Few hopes for a neutral governorPosted: June 6, 2014
Andrew Horatio Reeder, Franklin Pierce’s choice for governor of the new Territory of Kansas, arrived in October. He found a land that the law allowed white Americans to settle from the very end of May. But nobody had surveyed any land to let them make their settlements legal and defend them against claim jumpers. Nor did the new frontier have an elaborate police force to maintain some level of order. The frontier did have, however, militant bands of proslavery (at least on paper) filibusters, Border Ruffians, and the like facing down similiarly militant bands of antislavery (also on paper) settlers, Jayhawkers, pauper abolitionist Hessians, and other tools of the Emigrant Aid Societies. Both sides had their own newspapers up and running. With threats of violence emanating regularly from over the line in Missouri, completely aside those from distant Washington, disinterested settlers had every reason to pick a slavery side and stick to it.
Reeder had broad powers to establish the initial territorial government. He could order up a census, establish a provisional capital, draw electoral districts, and hold elections for the territorial legislature. Until that legislature sat, Reeder could use his vast powers as he wished and shape the developing institutions to suit his preferences. Reasonable observers at the time might have expected him to do all he could to make Kansas a slave territory. He owed his position to Pierce administration patronage. He declared that if he could have afforded one, he would have taken a slave to Kansas. Reeder came to the office with no previous experience, so naturally one would expect a party hack or someone easily controlled by party hacks.
Reeder has a mess on his hands, where any action he took could have explosive consequences. But did serving his patrons mean making Kansas into slave territory? That would please the southern Democracy. Did it mean keeping it free? That would please northern antislavery men, including some Democrats. Did it mean giving popular sovereignty a fair shake, without regard to the eventual outcome? That would please Stephen Douglas and potentially defuse the situation by establishing that his pet doctrine really could work as a moderate sectional compromise. Reeder apparently preferred the last option.
He hit problems right off. The House ordered up a committee to study what happened in Kansas, gathering testimony and eventually ordering up a report which opened with the central fact of the entire Kansas dispute:
It cannot be doubted that if its condition as a free Territory had been left undisturbed by Congress, its settlement would have been rapid, peaceful, and prosperous. […] by this time it would have been admitted into the Union as a free state, without the least sectional excitement. […] The Testimony clearly shows that before the proposition to repeal the Missouri compromise was introduced into Congress, the people of western Missouri appeared indifferent to the prohibition of slavery in the Territory, and neither asked nor desired its repeal.
Different constructions were put upon the organic law. It was contended by one party that the right to hold slaves in the Territory existed, and neither the people nor the territorial legislature could prohibit slavery: that power was alone possessed by the people when they were authorized to form a State government. It was contended that the removal of the restriction virtually established slavery in the Territory. This claim was urged by many prominent men in western Missouri, who actively engaged in the affairs of the Territory. Every movement, of whatever character, which tended to establish free institutions, was regarded as an interference with their rights.
Did the repeal mean that? Did the Missouri men have the right reading of the Kansas-Nebraska Act? If they did, what did that mean for popular sovereignty? A neutral path which pleased them would have to result in a slave territory with a single, narrow window when a constitutional convention could work abolition. Reeder had hardly any room to stake out neutrality at all. He must take up the cause of Slave Power, at least until the state constitutional convention, or they would see him as an enemy. The question had to have an answer and Reeder had to give it, but any answer meant taking a side.