The Herald of Freedom on Presidential Impotency

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Gentle Readers, I live in one of those forested parts of Michigan that doesn’t have much of a history with the automobile industry. At one point, some dreamers thought they would start a car company here. Everyone else in the state had the same idea about the same time. Far from most everywhere, the tourism focuses less on internal combustion and more on nautical illumination. We have more lighthouses than any other state. This weekend I went out to see one that I hadn’t before, built in 1895. I planned to take pictures and write about the experience.

I forgot my camera.

Right then, we’ve spent some time with the Squatter Sovereign’s reaction to Franklin Pierce’s annual message and related matters. Two papers could play that game. George Washington Brown’s Herald of Freedom, of senator-threatening fame, had news of Pierce’s message in the very next edition after its release:

The president has sent his Message to the Senate, and referring to the recent troubles in Kansas, says the people must be protected in the execution of their rights, -eulogizes popular sovereignty, advocates States rights with respect to slavery, and the fugitive slave law, &c., &c.

Yeah, yeah, whatever, Frank. The next issue, on January 18, 1856, included a synopsis of the message that said little more on the subject of Kansas. But Brown took aim at Pierce’s inaction in the face of repeated invasions of Kansas by Missourians through a piece reprinted from “The Republican, Me., Journal”:

The late disturbances in Kansas have raised a serious question respecting the authority of the President of the United States. Has the President of the United States the right to interpose its sovereign power to prevent the citizens of a State from invading the territory of the United States, and forcibly usurping the rights of citizenship, and exercising legislative authority over it? If he has no such right then Congress should immediately confer it upon him; and if he have the right he should be held responsible for its exercise upon due information, whenever the public exigencies require it.

This all sounds a little abstract on the face, but Pierce’s wrote with regard to Kansas that

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 the citizens of any of the States.

If Pierce believed that, why hadn’t he ordered the cavalry out to save Lawrence? With a presidential order in hand, they would have ridden from Fort Leavenworth at once. Colonel Sumner told Wilson Shannon as much. If Pierce had the power, why hadn’t he used it? The President moved from the quoted passage into a disquisition on states rights that includes the following:

It is not pretended that this principle [popular sovereignty] or any other precludes the possibility of evils in practice, disturbed, as political action is liable to be, by human passions. No form of government is exempt from inconveniences; but in this case they are the result of the abuse, and not the legitimate exercise, of the powers reserved or conferred in the organization of a Territory. They are not to be charged to the great principle of popular sovereignty. On the contrary, they disappear before the intelligence and patriotism of the people, exerting through the ballot box their peaceful and silent but irresistible power.

Taken in context, Pierce at least implies here that if something went wrong then he had no responsibility to right it. Stuff breaks. Things fall apart. But popular sovereignty made that into a problem for the locals, not for Franklin Pierce to fix from Washington. He lacked the power or the moral right to intervene.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

The Journal took that all under due consideration:

Shall the president of this great republic, with full knowledge of an invasion of a Territory by citizens of one of the States of this Union with intent to usurp the rights both of citizenship and of supreme legislative authority over it, stand coolly by and suffer the damning deed to be done under the pretext that he has no authority to prevent it? No authority to execute the law of Congress? No authority to repel the invasion of a Territory of this Union, and prevent a forcible usurpation of the rights of citizenship, and of supreme legislative power? No authority to protect American citizens on the soil of the United States, or prevent civil war? In our opinion it is not so. Such a confession of Presidential impotency is an evasion, -we had almost said a pretext, a subterfuge. Our government is not that rickety thing, nor our constitution that phantom of statesmanship which such a confession of its weakness would imply.

The piece went on to point out that the President had command of the Army and Navy. His duty included, in so many words, seeing the laws faithfully executed. That meant the part of the Kansas-Nebraska Act restricting voting to actual residents as much as the Fugitive Slave Law Pierce would rather execute. Who did he think he could fool with that line?

Update: A previous version of this post identified the essay in the Herald of Freedom as original to it. It was actually a reprint from another paper and I’ve edited the above to reflect that.

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