Hale vs. Pierce: Central American Distractions

John Hale

John Hale

So far as I can tell, the Herald of Freedom did not publish a direct answer to Franklin Pierce’s annual message blaming all Kansas’ woes on antislavery fanaticism. George Washington Brown reprinted a lengthy essay from another paper attacking the theory of presidential impotency that Pierce appealed to as reason to stand aside and let proslavery Missourians dominate the territory. That constitutes a kind of response, but it did not make the president into his debating partner. For that, Brown’s readers had to wait another week.

The January 26 Herald of Freedom included extracts from the speech of John P. Hale, free soil senator from Pierce’s own New Hampshire, to directly answer the presidential message. Hale and Pierce went way back. The Senator began his career as a Jackson Democrat, but split with the party over Texas. That meant denying the explicit instructions of the state party to vote for annexation. For his trouble, the New Hampshire party expelled him. Franklin Pierce led the convention that did the job. Hale embarked on a campaign to win the Granite State for antislavery, which included a debate with Pierce, and succeeded in getting enough Whigs and Independent Democrats elected to the legislature to put him in the Senate. Subsequently Hale ran as the Free Soil candidate in the 1852 election, against Pierce.

The Herald of Freedom’s extracts from Hale open with a disclaimer of any plan to make an account of himself. The people, he reasoned, don’t care what individual senators think. But he wouldn’t damn other Senators for the act. Should some Northern senator want to stand up and explain why he voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, more power to him. However:

there is not a one of them that has ever had his election submitted to the people of a Free State, who has had a chance to make an explanation on this floor, or will be likely to get it very soon. Hence, I have not a word to say about that.

Reading just barely between the lines, Hale commented on that nice election that Pierce had and informed him not to expect another. Should any of his colleagues feel like more proslavery concessions, they could go too.

Hale then addressed the subject of Central America, which so engaged Pierce. It occupies pages of his message, where Kansas managed direct references for barely a paragraph:

I tell the President that there is a central place in the United States-not Central America, Central United States-called Kansas about which the people of this country are thinking vastly more at this time than they are about Central America, down in the land of filibusters; and it seems to me that the President of the United States would have discharged just as appropriately his proper constitutional functions if he had favored us a little with that

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Hale submitted that Pierce devoted such attention to Central America as a distraction

seized upon by those agitators who do not think it prudent to take hold of a subject which really agitates the people. They care nothing about Central America-not a straw; the whole thing is a humbug exploded long ago.

I suspect Pierce, and others, cared rather more about Central America than Hale would allow, but the Senator’s larger point certainly stands. The most pressing news in 1855 had not come from south of the border, but west of Missouri. Furthermore, the Second Party System from its inception had stressed issues unrelated, or ostensibly unrelated, to slavery as a way to preserve the Union. Few Americans could miss that, given the constant fretting over the nation’s survival should slavery become and remain an issue of contention rather than the subject of bipartisan protection.

This didn’t mean that the people forgot they cared about slavery, for or against. You could hardly miss the institution in the South and no one made any secret of it. But so long as slavery remained the subtext of politics, policy might not arouse relatively moderate antislavery interest. Diehard abolitionists would never let it go, but keeping slavery off the table denied them some measure of the platform they would need to interest dormant or inchoate antislavery sentiment. One must expect that the custom frustrated antislavery Americans while doing little to impede their proslavery opposites, given that the founding figures of Democracy and Whiggery alike themselves owned slaves or, in the case of Martin Van Buren, partnered very closely with those who did.

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The Herald of Freedom on Presidential Impotency

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Gentle Readers, I live in one of those forested parts of Michigan that doesn’t have much of a history with the automobile industry. At one point, some dreamers thought they would start a car company here. Everyone else in the state had the same idea about the same time. Far from most everywhere, the tourism focuses less on internal combustion and more on nautical illumination. We have more lighthouses than any other state. This weekend I went out to see one that I hadn’t before, built in 1895. I planned to take pictures and write about the experience.

I forgot my camera.

Right then, we’ve spent some time with the Squatter Sovereign’s reaction to Franklin Pierce’s annual message and related matters. Two papers could play that game. George Washington Brown’s Herald of Freedom, of senator-threatening fame, had news of Pierce’s message in the very next edition after its release:

The president has sent his Message to the Senate, and referring to the recent troubles in Kansas, says the people must be protected in the execution of their rights, -eulogizes popular sovereignty, advocates States rights with respect to slavery, and the fugitive slave law, &c., &c.

Yeah, yeah, whatever, Frank. The next issue, on January 18, 1856, included a synopsis of the message that said little more on the subject of Kansas. But Brown took aim at Pierce’s inaction in the face of repeated invasions of Kansas by Missourians through a piece reprinted from “The Republican, Me., Journal”:

The late disturbances in Kansas have raised a serious question respecting the authority of the President of the United States. Has the President of the United States the right to interpose its sovereign power to prevent the citizens of a State from invading the territory of the United States, and forcibly usurping the rights of citizenship, and exercising legislative authority over it? If he has no such right then Congress should immediately confer it upon him; and if he have the right he should be held responsible for its exercise upon due information, whenever the public exigencies require it.

This all sounds a little abstract on the face, but Pierce’s wrote with regard to Kansas that

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 the citizens of any of the States.

If Pierce believed that, why hadn’t he ordered the cavalry out to save Lawrence? With a presidential order in hand, they would have ridden from Fort Leavenworth at once. Colonel Sumner told Wilson Shannon as much. If Pierce had the power, why hadn’t he used it? The President moved from the quoted passage into a disquisition on states rights that includes the following:

It is not pretended that this principle [popular sovereignty] or any other precludes the possibility of evils in practice, disturbed, as political action is liable to be, by human passions. No form of government is exempt from inconveniences; but in this case they are the result of the abuse, and not the legitimate exercise, of the powers reserved or conferred in the organization of a Territory. They are not to be charged to the great principle of popular sovereignty. On the contrary, they disappear before the intelligence and patriotism of the people, exerting through the ballot box their peaceful and silent but irresistible power.

Taken in context, Pierce at least implies here that if something went wrong then he had no responsibility to right it. Stuff breaks. Things fall apart. But popular sovereignty made that into a problem for the locals, not for Franklin Pierce to fix from Washington. He lacked the power or the moral right to intervene.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

The Journal took that all under due consideration:

Shall the president of this great republic, with full knowledge of an invasion of a Territory by citizens of one of the States of this Union with intent to usurp the rights both of citizenship and of supreme legislative authority over it, stand coolly by and suffer the damning deed to be done under the pretext that he has no authority to prevent it? No authority to execute the law of Congress? No authority to repel the invasion of a Territory of this Union, and prevent a forcible usurpation of the rights of citizenship, and of supreme legislative power? No authority to protect American citizens on the soil of the United States, or prevent civil war? In our opinion it is not so. Such a confession of Presidential impotency is an evasion, -we had almost said a pretext, a subterfuge. Our government is not that rickety thing, nor our constitution that phantom of statesmanship which such a confession of its weakness would imply.

The piece went on to point out that the President had command of the Army and Navy. His duty included, in so many words, seeing the laws faithfully executed. That meant the part of the Kansas-Nebraska Act restricting voting to actual residents as much as the Fugitive Slave Law Pierce would rather execute. Who did he think he could fool with that line?

Update: A previous version of this post identified the essay in the Herald of Freedom as original to it. It was actually a reprint from another paper and I’ve edited the above to reflect that.

Acutally, George Brown did Threaten Davy Atchison

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Gentle Readers, yesterday I concluded that George Washington Brown probably did not print a threat against David Rice Atchison. John Stringfellow over at the Squatter Sovereign probably invented the line, or recast someone Brown had said of border ruffians in general as a threat on Missouri’s latest ex-Senator. Nineteenth century papers do invent dialog often enough. Go into the archives and you’ll find quite a few letters written under obvious pseudonyms, often in eye dialect, that look a mite too convenient for the paper’s editorial line. Letters from friendly correspondents generally use standard English, which makes both all the more suspicious for the contrast. A certain degree of prevarication inevitably happens in the editorials too. One must also consider that even politically aligned newspapers liked to pick fights with one another and eagerly sling the kind of mud that we would expect to find on Twitter today. Politically hostile papers had little reason to restrain themselves.

Stringfellow’s paper said that Brown promised abolitionists in Kansas would shoot Atchison dead if ever they found him in the territory with arms in hand. I ran a searches on permutations of the phrase “if ever Gen. Atchison is found in this Territory with arms in his hands, they (the abolitionists) will have him shot.” The Sovereign put it in quotation marks and attributes it to Brown. They all came up dry. I also skimmed Herald of Freedom issues for the two months prior looking for Atchison references. I found a fair number, but he rarely came up except as a villain alongside both Stringfellows and other prominent proslavery men or in conjunction with his role in the Wakarusa War.

The search and my skimming missed the piece to which Stringfellow must have referred. The January 12 Herald of Freedom has some praise of the Cleveland Plaindealer. The author, George Brown informs us,

talks like a man. We thought him always wrong, but we are glad to make a correction in his favor.

Talking like a man sounds like something you do while crushing beer cans on your forehead, bragging about your sexual prowess, or threatening violence to me. Sixteen decades’ distance have put me off on the first two points, but the Plaindealer’s Gray nailed the third. Brown quotes him, in reference to David Rice Atchison:

He, with all other residents of Missouri who have crossed the borders of that State either to vote or fight in Kansas, should be shot, if no other means can be used to prevent their intrusions.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

While not quite the kill on sight statement that Stringfellow implied, this is otherwise quite close. But Stringfellow quoted Brown by name, not some fellow named Gray back in Ohio. Brown signed off in the next lines:

We may be allowed to say that we coincide in opinion with Mr. Gray, and that Atchison will be shot like a dog, traitor as he is, if he shall be found in Kansas with arms in his hands in case of a similar outbreak to the last. The people of Kansas hold him, and his colleague-B.F. Stringfellow-responsible for all the difficulties on the border; and in due time they will compel those men to pay the penalty for their violence, if continued.

Brown’s actual statement had a few more qualifiers than Stringfellow admitted, and doesn’t exactly match Stringfellow’s quote, but the differences don’t change the gist of it. If Atchison came back to Kansas with a party of armed border ruffians, then Brown thought him adequately qualified to play unwilling host to some hot lead. Morever, Brown expressed his firm belief “hundreds” would take the Plaindealer’s suggestion when the time came.

Given the number who turned out to defend Lawrence only the month before, he might have had it exactly right.

A Free State Welcome for Davy Atchison?

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Alongside the Squatter Sovereign’s endorsement of Pierce’s third annual message and John Stringfellow’s plan to sell town shares to fund arms for proslavery militiamen ran another item. Every issue I have seen of the Squatter Sovereign, until January of 1856, ran with an endorsement of David Rice Atchison for president. The Stringfellows really liked Missouri’s lately former Senator. When they took it down, they did so at the request of the great man himself. The most illustrious border ruffian, the man who declared he would wipe Kansas clean of every abolitionist, the most instrumental figure in managing the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, declared that he had no presidential ambitions just then. But, the Sovereign reported, David Rice Atchison planned to move to Kansas. He would come with friends, slaves, and friends with slaves, and settle down in his namesake town.

I don’t know that Atchison ever did move to Kansas, even temporarily, but the news got the Squatter Sovereign very excited. It seems the rumor went around a few different times, so Atchison might have had plans and reconsidered or let on that he had such plans as a way to bolster the proslavery cause. Or John Stringfellow may have imagined it entirely. When you name your town after someone who lives nearby, you might start to expect things. Either way, the Sovereign relates that not everyone in Kansas cheered at the prospect of the author of all their woes coming to stay:

Brown, of the Herald of Freedom, says that “if ever Gen. Atchison is found in this Territory with arms in his hands, they (the abolitionists) will have him shot.” We inform the valiant editor that Gen. A. intends moving to this country in a few weeks, and whenever the traitors of Douglas county, or any other portion of the Territory, refuse obedience to the laws of the Kansas Legislature, enacted at Shawnee Manual Labor School last summer, and a posse is called out to aid the sheriff, Gen. Atchison will be found on the ground “with arms in hand,” and if you want his scalp you can have an opportunity of taking it, provided your courage does not evaporate as it did before when the militia was called out.

That the Sovereign uses quotations suggests something Brown actually wrote. Given his occasional bellicose inclinations, I can believe Brown might have. I went looking for any such proclamation in the Herald of Freedom, but found none. Stringfellow and Kelley might refer to something that Brown said rather than published, or have chosen to construe remarks he made in general as a direct threat against Atchison, but the lines look suspicious. They maintain that Brown said, rather than wrote, so they could appeal to some personal communication or spur of the moment utterance unavailable to posterity, but they frame the piece just as they would a response to a printed editorial. Clearly they intend for the reader to take a direct threat to the life of one of the nation’s more prominent politicians as something Brown went on the record about.

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

This all fits well with the proslavery line on the free state movement: lawless hoodlums devoted to general anarchy beset Kansas. The friends of law and order must take a firm stand against them or those fanatics would burn the whole territory, perhaps the whole Union, to the ground. Their movement, though it might seem full of lawless hoodlums, acted strictly for defense. The placement of the piece so close to Stringfellow’s filibuster fundraising plan further underlines the point: Buy his town shares so proslavery men can have their guns, or the opposition might go so wild as to kill a senator.

“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.