The State of the Union in 1855: Damned Yankees

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

After telling the Congress that he would stand resolutely on the proslavery side in Kansas, Franklin Pierce took his third annual message further in that direction. He laid out a states rights constitutional theory well within the bounds of the Democratic mainstream, with enough talk about the general welfare to drive Calhounite radicals up the wall, but left no doubt about just what state right he had in mind:

Of the circumstances of local condition, interest, and rights in which a portion of the States, constituting one great section of the Union, differed from the rest and from another section, the most important was the peculiarity of a larger relative colored population in the Southern than in the Northern states.

That population, “held in subjection” happened by geographic and economic fiat to concentrate in the South. Consequently, slavery vanished in the North. All that fit just fine with the Constitution’s provisions, but so did slavery’s waxing in the South. The Constitution, Pierce implied, aimed for neutrality on the issue. But slavery couldn’t have simple neutrality, it needed special security:

while the General Government, as well by the enumerated powers granted to it as by those not enumerated, and therefore refused to it, was forbidden to touch this matter in the sense of attack or offense, it was placed under the general safeguard of the Union in the sense of defense against either invasion or domestic violence, like all other local interests of the several States. Each State expressly stipulated, as well for itself as for each and all of its citizens, and every citizen of each State became solemnly bound by his allegiance to the Constitution that any person held to service or labor in one State, escaping into another, should not, in consequence of any law or regulation thereof, be discharged from such service or labor, but should be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor might be due by the laws of his State.

Pierce here described the state of affairs in the middle 1850s, at least on paper. To a sufficiently white audience, like Congress, that must have sounded at least orderly. We had a system that every white man agreed to, handed down from our ancestors and purpose-built to keep the Union together and at peace. it worked perfectly well right, right up until someone decided the rules didn’t apply. As “Chief Magistrate” and “executive agent of the whole country,” Pierce felt a duty to name names:

while the people of the Southern States confine their attention to their own affairs, not presuming to intermeddle with the social institutions of the Northern States, too many of the inhabitants of the latter are permanently organized in associations to inflict injury upon the former by wrongful acts, which would be cause of war as between foreign powers and only fail to be such in our system because perpetrated under cover of the Union.

Such foreign meddling, by the United Kingdom, featured earlier in Pierce’s message. On that occasion it didn’t give cause for war, but then one doesn’t leap into war with the world’s superpower within living memory of having done so and lost as eagerly as one might with a nation one views as much more a peer.

That Pierce cast the South as blameless and entirely respecting of traditional sectional comity flies in the face of the then-recent past, but having declared himself a proslavery man the president could hardly backpedal for the sake of inconvenient facts.

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