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.

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