Hale vs. Pierce: Rebuking Franklin Pierce

John Hale

John Hale

In his third annual message, Franklin Pierce castigated antislavery Americans as enemies of the Constitution. Those traitors had brought the Union nigh unto ruin. The sorest of sore winners, they took every concession that the slave states generously gave and called it a proslavery imposition. The fiends had ranted, raved, and aroused the innocent South to the point where, prostrate, she had finally demanded and got well-deserved redress in the repeal of federal restrictions on slavery in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. New Hampshire’s free soil senator, John P. Hale, would have none of that. He tore into Pierce for neglecting Kansas in most of his message, for doing -and when necessary refraining from doing- all he could to ensure slavery spread to Kansas. If any of that made him an enemy of the Constitution, then Hale would take it.

But Hale wouldn’t take it laying down. He would “not have him hurl such an imputation as that unchallenged or unrebuked.” Pierce, Hale declared,

has no right to designate any men who are here under the same oath to support the Constitution which he has taken, as enemies of the Constitution; and when he does it he comes down from the high place which God, in his wrath for the punishment of our national sins, and for the humiliation of our national pride, has permitted him to occupy.

John P. Hale literally called Franklin Pierce the Scourge of God. He described precisely the function of that concept in medieval theology, lacking only to name it. In its day, Christians attached the title to Genghis Khan, the Black Death, and Atilla the Hun. In our more secular time that draws a smile, at least from me, but strip away the theology and Hale anticipated generations of future historians. Pierce occupies a singularly exalted place very near the bottom whenever they sit down to rank presidents. Even given the difficult time, Pierce made a bad show of it. He might have qualified for the worst president ever, but James Buchanan exceeded him and came into office immediately after. Then Andrew Johnson blew all the competition out of the water.

Hale had more than theology to sling at Pierce:

I say he comes down from that high place into the arena of a vulgar demagogue, and strips himself of everything which should clothe with dignity the office of President of the United States. I deny the issue; I hurl it in his face; I tell him, when he undertakes to designate these [antislavery] men as enemies of the Constitution, he bauses and defames men whose shoe-latchets he is unworthy to tie.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Today we would call such behavior un-presidential.  In Hale’s time the standards of decorum ran somewhat more aristocratic. Nineteenth century Americans saw it as vulgar for presidents to campaign on their own behalf. The model candidate ought to stay home, entertain people who called, and refer them to his past record if they wanted to know his position on anything. He had surrogates who would speak and write on his behalf. Now we have presidents who very much do campaign, but by custom the vice-presidential candidate and others still handle the harder partisan attacks most of the time.

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