“We shall have a bloody time out here”

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce called the free state movement revolutionary, tending toward insurrection, and ordered its members to disperse. In the certain event that they would refuse, he placed the Army at the disposal of Kansas’ proslavery government to suppress them. Forget the local militia, or even the Missouri militia, the actual United States Army would ride out of its forts and put an end to Kansans’ experiment in self-government. To oppose them by force would make the free state movement traitors in the eyes of large numbers of Americans. That very fear had helped curb proslavery militancy, if just barely, back in December. Charles Robinson had similar apprehensions, which the presidential proclamation could only rouse from whatever abeyance they might have settled into since the middle of December.

Free state Kansans did not miss Pierce’s meaning. Edward Payson Fitch, a Massachusetts native, had come to Kansas in the third group of New England Emigrant Aid Society settlers. Transcriptions of his letters (PDF) made it into the Spring, 1989 issue of Kansas History, along with an account of his life. Fitch wanted Kansas kept clear of slavery and if he could set up a prosperous farm and get rich on real estate speculations too, so much the better. He came to Lawrence and taught school for a time, invested in land, and partnered with Charles Stearns in the Republican House. That establishment constituted a sod hut with canvas for a roof. You could sleep there for ten cents a day, but it cost fifty more if you wished to eat too.

On February 24, Fitch wrote his parents back in Massachusetts. He had good news to report:

I have been to meeting twice to-day. It is growing warmer and we have meetings more regularly and shall continue to if we are not all killed.

They might all die tomorrow, but at least he got to church. His failure to attend, sometimes for lack of meetings at all and sometimes otherwise, features into prior letters. Fitch looked forward to the meeting of the free state legislature come March, which would put Pierce’s threats to the test. Fitch would turn twenty-three on March 8 and one can read a young man’s bravado into this. But he had put himself in harm’s way to defend Lawrence and the President of the United States really had threatened military force against his party, a fact which he reminded his parents of:

Pierce says we are traitors so of course the Missourians are to put us down but if they try it we shall have a bloody time out here. God Grant that it may be avoided.

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.

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.



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.

The First Congress and the First Slavery Debate

Josiah Parker

Josiah Parker

The Atlantic slave trade usually comes up in American history as a footnote. The slaves came from Africa in miserable conditions. The trade fell into such disrepute that the Founding Fathers prohibited it in the nation’s infancy. The story ends there, though you may hear occasional references to either smugglers continuing the trade or the late antebellum movement to reopen it. As with just about everything, a sea of complications churns just beneath the surface. We neglect them as surplus detail in larger narratives. The action takes places largely away from the United States and before we conventionally begin the story of sectional strife, in an era where we imagine a national consensus against slavery. The story, while not entirely a litany of American sins, frequently demonstrates more national resolution to protect slavery than restrain it.

The Constitution provides that

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

On the face of it this allows Congress to ban the Atlantic slave trade, and any other international trade in people, beginning in 1808. Already we have a problem for a perfectly celebratory history of the United States, as the law does not require such action. The Congress could decline to act and so leave the trade open in perpetuity. It also must permit the importation of slaves until 1808. In that function, the slave trade clause serves as one of the most proslavery passages in the document. Here we have slavery not tolerated or helped indirectly, such as by the apportionment of the Senate or the 3/5 Clause, nor explicitly preserved where it exists and obligating free states to aid in the institution’s preservation as in the Fugitive Slave Clause. Here the Constitution essentially declares an absolute right to import slaves into the United States for a term of no less than twenty years. South Carolina insisted.

That didn’t mean, however, that states could not prohibit the trade. All of them had during the Revolution and most continued to do so. South Carolina opted to reopen its trade in 1803, to considerable national controversy. Before them, Georgia (until 1798) and North Carolina (1790-4) did the same to less outcry. This human cargo might have reached ten thousand per year and dramatically facilitated the spread of plantation agriculture in Georgia and upcountry South Carolina, and reached further into the emerging Cotton Kingdom. Many enslaved people first taken in Charleston ended up in New Orleans.

This all still tells only part of the story. States could, if they so wished, import slaves for a minimum of twenty years. But the federal government had the explicit power to tax those imports at up to ten dollars a person. On Marcy 13, 1789, thirteen days after George Washington took his oath of office, a another Virginian war veteran, Josiah Parker, started the first argument over slavery in the new Congress. Parker presented his plan in an amendment to a tariff. It went simply enough: if Congress had the power to tax slave imports, it ought to do so to the maximum amount allowed. He explained, according to the Annals of Congress:

He was sorry that the constitution prevented Congress from prohibiting the importation altogether; he thought it a defect in that instrument that it allowed of such a practice; it was contrary to the Revolution principles, and ought not to be permitted; but as he could not do all the good he desired, he was willing to do what lay in his power. He hoped such a duty as he moved for would prevent, in some degree, this irrational and inhuman traffic

Parker gathered opposition from both sections. Connecticut’s Roger Sherman, one of the principals behind the Connecticut Compromise that gave us the familiar bicameral congress, declared his support in principle but

could not reconcile himself to the insertion of human beings as an article of duty, among goods, wares, and merchandise.

Others followed Sherman, either for his reasons or otherwise convinced that Parker proposed making a tariff bill into a slavery bill and so ought to instead introduce the matter on its own. James Jackson of Georgia, went further. Of course a Virginian wanted to curb the slave trade. As “an old settled State,” they had slaves to spare. Indeed, the Old Dominion proved

so careless of recruiting her numbers by this means; the natural increase of her imported blacks was sufficient for their purpose

James Jackson

James Jackson

But Georgia, established in the eighteenth century and still very much a frontier, lacked such advantages. Thus, Jackson

thought the gentleman ought to let their neighbors get supplied, before they imposed such a burthen upon the importation.

Jackson also went positively late antebellum in arguing that enslaving Africans improved their condition and free blacks, lazy by nature, because not solid members of the community so much as “common pickpockets, petty larceny villains”. If emancipation really worked so well, why hadn’t Parker’s Virginia tried it? After having thoroughly done so, Jackson insisted

He would say nothing of the partiality of such a tax; it was admitted by the avowed friends of the measure; Georgia, in particular, would be oppressed. On this account, it would be the most odious tax Congress could impose.

Most odious or not, inserting Parker’s tax into the general tariff bill proved a deal breaker. He withdrew the amendment and, as requested, put forward a separate bill. Four months later, the House opted to postpone consideration of it until the next session. Parker’s idea would come back in the future, but never became law.

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.

Blame Andrew Reeder, Part Two

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

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.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

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.

Blame Andrew Reeder, Part One

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

John Hale and Franklin Pierce did not get on. That Pierce had drummed him out of the New Hampshire Democracy can’t have brought the two men together, but come 1856 they had more bad blood between them. In his annual message, Pierce laid into antislavery politicians. Those enemies of the Constitution had done all in their power to wreck the Union, bedeviling a prostrate South that gave up concession after concession incompatible with its honor or status as an equal partner in the American nation. Nothing would please antislavery fanatics, the president said. Hale, an antislavery politician, understood that this all meant him and his. He shot back with an impressive tirade in the Senate, which concluded with his foreboding that in short order a rupture may come. Hale hoped that it could wait until Pierce left office, as a master of the art of capitulation ought not helm the ship of state in such a time. The Senator’s kind words so moved Pierce that, according to James Rawley, turned his back on Hale at a White House reception. Clearly, Pierce had declared for slavery in Kansas.

Things didn’t necessarily look quite so dire in Kansas. From the beginning, free soil Kansans thought they might have a friend in Franklin Pierce. Well-connected men like James Lane told them so. The president hailed from New Hampshire, hardly a hotbed of proslavery sentiment. If he rose up through the Democracy, then that didn’t necessarily bother a majority of antislavery Kansans. Many of them, though certainly not all, leaned democratic. The charitable among them might even dismiss Pierce’s annual message for 1855, delivered on the last day of the year, as directed more at outside politicians than themselves. Yes, Pierce dismissed their concerns as the ordinary imperfections of government and, anyway, not something he could help. Yes, Pierce refused to send the army to protect them from Missouri’s invasions. But if you really wanted to, you could read all of that as indifference or poor information. Nothing the president said, contra Hale, necessitated that he had it in for free state Kansans.

On January 24, nine days after the free state pools opened everywhere save Leavenworth, and exactly a week after Leavenworth’s election belatedly took place in Easton and occasioned the murder of Reese Brown, the president sent a special message to the Congress. The House still didn’t have a Speaker, but Pierce had given up waiting on that fiasco back at the end of December. Why it took him so long to chime in again has puzzled historians. With the exception of the free state elections, nothing all that noteworthy had happened in Kansas since the annual message. Proslavery men killed Reese Brown, but all of a month before that Pierce had stood idly by while actual, if small and makeshift, armies had gathered in the territory and came near to blows. What changed?

In the second volume of his Ordeal of the Union, Allan Nevins suggests that Pierce had a divided Cabinet. The Interior Department leaned as far antislavery as the War Department, under Jefferson Davis, did proslavery. At State, William Marcy refused to give any opinion at all. Bereft of a clear consensus, in an era when presidents often shared more decision-making power with the Cabinet than we might expect, Pierce might have floundered about. Nichole Etcheson speculates that Pierce meant the message to undermine Andrew Reeder. In the endnotes, she also points to Pierce’s biographer, Roy Nichols. Nichols thought that the entire message aimed at swinging southern Know-Nothings into voting for the administration’s man as Speaker of the House. I doubt we’ll ever know.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

But when Pierce did set pen to paper, he displayed made himself very clear: Andrew Reeder, who the free state Kansans had named their delegate to Congress, screwed it all up. He dragged his feet getting to the territory, delaying from the end of June until the beginning of October before setting foot within his new domain. Then he declined to conduct the census that he ought to have begun immediately, delaying the first legislative elections until the end of March as a consequence. Then Reeder took until the start of July to summon the legislature.

So that for a year after the Territory was constituted by the act of Congress and the officers to be appointed by the Federal Executive had been commissioned it was without a complete government, without any legislative authority, without local law, and, of course, without the ordinary guarantees of peace and public order.

I have yet to find a historian who will defend Andrew Reeder’s performance as governor. He appears genuinely unfit for the task, an inexperienced lawyer jumped up to head a territory for the convenience of the Democracy in his part of Pennsylvania. He might have done his very best, but Kansas needed more. And who had put such an incompetent novice in charge of the nation’s newest, and surely most fraught, territory? What kind of fool would look at the obvious challenges facing Kansas and decide to seat an undistinguished lawyer into the governor’s chair?

Franklin Pierce.

Hale vs. Pierce: Scheduling the Civil War

John Hale

John Hale

John Hale, New Hampshire’s free soil senator, castigated Franklin Pierce. That Scourge of God and vulgar demagogue, he told the Senate, impugned the good character of men of such exalted station that the President proved unworthy to tie their shoes. They had stood for a free Kansas, with fair elections. They had avowed the president’s supposed convictions and declared for the Kansans to set the territory’s course. Franklin Pierce had done all in his power to ensure every decision about Kansas’ future fell to armed mobs from Missouri.

Hale made no apology for the harsh words. He would

be restrained by no consideration from speaking what I believe to be the truth.

Lest anybody thought Hale had something nastier to say. The Senator took being called an enemy of the Constitution seriously indeed. Hale also thought the charge absurd, but an absurd charge can still offend. If Pierce wanted to pick a fight over Kansas, then Hale stood ready. He could not imagine a better cause, at least in early 1856. 

In declaring that the battle might begin then and there, on the floor of the Senate, Hale needed only look forward to the most likely of events. Nineteenth century Americans organized territories with the expectation that they would soon seek admission to the Union as states. The free state movement already had a plan to try it. The proslavery side soon would do the same. Thus:

If, by the illegal violence of the men who have gone over into Kansas, and undertaken to establish slavery there, they shall come here and ask for admission into the Union with a slave constitution, and Kansas will be rejected, the President tells us that is the most favorable aspect in which the question can be presented. That will be the issue, and, if it be decided against slavery, we are threatened with civil war.

Hale might sound overheated to us, but the admission of a new state had brought the nation into crisis twice in living memory. His formula of a slave state rejected by Congress recalls the Missouri Controversy, but we could just as easily point to California seeking admission as a free state. The two greatest sectional clashes of the antebellum era to date both began on the same road.

All this bellicosity required disclaimers. Hale didn’t want people to think him a fanatic. He didn’t welcome a civil war, though he confessed that at times he wished one would come to get it all over with. Should the war finally erupt, Hale anticipated it would have one good effect:

it would learn those men who are constantly talking about the dissolution of the Union a lesson which neither they, nor their children’s children, would ever forget.

They learned two lessons, in fact. The nation would not stand for rebellion and would put one down with great force. It would also let them have nearly everything short of slavery if they continued the war by other means for long enough.

Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor

Of course, Franklin Pierce would not make the best wartime president; he made for a nearly catastrophic peacetime president. Better, Hale thought, to wait:

If the attempt at disunion were made wish such a man as General Jackson, or General Taylor in the Presidential chair, and it were repressed promptly, as it would be, people would say “Oh, it was his great military power, his reputation, his popularity which did it.” God knows they could not say it of this President.

The gallery rang with laughter.


Southern History? It’s Complicated.

Gentle Readers, some time back an acquaintance of mine described my abiding interest in southern history. That didn’t sound quite right to me. I spend a fair bit of time studying the American South -mostly the ugly bits I admit- but when I name it for myself, I use “history”. The exact label doesn’t matter that much for my internal monologue, but I do aim for precision when asked by others. Depending on the context, I’ve told people that I study slavery, the nineteenth century, or the Civil War. I have lately moved away from the last one, as if one says one studies a war then one tends to get questions about battlefield tactics or other very explicitly military matters. I don’t object to that kind of question and, if it requires saying, accept that they have an important role in historical inquiry. But they don’t interest me as much as many other questions. None of my standard answers quite satisfy, but they get close enough for most conversations.

I never considered, until the acquaintance suggested it, calling the whole business southern history. I knew the term existed, but hadn’t until then connected it with my own efforts. I still don’t, which probably sounds either silly or thick-witted of me. I don’t spend hours reading books about the lumber industry in Maine, Puritan Massachusetts, or Michigan during the fur trade. The stars of my bookshelves owned people, wanted to, or suffered under the attentions of the previous. Their business most often takes place within the confines of the slave states of 1860, or very closely adjacent and directly connected to slave state concerns. One cannot get much more southern than all that, given how completely slavery marks the South out from the rest of the nation. Where slavery went, the South went. Where white supremacists rode by night, there you find the South. The beating heart of Dixie pulses with the blood of stolen lives.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

If you grew up in the United States, you probably heard some version of that often enough. Study a little and you find Ulrich Bonnell Phillips telling you just the same. Southern history has a central theme: white supremacy. Most Americans from outside the region probably agree. They do things differently down there, if you know what we mean. This all has more than a whiff of the stereotypical crazed relative kept locked in the attic. We have a secret national shame which we dare not acknowledge, even if the whole world knows already.

The more I have thought on this, the more apt that stock character from an age less considerate of the mentally ill has seemed. The good family squirrels away the human disgrace, which cannot bear the light of day. Some people shun society willingly, probably all of us have now and then. But the stock character doesn’t hide up in the attic entirely out of choice. Rather the family put him of her up there, away from prying eyes and so conveniently unacknowledged. We have a perfectly normal, healthy family, and you can’t prove otherwise.

A fair observer of all this might suspect that we have tried too hard to make the case. Crazed relations don’t just fall from the sky; they grew up somewhere. Someone put them in the attic or, in later decades, had them committed. Who else but family? Stock characters don’t go around locking up someone else’s relations to spare them the stigma of mental illness. They do it for themselves. In confining their relatives, they push the whole of the burden on the afflicted. If something went wrong, it went wrong with that person, there. It has nothing to do with us. Look all you will, you will find no hint of strangeness about us.

Stock characters don’t know their genetics or any of the other ways someone can end up ill. They don’t know much history either, except maybe a handed-down story about how now and then you get one of those sorts. But they know, at least implicitly, that if you get too close then the crazy might rub off on you. Often it already has. Our families don’t necessarily define us, but they try awfully hard.

De Tocqueville could sail down the Ohio river and see enslaved dock workers on one side, free on the other, and imagine a vast rift separated them. I wouldn’t try to leap or swim the Ohio myself, and not only because I do better at drowning than floating, but his chasm tells only half the story. The distinctions between North and South deserve consideration, both on their own and as expressions of their principle source: slavery. No one can fairly look at the United States and say they have found uniformity. We really do have different ways of doing things.

De Tocqueville’s Ohio separated the sections, but it also linked them. Farm products from the Midwest flowed down the Ohio to their markets. Southerners from Kentucky, including the Lincolns, moved across the same river to occupy the opposing shore. There they remained a powerful constituency, powerful enough to nearly make Illinois a slave state. They supported northern politicians who tilted South and constituted a significant check on the Republican party’s electoral success. The Grant Not-Yet-Old Party knew it had no hope in the South, so winning the White House required a great deal of support in the border North. Most of the butternut districts might have voted Democrat anyway, but their strength meant that the party needed a candidate with a more moderate reputation than party stalwarts of national standing, like William Henry Seward. The homely guy from Illinois worked out pretty well.

This story doesn’t end in 1860 or 1865. The first Klan, and allied groups, murdered and terrorized their way across the South to fight black equality even in the limited form tolerable to most nineteenth century whites in the North. When black Americans left the region of their birth, as much refugees as immigrants, they came North to cities with factories hungry for labor. Many of the children and grandchildren of idealistic abolitionists, as well as newer white arrivals, didn’t like that one bit and consequently signed on for the second Klan. That national organization had little trouble finding recruits outside the South and for a time controlled the government of Indiana. In many places, near enough every white man joined up. Did all those communities, and the state of Indiana, join the South for a while?

The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement punctuate Southern history. They set the section apart from the rest of the nation. Those things happened down there, involving those people. Then the rest of us knocked some heads together and it all worked out. Integration for everyone. It all sounds plausible enough, if you leave out the rest of the nation. If a generation of civil rights activists suffered losses, many of them tragic, then they had some wins too. When the movement swung north those dried up fast. My own state, Michigan, successfully defended segregation before the Supreme Court. White Bostonians rioted against the possibility of their children sharing a classroom with black children in the 1970s, not the 1850s. By that point, Southerners had done most of their rioting on the subject and restored segregation through private schools. And I don’t see southern states going out of their way to poison majority-black cities.

If we take white supremacy, or even just especially virulent and unrepentant white supremacy, as the defining trait of the South then we have a real problem. We have the South, sure enough, but on a fair examination it might take us a long time to find the North. We might not find it at all. With this in mind, I think that calling the subject Southern history gets close to the truth, but so close that one can miss the forest for all the damned trees in the way. Places outside the South’s traditional bounds do differ, but not nearly so much as those traditional distinctions might lead us to believe. Southern history is American history.