Benjamin F. Stringfellow

Benjamin F. Stringfellow (1816-1891)

Missouri Attorney General and a "Border Ruffian," he converted to Kansas Republicanism when times changed.
[Missouri Attorney General's Office]

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow was at the very center of Missouri pro- slavery support for Kansas. Stringfellow was born in Fredricksburg, Virginia, the son of a planter, and educated by tutors and at the local preparatory school. He attended the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, and in the fall of 1835 began to read law. He was admitted to the bar and started practice in Louisville, Kentucky in 1837. He emigrated to the Boon's Lick in 1839 and began to practice law in Keytesville. He was elected to the General Assembly from Chariton county in 1844 as an anti-Benton Democrat. From 1845 to 1849, he served as Attorney General of Missouri. In 1850 he acquired one female slave, apparently the only slave he ever owned. [Baltimore, Stringfellow, 16]

In 1853, Ben Stringfellow and his brother John moved to Weston where both were active in David Atchison's causes. [Paxton, Annals, 178] On July 12, 1854 Ben Stringfellow issued a call for a Kansas meeting in Weston three days hence, saying' "Privileges and Power are too fast Slipping From the Many to the Few.Great questions of solemn right will be presented to the meeting ." At the meeting, Stringfellow accused his fellow citizens who had formed the Leavenworth Association of pre-empting settlement across the river for free-state interests. He offered a series of resolutions which were defeated and he was unable to form a coalition at this meeting. [Parish, Atchison, 162]

Stringfellow then called another meeting for July 20 to deal with abolitionists stealing slaves or inducing slaves to run away. Four negroes had run away on July 8 from Platte county owners. The pro-slavery men in Platte county had no doubt that the fugitives had been lured away by Leavenworth abolitionists. The attendees organized the Platte County Self- Defensive Association and named Ben Stringfellow as Secretary. They passed resolutions asserting the value of all slaves was being diminished by abolitionist activity and that. therefore, they had a right to investigate anyone suspected of free-soilism and refuse to do business with them. [Baltimore, Stringfellow, 17]

Addressing a meeting of the "Self-Defensive" Association, Stringfellow argued that someone had to do the hard work of this world; that Negro slavery and the southern way of life allowed white men and women freedom from drudgery:

"I love the white race...those of my own color--more than I do the negro. I do not believe that the white man or white woman is fitted for slavery! I prefer seeing the white race free-the negro a slave. I am not willing to have a white man or a white woman call me master!...If any white man or white woman wish to be slaves they must not ask me to be their master. It is too repulsive to my nature! I wish the white man to be honest, and white woman if to meet another as an equal...too proud to be a slave.who will scorn to call any save God master. Who would rather starve in a ditch than wear the gilded trappings of a pampered animal." [Baltimore, Stringfellow, 20]

The "Self-Defense" Association was far from uniformly admired. Weston merchants did not like the refusal-to-do-business resolution, and even some of Stringfellow's associates thought his measures too radical. In September citizens of Weston held a meeting in opposition to the Association and 137 men bravely signed a statement declaring their loyalty to the General Government and their opposition to "violence and menace." [Paxton, Annals, 176] The Association continued to operate for a few months, but never regained its standing in Platte county. However, the movement got national press as Ben and John Stringfellow "stumped western Missouri" through the winter forming "Blue Lodges" in every town patterned on the Platte county model. [Baltimore, Stringfellow, 21]

In December 1854 Stringfellow was selected by the Atchison camp to lobby Congressmen from southern states to explain the need for prompt and energetic action. He got promises that southern states would send colonists to Kansas. He believed if 2,000 slaves were living in Kansas Territory, the future of slavery would be assured. Once present, the abolitionists would not be able to drive them out. For the next year, Atchison and Stringfellow wrote many appeals for help, but little was forthcoming from the South.

In preparation for election of the Territorial Legislature, Stringfellow drew up "Stringfellow's Exposition," his legal opinion that anyone who could get to the Kansas polls on election day had the right to vote. [Howard Report, 318] Territorial Governor Reeder's careful description of a residency requirement for voting should be tossed aside. Stringfellow voted himself at the Burr Oak polling place in the future Atchison county. [Baltimore, Stringfellow, 27]

Governor's Office

Reeder's office was on the first floor front of the North Building of the Shawnee Manual Labor School.
[Kansas State Historical Society}

After the election Stringfellow had the famous "Border Ruffian" encounter with Governor Reeder in Reeder's office at the Shawnee Manual Labor School. The free-state version of their fight was told in the Lawrence Herald of Freedom, October 8, 1857:

"Gov. Reeder soon after the 30th of March visited Washington, hoping to induce Pres. Pierce to disregard the election. On his way there he stopped at his old home, Easton, Pa., and told the story of Kansas' wrongs, in a speech to his old neighbors. In this he designated the invaders as "Border Ruffians," and said they were led by their chiefs, David R. Atchison and B. F. Stringfellow. Soon after the Governor's return to Kansas, he was called upon by Stringfellow, and a party of kindred spirits. Stringfellow demanded of Reeder to know if he had made the statement. The Governor repeated what he said; that the Territory had been invaded by a regularly organized company of armed men, "Border Ruffians," if you please, who took possession of the ballot-boxes, and made the Legislature to suit the purposes of the pro-slavery party; and that in his opinion Gen. Stringfellow was responsible for the result. Stringfellow sprang to his feet, seized his chair, and felled the Governnor to the floor, kicking him when down. He also attempted to draw a revolver, but was prevented from using it by District Attorney Isaaks, and Mr. Halderman, the Governor's private secretary. And this the origin of the term, so common on the Kansas border for so many years, of "Border Ruffian" [Brown, Governor Walker, 13]

Pro-slavery accounts of the episode were quite different. The St. Louis Missouri Republican of July 3, 1855 story ran:

"Yesterday morning General B. F. Stringfellow.after introducing himself to the Governor, said, "I understand, sir, that you have publicly spoken and written of me in the East as a frontier ruffian, and I have called to ascertain whether you have done so."

Gov. R. "I did not so write, or speak of you in public."

Gen. S. "Did you speak of me in those terms anywhere, or at any time?"

Gov. R. "No, sir."

Gen. S. "Did you use my name at all?

Gov. R. "I may have used your name in private conversation."

Gen. S. "Did you use it disrespectfully? Did you intimate, or insinuate that I was other than a gentleman?"

Gov. R. "I might have done so."

Gen. S. "Then, sir, you uttered a falsehood, and I demand of you the satisfaction of a gentleman. I very much question your right to that privilege, for I do not believe you to be a gentleman; but nevertheless give you the opportunity to vindicate your title to that character, by allowing you to select such friends as you may please, and I will do the same, and we will step out here and settle the matter as gentlemen do."

Gov. R. "I cannot go. I am no fighting man."

Gen. S. "Then I will have to treat you as I would any other offensive animal."

And with that he knocked Reeder down with his fist." [Connelly, History, Vol 1, 467ff]

Stringfellow continued to be active in Missouri politics; urging the General Assembly to reelect Senator Atchison, organizing the Lexington Slave Owners Convention, and contemplating a run for a position on the Missouri Supreme Court. He continued his law practice in Platte County, although living for a while in 1858 in Memphis, Tennessee. [Baltimore, Stringfellow, 29]

In 1859, when the pro-slavery cause in Kansas was lost, Ben Stringfellow made a remarkable transformation. He moved to Atchison to practice law, became a Republican and a promoter of railroads. In 1860 he attended a convention in Topeka settling upon a unified plan for developing railroads in Kansas, ending the dispute between pro-slavery and free-state plans. He even worked with an old free-state enemy, Cyrus K. Holliday, to form the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. [Glick, Railroad Convention, 467ff] He was a Unionist in 1861, unlike his brother John who fought for the Confederacy. In 1872, he campaigned for Ulysses S. Grant and the Republican Party. [Johnson, Battle Cry, 282]

Not everyone believed Ben Stringfellow's transformation, however. H. Miles Moore was Leavenworth lawyer who had known Stringfellow from the old days in Weston when Moore was secretary of the Leavenworth company Stringfellow thought too infested with free-state interests. Moore wrote that Stringfellow "pretended to change his colors to Grant, but no one had confidence in his conversion." [Moore, Early History, 273]

Charles Clark