The State of the Union in 1855: Kansas

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce’s third annual message turned from foreign affairs to the domestic sphere, rattling off the nation’s revenues and expenditures. The latter included an installment of three million to pay Mexico for the Gadsden Purchase and seven and three-quarters million to pay off Texas debts that the United States assumed in late 1850. Along the way, he praised the nation’s financial system. They didn’t need any of this central bank business. Nor did the nation, per Pierce, require extensive tariffs. The United States, the President avowed in an adoption of once-extreme proslavery dogma, should adopt duties for revenue purposes only. Pierce then turned his pen westward, commenting on how a late military expansion helped ensure the peace of the frontier. He had news that the Indians had confederated out in Oregon and Washington, possibly with foreign (read: British) involvement. But Congress need not worry too much as “efficient measures” would soon set all to right.

Then the president came to Kansas where

there have been acts prejudicial to good order, but as yet none have occurred under circumstances to justify the interposition of the Federal Executive.

Pierce wrote this at the end of December, 1855. He had by then received word from Wilson Shannon about the Wakarusa War. Apparently a hostile invasion from another state, aimed at the destruction of a settlement, didn’t constitute anything to involve the Executive with. Stuff happens, you know? North of a thousand proslavery men came over in hopes of destroying their political opponents. Maybe that didn’t comport with everyone’s sense of decorum, but you can’t have everything perfect all the time. Pierce might have said that he had no time to act, given the state of communications, or that the Executive lacked the information or resources to intervene properly. Instead he answered a dangerously close call with a shrug.

What would it take to get the presidential dander up?

obstruction to Federal law or of organized resistance to Territorial law, assuming the character of insurrection, which, if it should occur, would be my duty to promptly overcome and suppress.

At least Pierce drew a distinction between federal law, opposition to which might mean treason, and territorial law. That distinction could only go so far when he then proceeded to recognize a duty to defend Kansas laws too. The President of the United States committed himself, at least in principle, to using his power against a group of Kansans who had done no worse crime than organizing against slavery.

Pierce hoped it didn’t come to that, of course. He expected that

any such untoward event will be prevented by the sound sense of 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 citizens of any of the States.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Kansas had a right to determine its own relationship with slavery and other states ought not get involved. That non-intervention ought to apply to Emigrant Aid Societies as much as to Blue Lodges. This neutrality would tilt drastically in favor of slavery in practice, given Missouri’s proximity, but Pierce put his thumb further on the scale. He committed to suppressing any resistance to Kansas’ territorial laws, whenever it looked like an insurrection, but made no matching commitment to safeguard the territory’s self-determination against the aforementioned meddlers from abroad.

James Lane went around telling antislavery people that his pal, Frank Pierce, had their backs. Now Pierce told them the opposite. The President might not sign on for every proslavery excess, but he didn’t pledge to get in their way either. Free state Kansans could expect no help.

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