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.

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