|This Week in American History
December 5 11, 1856
Lincoln Answers President Pierce's Final Report to Congress
The 1856 Presidential race between the new Republican Party's John C. Fremont, the Democratic Party's James Buchanan, and ex-President Millard Fillmore, who represented the Whig/American Party, had been a lively and closely-fought contest. There were very basic issues at stake in the election, and a large proportion of the American population had taken part in the campaigning. Over the two preceding years, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had replaced the Compromise of 1850, and the resulting pro-slavery violence in the new territory of Kansas had demonstrated to many members of the old Whig Party, including Abraham Lincoln, that a new coalition of pro-American forces was needed.
Although Lincoln and many other new Republicans had attempted to show the remaining Whigs that their political beliefs were best served by the new party, enough of them voted for Fillmore to tip the balance in Buchanan's favor. However, the Republicans did succeed in electing local and national candidates, and garnered 1.25 million votes in the Presidential election. The combined Whig/Republican vote was greater than that for Buchanan, but neither the old nor the new administration paid any heed to the mandate for a change in policy from the American people.
The fight was not solely over the extension of slavery. The old British Empire ideology which had gripped a portion of America's political leadership also called for the destruction of American System policies, such as internal improvements, protectionist tariffs for American industries, and good wages for American workers. But it was the issue of slavery, with its particular view of the promise of mankind, which went to the heart of the moral question facing America in 1856.
After the election, the proponents of extending slavery became even more arrogant than they had been during the administrations of Polk and Pierce. Their "cruel attempt to conquer Kansas into slavery," as contemporary historian George Bancroft put it, had failed, but they were still in power and intended to use it. To many of this persuasion, President-elect James Buchanan was not radical enough, despite the fact that he openly supported every policy of the British Empire and the Southern pro-slavery faction.
Wrote C.C. Clay, Sr. of Alabama, "Pierce was my choice above all men in the South, North, East, or West. If we could keep him in office for four years longer, the tariff would be brought down to a purely revenue standard, the Democratic party put upon the true constitutional anti-internal improvement platform, the backbone of abolition broken, or badly strained, and the Government fixed in the old republican tack."
Then, too, as soon as the election ended, the old cry for legalizing the slave trade reared its ugly head. Only a few Southern newspapers had dared to call for it during the recent few years, but now the Charleston (South Carolina) Standard reasserted its demand, and the New Orleans Delta seconded the call, and advocated the acquisition of Cuba, Northeastern Mexico and other territories, and the importation of enough slaves so that every Southerner could acquire at least a few, and take them wherever they pleased.
Gov. J.H. Adams of South Carolina, in his annual December message to the state legislature, called for reviving the slave trade, for slavery "has exalted the white race itself to higher hopes and purposes, and it is perhaps of the most sacred obligation that we should give it the means of expansion, and that we should press it forward to a perpetuity of progress."
But the most amazing and unsettling statements came from retiring President Franklin Pierce, a native of New Hampshire who embraced British Empire philosophy. Pierce devoted half of his final annual message to Congress, to attacking the Republican Party. He stated that the recent election had been a condemnation of merely sectional parties, like the Republicans. The Republicans would never have received as many votes, except for the sinister misrepresentations of public policies working on a fevered state of the public mind.
Furthermore, said Pierce, although he believed in freedom of discussion, the Republicans had abused it by pretending to seek the exclusion of slavery only from the Federal territories, when they actually intended to destroy it in all the states! To gain their end, the new party was trying to undermine the government, and was well aware that emancipation could be bought only at the price of burned cities, ravaged farm fields, and slaughtered populations. The Republicans were actually teaching Americans to stand face-to-face as enemies, Pierce blustered; violent attacks from the North had been answered by proud defiance from the South, and now the nation was faced with an attempt by a sectional movement to usurp control of America's government, the new President spouted.
There were many Republicans who answered Pierce's outburst. "Burning cities!" exclaimed John Sherman, brother of the future general, "Why, sir, I know of none except Lawrence and Osawatomie. I know of no ravaged fields or slaughtered populations except on the plains of Kansas." But the voice that penetrated to the heart of the matter was that of former Congressman Abraham Lincoln. In a speech in Chicago on Dec. 10, 1856 he answered President Pierce's topsy-turvy allegations by developing the "central idea of the republic."
The last portion of Lincoln's speech began as follows: "We have another annual Presidential Message. Like a rejected lover, making merry at the wedding of his rival, the President felicitates hugely over the late Presidential election. He considers the result a signal triumph of good principles and good men, and a very pointed rebuke of bad ones. He says the people did it. He forgets that the 'people,' as he complacently calls only those who voted for Buchanan, are in a minority of the whole people, by about four hundred thousand votersone full tenth of all the voters. Remembering this, he might perceive that the 'Rebuke' may not be quite as durable as he seems to thinkthat the majority may not choose to remain permanently rebuked by that minority.
"The President thinks the great body of us Fremonters, being ardently attached to liberty, in the abstract, were duped by a few wicked and designing men. There is a slight difference of opinion on this. We think he, being ardently attached to the hope of a second term, in the concrete, was duped by men who had liberty every way. He is in the cat's paw. By much dragging of chestnuts from the fire for others to eat, his claws are burnt off to the gristle, and he is thrown aside as unfit for further use. As the fool said to King Lear, when his daughters had turned him out of doors, 'He's a shelled pea's cod.'
"So far as the President charges us 'with a desire to change the domestic institutions of existing States;' and of 'doing every thing in our power to deprive the Constitution and the laws of moral authority,' for the whole party, on belief, and for myself, on knowledge, I pronounce the charge an unmixed and unmitigated falsehood.
"Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. Public opinion, on any subject, always has a 'central idea,' from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That 'central idea' in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, 'the equality of men.' And although it was always submitted patiently to whatever of inequality there seemed to be as matter of actual necessity, its constant working has been a steady progress towards the practical equality of all men.
The late Presidential election was a struggle, by one party, to discard that central idea, and to substitute for it the opposite idea that slavery is right, in the abstract, the workings of which, as a central idea, may be the perpetuity of human slavery, and its extension to all countries and colors. Less than a year ago, the Richmond Enquirer, an avowed advocate of slavery, regardless of color, in order to favor his views, invented the phrase, 'State equality,' and now the President, in his Message, adopts the Enquirer's catch-phrase, telling us the people 'have asserted the constitutional equality of each and all of the States of the Union as States.'
"The President flatters himself that the new central idea is completely inaugurated; and so, indeed, it is, so far as the mere fact of a Presidential election can inaugurate it. To us it is left to know that the majority of the people have not yet declared for it, and to hope that they never will.
"All of us who did not vote for Mr. Buchanan, taken together, are a majority of four hundred thousand. But, in the late contest we were divided between Fremont and Fillmore. Can we not come together, for the future? Let every one who really believes, and is resolved, that free society is not, and shall not be, a failure, and who can conscientiously declare that in the past contest he has done only what he thought bestlet every such one have charity to believe that every other one can say as much.
"Thus let bygones be bygones. Let past differences, as nothing be; and with steady eye on the real issue, let us reinaugurate the good old 'central ideas' of the Republic. We can do it. The human heart is with usGod is with us. We shall again be able not to declare that 'all States as States, are equal,' nor yet that 'all citizens as citizens are equal,' but to renew the broader, better declaration, including both these and much more, that 'all men are created equal.'"