The Needless Conflict

PrintPrintEmailEmail

He was industrious, capable, and tactful, a wellread Christian gentleman; he had acquired from forty years of public life a rich fund of experience. But he was pedestrian, humorless, calculating, and pliable. He never made a witty remark, never wrote a memorable sentence, and never showed a touch of distinction. Above all (and this was the source of his irresolution) he had no strong convictions. Associating all his life with southern leaders in Washington, this Pennsylvanian leaned toward their views, but he never disclosed a deep adherence to any principle. Like other weak men, he could be stubborn; still oftener, he could show a petulant irascibility when events pushed him into a corner. And like other timid men, he would sometimes flare out in a sudden burst of anger, directed not against enemies who could hurt him but against friends or neutrals who would not. As the sectional crisis deepened, it became his dominant hope to stumble through it, somehow, and anyhow, so as to leave office with the Union yet intact. His successor could bear the storm.

This was the President who had to deal, in Kansas and Washington, with men of fierce conviction, stern courage and, all too often, ruthless methods.

In Kansas the proslavery leaders were determined to strike boldly and unscrupulously for a slave state. They maintained close communications with such southern chieftains in Washington as Senator Slidell, Speaker James L. Orr, and Hovvell Cobb and Jacob Thompson, Buchanan’s secretaries of the Treasury and the Interior. Having gained control of the territorial legislature, they meant to keep and use this mastery. Just before Buchanan became President they passed a bill for a constitutional convention—and a more unfair measure was never put on paper. Nearly all county officers, selected not by popular vote but by the dishonestly chosen legislature, were proslavery men. The bill provided that the sheriffs and their deputies should in March, 1857, register the white residents; that the probate judges should then take from the sheriffs complete lists of qualified voters; and that the county commissioners should finally choose election judges.

Everyone knew that a heavy majority of the Kansas settlers were antislavery. Many, even ol the southerners, who had migrated thither opposed the “peculiar institution” as retrogressive and crippling in character. Everybody also knew that Kansas, with hardly thirty thousand people, burdened with debts, and unsupplied with fit roads, schools, or courthouses, was not yet ready lor statehood; it still needed the federal government’s care. Most Kansans refused to recognize the “bogus” legislature. Yet this legislature was forcing a premature convention, and taking steps to see that the election of delegates was controlled by sheriffs, judges, and county commissioners who were mainly proslavery Democrats. Governor John W. Geary, himself a Democrat appointed by Pierce, indignantly vetoed the bill. But the legislature immediately repassed it over Geary’s veto; and when threats against his life increased until citizens laid bets that he would be assassinated within forty days, he resigned in alarm and posted east to apprise the country of imminent perils.

Along the way to Washington, Geary paused to warn the press that a packed convention was about to drag fettered Kansas before Congress with a slavery constitution. This convention would have a free hand, for the bill just passed made no provision lor a popular vote on the instrument. Indeed, one legislator admitted that the plan was to avoid popular submission, for he proposed inserting a clause to guard against the possibility that Congress might return the constitution for a referendum. Thus, commented the Missouri Democrat , “the felon legislature has provided as effectually for getting the desired result as Louis Napoleon did tor getting himself elected Emperor.” All this was an ironic commentary on Douglas’ maxim: “Let the voice of the people rule.”

And Douglas, watching the reckless course of the Kansas legislators with alarm, saw that his principles and his political future were at stake. When his Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, he had given the North his solemn promise that a free, full, and Tailelection would decide the future of the two territories. No fraud ,no sharp practice, no browbeating would be sanctioned: every male white citizen should have use ol the ballot box. He had notified the South that Kansas was almost certain to be Tree soil. Now he professed confidence that President Buchanan would never permit a breach ol l’air procedure. He joined Buchanan in persuading one ol the nation’s ablest men, former Secretary ol the Treasury Robert J. Walker, to go out to Kansas in Geary’s place as governor. Douglas knew that il he consented to a betrayal ol popular sovereignty he would be ruined forever politically in his own state ol Illinois.

For a brief space in the spring of 1857 lîurhanan seemed to stand firm. In his instructions to Governor Walker he engaged that the new constitution would be laid before the people: and “they must be protected in the exercise of their right of voting for or against that instrument, and the lair expression of the popular will must not be interrupted by fraud or violence.”