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Franklin Pierce: Northern Defender of Slavery

When New York Senator William Seward issued the solemn challenge to the assembled Southern senators during the debate on the Kansas-Nebraska measure he set off a monumental and historic battle. “We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give the victory petition to the side which is stronger in numbers,” Seward bellowed. Soon the New England Emigrant Society was formed with the goal of settling some 20,000 abolition-supporters in Kansas and establishing it as a free state. Aided by several prominent northern figures, they confronted the thousands mobilized in the South to colonize the territory for slavery. President Pierce appointed Andrew Reeder, a Democrat who endorsed the policy of popular sovereignty, as the first governor of Kansas Territory. Pierce’s instructions to Reeder was for him to act as an impartial arbiter in the struggles for statehood between those favoring a free state and those pushing for a slave state.

Intensifying the contest, however, was the open-ended, loose, and chaotic election laws that allowed voters to be eligible regardless of how recently they arrived in the territory. After pro-slavery voters prevailed in the initial contests for the territorial legislature the vote was shown to be riddled with fraud and Reeder refused to certify the election. This led Missouri Senator David Rice Atchison’s call for Reeder’s removal, and, under pressure, President Pierce fired Reeder. The pro-slavery territorial legislature promptly made any anti-slavery activities punishable by several penalties and instituted a pro-slavery oath as a requirement for appointment to political office. After a Big Spring meeting in 1855, free-soilers rejected the legitimacy of the territorial legislature prompting President Pierce to declare to Congress on January 24, 1856 that they were engaged in “organized resistance by force to the fundamental or any other Federal law and to the authority of the General Government.” Pierce had during the previous fall rejected a plea from the free soilers for protection from threatening pro-slavery “border ruffians.” It was during this period that fighting broke out between pro- and anti-slavery settlers leading to the dispatch of federal troops by President Pierce.

In his third State of the Union Message, Pierce warned of civil war yet took the side of the pro-slavery territorial government and charged the free soilers with “offensive and hopeless undertakings of reforming domestic institutions of other states, wholly beyond their control and authority.” Shoring up his southern support, Pierce declared the anti-slavery project must ultimately fail, “The storm of frenzy and fraction must inevitably dash itself in vain against the unshaken rack of the Constitution.”

While violence in the territory continued to escalate President Pierce came down hard on the anti-slavery forces in a speech January 24, 1856 criticizing them for toiling with “misdirected zeal in the attempt to propagate their social theories by the perversion and abuse of the powers of Congress.” Charging the New England Emigrant Aid Society with treason, Pierce had the federal troops under his command ready to suppress the anti-slavery forces in the state leading William Lloyd Garrison to note that the president was "ready to do all that the Slave Power demands at his hands." Later, prodded by Senator Stephen Douglas, the President recognized the Lecompton pro-slavery government which stood arrayed against the town of Lawrence that the anti-slavery forces made as their base.

Despite the South’s solid support for him Pierce was unable to secure renomination by the Democratic Party which chose Buchanan. Like Pierce, Buchanan vowed not to “legislate slavery into any territory, nor to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way.”

In his third annual message to Congress, Buchanan asserted that slaves were “treated with kindness and humanity. . . . Both the philanthropy and the self interest of the master have combined to produce this humane result.” Ironically the Democratic Party took a forthright stand on the issue of immigrants and immigrant opposing the nativist movement. Indeed, their fervent anti-black histrionics was joined by an equally fervent opposition to the nativist movement winning it the vote of urban ethnic blocs. In the aftermath of the Dred Scott decision many Democrats proudly proclaimed themselves to be the “white man’s party” defending the nation against the “Black Republicans,” the “nigger party,” alternately referred to as the “amalgamationists.”

During the 1852 presidential campaign Pierce and his opponent General Winfield Scott both backed the Compromise of 1850 and were equally committed to its harsh fugitive slave feature. Slavery was not a hotly-contested issue in this campaign that occurred less than a decade prior to the onset of the Civil War. Franklin Pierce retired from politics to practice law during the five year period from 1842 to 1847. When he became involved in politics again it was as a leading presidential candidate.

President Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce. 14th President

1853 to 1857

Birth: November 23, 1804, Hillsborough, New Hampshire

Death: October 8, 1869

Education: Bowdoin College

Religion: Episcopalian

Profession: Lawyer

Political Party: Democratic

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Life Portrait of Franklin Pierce, June 14, 1999

The Life of Franklin Pierce, 1852 by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864

The Slavery Experience, May 26, 2010

Pierce defeated General Winfield Scott handily in the 1852 election garnering 254 electoral votes to his opponent’s 42, and 1.6 million to 1.4 million popular votes. President Pierce’s inaugural address trumpeted American expansionism and vowed to defend slavery stressing his conviction “that involuntary servitude as it exists in different states of this Confederacy, is recognized by the constitution. I believe that it stands like any other admitted right, . . .”.

Franklin Pierce's administration and its allied pro-slavery forces, however, faced an unprecedented resistance to their dominance. The growing demographic, institutional, and political power of the northern African American communities dovetailed with a rise in anti-slavery strength throughout the North. Large segments of the northern public had grown increasingly critical of slavery as both in moral terms and especially as it clashed with key concerns of theirs. A free soil movement defending the interests of free white workers against the encroachments of the “Slave Power” became a significant factor politically. Regional anti-slavery figures such as Kentucky’s Cassius Clay had emerged to challenge the reign of slavery emphasizing its deleterious economic and social effects. Recognizing the dominance of the slave plantation in the areas where it existed, its crushing of non-related economic enterprises, its degradation of nominally free whites into low status plantation semi-lumpen, semi-proletariat and pauperized communities, and its anti-democratic tendencies heightened the resistance of northerners to the expansion of slavery.

The heightened black resistance to slavery throughout the country was of particular importance in creating the growing tension between the North and South over slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a catalyst for political mobilization of African Americans. A dormant black convention movement was reawakened by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. Some 140 delegates met in Rochester, New York is July 1853 to hammer out a program to oppose this new measure. President Pierce’s actions only reaffirmed their sentiments and conviction that militant action during the coming months and years would be a timely response to the stresses and threats confronting them. Fulfilling a campaign pledge, President Franklin Pierce vigorously enforced the Fugitive Slave Act. In 1854, after Anthony Burns, who had escaped from slavery in Virginia, was recaptured in Boston there was a popular outcry against his return to slavery. The United States marshal in the city requested federal troops to guarantee that Burns would remain in custody. Pierce unhesitatingly responded that the “law must be enforced” and ordered the official to “incur any expense of the law.” Dispatched a ship to transport the captive back to Virginia, Pierce was later termed “the chief slave catcher of the United States.”

Shortly before Pierce left office, he delivered a final speech that strongly denounced the Republican Party for splitting the nation along sectional lines. Later, his successor Buchanan took up a similar mantra asserting that slavery would be secure if not for abolitionist meddling, and that this propaganda has made the slavemaster unnecessarily insecure his own home.