Hale vs. Pierce: Proslavery Interpositions

John Hale

John Hale

Senator John Hale of New Hampshire would have none of Franklin Pierce’s gab about Central America. Americans, he told the Senate, could not work up much interest for the dispute between the United Kingdom and the United States over the region’s agreed-upon neutrality and a possible future canal. Whether the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty referred to prospective renunciations of interest in the event of a canal’s construction or immediate surrenders meant little to them. They spent 1855 occupied with Kansas, not filibuster-bedeviled lands to the south.

On that matter, Hale quoted Pierce’s annual message:

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

Franklin Pierce must not have read the papers, or dispatches from the governor he appointed. But his enemy from their days in the New Hampshire democracy did not settle for a pretense of ignorance. Per Hale,

the interposition of the Federal Executive has been there, and it has been on the side of those very acts of violence. Sir, the people of Kansas have had to protect themselves against mob law, instigated by the President and sustained by his officials there. When he says there has been nothing to “justify” official interposition, I admit it is true that there was nothing to justify it; but the interposition was there, whether justified or not.

From our remove, we can say that Jefferson Davis, the F Street Mess, and Stephen Douglas pressured Franklin Pierce into signing off on repealing the Missouri Compromise. They gained his support by promising they would also get that of Secretary of State Marcy before going public, then broke their word by calling on the Secretary, finding him absent, and considered that as good as approval. Pierce didn’t choose any of this on his own, but choose it he did.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Given the chance to do right by Kansas and popular sovereignty, the President gave the territory a largely proslavery government through his appointments, led by a political novice dispatched for patronage purposes. When that governor, Andrew Reeder, exhibited even minimal deference to the idea that Kansans ought to decide for Kansas, rather than invading Missourian hooligans, Pierce found an excuse to fire him. His replacement introduced himself to the territory, from Missouri, with a full-bore endorsement of the border ruffians’ gains.

He [Pierce] goes on to say that the people of Kansas must be protected. Well, Sir, they will be protected; but they have not had protection from the President of the United States. Do you not know, Sir, does the Senate know, and does the country not know, that Governor Reeder came home and proclaimed in the ears of the President that Kansas was a conquered country? And what did he do? The Governor told him that Kansas was conquered. What do you suppose Gen. Jackson would have done, if one of his Governors had come to Washington and said, “General, that Territory which you sent me to govern has been conquered.”

The invocation of Jackson must have had special salience, given Jackson’s party had expelled Hale from its ranks. Andrew Jackson, of course, would have made a fight of it. He probably would have tried for genocide against any Indians he found, fought some duels, and executed some British subjects as well. Old Hickory rolled that way. The Young Hickory of the Granite Hills? Not so much. Only furthering the expansion of slavery could stir him to decisive action.

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