The State of the Union in 1855: The Crimean War Recruitment Controversy

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce told the 34th Congress that the United Kingdom had broken faith with the United States in Central America and now imposed its will upon the nation by recruiting for the Crimean War on American soil and without permission. We had laws specifically against such things in the name of preserving American neutrality. Furthermore, Pierce avowed, those laws comported well with established nineteenth century practice. As such, when news came that the United Kingdom would seek foreign enlistments

Nothing on the face of the act or in its public history indicated that the British Government proposed to attempt recruitment in the United States, nor did it ever give intimation of such intention to this Government.

Yet the British came anyway. While they didn’t set up a recruiting office in Times Square, they did have agents go about finding people and sending them along to Halifax for proper enlistment. This “was going on extensively, with little or no disguise.” The men so engaged soon found themselves under arrest for their lawbreaking and Pierce’s administration protested through diplomatic channels.

Thereupon it became known, by the admission of the British Government itself, that the attempt to draw recruits from this country originated with it, or at least had its approval and sanction; but it also appeared that the public agents engaged in it [had] “stringent instructions” not to violate the municipal law of the United States.

That might sound nice on paper, but how do you keep within the law while doing the specific thing it forbids? Pierce might cave to the Slave Power for a few stern words from his fellow Democrats, but he had no such respect for British shenanigans. They could promise whatever they liked, but if they recruited at all then they must either have broken the law or found some shady legal excuse to violate its spirit whilst respecting its letter.

And it got worse:

the matter acquired additional importance by the recruitments in the United States not being discontinued, and the disclosure of the fact that they were prosecuted upon a systematic plan devised by official authority; that recruiting rendezvous had been opened in our principal cities, and depots for the reception of recruits established on our frontier, and the whole business conducted under the supervision and by the regular cooperation of British officers, civil and military, some in the North American Provinces [Canada] and some in the United States.

All of this came out when the recruiters went to trial. A few bad apples, one might shrug off. Irresponsible civilian contractors or private businessmen might slip beneath official notice. But the British had a whole, organized operation to move Americans through the United States and just over the border to train them as soldiers for a foreign war.

Nineteenth century Americans often have a chip on their shoulder about national sovereignty, particularly as relates to European powers and especially when the British come into it, but even when making allowances for that one struggles to see the whole business as anything less than a complete disregard of American self-determination. Britain had not embarked on a course to annex the United States back to its empire, but clearly didn’t take American laws and their jurisdiction seriously. In past decades, the United States had done a somewhat better job of restraining filibusters operating against Canada and such expeditions had never had the full backing of the state.

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