly buildings cannonaded and consumed without giving the slightest
opportunity to their proprietors to be heard in opposition to these decrees; all
part and parcel of the plot to drive out the friends of freedom from the Territory,
so that slavery might take unresisted possession of its villages and plains.

Colfax then attacked the jury system, charging the packing of
juries by the sheriffs and marshals again ignoring Phelps* challenge
to show to what extent Free-State men refused to recognize the
courts or to serve on juries or to testify before grand juries or in
open court. Colfax later took up separate sections of the territorial
code. On freedom of the press, he declared:

Probably under this provision, as well as the charge of high treason, George W.



Online LibraryKansas State Historical SocietyThe Kansas historical quarterly (Volume 20) → online text (page 56 of 76)