Saturday, February 22, 2014

'Straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel'

Franklin Pierce at the State House 
One casualty in the debate over slavery was the friendship between two men whose bronze statues now stand in front of the New Hampshire State House: John P. Hale and Franklin Pierce. There’s a reason Hale stands much closer to that gold-domed hall than Pierce, but that is a subject for another day.

Today, let us take a glimpse at the relations of the state’s two political giants of the 1840s and 1850s before the issue of expansion of slavery sundered their good relations in 1845.

Years after Pierce and Hale were gone, The Granite Monthly, a lively journal that celebrated New Hampshire in prose and poetry, published a letter Hale wrote to Pierce in 1841. The letter is about a minor political matter, but it is fascinating for two reasons. It captures Hale’s magnanimity, deference and good nature, and it provides a window into the way political careers crisscrossed over the years and how slavery always lurked in the background.

First, some background.

The subject of the letter was the appointment of Joel Eastman, a Conway lawyer, to be U.S. attorney for New Hampshire. Eastman was a Whig who had been a delegate to the 1840 convention that nominated William Henry Harrison. Hale had just given up the U.S. attorney job. He held it during the last part of the Andrew Jackson presidency and all of Martin Van Buren’s.

It was a patronage job, but when Eastman’s name was floated, New Hampshire Democrats noted an abolitionist tinge to his politics. Some wanted to block the nomination. Hale considered this petty and wrote to Pierce, then a powerful young Democratic U.S. senator with a voice in the outcome, to tell him so.

The Eastman nomination went through. He served as U.S. attorney during the Tyler presidency after Harrison’s death. When Democrat James K. Polk won the 1844 election, the job returned to Democratic hands, and Pierce himself took it.

Eastman was 43 years old in 1841. He was an 1822 graduate of Dartmouth College who had married Ruth Odell in 1833. They lived on a farm on the Saco River while he practiced law and served as both a judge and a legislator over the years.

Joel Eastman
In reviewing Eastman’s political career many years later, Luther D. Sawyer, a friend, said that living in so remote a place had held Eastman back. Sawyer added that he had seen Hale and Pierce argue in court, “but I never saw a lawyer that could beat and belt and thump and whack facts into a jury better than Joel Eastman.”

Hale’s and Eastman’s paths crossed again in the mid-1850s. By then slavery was even more vexing and dominant as a political issue, and Pierce was president.

On Nov. 15, 1853, the Nashua lawyer and U.S. Sen Charles G. Atherton died in office. He had long been a faithful states-rights Democrat in the Pierce mold. As a congressman in the 1838, he had been a strong proponent of the gag rule, which barred Congress from debating even the notion that slavery should be abolished., Five resolutions he sponsored became known as the “Atherton gag.” One of them read in part:

Charles G. Atherton, father
of the gag rule.
“All attempts, on the part of Congress, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia or the Territories, or to prohibit the removal of slaves from State to State, or to discriminate between the institutions of one portion of the country and another, with the views aforesaid, are in violation of the constitution, destructive of the fundamental principles on which the Union of these States rests, and beyond the jurisdiction of Congress. . . . Every petition, memorial, resolution, proposition, or paper, touching or relating in any way or to any extent whatever to slavery, as aforesaid, or the abolition thereof, shall, on the presentation thereof, without any further action thereon, be laid on the table without being debated, printed, or referred.”

When Atherton died in 1853, nearly his entire six-year term remained. The Legislature still elected senators at the time, but it was not in session. The Democratic governor appointed Jared W. Williams, a Democrat, to replace Atherton until the legislative session of 1854.

Joel Eastman was among the candidates for the seat when the Legislature convened in June. None could get a majority, the governor’s appointment power expired, and the seat remained vacant until the 1855 legislative session. In that one, with the political factions of the new Republican Party ascendant, Hale was elected to his old seat in the Senate. He finished Atherton’s term and won another new one of his own.

Hale’s return to the Senate was no doubt galling to Pierce, who had banished Hale from the party in the mid-1840s after Hale openly opposed the extension of slavery into the territories. Hale ran as a Free Soiler for president in 1852, the year Pierce won election.

But back in 1841 the two New Hampshire political leaders had been on good terms. This is apparent from the tone and content of Hale’s letter on his own departure from the U.S. attorney’s job and the appointment of Joel Eastman to succeed him demonstrates. Here it is:

John P. Hale holds forth on the lawn
of  the New Hampshire State House.
Concord, N. H., Aug. 24, 1841.

Friend Pierce:

I want to make a few suggestions to you in regard to the appointment of U.S. Attorney for this district. I see by the papers that it is possible, not to say probable, that the nomination of Joel Eastman will not be confirmed. So far as I am concerned personally, I regret it, and I cannot see that any good is to accrue to the Democratic party from such a result. When I entered into the last canvass, earnestly and zealously as I did, it was with my eyes open to the consequences to myself which must follow a defeat. I had no expectation, and I can truly say no hope, of holding the small office I then had if the Democratic party were defeated.

Consequently my removal, promptly as it was made, was neither unexpected nor regretted under the circumstances. Of my successor, Mr. Eastman, I know nothing to make me regret that he was the successful candidate for the place. I had known him for quite a number of years as a member of the same county bar, and my acquaintance with him had been of a friendly character. I have no doubt that a rejection would be very mortifying to his feelings, and I am not aware of any circumstance in his life which should render it desirable to inflict such a wound upon his feelings, unless some good is to result to the party or the country from such a step.

I cannot myself see that such would be the case. I have no sympathy for those hollow-hearted, hypocritical politicians at the South, who turn up their noses with such horror at anything savoring of Abolition in a northern man, who voted for General Harrison as president, knowing as they did, that he was emphatically the Abolition candidate. 1 believe the Abolitionists here literally and truly hope for Eastman's rejection, thinking that they would make political capital out of it.

I of course do not pretend to advise you as to what course you may deem it your duty to take in the premises, you being on the ground and knowing all the facts pertinent to the question; but in the confidence of private friendship I have written you my views. I have no feelings of resentment against Mr. Eastman to be gratified. I hope his nomination will be confirmed.

I can only say, as at present advised, that were I a Democratic senator in congress I should say to southern Whigs: Gentlemen, this is straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel. It is too small game, after having been so subservient to the Abolitionists as to take their candidate for president, to show your spleen upon such a small affair as a petty office of $300 or $400 in a dark corner of New Hampshire.

Excuse the liberty I have taken in making these suggestions. If you deem them of the least consequence, you are at liberty to submit them to any of your friends.

With much respect, very truly your friend,

John P. Hale

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