“War! War!”

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow

John Stringfellow and Robert Kelley told the readers of their Squatter Sovereign that the settlement of the Wakarusa War meant nothing. The abolitionists might have survived the crisis, but the proslavery men could suffer a disappointment or two and still win the larger struggle. They expressed their commitment to the fight for slavery in Kansas through their admiration of Franklin Pierce’s message to Congress and then made its form explicit in the column adjacent. Stringfellow and Kelley had decamped from Atchison, suspending the paper for the duration, in order to do their part against Lawrence. Now they would do better. Under the headline “War! War!” the Speaker of the Kansas House wrote:

It seems now to be certain that we shall have to give the abolitionists at least one good thrashing before political matters are settled in this Territory. To do so we must have arms; we have the men. I propose to raise funds to furnish Colt’s revolvers and other arms for those who are without them. I propose to do so without taxing any one but myself. I will sell some shares of town stock in the Territory, (as given below,) and bind myself to invest all the money in the above articles, which shall be loaned to such soldiers as are unable to purchase them, and shall remain for such use for the space of one or two years. the arms to be used by the volunteers and militia of Atchison county when in service.

Stringfellow preferred Colt’s revolvers to Sharpe’s rifles, but he had the same idea as the antislavery party had. They, however, had a hostile government and enemies who had used force against them almost from the inception of the territory. The free state men needed to take their safety into their own hands because of men like Stringfellow. Now the Speaker of the House of Kansas, one of the highest officials in the government of the territory, went beyond rhetoric and personal involvement. He asked in public for investors to help him suppress the self-government of his fellow white men. A private propagandist might arouse alarm with such antics, but Stringfellow could not have better embodied antislavery fears short of seizing a white abolitionist and enslaving him.

But you had to do what you had to do. Back the month prior, the proslavery men got arms out of a Missouri state arsenal but that required a trip to Missouri and back, or from Missouri to Kansas at least. Nor could one gamble on the arsenal always proving so accessible. Given Wilson Shannon’s efforts to defuse the situation at Lawrence, Stringfellow may have feared the governor going soft on him as well. An independent, Kansas-based militia with its own arms would hedge against that risk.

That didn’t mean that Stringfellow abjured help from Missouri, of course. He just wanted a local arms cache for a local militia. He wouldn’t turn away Missourians who showed up for a fight. Moreover, he hoped that Missourian dollars would buy his town shares:

The stock I propose to sell will be sold at a far valuation, such as will enable the purchaser to get a good per centage on the investment. I feel assured that the wealthy friends of our cause, in Western Missouri, will be glad of the opportunity to invest.

Wealthy Missourians had paid border ruffian expenses in the past, even if Stringfellow in a separate column promised that the Kansas legislature would foot the latest set of bills. They could do it again. The Blue Lodges sought to protect their members investments, pecuniary and otherwise, in slavery in Missouri by expanding it to Kansas. Surely the prospect of actual profit in Kansas would not alienate them. John Stringfellow had good shares offered up too: two in Lecomtpon, now the capital; two more in Calhoun, seat of its county; and one in Delaware, seat of Leavenworth county. Territory and county business would help grow most of those towns. Proslavery Missourians could help the cause and make a tidy sum for their trouble.

“The so called treaty amounts to nothing”

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

The January 29, 1856 Squatter Sovereign apologized for lacking the space to print Franklin Pierce’s third annual message, though it did run items praising the president for condemning antislavery Kansans. In the course of finding those pieces, I also came across other interesting specimens of proslavery thought in the territory at the start of 1856. At the same time as proslavery Kansans received Pierce’s message, they could read this in their newspaper:

The Herald of Freedom had lately praised Wilson Shannon. John Stringfellow and Robert Kelley wanted their readers to know that Shannon hadn’t turned abolitionist on them:

it sometimes happens that when these low, mean, despicable scoundrels find that a man is incorruptible, they will endeavor to blast his character by attaching -or trying to attach- themselves to him, that he may be contaminated by their filth […] The miserable caitiffs are trying to blast the reputation of Gov. Shannon by making it appear that he is hand in glove with such wretched traitors as Lane, Brown, Robinson, and others. We can say, in good faith, to pro-slavery men every where, that Gov. Shannon made no bargain with them by which they were allowed to disregard the enactments of the Legislature

The Sovereign wouldn’t even admit that Shannon reached an accord with the free state movement, instead doubting

that the treaty as it is called, was what was actually agreed upon. The only evidence is that the freesoilers say so.

But even if an agreement did exist, Shannon had not endorsed the free state program of ignoring territorial law. And anyway, Shannon called together the proslavery army for a specific end, which they achieved:

We were ordered out by the Governor to assist the sheriff in executing legal process. The Sheriff and the Governor told us they had no further use for us, that the laws wold now be executed, and as good men we obeyed.

We, the proslavery men, had the law on our side. As law and order men, they did not stand for political hooliganism. Though they may live near a border, you would not find a ruffian among them. Pay no attention to the destroyed press, the mobbed polls, or the lynched men. You wold find the real ruffians with the antislavery sorts.

But, one might say, hadn’t Lawrence’s besiegers taken men prisoner who they later released? They had, but that could not fairly count as a concession. With the war over, the army “no longer needed or desired” them.

Nor, the Squatter Sovereign promised, would Kansas leave them on the hook for the week or more of expenses they incurred doing their duty:

as to being paid for the hay and corn used of forage, the next Legislature will make an appropriation for that, particularly as many of our own friends had to suffer in the same way -though as a general thing we desired to buy of the abolitionists, knowing that thereby we would “toll” them to the Territorial Legislature for relief. We must have an extra session for the special purpose of attending to the cries of the corn and hay robbed citizens of Douglas.

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow

When Stringfellow and Kelley talk about friends here, they mean more than political allies. They themselves went off to Lawrence. That they apparently engaged in a bit of plunder whilst away from home should not, of course, disqualify them from their due compensation. They stole what they liked from Douglas county as a matter of civic responsibility. By forcing antislavery Kansans to seek relief from the territorial government, they would compel their enemies to accept its authority. For that good work, they deserved the thanks of patriotic Americans everywhere. So get right on it and call the legislature into session, Governor Shannon. As Speaker of the House, John Stringfellow stood ready to do his duty yet again.

The inconclusive end of the Wakarusa War encouraged such arguments. The Missourians went home. Kelley confessed his cruel disappointment that Lawrence remained standing. The free state leadership walked free. The crisis passed, but in doing so it resolved nothing. This left the situation open to more than the usual amount of interpretation. The antislavery side declared victory, and got Shannon to endorse their militias, but he had not condemned the proslavery party or done anything against them save dispersing the force he summoned against Lawrence. Winning one battle need not win the war, particularly with the proslavery party frustrated but essentially undamaged.

Some Recent Reading

Writing this blog has encouraged me to read much more history, and much more consistently, than I did in years past. That reading both informs and inspires posts, but I don’t often take time out to write about the books themselves. I don’t know that I’ll get into the habit now, but in an effort to do better, I’ve decided to look back at some of the history I’ve read since the start of the year.

The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath by Robert Pierce Forbes

The Missouri Compromise hasn’t inspired many historians to write dedicated books. The survey before Forbes’ dates to the middle of the last century. I haven’t read it, though it has a spot on my ever-growing backlog. From Forbes, I learned that the prior survey originated the claim that had civil war erupted over the Missouri question the battles never would have left the floor of Congress. Forbes argues persuasively that the politicians of the time largely meant their dire threats and that the public, far from treating the matter with bewilderment or indifference, took an active interest and understood slavery’s future in Missouri as relevant to their own lives as well as the course of the nation. By doing so, Forbes joins other recent scholars in elevating slavery to a position of much greater import decades before the Civil War than previous historians have accepted. That challenges the old understanding of sectional conflict as a feature of the late Antebellum, something which will come up with some other recent reads of mine as well.

Forbes wrote a genuinely important book, if also one that reads like a dissertation. It takes a lot of work to follow the amorphous politics of the era. To that complexity, Forbes adds a line of argument based on sometimes tenuous circumstantial evidence. The old narratives holds that James Monroe played a largely passive role in the Missouri controversy. Forbes argues otherwise, but insists that Monroe had such a deft hand that he left few traces a historian could follow. Easy enough to say, but much harder to establish. I might have read too much into it, and do accept that Monroe did more than sit in the White House and watch the fireworks, but I don’t know that Forbes entirely made the case. He points to telling moments and makes interesting observations, but I still had trouble believing Monroe aggressively stage managed the affair to its conclusion.

The Slaveholding Republic by Don Fehrenbacher

I almost read this book right back when I started the blog, but on advice opted for The Impending Crisis instead. I made the right choice, even if Fehrenbacher finished Crisis after David Potter’s death. He set out to investigate the United States government’s dealings with slavery from start to finish. He did a thorough job, highlighting oft-overlooked issues like how the government sought compensation for lost slaves from foreign powers. Ultimately, Fehrenbacher argues that the United States government did not start out as a proslavery operation but soon became one and held fairly consistently to that ground right up to 1860.

For the most part, Fehrenbacher made a good case. I think he tried a little too hard to excuse the founding generation for their proslavery leanings, cutting them slack that he rightly denied to their children and grandchildren. Their intentions seem to matter more to him, at least at times, than their actions. Aside that, the book has two unfortunate shortcomings, only one of which a reasonable person could blame on the author. Fehrenbacher opted to write thematic chapters, which made it hard to see the full picture of policy as it developed or connections between contemporaneous issues. Fehrenbacher also died before finishing the work. The historian who completed it, Ward McAfee, has a much drier, often leaden, style. Aesthetic judgments will vary, but the clash between the two did the book no favors on my end.

Slavery’s Constitution by David Waldstreicher

I read this in part as a counter to Fehrenbacher, who hews to the standard argument that the founders lacked the means to act against slavery. Waldstreicher makes a convincing case for understanding arguments over the most fraught issue at the constitutional convention, how to apportion representation, as heavily inflected with concern about slavery. Representation always included slave representation, which would mean extra power and extra security for the enslavers or their loss of the same, depending how the convention voted.

Waldstreicher made for a decent read; I did the last half in a single sitting. He takes some well-earned historiographical swipes in the course of it too. A few of them got me smiling, but I suspect such things make for an acquired taste.

Slavery and Politics in the Early Republic by Matthew Mason

Mason looks at an alleged nadir in the national debate over slavery, the period before the Missouri crisis. There he finds a great deal of slavery talk just beneath the surface, which he takes as suggestive of a genuinely broad antislavery sentiment in the North. While nothing on what would emerge in later decades, Mason makes the point that the politicians who did embrace antislavery rhetoric did so with the expectation that it would pay off for them. The voters generally, though not always, agreed that it ought to. I happily took that on board as part of how I understand political speech in general.

The Internal Enemy by Alan Taylor

I have mixed feelings about this book. If you have an interest in Virginia, slavery politics, fugitive slaves, the War of 1812, or the development of proslavery ideology then you ought to pick him up straightaway. The fear of slave revolt, and the rare actual revolt, runs through the whole book. At one point, Taylor relates how Thomas Jefferson and James Madison have trouble understanding one another in letters as Madison didn’t want to put his fears in so many words. Along the way, you learn a good deal about how the British dealt with the slaves who looked to their military for liberation, what they did with their freedom (including leading armed parties home to free their families), and what happened to them after the War of 1812.

There arises my personal issue with the book. Though Taylor did lose me a few times with the affairs of a single enslaver family, mostly he wrote a different book then he’d led me to expect. The opening pages suggested to me something like a general history of slavery in Virginia from independence up through the early 1830s, with the War of 1812 as the centerpiece. Though Taylor devotes more than perfunctory space to the rest of the timespan, he really wrote a book about the war and how it disrupted slavery in Virginia. He did a great job with that book; I learned a lot despite expecting something else.

A Massacre in Memphis by Stephen Ash

The anniversary of the Memphis pogrom, where the city’s mostly-Irish police and firefighters rose up and attacked the freedpeople over a few days in early May of 1866 occasioned this read. I know less than I like about Reconstruction and a relatively short and focused work seemed a good place to change that. Ash wrote the book on what we euphemistically call a race riot. In it and its aftermath he found both the inspiration for Reconstruction era policies and the seeds of their undoing. It made for an extremely grim, if important, read. At points, Ash takes you through the riot almost body-by-body. Before that, he spends about half the page count setting the scene. Though occasionally one wishes he would get on with it, the description of Memphis could make for a decent short book of its own. Through it, Ash puts you into the situation so well that when violence finally erupts it seems less like the history-free spontaneous eruption that “riot” often recalls and more the consummation of months of tension.

Then Ash leaves you with most of the institutions of the black community in Memphis in ruins and, despite efforts by the freedpeople and the occasional well-meaning Freedmen’s Bureau worker and congressional committee, the rioters got away with it. The nation, both in the part of the small military post in Memphis at the time and the entire American state flush with its postwar power, stood by and watched. If the courts in Memphis, where no black person could give evidence or sit on a jury, would not give justice to the massacre’s survivors, then no one would. States rights orthodoxy, which consigned the police power exclusively to the states, demanded no less.

Frank Pierce’s Proslavery Conservatism

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow

Franklin Pierce’s third annual message did not go unmarked in Kansas. The January 29 Squatter Sovereign published the editors’ regret that they lacked space to print it in full and encouraged readers to find themselves a copy elsewhere. I believe them; my copy runs to twenty-one pages. Stringfellow and Kelley did run a summary of the president’s arguments, handled in rough proportion to the original. Consequently, more attention went to foreign affairs than Kansas. But proslavery men in Kansas couldn’t just leave it at that:

we endorse the message entire. The President has taken the true State rights ground, and does the South entire justice. He has proven himself a very able and patriotic statesman. The message is the best State paper we have read for years. “Frank Pierce” will do as President for us.

The Sovereign also reported, with delight, on the message’s reception in the Columbia Statesman “a violent Whig and Know-Nothing organ.”

President Pierce is no favorite of ours. We opposed his election, and regard his administration as a failure. We believe he has attempted to “curry favor” with all factions in the Union, and enjoys the confidence of none. He has appointed abolitionists, free-soilers and fire-eaters to office, even to posts in his cabinet. Nevertheless, we take pleasure in saying this message is the crowning glory of his life. It is an able State paper, and, because of the soundness of its views and conservative tone, will cover a multitude of sins of its author.

Even their enemies loved the message. The rock-ribbed conservatism of Pierce’s message draws remark from historians as well. James Rawley quotes part of this passage, from Pierce’s closing, and fairly characterizes it as “obdurate”:

The storm of frenzy and faction must inevitably dash itself in vain against the unshaken rock of the Constitution. I shall never doubt it. I know that the Union is stronger a thousand times than all the wild and chimerical schemes of social change which are generated one after another in the unstable minds of visionary sophists and interested agitators. I rely confidently on the patriotism of the people, on the dignity and self-respect of the States, on the wisdom of Congress, and, above all, on the continued gracious favor of Almighty God to maintain against all enemies, whether at home or abroad, the sanctity of the Constitution and the integrity of the Union.

Pierce might as well have quoted Edmund Burke verbatim. The condemnation works equally well against any issue. I’ve read it in just those terms deployed on nearly every subject that makes the news. Reformers, they always say, have got something wrong with them. They innovate incorrigibly, chasing phantasms of equality, justice, rights, all empty abstractions that have so little to do with real life that we might as well speak of Narnia or Middle-Earth. That the speakers usually enjoy the same things they wish to deny others rarely interests them. Their fortunate births and circumstances proved that they deserved the whole lot. What do the rest of us have to offer? If we warranted better treatment, we would already have it.

The Statesman’s endorsement then takes a somewhat counter-intuitive, though very telling, turn:

The slavery feature of the message will attract universal attention. On this subject he administers the fanatics and agitators North and South-the enemies of the Union and domestic tranquility-a scathing rebuke. We hope it will effect them for good, by recalling them from the forbidden paths of sectional strife and to the peaceful walks of loyalty and patriotism.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

What message did the Statesman read? Pierce hardly delivered condemnations all around; he didn’t have a one for the South. Rather he depicted the section as acting entirely within its rights and still suffering endless victimization by the North.

The Statesman read same piece everyone else had, of course. They might have genuinely understood the message as even-handed, or may have just liked the pretense. No one occupies a neutral position in such matters, and favoring the status quo or the traditional American way of doing things in the middle 1800s meant favoring at least the continuation of slavery and the suppression of antislavery agitation. The white man’s peace and tranquility, ensconced in his Union, demanded no less. To oppose slavery, even in a moderate and incremental ways, departed from orthodoxy.

The State of the Union in 1855: A Further History of Aggressions

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce didn’t like antislavery politics and he wanted everyone to know it. In his third annual message, he recast the history of the nation up to the Missouri Crisis through a proslavery lens. He occasionally made points that historians today would accept, especially when he depicted antislavery forces understanding of the Missouri Compromise as a loss for their side. But the president got to the 1820s just by warming up. The subsequent decades further proved, to his mind, that the proslavery South had consistently respected constitutional settlements and the nation’s sectional accord, while the antislavery North had disregarded them nearly from the start.

Leaving Missouri behind brought Pierce up to the annexation of Texas. That “next step in territorial greatness”

became the occasion for systematized attempts to intervene in the domestic affairs of one section of the Union, in defiance of their rights as States and of the stipulations of the Constitution. These attempts assumed a practical direction in the shape of persevering endeavors by some of the Representatives in both Houses of Congress to deprive the Southern States of the supposed benefit for the provisions of the act authorizing the organization of the State of Missouri.

The Texas question involved many issues. Aside slavery, annexation would almost certainly bring war with Mexico. We know how that war went, but even in a time with far more enthusiasm for military adventures prominent Americans from Martin Van Buren on down viewed the prospect with some apprehension. The accession of such a large territory, extending north of the Missouri Compromise line but mainly beneath it, where slavery existed made for a singularly thorny problem. Should the nation accept Texas at all? Would annexation vastly swell the South’s power? Would it overthrow the Missouri Compromise? These doubts postponed annexation for a decade and the relevant treaties the 2/3 majority they needed in the Senate, so John Tyler got around the problem by pushing through a joint resolution annexing Texas directly as a state, skipping the territorial stage entirely. The United States had never gained foreign land by a simple act of Congress before and the innovation looked to many like a dirty trick. The expedited statehood didn’t help either.

Pierce ignored all of that, dismissing objections as another eruption of antislavery fanaticism and pressed on to the Mexican War. David Wilmot had sought to bar slavery from any lands taken as a result of the war, save those of Texas. This, Pierce considered an

abusive and unconstitutional employment of the legislative powers of the Government to interfere in the condition of the inchoate States and to impose their own social theories upon the latter

The assertion that inchoate states (territories) had sovereignty on par with actual states came as news at the time, for all Pierce aimed to cast it as an eternal verity. He might come from a state bordering on Canada, but the president could quote proslavery constitutional dogmas with the best of them. But rejoice, for Pierce had the Constitution win through again. The new territories got to decide for themselves on slavery. That much of the controversy arose from Southern objection to a free California, which had done just that as an inchoate state, didn’t warrant a mention. As a bonus, the Armistice of 1850 brought a new fugitive slave act to better the traditional arrangement between the states.

All that said, Pierce closed with a full-throated defense of repealing the Missouri Compromise as a necessary reaffirmation of the original Constitutional order, fundamentally an act of orthodox justice for a slaveholding South long the victim of antislavery attacks.

One must wonder where in all of this Pierce crosses the line between sincere advocacy of contrary positions and trolling the opposition. He might have believed every word. He might have written the whole as no more than a cynical defense of his own record. But Pierce had to know by the time of writing that he would almost surely face a hostile Congress. He inaugurated his relationship with that body in an annual message that could scarcely do more than reinforce that hostility.

The State of the Union in 1855: A History of Aggressions

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

We left Franklin Pierce declaring that everything in the United States had gone perfectly well until those dirty abolitionists stirred up sectional discord by breaking faith with the constitutional compact. They had responsibilities to return slaves who dared steal themselves. They organized to disrupt slavery in the South. They replaced sectional comity with meddling impositions. Had such a thing happened between two nations, they would have already come to blows. By contrast, the South behaved in an exemplary fashion, its traditional constitutional scruples intact.

In putting the entire burden of sectional strife on the North, Pierce knew he went against many of his fellow Yankees. They could point to sectional aggression from the slave states going back down the entire history of the Republic. Having chosen antislavery Americans as his debating partners, Pierce took them on all down the line:

the States which either promote or tolerate attacks on the rights of persons and of property in other States, to disguise their own injustice, pretend or imagine, and constantly aver, that they, whose constitutional rights are thus systematically assailed, are themselves the aggressors. At the present time this imputed aggression, resting, as it does, only in the vague declamatory charges of political agitators, resolves itself into misapprehension, or misinterpretation, of the principles and facts of the political organization of the new Territories of the United States.

The president wouldn’t quite say that antislavery Americans lied their way through politics, any more than he would call out William Walker by name, but he made his meaning clear. To prove the point, he turned to “the voice of history.” All the way back to the Northwest Ordinance, Pierce averred, the South had yielded to the North. Virginia gave up “that vast territory,” now five of the larger states, to freedom. That a large territory south of the Ohio river remained enslaved did not enter into it. Nor did the conflicting claims of various other Connecticut and Massachusetts, decidedly not southern states, deserve consideration. This would have come as a surprise to the people of Connecticut, who maintained their ownership of a section of modern Ohio until 1800. Neither of the two northern states claimed the whole of the future Northwest Territory, but together their claims covered a large portion of it. If Virginia yielded up her territory, then they did no less.

Pierce then moved to Louisiana, insisting that the entire nation gained from it. The abolitionists needed only look at a map to see that the Louisiana Purchase narrowed down to almost nothing on its southern end, but widened dramatically as one steamed up the Mississippi. Furthermore, securing New Orleans ensured the commercial health of the Northwest. Thomas Jefferson bought the land for that express purpose. Pierce has a point here, but even he acknowledges that in terms of development, the Purchase skewed heavily southern.

No map could save the acquisition of Florida; you can’t get much more southern than the Sunshine State. Pierce justified it as a land swap. The United States surrendered claims to territory west of the Mississippi in exchange for it. In doing so, the Union secured its coastal commerce and security. Both sections won, even if Florida clearly would do no other than join the South.

This brought events up to the Missouri Controversy, which Pierce cast as more antislavery imperialism. The Northwest Ordinance had prohibited slavery, but it did not apply to the Louisiana Purchase. According to Pierce, the letter of the law permitted slavery west of the Mississippi all the way up to Canada. The North would not accept that and “the zeal of social propagandism” demanded concessions from the poor South. As such, the slave states nobly accepted a new slavery ban extending to states that did not then yet exist in exchange for retaining slavery in Missouri and Arkansas. The free states received that sacrifice on their behalf

with angry and resentful condemnation and complaint, because it did not concede all which they had exactingly demanded.

On paper, the North might look like a sore winner back in the 1820s. While the section lost Missouri, it gained almost the whole remainder of the Louisiana Purchase. But that additional territory failed to rush into the Union. Lands so empty,and so long remaining empty, of white settlement amounted to a meager victory indeed. Pierce rightly noted that antislavery Americans took the Missouri Compromise as a defeat. This all made for some deep irony when free soilers a generation so cherished the settlement, but they had that same generation to live with it and faced more radical proslavery advances than their fathers had. In 1819-20, the slave power demanded slavery remain where it already existed. In the 1850s, it spread slavery to places where the law had banned the institution.

The State of the Union in 1855: Damned Yankees

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

After telling the Congress that he would stand resolutely on the proslavery side in Kansas, Franklin Pierce took his third annual message further in that direction. He laid out a states rights constitutional theory well within the bounds of the Democratic mainstream, with enough talk about the general welfare to drive Calhounite radicals up the wall, but left no doubt about just what state right he had in mind:

Of the circumstances of local condition, interest, and rights in which a portion of the States, constituting one great section of the Union, differed from the rest and from another section, the most important was the peculiarity of a larger relative colored population in the Southern than in the Northern states.

That population, “held in subjection” happened by geographic and economic fiat to concentrate in the South. Consequently, slavery vanished in the North. All that fit just fine with the Constitution’s provisions, but so did slavery’s waxing in the South. The Constitution, Pierce implied, aimed for neutrality on the issue. But slavery couldn’t have simple neutrality, it needed special security:

while the General Government, as well by the enumerated powers granted to it as by those not enumerated, and therefore refused to it, was forbidden to touch this matter in the sense of attack or offense, it was placed under the general safeguard of the Union in the sense of defense against either invasion or domestic violence, like all other local interests of the several States. Each State expressly stipulated, as well for itself as for each and all of its citizens, and every citizen of each State became solemnly bound by his allegiance to the Constitution that any person held to service or labor in one State, escaping into another, should not, in consequence of any law or regulation thereof, be discharged from such service or labor, but should be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor might be due by the laws of his State.

Pierce here described the state of affairs in the middle 1850s, at least on paper. To a sufficiently white audience, like Congress, that must have sounded at least orderly. We had a system that every white man agreed to, handed down from our ancestors and purpose-built to keep the Union together and at peace. it worked perfectly well right, right up until someone decided the rules didn’t apply. As “Chief Magistrate” and “executive agent of the whole country,” Pierce felt a duty to name names:

while the people of the Southern States confine their attention to their own affairs, not presuming to intermeddle with the social institutions of the Northern States, too many of the inhabitants of the latter are permanently organized in associations to inflict injury upon the former by wrongful acts, which would be cause of war as between foreign powers and only fail to be such in our system because perpetrated under cover of the Union.

Such foreign meddling, by the United Kingdom, featured earlier in Pierce’s message. On that occasion it didn’t give cause for war, but then one doesn’t leap into war with the world’s superpower within living memory of having done so and lost as eagerly as one might with a nation one views as much more a peer.

That Pierce cast the South as blameless and entirely respecting of traditional sectional comity flies in the face of the then-recent past, but having declared himself a proslavery man the president could hardly backpedal for the sake of inconvenient facts.

Watermelons, Shirts, and Accidental Racism

A sorority at a university in Alabama passed out some t-shirts. They had a party and wanted keepsakes, as one does. I don’t know from sorority life, but I imagine that happens often enough. Since the shirts would commemorate their special day rather than any old thing off the rack, they ordered up a custom printing. It appears that they submitted the design to the university for approval. On getting a firm no, they ordered the shirts anyway. Ordinarily, you might smile a bit at college kids sticking it to the establishment. You’d smile less on learning that the shirts bear a map of Alabama decorated with images of slaves picking cotton and a black caricature eating a watermelon. You can view the shirt at here.

The image of the black person inordinately fond of watermelons, and fried chicken for that matter, has a depressing history:

the stereotype that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose. The trope came into full force when slaves won their emancipation during the Civil War. Free black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons, and in doing so made the fruit a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. This racist trope then exploded in American popular culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure.

The Jim Crow Museum has more information on that explosion:

It seems almost silly to say that watermelons have been racialized, but that is exactly what happened in this culture. For much of this country’s history, postcards showing Black people comically eating watermelons were popular among White Americans. Many of these so-called “Coon cards” show Black people stealing watermelons, fighting over watermelons, even being transformed into watermelons. The Jim Crow Museum houses a 1930s parlor game called, “72 Picture Party Stunts.” One of the game’s cards instructs players to “Go through the motions of a colored boy eating watermelon. The card shows a dark Black boy, with bulging eyes and blood red lips, eating a watermelon almost as large as he is. This is racial stereotyping as family entertainment. The museum has dozens of three dimensional objects showing African Americans eating watermelons, including banks, ashtrays, toys, firecrackers, cookie jars, match holders, dolls, souvenirs, doorstops, lawn jockeys, and novelty objects. These objects not only show Blacks lustily eating watermelons but often portray African Americans in physically caricatured ways: hideous faces, over-sized bright red lips, darting eyes, and ragged clothing. The problem is not that African Americans are shown eating watermelons. Rather, the problem is that Blacks are portrayed as contented Coons, Toms, Mammies, and Picaninnies, with all their hopes, dreams, and fears sated by eating watermelons under the shade of great trees.

In the course of learning about this today, I came on the claim that one must either study white supremacy or have more than the usual number of decades under one’s belt to recognize the watermelon trope. Given we still see frequent recurrences, I have my doubts about that. But the argument raises an interesting question. Suppose that someone did come on the image innocently. To this person, it only shows a man eating a watermelon. It lacks the punch of a person engaged in violence, theft, or some obvious sin.

We must not have had a particularly observant innocent either, as one needn’t know the entire history of a trope in order to recognize a racial stereotype from context. But we have the hypothetical person we have. If this person buys the shirt, does the image remain racist? Does the person?

One wants to deny it. Most of us, I hope, try to extend some charity to others. We have all made honest mistakes. Nobody knows everything and muddling through with imperfect, incomplete understanding leaves everybody on the wrong foot now and then. We didn’t set out to mistreat anybody, but it happened anyway. We feel terrible, apologize, berate ourselves a bit, and move on.

We shouldn’t. Our intentions matter, but so do our actions. Even if we made an honest mistake, we still made it. What we may take as a small thing, and what we know or pretend we did without malice, can still hurt. Furthermore, Americans live in a deeply white supremacist culture. You don’t have to study up in some hilltop castle, with lightning striking the parapets, cackling like a Disney villain, to imbibe racist tropes. Just living in the culture will do the job, filling our minds with concepts about how “those” people behave and acceptable conduct toward them that can take a great deal of work to remedy. We naturally know that the same rules don’t apply to people like us, as we find it far easier to understand ourselves as individuals than people we learn to see as other. Undoing all that, if one can do it at all, takes more than a bland assertion that one had no idea. It took centuries to build the edifice of white power out of stolen land and lives. Why would we expect it to vanish with no more than a whim?

More goes into human interactions than one party’s intent. We understand that as a matter of course in almost every other situation. We may get caught up in our own feelings. Our anger, excitement, and all the rest can drown our our consideration for others. But when they do and we upset someone, say something we didn’t mean, or phrase something poorly, we own up and apologize. It may take us a while to work it out, but when we realize the situation we do our best to make amends. When others don’t do the same for us, we naturally think less of them. At the very least, we don’t pretend that they just meant well. We understand that they either meant whatever they did precisely as we received it or simply don’t care either way.

The sorority chose the shirt they did, presumably putting a fair bit of thought into it. One doesn’t order custom keepsake items at random. In doing so they acted out whatever intentions they genuinely had, but those intentions exist in a larger cultural space just the same as everything else we do. Though more Americans than we’d like to believe probably still skew closer to malice than innocence in such matters, meaning well would not excuse them. Whether they wanted it or not, they acted out the white part of a frequently violent drama centuries in the making. White skin means you don’t have to say you’re sorry. You get to define the terms by which others must understand you, rather than have them dictated. You even get to decide how and when others should take offense at your actions. In an entirely unanticipated turn of events, we cast ourselves as the innocents every chance we get.

We all get on the wrong side of these things now and then, unless we live very fortunate or very segregated lives. We can say we meant no harm, but words come easy. Actually meaning no harm asks more of us. I don’t get it right all the time; I don’t know anybody who does. But pretending that we only do harm when we act with depraved hearts accuses rather than excuses. By doing so we don’t aim for improvement. Instead we dismiss the experiences of others and the painful histories we share as trifling impediments to our self-esteem.

We can fall into racism by accident or inheritance. We choose to stay there.

The State of the Union in 1855: Kansas

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce’s third annual message turned from foreign affairs to the domestic sphere, rattling off the nation’s revenues and expenditures. The latter included an installment of three million to pay Mexico for the Gadsden Purchase and seven and three-quarters million to pay off Texas debts that the United States assumed in late 1850. Along the way, he praised the nation’s financial system. They didn’t need any of this central bank business. Nor did the nation, per Pierce, require extensive tariffs. The United States, the President avowed in an adoption of once-extreme proslavery dogma, should adopt duties for revenue purposes only. Pierce then turned his pen westward, commenting on how a late military expansion helped ensure the peace of the frontier. He had news that the Indians had confederated out in Oregon and Washington, possibly with foreign (read: British) involvement. But Congress need not worry too much as “efficient measures” would soon set all to right.

Then the president came to Kansas where

there have been acts prejudicial to good order, but as yet none have occurred under circumstances to justify the interposition of the Federal Executive.

Pierce wrote this at the end of December, 1855. He had by then received word from Wilson Shannon about the Wakarusa War. Apparently a hostile invasion from another state, aimed at the destruction of a settlement, didn’t constitute anything to involve the Executive with. Stuff happens, you know? North of a thousand proslavery men came over in hopes of destroying their political opponents. Maybe that didn’t comport with everyone’s sense of decorum, but you can’t have everything perfect all the time. Pierce might have said that he had no time to act, given the state of communications, or that the Executive lacked the information or resources to intervene properly. Instead he answered a dangerously close call with a shrug.

What would it take to get the presidential dander up?

obstruction to Federal law or of organized resistance to Territorial law, assuming the character of insurrection, which, if it should occur, would be my duty to promptly overcome and suppress.

At least Pierce drew a distinction between federal law, opposition to which might mean treason, and territorial law. That distinction could only go so far when he then proceeded to recognize a duty to defend Kansas laws too. The President of the United States committed himself, at least in principle, to using his power against a group of Kansans who had done no worse crime than organizing against slavery.

Pierce hoped it didn’t come to that, of course. He expected that

any such untoward event will be prevented by the sound sense of the people of the Territory, who by its organic law, possessing the right to determine their own domestic institutions, are entitled while deporting themselves peacefully to the free exercise of that right, and must be protected in the enjoyment of it without interference on the part of citizens of any of the States.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Kansas had a right to determine its own relationship with slavery and other states ought not get involved. That non-intervention ought to apply to Emigrant Aid Societies as much as to Blue Lodges. This neutrality would tilt drastically in favor of slavery in practice, given Missouri’s proximity, but Pierce put his thumb further on the scale. He committed to suppressing any resistance to Kansas’ territorial laws, whenever it looked like an insurrection, but made no matching commitment to safeguard the territory’s self-determination against the aforementioned meddlers from abroad.

James Lane went around telling antislavery people that his pal, Frank Pierce, had their backs. Now Pierce told them the opposite. The President might not sign on for every proslavery excess, but he didn’t pledge to get in their way either. Free state Kansans could expect no help.

The State of the Union in 1855: Filibustering

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

 

Franklin Pierce’s third annual message progressed from bland assurances that all went well to a set of real grievances against the United Kingdom. Relations with the world’s great superpower, with whom the United States had twice fought wars, understandably take pride of place. Only after updating Congress on them did Pierce address tension with other powers. He didn’t care for Denmark’s insistence that the United States pay a toll to pass through Danish waters and trade in the Baltic. Some matter with the French consul at San Francisco had come to a satisfactory resolution, as had a dispute with Greece over seizure of American property.

Then Pierce turned south of the border once again:

With Spain peaceful relations are still maintained, and some progress has been made in securing the redress of wrongs complained of by this Government. Spain has not only disavowed and disapproved the conduct of the officers who illegally seized and detained the steamer Black Warrior at Havan, but has also paid the sum claimed as indemnity for the loss thereby inflicted on citizens of the United States.

That did made for good news on both sides of the Atlantic. The Black Warrior controversy threatened briefly to spark a war, with Pierce making dire threats. That the whole thing came out of the Spanish governor’s desire to warn off American filibusters, most notably Mississippi’s ex-governor John A. Quitman, gave the situation an ironic twist. In other Cuban news, Pierce happily related that the Spanish would pay an indemnity for prematurely cutting off duty free access to the island’s ports back in the 1840s. He expected Madrid would soon gave satisfaction on the matter of another steamer, the El Dorado, as well. All in all, Pierce saw the Cuban situation as one of improvement. That must have frustrated the filibusters to no end.

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

Speaking of filibusters, 1855 brought with it William Walker’s Nicaraguan expedition. Pierce didn’t mention the Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny by name, but anybody who followed the news could figure out who he meant. After a homily about respecting the sanctity of neighboring republics, the sort of thing that General Pierce observed most studiously during the Mexican War, President Pierce took aim at their instability:

obstacles have arisen in some of them from their own insufficient power to check lawless irruptions, which in effect throws most of the task on the United States. Thus it is that the distracted internal condition of the State of Nicaragua has made it incumbent on me to appeal to the good faith of our citizens to abstain from unlawful intervention in its affairs and to adopt preventative measures to the same end, which on a similar occasion had the best results in reassuring the peace of the Mexican States of Sonora and Lower California.

William Walker and a few hundred men marched into Baja California and claimed it as the Republic of Lower California in 1853. Shortly thereafter, without setting foot within it, Walker annexed Sonora to his republic and renamed the country after it. The Mexican army objected and chased Walker back over the border. A San Fransico jury took eight minutes to acquit him on charges of levying an illegal war against Mexico. He had, after all, only levied an illegal war against Mexico. Walker had gone to Nicaragua, at the invitation of one of the parties to its civil war, back in May of 1855. By the end of the year he had effective control of the country. Prominent filibusters who had operated in Baja California and Sonora, then moved on to Nicaragua made for a fairly small demographic.

Reading Pierce one likewise sees that, while he avowed American responsibility for keeping order and friendly relations, his “best results” ended with an acquitted filibuster happy to have another go and justified filibustering in general on the grounds of foreign lawlessness. He cast the United States as a good neighbor of the sort that might just see you overwhelmed by your real estate portfolio and help out by relieving you of vast swaths of land. Don’t we all want friends who see us in need and don’t wait around until we collapse in desperation before pitching in to help?