Franklin Pierce - The territorial question

The same phenomenon transpired in the central drama of the Pierce years. Franklin Pierce started without a policy on the Kansas issue. The vast area to the west of Iowa, soon to be called Nebraska, and the sprawling plains to the west of Missouri, soon to be called Kansas, were without territorial government. The land was ripe for settlement, and squatters were eager to get at the virgin land. Railroad speculators, desiring a central route to the Pacific, also wanted the area organized and populated. Few, least of all Pierce, wanted the resident Indians to remain a hindrance to white settlement. The problem was that the land had been part of the Louisiana Purchase. All of it, being north of the 36°30' line, was declared free territory by the Missouri Compromise. Southerners wanted the ban on slavery removed.

The hardest fighters for removal were Missouri slaveholders. They feared that if their state, already bordered by the free states of Iowa and Illinois, were surrounded on a third side by free territory, slavery in Missouri was doomed. Senator David R. Atchison, the Missouri slaveholders' champion, especially insisted on repeal of the Missouri Compromise before organizing the territory for settlement. Northerners deplored Atchison's insistence.

It had been easy for many years to deal with the problem simply by not legalizing settlement, but the option of doing nothing was no longer available in 1854, because pressures for organizing territorial government were too intense. With the Pierce administration still pursuing the time-honored expedient, the burden of resolving the problem was placed on the shoulders of the Senate Committee on the Territories, chaired by Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.

Douglas, another Young America northern Democrat, was all for organizing a government to oversee territorial expansion, especially as he had some personal interest in a railroad route to the Pacific through these lands. More important, his Americanism assumed the necessity of establishing local governments in these areas so that white men could decide on their own institutions for themselves. He had no use for big government imposing policy on remote areas. He deplored congressional decisions, such as the Missouri Compromise, negating slavery in far-off places whose inhabitants might desire it. He wished to institutionalize local popular control, which he called popular sovereignty, by providing a territorial government for Kansas and Nebraska and allowing territorial residents to decide on slavery and everything else.

At first, Douglas sought to duck the politically dangerous step of actually repealing the Missouri Compromise and thereby repelling the North. He would say nothing about the old ban. He would merely report out a bill giving settlers in Kansas and Nebraska the right to vote for or against slavery at the time of statehood.

Atchison and other southerners would not permit that evasion. If the Missouri Compromise outlawed slavery in these areas during the territorial phase, no slaveholder would be around to vote for slavery in the statehood phase. According to Douglas' own popular-sovereignty principles, citizens on the spot had the right to decide on their own institutions as soon as they elected any government. If Douglas would not honor his personal creed, the South would block his bill. Douglas finally relented. He added language permitting local inhabitants to vote on slavery during the territorial years.

Southern Whigs, always eager to show that southern Democrats only pretended to be friends of slavery, pointed out Douglas' remaining loophole. Until inhabitants voted, the Missouri Compromise would abolish slavery. Thus, no slaveholding territorial residents would be present to legalize slavery in the territorial phase. Whigs, led by Archibald Dixon of Kentucky, accordingly demanded that the slavery restriction of the Missouri Compromise be repealed.

With pressure on Douglas mounting, Pierce and his cabinet belatedly realized that critical policy was being made outside the administration. The panicky cabinet hurriedly conducted its own discussion of the explosive problem. The debate yielded a solution the president thought just right. Territorial government should be organized with no mention of the Missouri Compromise and the question of slavery in the territories should be left to the Supreme Court. Pierce and the majority of his cabinet thought the Missouri ban was unconstitutional on just the grounds the Supreme Court would use in the Dred Scott decision three years later. Congress, reasoned Pierce, could not outlaw slave property without violating the constitutional ban on seizing property without due process of law. The Court would therefore have to decide to throw out the Missouri Compromise. The Court, not the administration, would take the blame for removing a sacred law, and the sacred Court could withstand criticism more than could an administration already vulnerable in the North.

The cabinet's program, so like the Buchanan-Belmont plan for annexing Cuba, was perfect stuff for a northern man with southern principles. Pierce was sure the Court would give the South everything a southerner could desire in a conciliatory way no northerner would find offensive. But Douglas had gone too far and knew too well that southerners would reject dodges such as Pierce's. On the very day the cabinet decided on an evasive way past the Missouri Compromise, the senator from Illinois caved into Archibald Dixon's demand to stop evading. Having decided that repeal of the Missouri Compromise was necessary to keep southerners behind the bill to provide government for Kansas and Nebraska, Douglas asked Jefferson Davis to arrange a conference at the White House the very next day, a Sunday. Pierce said he could not work on the Sabbath. Douglas insisted. Davis pleaded. The obliging Pierce reluctantly agreed to chat.

What transpired at that historic White House meeting will always remain a mystery. The atmosphere appears to have been tense. Pierce probably gently urged his plan. Douglas certainly insisted that political reality demanded his. At any rate, the world quickly knew that Pierce was making Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska bill the centerpiece of administration policy.

Why did Pierce accept the burdens of a pro-southern policy on Kansas, as on Cuba, far more offensive than his own? Because he again had no choice. Just as the Ostend Manifesto was proclaimed before Pierce could disavow it, so the Douglas policy had assumed a momentum of its own before the president could move to stop it. Moreover, in the light of the political realities that Douglas confronted in the Senate, Pierce must have been brought to see that evasion would not work. Pierce's proposal to let the Supreme Court decide on slavery was even more likely to be unacceptable to Atchison than was Douglas' proposal to let state-makers decide, and for the same reasons. Until the Court decided to let slavery into the territories, the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery would prevail; and even if the Court agreed with Pierce, the North would gain a toehold in Kansas before judges removed the restriction. Atchison wanted slavery in Kansas immediately and with no weighty provisos about entrance being legal. Given Atchison's power among southern Democrats, the Missouri Compromise had to be repealed or no Democratic administration could make policy. Douglas meant to make law. The president could choose whether to make war.

Pierce could only choose to make peace. Douglas' popular-sovereignty policy, after all, was Pierce's policy too. Local control was indeed the essence of what the Democratic party stood for. Pierce had not been elected to fight an intraparty battle to retain a big-government ban on slavery in the territories. He was elected to administer Democratic party policy in an amiable southern way. Now Missourians would not permit amiability to interfere with what they saw as a proslavery death struggle. The harsh conflict a southern-leaning coalition had elected Pierce to soothe was producing southern demands too harsh for the soother to handle.

With the two most important northern Democrats joining hands with the South on a proslavery bill, the national majority party proceeded to enact the minority's wishes. A coalition of almost all southerners and over half the northern Democrats controlled the Senate easily and barely secured the House. The Senate passed the Kansas-Nebraska bill by a lopsided 37–14; the House concurred, 113–100. Northern House Democrats were horridly split, 44–42 for the bill. With Northern Whig congressmen, 45 strong, unanimously against Douglas' creation, the North voted against the South's wishes by an overwhelming two-thirds majority.

Thus was enacted perhaps the most important legislation any administration ever sponsored. Perhaps not even the Federal Reserve Act or the Social Security Act had such an enormous immediate impact on the American people. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which the Pierce administration had finally made its own, led directly to the rise of the Republican party, Bleeding Kansas, the collapse of the National Democratic party, and Abraham Lincoln's election. The inconsequential Mr. Pierce, by joining Stephen A. Douglas in bowing to the South's pressure, had finally become monumentally consequential.

The first price of enacting the South's wishes over the North's protests was the destruction of any possible benefit from Pierce's conciliation of the northern Barnburners. The irrelevance of the earlier uproar about patronage was now apparent. On the one hand, John Dix's appointment was scarcely sufficient to stop another, and this time irretrievable, bolt from the Democratic party by northern Free-Soilers, who were appalled that areas where slavery had been banned were now open to it. On the other hand, the lack of patronage for moderate Democrats in both North and South was scarcely sufficient to provoke men in the middle toward extremist parties. Southern Democrats were delighted with the Kansas-Nebraska Act; northern moderates were frightened by the storm of Yankee Free-Soil fanaticism.

In the midterm elections of 1854, Free-Soil, anti-Nebraska agitation yielded the utter destruction of that fragile northern plurality Pierce had received in 1852. In the congressional election, Democrats lost every Free-Soil state except California and Pierce's own New Hampshire. The president was mystified by all those northern voters beyond his state. Why worry about repealing the Missouri Compromise? The Court would have soon declared it unconstitutional anyway. Why worry about slavery in Kansas? The place was too far north for bondage. Why not appease the South? The law would give the North every opportunity to push its superior numbers into the West. Young Hickory from the Granite Hills, for all his attempts to do things indirectly, simply could not understand why the direct policies stuffed down his reluctant throat seemed so morally atrocious to other Yankees. The provincial was out of contact with his section.

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