Franklin Pierce’s Duty

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce decided for thoroughness when he embarked on his quest to blame everyone but himself and other men responsible for Kansas’ plight. Andrew Reeder, a Pierce appointee, did his part. The free state movement did theirs, tending toward insurrection with their wild program to set up an unauthorized state government. If they kept that up, then Pierce told the Congress that he would have to step in. The American system had means of settling disputes; none of them involved starting your own government. If you didn’t believe him, you could ask George III.

Pierce didn’t want to come off entirely as a proslavery partisan, though. He insisted on

the undoubted right of the peaceable and orderly people of the Territory of Kansas to elect their own legislative body, make their own laws, and regulate their own social institutions, without foreign or domestic molestation. Interference on the one hand to procure the abolition or prohibition of slave labor in the Territory has produced mischievous interference on the other for its maintenance or introduction. One wrong begets another.

Pierce had it technically right: antislavery and proslavery politics did feed one another, as any divide on issues does. He neglected, of course, just how Kansas came to have such contentions in the first place. You can point to news of the New England Emigrant Aid Society as fueling the resentment of border ruffians in their blue lodges, and Pierce did, but to stop there required a self-serving, selective memory indeed. Had Pierce, Jefferson Davis, the F Street Mess, Archibald Dixon, Phillip Phillips, and Stephen Douglas not come together to overthrow the Missouri Compromise, Kansas might have remained Indian country or it might, as David Rice Atchison once accepted, have come together as a free territory. The President would have none of that: antislavery Americans from outside Kansas caused all the fuss, end of story.

To whitewash his own party’s sordid recent past, Pierce appealed to the great nineteenth century orthodoxy that geography would save the Union, if only let do its job. Irresponsible agitators thwarted the silent work of climate and soil to settle the issue, taking it upon themselves and so making the future of slavery into an issue that motivated neighboring states to intervene.

All of this poses the question of just what the President intended to do. He hinted at it before, but now declared his aim openly:

it will be my imperative duty to exert the whole power of the Federal Executive to support public order in the Territory; to vindicate its laws, whether Federal or local, against all attempts of organized resistance

Pierce added further boilerplate about baleful “encroachment from without” but given his almost perfect lack of interest in border ruffians, his defense of Kansas’ laws in their unpredecented proslavery impositions, and his regular castigation of antislavery Americans, he clearly meant such encroachment from without and resistance from within as sins of the antislavery side alone.

In taking his stand, Pierce referenced the Wakarusa War. The happy news that the rivers of Kansas did not run red failed to deter him. Things worked out that time, but what about the next?

there is, I regret to say, reason to apprehend that disorders will continue to occur there, with increasing tendency to violence, until some decisive measure be taken to dispose of the question itself which constitutes the inducement or occasion of internal agitation and external interference.

Pierce stood ready to throw all his power against the free state government, but it need not come to that. Better to settle things once and for all by having Kansas speedily come into the Union through regular, lawful means. He called on Congress to pass an enabling act, which would authorize the territorial government to hold the usual convention and draw up a constitution for swift admission. Thus the slavery question would pass completely out of Washington’s hands. That it would ensure slavery remained in Kansas would, of course, delight the most powerful faction of Pierce’s Democracy and frustrate the chief aim of his political opponents.

All that would take time, so in the interim Pierce suggested that Congress vote him the necessary money

to defray any expense which may become requisite in the execution of the laws or the maintenance of public order in the Territory of Kansas.

Pierce didn’t say in as many words that he’d like for Congress to give him the funds to break up the free state movement, arrest its leaders, and decisively hand Kansas over to the South, but few could miss the obvious inference. If the proslavery government established by force and fraud couldn’t keep Kansas sound on the goose, then the United States Army could do the job.

 

 

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