Sumner’s Rhetoric and Response

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18; full speech

Gentle Readers, with the Freedom National speech blogged through it would do to take a higher-level look at Sumner’s rhetoric. Nothing he argued came originally from him. By his own admission, Sumner more remembered than innovated his doctrines. His mind ran more to carrying notions to their logical ends than to create them anew. But Sumner could package the ideas of others together in an effective form, a valuable skill in its own right. He chose to argue from the rhetorical right, laying out a narrative of decline from the founders’ abolitionism to the ascendancy of proslavery radicalism in the Compromise of 1850. In other words, Sumner argued as a conservative.

The Senator’s natural inclinations may have put him in that position anyway, as his biographer argues, but we should consider the situation he faced. His opponents painted themselves as conservatives too. They fought for the Union of their fathers, against the abstractions of extremists who would rend the nation. They cast themselves as sensible men, dedicated to the established way of doing things and willing to sacrifice their personal convictions to the greater good. Sumner turned their framing on its head and called them out. They, not he, had gone Jacobinical. They created new horrors in the Fugitive Slave Act. Disinterested stewards of the national faith would do no such thing.

Daniel Webster

Sumner’s senatorial colleagues wouldn’t have missed the point. He challenged them on their own ground, rhetorically and physically, in front of a packed gallery. Members of the House gathered on the Senate floor to hear him. Daniel Webster came to see his replacement as Massachusetts’ spokesman and the Secretary of State endured an hour, pacing the chamber, before he left. Sumner had only gotten a quarter of the way through condemning him by then. According to Sumner’s biographer, the almost four hours of oratory reduced many of the women in the gallery and an unnamed senator to tears. Rhetorical tastes have changed greatly since 1852, but even with the remove of years Sumner reads powerfully when he comes to his summations.

Sumner closed with an “Oriental piety”:

Beware of the groans of the wounded souls. Oppress not to the utmost a single heart; for a solitary sigh has the power to overset the whole world.

He took his seat to “unbounded” applause that promptly showed its bounds. A senator from Alabama rose and argued no one should answer

The ravings of a maniac may be dangerous, but the barking of a puppy never did any harm.

A North Carolinian griped at Sumner’s elaborate rhetoric and complained about the untranslated Latin quotations. No one in the Senate could probably follow those, he thought. Stephen Douglas damned Sumner for attacking the Constitution. John B. Weller (D-CA) thought he wanted to incite riots in Northern cities. He found praise in the Senate only from John Hale and Salmon Chase. When the motion that occasioned the speech came to a vote, they and Ohio’s Ben wade joined Sumner in recommending repeal. Four hours of oratory got Sumner only four votes, including his own.

Senator Sumner Goes to Washington

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Henry Adams, the fourth generation of his family to appear in this blog, brought the good news to Charles Sumner twice: Massachusetts chose him as its new senator. Sumner, with no previous experience in office and a stormy career as a spokesman and activist for prison reform and against war and slavery, had reason to doubt his abilities. Winning appeared relatively easy. Governing, if Sumner had any opportunity to at all, would prove harder. Washington and its politicians had displeased a much less radical Sumner on his one prior visit and he had come to public life only with some reluctance and the encouragement of John Quincy Adams.

Barely elected at all, after great struggle, and by a coalition damned by members of both national parties, Sumner lacked the wind at his back that a newly-elected man might hope for. Nor could he dream of putting his stamp on the nation while he remained a member of a tiny minority. His rhetoric, the one area where he might reasonably expect to excel, would now face opposition from skilled proslavery debaters. To employ it to any use, Sumner would have to master the Senate’s arcane rules and traditions or risk making a fool of himself.

Sumner’s embarrassments began as soon as he presented his credentials. By Senate tradition, the senior senator for one’s state presented a newcomer to the chamber. Sumner’s Massachusetts peer chose to oversleep rather than risk the wrath of Daniel Webster, leaving him to hunt down Lewis Cass and beg an introduction. Instead of the customary phrasing where a Senator begged leave to present a colleague, Cass informed the others only that

I have been requested to present the credentials of Charles Sumner, a Senator elect from the State of Massachusetts.

John Hale

Thomas Hart Benton, just defeated for re-election courtesy of David Rice Atchison, had a more sympathetic but just as disheartening welcome for Sumner. He told the new senator that all the great men had gone and taken the great issues of the day with them. Settling down into the desk previously occupied by Jefferson Davis, Sumner could look across a chamber with few allies. New Hampshire’s John Hale seemed like a shady character despite their shared party. He got on better with Salmon P. Chase. Sumner feared William Seward, who he otherwise liked, would always put Whiggery above antislavery. Hamilton Fish, Seward’s New York colleague, lamented Winthrop’s lost seat but went out of his way to make Sumner welcome.

Sumner found unlikely friends among the chamber’s Southern contingent. They knew many Yankees made antislavery speeches back home, but what went on back home didn’t necessarily translate to personal relationships in Washington. Soon Massachusetts antislavery extremist claimed Pierre Soulé as his best friend. He likewise befriended Andrew Pickens Butler, who sat next to him. Seeing in Sumner a man who knew his classics, Butler relied on him to check the quotations he planned to use in speeches. In these situations, and otherwise socially, Sumner declined to raise his antislavery opinions and instead talked or history and far-off happenings.

Soon Sumner settled, if not entirely comfortably, into the regular spin of Washington society. With everyone far from home, the political class formed their own small world with an unending cycle of dinners and other social occasions where they entertained each other in small groups for a large portion of the week. A single week of his first month saw Sumner hosted by Millard Fillmore, the French Minister, and Francis Blair. His party might earn him political isolation, and a few men rubbed Sumner wrong or took a dislike to him, but he didn’t suffer much from personal ostracism.

Only Franklin Pierce Can Save the Union: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Seven

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

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

Andrew Butler told the Senate, in essence, that he saw Kansas as another Texas. If the South did not have it, then it would turn into the launching point for a war against slavery. He indicted John Hale’s opposition to David Rice Atchison’s gaggle of proslavery filibusters as a continuation of Hale’s opposition to annexing Texas. Hale could hardly disagree. Butler didn’t quite leave things there, insisting that the annexation proved more a boon to the North than the South as a free trade Galveston would have fed imported goods into the South and evaded Yankee tariffs. Hale and his fellows ought to thank the slave states for bringing Texas into the Union.

And anyway, did Hale and company want to give Texas back?

They might say so, but they would be rebuked about as effectually as any public men could be rebuked whenever they appeared to that judgment. These are hard questions, I admit. I ask them, would they agree that England should take Texas and exclude slavery, or that Texas should continue to be a separate republic; or would they expel her from the Union if in their power?

Hale or some friends might remark in private about how they’d do better without Texas. I know some of my political comrades have, just as the other side would like to be rid of California or Massachusetts. But to suggest giving land annexed into the United States to Britain, the hated antithesis of all American liberty, made for a potent charge. It had extra credibility in this context because American abolitionists understood Britain as an ally in their struggle, a fact not lost on the white South.

That “gravamen” dispatched, Butler proceeded to the next:

Suppose the so-called [free state] Legislature assembled in Kansas on the 4th of March, absolutely hoisting the banner of treason, rebellion, and insurrection, what is the President to do? I tell you, sir, as much as the gentlemen to whom I allude denounce the President, if he should not interpose his peacemaking power in Kansas, that Legislature will be opposed, and opposed by men as brave as they are, with weapons in their hands, and the contest will be decided by the sword.

If Franklin Pierce didn’t step in, proslavery violence would surely ensue. That would then spread, with Butler citing efforts to organize a military expedition to Kansas in his own South Carolina. Those “young men who will fight anybody” would start a bloody contest that put the Union at risk. Only Franklin Pierce could stop it. He had to act, or

he would be guilty of a criminal dereliction of duty […] for by interposing, he can cave them from the consequences of this issue.

It fell on Pierce to save antislavery Kansans, traitors all, from the “consequences” of their actions. Proslavery militants have little agency in Butler’s account. He doesn’t quite call their reaction one they can’t resist, but comes close. They act not just as a political opposition to the antislavery party, but also something more elemental. Here Butler dips into the favorite language of the obviously culpable, somewhere between “mistakes were made” and “they made me do it.” Antislavery people, or the President, could do something to stop them but proslavery men had no power to stop themselves.

Dreams of a British Texas: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Six

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

From his discussion of David Rice Atchison’s remarkable benevolence and restraint in saving the people of Lawrence from a proslavery mob led by David Rice Atchison, Andrew Butler moved on to another matter. In considering John P. Hale’s rhetorical assault on his friend Dave, Butler came to what he called “the gravamen” of Hale’s position. That gravamen, Texas, had much to do with both Hale’s own past and present matters in Kansas. Franklin Pierce had read Hale out of the New Hampshire Democracy for opposing annexation of the Lone Star Republic on antislavery grounds. Butler struck right to the point:

I will put my questions, however, to the Senator from new Hampshire, […] Would he consent that Texas should have become a British province, with the certainty that England would place that province in the same condition as its West India islands, and with the certainty that her policy would be to make war on the institutions of Louisiana and other southern States? Would he take the part of England in such a controversy, sooner than of those who have given us our liberties and our rights? Would he consent that Great Britain should take possession of Texas, and make war, like a roaring lion seeking whom it may devour among its neighbors? Would he consent to that, on an acknowledged condition only that it should not have slaves, and should be pledged to make war on the institutions of the southern States? Would he agree to make war on his southern confederates on such conditions and through such agencies?

John Hale

After the initial attempt to secure annexation on semi-independence from Mexico failed, the Texans let the matter drop for some time. It came back in the 1840s. That time, Sam Houston played a complicated double bluff. He courted a British protectorate over his nation and offered to emancipate its slaves should that protectorate come. At the same time, he told Americans that the British had offered his fragile republic protection against Mexico on the condition of emancipation. Texas needed protection from Mexico and the financial windfall that a British subsidy for emancipation would bring. Houston himself might have accepted either outcome, but an abolitionized Texas presented an existential threat to slavery in Louisiana. The Tyler administration keenly appreciated the political usefulness of the story Houston told, whether the members believed it or not and annexation squeaked through the Senate by means of a joint resolution of Congress and amid great controversy. Butler presented Hale’s historical position and in so doing invoked his present one. John Hale would literally take the part of Britain and establish an abolitionist Kansas from which antislavery radicals could strike into Missouri, now playing the part of Louisiana.

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Butler imagined a far more romantic, crusading antislavery effort than existed prior to 1860. Border clashes did happen, but few in the white North imagined anything like John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. On the Kansas front, only Ely Thayer in the Emigrant Aid Company took earnestly his plan to replicate the freeing of Kansas by sending Yankees to colonize Virginia. To the degree that keeping Kansas free would undermine slavery in Missouri, antislavery writers imagine a largely passive process where the enslaved and white population growth did much of the work until a political movement within the established order worked a transformation over the Show Me State as had happened in Pennsylvania, New York, and other northern jurisdictions.

 

Swords Drawn: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Five

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

 

We left Andrew Butler castigating antislavery Kansans for coming with the Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other. Speaking on March 5, 1856, he then turned his attention to the ominous date that had just passed: the free state legislature met for the first time on the fourth. News had yet to come in from Kansas on what befell, but Butler saw it as profoundly significant.

God knows what may be the tragedy growing out of the 4th of March, 1856. Sir, the news of what occurred in Kansas […] may bring us the intelligence which will be the knell of the institutions-I will not say of the Union-of this country; for I hope there is wisdom enough left to preserve republican institutions in durable form, should the present Union be no more.

Butler spoke like a man expecting revolution and hoping for better on the other side, not in the usual refrain that abjures the end of the Union as a calamity one must avert. At least for rhetorical purposes, the future of slavery in Kansas dictated the course of the Union. If enslavers could institute bondage by force and fraud, and subdue armed opposition, then they could feel safe. If not, they had best find a new government. With the exception of a few Garrisonian abolitionists, antislavery northerners did not go so far as that. They looked forward to a Union where slavery would have a slowly reduced role until it somehow withered away.

All of that raised an obvious question to Butler: What should Franklin Pierce do? Both men claimed, with some justice, that antislavery Kansans had taken the law into their own hands. They had raised, if not an outright rebellion, at least a kind of armed opposition to the established government of their territory. When that went poorly for them, Butler’s old friend David Rice Atchison helped save their lives and their town.

Here I will do him the justice to say that he has not heretofore passed the Rubicon with the spirit of an ambitious ruler; but if hereafter he ever passes that Rubicon, all his benevolence-and it is very large-will not enable him to overlook the taunts and insults which have been heaped upon him. If David R. Atchison shall ever pass the line again, and say as Caesar did, “I have passed the Rubicon, and now I draw the sword,” I should dread the contest, for the very reason that he who goes into matters of this kind with reluctance is most to be feared.

Atchison’s benevolence extended to leading armed men into Kansas twice, at the time of Butler’s speech. He led a few hundred with cannons in to fix the March, 1855 elections and then came back in December hoping to destroy Lawrence. He would come again in May of 1856. If Butler counts that as keeping a sword sheathed, one has to wonder just what he would consider drawn steel. Bourbon Dave might well have a terrible wrath all the same, but he showed his reluctance to battle by forming and leading military companies.

John Hale

Butler turned from his remarkable account of Atchison to further castigate John P. Hale of New Hampshire. Hale painted the South as aggressors in the matter of Kansas. South Carolina’s senator would have none of that, but he had a few things to say about Yankee aggression. According to him, perfidious Yankees bamboozled poor old Virginia into ceding the Northwest Territory and then planted free states there. Then the South capitulated again, ceding most of the Louisiana Purchase on the same terms. In all that, white Southerners

played the part of a generous parent who has only met with the scorn and contempt which want of wisdom justly deserves. It was putting a rod in the hands of others, without knowing who they were, under the hope that it would be used as a weapon of common defense, but which has been used against the donor

The white South gave and gave, from the Ohio to the Pacific, and damned Yankees used those many gifts to beat the slave states over the head. Yet now Hale cast the aggrieved section as aggressors? The section had played doddering King Lear -Butler quotes the play- long enough.

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.

Hale vs. Pierce: Proslavery Interpositions

John Hale

John Hale

Senator John Hale of New Hampshire would have none of Franklin Pierce’s gab about Central America. Americans, he told the Senate, could not work up much interest for the dispute between the United Kingdom and the United States over the region’s agreed-upon neutrality and a possible future canal. Whether the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty referred to prospective renunciations of interest in the event of a canal’s construction or immediate surrenders meant little to them. They spent 1855 occupied with Kansas, not filibuster-bedeviled lands to the south.

On that matter, Hale quoted Pierce’s annual message:

In the Territory of Kansas, there have been acts prejudicial to good order, but as yet none have occurred to justify the interposition of the Federal Executive.

Franklin Pierce must not have read the papers, or dispatches from the governor he appointed. But his enemy from their days in the New Hampshire democracy did not settle for a pretense of ignorance. Per Hale,

the interposition of the Federal Executive has been there, and it has been on the side of those very acts of violence. Sir, the people of Kansas have had to protect themselves against mob law, instigated by the President and sustained by his officials there. When he says there has been nothing to “justify” official interposition, I admit it is true that there was nothing to justify it; but the interposition was there, whether justified or not.

From our remove, we can say that Jefferson Davis, the F Street Mess, and Stephen Douglas pressured Franklin Pierce into signing off on repealing the Missouri Compromise. They gained his support by promising they would also get that of Secretary of State Marcy before going public, then broke their word by calling on the Secretary, finding him absent, and considered that as good as approval. Pierce didn’t choose any of this on his own, but choose it he did.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Given the chance to do right by Kansas and popular sovereignty, the President gave the territory a largely proslavery government through his appointments, led by a political novice dispatched for patronage purposes. When that governor, Andrew Reeder, exhibited even minimal deference to the idea that Kansans ought to decide for Kansas, rather than invading Missourian hooligans, Pierce found an excuse to fire him. His replacement introduced himself to the territory, from Missouri, with a full-bore endorsement of the border ruffians’ gains.

He [Pierce] goes on to say that the people of Kansas must be protected. Well, Sir, they will be protected; but they have not had protection from the President of the United States. Do you not know, Sir, does the Senate know, and does the country not know, that Governor Reeder came home and proclaimed in the ears of the President that Kansas was a conquered country? And what did he do? The Governor told him that Kansas was conquered. What do you suppose Gen. Jackson would have done, if one of his Governors had come to Washington and said, “General, that Territory which you sent me to govern has been conquered.”

The invocation of Jackson must have had special salience, given Jackson’s party had expelled Hale from its ranks. Andrew Jackson, of course, would have made a fight of it. He probably would have tried for genocide against any Indians he found, fought some duels, and executed some British subjects as well. Old Hickory rolled that way. The Young Hickory of the Granite Hills? Not so much. Only furthering the expansion of slavery could stir him to decisive action.