Mordecai B. Oliver

Mordecai B. Oliver (1819-1898)

Seated on left with the Howard Committee in 1856.
[Kansas Historical Society]

Mordecai Baldwin Oliver was a Member of Congress representing the Fourth Missouri district when he attended the Lexington Convention. He was born in Franklin County, Kentucky and at age eleven moved with his parents to Ray County. After intermittent schooling, he read law for three years before being admitted to the bar at age 23. He practiced law in Richmond until 1848 when he elected Circuit Attorney for the Ray Circuit. He held that position for four years until elected to Congress as a Whig in a Democratic district in 1852. [United States Biographical, Eminent and Self-Made Men, 675ff.]

Oliver's congressional election chances were assisted by a split in the Democratic Party in 1852. He defeated the sitting governor, Austin A. King, running as an Independent because King thought the Democratic candidate James M. Birch too extreme in his anti-Benton (pro-slavery) views. [Mering, Whig Party in Missouri, 186] In 1856 Oliver was reelected and began to receive important committee assignments. Especially important was his appointment to the "Special Committee to Investigate the Troubles in Kansas." He was appointed, as free-state writer Sara Robinson said, despite the fact that he had "stated on the floor of the House .... that he knew of no one who came from Missouri to vote in the territory... [but] was himself present at the election, and, while it is not known with certainty that he voted, he did make a speech, excusing the Missourians for voting." Robinson's informants told her Oliver "was said to have been heard repeatedly urging on the ruffians to deeds of horror, in words of their own choosing, such as "Wipe out the d--d abolitionists! Drive them from the territory!" [Robinson, Interior and Exterior Life, Ch.2]

The majority report of the Committee, signed by Congressmen Howard of Michigan and Sherman of Ohio, was more charitable toward their fellow member. After acknowledging that Oliver was among the Missourians present at the 15th District Kansas polling place during the "Bogus Legislature" election, the majority found:

"Several speeches were made by them at the polls; and among those who spoke were Major Oliver, one of your committee... Major Oliver urged upon all present to use no harsh words, and expressed the hope that nothing would be said or done to wound the feelings of the most sensitive on the other side. He gave some grounds, based on the Missouri compromise, in regard to the right of voting, and was understood to excuse the Missourians for voting. Your committee are satisfied that he did not vote..." [Howard Report, 26]

Oliver found he had to write a minority report following the grueling 90 day inquiry the committee made in Kansas. He had hoped for a simple presentation of the testimony,"...but as the majority of the committee .. thought [it] proper to comment on the character of the testimony, and to give their version of the substance of the facts, ... altogether at variance from [Oliver's] understanding of both, [and one-sided and highly partisan] therefore, [Oliver felt] it incumbent on him to follow their example, by presenting like comments on his part. " [Howard Report, 68]

Later, during the floor debate on Kansas, Oliver defended the "Border Ruffians" of Missouri, describing them as "men of wealth, intelligence, and high moral worth." He argued that they epitomized the best of the "Old Dominion" and the new West: "behold the wide-spread fields, churches of every denomination, numerous school-houses, the high state of civilization and refinement; and then talk about the people of Missouri being `border ruffians!" One writer found Oliver's implication of violence in defense of rights was a demonstration of Missourians' notion of manhood. [Oertel, What Makes a Man, 180]

In 1856 Oliver chose not to run again for Congress. The Whig Party had been "disrupted" and "almost absorbed" by Know-Nothingism. Oliver wrote an open letter to his constituents which was widely circulated and reprinted in Western and Southern newspapers. Oliver wrote that he was opposed to Catholic tenets, but felt that was a theological and not a political matter. He believed in "equal freedom for all creeds, equal facilities for all men of the great Caucasian race. Oliver wrote:

"[The doctrines of the Know-Nothing Party] are qualified or unqualified hostility to naturalized foreigners and Catholics, native and foreign, residing in the United States. Speaking simply as an American citizen, I deem these doctrines absurd and pernicious, and if incorporated into our laws (which cannot be, however) fruitful of great evils....I shrink from pronouncing three millions of men perjurers and traitors, without being able to allege one overt act in support of the appalling accusation...I shall not cooperate in pulling down or unpropping the fabric which our ancestors founded. Hence, a strict adherence to the letter and spirit of the constitution of our country..." [United States Biographical, Eminent and Self-Made Men, 675ff.]

1850s Cartoon

The American or Know-Nothing Party grew out of fear of immigration. From 1845 through 1854, almost three million Irish, German and other immigrants entered the country.
[Smithsonian Magazine]

Oliver moved to Greene County in southwest Missouri where he stood out as a prominent Unionist during the stirrings toward secession in the state. [Fairbanks, Greene County, 241] He was elected Missouri Secretary of State by the 1861 convention called after C.F. Jackson led the majority of the General Assembly into secession. Oliver was the only member of the war government that had not been a delegate to the convention. Historian William Parrish said of the convention's actions:

"....overthrowing Jackson and the General Assembly was of questionable legality, as several delegates pointed out during the debate. When confronted with arguments that the convention was usurping constitutional authority, [new Governor] Gamble had only one answer: any convention chosen by the people `has all the power that the people could have if they had all assembled in one vast plain, unless there has been some limitation on the power.'"

But, Parrish concluded, there was a crisis and some action was necessary. Some state power was needed to deal with federal military forces which then occupied most of the state. In those circumstances "constitutionality lost out to expediency." [Parrish, History of Missouri, Vol.3, 31]

After the war Oliver joined Willard P. Hall in legal practice in St. Joseph. Hall had been Lieutenant Governor in the Gamble administration and later successor Governor. The two prominent attorneys had a large and successful practice. Oliver sought but was unable to obtain appointment to the Federal Court bench. [ Benjamin F. Loan to Abraham Lincoln, October 6, 1864] Nor was he elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1868. [Williams, Caldwell and Livingston Counties, Ch.9] He favored opposition to "Radical Reconstruction" and campaigned for Tilden in the disputed election of 1876. [United States Biographical, Eminent and Self-Made Men, 675ff.]

Oliver moved back to Greene County before 1899 when the General Assembly established the Greene County Criminal Court. He drafted the bill creating the court and was appointed as first judge, retiring in 1892. [Fairbanks, Greene County, 450]

Charles Clark