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
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.
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.”