James Shannon

James Shannon (1799-1859)

President of the University of Missouri and an advocate for the biblical justification of slavery, he was either "hated or exalted."
[The Restoration Movement]

James Shannon, President of the University of Missouri, and two of his professors represented the University at the 1855 Lexington Slave Owners Convention. It was moved on the first day that Shannon be asked to address the meeting. Despite "much opposition," the motion prevailed. [Craik, Southern Interest, 373] The opposition to Shannon might have been an attempt to hold the convention together-- Shannon was a divisive figure. Or, it simply might have been weariness with Shannon's speechifying, never short and familiar to all the conventioneers. Delivered the next day, Shannon's speech ran for more than two hours and the reprint ordered by the convention is 32 pages long. [Library of Congress Website, From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1824-1909]

Shannon was born in Monaghan County, Ireland, and graduated from the University of Belfast. He emigrated to the United States in 1821 to teach at an academy in Sunbury, Georgia. In 1823, leaving his boyhood Presbyterian Church, he was ordained in the Baptist faith. From 1826 to 1829, he preached in an Augusta, Georgia Baptist Church, leaving in 1830 to become Professor of Languages at the University of Georgia. From 1835 to 1840, he was president of the College of Louisiana (now Centenary College) and from 1840 to 1850, president of Bacon College in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Along the way he was converted to the Disciples of Christ (Cambellite) and became a noted speaker on the Christian justification of slavery. [Poyner, Shannon, 326ff]

Bacon College was a Disciples of Christ affiliated school and Shannon had great hopes, promising friends of the college that he "would spare no pains ...to raise Bacon College to a level with the first Institutions of America." But Shannon's efforts failed and Bacon "barely managed to remain solvent." Faculty salaries were reduced and payment was in arrears. When Shannon left the school was "on the verge of financial ruin" and it soon closed its doors. His critics in Missouri predicted he would probably "grow (the University of Missouri) into the ground-- the place in which President Shannon left Bacon College in Kentucky, growing." [Harrell, Shannon, 140]

In 1850 Shannon came to the University of Missouri following " bitter partisan politics" in a struggle between the factions of the Democratic party. The anti-Benton wing of the party reorganized the Board of Curators and openly criticized founding President Lathrop as an anti-slavery advocate and for being too closely connected to Boone county Whigs. Lathrop was forced out and Shannon was hired. Shannon's active support of slavery was his chief qualification and the Board of Curators instructed him to speak throughout the state on behalf of the University, perhaps knowing he would speak more often on religion than on education. "A dramatic platform speaker," he presented an "elaborate and emotional defense of slavery," often delivered. He was accused of adding tutors to the university staff who were really "a speakers bureau" for the pro-slavery forces in the state. Whigs and Bentonite Democrats joined forces in the 1852 session of the General Assembly to create a committee to investigate the "teaching of party politics or sectarian doctrines" at the university. Lack of cooperation from the university community prevented a full investigation, so the legislators passed a law in 1855, aimed at Shannon, preventing any member of the university staff from preaching or practicing any other profession. Shannon declined reappointment because he could not continue to preach. [McCandless, History, 202, 203]

Reprint of Shannon's Address

Shannon's speech pleased W.B. Napton and Sterling Price so much that they had it printed and circulated nationally.
[Library of Congress]

The Lexington Convention took place during Shannon's fight with the General Assembly, with many member in attendance at the convention. After listing all his Old and New Testament proof texts affirming slavery and servitude, Shannon used the opportunity to declaim on his own problems:

"The wholesale lying and slander with which I have been persecuted since my arrival in Missouri by the entire phalanx of abolition and free-soil leaders, and by the filthy lying sheets identified with them ...these things multitudes of my fellow-citizens well know, and can truly attest. I leave you to judge how far these fiendish efforts to destroy my reputation, and to prostrate the State University, over which I have the honor to preside, were prompted by a spirit of revenge for the part I then acted--a conviction that abolitionism and free-soilism could get no foothold in the University so long as I presided over its destinies...But I fear them not. I hurl proud defiance in the viper teeth of Abolitionism, and the motley crew of his abettors and sympathizers; and I assure them, one and all, that, should the day arrive, when my labors shall be needed... I shall, without a moment's hesitation, draw the sword of the Spirit--a true Damascus blade as was ever forged in the armory of Heaven--and I shall neither ask nor give quarter till the battle is fought, and the victory won, or the friends of the Constitution and the rights of the South lie buried in the common grave, that entombs the liberties of our country. To God Most High, and under him to the general intelligence, virtue and patriotism of my fellow- citizens, do I most cheerfully commit my reputation. My motto this: "The Lord will defend the right." [Library of Congress, From Slavery to Freedom, 24]

From 1856 until his death in 1859, Shannon was the first president of Christian University, now Culver Stockton College in Canton, Missouri. One biographer called Shannon "a puzzling man to evaluate." His best qualities were his "scholarship, honesty and loyalty;" and his worst his "bigotry, intolerance and arrogance." He was either hated or exalted. [Harrell, Shannon, 168]

Charles Clark