Hale vs. Pierce: Central American Distractions

John Hale

John Hale

So far as I can tell, the Herald of Freedom did not publish a direct answer to Franklin Pierce’s annual message blaming all Kansas’ woes on antislavery fanaticism. George Washington Brown reprinted a lengthy essay from another paper attacking the theory of presidential impotency that Pierce appealed to as reason to stand aside and let proslavery Missourians dominate the territory. That constitutes a kind of response, but it did not make the president into his debating partner. For that, Brown’s readers had to wait another week.

The January 26 Herald of Freedom included extracts from the speech of John P. Hale, free soil senator from Pierce’s own New Hampshire, to directly answer the presidential message. Hale and Pierce went way back. The Senator began his career as a Jackson Democrat, but split with the party over Texas. That meant denying the explicit instructions of the state party to vote for annexation. For his trouble, the New Hampshire party expelled him. Franklin Pierce led the convention that did the job. Hale embarked on a campaign to win the Granite State for antislavery, which included a debate with Pierce, and succeeded in getting enough Whigs and Independent Democrats elected to the legislature to put him in the Senate. Subsequently Hale ran as the Free Soil candidate in the 1852 election, against Pierce.

The Herald of Freedom’s extracts from Hale open with a disclaimer of any plan to make an account of himself. The people, he reasoned, don’t care what individual senators think. But he wouldn’t damn other Senators for the act. Should some Northern senator want to stand up and explain why he voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, more power to him. However:

there is not a one of them that has ever had his election submitted to the people of a Free State, who has had a chance to make an explanation on this floor, or will be likely to get it very soon. Hence, I have not a word to say about that.

Reading just barely between the lines, Hale commented on that nice election that Pierce had and informed him not to expect another. Should any of his colleagues feel like more proslavery concessions, they could go too.

Hale then addressed the subject of Central America, which so engaged Pierce. It occupies pages of his message, where Kansas managed direct references for barely a paragraph:

I tell the President that there is a central place in the United States-not Central America, Central United States-called Kansas about which the people of this country are thinking vastly more at this time than they are about Central America, down in the land of filibusters; and it seems to me that the President of the United States would have discharged just as appropriately his proper constitutional functions if he had favored us a little with that

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Hale submitted that Pierce devoted such attention to Central America as a distraction

seized upon by those agitators who do not think it prudent to take hold of a subject which really agitates the people. They care nothing about Central America-not a straw; the whole thing is a humbug exploded long ago.

I suspect Pierce, and others, cared rather more about Central America than Hale would allow, but the Senator’s larger point certainly stands. The most pressing news in 1855 had not come from south of the border, but west of Missouri. Furthermore, the Second Party System from its inception had stressed issues unrelated, or ostensibly unrelated, to slavery as a way to preserve the Union. Few Americans could miss that, given the constant fretting over the nation’s survival should slavery become and remain an issue of contention rather than the subject of bipartisan protection.

This didn’t mean that the people forgot they cared about slavery, for or against. You could hardly miss the institution in the South and no one made any secret of it. But so long as slavery remained the subtext of politics, policy might not arouse relatively moderate antislavery interest. Diehard abolitionists would never let it go, but keeping slavery off the table denied them some measure of the platform they would need to interest dormant or inchoate antislavery sentiment. One must expect that the custom frustrated antislavery Americans while doing little to impede their proslavery opposites, given that the founding figures of Democracy and Whiggery alike themselves owned slaves or, in the case of Martin Van Buren, partnered very closely with those who did.

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