David Atchison

David Rice Atchison (1807-1886)
United States Senator from Missouri

Atchison and his followers had a plan to make Kansas a slave state. Many members of the Bogus Legislature had long-standing ties to the Senator.

David Atchison resigned his office as President Pro Tem of the United States Senate in December 1854 before the end of the congressional term to return home early for two of the biggest battles of his life. One fight was for his Senate seat being hotly contested in the Missouri General Assembly and the other was for Slavery in Kansas. His home state lieutenant, Ben Stringfellow from Weston, had been on the circuit of Western Missouri towns through the fall months working hard for both causes; but now Atchison needed to be home, campaigning in person. [Baltimore, Benjamin Stringfellow, 16]

On the first ballot in the Missouri General Assembly in January, the vote was Thomas Hart Benton 41, Atchison 56 and Alexander W. Doniphan, the Whig candidate 57. After the forty-first ballot at the beginning of February 1855 revealed a continued stalemate in which no one could win a majority, the joint session adjourned without electing a Senator and did not reconvene. [Chambers, Old Bullion Benton, 409] Atchison continued to campaign for the seat through the spring and summer, in the hope that the General Assembly would send him back at its next session.

Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858)

"Old Bullion" Benton decided to make one last run for the Senate against David Atchison in 1855. They were old political enemies but their differences were also about the future of Missouri.

Senator Atchison had been the moving force in repeal of the Missouri Compromise as part of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. It was the crowning achievement of his Senate career. His great Missouri opponent, Thomas Hart Benton, then a member of the House, had opposed the Act. Benton represented St. Louis commercial interests and Missouri's growing German-American population who opposed the spread of slavery. Benton also opposed the new idea of "Popular Sovereignty," the ability of the Kansas and Nebraska territories to govern themselves from the outset, no matter how small their populations and how weak their governments. Benton decided to make one last run for the Senate and take Atchison's place. The Benton-Atchison battle was in part simply old partisan grudges but it was also about the future of Missouri. Would the slave owner faction Atchison led continue to prevail?

No one ever thought Atchison was a clever man or a great speaker; his strength lay in convivial companionship. In Washington, he boarded in a rooming house with the leading Southern senators and was a great favorite among them. At home, he spent most of his time in the public room at Elisha Green's hotel in Platte City. He was a confirmed bachelor and found his farm near Plattsburg far too lonely. Well fortified with bourbon, he enjoyed long evenings at Green's hotel with "jolly fellows and boon companions," spinning yarns and telling tall tales. [Moore, Early History, 90]

Born in Frogtown, Kentucky in 1807, Atchison entered Transylvania College in Lexington in 1821 at the age of fourteen. He had little academic success there but he made five life-long friends among his classmates. All five became United States Senators: Solomon Downs of Louisiana, Jesse Bright of Indiana, George Jones of Iowa, Edward Hannegan of Indiana and Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. After graduating from Transylvania, he read law and was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1829. He moved to Missouri the next year, settling in Liberty as the second lawyer in Clay county. His practice flourished and he was elected to the Missouri House in 1834. He served on the committee petitioning Congress for the Platte Purchase, accomplished in 1837. For his efforts, his friends in the General Assembly named one of the six new counties for him. [Parish, Frontier Politician, 340]

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow (1816-1891)

Former Missouri Attorney General organized the Platte County Self-Defense Association. His brother John was elected Speaker of the House in the Bogus Legislature.

In the years 1838 to 1840 he practiced law in Liberty, making frequent trips to Platte City on court days. In 1841, a new judicial circuit for the six counties in the Platte Purchase was created and Atchison was appointed the first judge of the circuit. In 1843, United States Senator Linn of Missouri died in office and the Governor appointed Atchison, aged 36, to the seat. He was the youngest senator in the state's history and the first senator from western Missouri.

Through friendships formed in the Senate, he was elected President Pro Tem in his second term and famously was President of the United States for one day when the term of President Polk and Vice-President Dallas expired under the Constitution on Saturday and President-elect Zachary Taylor refused to take the oath of office on the Sabbath. Unfortunately, Atchison celebrated too long at the Saturday night inaugural party and as a consequence, slept through most of his brief term in office.

Atchison's chief Missouri representative, Ben Stringfellow, had organized the Platte County Self-Defense Association during the summer of 1854 and that group became the pattern for many "Blue Lodges," secret organizations in western Missouri towns with plans for a pro-slavery Kansas. Through the winter and into the spring, Atchison and Stringfellow traveled from town to town organizing the Kansas election and at the same time finding supporters for Atchison in the Missouri election. There were 80,000 whites and 20,000 blacks in western Missouri. A large number lived in or near the principal towns; St. Joseph, Weston, Liberty, Independence and Lexington. Atchison had old friends and followers in all of them. [Malin, Proslavery Background, 292] By March the Kansas nominees were set and 5,000 "voters" enlisted to go to Kansas on election day.

Charles Clark