Atchison on Pierce: A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Five

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Gentle Readers, Atchison previously appeared in this series largely as an actor either on the front lines of the Kansas struggle or not far removed from them. He missed the day to day strife by remaining most of the time at Platte City, but he took an interest in southern militants who came from the east to join his crusade and took a direct hand both times that proslavery armies came to Lawrence. He also served as a promoter for the escapade in his last journey to and from Washington as Missouri’s senator. The return to Kansas meant that his work as a lobbyist took place on pen and paper, but Atchison kept it up. He corresponded with friends, interested parties, and Franklin Pierce.

Atchison’s biographer, William Parrish, has the late senator among others who wrote the President to enlighten him on the perfidy of the Free State Movement. I had suspected such a role for Bourbon Dave, but never had evidence. Parrish’s footnotes provided some. In Holloway’s History of Kansas, the author relates that as of February, 1855,

The Border chiefs did not forget to keep themselves right with the administration at Washington. That was an object of great concern with them. They sent a special messenger to represent Kansas matters to the President and his cabinet.

Holloway declines to give more details or a citation of his own, though that doesn’t set him apart from most nineteenth century historians I’ve read on Kansas matters. He merely points to a Pierce-connected paper repeating the usual claims that the proslavery side did nothing wrong and the antislavery side committed all manner of villainies. (Parrish also cites Roy Nichols’ Pierce biography, pages 443-5. To my regret, I lack a copy.) It appears that, while Pierce would probably have come down hard against the free state side even without the help, he issued his proclamations against the Free State Movement in early 1856 with information on hand from Atchison and other prominent border ruffians.

This all delighted Atchison, who wrote Stephen Douglas on February 28. It transpired that Bourbon Dave had his doubts about the pleasant Mr. Pierce, fearing that the Young Hickory of the Granite Hills would bring a soft touch and pliant will to the White House. Now he saw some much-needed spine in the administration. But Atchison didn’t fall in love like a modern television pundit, taking any trifle as an excuse to wax poetic on a politician’s virtues; he knew about the system from the inside. Pierce’s stand for slavery tipped Atchison in his favor over the other prospect, James Buchanan, but he told Douglas that he, “will not put myself to any extraordinary trouble about either.”

Franklin Pierce

Wilson Shannon went to Washington to consult with the president on Kansas’ troubles, arriving shortly after Pierce issued his second proclamation that so pleased Atchison. He got back, at Pierce’s insistence, in time for the free state legislature convening on March 4. Then Shannon failed to do anything to break up the gathering and Bourbon Dave cooled on the President for it. He wrote an Abel R. Corbin

If the General Government would only leave Kansas to the nurture of the ‘Border Ruffians’ we would soon have peace in that quarter, but as Genl Pierce has taken the matter out of our hands God knows what will come of it. I do not complain of him, but I believe his motives are good, but I doubt his policy.

Political enemies often tar one another in terms that count less for their literal meaning than the dislike expressed. Uncertain allies can receive the same treatment. We should read Atchison in context of that, but also aware that other politicians who worked with Pierce expressed similar concerns. Douglas and the F Street men got the president’s agreement to back the Kansas-Nebraska Act in writing because they feared he would tell them what they wanted to hear and then promptly forget. Contemporaries call the president pleasant with the implication that they didn’t have much nicer to say, particularly about his intellect. Dim bulb or not, I’ve yet to find any historian who holds Pierce in high regard. Most likely his contemporaries had more than political concerns about him.

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