Revolutionaries and the Do-Nothing President

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce


Gentle Readers, it seems I’ve forgotten to link to Pierce’s special message in the previous posts quoting from and discussing it. I give you now the belated link and my apologies.

Franklin Pierce’s special message of January 24, 1856, moved on from pinning Kansas problems on Andrew Reeder. The governor, one presumes, lacked the experience to shoulder the entire burden by himself and Pierce realized his inadequacy to the task on further examination. The free state movement had to have its fair share. Pierce denounced them as a faction, a fraction of true Kansans entirely unrepresentative of the territory’s general tenor and now embarked on a project “of revolutionary character” to set up their own state government and dare Congress to refuse them admission to the Union.

To back up his conservative wrath at antislavery Kansans, Pierce laid out just how they made themselves into revolutionaries. Their movement rejected the local laws, which made them dangerous. They might soon turn outright traitor, and Pierce drew a line in the sand for them and reminded Kansas’ revolutionaries of the consequences, should they dare it:

It will become treasonable insurrection if it reach the length of organized resistance by force to the fundamental or any other Federal law and to the authority of the General Government. In such an event the path of duty for the Executive is plain. The Constitution requiring him to take care that the laws of the United States be faithfully executed, if they be opposed in the territory of Kansas he may, and should, place at the disposal of the marshal any public force of the United States which appears to be within the jurisdiction, to be used as a portion of the posse comitatus; and if that do not suffice to maintain order, then he may call forth the militia or one or more States for that object, or employ for the same object any part of the land or naval force of the United states.

But what about the Kansas-Nebraska Act? It specified that Kansans should decide for or against slavery in Kansas, not Missourians. Hadn’t their defiance of a federal law reached the point of organized resistance by force? Pierce referenced it in passing, allowing that

if the Territory be invaded by the citizens of other States, whether for the purpose of deciding elections or for any other, and the local authorities find themselves unable to repel or withstand it, they will be entitled to, and upon the fact being fully ascertained they shall most certainly receive, the aid of the General Government.

The President insisted that one must ask. He could not take it on himself

to preserve the purity of elections either in a State or Territory. To do so would be subversive of public freedom.

He has a point, if a narrow one. Should the President take it entirely on himself to police elections with military force, then he draws very near indeed to dictating their outcome. However, he undermines his own argument by saying that he would gladly do so if only the governor -whom he appointed- asked him to. He consciously wrote a blank check to the territory authorities. If they called it an insurrection, he would put the Army in their hands to put it down. In the case of a state with elections so stolen as Kansas’, Pierce essentially promised that he would put down any dissenting voices.

Maybe Andrew Reeder didn’t know enough to ask Pierce, assuming that he made the argument in good faith to begin with. Wilson Shannon knew to ask and sent for the 1st Cavalry repeatedly. It never appeared. Given recent history, one can’t read Pierce pronouncements as disinterested or nearly so neutral as they pretend. The President could grant all the antislavery facts, and came near to doing it. He as much as named their chief grievance. But against it, he declared himself perfectly impotent. Against them, would-be revolutionaries bordering on insurrection, Pierce promised to act far more decisively.


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