The Prayer of the Lawrence Memorialists

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

On May 22, 1856, J.M. Winchell, Lyman Allen, S.B. Prentiss, L.G. Hine, Joseph Cracklin, John A. Perry, O.E. Learnard, S.W. Eldridge, and C.W. Babcock allegedly put their names to a memorial for Franklin Pierce. William Phillips claimed afterwards that many of the men denied any part of the thing. He might have it right or he might have helped them cover for an understandable, if less than glorious, performance. Either way, someone wrote it and sent it off to the President. The memorial summarizes events in Lawrence over about a dozen pages, with rather less color than Phillips but agreeing in the essential facts.

Petitioners, then as now, don’t write and sign these documents for their health. They hoped for, even if they couldn’t have expected, constructive action from the Pierce administration. With his term almost over, maybe the president would finally give that a try. The “unparalleled chapter in the history of our country,” and attendant “gigantic … official villainy” beggared belief. Thus, while Pierce might take some convincing,

we cherish and trust that you will hear the voice, however feeble, that pours its complaint into your ear, and exert he influence of your office to prevent the possible occurrence of abuses of power on the parts of those officials who are directly responsible to you […] and institute such a scrutiny into their past conduct as will reveal its true character and inspire salutary caution in the future.

They did in all Pierce’s name with “at least a criminal disregard of good faith” that proved them unfit for their offices. He called the shots so he took the blame, though they didn’t phrase it quite that way. Instead, they prayed for Pierce to look into the events of the last few weeks. To help him, they included official correspondence for his perusal. And until the president’s heart swelled like that of a nineteenth century Grinch, Lawrence would maintain its committee of safety. They would, of course, disband as soon as the Government got its act together and made them safe.

The authors then moved to the question of damages. The posse came in on federal authority, under the leadership of either a US Marshal (Donaldson) or a territorial official (Jones) who Pierce and his allies had long construed as federal agents. They may have even had guns from a federal arsenal. Surely Lawrence deserved compensation, which the memorialists reminded Pierce he had the authority to recommend to Congress. He had best hop to it, as

It is at present impossible to estimate this damage, as new depredations are continually being made. How long these will be permitted to continue will depend to a great extent upon the pleasure of our rulers.

By delaying, Pierce would only increase the bill. Already the mob had destroyed hotel, furnishings, two printing presses, and the livelihoods of two newspaper men. For miles around Lawrence, not a soul had escaped losing some property. The president had to make this right: restoring order, damages, and sacking the guilty, immediately. If he didn’t, someone else might try.

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