Blame the Free State Men

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce kept up his indictment of Andrew Reeder, delving into the legal technicalities related to the location of the capital of Kansas. I will spare you a repeated account of that tedious dispute. Suffice it to say that Pierce did not think Reeder acted properly in the slightest. The President’s wrath fully vented on the governor he shoes for Kansas, Pierce found another guilty party on whom to lay Kansas’ troubles: the free state movement.

Claiming the legal government of Kansas’ illegitimacy arose from its relocation away from Pawnee, a position actually held by precious few Kansans save Andrew Reeder, Pierce told the Congress that Kansans elected a legal delegate to Congress, John Whitfield on his second term, then other Kansans illegally elected another, Andrew Reeder. Pierce considered that “the first great movement in disregard of law within the Territory.” Given that the free state movement hadn’t run any elections of their own before Reeder’s, he might have a point. To grant it would only require us to ignore the repeated invasions from Missouri. Pierce knew about them well enough, but as usual dismissed proslavery extremism as either unimportant or justified.

To follow up that bit of lawlessness, Pierce named

another and more important one of the same general character. Persons confessedly not constituting the body politic or all the inhabitants, but merely a party of the inhabitants, and without law, have undertaken to summon a convention for the purpose of transforming the Territory into a State, and have framed a constitution, adopted it, and under it elected a governor and other officers and a Representative to Congress.

In their defense, the free state movement cited California, Michigan, and other states formed without the permission of Congress. Pierce granted the facts. The usual procedure that the Congress passed a territorial organic act, like the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and then would some time later pass an enabling act authorizing a state constitutional convention preparatory to admission to the Union, amounted to a custom rather than a strict requirement. However, it remained with Congress to approve or deny admission “in its discretion.” Furthermore:

in no instance has a State been admitted upon the application of persons acting against authorities duly constituted by act of Congress. In every case it is the people of the Territory, not a party among them, who have the power to form a constitution and ask for admission as a state. No principle of public law, nor practice or precedent under the Constitution of the United States, no rule of reason, right, or common sense, confers any such power as that now claimed by a mere party in the Territory. In fact what has been done is of revolutionary character.

John Wilkins Whitfield

John Wilkins Whitfield

Pierce might have technical points here, but plenty of people in Kansas would disagree with him about just how many of them the free state movement represented. It didn’t cover everybody, but then neither would any ordinary constitutional convention have done so. Someone loses every election and people of all stripes will naturally write constitutions suited to their particular values which, as a necessary consequence, prove hostile to the contrary values of others.

That said, boycotting elections, or holding illegal ones, did change the equation somewhat from the usual. If the losing party in elections for a state convention opted to throw its own, one might understandably look askance at them. In democracies, the people rule and express their wishes through elections. To disregard them on the simple grounds that one lost demonstrates that one doesn’t believe in democracy at all, but rather something more on the lines of “I win, you lose”-ocracy. Things in Kansas, however, had gone so out of the ordinary that it turned things on their head. The people of Kansas had precious little chance to have their voices heard, thanks to Missouri’s repeated interventions in slavery’s defense. Rather in their case, the presumptive, and eventually actual, losers of the elections had their way instead.

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