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The Sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856 – 7 The Deed

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Sacking of Lawrence, 1856

This post completes the series, “The Sacking of Lawrence May 21, 1856.” Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here, Part 6 here.

Free-State men wounded Douglas County sheriff Samuel J. Jones when he returned to Lawrence to serve arrest warrants in the spring of 1856, despite the presence of Federal troops. The Grand Jury of Douglas County met and “returned indictments against three free-state leaders, against two newspapers at Lawrence – the Herald of Freedom and the Kansas Free State – and against the Free State Hotel at Lawrence, which, it said, was in fact a fortress, “regularly parapeted and portholed for use of small cannon and arms.” (Potter, 208) There is good evidence that the hotel was, in fact, designed with a mind toward defense with filled portholes that could be knocked out with a rifle butt. But it is curious that indictments of treason were levied toward an inanimate building.

israeldonalsonTo serve the indictments and associated arrests, United States Marshal Israel B. Donaldson raised a posse inclusive of Missourians. But he left them outside of town as he arrested, along with a deputy, several minor players, others having fled. (Potter, 208) He then attempted to disband the posse but Sheriff Samuel J.Jones, healed of his wounds, rallied the men and rode into Lawrence as a mob force “alleging the need of aid in making arrests and abating nuisances under authority of the grand jury.” (Malin)

Samuel J. Jones

Samuel J. Jones

Michael Holt describes the events of May 21, 1856 as the work of a posse sent by the Lecompton government “to arrest several free state leaders in Lawrence.” (Holt, 194) That posse, “which included Missourians, burned some buildings and destroyed two printing presses but killed no one in the town.” (Holt, 194.) Put in that way, it sounds relatively benign but was pounced on by the Republicans as evidence that the Pierce-backed Kansas territorial government was supporting and condoning atrocities.

“The War Actually Begun,” “Triumph of the Border Ruffians,” “Lawrence in Ruins – Several Persons Slaughtered,” “Freedom Bloodily Subdued,” hyperbolized the Eastern Republican press.” (Holt, 194.) “Kansas was bleeding because lawless slaveholders were butchering defenseless northern settlers in their effort to force slavery on the territory.” (Holt, 194.)

The raid targeted the Free-State Hotel, a building constructed and owned by the New England Emigrant Aid Company. Griffin confirms that Douglas County Sheriff Samuel J. Jones led the posse. He and his men “bombarded the [Free-State] hotel with cannon and then gutted the building with gunpowder and flame. The razing of the hotel, together with the burning of Charles Robinson’s house, the wrecking of the equipment of two newspapers, the Herald of Freedom and the Kansas Free State, and a certain amount of looting and vandalism, became known as the ‘sack of Lawrence.’” (Griffin)

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"Old Sacramento Cannon" captured by U.S. during the Mexican-American War in 1847 and taken to the Liberty Arsenal. The cannon was seized by pro-slavery forces in 1856 and fired during the Sacking of Lawrence. The cannon was damaged in 1896 when it was loaded with clay and straw and fired. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Griffin further claims that proslavery men in the territory justified the action by claiming Jones and his men “were simply executing an indictment of the grand jury of the United States district court at Lecompton and the orders of the presiding judge, Samuel D. Lecompte.” (Griffin)

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Samuel D. Lecompte

“Free-State men were quick to agree with their enemies, but contended that judge, jury, and Jones had acted illegally and without cause. Newspaper editors sympathetic to the Free-State cause gave the affair enormous publicity — much of it merely falsehoods — and labored to convince their readers that the sack of Lawrence was yet another manifestation of Proslavery barbarism. Before a month was out, Kansas mythology was immensely richer.” (Griffin)

As a final note, both Malin, Griffin, and Holt contend that no one was killed in the raid on Lawrence. But Potter points out that one man, a slave, was killed from falling debris as the Free State Hotel was demolished. (Potter, 209) Clearly it was violent event amidst growing episodes of violence between Free-State and proslavery factions along the border between Kansas and Missouri.

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Ruins of the Free State Hotel, after the Sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, 1856

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C. S. Griffin, “Kansas Historical QuarterlyThe University of Kansas and the Sack of Lawrence: A Problem of Intellectual Honesty,” Kansas Historical Quarterly, Winter, 1968 (Vol. XXXIV. No. 4), pages 409 to 426. Accessed online, February 14, 2009.
Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, (New York:  W. W. Norton and Company, 1983).
James C. Malin, “Judge Lecompte and the ‘Sack of Lawrence,’ May 21, 1856, ” Kansas Historical Quarterly, August 1953 (Vol. 20, No. 7), pages 465 to 494. Accessed online,  February 14, 2009.
David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1976).

The Compromise of 1850: Effective Political Action or Forecast of Disaster?

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Thanks to everyone that has participated in the Compromise of 1850 Poll going on here. If you haven’t voted, please do!

To expand the discussion, let me share my perspective on the question I raised, whether The Compromise of 1850 was an effective political action or a forecast of disaster.

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The United States Senate, A.D. 1850. Drawn by P. F. Rothermel; engraved by R. Whitechurch. c1855. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZCN4-149

Michael F. Holt makes an excellent case in his classic, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s , that the Compromise of 1850 was more a forecast of disaster than effective political action. His argument is founded on the premise that the Compromise was effectively a deathblow to the Second American Party System and the notion that the health of America’s political parties in the mid-19th century was crucial to containment of sectional strife. As long as “men had placed their loyalty to their own party and defeat of the opposing party within their own section ahead of sectional loyalty, neither the North nor the South could be united into a phalanx against the other.” (1)

This conclusion is, of course, more easily arrived at when looking back at the period through the lens of generations with the full knowledge that the country would be ripped apart within fifteen years in a tumultuous Civil War. The perspectives of the politicians who negotiated the Compromise of 1850 would have, at the time, been much different. Indeed, they might have seen it as artful politics. The agreements made in the Compromise appeared to solve, at least temporarily, the country’s major ills which –  on the surface – revolved around slavery and the country’s expansion.

But the effect was the displacement of the country’s trust in “party” as voice and defender of political views. The void caused men to affiliate more with their section, North and South. The scene was set for the country’s festering issues to rise again to a boil, this time without the benefit of cross-sectional parties that had so successfully contained discord in the past.

Thus my conclusion is that the Compromise of 1850 was BOTH an effective political action AND a forecast of disaster. It was effective for a time in that it allowed the country to continue forward with at least a fragile agreement on monumental issues. But its destruction of the Second American Party System led the country toward potential destruction.

And so…. what do you think? Comments welcome.

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See images of the original document – The Compromise of 1850 here.

(1) Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, (New York:  W. W. Norton and Company, 1983), 139.

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