Was Lincoln A Third Party Candidate?

LincolnGentle Readers, I don’t intend today’s post as a commentary on the election come Tuesday. Anybody who reads me for any length of time can figure out who I think you should also support. But I do hope you vote, even if you vote differently. Refraining from exercising your franchise does not make you innocent of any consequences, upon yourself or others. When one doesn’t act to stop something, one has acquiesced in its happening. That’s true no matter how you would cast your ballot.

That said, you often hear that Lincoln ran as a third party candidate or that the Republicans constitute the nation’s only successful third party. These two claims rely on largely the same facts, so I shall treat them together.

When we refer to a third party, we mean a party beyond the big two of the Democrats and Republicans. Every other party counts as a third and just which of the big two holds the top spot can vary from cycle to cycle. The same definition would hold for the nineteenth century, which had its own plethora of small political movements. Lincoln and his generation came of age during the Second Party System, which pitted the Democrats against the Whigs. Most of the time, the Democrats had the upper hand and the Whigs had a remarkably poor run of luck with their presidential candidates. They elected two presidents, both of whom died in office and thus gave way to a vice-president of rather different ideological cast.

Knowing about the Democrats and the Whigs, and knowing Lincoln and many other Republicans as former Whigs, we might assume we have found a third party movement. A closer look reveals something different. The Whig coalition collapses over the course of the early 1850s. They elected a president, Zachary Taylor, in 1848. They tried to elect another, Winfield Scott, in 1852. Come 1856, no one runs for the White House on the Whig ticket.

The end of a movement always involves endless complexities and we can find old school Whigs holding on or trying to revive conservative Whiggery (by no means the only form) in various ways up through 1860. The Republicans themselves thought they had a chance at it during Reconstruction. But as a practical matter, the national party dies at some point between 1854 and 1856. Slavery in the territories killed it. The prolonged crisis over slavery in the Mexican Cession demonstrated to the Lower South that Southern Whigs could not control or restrain their antislavery counterparts in the North, gravely wounding a party that already had a northward tilt. The Kansas-Nebraska Act extended the process to the Upper South, if not quite so completely, and produced the nation’s first lasting and avowedly antislavery party: the Republicans.

The process by which that party came together involves quite a bit more than old Whigs just changing names. Former Democrats came over into the party, as did many supporters of the much more fringe Liberty Party. Together with northern Whigs, generally but not always those more to the left than the rest, they created a party which had plenty of Whiggery in it but also important infusions of Democratic antislavery thought. In the South, most ex-Whigs either quit politics or went into the Democracy, Alexander Stephens’ path, or joined with more conservative Whigs in the Know-Nothing movement in the middle years of the decade. Northern Know-Nothings usually ended up Republicans a bit further down the line. During the transition, a confusing morass of political labels abounded and it seemed for a time that the Know-Nothings might take the Whigs’ place as the nation’s second party. In the end, antislavery proved a more potent platform than nativism.

That leaves us with the Republicans, arguably as of 1856 and definitely by 1860, at least the nation’s second party. That they formed out of fragments of prior coalitions doesn’t materially change that. The GOP contended with the Democrats for control of the nation’s course, possessing as they did sufficient influence to shoulder aside and consign other competitors to marginal status, precisely as the principals in a two-party system do.

Of course, none of those means we should overlook the complexity of the 1860 election. Four men won electoral votes in that race, or rather two each won votes in two parallel races. In the free states, Lincoln faced off against Stephen Douglas of the northern Democracy. In the slave states, where for the most part Lincoln didn’t even appear on the ballot, John C. Breckinridge competed against John Bell of the Constitutional Union party. If one wants to find third party candidates in the race, then all three of Lincoln’s opponents have a case for them.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas went to the Democratic National Convention at Charleston, South Carolina as the favorite for the nomination. However, he had turned against the proslavery government in Kansas and split from the national party over the issue. In order to prove his bona fides, southern delegates wanted Douglas to sign on to a slave code for the territories. Douglas refused and they walked out. Attempts to get the southerners back into the room failed, which eventually left a rump to nominate Douglas as arguably the regular Democratic candidate. His supporters didn’t walk out, after all. Douglas came in dead last in the electoral vote, winning only Missouri and part of New Jersey’s slate, a decidedly third party sort of performance. But Douglas did represent the ordinary Democracy and garnered second in the popular vote.

John C. Breckinridge

John C. Breckinridge

The Democrats who seceded from the party, most of them soon to secede from the Union too, nominated John C. Breckinridge. As a splinter of a still-extant party, Breckinridge’s looks like a third party movement. He came in third in the popular vote, but second in the electoral college. However, Breckinridge also represents the long-dominant constituency within the Democracy. If Douglas came to the polls at the head of the institutionally regular Democracy, then Breckinridge represented the beating heart of the coalition: Southerners committed to slavery’s perpetuation and expansion.

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell

Which leaves us with John Bell. Bell, like Lincoln, hailed from the Whig Party back in the day. His Constitutional Union party aimed to revitalize conservative Whiggery and its platform as an alternative to the slavery question, containing and frustrating agitation on, and functionally against, the issue through a kind of revitalized Second Party System. Bell won his own Tennessee, as well as Virginia and Kentucky. Both of the latter had long Whiggish associations. While Bell would surely have liked to see a president in the mirror come March of 1861, the realistic hope of his movement involved denying both Lincoln and Breckinridge an electoral college majority. That would have thrown the presidency into the House, where his candidacy might seem like the best compromise to keep the Union together by the skin of its teeth rather than burst it asunder. If we consider third parties oriented around disruption of the dominant political system and aimed at reorienting it from its dominant issues, Bell makes the best third party candidate in the race.

Abraham Lincoln ran as and considered himself a Whig until the Whigs expired. He then made himself a Republican and remained with the party until Ford’s Theater. In both cases, he consciously chose a position as a regular, loyal party man for one of the two dominant parties of the era. Of all the men who sought the nation’s highest office in 1860, Lincoln deserves the third party title least of all. If a third party designation means anything useful at all and we care about understanding the past through it, then it must mean the opposite of Lincoln.

Editing, Liars, and Almost a Duel: The Free State Memorial to Congress, Part Two

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

James Lane came to Congress in April of 1856 with a memorial in hand from the Topeka legislature. It explained that repeated abuses and usurpations of the rights of white men to set their own institutions, rights promised to them by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, had driven the free state men to the extremity of setting up their own state government. The Congress ought to see foot to admit that government to the Union as the sole, legitimate government of Kansas.

Nobody could have expected this to go well, but a shift of just a few senators might have sufficed to get something done. The Congress already had Kansas settlements under discussion, a topic which I plan to return to in future posts. Michigan’s Lewis Cass, the original popular soveriegnty booster, presented Lane’s memorial to the Senate on April 7. Antislavery Kansans might have hoped for a warm reception from Stephen Douglas, who Lane knew from back in the day and on whose popular sovereignty ground the free state movement made its stand.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

The Little Giant would have none of that. He looked over the memorial and called out some curious traits. Someone had crossed out passages and written in others, hardly the mark of a fine state paper suited for a grave situation. Maybe your high school English teacher would let that slide in moderation, but the United States Senate had to wonder if the men who put their names on the memorial had seen the final version. Did someone collect the signatures and then alter the text? Had someone (read: Lane) edited things after the fact to make the memorial a better fit for the political circumstances in Washington? For that matter, why did all the signatures appear in the same handwriting? Just what was James Lane trying to pull?

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass

Douglas laid out the faults and decided that Lane had come to the Senate with an amateurish fraud. Lane explained that the alterations happened with the approval of Governor Robinson, and the handwriting came from simple re-copying because the original signature page had gone missing. Everybody really signed it; trust him. To prove the point, Lane took an oath administered by a justice of the Supreme Court that he transmitted to the Congress a genuine memorial.

Stephen Douglas called Lane a liar. Lane demanded satisfaction on the field of honor. Douglas wrapped himself in senatorial privilege and refused Lane’s challenge. Lane accepted the refusal in ill grace, implying that Douglas really refused on grounds of cowardice. Few found Lane’s oath or his challenge persuasive. The Senate rejected the Topeka memorial on a party line vote.

The Plantation at the Polls

Gentle Readers, if you go around the right parts of the internet you will very quickly learn that the Democratic Party today is a thoroughgoing anti-black organization. As a large, old American institution traditionally dominated by white Americans, the probability of that may approach one more closely than mathematics can describe. This could make for a great opportunity to look into the ubiquity of white supremacy in American life. If that happened with any regularity, I would have to write about something else. Rather one sees the accusation levied as part of a decidedly odd line of partisan attack. Black Americans have voted Democratic in presidential elections in very large numbers for as far back as I can find polling data.

That data counts all “Nonwhite” Americans together for some time and so we should keep in mind that it doesn’t cover only black Americans, but it certainly includes them. They gave Adlai Stephenson 79% of their vote back in 1952. They preferred Kennedy to Nixon 68-32% in 1960. They turned out to the tune of 94% for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Eight-four percent of non-whites supported Hubert Humphrey in 1968. George McGovern won 87% of them over in 1972. The pattern continues. Come 2000, Gallup breaks the category down better and we learn that 95% of African-Americans supported Al Gore. Everybody who follows American politics at all knows this. It begs for an explanation.

It stands to reason that people of all colors and creeds don’t neatly settle in with one major party or the other. One would expect to find liberals, conservatives, and moderates in similar proportions in every demographic. Likewise, it would stand to reason that for historical reasons you may see some clustering one way or another. But cultural inertia seems very inadequate to explain why such vast majorities of African-Americans in particular and non-whites in general prefer Democratic presidents. Nor would it account for how black Americans voted quite enthusiastically for Republican candidates for as long as they could vote back in the later nineteenth century. How can we explain these numbers?

Call me reductive, but I operate under the theory that voters know their own business. They consult their knowledge, their personal experience, and their values. These lead them to make the choices they do in the voting booth. They might not make the same choices we think we would make in their position, but we make those judgments out of our own values, not theirs. We should not go about assuming the world full of nothing more than confused clones of ourselves that need setting right, unless we aspire to a singularly pathological species of narcissism. Thus I believe that people who vote differently from myself have made conscious decisions, to the best of an ability equal to my own, in accord with their genuine and most important interests. If we disagree, then we do so out of real difference.

This does not paint a very pretty picture of the voting public. For American minorities to vote so heavily Democratic means they understand the party at at least the lesser of two evils, the one likely to mistreat them less and do more of the things they would like to see done. I know this sounds partisan of me. I vote Democrat, so of course I want to believe awful things about the Republicans. But I know how the Republican party, the party of Lincoln, lost my vote. If I tell people that I disagree profoundly with their policies, then few people will doubt it. I have that privilege written right on my skin. I, a white man, deserve serious consideration as a thinker. I can consult my own interest and make informed decisions. My alignment doesn’t require a special explanation.

My fellow white Americans don’t seem near so eager to accept that premise when someone else asserts it. Go back to those aforesaid corners of the internet and you will learn that the Democrats have duped black Americans in particular, and minority Americans in general. The party hates them and has it out for them, but has so brainwashed them that they refuse to leave “the plantation.” This only makes sense two ways. Firstly, the Democrats have a peerless propaganda operation that can control the minds of literally millions of people at a time and get them all to act against what they understand as their best interests, year after year for decades on end. Does that sound like any Democratic party you’ve ever heard of? If it wielded that kind of power, then how have those donkey-headed wizards managed to lose so many elections?

This leaves us with door number two: minorities are too stupid to know what to do with themselves. They, as profound inferiors, require the guiding hand of a white man to set them right. They can’t possibly possess agency of their own.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

I wrote “the plantation” two paragraphs back because I’ve seen the metaphor used exactly that way more times than I care to count. It tells us more about the speaker than that they’ve heard of the nineteenth century. The idea that black Americans in particular just don’t know and can’t know how to govern themselves, but remain content to let whites govern them right down to whipping, rape, and innumerable mutilations of body, family, and life, has the best of nineteenth century pedigrees; it comes right out of proslavery literature. There the enslavers tell us, chapter and verse, that no slave would run or resist, save from madness, unless “enticed” or “corrupted” by meddling whites. Take it from Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow’s Negro-Slavery, No Evil:

There were among us, too, a large number of free negroes, most of them, as usual, of bad character; their houses, the natural places of resort for abolitionists, at which to meet, and tamper with slaves, corrupt them, entice them to run away, and furnish them with facilities for escape.

I submit that black Americans and other minorities do not require liberation from the plantation the way that these sorts would have us believe. The only people who require corruption and enticement to depart it invented the metaphor. They, not the ancestors of slaves, refuse to depart the nineteenth century. But I grant them the courtesy they deny to others. I do not consider them dupes or fools. They know their interests, as whites, and vote to prosecute them to the fullest extent every time they go to the polls. If that comes at the cost of lives ruined and futures lost, then we shouldn’t view that as an accident any more than we should when we look at programs cherished by American leftists and see how they have systematically left black Americans out, or left them with mere scraps of what whites profited from. These things don’t just happen; we choose to make them happen.

Republicanism in Kansas, and in Jim Lane

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Charles Stearns wanted everybody to know that they should disregard the supposed Anti-Abolition free state ticket in the January elections. Its advocates used to be for abolition, but changed their minds and swung right. He left it to implication that they did so for base and venal reasons. But in swinging right to oppose the main free state slate, the Anti-Abolition men went further. Their opposition, after all, included a heterodox collection of National Democrats, Whigs, Republicans, National Sovereignty, and Squatter Sovereignty types. They hailed from states North and South. They had voted to keep free blacks as well as slaves out of Kansas. Little united them save their opposition to slavery in Kansas, and even that common cause rested on a tangle of meaningful contradictions. Most notably, while many free state men opposed slavery itself, others would have accepted it if only Kansans had the chance to settle the issue for themselves and only crossed over after repeated Missouri-based interventions.

The platform of the other dissenting free state ticket, Young America, appear even more opaque. They wanted the same men to hold the same offices as the free state convention had agreed to, but with two revisions. While both tickets insisted that some men they aimed to replace had withdrawn fro the election, the Young Americans particularly stressed it. Their name suggests a strong Democratic alignment, which their contemporaries could not have missed. Young America, in the middle nineteenth century, stood for an aggressive, expansionist United States. The nation might spread through wars or the exploits of filibusters like William Walker and John A. Quitman, but it would expand and so bring freedom to a waiting world.

If the Young Americans had a point beyond that their men wanted offices badly enough to split from the free state party to do it, then they might have seen the groundwork laid for a development unfolding very before after the January 15, 1856 election that rejected their nominees. George Brown’s Herald of Freedom for January 19, reports that on Saturday last (January 12, the date of his previous edition)

The great Republican party of the North, whose battle cry is “No more Slave States,” with whose political success the material welfare of Kansas and all our hopes for an immediate admission are inseparably united, was organized in this city […] at a large and enthusiastic mass meeting

This did represent a change from past the past strategy of claiming no party but antislavery for Kansas, but it can’t have surprised many. Prominent free state leaders had identified with the Republicans for some time, if by no means all of them, and the GOP had taken in dissenting Democrats. That didn’t mean they forgot their old politics on issues aside slavery, but by the start of 1856 they had to know that a place existed for them in the new coalition. The party of no new slave states and the party of no slave state of Kansas would naturally run together.

Brown notes the platform emphatically endorsed Congress’ power over slavery in the territories. James Lane, among others, endorsed it. These men

all National democrats-endorsed the platform as reported, and thus repudiated Squatter Sovereignty the cardinal doctrine of the “National” Democracy! -Kansas evidently is a healthy climate for the mind as well as body!

Brown used the occasion to remind his readers of Lane’s dubious history. He came to Kansas after having voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Once there, he tried to set up a Kansas Democracy. By accepting the creed of congressional power to decided slavery for the territories, he had come a long way indeed.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

Hale vs. Pierce: Rebuking Franklin Pierce

John Hale

John Hale

In his third annual message, Franklin Pierce castigated antislavery Americans as enemies of the Constitution. Those traitors had brought the Union nigh unto ruin. The sorest of sore winners, they took every concession that the slave states generously gave and called it a proslavery imposition. The fiends had ranted, raved, and aroused the innocent South to the point where, prostrate, she had finally demanded and got well-deserved redress in the repeal of federal restrictions on slavery in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. New Hampshire’s free soil senator, John P. Hale, would have none of that. He tore into Pierce for neglecting Kansas in most of his message, for doing -and when necessary refraining from doing- all he could to ensure slavery spread to Kansas. If any of that made him an enemy of the Constitution, then Hale would take it.

But Hale wouldn’t take it laying down. He would “not have him hurl such an imputation as that unchallenged or unrebuked.” Pierce, Hale declared,

has no right to designate any men who are here under the same oath to support the Constitution which he has taken, as enemies of the Constitution; and when he does it he comes down from the high place which God, in his wrath for the punishment of our national sins, and for the humiliation of our national pride, has permitted him to occupy.

John P. Hale literally called Franklin Pierce the Scourge of God. He described precisely the function of that concept in medieval theology, lacking only to name it. In its day, Christians attached the title to Genghis Khan, the Black Death, and Atilla the Hun. In our more secular time that draws a smile, at least from me, but strip away the theology and Hale anticipated generations of future historians. Pierce occupies a singularly exalted place very near the bottom whenever they sit down to rank presidents. Even given the difficult time, Pierce made a bad show of it. He might have qualified for the worst president ever, but James Buchanan exceeded him and came into office immediately after. Then Andrew Johnson blew all the competition out of the water.

Hale had more than theology to sling at Pierce:

I say he comes down from that high place into the arena of a vulgar demagogue, and strips himself of everything which should clothe with dignity the office of President of the United States. I deny the issue; I hurl it in his face; I tell him, when he undertakes to designate these [antislavery] men as enemies of the Constitution, he bauses and defames men whose shoe-latchets he is unworthy to tie.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Today we would call such behavior un-presidential.  In Hale’s time the standards of decorum ran somewhat more aristocratic. Nineteenth century Americans saw it as vulgar for presidents to campaign on their own behalf. The model candidate ought to stay home, entertain people who called, and refer them to his past record if they wanted to know his position on anything. He had surrogates who would speak and write on his behalf. Now we have presidents who very much do campaign, but by custom the vice-presidential candidate and others still handle the harder partisan attacks most of the time.

Hale vs. Pierce: Enemies of the Constitution

John Hale

John P. Hale

We left John P. Hale taking his own swipes at Franklin Pierce’s theory of presidential impotence. The president could do nothing, Hale, affirmed, except when doing something would serve to expand slavery. Andrew Jackson, the hero of all good Democrats and a fair number of former Democrats of Hale’s stripe, would never have stood by and proclaimed his hands tied or let proslavery radicals contravene the rights of white men. That Jackson did precisely that in letting southern postmasters censor the mail did not detract from his image as a president of vigorous, decisive action.

Hale then expressed his low estimation of Wilson Shannon’s political future. Though Shannon “went shouting over the plains as he went, that he was for slavery in Kansas” he found himself caught between North and South. Hale expected Shannon to find no one in the Senate who would come to his aid when his administration collapsed.

That brought Hale, with some parting disdain at the way Pierce reduced Kansas to a footnote in his annual message, to the president’s “long lecture upon slavery.” There,

The President of the United States in the paper which he sent here a few days ago, takes the ground that the gentlemen who do not agree with him in his peculiar notions are the enemies of the Constitution. He so puts it, for he says:

“If the friends of the Constitution are to have another struggle, its enemies could not present a more acceptable issue than that of a State, whose Constitution clearly embraces ‘a republican form of government,’ being excluded from the Union because its domestic institutions may not in all respects comport with the ideas of what is wise and expedient entertained in some other State.”

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Hale read Pierce fairly. The President attacked the very idea of the Missouri Compromise, or any other restriction on slavery imposed from Washington. He staked out the position that slavery could have no limits. The people of a territory must accept its import from elsewhere. They could not ban it until, after enslavers had time to dominated the territorial government and thoroughly ensconce human bondage in the area, the territory became a state. When had such a situation ever led to a free state? In an earlier time, states with marginal slavery systems had emancipated after often considerable struggle and through an often decades-long process, but the club of territories left open to slavery by Congress which then abolished it had, then and now, no members. Pierce didn’t quite say slavery everywhere, slavery forever, but he came close. Then he proclaimed it the single orthodox reading of the American Constitution, from which one could not dissent.

Hale would have none of that. He called it “an insult to the majority of this nation.” Pierce had to know as much, “if he reads anything beyond the most servile sheets that his creatures send to him.” Hale might have added that Pierce could know it through the majority in New Hampshire that put John Hale into the Senate. Yet Pierce added “one half of the popular branch of Congress, and quite a number of the members of the Senate” to the nation’s enemies list.

Though insulted, Hale refused to take the hint and quiet himself. If Pierce declared him a foe of the Constitution, alias a traitor, then

I say the President can do me no sort of harm by such denunciations as this. I am perfectly willing to take it

Hale could afford to take it; he had plenty of company.