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MESSAGE OF DECEMBER 2, 1856.
certain political convictions that they had been chosen presidents. But the correct principle that the personal convictions of the president which coincide more or less. fully with the convictions of a certain definite, political party must control his judgment and action, should not be perverted into this, that the president ought to, or even must, base his judgment and action on what the doctrines of his party demand of him, or on what would be of advantage or disadvantage to his party. But this is precisely what Pierce again did with the naïve audacity of absolute shamelessness.
The annual message of December 2, 1856, so far as it touched on the internal affairs of the Union, did not rise above the level of a stump speech by a professional party agitator of the most ordinary type. Such a harangue post festum, coming from any mouth, would seem very empty, even to the most short-sighted criticism; coming from the mouth of the president, it made an impression all the worse, as Pierce introduced it with a reference to his duty "to scan with an impartial eye the interests of the
If the message was generally judged much more indulgently than it deserved, the reason is that no importance was attached to it, and rightly so; and, further, because people saw in it a plea for a defendant delivered from the bench, and in the tone of the judge. The republicans did not now do Pierce the honor of allowing themselves to be again aroused, by his bold distortion of the facts, to a still stronger expression of their moral indignation. Their sentence on him had been long since irrevocably passed; and, whether that sentence was well founded or not, it would have been useless for them to go back to the record of his trial, since it was an indisputable fact that he was politically dead. When he said
4 BUCHANAN'S ELECTION
that the states in which the republicans were victorious had tried "to usurp" the government, all he accomplished was to awaken doubts as to his political responsibility. Whatever absurdities he might give utterance to, he thereby, in no way, changed the facts; but the more he indulged in exaggerations, evident untruths and pure nonsense, the less could he succeed in deceiving the thinking portion of the people as to the facts. The assertion that those alleged usurpatory wishes had been "pointedly rebuked" by the people did not transform the minority vote for Buchanan into a majority vote, and did not make people forget the honest admission of the radicals of the southern states, that the democrats owed even their plurality victory only to the Fillmoreans. Even if Kansas now enjoyed completely undisturbed peace, as Pierce assured the country it did, would the correctness and justice of his Kansas policy be recognized, on that account, by the republicans, and would the Kansas question cease to be the order of the day? One of the most influential democratic papers of the country, the Detroit Free Press, explained to him that Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois, Delaware, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and Louisiana "could not have been saved" for the democratic party if he had been its candidate, or his Kansas policy the decisive question, in the electoral campaign.1
END OF 35TH CONGRESS.
Did Caleb Cushing's bold assertion, that the entire country covered by the territories had already been surrendered to slavery by a series of decisions of the federal supreme court, become a fact because it was now repeated by the president? All these decisions had been published
1 The ultimate cause of his fatal mistake the article finds in his "overweening desire of a second term." Congr. Globe, 3rd Sess., 34th Congr., p. 14.
MESSAGE OF DECEMBER 2, 1856.
long before the electoral campaign, and yet the territorial question was the pivotal point in that campaign.
Pierce, in the name of his party, hiding behind the mask of the triumpher whose victory has been sufficiently complete to warrant him henceforth to hang his sword and shield on the wall with impunity, cut now only a half-comical, half-pitiful figure. No previous president, not even Tyler, had so entirely thrown away his moral reputation and his reputation for statesmanship as had he; and the short interval between the election and inauguration of the new president bore, in a higher degree than ever before, the character of an interregnum. Even if Pierce in the composition of it had been animated with the sincerity of Washington, his message could have no practical weight except to the extent that he succeeded in imparting his own delusions to the political parties of the country.
It was not so easy, as might have been expected, to give a definite answer to the question whether, and to what extent, this was the case. Congress devoted a great part of the session to exhaustive debates on the history and meaning of the electoral campaign. Most of the speeches, however, were delivered in a comparatively very calm tone, and the speakers kept to the subject. The southerners based their arguments much less than usual on threats and coarse slander of the republicans, and the republicans made no effort to find compensation for their defeat in angry declamation. Neither side retreated from any position it had previously taken, while both showed a certain reluctance to advance in the way of attack or defense. It was plain that this could not be ascribed solely to the natural want of rest, after the long and violent struggle. The two parties were weighed down by a certain feeling of insecurity. The outlook into the near
future was still so involved in obscurity that there was great hesitation on both sides to take the initiative.
If the small majority of the secessionists on principle, in the democratic camp, had continued the agitation in favor of their programme immediately after the new democratic victory, as openly and directly as they had shortly before and during the electoral campaign, they would, by so doing, have only sapped the foundation under their own feet. Every democrat who honestly desired the preservation of the Union, and who believed that its preservation depended on the supremacy of his party, could not but anxiously ask himself, when he thought of the next step to be taken, whether that step would not make the complete disruption of the party unavoidable. There were not many lulled by the result of the election into such unreflecting optimism as to consider a further straining of party bonds devoid of danger. But how could any advance be made without making such a straining necessary? And advance the party must; for with the exception of the question whether the democrats. should continue to rule, the electoral campaign had decided nothing whatever. The more prudent democrats, who recoiled before a catastrophe, would, therefore, have liked nothing better than to see the taking of the initi ative shoved on to the shoulders of the republicans, and the latter thus justify the charge made by Pierce, that they were pursuing an aggressive policy towards the south. But the republicans were neither so short-sighted nor so fanatical as to now adopt the modus operandi of the abolitionists and carry it into actual political party life. Admitted it must be that, by doing so, they would have exhibited their fidelity to principle and their love of freedom in a brilliant light; but such action would have been so grave a tactical blunder that, in all probability,
THE REPUBLICAN PARTY.
its consequence would have been the loss of their viability as a political party. They were honestly convinced that they were a strictly conservative party, and the people had flocked around their banner only because they were believed to be such a party. The moment they went beyond acting on the defensive they would lose that character, and the masses then would, without question, desert them as rapidly as they had fallen into rank with them. True, ethico-religious convictions were, to a great extent, the motive power that built up the republican party; but only because it was thought that they were in complete harmony with the requirements of positive law did the people believe they might join them. Of course, the possibility that the party, by new provocations, might be forced to make ethico-religious convictions and political necessity, viewed from the standpoint of these convictions, govern in the construction of positive law, could not even now be denied. Still less could it be denied there was danger that the masses would be again inclined. to rest satisfied with the condemnation of slavery "in the abstract," if they were not kept awake and eager for the fray by new provocations. This danger was so great and so plain that the leaders must have been struck with complete blindness not to recognize that they could not play more effectually into the hands of the slavocracy than by seeking to change the programme with which they had begun their existence, by making it aggressive.
That party politics with the exception of the speeches of a more academic character referred to were very quiet in the winter months of 1856-57, was, under the circumstances, very natural. Evidently, however, no conclusion as to the future could be drawn from this comparative calm. The programme of the Fillmoreans: conveniently and safely to get out of the way of all