In Praise Of Pierce

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A little more than a year later Congress passed the legislation that produced in rapid succession the Border Ruffians in Missouri, the Wakarusa War, John Brown, and Bleeding Kansas. What, in a more general way, the Kansas-Nebraska Act did was to shatter all those carefully contrived accommodations that had held the country together since 1789. It thus opened once again the debate over the place of slavery in society. It became, in time, not so much a debate as a surrealist composition of mad acts, messianic censure, and paranoid assertion that consumed the available energy in all sections—North, South, and West.

To deal with such a contingency was not why Franklin Pierce had been brought to the Presidency. It fit neither his temperament, the dimensions of his previous experience, nor his plans for the increase of domestic tranquillity. It is very hard to engage in the politics of good housekeeping when all hell is breaking loose. Therefore, the sad fact is that he had little opportunity to fulfill Butler’s dictum: he could not do the kind of work he had hoped to do in connection with the surroundings. Instead he tried hard to hold things together when they seemed about to fly apart—which is certainly the obvious, and maybe, in most cases, the prudent thing to do. Though he was a good deal better than his successor, James Buchanan, he was not very good at it. Quite probably no one in those surroundings would have been good enough. It was not a time to pursue the obvious and the prudent.

Perhaps, of all those in politics, only Abraham Lincoln fully understood the predictable consequences of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Roused by its passage from a long, torpid period, he returned to public life. During the next few years, in persistent, unequivocal argument, he continued to expose the realities of a house so much divided, until the war came.