Electing Charles Sumner, Part 1

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)


With the elections of 1850, the Free Soil-Democrat coalition took control of Massachusetts. That coalition did not amount to a full fusion movement, but rather the local Democracy and Free Soil elements jointly agreeing on individual candidates while remaining independent. Massachusetts still returned a Whig plurality, but the Democrats and Free Soilers together outnumbered them. With victory in hand, the real horse trading began. The Free Soilers agreed to back the Democrat’s man for governor, George S. Boutwell, as well as the lieutenant governor and various officers in the legislature. The Democracy could also place their own man to finish the rump of Daniel Webster’s last Senate term. The Free Soilers claimed the state senate presidency and the full term for the United States Senate beginning on March 4, 1851. The leadership of both groups hashed out the settlement and presented it to their caucuses, who agreed. On January 7, the Free Soilers nominated Charles Sumner to go to Washington by a vote of 84-1. The Democrats concurred, with only six opposing.

The Whigs promptly erupted at the outrageous trading of offices, on the grounds of keeping politics pure and free from interested men and, incidentally, because they lost. Daniel Webster blamed the failure at the polls on his replacement in the Senate, Robert Winthrop. Winthrop refused to endorse the Fugitive Slave Act and that torpedoed Whiggery’s chances by making him look like a crazy abolitionist. He should have gone all-in on the entire Compromise of 1850. Godlike Dan, Secretary of State for Millard Fillmore, set to purging Sumner men from the civil service and aimed to lead his Boston Whigs into a new organization. Webster had wished for a party all to himself for probably as long as he had considered himself a Whig of any kind and the fraught times must have seemed ripe enough for another go. His supporters set about wooing the new governor, who had positioned himself as a pro-Compromise man in his inaugural.

Daniel Webster (Whig-MA)

Not every Massachusetts Whig, present or former, bought what Webster tried selling. Far more of them believed Black Dan’s course an excellent way to lose elections and remained open to some kind of alignment with ex-Whigs in the Free Soil movement. They had Charles Francis Adams in mind for the Senate. On the other side of the aisle, the Democracy cared more for breaking Whig dominance than advancing Sumner’s career. But since the senate seat meant less to them than action at the state level, and Sumner had worked well with Democrats before, most found him acceptable.

Caleb Cushing

A minority led by Caleb Cushing felt otherwise and kept strategic silence during the office trading, right up through Boutwell’s election. Then he led them out to make their own caucus against Sumner, the “Indomitables.” More than thirty strong, they had enough votes to swing the senate election against either Winthrop, Webster’s man again, or Sumner. Cushing hoped to defeat both and make himself a senator in the name of conservative Whiggery. Failing that, he turned to Edward Everett. Mainly, however, Cushing put pressure on the coalition Democracy with help from Lewis Cass and other party luminaries. That, Webster’s wooing, or both moved Boutwell to disclaim any interest in Sumner’s election, pawning the matter off on the legislature.

The 1850 Free Soil Victory in Massachusetts

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Sumner on the Fugitive Slave Act: parts 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner finished off his speech with fairly standard promises to keep the antislavery faith. If he failed, then may his “tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, may may right hand forget its cunning.” He concluded by shouting for freedom, union, and victory. The editor of his papers reported applause and cheers. More than simply delivering stirring rhetoric, Sumner set himself apart from the crowd. Many in Massachusetts understood the issues as well as Sumner. Many had strong antislavery convictions. But Charles Sumner could deliver a rousing speech in an era when many politicians preferred to show off their erudition and learning through lengthy, technical discourses. He had applause lines and the audience responded to them dutifully, but in twenty pages Sumner fails to bog himself down in the usual minutia or gild everything in overly elaborate metaphors. The more popular political style couldn’t have hurt him with Democratic voters, present or past, with whom the Free Soilers would need to coalition to control the selection of Massachusetts’ new senator.

Of course, Sumner’s popular style had its share of critics. His rhetoric did not quite befit a respectable gentleman and, per Edward L. Pierce’s Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner,

was often cited against him during the canvass for senator, and afterwards in Congress, as inflammatory, revolutionary, and treasonable; and he himself stated at a later period that his effort and hope at the time were to create a public sentiment which would render the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law (or “bill,” as he always insisted on calling it) impossible.

Sumner did not particularly court his critics on these points. He probably saw no need to, considering pierce reports him as the front-runner for the Senate seat even before the speech. That required the Democrat-Free Soil coalition winning the Massachusetts elections so the legislature could choose a senator at all, but those polls turned out better than expected. The coalition unseated the sitting governor and

The sentiment of union was so spontaneous that the people had acted upon it in all parts of the State. Twenty-one Free Soil and Democratic senators were elected to eleven Whigs, and two hundred and twenty Free Soil and Democratic representatives to one hundred and seventy-six Whigs.

Pierce considered margins of ten in the Senate and fifty-four in the House pretty good, especially in light of how thoroughly Whiggery had dominated the Bay State. Only temperance legislation had shaken that dominance enough, twice, to give Massachusetts a democratic governor in the person of Marcus Morton, an antislavery man. It transpired that Massachusetts liked tippling and disliked slavery. Furthermore, while the Free Soilers coalitioned with the Democracy, they amounted to more than hangers on or kingmakers. Instead, they achieved parity with the party of Jackson, and then a slim margin in above of one senator and six in the House.


A Man with Three Backbones: Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Eleven

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 Text of the speech (page 140)

Looking at the string of defeats that the antislavery movement had suffered from the vantage of late 1850, Charles Sumner promised his audience at Faneuil Hall that the arc of history would bend the other way, if they bent it with him. The time for compromise and conciliation, for the old parties that practiced it, had passed. Antislavery Americans of Whiggish or Democratic persuasion alike must quit those hollow institutions and join Sumner’s new Free Soil Party. They should also, of course, remember Charles Sumner whenever they got in touch with their representatives in Massachusetts about the open Senate seat. For that matter, the abolitionists who had declared themselves too pure for politics needed to turn out and vote too:

Living in a community where political power is lodged with the people, and each citizen is an elector, the vote is an important expression of opinion. The vote is the cutting edge. It is well to have correct opinions, but the vote must follow. The vote is the seed planted; without it there can be no sure fruit.

Only “a foolish husbandman” would neglect the seed, or “an unwise citizen” declare his sentiments and then fail to cast his ballot. Sumner understood that his audience and those admirable abolition radicals alike had reason to distrust the system. Parties and governments authored all their disappointments in 1850 and for decades before. Antislavery politicians had promised results, then capitulated when the South presented a united front against them. Any politician would not do, one must also find the right politician. Voters

can put trust only in men of tried character and inflexible will. Three things at least they must require: the first is backbone; the second is backbone; and the third is backbone.

That all made for fairly rude political speech, by the standards of the day. Sumner himself called his language “homely” but made no excuses. Whenever he saw a person declare the right principles and then bent to the Slave Power, he could think nothing but that they lacked the spine for it. The inconstant, the cowardly, and the pliable sorts did not deserve those cutting edge votes of good antislavery men.

Charles Sumner happened to know a courageous, constant, firm man who he would like to recommend to Faneuil Hall:

The first political convention which I ever attended was in the spring of 1845, against the annexation of Texas. I was at that time a silent and passive Whig. I had never held political office, nor been a candidate for any. No question ever before drew me to any active political exertion. The strife of politics seemed to me ignoble.

Sumner threw in actively with the Whigs, aiming with them to “arouse the party in Massachusetts to its Antislavery duties.” But experience showed him that Massachusetts Whiggery bent its back for slavery. Convinced then that “the Whig party was disloyal to Freedom” and not prepared to bend to its line, he quit the Whigs for the Free Soilers he now stood among.

Would that I could impress upon all who now hear me something of the strength of my own convictions! Would that my voice, leaving this crowded hall to-night, could traverse the hills and valleys of New England, that it could run along the rivers and the lakes of my country, lighting in every heart a beacon-flame to arouse the slumberers throughout the land! [Sensation.]

The Future is Antislavery: Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Ten

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 Text of the speech (page 140)

We left Charles Sumner positioning himself as a committed antislavery man in the realm of mainstream politics. His Free Soil party did not propose to blow up the Union over slavery. They did not plan to send an army of John Browns into Virginia, nor their legislative equivalents. His party would not demand that the national government force emancipation on anyone, except in the territories and District of Columbia where it had every right and power to do so. The movement’s success would require support from people of all political stripes, united to keep slavery in its Southern pen. Antislavery Democrats, Whigs, and Free Soilers must

If you are sincere in what you declare, if your words are not merely lip-service, if in your heart you are entirely willing to join in practical effort against Slavery, then, by life, conversation, influence, vote, disregarding “the ancient forms of party strife,” seek to carry the principles of freedom into the National Government, wherever its jurisdiction is acknowledged and its power can be felt.

Sumner concerned himself more with moderate to conservative opinion here, but he might well have said the same of the Garrisonian wing of the antislavery movement. In the name of moral purity, those worthies had written themselves out of politics and confined their challenge to slavery to the rhetorical plane. The disputes between them and the more mainstream antislavery element had split national organizations, often with considerable acrimony.

Conservative critics of the antislavery movement in the North often accused its adherents of unthinking radicalism. By making slavery an issue, they threatened the Union and caused the fraught politics that they then cited as cause for action. Sumner turned that around, arguing that by ending the slavery question as the free soilers wished, they would banish all the disturbing radicalism. With it penned up in the South, slavery could no longer make and unmake presidencies. It would continue there, true enough, but “we are in no sense responsible” for that.

Then Sumner returned to his dark times theme. Looking back on an almost perfect series of defeats, he consoled the faithful:

Amidst all apparent reverses, notwithstanding the hatred of enemies or the coldness of friends, he [the antislavery man] has the consciousness of duty done. Whatever may be existing impediments, his is also the cheering conviction that every word spoken, every act performed, every vote cast for this cause, helps to swell those quickening influences by which Truth, Justice, and Humanity will be established upon earth.

Politicians always say things like this after painful losses. They go on to add that history has taken their side and the future belongs to their policies, just as Sumner did:

Others may dwell on the Past as secure. Under the laws of a beneficent God the Future is also secure, -on the single condition that we labor for its great objects.

The future belongs to us, if we take it.




Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Nine

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Text of the speech (page 140)

Fresh off the band outside giving up, Charles Sumner proceeded to congratulate his constituents on existing. Their movement proved that Slave Power had become the great issue of the day, which no politician could adjust away with cunning “intrigues”. “[T]he subject of subjects” would sleep no longer, but must take its place in the halls of Congress. The Slave Power filled

the very halls of the Capitol, while it overshadows and darkens other subjects. There it will continue, till driven into oblivion by the irresistible Genius of Freedom.

A threat and a promise in one: if antislavery did not triumph than the dark reign of slavery would continue forever. But if good antislavery men kept up and -hint, hint– sent Charles Sumner to the Senate, then a new era may dawn. But Sumner could only hope, given the dismal state of the nation in late 1850. He knew it looked bad:

The wave of reaction, after sweeping over Europe, has reached our shores. The barriers of Human Rights are broken down. Statesmen, writers, scholars, speakers, once their uncompromising professors, have become professors of compromise. All this must be changed. Reaction must be stayed. The country must be aroused. The cause must again be pressed, -with the fixed purpose never to moderate our efforts until crowned by success.

Daniel Webster

All those Daniel Webster types who changed their stripes in the name of compromise had only turned traitor. Massachusetts could not let them get away with it, but must repudiate their politics for a new form. That meant setting the nation on the right course, “the side of Freedom” against “[t]he policy of Slavery.” Until free soilers routed that “fruitful parent of national ills,” they could not rest or the land would sink ever deeper under the Slave Power’s weight. To keep up the fight, patriotic American men “of all parties and pursuits” must join together:

Welcome here the Conservative and the Reformer! for our cause stands on the truest Conservatism and the truest Reform. In seeking the reform of existing evils, we seek also the conservation of the principles handed down by our fathers. welcome especially the young! To you I appeal with confidence. Trust to your generous impulses, and to that reasoning of the heart, which is often truer, and it is less selfish, than the calculations of the head.

The Free Soilers needed to take all comers anyway, so they may as well roll out the welcome mat. The Massachusetts right, particularly the textile mill owners who had a direct, financial interest in slavery all their professional lives, would take rather longer to get on board than the flower of the Bay State’s youth or its antislavery left. It took the Kansas-Nebraska Act four years later to convince many. The flower of the Boston aristocracy thought little of Sumner personally even then, making him a less than convincing recruiter for the cause, but new parties must accept any support they can get. If a few crusty Cotton Whigs came to overlook Sumner’s fiery rhetoric, then he would take them along with the starry-eyed young idealists.

The Rise and Fall of Business Antislavery: The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part One

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Between the Howard Committee and the Buford Expedition, plenty of people have lately come to Kansas Territory. Before them, Missourians went across the border. Many meant to stay, but many also meant to control Kansas’ elections or murder abolitionists and make it home for breakfast. In all this, I have largely left out the people who offered the proslavery forces their casus belli: the Emigrant Aid Company. To a great degree that comes down to the historians I have relied upon. Concerned with matters largely internal to the Kansas-Missouri border, it matters less to their narratives how antislavery Americans arrived in the territory than what they did once present. A few paragraphs suffice. But a kind friend has supplied me with Horace Andrews’ Kansas Crusade: Eli Thayer and the New England Emigrant Aid Company, the hot release of December, 1962.

Andrews points out that as the Kansas-Nebraska Act worked its way through Congress, a sense of inevitability set over certain quarters of the North. Slavery got what slavery wanted and they appeared impotent against the new advance. The Democracy had its house in order, a few dissidents aside, and would continue to do as it liked as the nation’s dominant party. Who could stop it? Eli Thayer of Worchester, Massachusetts though himself the man for the job. He ran a school for women, the Oread Collegiate Institute, for the four years prior to considerable success. In that time he supported the Free Soil party to the end and took a term in the Massachusetts legislature. All this made him prominent enough that the state legislature would grant Thayer his corporate charter, creating the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company.

Thayer advocated what he called “Business antislavery,” to separate it from the tried-and-failed methods of ordinary politics and moral suasion. If Stephen Douglas insisted that popular sovereignty would settle Kansas’ future, then Eli Thayer would take him up on that. Thayer’s business antislavery gained a significant convert in the person of Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian minister and advocate for settling antislavery men in Texas to turn the state around. Hale had never come up with a concrete plan for doing that, but Thayer thought he had one. Thayer expected to sell stock in his company, use the money to subsidize emigration, and make a profit in the process. Andrews doesn’t go into just how, but presumably Thayer imagined that the company would invest in or found town companies just like many similar projects.

Amos Adams Lawrence

Amos Adams Lawrence

There came the snag. Thayer and his associates could drum up plenty of interest but not much money. The organizing committee itself refused to buy the stock they proposed to sell. Nobody seems to have believed that the five million dollar capitalization authorized would appear and many looked askance at the idea Thayer had to take the crusade into the slave states after they saved Kansas for freedom. At the instigation of Amos Lawrence, from whom Lawrence, Kansas, got its name, plans changed. Lawrence preferred a charitable operation with no expectation of future profit. If the stock wouldn’t generate dividends anyway, why pretend otherwise? And what if it did? Didn’t that suggest a mercenary outlook on the part of good-hearted antislavery men bent on saving the Union?

The Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company thus gave way to the New England Emigrant Aid Company on July 24, 1855, complete with a well-off board of Massachusetts luminaries for directors. Thayer got the news on his way home from a tour in New York where he raised $100,000. NEEAC, now institutionally controlled by conservative Whigs rather than New England radicals, had the form of a corporation but functioned like a charity. It took in gifts, rather than investments. Thayer himself took a demotion from leading light to a promotional speaker.

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.

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 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.