Josh Hawley Is Not the First Missouri Senator with Blood on His Hands

Joshua David Hawley is neither the first nor the worst Missouri senator to have inspired mob violence by attempting interference in an out-of-state election. That dishonor squarely belongs to David Rice Atchison, who served two terms in the U.S. Senate, 1843-55. If Hawley needed a “Show-Me State” role model for provoking bloodshed and canceling voters’ rights, he would never have to look beyond Atchison’s odious example.

“Intemperate, profane, and bellicose,” in the words of historian James McPherson, Atchison was the “most outspoken defender of southern rights in the Senate.” He played a role in the Compromise of 1850, which included the despicable Fugitive Slave Act, but that was only a prelude to his true infamy. In 1854, he helped push through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed a ban on slavery in federal territories that had been in effect since 1820. The next step, as Atchison saw it, was to “extend the institutions of Missouri” – meaning slavery – into the newly organized Kansas territory, “at whatever sacrifice of blood or treasure.”

The settlement of Kansas was highly contested, with Free Soil “emigrants” from the northern states struggling for dominance with pro-slavery Missourians, many of whom were recruited by Atchison. “If we win,” he promised, “we carry slavery to the Pacific Ocean.” New York’s Senator William Seward, later to be Lincoln’s secretary of state, took up the challenge from the Slave Power. “I accept it in behalf of the cause of freedom,” he said. “We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give the victory to the side that is stronger in numbers as it is in right.”

Kansas’s first election was held in November, 1854, to elect a delegate to Congress. Free-staters appeared to hold a numbers advantage among legitimate settlers, but Atchison figured to take no chances on the outcome, even if that required mob rule. “We intend to shoot, burn & hang,” he told Jefferson Davis, who was then secretary of war in Franklin Pierce’s pro-slavery cabinet. He led an invasion of armed “border ruffians” to keep the free-soilers from casting their ballots. With over 1700 “alternative” votes from Missourians, the pro-slavery delegate won the first round.

Bleeding Kansas
Bleeding Kansas

By 1855, Kansas had become an armed battleground between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers, with an election scheduled for the initial territorial legislature. Taking a leave from Congress, Atchison rode into Kansas at the head of a band of border ruffians, determined to squelch the votes of free-staters. “There are eleven hundred men coming over from Platte County to vote,” he boasted, “and if that ain’t enough we can send five thousand – enough to kill every God-damned abolitionist in the Territory.”

Atchison’s terrorism succeeded. The result was a legislature with a 36-3 pro-slavery majority. Recognizing the fraud born of violence and mayhem, territorial Governor Andrew Reeder ordered new elections in many districts, which were then won by free-staters. The pro-slavery majority, however, refused to recognize the winners despite their victory in a free election – not unlike Hawley’s objection to the Biden electors – and instead seated a defeated slate of pro-slavery candidates. 

The disenfranchisement of anti-slavery voters led the way to the “Crime against Kansas,” a primer on the horrors of civil war that, sadly, no one heeded in the 1850s. Pro-slavery forces went on to harass and murder free-state voters, sack Lawrence, the free-state capital. As detailed in the historic address by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, Atchison “browbeat and bullied” the free-state settlers “and took the government from their hands.”

Josh Hawley’s offenses against democracy do not begin to match David Atchinson’s depredations. Atchison personally led white supremacists into battle; Hawley gave a clenched fist salute to the Trump and Confederate flag-waving mob that later sacked the Capitol building and killed a police officer. Atchison violently trampled the votes of his political opponents; Hawley led a futile effort to disenfranchise over two million valid Pennsylvania voters by disqualifying their legitimately chosen electors.

Still, Hawley and Atchison do have one thing in common. To paraphrase the Kansas City Star, they both ended up with blood on their hands.

Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and the author of The “Colored Hero” of Harpers Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War against Slavery.