The State of the Union in 1855: Damned Yankees

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

After telling the Congress that he would stand resolutely on the proslavery side in Kansas, Franklin Pierce took his third annual message further in that direction. He laid out a states rights constitutional theory well within the bounds of the Democratic mainstream, with enough talk about the general welfare to drive Calhounite radicals up the wall, but left no doubt about just what state right he had in mind:

Of the circumstances of local condition, interest, and rights in which a portion of the States, constituting one great section of the Union, differed from the rest and from another section, the most important was the peculiarity of a larger relative colored population in the Southern than in the Northern states.

That population, “held in subjection” happened by geographic and economic fiat to concentrate in the South. Consequently, slavery vanished in the North. All that fit just fine with the Constitution’s provisions, but so did slavery’s waxing in the South. The Constitution, Pierce implied, aimed for neutrality on the issue. But slavery couldn’t have simple neutrality, it needed special security:

while the General Government, as well by the enumerated powers granted to it as by those not enumerated, and therefore refused to it, was forbidden to touch this matter in the sense of attack or offense, it was placed under the general safeguard of the Union in the sense of defense against either invasion or domestic violence, like all other local interests of the several States. Each State expressly stipulated, as well for itself as for each and all of its citizens, and every citizen of each State became solemnly bound by his allegiance to the Constitution that any person held to service or labor in one State, escaping into another, should not, in consequence of any law or regulation thereof, be discharged from such service or labor, but should be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor might be due by the laws of his State.

Pierce here described the state of affairs in the middle 1850s, at least on paper. To a sufficiently white audience, like Congress, that must have sounded at least orderly. We had a system that every white man agreed to, handed down from our ancestors and purpose-built to keep the Union together and at peace. it worked perfectly well right, right up until someone decided the rules didn’t apply. As “Chief Magistrate” and “executive agent of the whole country,” Pierce felt a duty to name names:

while the people of the Southern States confine their attention to their own affairs, not presuming to intermeddle with the social institutions of the Northern States, too many of the inhabitants of the latter are permanently organized in associations to inflict injury upon the former by wrongful acts, which would be cause of war as between foreign powers and only fail to be such in our system because perpetrated under cover of the Union.

Such foreign meddling, by the United Kingdom, featured earlier in Pierce’s message. On that occasion it didn’t give cause for war, but then one doesn’t leap into war with the world’s superpower within living memory of having done so and lost as eagerly as one might with a nation one views as much more a peer.

That Pierce cast the South as blameless and entirely respecting of traditional sectional comity flies in the face of the then-recent past, but having declared himself a proslavery man the president could hardly backpedal for the sake of inconvenient facts.

Watermelons, Shirts, and Accidental Racism

A sorority at a university in Alabama passed out some t-shirts. They had a party and wanted keepsakes, as one does. I don’t know from sorority life, but I imagine that happens often enough. Since the shirts would commemorate their special day rather than any old thing off the rack, they ordered up a custom printing. It appears that they submitted the design to the university for approval. On getting a firm no, they ordered the shirts anyway. Ordinarily, you might smile a bit at college kids sticking it to the establishment. You’d smile less on learning that the shirts bear a map of Alabama decorated with images of slaves picking cotton and a black caricature eating a watermelon. You can view the shirt at here.

The image of the black person inordinately fond of watermelons, and fried chicken for that matter, has a depressing history:

the stereotype that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose. The trope came into full force when slaves won their emancipation during the Civil War. Free black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons, and in doing so made the fruit a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. This racist trope then exploded in American popular culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure.

The Jim Crow Museum has more information on that explosion:

It seems almost silly to say that watermelons have been racialized, but that is exactly what happened in this culture. For much of this country’s history, postcards showing Black people comically eating watermelons were popular among White Americans. Many of these so-called “Coon cards” show Black people stealing watermelons, fighting over watermelons, even being transformed into watermelons. The Jim Crow Museum houses a 1930s parlor game called, “72 Picture Party Stunts.” One of the game’s cards instructs players to “Go through the motions of a colored boy eating watermelon. The card shows a dark Black boy, with bulging eyes and blood red lips, eating a watermelon almost as large as he is. This is racial stereotyping as family entertainment. The museum has dozens of three dimensional objects showing African Americans eating watermelons, including banks, ashtrays, toys, firecrackers, cookie jars, match holders, dolls, souvenirs, doorstops, lawn jockeys, and novelty objects. These objects not only show Blacks lustily eating watermelons but often portray African Americans in physically caricatured ways: hideous faces, over-sized bright red lips, darting eyes, and ragged clothing. The problem is not that African Americans are shown eating watermelons. Rather, the problem is that Blacks are portrayed as contented Coons, Toms, Mammies, and Picaninnies, with all their hopes, dreams, and fears sated by eating watermelons under the shade of great trees.

In the course of learning about this today, I came on the claim that one must either study white supremacy or have more than the usual number of decades under one’s belt to recognize the watermelon trope. Given we still see frequent recurrences, I have my doubts about that. But the argument raises an interesting question. Suppose that someone did come on the image innocently. To this person, it only shows a man eating a watermelon. It lacks the punch of a person engaged in violence, theft, or some obvious sin.

We must not have had a particularly observant innocent either, as one needn’t know the entire history of a trope in order to recognize a racial stereotype from context. But we have the hypothetical person we have. If this person buys the shirt, does the image remain racist? Does the person?

One wants to deny it. Most of us, I hope, try to extend some charity to others. We have all made honest mistakes. Nobody knows everything and muddling through with imperfect, incomplete understanding leaves everybody on the wrong foot now and then. We didn’t set out to mistreat anybody, but it happened anyway. We feel terrible, apologize, berate ourselves a bit, and move on.

We shouldn’t. Our intentions matter, but so do our actions. Even if we made an honest mistake, we still made it. What we may take as a small thing, and what we know or pretend we did without malice, can still hurt. Furthermore, Americans live in a deeply white supremacist culture. You don’t have to study up in some hilltop castle, with lightning striking the parapets, cackling like a Disney villain, to imbibe racist tropes. Just living in the culture will do the job, filling our minds with concepts about how “those” people behave and acceptable conduct toward them that can take a great deal of work to remedy. We naturally know that the same rules don’t apply to people like us, as we find it far easier to understand ourselves as individuals than people we learn to see as other. Undoing all that, if one can do it at all, takes more than a bland assertion that one had no idea. It took centuries to build the edifice of white power out of stolen land and lives. Why would we expect it to vanish with no more than a whim?

More goes into human interactions than one party’s intent. We understand that as a matter of course in almost every other situation. We may get caught up in our own feelings. Our anger, excitement, and all the rest can drown our our consideration for others. But when they do and we upset someone, say something we didn’t mean, or phrase something poorly, we own up and apologize. It may take us a while to work it out, but when we realize the situation we do our best to make amends. When others don’t do the same for us, we naturally think less of them. At the very least, we don’t pretend that they just meant well. We understand that they either meant whatever they did precisely as we received it or simply don’t care either way.

The sorority chose the shirt they did, presumably putting a fair bit of thought into it. One doesn’t order custom keepsake items at random. In doing so they acted out whatever intentions they genuinely had, but those intentions exist in a larger cultural space just the same as everything else we do. Though more Americans than we’d like to believe probably still skew closer to malice than innocence in such matters, meaning well would not excuse them. Whether they wanted it or not, they acted out the white part of a frequently violent drama centuries in the making. White skin means you don’t have to say you’re sorry. You get to define the terms by which others must understand you, rather than have them dictated. You even get to decide how and when others should take offense at your actions. In an entirely unanticipated turn of events, we cast ourselves as the innocents every chance we get.

We all get on the wrong side of these things now and then, unless we live very fortunate or very segregated lives. We can say we meant no harm, but words come easy. Actually meaning no harm asks more of us. I don’t get it right all the time; I don’t know anybody who does. But pretending that we only do harm when we act with depraved hearts accuses rather than excuses. By doing so we don’t aim for improvement. Instead we dismiss the experiences of others and the painful histories we share as trifling impediments to our self-esteem.

We can fall into racism by accident or inheritance. We choose to stay there.

The State of the Union in 1855: Kansas

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce’s third annual message turned from foreign affairs to the domestic sphere, rattling off the nation’s revenues and expenditures. The latter included an installment of three million to pay Mexico for the Gadsden Purchase and seven and three-quarters million to pay off Texas debts that the United States assumed in late 1850. Along the way, he praised the nation’s financial system. They didn’t need any of this central bank business. Nor did the nation, per Pierce, require extensive tariffs. The United States, the President avowed in an adoption of once-extreme proslavery dogma, should adopt duties for revenue purposes only. Pierce then turned his pen westward, commenting on how a late military expansion helped ensure the peace of the frontier. He had news that the Indians had confederated out in Oregon and Washington, possibly with foreign (read: British) involvement. But Congress need not worry too much as “efficient measures” would soon set all to right.

Then the president came to Kansas where

there have been acts prejudicial to good order, but as yet none have occurred under circumstances to justify the interposition of the Federal Executive.

Pierce wrote this at the end of December, 1855. He had by then received word from Wilson Shannon about the Wakarusa War. Apparently a hostile invasion from another state, aimed at the destruction of a settlement, didn’t constitute anything to involve the Executive with. Stuff happens, you know? North of a thousand proslavery men came over in hopes of destroying their political opponents. Maybe that didn’t comport with everyone’s sense of decorum, but you can’t have everything perfect all the time. Pierce might have said that he had no time to act, given the state of communications, or that the Executive lacked the information or resources to intervene properly. Instead he answered a dangerously close call with a shrug.

What would it take to get the presidential dander up?

obstruction to Federal law or of organized resistance to Territorial law, assuming the character of insurrection, which, if it should occur, would be my duty to promptly overcome and suppress.

At least Pierce drew a distinction between federal law, opposition to which might mean treason, and territorial law. That distinction could only go so far when he then proceeded to recognize a duty to defend Kansas laws too. The President of the United States committed himself, at least in principle, to using his power against a group of Kansans who had done no worse crime than organizing against slavery.

Pierce hoped it didn’t come to that, of course. He expected that

any such untoward event will be prevented by the sound sense of 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 citizens of any of the States.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Kansas had a right to determine its own relationship with slavery and other states ought not get involved. That non-intervention ought to apply to Emigrant Aid Societies as much as to Blue Lodges. This neutrality would tilt drastically in favor of slavery in practice, given Missouri’s proximity, but Pierce put his thumb further on the scale. He committed to suppressing any resistance to Kansas’ territorial laws, whenever it looked like an insurrection, but made no matching commitment to safeguard the territory’s self-determination against the aforementioned meddlers from abroad.

James Lane went around telling antislavery people that his pal, Frank Pierce, had their backs. Now Pierce told them the opposite. The President might not sign on for every proslavery excess, but he didn’t pledge to get in their way either. Free state Kansans could expect no help.

The State of the Union in 1855: Filibustering

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce


Franklin Pierce’s third annual message progressed from bland assurances that all went well to a set of real grievances against the United Kingdom. Relations with the world’s great superpower, with whom the United States had twice fought wars, understandably take pride of place. Only after updating Congress on them did Pierce address tension with other powers. He didn’t care for Denmark’s insistence that the United States pay a toll to pass through Danish waters and trade in the Baltic. Some matter with the French consul at San Francisco had come to a satisfactory resolution, as had a dispute with Greece over seizure of American property.

Then Pierce turned south of the border once again:

With Spain peaceful relations are still maintained, and some progress has been made in securing the redress of wrongs complained of by this Government. Spain has not only disavowed and disapproved the conduct of the officers who illegally seized and detained the steamer Black Warrior at Havan, but has also paid the sum claimed as indemnity for the loss thereby inflicted on citizens of the United States.

That did made for good news on both sides of the Atlantic. The Black Warrior controversy threatened briefly to spark a war, with Pierce making dire threats. That the whole thing came out of the Spanish governor’s desire to warn off American filibusters, most notably Mississippi’s ex-governor John A. Quitman, gave the situation an ironic twist. In other Cuban news, Pierce happily related that the Spanish would pay an indemnity for prematurely cutting off duty free access to the island’s ports back in the 1840s. He expected Madrid would soon gave satisfaction on the matter of another steamer, the El Dorado, as well. All in all, Pierce saw the Cuban situation as one of improvement. That must have frustrated the filibusters to no end.

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

Speaking of filibusters, 1855 brought with it William Walker’s Nicaraguan expedition. Pierce didn’t mention the Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny by name, but anybody who followed the news could figure out who he meant. After a homily about respecting the sanctity of neighboring republics, the sort of thing that General Pierce observed most studiously during the Mexican War, President Pierce took aim at their instability:

obstacles have arisen in some of them from their own insufficient power to check lawless irruptions, which in effect throws most of the task on the United States. Thus it is that the distracted internal condition of the State of Nicaragua has made it incumbent on me to appeal to the good faith of our citizens to abstain from unlawful intervention in its affairs and to adopt preventative measures to the same end, which on a similar occasion had the best results in reassuring the peace of the Mexican States of Sonora and Lower California.

William Walker and a few hundred men marched into Baja California and claimed it as the Republic of Lower California in 1853. Shortly thereafter, without setting foot within it, Walker annexed Sonora to his republic and renamed the country after it. The Mexican army objected and chased Walker back over the border. A San Fransico jury took eight minutes to acquit him on charges of levying an illegal war against Mexico. He had, after all, only levied an illegal war against Mexico. Walker had gone to Nicaragua, at the invitation of one of the parties to its civil war, back in May of 1855. By the end of the year he had effective control of the country. Prominent filibusters who had operated in Baja California and Sonora, then moved on to Nicaragua made for a fairly small demographic.

Reading Pierce one likewise sees that, while he avowed American responsibility for keeping order and friendly relations, his “best results” ended with an acquitted filibuster happy to have another go and justified filibustering in general on the grounds of foreign lawlessness. He cast the United States as a good neighbor of the sort that might just see you overwhelmed by your real estate portfolio and help out by relieving you of vast swaths of land. Don’t we all want friends who see us in need and don’t wait around until we collapse in desperation before pitching in to help?

The State of the Union in 1855: The Crimean War Recruitment Controversy

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce told the 34th Congress that the United Kingdom had broken faith with the United States in Central America and now imposed its will upon the nation by recruiting for the Crimean War on American soil and without permission. We had laws specifically against such things in the name of preserving American neutrality. Furthermore, Pierce avowed, those laws comported well with established nineteenth century practice. As such, when news came that the United Kingdom would seek foreign enlistments

Nothing on the face of the act or in its public history indicated that the British Government proposed to attempt recruitment in the United States, nor did it ever give intimation of such intention to this Government.

Yet the British came anyway. While they didn’t set up a recruiting office in Times Square, they did have agents go about finding people and sending them along to Halifax for proper enlistment. This “was going on extensively, with little or no disguise.” The men so engaged soon found themselves under arrest for their lawbreaking and Pierce’s administration protested through diplomatic channels.

Thereupon it became known, by the admission of the British Government itself, that the attempt to draw recruits from this country originated with it, or at least had its approval and sanction; but it also appeared that the public agents engaged in it [had] “stringent instructions” not to violate the municipal law of the United States.

That might sound nice on paper, but how do you keep within the law while doing the specific thing it forbids? Pierce might cave to the Slave Power for a few stern words from his fellow Democrats, but he had no such respect for British shenanigans. They could promise whatever they liked, but if they recruited at all then they must either have broken the law or found some shady legal excuse to violate its spirit whilst respecting its letter.

And it got worse:

the matter acquired additional importance by the recruitments in the United States not being discontinued, and the disclosure of the fact that they were prosecuted upon a systematic plan devised by official authority; that recruiting rendezvous had been opened in our principal cities, and depots for the reception of recruits established on our frontier, and the whole business conducted under the supervision and by the regular cooperation of British officers, civil and military, some in the North American Provinces [Canada] and some in the United States.

All of this came out when the recruiters went to trial. A few bad apples, one might shrug off. Irresponsible civilian contractors or private businessmen might slip beneath official notice. But the British had a whole, organized operation to move Americans through the United States and just over the border to train them as soldiers for a foreign war.

Nineteenth century Americans often have a chip on their shoulder about national sovereignty, particularly as relates to European powers and especially when the British come into it, but even when making allowances for that one struggles to see the whole business as anything less than a complete disregard of American self-determination. Britain had not embarked on a course to annex the United States back to its empire, but clearly didn’t take American laws and their jurisdiction seriously. In past decades, the United States had done a somewhat better job of restraining filibusters operating against Canada and such expeditions had never had the full backing of the state.

The State of the Union in 1855: A British Imposition

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce opened his third annual message with complaints that the British had violated the agreed-upon neutrality of Central America. The British claimed otherwise, insisting that they had only agreed to future neutrality and in no way prejudiced any of their current claims to the region. They might have made a better case had they not actively expanded their influence after signing the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, but come the turn of the decade London will finally scale back its involvement all the same. The perfidies of Albion reached further than Central America. At the same time as the United Kingdom disregarded neutrality and the sovereignty of independent states south of the border, it had done so right in the United States.

If you ask an American about the first modern war, you’ll probably hear about the Civil War. It involved technology on a new scale, with railroad and telegraph lines taking on both military significance and carrying news back inform a more engaged public. Ask a European about modern war and you’ll learn that the Crimean War did much the same in the mid-1850s, up to and including such Civil War innovations as ironclad ships.

By the time Pierce wrote his message, the Crimean War had gone on for more than a year. In the nineteenth century, the United States took a generally firm neutral stance toward European disputes. They had nothing to do with us and we wished nothing to do with them, most particularly their large and professional armies which could land nearly anywhere along the American coast and do as they liked in the face of our vast, sparsely defended frontiers. A relatively small European army had burned the White House in living memory. Pierce stated the American consensus when he declared that the United States expected foreign powers to keep their warfare to themselves and let Americans do as they liked:

Notwithstanding the existence of such hostilities, our citizens retained the individual right to continue all their accustomed pursuits, by land or by sea, at home or abroad, subject only to such restrictions in this relation as the laws of war, the usage of nations, or special treaties may impose; and it is our sovereign right that our territory and jurisdiction shall not be invaded by either of the belligerent parties for the transit of their armies, the operations of their fleets, the levy of troops for their service, the fitting out of cruisers by or against either, or any other act or incident of war. And these undeniable rights of neutrality, individual and national, the United States will under no circumstances surrender.

Neutrality did not require a Jeffersonian embargo, though. The United States permitted citizens to transport sell their wares to belligerents, including weaponry. Americans could even transport foreign soldiers. But you did such things at your own risk and, consequently, they did not implicate Washington. Many Americans had taken the risks and reaped the profits. None of that caused any problems that Pierce saw fit to mention. Nor had foreign armies transited American soil or foreign warships come unwanted into American waters. Americans had even managed not to help belligerent powers base privateers or fit out military vessels in domestic ports, something the nation couldn’t claim at all when it came to filibusters.

The rub came when the British recruited on American soil. American neutrality law forbade mustering expeditions to go join foreign wars just as it did outfitting warships for them:

they provide not less absolutely that no person shall, within the territory or jurisdiction of the United States, enlist or enter himself, or hire or retain another person to enlist or enter himself, or to go beyond the limits or jurisdiction of the United States with intent to be enlisted or entered, in the service of any foreign state, either as a soldier or as a marine or seaman on board of any vessel of war, letter of marque, or privateer. And these enactments are also in strict conformity with the law of nations, which declares that no state has the right to raise troops for land or sea service in another state without its consent, and that, whether forbidden by the municipal law or not, the very attempt to do it without such consent is an attack on the national sovereignty.

The War of 1812 had not come again. The British asked for men, rather than abducted them. But they had gone beyond stopping ships on the high seas and instead recruited right on American soil. This might not make for a second burned White House, but agents of a foreign government recruiting for one of their wars within the United States clearly ran afoul of the neutrality laws. To permit them would, like indulging filibusters, encourage other powers to understand the United States as a willing co-belligerent. Such a state of affairs could easily draw the United States into battles not of its choosing. Permitting it to go unchallenged would surrender control of American foreign policy to the United Kingdom, a situation befitting a colony or a protectorate but not a nation which deemed itself independent and sovereign.

Debunking Bunkum

Felix Walker historical marker

Felix Walker historical marker

On February 25, 1820, Felix Walker rose to address the House of Representatives on the Missouri question: Would the Show Me State come into the Union with slavery undisturbed, or with the institution on the road to extinction? By this point, the House had heard every aspect of the issue dissected at often rancorous and tedious length. Could one more speech hurt that much?

Apparently so. The Annals of Congress, predicessor to the Congressional Globe, report that

the question was called for so clamorously and so perserveringly that Mr. W. could proceed no farther than to move that the Committee rise.

The Committee refused to rise, by an almost unanimous vote.

The Annals of Congress do not preserve Walker’s remarks, only the motion and its rejection. Any good survey of the era or work on the Missouri Compromise will tell you a bit more. Pleading with the House, Walker allegedly said that he spoke not to that body but rather for his constituents back in Buncombe County, North Carolina. In other words, Walker made a speech for the political theater of it rather than out of sincere belief in anything save that he ought to put the right foot forward. Walker’s invocation of Buncombe entered the lexicon as bunkum, eventually shortened to bunk.

Walker gave us the word for it, but politicians the world over have long practiced bunkum in abundance. A particularly cynical person might take from that that we ought to ignore all they say, or even take their spoken word as the opposite of their genuine positions. That can make perfectly good sense, as people in general do lie often enough. We also shade our meanings, exaggerate, phrase ourselves ambiguously, and otherwise craft impressions of ourselves running more to the convenient and appealing than earnest. Nor do we have the good decency to make clear just when and to what degree we do so, as that would give the whole game away. As such, we must parse things closely, looking to deeds, circumstances, and personal consistency as much as to the letter of a text. This holds true as much for the nineteenth century as any other time.

Go around the internet long enough and you’ll discover that neo-Confederates come in different flavors. They all end up in the same place, but arrive there by many roads. The low rent sorts will content themselves with denials and expressions of ancestral resentment. Yankees have always had it out for the South, hating the section for its virtue and seeking ever to degrade and debase it. The Union Army came through and stole everything not nailed down. (Especially the people.) Sherman burned every stick of upright wood between Atlanta and Savannah. (And would you like to tour one of our lovely antebellum mansions?) Grant incinerated whole regiments by exhaling over his cigar. (No one else ever drank a drop.) The North (never the United States) fought the Civil War as part of some black magic ritual to destroy states’ rights. A rendition of one’s ancestors martial prowess, real or imagined, soon follows. Though repulsive, the remarkably ignorance one finds in these types can at least make for some unintentional humor.

The clown car takes on passengers from more sophisticated environs too. Here you hear more about tariffs and very abstract talk about ways of life. Some of these people have even read period documents, which puts them in a bit of a bind:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property

The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slave-holding States.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

I could go on. White southerners agreed in remarkable volume and right up until the spring of 1865, that they fought a war to save slavery. They only changed their minds afterwards. Neo-confederates familiar with these texts, and others confronted with them, will often cry bunkum. Southern politicians, they tell us, indulged in fiery proslavery rhetoric entirely to please the rubes back home. They actually had other motives which arose from constitutional abstractions, as everybody knows that one adopts constitutionalisms out of perfect disinterest rather than as a means of achieving policy goals. Conversely, they will also invoke bunkum to explain away antislavery rhetoric on the part of Northern politicians. Those fiends had some kind of vision of an industrial, centralized United States which everyone clearly hated so they had to dress it up in more appealing terms. Put these two sets of bunkum together, as some historians have, and you find a pack of irresponsible, reckless, blundering politicians who drove the country into a needless war.

That argument appeals to some people still. A few historians, mostly getting on in years, still defend at least limited versions of it. More will defend a version of bunkum projected back further into the Antebellum. Sean Wilentz has described Federalist antislavery rhetoric as simple partisan positioning, dismissing it in short order so he can write his epic story of the Democracy as freedom’s greatest champion. An old Whig turned Republican did the actual emancipating, but he somehow embodied the true Jacksonian faith. In making that claim, Wilentz largely follows Jefferson and others of his time who imagined the Missouri controversy as a cynical play by old time Federalists to regain power on the national stage. Quite how they would have done so while not contesting the presidential race, adopting a policy that would do them no good anywhere in the South and little good in the West, and by rallying around the proposal of one of Jefferson’s own Republicans, I have no idea.

Set that aside for a moment. For the sake of argument, grant that antislavery and proslavery politicians did make bunkum speeches on the subject. They must have at least some of the time. Occasionally they kindly left us private misgivings or words to the effect of how they didn’t much care about this issue or that but chose a side in the interest of Southern honor or solidarity. The Lower South largely did this when it came to the Fugitive Slave Law. Much of the South, aside Missouri, did the same on Kansas. On the antislavery side we might cast the belief in the slave power conspiracy as something on the same order. In fact, we could stipulate that the politicians on both sides endorsed the positions and uttered the rhetoric that they did entirely to deceive. That oversells the case very badly, more so than any serious blundering generation scholar would probably support, but we may as well go all the way. Even if all of that holds true and the United States achieved in the nineteenth century the Platonic ideal of bunkum, does it really change our understanding of the sectional conflict?

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

I don’t think so. Any discussion of bunkum that limits itself to politicians and their speeches has missed the most important thing about it. Felix Walker and others like him might have made speeches in bad faith. They may have lied to their constituents and posterity in the name of their personal gain. But Walker’s constituents in North Carolina, James Tallmadge’s in New York, and all the rest wouldn’t settle for just any bunkum. Few voters in Massachusetts would swoon and toss the proverbial panties on stage for Charles Sumner, had he told them about the wonders of slavery. Nor would their countrymen in Mississippi do the same if Jefferson Davis spoke about its evils.

For bunkum to work at all, it must speak to the general interests of the relevant voting public. It must reflect their fears and hopes. As such, any successful use of bunkum indicates that, whatever a cynical politician or latter-day historian might thing, the speaker has hit on a genuine sentiment. Maybe the elected official doesn’t believe every word, but the people back home believe enough for it to matter. Insincere bunkum and genuine belief feed into one another. A practitioner of bunk helps frame the debate and set expectations for the voters, but those voters have their own active role to play in shaping the content of bunkum and thus the policies it drives. Neither party passively accepts what the other offers, but rather voters and politicians inevitably work in conscious partnership.

Did politicians indulge in proslavery and antislavery bunkum? Sometimes they must have, as we all do about any subject. We should ask the question as part of our normal interrogation of sources. Who, when, and to what degree will always remain open to interpretation. But if we stop there we write the voters out of the story, reducing the beliefs and interests of millions to the status of generic minions for the class of men that get buildings named after them. Including the millions who supported the politicians makes for a less tidy narrative, but one which tells us far more about the past than the characters of famous men. That broader story naturally implicates us as much as any historical figure, who we might otherwise imagine ourselves detached from. We produce and consume bunkum ourselves, our preferences for it speaking to our natures as much as the habits of past actors speak to theirs.

The State of the Union in 1855: More Central American Trouble

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

We left Franklin Pierce inveighing against the British in his third annual message. The Young Hickory of the Granite Hills complained that perfidious Albion had agreed to renounce all claims to control of Central America in exchange for the United States doing the same. This would ensure that neither power had to worry about the other using a future canal to their detriment. But then the British persisted in their protectorate over the Mosquito Coast and expanded their recognized influence over Belize at the expense of Honduras by colonizing the Bay Islands. London had agreed to do exactly the opposite of this in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850.

Or had it? Franklin Pierce called on the Great Britain to do the right thing and withdraw completely from everywhere save Belize. The British thought otherwise:

the British Government has at length replied, affirming that the operation of the treaty is prospective only and did not require Great Britain to abandon or contract any possessions held by her in Central America at the date of its conclusion.

According to London, the British empire only committed in 1850 to develop no new claims or interests in the area. What Britain had, it would retain. You can read the treaty that way without twisting yourself in too many knots. The text makes frequent reference to a future canal and how the parties will not obtain or maintain dominance over it. But nor does it include language that only brought the neutrality and renunciation provisions into operation when someone built a canal and the text often looks as much to present circumstances as to the future. Even if one granted Belize and the Mosquito Coast as properly untouched by the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, that still left Britain’s new colony on the Bay Islands as a positive advance of British influence.

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia)

Pierce, understandably, didn’t buy what London tried to sell. To him, and to posterity in general, the British position simply assumed prior rights held, up to and including the expansion of British power in Central America until such time as someone built a canal. Then the United States would just have to trust Britain to do as promised. This would make for a hard sell between nations with uneasy relations today, let alone the tense Anglo-American accord that prevailed in the nineteenth century. Pierce told Congress that he hoped for a peaceful solution still, but he saw

reason to apprehend that with Great Britain in actual occupation of the disputed territories, and the treaty therefore practically null so far as regards our rights, this international difficulty can not long remain undetermined without involving in serious danger the friendly relations which it is the interest as well as the duty of both countries to cherish and preserve. It will afford me sincere gratification if future efforts shall result in the success anticipated heretofore with more confidence than the aspect of the case permits me now to ascertain.

Pierce would love it if everything worked out, but he didn’t like the odds. Posterity, for once, vindicated him. The British wouldn’t renounce their interests, outside a Belize expanded well beyond American understandings of its borders, until the end of the decade.


The State of the Union in 1855: Central American Trouble

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Fed up with the House’s inability to organize itself, Franklin Pierce issued his annual message on the very last day of the year. Custom dictated he wait for the Congress to have its affairs in order, but the Constitution required him to report on the state of the Union every year. Pierce’s message dealt with a wide variety of topics beyond the Kansas question, so it offers an occasion to catch up on the other things happening in 1855.

Pierce claimed that foreign relations proceeded amicably, except where they did otherwise. He opened with the dispute over Central America which informed the destruction of Greytown, in modern Nicaragua, the year previous. (Nobody died and they soon rebuilt.) Per the terms of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, the United States and the United Kingdom mutually renounced dominion over Central America. In a time before the Pacific Railroad, the United States had a keen interest in ensuring that the easier path between its new conquests on the Pacific coast and the old Union remain free from foreign domination. Mutual renunciation of imperial designs and guarantees of the region’s neutrality meant that neither power would dominate a future canal across it. If neither side exactly won, then they didn’t quite lose either.

So long as both nations held up their end of the deal, that all worked fine. Per Pierce, the British had not. They had a colony in the area, Belize, but the understanding at the time of ratification held that the treaty didn’t involve it. The United Kingdom had previous rights to the area, though Pierce construed those rights as strictly economic. The British could “cut mahogany or dyewoods […] with the positive exclusion of all domain or sovereignty.”

London had done rather more than that:

It, however, became apparent at an early date after entering upon the discharge of my present functions that Great Britain still continued in the exercise or assertion of large authority in all that part of Central America commonly called the Mosquito Coast, and covering the entire length of the State of Nicaragua and a part of Costa Rica; that she regarded the Balize as her absolute domain and was gradually extending its limits at the expense of the State of Honduras, and, that she had formally colonized a considerable insular group known as the Bay Islands, and belonging of right to that State.

Pierce didn’t imagine any of this. The United Kingdom did maintain a protectorate over the Mosquito Coast. For a time, it even occupied Greytown at the eastern terminus of the trans-isthmus route across Nicaragua. Nor did the Court of St. James care to pretend otherwise. Instead, the British argued that they had prior rights to the Mosquito Coast based on treaties with the local Indians. Pierce found the claim preposterous, declaring that “by the public law of Europe and America no possible act of such Indians or their predecessors could confer on Great Britain any political rights.” Only American powers could treat with Indians, and then only so long as they felt like it. Maybe if Britain had cut a deal with the Spanish that would count; the word of a white power to another white power had to mean something. But Indians? Even the British could not muster sufficiently unamerican a character as to treat with them as the equals of whites.

The Bay Islands? Those belonged to Honduras and the British had there “as distinctly colonial governments as those of Jamaica or Canada.” Once more, one can’t argue with Pierce on the facts. The British really had set up a proper colony on the islands. This flew in the face of the nation’s mutually-agreed renunciations all of five years prior. What part of no colonies and no occupation had London failed to understand? That the United Kingdom had chosen to act in such a way and broke faith with the clear provisions of the treaty suggested that it aimed for a revision of the status quo in Central America very much to its favor, and to the detriment of the United States.

Franklin Pierce’s Third Annual Message

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Sorry for yesterday’s tardy post, Gentle Readers. I mistakenly scheduled it for the wrong date entirely.

We left the House of Representatives with a new Speaker. Nathaniel Banks claimed the office with a plurality vote on February 3, 1856, just a day shy of  two months after the 34th Congress opened. The fate of slavery in Kansas had created that struggle to begin with, as northern antislavery reaction had cost the Democracy control of the House and support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act made various candidates entirely unacceptable. Every round of voting occasioned further speeches on the question. While the Speaker’s race wore on in the legislature, the executive made its own statement on the matter.

From the very start of Kansas’ troubles, free state men had expressed their hope that if Franklin Pierce knew what had gone on he would stand with them. It suited their position to say so, as they constantly emphasized that they rejected only the bogus government of Kansas rather than the United States as a whole. They wanted nothing of treason, but rather only their rights as Americans and as promised to them by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Self-preservation and cynical positioning play their role in those declarations, but we should not confuse Franklin Pierce with Jefferson Davis or John C. Calhoun. As a New Hampshire man, his contemporaries might not have expected him to defend every proslavery excess. Furthermore, the border ruffians had sinned against the cardinal tenet of the Democracy: popular sovereignty. As far back as Thomas Jefferson, Democrats (then calling themselves Republicans) had proclaimed themselves the advocates of the common white man against distant and elite authority. Andrew Jackson, who gets the press for doing the same, largely benefited from a well-advanced trend toward greater white male democracy. As a northerner and a Democrat, Pierce must have seemed to some, like his fellow northern Democrats in Kansas, like exactly the man you’d want to sort out the entire Kansas mess.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

So far as official acts go, Franklin Pierce had not given much encouragement to antislavery Kansans. He had fired Andrew Reeder, who demonstrated at least some devotion to genuine popular sovereignty in Kansas. But officially, Pierce dismissed Reeder for land speculations. Even if you didn’t believe that reason, and I doubt many did, at least the president hadn’t called Reeder a damned abolitionist plotting servile insurrection. And the first governor of Kansas had engaged in shady land speculations involving both land reserved for Indian tribes and the United States Army. Pierce had removed a guilty man from office, if not for his actual crimes.

The President had an annual message to give to Congress. We call that a State of the Union today and expect it delivered in person, but at the time they called it an annual message and presidents sent it along in writing. Pierce opened his third on a testy note:

The Constitution of the United States provides that Congress shall assemble annually on the first Monday of December, and it has been usual for the President to make no communication of a public character to the Senate and House of Representatives until advised of their readiness to receive it. I have deferred to this usage until the close of the first month of the session, but my convictions of duty will not permit me longer to postpone the discharge of the obligation enjoined by the Constitution upon the President “to give to the Congress information of the state of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

He waited all month, not sending the message until the last of December. Custom expected Congress to have its House in order, but as that chamber hadn’t done so Franklin Pierce reached the last possible moment to do his duty. Tradition or no, he had a job to do. He assured Congress that “the Republic is tranquilly advancing in a career of prosperity and peace” before progressing to the nation’s troubles, which might imperil said advance of prosperity and peace.