History of the United States
Volume III


Chapter XIV
Pierce's Administration, 1853-1857

The new chief magistrate was a native of New Hampshire, a graduate of Bowdoin College, a lawyer, a politician, a general in the Mexican War, a statesman of considerable abilities. Mr. King, the Vice-President, had for a long time represented Alabama in the Senate of the United States. On account of failing health he was sojourning in the island of Cuba at the time of the inauguration, and there he received the oath of office. Growing still more feeble, he returned to his own State, where he died on the 18th of April, 1853. As secretary of state under the new administration William L. Marcy, of New York, was chosen.

In the summer of 1853 the first corps of engineers was sent out by the government to explore hte route for a Pacific railroad. The enterprise was at first regarded as visionary, then believed in as possible, and finally undertaken, and accomplished. In the same year that marked the beginning of the project the disputed boundary between New Mexico and Chihuahua was satisfactorily settled. The maps on which the former treaties with Mexico had been based were found to be erroneous. Santa Anna, who had again become president of the Mexican republic, attempted to take advantage of the error, and sent an army to ccupy the territory between the true and the false boundary. This action was resisted by the authorities of New Mexico and the United States, and a second Mexican war seemed imminent. The difficulty was adjusted, however, by the purchase of the doubtful claim of Mexico. This transaction, known as the Gadsden Purchase, led to the erection of the new Territory of Arizona.

The first year of Pierce's administration was signalized by the opening of intercourse between the United States and Japan. Hitherto the Japanese ports had been closed against the vessels of Christian nations. In order to remove this foolish and injurious restriction Commodore Perry, a son of Oliver H. Perry of the war of 1812, sailed with his squadron into the Bay of Yeddo. When warned to depart, he explained to the Japanese officers the sincere desire of the United States to enter into a commercial treaty with the emperor. After much delay and hesitancy consent was obtained to hold an interview with that august personage. Accordingly, on the 14th of July, the commodore with his officers obtained an audience with the dusky monarch of the East, and presented a letter from the President of the United States. Still the government of Japan was wary of accepting the proposition, and it was not until the spring of 1854 that a treaty could be concluded. The privileges of commerce were thus conceded to American merchant vessels, and two ports of entry were designated for their use.

On the very day of Commodore Perry's introduction to the emperor of Japan the Chrystal Palace was opened in the city of New York for the second World's Fair. The palace itself was a marvel in architecture, being built exclusively of iron and glass. Thousands of specimens of the arts and manufactures of all civilized nations were put on exhibition within the spacious building. The enterprise and inventive genius of the whole country were quickened into a new life by the beautiful and instructive display. International exhibitions are among the happiest fruits of an enlightened age.

And now the great domain lying west of Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri was to be organized into territorial governments. Already into these vast regions the tide of immigration was pouring, and it became necessary to provide for the future. In January of 1854 Senator Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois, brought before the Senate of the United States a proposition to organize the Territories of Kansas and Nebraska. In the bill reported for this purpose a clause was inserted providing that the people of the two territories, in forming their constitutions, should decide for themselves whether the new States should be free or slaveholding. This was a virtual repeal of the Missouri Compromise, for both the new territories lay north of the parallel of thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes. Thus by a single stroke the old settlement of the slavery question was to be undone. From January until May Mr. Douglas's report, known as the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, was debated in Congress. All the bitter sectional antagonisms of the past were aroused in full force. The bill was violently opposed by a majority of the representatives from the East and North; but the minority, uniting with the congressmen of the South, enabled Douglas to carry his measure through Congress, and in May of 1854 the bill received the sanction of the President.

Kansas itself now became a battlefield for the contending parties. Whether the new State should admit slavery now depended upon the vote of the people. Wherefore both factions made a rush for the Territory to secure a majority. Knasas was soon filled with an agitated mass of people, thousands of whom had been sent thither to vote. An election held in November of 1854 resulted in the choice of a pro-slavery delegate to Congress, and in the general territorial election of the following year the same party was triumphant. The State Legislature thus chosen assembled at Lecompton, organized the government, and framed a constitution permitting slavery. The Free Soil party, declaring the general election to have been illegal on account of fraudulent voting, assembled in convention at Topeka, framed a constitution excluding slavery, and organized a rival government. Civil war broke out between the factions. From the autumn of 1855 until the following summer the Territory was a scene of constant turmoil and violence. On the 3d of September the President appointed John W. Geary, of Pennsylvania, military governor of Kansas, with full powers to restore order and punish lawlessness. On his arrival the hostile parties were quieted and peace restored. But the agitation in the Territory had already extended to all parts of the Union, and became the issue on which the people divided in the presidential election of 1856.

The parties made ready for the contest. James Buchanan, of Pennsylvania, was nominated as the Democratic candidate. By planting himself on a platform of principles in which the doctrines of the Kansas-Nebraska bill were distinctly re-affirmed, he was able to secure a heavy vote both North and South. For many Northern Democrats, though opposed to slavery, held firmly to the opinion that the people of every territory ought to have the right to decide the question for themselves. As the candidate of the newly founded Republican party, John C. Fremont, of California, was brought forward. The esxclusion of slavery from all the Territories of the United States by congressional action was the distinctive principle of the platform. Meanwhile, an American or Know-Nothing party had arisen in the country, the leaders of which, anxious to ignore the slavery question and to restrict foreign influences in the nation, nominated Millard Fillmore or the presidency. But the slavery agitation could not be put aside; on that issue the people were really divided. A large majority decided in favor of Mr. Buchanan for the presidency, while the choice for the vice-presidency fell on John C. Breckinridge, of Kentucky.


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