If it hadn’t been that it was a matter of life and death - his, in particular - Andrew Reeder might have found the events almost comical.
Here he was, one of the leaders of the Northampton County, Pennsylvania bar and territorial governor of Kansas, with a shawl thrown over his head and a bucket in his hand, following a small group of women, tiptoeing around the prone, passed-out, snoring bodies of the Missouri lynch mob who just hours before were ready to hang him from the nearest tree.
But this was just one of the events that had become a part of the Easton native’s life since, at the request of President Franklin Pierce and at the suggestion of then-Congressman Asa Packer, he had been appointed governor of the violence-wracked territory of Kansas.
When it was over, Reeder, previously an ardent Democrat with a laissez-faire attitude toward slavery, had become a Republican, a supporter of Lincoln and a vigorous champion of the "peculiar institution" of abolition.
Andrew Horatio Reeder was born in Easton in 1807. His father Absalom Reeder’s roots in America went back to 1656, roughly when they arrived from England, landing at Long Island. His mother, Christina Smith, was from Easton.
Reeder attended high school in Lawrenceville, N.J., at what later became a well-known prep school. From here, he read law in the office of a prominent local attorney, Peter Ihrie, who was active in Democratic party politics, serving as a representative in the Pennsylvania House and the U.S. Congress.
Reeder was admitted to the Northampton County bar in 1828. Unlike Ihrie, he had no interest in running for office himself. When the Democratic Party asked for his support, he gave it but always privately. When asked by a young man what he should do with his future, Reeder responded with this advice:
"First succeed in your profession. Acquire it you may by honorable means such fortune as will enable you, at all times to maintain yourself with dignity, irrespective of public emolument. If then an office suitable to your taste and capacity seeks you, accept it, but do not allow any thought of public employment to occupy your attention until that period shall have arrived."
It was a path Reeder followed for himself. He was soon known throughout the Lehigh Valley and eastern Pennsylvania as among its most skilled attorneys. "His habit," noted one contemporary, "was to come to the office about 10 o’clock in the morning. Stay there continuously until six or seven when he dined. By eight or half past eight he returned and stayed usually as late as one o’clock, seldom going home before midnight."
He spent so many hours at the office and at home working on a case that his wife was said to bang a cane on the bedroom floor to get him to come upstairs to bed.
This is how Reeder pretty much expected to live the rest of his life until the Kansas Nebraska Act came into existence. To a good Jacksonian Democrat like him, it just made sense to have popular sovereignty, letting the people who lived there decide if they wanted to be slave state or a free state was the American way.
As far as slavery itself was concerned, it was a southern issue and since Reeder lived in the north, not his. His wife had roots in Virginia and when asked about it was quoted as saying that he would have "no more scruples in buying a slave than in buying a horse."
Perhaps with this in mind it must have seemed to President Franklin Pierce’s administration that he would approach the issue with a slave-holders point of view. The most powerful member of his cabinet was Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, a major slaveholder and often spokesman for their point of view.
Pierce, from New England, was personally opposed to slavery but feared that standing up to the "slave power" of powerful Washington Southern politicians was suicide for the Democratic party and the country. He did not see any other way to solve the issue than to appease them.
So when Congressman Asa Packer and U.S. Senator Richard Broadhead proposed his name, Pierce was glad to have such an ideal choice for governor. He also got warm support from Davis and his faction in the government. The Washington Sentinel, a pro-slavery newspaper, approved of Pierce’s choice, saying that it was not possible Pierce would have selected someone with any other point of view.
William C. Doster, then a young Bethlehem law student described the Reeder of 1854 this way:
"The Governor was muscular and rather portly and stood six feet in height, although his commanding air gave the impression of being taller. His shoulders were square and broad with a carriage erect and proud with a look of determination but kindness in his face."
The New York Times called him "a gentlemanly looking person, of easy manners, apparently about 45 with a sprinkling of grey hair on his head and a handsome moustache."
Reeder’s arrival in Missouri on his way to Kansas was greeted with cheers and as one source put it he "was doubtless prepared to see slavery legally introduced into Kansas if that should indeed be the lawful result of elections." But what Reeder found was a place that was anything but lawful.
From New England came those who wanted to make it a free state. But in even larger numbers came Missouri slaveholders and those who agreed with them who flooded across the border. When elections were held it was clear that voter fraud was rampant. When those supervising the vote protested that these voters were not residents, they were told at the point of a gun to think otherwise.
For Reeder, the law was sacred. So, when a committee came to him and asked him to sign certificates of those claiming to be elected to the Territorial Legislature, he politely and decidedly refused. The committee had other ideas.
"Governor Reeder, we give you 15 minutes to sign these certificates, resign or be hanged." Reeder’s reply was quick. "Gentlemen, I need no 15 minutes, my mind is made up, I shall hang."
Not ready to act at that point, the committee withdrew.
In the spring of 1855, Reeder returned east to report to the President. At his stop in Easton, he was met by cheering crowds. He gave a speech reporting on affairs in Kansas and the actions of the pro-slavery men in Kansas.
Reeder’s meeting with Pierce was an eye-opener about how things stood at the White House. From the start, the president expressed fears for his safety. Yes, Kansas was a horribly violent place.
Perhaps Reeder should consider another post. Over two days of meetings as Pierce ticked off a number of options, it was becoming clear, Reeder later told a congressional committee, that the president was hoping he would resign.
To Reeder it meant one thing: the "slave power" in the person of Jefferson Davis was pressuring the president to get him out of the way.
Finally, when Pierce offered to make him minister a.k.a. ambassador to China, equal in the 1850s to being sent into exile, Reeder had heard enough.
"I was insulted to such an extent that I dared not trust myself to reply. I was conscious of a state of temper so angry and excited as to leave only the alternative of silent contempt or an angry and indecorous reply. I chose the former, and as I was standing near the door with my hat in my hand, I bade him good morning and left him."
It was Davis, working behind the scenes, he felt, that had him forced out of office on a charge of land fraud. But Reeder returned to Kansas and got himself nominated by a convention as a delegate to Congress. Along with him came a committee from Congress to prove he was legally elected.
The pro-slavery supporters had him declared guilty of treason or whatever else they could think of. While the committee was talking to a witness, a marshal approached Reeder with an arrest warrant. Reeder told him bluntly that he had a revolver on the table and would use it if necessary. The marshal retreated.
Finally, friends convinced Reeder, if he valued his life, that he had to flee Kansas. Bands of armed men were out looking for him. He had to get out of the territory. Thus began a dangerous night ride to Kansas City where he was followed all the way.
He spent two weeks in a hotel there in hiding. Eventually, Reeder took on the disguise of an Irish lumbermen. After leaving the hotel, he was taken in by a local family to hide. It was only thanks to the sympathy of a Mrs. Stinson that he was able to use her shawl disguise ruse to get away from the drunken lynch mob.
By stealth, Reeder hailed a ride on a steamboat for St. Louis, but he was now deep into the slave state territory of Missouri. Knowing he was being followed, Reeder left the steamboat outside of St. Louis.
After being caught in a violent thunderstorm, he managed to get a boatman to take him across the Mississippi to Alton, Illinois. Arriving by train in Chicago, he telegraphed his wife in Easton to say he was safe.
It was a different Andrew Reeder that returned to Easton. In 1856, he went to the first Republican convention in Easton. In 1860, he was a delegate to the convention that nominated Lincoln. Reeder was touted for vice president on the ticket but withdrew.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln offered Reeder a post as brigadier general. But Reeder turned it down, telling Lincoln he could best serve the government as a speaker and was much in demand in that role. He also returned to an active law practice.
On July 5, 1864, Reeder died after a short illness and was buried in Easton Cemetery.