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.

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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.

The Bible, Torch, and Sharpe’s Rifle: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Four

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left Andrew Butler inveighing against the Emigrant Aid Societies for foiling David Rice Atchison’s surefire plan to win Kansas for slavery. From there, he took the requisite swipe at Andrew Reeder before moving into a full airing of grievances from the Missouri Compromise onward. Just like Atchison’s border ruffians, antislavery Yankees had driven the sober, sensible white men of the South into a fury. Every time the South gave something to get something, the North broke faith. That the South had a proven record of getting almost everything it wanted in every sectional clash didn’t enter into it. Following that, Butler accidentally told the truth:

Now, I am willing to propose a game of fair playLet the opinion of the people, as it may be formed in the process of territorial existence, determine the character of the State, and whether the State presenting herself for admission shall admit or exclude slavery be no bar to her admission.

Sir, that compromise, as it has been called, has never been observed.

Nor, Butler might have added, did anybody care if it had. Compromise-minded politicians advanced popular sovereignty with a wink, well aware that in the absence of laws to the contrary slavery would expand at least at the margins of the already enslaved states. At best, one could say they didn’t care either way. Southern politicians certainly didn’t vote for the policy on the grounds that it would create more free states. Those who opposed instituting a vote on the issue, including John Calhoun, did so on the grounds that popular sovereignty might inadvertently create free jurisdictions.

Still, Butler maintained the fiction. If anyone actually tried popular sovereignty, ignoring contradictions within it like just when a territory could choose to institute or ban slavery and what status the institution had on the ground before any laws on the question passed, then

In regard to the Territory of Kansas, I think it might well have been left a debatable ground-neither to call it a slaveholding nor a non-slaveholding State. It was an occasion when we might have cemented, in some measure, the bonds of the ancient brotherhood; but no, sir, we find that gentlemen come in with the Bible in one hand to preach against slavery and the torch in the other. That is the attitude in which they present themselves in the temple of our common deliberations-the torch in one hand and the Bible in the other-the pulpit and Sharpe’s rifle. Under the banner of theology, incendiaries march, with torches in their hands, proclaiming God’s will but doing their own.

Butler may have told a little more truth then he knew here. Most references I have seen to violence by antislavery men involve burning the homes of proslavery colonists. Literal torches did their work in Kansas, though they appear to have done it to cabins with no one inside or where the occupants had due notice and could flee. At least to date, no one appears to have burned alive. The violent clashes that end in death usually originate with proslavery actors. Some of those involve personal disputes that turn deadly, but when a proslavery militia kills an antislavery man absent such a dispute we can’t fairly pass it off as a consequence of rough frontier living. The same would hold true in reverse, which will come soon enough.

Gallant Manslaughter and Mercenary Homicide: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Three

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2

According to Andrew Butler, the people of Lawrence and their friends in the Senate owed David Rice Atchison a debt of gratitude. Recognizing that the antislavery party had outmaneuvered the army he helped bring to destroy the town, Bourbon Dave talked them down. A hero like that did not deserve the kind of castigation employed against him one bit. Even failing that, everyone in the chamber had to know old Davy for a solid sort. Yet

Gentlemen have attributed to him a ferocity of unexampled character-an attribute that cannot assimilate to his nature. Throughout the whole contest he has always said that he was in favor of-to use his own expression-“the competition of preemption settlers.” He believed that if competition had been left to itself, and if there had been no hostile demonstration on the part of the northern societies, Kansas would have been settled by neighbors knowing each other, and who would have less objection because they did know each other; and that in the end, perhaps, there might be a few negroes, probably an “old mammy,” or some favorite servants for household purposes, or some field-laborers, contented in and bettered by their condition. He supposed that there might have been a population of that sort, and such as the masters would not like to desert, and such as they would not commit to the Abolitionists.

Butler further allowed that Atchison envisioned a Kansas with some masters, but nothing one could call slaves. Instead they would have “servants” who benefited immensely from their station. Those servants would just stand liable for sale if someone’s debts got too bad or whipping if they disobeyed. Nineteenth century paternalism included the strap for white dependents, fair enough, but comparing that status of wives and children to that of slaves misses the whole point. White Americans didn’t sell their own loved ones.

Atchison may well have believed all Butler said he did; it fits well with what other proslavery Missourians have said about Kansas. Such ideas also lay out the always appealing coin flip program where heads mean one wins and tails that the other loses. If those Yankees had not organized to colonize Kansas for themselves, then Missourians would have had the territory for their own and no strife would have ensued. But since antislavery northerners refused to accept Kansas for slavery without contest, the competition became unfair and Missourians had to pitch in to settle things properly.

Butler made no bones about that either:

I am not going to put on an equality, or anything like an equality, the movements and conduct of those who have gone to Kansas with Sharpe’s rifles in their hands, and the Missouri “border ruffians,” as they have been termed. they are not in pari delictu. [sic]

Pari delicto, which the Congressional Globe reporter misspelled, means “in equal fault”.

Looking at the records of the proslavery and antislavery organizations to March of 1856, Butler found a microcosm of sectional characters. The “westerners” (proslavery Missourians) showed their “daring gallantry,” “open hospitality” and never drew their swords except in the heat of passion. Any murders they did, you really had to count as manslaughter.

Those calculating Yankees did things the other way, plotting from “a distance of a thousand miles”. They dispatched men with uniform weapons of the finest sort, not rude sidearms and shotguns for personal defense. They came not to settle, but to drive away other settlers. Good southerners committed manslaughter, but these northerners killed them in an act which “would much nearer approach a mercenary homicide.”

Antislavery Ingrates: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Two

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

We left Andrew Butler, David Rice Atchison’s old housemate, opining on Kansas matters to the United States Senate. He began by castigating John Hale (R-NH), for calling out the Supreme Court and Franklin Pierce. They had not, per Butler, contradicted their principles or gone whole hog for slavery. The Senator from South Carolina admitted, however, that if Roger Taney had done so then that would not warrant an objection from him. With all that throat-clearing and about three columns of the Congressional Globe under his belt, Butler moved on to discussing his old friend. Atchison’s senatorial enemies, Hale included,

attributed to him a ferocity and vulgar indifference and recklessness in relation to the affairs in Kansas, which is refuted by every confidential letter which he has written to me, and which is not in conformity to the truth.

Butler’s friend surely wouldn’t lie to him. If Atchison denied misconduct in private letters, it ought to settle things. Bourbon Dave didn’t make himself anyone’s enemy, not even Kansans who arrived courtesy of the Emigrant Aid Societies. Missouri’s former senator might have “the attributes of a conqueror of that class of people” but Butler didn’t cast Atchison as an Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. Rather he would conquer the hearts of his foes:

Let those who asperse him settle around him as neighbors, and if their houses were burned down and assistance were required, he would be the first man to render them assistance, and he would conquer them by his kindness, by his justice, by his good sense, and by generosity.

Antislavery Kansans might disagree, rightly noting that Atchison had a large role in directing the blue lodges that campaigned against them and authored many of their sufferings. What Atchison’s men didn’t bring over from Missouri, his allies in Kansas conducted on his behalf. Butler must have anticipated, or already heard, that charge because he turned it around in a passage ripe with perverse reasoning:

There was never a better illustration of his [Atchison’s] character than the conduct he displayed in the expected tragedy at Lawrence. I know the fact, and I state it on my authority, as a truth not to be disputed, (because I have his letters in my drawer,) that, when that controversy arose, General Atchison was absolutely called upon to attend General Robinson’s command, and he went, with a positive pledge on the part of those with whom he was associated that he should rather be the Mentor than the leader; and he has written to me that but for his mediatorial offices, the houses of the people of Lawrence would have been burnt and the streets drenched in blood.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Butler spoke in early March, before the sack of Lawrence. He refers here to the Wakarusa War, where Atchison did help calm the proslavery forces bent on the town’s ruin. He neglects that Atchison also acted as a leader and organizer of those forces. Nor does it matter much to him, if he knew, that Atchison defended seeking peace on the grounds that the free state leadership had outmaneuvered the proslavery side and would win the public relations war if bloodshed ensued just then. Bourbon Dave boldly stood up to his allies and told them that they had lost this round.

All of that made the latter-day calumniators of Atchison who wanted him “immolated on the altar of fanatical vengeance” into vile ingrates. The people of Lawrence and their friends in the Senate ought to thank Atchison; he saved their people and their town from the ravages of his own men. We should hope for neighbors of such quality.

Youthful Indiscretions: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part One

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

A Closer Look at Atchison, parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

We left David Rice Atchison anticipating the historical consensus on Franklin Pierce as president. The proclamations against the free state party, even if they had empty swipes at Atchison’s own cross-border activities, raised the president’s stock to slightly better than indifferent. When Wilson Shannon failed to move against the free state government’s legislature in March of 1856, all of a month later, the ex-Senator looked at Shannon’s consultations with Pierce and realized that the pleasant Mr. Pierce had failed again. Just as expected, the President told people what they wanted to hear and declined to live up to it after they left his sight.

More than Border Ruffians, embattled Kansans, and Emigrant Aid Company boosters read Pierce’s law and order proclamation. Lately a Senator, Atchison still had many friends in Washington. His antics provided grist for those opposing the administration’s position on Kansas and thus prompted Bourbon Dave’s associates still in office to stand up in his defense. This sets us on a path that will lead to the great Kansas set piece that took place not in the troubled territory or its anxious neighbor, but the chamber of the United States Senate.

On February 28, Atchison’s F-Street messmate Andrew Butler wrote to Bourbon Dave that

A debate is going on, here, that would amuse you very much if you were present. You have a place in the picture; and a prominent place.

Butler aimed to answer Atchison’s foes, which he did on March 5. This takes us to the Congressional Globe, that three-columned horror of tiny print that historians rarely miss a chance to complain about. In imitation of my betters, I will say that Butler’s speech on that day takes up nine columns between pages 584 and 587. If you want to read along, the Globe comes organized by Congress and session. The following hails from the 34th Congress, 1st session.

Butler’s speech began on an odd note. RMT Hunter -another F Streeter- complained that the Senator from South Carolina did not feel well. Could the Senate maybe postpone the Kansas debate until tomorrow? Several Senators moved for Monday instead, but John B. Weller (D-CA) said he wanted the day for a military appropriations bill. That in mind, Butler stuck it out

with a view to make a very few remarks in order to relieve the Senate from any impression which might be made on it by the statements made here on the responsibility of Senators, or by newspaper communications, in relation to the part which my friend, General Atchison, has acted in Kansas affairs. I intend no more

John Hale

Nineteenth century politicians promising brevity rarely deliver. Butler opened with half a column on the pregnant circumstances, the danger of civil war, and other boilerplate. Then he castigated John Hale (R-NH) for some remarks me made. Hale ought to have known better, in light of his long service, but Butler cast him as “a committed advocate to a sectional, fanatical organization” and thus obligated to repeat things beneath him. Hale had called the Supreme Court “the citadel of slavery.” As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Butler took that personally. His long “intercourse” with Roger Taney told him that the Court stood for the Constitution, not slavery per se. He then waxed Biblical on antislavery theories of higher law, by which Old Scratch persuaded Eve to want a forbidden snack.

Of course Butler didn’t mean that the United States Constitution had a divine pedigree or that Supreme Court rulings came god-breathed from Taney’s pen. Fallible men made mistakes. He had in mind Taney’s ruling on Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, which granted states the power to pass laws impeding the recovery of fugitive slaves. Butler, like everyone else, stood for a court above politics. Putting itself above politics meant that the Court would agree with the Senator any time he found it important, also just like everyone else.

Franklin Pierce

Butler then wandered off into a discussion of Hale’s complaint that Pierce contradicted himself between his response to the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island, wherein many rejected the vintage 1600s charter of the colony and demanded a more modern constitution. Pierce had sided with an illegal government against a legitimate one then, but not for Kansas. The Senator took some time to distance himself from Pierce, but insisted that as an American he owed the president some deference. The chief of the New Hampshire Democracy might take certain stands not becoming “the Chief Magistrate of this Confederacy.” In the White House, one ascended from a partisan warrior to the judge of all parties. And anyway, Pierce

was then comparatively a young man, and that having cultivated the lessons of liberty which his ancestor had taught him, much, in the language of Mr. Burke, is to be pardoned to the spirit of liberty. Another thing is to be said, that the judgment in relation to Dorr had not then been formed.

In other words, young Mr. Pierce of the New Hampshire Democracy didn’t know any better than to shelter a rebel leader. Franklin Pierce, age thirty-eight, had a head full of campus-style radicalism and anyway, the nation hadn’t come to a consensus on Dorr yet. One can’t blame “that deluded young man” in light of Dorr’s numerous “distinguished sympathizers.”

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

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

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

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

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

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

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

Franklin Pierce

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

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

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

A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Four

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left David Rice Atchison’s senate seat empty, as it would remain until 1857, and the man himself fully engaged with Kansas affairs. He won the apparently permanent emnity of Thomas Hart Benton’s wing of the Missouri democracy by orchestrating the senior senator’s involuntary retirement in coalition with the Whigs. Atchison probably considered Kansas the more important matter, and likely a road to finding himself in Washington again someday. He had refused to actively seek reelection. But Bourbon Dave still found time to resent the situation. On December 14, 1855, he wrote that the Missouri legislature lacked

the moral courage to elect me, a majority of them would prefer my election to that of any other person yet they have not the moral courage to do it

Atchison had the votes but failed, somehow, to have the votes. He went on to tell his correspondent that the press would implicate him in the late Wakarusa War. He doesn’t seem to have minded that so much, as a man who led two hundred armed men into Kansas on that occasion might well have. Atchison couldn’t help himself,

but when I do move in earnest here will be a noise louder than thunder or I am mistaken.

And furthermore:

Before the moon shall fill her hours twelve times you shall hear more from me.

More from Atchison, thunderous or not, included a public statement declaring he would not accept any elected office. Bourbon Dave’s papers explained that he withdrew from the Senate race in order to help the Missouri Democracy reunite. But if Atchison wouldn’t answer Missouri’s call, which he probably would not have received anyway, then at least a few in the South would answer his. In the fall of the year, the emissaries that his people had chosen to fan out across the South looking for proslavery settlers. They had some success, if never as much as they dreamed.

Georgia’s governor recommended a Southern convention if Congress failed to accept Kansas as a slave state, a proposal Atchison endorsed. A Southern convention naturally invoked memories of Nashville. Get enough angry southerners together and they might decide to do something drastic, so the nation had best concede the territory. Everyone, except the slaves, would win:

This course on the part of the South will save Kansas to the South-save bloodshed, civil war, and perhaps a dissolution of the Union itself.

In January, Missouri’s former senator followed that letter up with another, repeating the call for immigration:

Let your young men come forth to Missouri and Kansas. Let them come well armed, with money enough to support them for twelve months, and determined to see this thing out. One hundred true men would be an acquisition; the more the better. I do not see how we are to avoid civil war; come it will. Twelve months will not elapse before war-civil war of the fiercest kind-will be upon us. We are arming and preparing for it. Indeed, we of the border counties are prepared. We must have the support of the South. We are fighting the battles of the South. Our institutions are st stake. You far Southern men are now out of the nave of war; but if we fail it will reach your own doors, perhaps your hearths. We want men-armed men. We want money-not for ourselves, but to support our friends when the come from a distance.

Atchison may have intended to follow his own advice. He mentions that he might soon move to Kansas and the Squatter Sovereign reported the news the same month. According to them, he would arrive with two hundred of his closest friends. There his slaves would farm and he would collect the profits. The paper even claimed that Atchison had moved to the territory.

Robert S. Kelley

Parrish looked into the matter, noting that Stringfellow and Kelley kept up that story through 1856. For a Kansan, Atchison did a great deal of living in Missouri. With no family of his own, he kept rooms at a Platte City hotel. He probably also rented rooms in Atchison and may have used them, but Parrish looked deep into the land records and never found evidence that Atchison bought a parcel. In my own research, Atchison always comes over from Missouri rather than down from his namesake town. The Sovereign could claim that the senator had the same basis for residence in both jurisdictions, but it doesn’t look like he lived that way.

Whether Atchison ever had serious plans to make himself a Kansan or not, others did. Late April brought the largest group of southern colonists, Jefferson Buford’s organization, arrived to do their part in saving Kansas for slavery. When Southerners came through, Atchison took an interest in them. South Carolinians particularly drew his eye and he personally housed the children of friends and others who came in their company. Corespondents asked him to advise the young men they sent on “where to settle, how to vote, and if necessary, when to fight.” Atchison the man did as asked, showing new arrivals around Atchison the town. When they came with money for him to use, he let them keep it but stood ready with advice on how to best spend their funds. In turn, the new arrivals admired Atchison well enough to honor him at banquets.

 

“The prosperity or ruin of the whole South” A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Three

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2

Proslavery Missourians and antislavery Kansans had a parallel series of conventions in their respective jurisdictions. We left David Rice Atchison, late senator from Missouri, firmly turning down the effort to turn one into the start of his reelection campaign. Bourbon Dave had given up on Washington, at least in the near term, in favor of saving Kansas for slavery. Through it, he would also save slavery in Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, and spread it to the other territories.

In the summer of 1855, almost everything turned out to Atchison’s liking. His border ruffians had secured the Kansas legislature for their own men. They ousted Andrew Reeder, who had defied them. Between governors, Daniel Woodson filled in and he had already proven his proslavery bona fides. That Franklin Pierce passed him over to appoint Wilson Shannon did not thrill the Missouri border, but Shannon soon earned the endorsement of Atchison’s Kansas-based organ, the Squatter Sovereign. The fall brought invitations for Atchison to go east and speak for the cause, as he had probably done during the winter. He declined them, citing obligations at home, but answered with a letter that made his case.

We (“the border ruffians”) have the whole power of the Northern states to content with, single-handed and alone, without assistance and almost without sympathy from any quarter; yet we are undismayed. Thus far we have bewen victorious and with the help of God, we will still continue to conquer. … The contest with us is one of life and death, and it will be so with you and your institutions if we fail. Atchison, Stringfellow and the “border ruffians” of Missouri fill a column of each abolition paper published in the North; abuse most foul, and falsehood unblushing is poured out upon us; and yet we have no advocate in the Southern press-and yet we have no assistance from the Southern States. But the time wilol shortly come when that assistance must and will be rendered. The stake the “border ruffians” are playing for is a mighty one. … In a word, the prosperity or ruin of the whole South depends on the Kansas struggle.

Atchison’s biographer added the emphasis, which neatly encapsulate’s the ex-senator’s view of the question. He certainly wrote it to exhort and guilt his fellow southerners into action, but he believed it too. Those who invited him might never have expected Atchison to turn up -such invitations often served more as a way to request a public letter- but even if they did he had work to do and probably didn’t think Kansas could spare him. The rise of the free state movement in the fall proved Atchison right.

Daniel Woodson

To answer that threat, establishment figures in Kansas tired to take a moderate tone with their Law and Order party. They positioned themselves as moderate alternative to Atchison’s hooliganism in November. At the end of the month, Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow. The ensuing strife put those hopes to rest. Daniel Woodson wrote straightaway to Kelley and Stringfellow at the Squatter Sovereign, who he could depend on to pass word into Missouri and Kansas had a new invasion. The territorial secretary especially asked that his friends bring “the Platte City cannon.” The letter crossed the border and came into Atchison’s hands. He read it to a mass meeting at Platte City, then took two hundred men into Kansas to join the campaign against abolitionism.

Yet Atchison’s rhetorical, and occasionally physical, militancy fell short again. When Wilson Shannon negotiated a settlement with the free state leadership at Lawrence, he and Albert Boone took the governor’s side in talking down the army that Atchison had himself helped gather. His argument then had less to do with principal than public relations. The antislavery side had maneuvered things so that if the proslavery men struck, they would appear as the aggressors. Without Governor Shannon’s blessing, withdrawn thanks to the settlement, turned an irregular militia into a lawless mob that would destroy the Democracy come election time and put “an abolition President” in power.

Horace Greeley

Not that this mattered to Atchison’s Missouri foes. Still a potential senator, they castigated him for plotting the destruction of the Industrial Luminary and voting in Kansas, the latter of which forfeited his Missouri citizenship and disqualified him. Failing reelection, the Missouri Democrat thought Atchison might forge some kind of breakaway proslavery nation. Atchison’s biographer, William Parrish, found no evidence for any of this. In the Democrat’s pages, even the convention where Atchison refused to make the affair into an election event proved his perfidy; the paper recast it as a failed attempt at the same. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune declared that the Squatter Sovereign’s masthead endorsed Atchison for president on the Know-Nothing ticket. The paper did endorse Atchison for the presidency, until he told them to stop, but always and only as a Democrat.

With all that going on, Missouri’s General Assembly again convened to elect a senator and again failed to manage the feat. Both houses of the legislature agreed that they should hold an election, but could not agree on a time for it. Moments of legislative grace like this did much to explain why these same bodies would eventually vote to strip themselves of the power to choose their senators in ratifying the Seventeenth Amendment. Atchison’s seat in Washington remained empty until 1857.