April 09, 1854

Pierce on the Kansas-Nebraska Bill and the Prelude to Civil War

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The hostile reception accorded the repeal of the Missouri Compromise by the Kansas-Nebraska Act was exceptional, even in a time when any public discussion of slavery was inclined to divisiveness, rancor, and the occasional riot. Here President Pierce starkly defines the perimeters, and stakes, of the “Nebraska bill”:
 
I believe that the bill will pass - indeed it is quite certain that if a direct vote can be had in the House, it will command a majority.  Should the defection of men upon whom we ought to have been able in such a crisis to count with certainty, defeat the measure, I should contemplate with serious apprehension the consequences likely to followA conflict more strictly sectional and hence more dangerous to the peace & security of the Union than any in our past history seems to me to be inevitable. When then it may end time alone can determine. With my views of the Constitutional rights of the States of the Union and the great principles of popular sovereignty involved in this measure - With my convictions of its wisdom and its justice for the North and for the South for the East and for the West, I would not have any part of the responsibility of its defeat setting upon my conscience for any conceivable consideration. It is a great mistake to suppose that this bill as it passed the Senate is altogether agreeable to Southern Gentlemen and that no draft on the occasion is made upon their spirit of patriotic concession.  Broad differences of feeling and opinion prevail here between Northern and Southern Gentlemen, who vie with each other in the estimate they place upon the advantages & blessings of this Union - but there is at the same time an earnest purpose to stand by the Constitution and maintain the true spirit of the Compromise measures of 1850.  Such men know that to listen to the suggestions of blind prejudice & excited passion would be to invite ruin…
 
The ruin which Pierce foretold, however, was not the result of the Bill’s defeat, but its passage. In Kansas, anti-slavery “Free-Soilers” and pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” rushed in to determine whether the territory would be a free or a slave state; there was an election, a revolution, and a war. Abolitionist John Brown murdered pro-slavers in Kansas; Southern Congressman Brooks nearly killed Northern Senator Sumner in Washington; and in Illinois, a retired one-term Congressman now practicing law, Abraham Lincoln, was moved to return to politics to fight, with all he had, this terrible new law.

Autograph Letter Signed, as President, 4 pages, recto and verso, quarto, Washington, April 9, 1854. To the Hon. W.C. Clark in Manchester, N.H.

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Transcript

Hon. W.C. Clark
Manchester
NH

Private

Washington, Apr. 9, 1854

My dear Sir:

I have just received your letter of the 6th inst.

As to the character of the principals involved in the Nebraska bill and the practical effects, which will indoubtably flow from their adoption I agree with you entirely.  I believe that the bill will pass - indeed it is quite certain that if a direct vote can be had in the House, it will command a majority.  Should the defection of men upon whom we ought to have been able in such a crisis to count with certainty, defeat the measure, I should contemplate with serious apprehension the consequences likely to follow.

A conflict more strictly sectional and hence more dangerous to the peace & security of the Union than any in our past history seems to me to be inevitable. When then it may end time alone can determine.

With my views of the Constitutional rights of the States of the Union and the great principles of popular sovereignty involved in this measure - With my convictions of its wisdom and its justice for the North and for the South for the East and for the West, I would not have any part of the responsibility of its defeat setting upon my conscience for any conceivable consideration. It is a great mistake to suppose that this bill as it passed the Senate is altogether agreeable to Southern Gentlemen and that no draft on the occasion is made upon their spirit of patriotic concession.  Broad differences of feeling and opinion prevail here between Northern and Southern Gentlemen, who vie with each other in the estimate they place upon the advantages & blessings of this Union - but there is at the same time an earnest purpose to stand by the Constitution and maintain the true spirit of the Compromise measures of 1850.  Such men know that to listen to the suggestions of blind prejudice & excited passion would be to invite ruin.  They will struggle on and I will not allow myself to doubt their ultimate success.  I hope that you and Mrs. C. will enjoy your visit to  West Point. Please to present my kindest regards to her.

Your friend,

FRANKLIN PIERCE