chaos at the political conventions -- 7/22/16

Today's selection -- from Franklin Pierce by Michael F. Holt. Given the rancor of the current political environment, it is worth recalling the extraordinary chaos and rancor in the United States in the months leading up to the 1856 political conventions. The Whig party had effectively disintegrated, and was being replaced by three nascent parties -- the Know Nothings, the North Americans, and the Republicans. Unbelievably, while two competing governments were vying for control of the territory of Kansas, Congressman Preston Brooks was beating Senator Charles Sumner unconscious on the floor of the Senate, and President Franklin Pierce was burned in effigy while seeking the Democratic Party renomination:

"Meanwhile, the Know Nothings' national nominating convention in Philadelphia fractured along sectional lines over the slavery extension issue. Most northern delegates stomped out in disgust when the convention nominated former president Millard Fillmore and when its national platform failed to call for repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and for reimposition of the 1820 ban on slavery north of the thirty-six-thirty line. Dubbing themselves North Americans, they called for a sepa­rate party nominating convention in New York City, one week before the Republican national convention was scheduled to meet. The bolt of northern Know Nothings did not assure Republicans that they might join forces with their new party, which styled itself the defender of northerners' rights against Slave Power aggressions. It did, however, enhance the chances that North Americans might do so.

"In May, scarcely two weeks before Democrats convened in Cincinnati, that assurance ultimately came. Friction between the official territorial and 'free state' governments in Kansas, both of which were heavily armed, was almost inevitable. One flashpoint concerned men accused of violating the laws of one government who paid fealty to the other, whether or not those violations had anything to do with slavery. This was the case when the proslavery legislature sent a posse, including many Missourians, to arrest several 'free state' leaders in the town of Lawrence, Kansas, on May 21, 1856. The posse terror­ized the townsfolk, destroyed the printing press of an antislav­ery newspaper, and shelled a stoutly built hotel with cannon fire. No blood was shed, yet this 'invasion,' immediately labeled the 'Sack of Lawrence,' provided grist for the Republican propa­ganda mill in northeastern states. 'The War Actually Begun­ --Triumph of the Border Ruffians -- Lawrence in Ruins -- Several Persons Slaughtered -- Freedom Bloodily Subdued,' hyperbolized the eastern Republican press.

"Two days before this incident, on May 19, 1856, Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts Republican senator with Free Soil antecedents, began a carefully rehearsed and extraordinarily vituperative two-day speech on the Senate floor called 'The
Crime against Kansas.' In it he attacked the South, the state of South Carolina, and, in wantonly cruel language, South Caro­lina's senior senator Andrew Pickens Butler, who had tempo­rarily returned to his home state. Southerners in Washington were furious, and one of them, Representative Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina, a distant cousin of Butler, deter­mined to avenge the insult to his state and his family. On May 22, he entered the Senate chamber, accosted Sumner who sat at his desk, and beat him into bloody unconsciousness with a gutta-percha cane. No other incident in 1856 so enraged the North or ensured that most northern Know Nothings would indeed enlist in the Republicans' anti-southern crusade. The more potent the Republican Party appeared in the North, the more remote were [incumbent Franklin] Pierce's chances of obtaining the Demo­crats' presidential nomination.

"Perhaps a better index of Pierce's current standing in the North, however, occurred in his hometown of Concord, New Hampshire. In late May its residents, who had purchased a magnificent horse for Pierce when he went off to Mexico in 1847, now burned him in effigy along with Preston Brooks."


Michael F. Holt


Franklin Pierce: The American Presidents Series: The 14th President, 1853-1857


Times Books


Copyright 2010 by Michael F. Holt


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