Mr. Reeder Goes to Washington

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Andrew Reeder, who Franklin Pierce appointed governor of Kansas Territory, apparently had quite enough when he announced that he would set aside some of the fraudulent election returns of March 30, 1855. That he did so in a room filled with two armed mobs, the proslavery members-elect of the legislature and group of his own friends speaks volumes about how far things had gone, even before the Parkville Industrial Luminary’s (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) press hit the Missouri’s bottom and William Phillips (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) acquired his coating of tar and feathers. Proslavery men had made serious threats on his life going all the way back to his arrival in Kansas. He prudently left the territory soon after announcing the special elections of May 22:

I left the Territory about the middle of April, and came east for the purpose of taking out my family and attending to private business, as well as for the purpose of consulting with the President in regard to the state of things in the Territory.

Reeder’s testimony to the Howard Committee did not share the details of what passed between him and Pierce. Etcheson cites a letter from J.M. Fourney to James Buchanan on the issue, dated May 12, 1855. Regrettably, the letter didn’t make it into my copy of Buchanan’s collected works. She also cites James A. Rawley’s Race and Politics: “Bleeding Kansas” and the Coming of the Civil War on the subject. I acquired a copy of that book to check up on the matter of what Stephen Douglas said to that Chicago rally. Rawley did not cite his sources, except for direct manuscript quotes, but he gives this version:

The President, more anguished by the Kansas troubles than anything since the loss of his son, spent two weeks in earnest conversations with the governor, trying to thrash out Administration policy. Reeder sought to impress upon Pierce the need for executive action to protect the actual settlers from the Missourians. Pierce asked what action he could take; and in response Reeder outlined a three-point program. The President should let all his appointees understand they were to set their faces against out-of-state interference; he should issue a proclamation reciting and disapproving of the lawless acts, and pledging the Administration against outside interference as violations of the organic act; and, if necessary, he should use troops.

This would all go over famously with the Missourians. Already Reeder had made himself notorious to the proslavery party in Kansas and Missouri. Furthermore, some shady land dealings on Reeder’s part that will warrant some discussion later had come to light and painted him as shifty in addition to polarizing. Even a principled antislavery president might not have rushed to Reeder’s aid. The pliable, eager to please Franklin Pierce would do no such thing.

Pierce countered this policy with his condemnation of the “illegalities” of the emigrant-aid society, not the Missourians, with objections to issuing such a proclamation, and with doubts about his authority to support a proclamation if he did issue it. His manner, Reeder asserted, “made me very distrustful of any sincere intention … to give adequate protection to our [Kansas] people. …”

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

A group of Emigrant Aid Society settlers had arrived on the day of the March election and apparently voted, but at the time they also appear to have intended to stay. This wouldn’t make their participation look very different on the ground, but would have put them within the bounds of the law in voting. The Missourians who fully intended to come, vote, and go home again could claim no such thing. Given the way Pierce’s cabinet seems to have used him more than the other way around, one can’t argue too much with his doubting of his own authority. But that still leaves him with an intensely partisan take on the issue: the Missourians did no wrong worth mentioning but the Emigrant Aid Societies had. Even if they had broken the law, they numbered between sixty and a hundred to the Missourians’ thousands.

Reeder claimed later that Pierce agreed with him, but he apparently missed just how much of their conversation involved Reeder’s resignation. The president went so far as to offer him a new posting. Possibly the governor’s inexperience led to him missing the tacit order to resign in that, but Pierce must not have pressed too hard. Reeder returned to Kansas in June with nothing more than a promise that if the administration fired him, the governor would have earned it through his those land dealings rather than his handling of the great issue of the day.

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