Giddings for Peace, Part Two

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Giddings for Peace: part 1

On March 16, 1854, Joshua Giddings, the Ohio Free Soiler and lately member of the Opposition coalition on his way to becoming a Republican, rose to pour some cold water on all the outrage over Spain’s seizure of the Black Warrior for technically violating its revenue laws. He began with the simple points that Spain had every right under its laws to seize the ship. Everybody admitted that omitting four to five hundred bales of cotton from her manifest broke the law. Spain treated the ship no differently than it had treated ships flying the Union Jack or other flags. Furthermore, the United States had done the same thing with British ships. One in New York got taken on the same grounds as the Black Warrior before this whole business erupted and just since the Congress convened another port authorities had seized another in Boston. Yet the United Kingdom did not threaten war.

Franklin Pierce, by contrast, acted like a man unusually bent on stirring up a war. To do so he broke with established precedent. When a house of Congress requested information or documents from the president, they got it with a brief note saying that these papers belonged to this request. Pierce gave Congress sixteen such notes in March of 1854. You can read the lot online here. With the exception of one where Pierce explains why he has not referred a treaty to the Senate, only the Black Warrior message goes beyond simple, utilitarian prose.

Giddings noticed. He quoted the first paragraph, calling it “full and complete.”

It is to this extent, in accordance with the universal practice of this Government, from its earliest period down to the present day. And here let me say that this is the first instance in the history of Executive communications to this House, so far as my recollection extends, where a President has traveled out of the record and undertaken to obtrude his opinions on this House, or dictate to this representative body the course which they should pursue under such circumstances.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Pierce just can’t help himself. He feels the need to turn routine communications into pressure on the Congress to gin up a war. Does a responsible head of state act that way? Even in a time when many saw war as a welcome expression of national vigor, this put the thumb on the scale a bit. Worse still:

As yet we have not heard from the Spanish Government. We know not what justification they will urge. Nor has the President thought proper to wait for any excuse or justification

You can almost imagine Giddings imagining Pierce foaming at the mouth. Whatever Spain would say couldn’t matter. Damn it all; he wanted his war and he wanted it now. He’d show the ghost of old James K. Polk, dead 103 days after leaving office, how to gin up a crisis, make war, and come away with pockets full of someone else’s land. Either Pierce himself would or the expansionists like Davis and Cushing, who held the reins in his Cabinet, would do it in his name.

The nation ended up liking the Mexican War just fine despite largely sectional tension over starting it. No one could have planned on the Marqués de la Pezuela seizing a ship at just this moment, but why let the crisis go to waste? The war enthusiasm could undermine the antislavery movement at a critical time. If the Kansas-Nebraska act failed then, maybe the South would settle for slavery in Cuba. If it passed, maybe the outrage would find itself badly exposed and tarred with accusations of disloyalty in a nation at war or being sore winners after the United States triumphed.

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