Hale vs. Pierce: Scheduling the Civil War

John Hale

John Hale

John Hale, New Hampshire’s free soil senator, castigated Franklin Pierce. That Scourge of God and vulgar demagogue, he told the Senate, impugned the good character of men of such exalted station that the President proved unworthy to tie their shoes. They had stood for a free Kansas, with fair elections. They had avowed the president’s supposed convictions and declared for the Kansans to set the territory’s course. Franklin Pierce had done all in his power to ensure every decision about Kansas’ future fell to armed mobs from Missouri.

Hale made no apology for the harsh words. He would

be restrained by no consideration from speaking what I believe to be the truth.

Lest anybody thought Hale had something nastier to say. The Senator took being called an enemy of the Constitution seriously indeed. Hale also thought the charge absurd, but an absurd charge can still offend. If Pierce wanted to pick a fight over Kansas, then Hale stood ready. He could not imagine a better cause, at least in early 1856. 

In declaring that the battle might begin then and there, on the floor of the Senate, Hale needed only look forward to the most likely of events. Nineteenth century Americans organized territories with the expectation that they would soon seek admission to the Union as states. The free state movement already had a plan to try it. The proslavery side soon would do the same. Thus:

If, by the illegal violence of the men who have gone over into Kansas, and undertaken to establish slavery there, they shall come here and ask for admission into the Union with a slave constitution, and Kansas will be rejected, the President tells us that is the most favorable aspect in which the question can be presented. That will be the issue, and, if it be decided against slavery, we are threatened with civil war.

Hale might sound overheated to us, but the admission of a new state had brought the nation into crisis twice in living memory. His formula of a slave state rejected by Congress recalls the Missouri Controversy, but we could just as easily point to California seeking admission as a free state. The two greatest sectional clashes of the antebellum era to date both began on the same road.

All this bellicosity required disclaimers. Hale didn’t want people to think him a fanatic. He didn’t welcome a civil war, though he confessed that at times he wished one would come to get it all over with. Should the war finally erupt, Hale anticipated it would have one good effect:

it would learn those men who are constantly talking about the dissolution of the Union a lesson which neither they, nor their children’s children, would ever forget.

They learned two lessons, in fact. The nation would not stand for rebellion and would put one down with great force. It would also let them have nearly everything short of slavery if they continued the war by other means for long enough.

Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor

Of course, Franklin Pierce would not make the best wartime president; he made for a nearly catastrophic peacetime president. Better, Hale thought, to wait:

If the attempt at disunion were made wish such a man as General Jackson, or General Taylor in the Presidential chair, and it were repressed promptly, as it would be, people would say “Oh, it was his great military power, his reputation, his popularity which did it.” God knows they could not say it of this President.

The gallery rang with laughter.

 

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