Frank Pierce’s Proslavery Conservatism

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow

Franklin Pierce’s third annual message did not go unmarked in Kansas. The January 29 Squatter Sovereign published the editors’ regret that they lacked space to print it in full and encouraged readers to find themselves a copy elsewhere. I believe them; my copy runs to twenty-one pages. Stringfellow and Kelley did run a summary of the president’s arguments, handled in rough proportion to the original. Consequently, more attention went to foreign affairs than Kansas. But proslavery men in Kansas couldn’t just leave it at that:

we endorse the message entire. The President has taken the true State rights ground, and does the South entire justice. He has proven himself a very able and patriotic statesman. The message is the best State paper we have read for years. “Frank Pierce” will do as President for us.

The Sovereign also reported, with delight, on the message’s reception in the Columbia Statesman “a violent Whig and Know-Nothing organ.”

President Pierce is no favorite of ours. We opposed his election, and regard his administration as a failure. We believe he has attempted to “curry favor” with all factions in the Union, and enjoys the confidence of none. He has appointed abolitionists, free-soilers and fire-eaters to office, even to posts in his cabinet. Nevertheless, we take pleasure in saying this message is the crowning glory of his life. It is an able State paper, and, because of the soundness of its views and conservative tone, will cover a multitude of sins of its author.

Even their enemies loved the message. The rock-ribbed conservatism of Pierce’s message draws remark from historians as well. James Rawley quotes part of this passage, from Pierce’s closing, and fairly characterizes it as “obdurate”:

The storm of frenzy and faction must inevitably dash itself in vain against the unshaken rock of the Constitution. I shall never doubt it. I know that the Union is stronger a thousand times than all the wild and chimerical schemes of social change which are generated one after another in the unstable minds of visionary sophists and interested agitators. I rely confidently on the patriotism of the people, on the dignity and self-respect of the States, on the wisdom of Congress, and, above all, on the continued gracious favor of Almighty God to maintain against all enemies, whether at home or abroad, the sanctity of the Constitution and the integrity of the Union.

Pierce might as well have quoted Edmund Burke verbatim. The condemnation works equally well against any issue. I’ve read it in just those terms deployed on nearly every subject that makes the news. Reformers, they always say, have got something wrong with them. They innovate incorrigibly, chasing phantasms of equality, justice, rights, all empty abstractions that have so little to do with real life that we might as well speak of Narnia or Middle-Earth. That the speakers usually enjoy the same things they wish to deny others rarely interests them. Their fortunate births and circumstances proved that they deserved the whole lot. What do the rest of us have to offer? If we warranted better treatment, we would already have it.

The Statesman’s endorsement then takes a somewhat counter-intuitive, though very telling, turn:

The slavery feature of the message will attract universal attention. On this subject he administers the fanatics and agitators North and South-the enemies of the Union and domestic tranquility-a scathing rebuke. We hope it will effect them for good, by recalling them from the forbidden paths of sectional strife and to the peaceful walks of loyalty and patriotism.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

What message did the Statesman read? Pierce hardly delivered condemnations all around; he didn’t have a one for the South. Rather he depicted the section as acting entirely within its rights and still suffering endless victimization by the North.

The Statesman read same piece everyone else had, of course. They might have genuinely understood the message as even-handed, or may have just liked the pretense. No one occupies a neutral position in such matters, and favoring the status quo or the traditional American way of doing things in the middle 1800s meant favoring at least the continuation of slavery and the suppression of antislavery agitation. The white man’s peace and tranquility, ensconced in his Union, demanded no less. To oppose slavery, even in a moderate and incremental ways, departed from orthodoxy.

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