Higher Law and Disunion: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Eight

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Andrew Butler, former messmate of David Rice Atchison, told the Senate that all his hopes lay with Franklin Pierce. It fell to the President to step in with the military, disperse the free state government, and so prevent civil war. A cynical person might argue that relying on Franklin Pierce to do the right thing amounted to admission of defeat. Butler might agree. He didn’t want shots fired in Kansas because he knew “one drop of blood” would likely end the Union, but in saying so he returned to an earlier theme:

I have such confidence in the good sense of the country that I believe republican institutions might survive the present Union. Really it is broken already; for the spirit which cherished it has been extinguished, and the very altars upon which we ought to worship have been profaned by false fires.

Here Butler anticipates Lincoln’s mystic chords of memory and recalls Calhoun’s cut ties of Union. He rightly sees the nation as a thing that can only last so long as belief in it. Like many Americans in both sections, he now looked at a series of broken promises, violated understandings and rounds of mutual recrimination that pushed him toward the conclusion that the Union did not deserve saving. Back in the day, men had

a hardy morality, which dealt with events as they were. They had a wisdom which knew how to accommodate itself to circumstances, and did not lift themselves so high that they saw more than others, and sought ethereal regions because the earth was too good for them.

In other words, those Higher Law people could shove it. The framers, pragmatists to a man, saw and accepted slavery. They made no great effort to change or challenge it, but rather conformed themselves to its particular demands for security. Generations of later scholars would disagree, but the tide of research has gone against them. Butler doubtless ascribed to the framers any number of novel constitutional doctrines they wouldn’t recognize or would find dubious, but the general thrust of his argument holds. Even the most sympathetic scholars admit that the famous framers antislavery credentials rest more on intention than action.

Franklin Pierce

Of course, Franklin Pierce had delivered for slavery before, doing much to start the entire Kansas mess. He could do it again. Should the President feel so inclined, Butler had advice for him. In his place, Butler

would serve a warrant on Sharpe’s rifles, and if Sharpe’s rifles did not answer the summons, and come into court on a day certain, or if they resisted the sheriff, I would summon the posse comitatus, and I would have Colonel Sumner’s regiment to be part of that posse comitatus.

Gentle Readers, I am not a lawyer. I can’t tell you if Butler here means to use one of the odd legal fictions where the common law treats property as persons or if he just chose a clever turn of phrase. Either way, he means to send the 1st Cavalry to disarm the free state movement. This would prompt “reflection” amongst the antislavery enthusiasts. Butler didn’t say just what they would reflect on, but one imagines he meant them to consider how easily an unarmed man can get himself shot dead. That in mind, they would “give over their delusions.” If Pierce couldn’t do that, then Butler recommended his state

Go out of the Union, and make arrangements with others to form such a government as you can live in with honor and dignity.

 

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