ALS, four pages on two adjoining sheets, 7.75 x 10, December 1, 1857. Letter to Sidney Webster, his former private White House secretary, on the subjects of the Constitution and statehood for Kansas, written nine months after leaving office. In part: "I regret exceedingly to observe that Kansas is still to be made the subject of agitation and sectional wrangling. I have not seen the Constitution recently adopted by the Convention of that Territory nor any reliable statement of its leading provisions, except in respect to the article, to be submitted to the determination of the popular judgement and will. That, as I understand it, presents the sole and only question, which has caused serious disturbance and agitation in and out of the Territory and it seems to me to be presented in a distinct and unexceptionable form. ‘Constitution with Slavery’ or ‘Constitution without Slavery.’ Let the voters all go to the polls—let that question be settled by a fair expression of the popular voice and all others will be easily and satisfactorily disposed of because the real cause of controversy will no longer exist.
It is vain to say, that citizens of the Territory cannot conscientiously cast a ballot expressive of the opinion one way or the other, indicated above, because they would thereby give their sanction to articles, which they could not in fact approve. It often occurs that members of Legislative bodies find themselves constrained by a sense of public duty to vote for appropriation bills and other bills important to the state or county, which eschew provisions repugnant to their known and firmly established opinions. But in the case of the Kansas constitution the voter would not be required to go even this length. His vote w’d not necessarily imply approbation beyond the point specifically submitted. He would barely say, if Kansas is to be admitted into the Union as a state under this Constitution, I prefer that it come in with or without slavery as his honest judgement might determine. It is, in my opinion, the imperative duty of the citizens of Kansas to go to the polls and pass upon this question. Its final determination is now completely within their power. They can settle it at once & definitively. If they decline to do so, it will manifest not merely a want of patriotism, but will demonstrate, that what they desire is agitation, not peace. If an opportunity shall not be afforded for a full & deliberate expression of the popular will, unembarrassed by fraud or violence on either side, I have no doubt that Congress will refuse admission under the Constitution as they ought to do.
I shall visit the Powhatan tomorrow and probably sail on Saturday the 5th inst. I was extremely sorry that Genl. Cushing did not meet me…I will write you again upon our final departure." In fine condition, with minor smudges to a few words of text.
Pierce’s efforts to lead the nation during his presidency were hindered by divisions within his party. Nonetheless, he reformed the Civil Service, the Departments of the Interior and Treasury; and oversaw the territorial expansion of the United States, most notably in completing the Gadsden Purchase, through which the U.S. obtained modern-day Arizona and southern New Mexico from Mexico, and which was strongly advocated by his Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. However, it was also territorial expansion and its relation to the issue of slavery that undermined Pierce’s presidency, specifically the Kansas-Nebraska Act, whose passage on May 30, 1854, contributed to the rise of the Republican Party. The legislation, drafted by Pierce and Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas, opened Kansans to settlement while allowing popular sovereignty to determine whether Kansas would allow slavery. This led both pro- and anti-slavery advocates to settle in Kansas for the sole purpose of casting their ballots on the matter. The resulting violence, such as that famously perpetrated by John Brown, was dubbed ‘Bleeding Kansas’ and helped further divide both the Democratic Party and the entire nation, propelling it toward civil war.
In January 1856, Free-Staters called for a convention in Topeka, Kansas, in an attempt to reconcile the differences between the abolitionists and the pro-slavery factions. The resulting Topeka Constitution was short lived. From September to November 1857, a second constitutional convention of pro-slavery delegates was held in Lecompton. The resulting Lecompton Constitution was presented to voters on December 21 with a special article through which they could allow or disallow slavery. However, the “constitution without slavery” allowed Kansans to keep slaves they already owned leading Free-Staters to boycott the vote, as Pierce discusses in this letter. Therefore, the “constitution with slavery” won by a large margin and further fueled the national debate. Ultimately, the Lecompton Constitution was supplanted by a third and then a fourth and final constitution, the Wyandotte Constitution, which declared Kansas a free state and allowed its admission to the Union in January 1861.
Because of the political discord that marked Pierce’s presidency, the Democratic Party failed to nominate him for reelection. After leaving Washington, he briefly returned to his native New Hampshire before setting off on a three-year tour of Europe (aboard the Powhatan, mentioned in this letter) and the Bahamas. From afar he managed to stay abreast of American affairs and maintained an extensive correspondence with Webster, a New Hampshire native who, after graduating from Yale University and Harvard Law School, became President Pierce’s private secretary.
Terms and abbreviations used in our descriptions.