Gentle Readers, yesterday’s post previously went out titled “Blame Andrew Reeder’s Fault.” Sometimes when one writes on less sleep than one would like, one forgets to edit in mid-line. I opted to finish the job late rather than never.
Anyway, Franklin Pierce started his special Kansas message by blaming the territory’s many troubles on its first governor, Andrew Horatio Reeder. A neophyte very much in over his head, Reeder’s tenure in office did little to ease tensions and, at least arguably, helped exacerbate them. He proved just active enough to order replacement legislative elections for some of Kansas most compromised districts, but not all of them despite clear evidence of territory-wide fraud. That he announced the decision while under armed guard says something about where his circumspection came from. By leaving the legislature firmly in control of the proslavery party, he also ensured that they would soon undo the little good he had done in the name of electoral integrity.
Pierce knew all of that, but he found in it no particular cause to blame Reeder. The President insisted that everybody claimed illegal voting took place, which the did. Reeder’s setting aside of some elections and accepting others indicated that most elections proved sound enough and the legislative assembly so constituted withstood scrutiny. That the Assembly felt otherwise and purged antislavery members in short order didn’t really matter:
by the parliamentary usage of the country applied to the organic law it may be conceded that each house of the assembly must have been competent to determine in the last resort the qualifications and the election of its members. The subject was by its nature one appertaining exclusively to the jurisdiction of the local authorities of the Territory. Whatever irregularities may have occurred in the elections, it seems too late now to raise that question. At all events, it is a question as to which, neither now nor at any previous time, has the least possible legal authority been possessed by the President of the United States. For all present purposes the legislative body thus constituted and elected was the legitimate legislative assembly of the Territory.
Reeder might have done better, but he didn’t. Fraud may have occurred, but stuff happens. At any rate, Americans agreed back in the powdered wig and knee breeches days that legislatures judged the credentials of their own members. Pierce, advancing his theory of presidential impotence again, said he could do nothing about it even in the unlikely event that someone ought to. No one had done wrong worth mentioning or, if they had done wrong after all, in anyone’s power to remedy.
Instead, Pierce hammered Reeder further on his dilatory inclinations. It did not suffice to damn him for taking months to arrive in Kansas. The president pointed to the smoothly fraudulent election of Kansas first territorial delegate back in November of 1854. Nobody complained then, right? Clearly, had Reeder gotten the lead out and conducted a census, set up full elections, and completely established the territorial government then and there all would have gone well. This also would have meant Reeder capitulating to the demands, sometimes backed with deadly threats, of the local proslavery men. According to Pierce, that would have forestalled interference by people from other states. People from Missouri, who crossed the line needlessly to ensure that John Whitfield became their delegate, didn’t count. By delaying, Andrew Reeder had invited “pernicious” antislavery agitators to bring their “misdirected zeal” to Kansas.
And why had Reeder delayed? Pierce appointed him, so he must have appreciated that simply calling Reeder unfit for his office would prove inconvenient. Rather
the governor, instead of exercising constant vigilance and putting forth all his energies to prevent or counteract the tendencies to illegality which are prone to exist in all imperfectly organized and newly associated communities, allowed his attention to be diverted from official obligations by other objects, and set himself an example of the violation of law in the performance of acts which rendered it my duty in the sequel to remove him from the office of chief executive magistrate of the Territory.
Easton, Pennsylvania’s favorite son neglected his duties in favor of getting rich on illegal land speculation. As everybody knew at the time, you abused your office to get rich whilst carrying out your duties, not in lieu of them. That Reeder had good reasons to delay, including the coming winter, and the territory’s then-small population, just didn’t matter. One can’t read Pierce and not get the sense that he thought Reeder should have immediately found the proslavery leaders on the ground and pledged himself to their cause. Wilson Shannon, a far more experienced and astute politician, certainly got that message.