President Pierce Declares War

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce had one job: execute the laws. The fourteenth president took it as seriously indeed, declaring himself powerless to see the law that actual residents of Kansas voted on the territory’s future but entirely capable of defending the territory’s proslavery laws by force. He went so far as to ask Congress for specific appropriations to defray such an expense, in the likely event that he threw the full strength of the presidency and the United States Army behind a government most Kansans considered patently bogus.

I’ve mentioned before that Pierce’s message came at an odd time. The greatest clash between the two parties in Kansas and Missouri had come and gone more than near two months before. The President barely gave it passing mention in his annual message at the end of December. Given he held that message back until the last possible moment while Congress failed to organize, he must have written most of it some time before and thus still closer to the close of the Wakarusa War on December 9. Come late January, he still give the affair only a passing reference. For most of his special message, Pierce inveighed against antislavery Kansans in the customary manner of a functionally proslavery antebellum politician. Agitation on both sides had caused problems and might soon bring the Union to its knees, but antislavery agitation made for the far worse sin.

Given all the previous what did Pierce really mean to accomplish? As I wrote previously, historians differ. The extensive focus on Andrew Reeder has persuaded many that Pierce had an eye toward the ex-governor’s arrival in Washington to claim a seat as Kansas’ delegate to Congress. The free state party elected him in at their polls, while the proslavery men returned John Wilkins Whitfield to the same seat. Given how things had already gone in the race for the Speakership, Pierce had to expect a good fight over that question. By reminding Congress of the first governor of Kansas’ misdeeds, real and imagined, he could made Reeder less appealing to moderate anti-Nebraska men.

Whatever his precise motives, no one had to guess what side Pierce had chosen. But if anybody missed it, Pierce followed up his January 24 special message with a proclamation, dated February 11 and titled Law and Order in the Territory of Kansas. There he President made everything he suggested, hinted at, and foresaw coming official:

I, Franklin Pierce, President of the United States, do issue this my proclamation to command all persons engaged in unlawful combinations against the constituted authority of the Territory of Kansas or of the United States to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes, and to warn all such persons that any attempted insurrection in said Territory or aggressive intrusion into the same will be resisted not only by the employment of the local militia, but also by that of any available forces of the United States

Back in December, Wilson Shannon could not get the Army to answer an invasion of 1500 men from Missouri. Now Franklin Pierce would turn out the military to break up the free state movement, which had failed to invade anywhere. Yes, he says that the Army would also interpose to stop an invasion from Missouri, but Pierce took pains to call out distant states for their “unauthorized intermeddling in the local concerns of the Territory” and his previous statements, many reiterated in the proclamation, made it clear he wouldn’t lift a finger against proslavery Missourians.

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