James Henry Lane, 1814 - 1866
James H. “The Grim Chieftain” Lane, who finished out his Kansas political career as a U. S. senator, was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, on June 22, 1814. After studying law in his father’s office, Lane was admitted to the bar in 1840, practiced law, and served with the Indiana Volunteers during the Mexican War. Like his father, Amos Lane, Jim Lane served in the Indiana legislature, and as a Democrat he also served as lieutenant-governor of Indiana and as a member of Congress, during which time he caste a vote for the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. He moved to Lawrence, Kansas Territory, in 1855, where he gained the notoriety that assured him a prominent place in the history of the state and nation.
Assessing the situation in Kansas, Jim Lane quickly cast his lot with the free-state forces, despite his Democratic background, and soon became, with Charles Robinson, one of the Free State Party’s most significant if controversial leaders. Lane organized the defense of Lawrence during the so-called “Wakarusa War” in December 1855; “this crisis,” according to a twentieth-century biographer, “was a turning point in Lane’s career. He was essentially a conservative until the hysteria of exciting events produced the proper background for radical leadership.” Lane was the quintessential opportunist, and, wrote another, “He had no equal as a ‘stump orator’ in Kansas. His thrilling appeals in behalf of freedom, his withering sarcasm, his bitter denunciation of the slavery propaganda, his bold defiance of the slave power, his magnetic influence in organizing forces, were among the greatest influences in driving back the tide of slavery. . . . His name became a terror to pro-slavery men throughout the pioneer settlements of Kansas, as well as among the slavery propaganda of Missouri.” Unlike Robinson, Lane was never an abolitionist, however, and he could be ruthless—he shot and killed a neighbor, Gaius Jenkins, another free-state man, in 1858 over a boundary dispute. His detractors, then and now, paint him more the “unbalanced,” pugnacious jayhawker, whose “men committed depredations fully as atrocious as those of the ‘border ruffians,’” than the free-state crusader who helped wrest Kansas from the infamous slave power. But Lane was indeed a dynamic speaker whose charismatic leadership abilities won him a substantial group of loyal supporters, and he remained a political force to reckon with. He was instrumental in strengthening the position of the antislavery cause by encouraging more free-state supporters to settle in Kansas and assisting with the defense of Lawrence against “border ruffians” and proslavery sympathizers from Missouri.
Lane served as president of the Topeka and Leavenworth constitutional conventions and was elected one of the state’s first U.S. senators in 1861. He raised the “Frontier Guard,” recruited and commanded “Lane’s Brigade” (actually, the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Kansas Volunteers), and was responsible for forming the First Kansas Colored Volunteers, the first regiment of African American troops to see action on the side of the Union during the Civil War.
Always controversial, Lane was a dominant force in Kansas and to an extent
national politics for a decade. He was reelected to the U.S. Senate in 1865.
Shortly thereafter, he lost favor in Kansas after backing the reconstruction
policies of President Andrew Johnson, including the president’s veto of
the Civil Rights Bill. Despondent because of this and perhaps the threatened
revelation of some questionable conduct with regard to government contracts,
as well as his ill-health (maybe even mental illness), Lane shot himself in
the head on July 1 while visiting his brother-in-law near Leavenworth; he died
ten days later and was buried in Lawrence’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
Miner, Craig. “Lane and Lincoln: A Mysterious Connection.” Kansas History 24 (Autumn 2000): 186-199.
Plummer, Mark A. Biographical sketch of “Lane, James Henry.” In American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Stephenson, Wendell H. The Political Career of General James H. Lane. Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1930.