Hale vs. Pierce: Enemies of the Constitution

John Hale

John P. Hale

We left John P. Hale taking his own swipes at Franklin Pierce’s theory of presidential impotence. The president could do nothing, Hale, affirmed, except when doing something would serve to expand slavery. Andrew Jackson, the hero of all good Democrats and a fair number of former Democrats of Hale’s stripe, would never have stood by and proclaimed his hands tied or let proslavery radicals contravene the rights of white men. That Jackson did precisely that in letting southern postmasters censor the mail did not detract from his image as a president of vigorous, decisive action.

Hale then expressed his low estimation of Wilson Shannon’s political future. Though Shannon “went shouting over the plains as he went, that he was for slavery in Kansas” he found himself caught between North and South. Hale expected Shannon to find no one in the Senate who would come to his aid when his administration collapsed.

That brought Hale, with some parting disdain at the way Pierce reduced Kansas to a footnote in his annual message, to the president’s “long lecture upon slavery.” There,

The President of the United States in the paper which he sent here a few days ago, takes the ground that the gentlemen who do not agree with him in his peculiar notions are the enemies of the Constitution. He so puts it, for he says:

“If the friends of the Constitution are to have another struggle, its enemies could not present a more acceptable issue than that of a State, whose Constitution clearly embraces ‘a republican form of government,’ being excluded from the Union because its domestic institutions may not in all respects comport with the ideas of what is wise and expedient entertained in some other State.”

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Hale read Pierce fairly. The President attacked the very idea of the Missouri Compromise, or any other restriction on slavery imposed from Washington. He staked out the position that slavery could have no limits. The people of a territory must accept its import from elsewhere. They could not ban it until, after enslavers had time to dominated the territorial government and thoroughly ensconce human bondage in the area, the territory became a state. When had such a situation ever led to a free state? In an earlier time, states with marginal slavery systems had emancipated after often considerable struggle and through an often decades-long process, but the club of territories left open to slavery by Congress which then abolished it had, then and now, no members. Pierce didn’t quite say slavery everywhere, slavery forever, but he came close. Then he proclaimed it the single orthodox reading of the American Constitution, from which one could not dissent.

Hale would have none of that. He called it “an insult to the majority of this nation.” Pierce had to know as much, “if he reads anything beyond the most servile sheets that his creatures send to him.” Hale might have added that Pierce could know it through the majority in New Hampshire that put John Hale into the Senate. Yet Pierce added “one half of the popular branch of Congress, and quite a number of the members of the Senate” to the nation’s enemies list.

Though insulted, Hale refused to take the hint and quiet himself. If Pierce declared him a foe of the Constitution, alias a traitor, then

I say the President can do me no sort of harm by such denunciations as this. I am perfectly willing to take it

Hale could afford to take it; he had plenty of company.

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