14 January 2012

CIVIL WAR: THE SEQUEL? The Election Of 2012 (Part 2)

FRANKLIN PIERCE The Democrats displaced the Whigs in 1852, when their nominee, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, was elected. He took office on March 4, 1853. A Democrat, he was in the parlance of the times a "doughface," a Northerner with Southern sympathies. Not the overwhelming choice of his party, he was nominated as the party's candidate for president on the 49th ballot at the 1852 Democratic National Convention. Nonetheless, in the presidential election, the Franklin Pierce-William King ticket won by a landslide in the Electoral College.

As president, he was a poor leader, was apparently beholden to a fringe wing of his party, and was generally a divisive president. Many of his policies were widely criticized and earned him a reputation as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. Certainly, he was mediocre. I once met a judge advocate who was a graduate of the Franklin Pierce Law Center (now the University of New Hampshire School of Law). He told me that in honor of President Filmore, the students referred to the school as “Frank’s Pretty Good Law School.”

Every action taken by the Pierce administration was viewed through the pre-eminent political lens of the day: slavery.

When the administration, in conformity with the Monroe Doctrine, attempted to get Great Britain to abandon its colonies in Central America, anti-slavery factions saw the attempt as a means of acquiring new slave states for the South. Additionally, the administration was embarrassed when the Secretary of State ordered several US diplomats in the Netherlands to prepare what became known as “the Ostend Manifesto.” That document, which was submitted to the President, proposed that the United States purchase Cuba from Spain for $120 million . If Spain refused, the administration would wage a pretextual war to “wrest” the island from Spain. Abolitionists immediately saw a plot to add Cuba to the Union as a slave State. When the United States negotiated a treaty with Mexico to purchase a nearly 30,000-square-mile tract (which now makes up southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico), Northerners insisted on seeing it as a ruse to add to slave territory.

The land, known as the Gadsden Purchase after the US ambassador to Mexico who negotiated the treaty, was deemed necessary by civil engineers and the War Department to enable the construction of a transcontinental railroad. It provided flatter, less mountainous routes around the southern Rockies to California. Also including terms that reconciled outstanding border issues following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War, it should have been a victory for the Democrats and manifest destiny. Instead, because the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, and other Southerners favored the purchase, it was condemned as a pro-slavery land grab.

I have always suspected that the Northern, especially the New England, opposition to the purchase was less an issue of morality and more one of self-interest. Northern manufacturing interests had long insisted on high protective tariffs to secure their internal markets, at the expense of Southern exporters, whose cotton was exposed to retaliatory tariffs. Part of the goal of the purchase was to construct a trans-continental railroad, via a southern, less mountainous route. As railroads grew, some business-oriented Southerners saw an opportunity to get their crops and products to the western coast. This was the age of the clipper ship and vast trade by New England, via Cape Horn, with rapidly growing California. While a southern railroad might be good for the Country, New England’s interests reigned supreme. Sacrifice for the Nation was demanded only of the South.

Pierce antagonized the North and pleased the South by diligently enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act which was a component of the Compromise of 1850. One case, in particular, involved the return of an escaped slave who was apprehended in Massachusetts.

But Pierce’s support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that presented a major political test. The thirty year old Missouri Compromise, which based free state-slave state decisions on a nominally objective bright geographic line, was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. As a result, the Democrats pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act which substituted the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” for geography. The territories of Kansas and Nebraska would determine whether they were to be free or slave states by plebescite.

Seizing the opportunity, both sides of the issue eagerly renewed the reopened debate over expanding slavery in the American West. This, in turn, led to a mini-civil war in Kansas as pro- and anti-slavery forces came into the territory hoping to sway the referendum. Bleeding Kansas, the Pottawatomie Massacre, and the John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia were all products of this political compromise, the last on the issue of slavery in the Nation.

The susceptibility of “popular sovereignty” to outside influence was positively 21st Century in its application. Fraud and deceit were viewed as a moral imperative.

The first organized immigration to Kansas Territory was by citizens of slave states, most notably neighboring Missouri, who came to the territory to secure the expansion of slavery. Pro-slavery settlements were established by these immigrants at Leavenworth and Atchison, both located on the west bank of the Missouri River. At the same time, several anti-slavery organizations in the North, most notably the New England Emigrant Aid Company, organized and funded several thousand settlers to move to Kansas and vote to make it a free state. Free-State settlements were established deeper into the territory, in Topeka, Manhattan, and Lawrence. The election to Congress of a single territorial delegate was rife with fraud. Significantly less than half the ballots were cast by registered voters, and at one location, only 20 of over 600 voters were legal residents. While Kansas had approximately 1,500 registered voters at the time, not all of whom actually voted, over 6,000 votes were cast. A similar vote elected a pro-slavery territorial legislature. It would have made a Chicago politician blush.

The Pierce administration recognized that slave-state body as the lawful territorial government. The Free Staters, called a separate convention and adopted the “Topeka Constitution,” establishing a shadow anti-slavery government. Pierce continued to recognize the pro-slavery legislature even after a congressional investigative committee found its election illegitimate. He declared the Free Staters to be in rebellion and ordered federal troops to break up a meeting of the shadow government in Topeka.

The national angst and polarization was moving from intellectual and philosophical to confrontational and violent. Abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher collected funds to arm like-minded settlers with Sharps rifles, which were shipped west in boxes labeled "Bibles" and "Religious Materials." These state of the art weapons came to be sarcastically referred to as "Beecher's Bibles." By the summer of 1855, approximately 1,200 New Englanders had made the journey to the new territory, armed and ready to fight. In October, John Brown came to Kansas Territory to fight slavery. Then, on May 21, 1856, a group of slave staters entered the Free-State stronghold of Lawrence, where they burned the Free State Hotel, destroyed two newspaper offices and their printing presses, and ransacked homes and stores.

A few days later, John Brown led a group of Free Staters on an attack on the proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek. During the night of May 24, the group, which included four of Brown's sons, led five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords.

By August, thousands of proslavery men formed into armies and marched into Kansas. That same month, Brown and several of his followers engaged 400 proslavery soldiers in the "Battle of Osawatomie." The hostilities raged for another two months until Brown departed the Kansas Territory. In all, approximately 56 people died in Bleeding Kansas by the time the violence completely abated in 1859. Following the commencement of the Civil War, additional guerrilla violence erupted on the border between Kansas and Missouri.

[Historical Note: Your author’s great, great grandfather, Quartermaster Sergeant Pleasant Fountain (or Fontaine), Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant, 6th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, was killed in action in a skirmish with Confederate forces near Fidelity, Missouri. on April 7, 1863.]

Nor was the violence limited to the frontier. On the afternoon of May 22, 1856, Congressman Preston Smith Brooks (D. S.C.) physically attacked Senator Charles Sumner (D. Mass.) on the floor of the Senate chambers. Congressman Brooks was the nephew of Senator Andrew Butler (D. S.C.), whom Sumner had berated and ridiculed in a speech on the floor a few days earlier. Brooks repeatedly struck Sumner in the head with a heavy, gold-knobbed cane. Even after Sumner collapsed, Brooks continued to beat Sumner until the cane broke. Several other senators attempted to help Sumner, but were blocked by Rep. Laurence Keitt (D. S.C. , who held them back at gun point, shouting "Let them be!"

Sumner did not return to his Senate desk for three years as a result of his injuries. He later became a major player amongst the Radical Republicans in the Senate during the Civil War.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the events in “Bloody Kansas” outraged Northerners and provided the impetus for the formation of the Republican Party. That the country was stretched to the breaking point is evident in the aftermath of the Brooks-Sumner matter. Sumner was viewed as a martyr to the anti-slavery movement. Brooks was viewed as a hero and defender of Southern honor.

In the end, the continued deterioration of the national mood can be blamed in large part on Pierce. He surrounded himself with a cabinet and other advisors who were lockstep supporters. Thus, he was isolated from the growing national division and was unwilling to steer a steady, prudent course that might have sustained a broad measure of support. Having publicly committed himself to an ill-considered position, he maintained it steadfastly, but at disastrous cost to his reputation and, ultimately, the nation.

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