1849: Bela Metcalf Hughes to James William Denver

This lengthy letter was written by Bela Metcalf Hughes (1817-1902), the son of Andrew S. Hughes and Rhoda Dent of Carlisle, Kentucky. Bela came to Liberty, Missouri, with his parents in 1829. While attending Augusta College in Kentucky in the late 1830s, Bela dropped his studies for a short time to participate in the Black Hawk War with the Missouri Volunteers. After graduation in 1838, he returned to Missouri and was elected as Platte county’s representative to the Missouri House of Representatives in 1844. He later resigned his seat to to take the office as Receiver of Public Monies at the US Land Office in Plattsburg. “After resigning as Receiver at Plattsburg in 1849, Hughes moved to St. Joseph, Missouri to practice law there. In St. Joseph, he formed the law firm Woodson & Hughes together with Silas Woodson, a fellow Kentucky-born lawyer involved in the local Democratic party, who was later in 1872 elected to serve as 21st Governor of Missouri.

Hughes and Woodson were alleged to be involved in electoral irregularities in the Kansas Territory at the beginning of the violent civil confrontations called Bleeding Kansas. In May 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had organized the Kansas and Nebraska Territories in the lands west of the Mississippi River. Congressional proponents of the act had assumed that Kansas would permit slavery while Nebraska would prohibit it and therefore preserve the balance between slave and free states. Immediately, immigrants supporting both sides of the slavery question arrived in the Kansas Territory to establish residency and gain the right to vote. In November 1854, thousands of armed pro-slavery men known as “Border Ruffians,” mostly from Missouri, poured into the Kansas Territory and swayed the vote in the election for a non-voting delegate to Congress in favor of pro-slavery Democratic candidate John Wilkins Whitfield.

On March 30, 1855, the Kansas Territory held the election for its first territorial legislature. Crucially, this legislature would decide whether the territory would allow slavery. Just as had happened in the election of November 1854, “Border Ruffians” from Missouri again streamed into the territory to vote, and pro-slavery delegates were elected to 37 of the 39 seats. Bela Hughes and Silas Woodson were both mentioned in multiple testimonies in front of the congressional committee investigating the elections as well-known public figures from Missouri who were present at the election at Burr Oak precinct in 14th district of the Kansas Territorial legislature. Hughes or Woodson were not witnessed actually participating in the illegitimate voting on that day. Hughes personal stance on slavery is unclear [and he does not show his hand in this letter either]. Silas Woodson, on the other hand, was actually well known as an abolitionist. At the 1849 Kentucky Constitutional Convention, Woodson was the only member to introduce language for the gradual emancipation of the state’s slaves. During the Civil War, both Hughes and Woodson were Unionists.

On April 26, 1861, Bela Hughes was chosen as president and general counsel of the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company. He was at the time still a resident of St. Joseph, which was the eastern terminus of the company’s Pony Express stagecoach line. In the years prior, the company had successfully operated the Pony Express as the fastest way to transmit information from east to west before the advent of the first transcontinental telegraph in October 1861.

Hughes wrote this letter to his friend, Capt. James William Denver (1817-1892) who moved to Platte City, Missouri in 1845 after completing law school in Cincinnati and beginning a practice in Xenia, Ohio. In 1847 he recruited a company for the 12th US Volunteer Infantry and served under General Winfield Scott in the War with Mexico. We learn from this letter that Denver returned to Platte City after the war where he apparently tried his hand as a newspaper editor which did not appeal to him. Shortly after receiving this letter, he relocated to California where he found employment as a trader. While there he killed newspaper editor Edward Gilbert in a duel in August 1852 and then was elected to the California State Senate. In 1854, he was elected as a US Representative from California. In 1857, President Buchanan appointed Denver as the Territorial Governor of Kansas Territory.” [Wikipedia]

St. Joseph, Missouri


Addressed to Capt. James W. Denver, Platte City, Platte county, MO.

St. Joseph, [Missouri]
3rd August 1849

Dear Capt.,

Your letter was most welcome. It is just as kind and friendly as I should have expected an epistle from you to be. You must not think that because I have thought proper to extend the area of my enjoyments in life by annexation I have ceased to regard my old friends of the harsher sex. Far from it, dear Sir! I am unchanged and unchangeable. It is not infrequently the case that men when married are “civilized mortems” to the world outside of their matrimonial cage, but for me, I have so long lived in the indulgence of warm friendships with me fellow men and have so great a weight of obligation resting on me for their partiality and kind offices, that I should have to undergo an organic change and become a ch___, and an ingrate, before the warm attachments subsisting of years between us can be cast aside and forgotten.

I thank you for the proof of your remembrance which lies on my table. Our friendship was begotten by no motive of a base nature; was founded on no mean object. It has grown uninterruptedly for years in strength. Mutual confidence has restrained it, and not any slight circumstance shall ever shake it.

With regard to the change in my domestic affairs, I am wholly persuaded it was the wisest step of my late years. I needed a wife—not a sickly sentiment and ninny without health, sense, or capacity for the duties of wife. I have one, selected by my cool judgement and endorsed or course by my heart’s fullest approval. I have one who can make her own clothes, bake bread, spin and weave, and like the mother of the men of ’76, it not ashamed to labor for the independence of herself & her husband. Such are the kind of women to raise men from. Enough of myself and my wife, or you will charge me with being too uxorious for an “old body.”

When I saw you last, it was my intention to remove to St. Louis. On careful examination of the propriety of the step, I gave it up and determined to locate here believing that this place must ultimately become a place of great importance, comparatively speaking, and that in time it would be a good point for law business.

You are right, I have thought much and with great anxiety in regard to the events of this day: the agitation of that great question, which, I fear will at some future period make an end of the Union of these States, unless providentially prevented. I have somehow a confidence that the Divine Wisdom which brought the Republic into being for purposes which to us seem apparent; as glorious, as beneficial for man—that that Divine Wisdom which has guided us to such greatness, such true greatness, in the happy condition of so many millions of mankind under a mild and efficient system of social union, that it will protect the ship of our State through years of tempest and fury, as dark and threatening as the gloomiest hours of the Revolution, and guide it into an harbor of eternal security. It would seem that the work of the hands of God could not be moored with his consent and this home of the exiles of oppression made the worst of despotisms. It cannot be!

“I have thought much and with great anxiety in regard to the events of this day: the agitation of that great question, which, I fear will at some future period make an end of the Union of these States, unless providentially prevented…I can only pray that the toil and blood of our gallant lives of ’76 may not have been uselessly given for a posterity it was their design to elevate in the scale of humanity and bless with equality and liberty.”

— Bela M. Hughes, 3 August 1849

But how it is to be avoided, if passion and fanaticism rule the ascendant, it is not mine to foresee. I can only pray that the toil and blood of our gallant lives of ’76 may not have been uselessly given for a posterity it was their design to elevate in the scale of humanity and bless with equality and liberty. May it not be said of America and her people by the historian and post of another and even far distant age, “Fuit Hium et ingens gloria Dardainidusa!” [This was the great glory of Dardsnidusa!]

The limits of a letter are too small to give you my opinion at length in regard to the question referred to, and indeed that expression of it, or any other of a nature less extended, would be of little consequence to you. I am withdrawn from a active political life; have no consequence or very little even as a citizen, but if I were in a high place, and my position was of the smallest consequence to my friends and the public, it would be made known without fear or stint even if I shook hands with my political prospects forever.

We have talked this Slave Question over often and our views have been freely made known to each other. I have but little to say about it at any time for I know my disposition to excitement in the discussion of political subjects and the liability one encounters of misconstruction and misrepresentation also, when in the habit of shouting in crowds of persons on the streets, part of which understand perhaps correctly but a portion thereof, either cannot comprehend or seek to prevent what they hear. I have no ends to cure. I have no hope or wish to enter a field of political discussion, or to waste my life in the vain struggles for power and place which so many of my fellow mortals thirst to obtain and in the pursuit drop all considerations of a higher and more important nature: the ties of friendship, the endearments of home, the good of their fellow citizens, and in sort, everything which man is formed to desire and enjoy on earth, and this too to be the pet of popular favor for an hour or a day!

See my dear fellow! How many men you know who were yesterday the happy (?) recipients of popular applause who were followed, caressed, quoted. whose words were sucked in like honey by bus. Lo! what a change hath an hour wrought! “The friends once so linked together,” have fallen away, from the side of the favorite of the fickle people. and the victim of a senseless ambition is left to cheer the cad of bitter retrospection and ponder the mutability of human affairs. “But yesterday Cesar might have stood against the world,” &c. Man fore warned is thrice armed. I hope I shall never be induced to leave my great fireside and mingle in the battles of mere men at any future period. I am not however any the less ready to serve my fellow citizens when they demand it and I think that they need my feeble services in a capacity not beyond my ability, but I shall certainly not meet the luck or fate of this Roman Cincinnatus and shall just as surely stay at home and pour over my law books.

Col. Benton speaks here in a few days, it is rumored. It is not improbable that Birch will speak here at the same time. He has constituted himself (perhaps he may have been chosen) the champion and leader of all who differ with Senator Benton in this region. You know as well as I that the opposition of that man, to Col. Benton, will be a most happy division in his favor; for the people only look to see which way Birch goes to decide them, which path to take themselves. He cannot muster the people under his standard in any cause. I marvel exceedingly that he can be tolerated by leading men in this State; a leper whom the Jordon could not cleanse—a creature whom no man who has any self respect or regard for public opinion will consort with. But it seems indeed that this skunk who has annoyed the olfactories of the people of this State so long, this breathing ulcer whose purulence has insulted the stomachs of the honest of all parties for near a quarter century, hath of a sudden become as pleasant to the nose as the spice of Araby, and as desirable to the palate of our [ ] at least, as the honey of far famed Hymethos…

I have trespassed on your time and will desist. Much have I to say to you. Much for your good, I hope, and mine too. But here I cannot find time to lay it before you. I refer not to anything connected with politics or politicians, You went into that paper with half my approval. I would see you out of it….Work out of it, my dear Denver. Be the part of other men, a warning. Leave before the iron enters your soul, the dangerous vicinity. There are men fitted to the task of fighting through life with pen and tongue, born with the epidermis of a rhinoceros, to encounter all the ills of an Editor’s life. You are not. Your nature is gentle, warm, and humane, tender, sympathizing…I would not discourage you—far from it—but would warn you to seek a more genial employment either at your profession or whatever with aid of friends you might choose.

I have some plans for the future and I would like to see you included. I will discuss them anon when we meet. I have resolved to make a competence if my health is spared me, and place myself above the frowns of men or fear of power. If my Creator is kind to me, I shall do it and endeavor to deserve it. The first case of us all should be to make ourselves independent. Think of it.

Send my paper here. Don’t fail. Shall I see you here ever? I shall hope to be in your town in a few weeks. I am, dear Capt., as ever yours sincerely, — B. M. Hughes

to Capt Jas. M. Denver

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