William W Freehling. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
An intriguing paradox characterizes Franklin Pierce’s administration: on the one hand, few administrations exerted such a powerful impact on the social and political life of the American nation, but on the other hand, few presidents exercised such little influence on their administration’s policies. Pierce was an inconsequential charmer who staked his claim for presidential greatness on other people’s not very charming initiatives. His failure was not just his own but also that of a political culture so fragmented that its factions could agree only on a pleasant nonentity as president yet so convulsed that it demanded a president who would act forcefully. A split culture thus bred a non-actor clinging to more forceful statesmen’s actions as if they were his own but who was sure to be destroyed when his adopted initiatives enraged half his civilization.
The convivial New Hampshire politician who was caught in this cosmopolitan historical trap had been born and bred to be a delightful provincial. He came into the world in a backwoods log cabin in Hillsbo-rough County on 23 November 1804. His father, Benjamin Pierce, was a rough-hewn local quasi squire who had been something of a Revolutionary War hero. For himself, the elder Pierce aspired to be a leader of the Granite Hills, but for his son, he wished an education a little better than New Hampshire could provide.
Franklin Pierce was accordingly sent to Bowdoin College in Maine. There he studied enough to graduate fifth in his class. More important, he was so attractive a personality as to gain the lifelong friendship of the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s least impressive literary effort would someday be the campaign biography of his college chum turned presidential candidate. Franklin Pierce’s affability was even in college pointing the way ahead.
After graduation, Pierce wandered through several law offices in search of training. At this time, his swashbuckling father was reaching the top of New Hampshire politics. Frank Pierce plunged into his father’s partisan political campaigns with great zest. The two Pierces rose together, both carried upward in the Jacksonian ascendancy. In 1827, the father was elected governor, and two years later the son was elected to the state legislature. In March 1833, the younger Pierce, not yet thirty, was elected to Congress.
Through it all, Pierce’s family, fraternity, faith, and fortune rested in his partisan god, the Democratic party. “A Republic without parties,” ran the future president’s very first political pronouncement, “is a complete anomaly.” For an undereducated young frontiersman without much taste for book learning but with great relish for political combat and camaraderie, the received wisdom of a rough-and-ready father, as embodied in the Democratic party, provided the best preparation for the political life. Or so it seemed to those in the Granite Hills who were charmed by the governor’s heir apparent.
In Washington, affability was not enough, even to those who spent months drinking and chatting as residents of Washington’s boardinghouses. Frank Pierce spent ten years in Congress, the first four in the House and the last six as a very young senator. In all that time, he made not one noteworthy speech, sponsored not one important bill, emerged not once from the shadows of the congressional hanger-on. He was known chiefly for being the congressman least able to hold his liquor. The reputation came naturally to this man of friendly manner, relaxed joshing, and relish for gossiping and partying. The New Englander, so often so tight-lipped and full of righteous learning, was here as genially openhearted as the stereotypical southerner.
The similarity of manner may explain part of Pierce’s one congressional political passion, a wholehearted adoption of the southerners’ hatred for New England abolitionists. Because the Democratic party was so strong in the South and the abolitionists so drawn to northern Whiggery, the northerner with southern principles was most often a Democrat. Nowhere in New England were southern sympathizers so common as in New Hampshire. Frank Pierce was the perfect example of the New Hampshire Democrat as friend of the slaveholder.
Pierce made his feelings clear in the “gag rule” controversy of the 1830s, the beginning of the great contest over slavery for his generation of politicians. He was a passionate advocate of the Democratic party’s policy of gagging antislavery proposals without debate. He ridiculed abolitionists as consisting of “children who knew not what they did,” ladies who were outside “their proper sphere,” and feminized men who outrageously interfered in other people’s homes. Congressman Pierce found nothing such fun as having a couple of toddies with southern friends, quickly becoming boisterously tipsy, and then pouring drunken hatred on the fanatics who would break up the Union to abolish bondage.
In the early 1840s, Pierce came to realize such adventures were getting him nowhere. Strident support of the South and automatic acceptance of everything Jacksonian were making for a career of mere competence. Meanwhile, the Washington boardinghouse scene was altogether too tempting for one of his propensity for hard drinking. Residence in Washington was even worse for Mrs. Pierce, who was exactly the kind of righteous, unbending New Englander her husband so little resembled. In 1842, the failed senator and his scoffing wife returned to New Hampshire in search of better fortune.
Back home, Pierce found that his talent for social intercourse could indeed lead to a fortune. He became one of New Hampshire’s richest and most successful trial lawyers. His genius was not in legal learning, for he rarely bothered searching the books for precedents. He was, rather, inordinately adept at sizing up a jury and appealing to their most intimate feelings. No opposing lawyer was as likable as Pierce. Few juries could resist his easy manner.
When the Mexican War came in the mid-1840s, Pierce was once again called away from his successes in the Granite Hills, summoned to a duty beyond his talents. A brigadier general, he was to lead his men in the assault on Mexico City but arrived too late for the final battle. He was wounded grievously and ingloriously: when his horse badly stumbled, he fainted and fell. His aching frame had to be hoisted into the saddle to ride out too late for the climactic Battle of Chapultepec.
When the war ended, he was once again glad to return to his smiling New Hampshire homeland. He once again became the most ingratiating of trial lawyers and the most pleasant of backwoods talkers. This was the man who one last time was called out of New Hampshire, this time to be president of the United States at a time of grave national peril.
Ascent to the Presidency
The incredible happened because, in the year 1852, only a man of Pierce’s soothing mediocrity could satisfy a terribly divided Democratic party. In 1848, Free-Soil Democrats had seceded from the party to support Martin Van Buren’s anti-southern third-party effort. After the Compromise of 1850 somewhat settled angry political turmoil, these so-called Barn-burners returned to their scorched party. Southerners were not happy about having the fugitives back. Northerners who had stayed were even less happy with the returned “traitors.” Everyone was prepared to hate everyone else’s candidate, and any candidate with any firm position was bound to excite ire. The result was that none of the Democrats’ leading men—especially Lewis Cass of Michigan, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, and young Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois—could garner the necessary two-thirds majority of the Democratic convention.
The formula for breaking the deadlock was to find a southern man whom the North could trust; a northern man whom the South could trust; or, best of all, a northern man with southern principles whom not even anti-southern northerners could much dislike. It first occurred to a Virginian, on the convention’s thirty-fifth ballot, that no one disliked Franklin Pierce. He was that rarity, a New Englander liked even by slaveholders. If the Barn-burners distrusted so southernized a northerner, they knew how pleasant he was and how he, with his easygoing nature, might respect differences. On the forty-ninth ballot, the convention nominated “Young Hickory from the Granite Hills.”
In the election, the latest Young Hickory scored an electoral college triumph, 254-42, rivaling Old Hickory’s. But his popular vote margin was dangerously thin. Pierce won the presidency despite receiving 14,000 fewer votes than his five opponents in the North. His national popular-vote majority of 44,000 came heavily from the Democratic party’s southern power base. (Pierce’s popular vote was 1.6 million, and that of his chief rival, the Whig Winfield Scott, was 1.4 million.) His was a mandate to lean a little precariously South, without quite losing a balance wavering in the North. It was the perfect posture for a northern southerner who loved everyone except abolitionists. The man and the hour had met.
Conciliation and Expansion
Providence quickly delivered another message to the Pierces. On the way to Concord from Boston on 6 January 1853, the president-elect’s train car derailed and rolled down an embankment. Pierce and his wife escaped injury, but their beloved eleven-year-old son, Benjamin, the only one of their three children to survive infancy, was fatally mangled before their eyes. Mrs. Pierce, always a dour hater of the political life, pronounced the death God’s way of leaving an inadequately prepared man free of domestic distraction. Pierce, who knew his credentials, thought she might be right. “No heart but my own,” he told the nation in his inaugural, “can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others.” Meanwhile, Mrs. Pierce was in her bedroom, penciling little notes to Bennie apologizing for not loving him enough.
The self-doubting president in the big gloomy house was mercifully presented with initial tasks he had been trained to handle. Pierce, an effective party boss in New Hampshire, knew how to use patronage to build a coalition. Democrats had selected him in part because a man so blandly conciliatory would invite all party factions to share the victory. His assigned task was to fuse both northerners who had bolted the party in 1848 and southerners who had considered breaking up the Union in 1850 with the middling sorts who had championed the Compromise of 1850 as a party-restoring, Union-saving measure. The task required critical patronage plums for Democratic extremists of North and South.
The conciliatory party boss from New Hampshire, predictably, conciliated. He awarded one of the leading southern radicals, Jefferson Davis, the post of secretary of war. He gave one of the leading New York Barnburners, John A. Dix, the assignment of assistant secretary of the treasury. True both to the southern-dominated coalition that had elected him and to his own southern leanings, appointments went more often to slaveholders. The southern tilt was the more pronounced because some of Pierce’s important northern appointments, such as that of Caleb Cushing of Massachusetts to be attorney general, predictably went to northerners like himself, who considered abolitionists to be irresponsible Yankees. Cushing and Davis were ultimately the most important cabinet members precisely because Pierce was what he had been selected to be—a northern man with sympathy for slaveholders. But with appointments such as the sensitive Dix selection, the new boss had also been true to the party’s need for healing. The politician had fulfilled his mandate.
The great middle of the Democratic party proceeded to wail that this appeaser of extremes had ignored the centrists. The whine echoes in the historical literature. Pierce, the patronage distributor, is often condemned for failing to steer in the middle of the road. The truth is that in the manner of the forgiving diplomat, he was trying to broaden the middle to include both extremes. If the party was to save the Union, he could do no less; if the coalition had needed an unforgiving centrist, he would never have been the politico selected. His patronage gestures to all left few in revolt. The question was whether his policies could equally well keep merely half-loyal extremists in uneasy alliance with the scoffing middle.
Pierce’s announced policies combined the party’s old unenergetic domestic program with its new energetic foreign policy. This youngest Hickory yet was a champion of the “Young America” program, which sought to extend American energies throughout the hemisphere. “My administration will not be controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion,” bragged the new president. Any domestic troubles from hemispheric expansionism would be settled by the soothing principles of the Compromise of 1850. For the rest, his administration would prevent government intervention in the private sector and thus cause no irritations. As with the patronage, he would be a peacemaker, unless perchance expansionism required some new Mexican war.
His first—alas, also his last—triumph was a peaceful extension of American territories. In the Gadsden Treaty of early 1854, so called after its negotiator, James Gadsden of South Carolina, the Pierce administration bought some forty-five thousand square miles of territory from Mexico at a cost of $10 million. The United States received less acreage than Pierce desired and a great deal less than most ardent southern expansionists would like to have possessed on the slaveholders’ flank. But limits on the territorial gain of the South had the unintended effect of limiting the political damage in the North. The more extreme northern antiexpansionists could not stir up a Mexican War-style revulsion against so slight a concession to Young America’s appetites. The conciliating character in the White House had brought forth a conciliatory result, largely because the Mexicans had to some degree fulfilled yet blunted his administration’s thrust.
Other people were not so kind to Pierce in his pursuance of the larger and more devoutly desired of his Young America policies. Cuba was truly the apple of this president’s eye. His southern cronies wished it as an extension of their slaveholding empire. His democratic sympathies went out to Cuban victims of Spanish tyranny. He wanted to extend freedom for whites by buying up a territory enslaving blacks. If the Whig antislavery crowd found that formula grotesquely inhumane, the handsome president here again exuded that style of American humaneness, with a southern accent, that he was elected to serve. He only needed to secure this southern extension as genially as he had secured the Gadsden Purchase.
The president adopted a seductive strategy for bringing a Cuban purchase attractively to the American Congress. August Belmont, the American banker, believed that because the Spanish king was badly in debt, Spain’s creditors could discreetly induce the monarch to ease the pressures on him by selling the far-off island. The American public could then be informed that the tyrant had willingly sold a neighboring people into American freedom.
Pierce put some subtle men into the right spots to bring off this delicate public relations coup. Belmont was given a diplomatic post at The Hague, where he would be in close proximity to the financial and political powers whose aid he would need to enlist. This move was suggested by future president James Buchanan, the ambassador to Great Britain and a prime advocate of Belmont’s scheme. Pierce waited for the apple to fall deliciously into his lap.
Unfortunately, his Cuban initiative came to national attention with all the delicacy of a herd of buffalo. The chief buffalo was one Pierre Soulé, a swashbuckling Louisiana extremist whom Pierce had appointed ambassador to Spain. He pursued high-handed ways of intimidating the Spanish authorities into selling Cuba. With Spain stiffening against Soulé’s public posturing, the Pierce administration decided on a private conference of its foreign ministers at Ostend, Belgium, in October 1854. From that meeting of Buchanan, Soulé, and Minister to France John Y. Mason of Virginia came the notorious Ostend Manifesto.
The manifesto, chiefly composed by Buchanan, largely urged the Belmont-Buchanan plan of quiet negotiations toward purchase. But Soulé insisted on some louder additional phrases concerning the forcible coercion of a monarch who would not voluntarily sell. Should Spanish possession endanger American power and security, declared the ministers, “by every law human and divine, we shall be justified in wresting it from Spain, if we possess the power.” This jarring language, so different from Pierce’s usually conciliatory approach, doomed Pierce’s policy. The Ostend Manifesto, when made public, inspired an outcry in the North. Since the ministers were Pierce’s, his administration was undermined.
The responsibility was in fact the president’s. He had allowed the notoriously boorish Soulé to attend the European conference, against Buchanan’s discreet advice. Pierce had permitted Soulé’s presence because his southern friends wanted what they had achieved with the patronage—at least an extremist’s input. But this time, indiscreet slave-holders had pushed too hard, and the likable balancer in the White House had been shoved way too far to the South to protect his precarious hold on the North.
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.
The Pierce administration’s last two years were anti-climactic and predictable. With the North on fire over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the president at a loss to understand why, the administration was in no position to keep ahead of an ever-worsening crisis. Moreover, even with all the advantage of hindsight, one cannot see how anyone could have prevented the disaster that came to be known as Bleeding Kansas. The same passion for protecting slavery in Missouri that had led Atchison to insist on repealing the Missouri Compromise inevitably led Missouri ruffians to pour into Kansas, seeking to legalize slavery. The same revulsion for repealing emancipation that had led northerners to turn against the Democratic party led New England settlers to race west, seeking to re-install freedom. Against all this, the bland president again had but the same blunt weapon—he could appoint conciliatory administrators.
Conciliation again could not be enough. Pierce’s compromise choice for territorial governor of Kansas was Andrew Reeder of Pennsylvania, still another northern man with southern principles. Reeder, like Douglas’ first Kansas-Nebraska draft, adopted too conciliatory a stance to suit proslavery Missourians. Atchison and other Missouri roughnecks believed that northern “fanatics,” organized in the New England Emigrant Aid Company, were invading Kansas to prevent the adoption of slavery. The Missourians accordingly developed what they considered a counterinsurgency policy of pushing more proslavery settlers into Kansas and, failing that, of propelling Missourians over the border at the last moment to vote proslavery on election day, 30 March 1855. They demanded that the governor recognize their elected government, wherever they wished to establish it. With the aid of Missourians in Kansas for the day, proslavery settlers selected a proslavery legislature to meet near Missouri’s border.
Northerners, on the other hand, called these transient voters illegitimate. Free-Soilers believed aggressive Missourians were first to cause all Kansas’ troubles. Northern settlers accordingly urged Reeder to nullify the election of the first, proslavery Kansas legislature.
Reeder tried to satisfy both sides. On the critical matter of certifying the election of proslavery legislators, the governor accepted most of the southern selections and called the legislature into session. But his call edged toward “fairness” by declaring that the legislature should meet one hundred miles distant from the Missouri border. Atchison protested that the location was too northern to be fair. The Missouri senator also undercut Reeder’s pose of fairness by noting that the governor owned the land where he had called the legislature to meet. Atchison brusquely demanded Reeder’s ouster. The Missouri titan urged the appointment of a governor more sympathetic with southern attempts to repress northerners’ “invasion” of a “southern” homeland.
Pierce, with his lifelong hatred of abolitionists, accepted Atchison’s premises. The president thought the Kansas governor remiss for not blaming the origins of the trouble on the “invading” New England Emigrant Aid Company. Pierce also deplored Reeder’s inability to demonstrate that local control by the settlers themselves worked fairly and peacefully. In July 1855, after some wavering, the president dismissed Reeder. Pierce then appointed as Kansas governor yet another conciliatory northern man with southern principles, Wilson Shannon, former governor of Ohio.
The territory Shannon was sent out to administer was now simply not administrable. Northern settlers had organized their own government under the so-called Topeka Constitution. With two governments claiming legitimacy and responsibility for law and order, violence could not be avoided. Shannon spent the better part of a year asking Pierce for troops to deter bloodshed.
Not even soldiers could prevent war. In May 1856 the nation’s newspapers blazed with the news of a total breakdown of civil peace in Kansas. First came tidings of the southern sack of the Free-Soil town of Lawrence. Then came news of the so-called Pottawatomie Massacre, in which John Brown and seven others murdered five proslavery settlers near Pottawatomie Creek on 24-25 May 1856.
Pierce’s bad fortune was to have the Democratic National Convention of 1856 meet in Cincinnati at the very moment the most bloody news was coming east. Whoever was to blame for the breakdown of government in Kansas (and Pierce always blamed the New England Emigrant Aid Company), the president’s administration was not providing law and order. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, itself a political horror in the North, was doubling the horror by ushering in a stream of events indicating that the Democratic party’s master formula, local control of slavery-related matters, produced not fairness but disaster in the territories.
Pierce dearly wished for another term, for another chance to prove that his administration could yet rescue the principle of popular sovereignty. But his moment had long since passed. In 1852 the party had needed a Yankee who leaned South with a smile. In 1856, Pierce’s coalition needed a northern man with southern principles disassociated from policies Pierce had frowned upon but swallowed. James Buchanan, Pierce’s man in England, had luckily been out of the country throughout the events that had made the last of the Young Hickories very old very quickly. In June 1856, Buchanan easily wrested the party nomination from the sitting president. That had never happened before in American politics.
Pierce never recovered from this unprecedented repudiation. His presidential term having ended as dismally as his congressional years, he was reduced to wandering over the globe until 1860, wondering what had gone wrong. Thereafter he sank even more deeply into an alcoholic haze, his lifelong battle with the demon drink dismally lost. He died in 1869, almost unnoticed, once again almost unknown. His reputation in the history books is about as bleak. So it had to be for an easygoing New Hampshire back-woodsman who was called forth to keep a party happy but savaged in a conflict fast yielding blood and bullets and old men trying to find laughter at the bottom of a bottle.