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Mr. Packer Goes to Washington
Asa Packer chose a rather interesting time in both antebellum America and in his own career to run for political office again. The Judge remained intent on building a railroad to transport coal in the Lehigh Valley and started construction in the spring of 1852. That fall, Packer secured election to the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C, as a Democrat from Pennsylvania’s 13th District. Nationally, the 1850s saw tensions rise between people who believed in keeping and expanding slavery and those who opposed the spread of that peculiar institution. As the American populace spread west into the Great Plains, large territories broke up into smaller territories with the hopes of entering the union as a new state. Although the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850 soothed sectional strains in previous years, the 1850s saw a renewed push for slavery’s expansion.
Franklin Pierce, a Democrat from New Hampshire, won election to the Presidency in the fall of 1852. Pierce sought to prevent disunion by sticking to the Compromise of 1850 and by trying to expand the territorial borders of the United States. Pierce’s actions irritated some Northerners who equated territorial expansion with the expansion of slavery. The Compromise of 1850 opened up the vast New Mexico Territory and the Utah Territory to slavery, but it did not open the area that became the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Stephen Douglas, a senator from Illinois, helped create the Compromise of 1850 and acted as a strong advocate for “popular sovereignty.” Supporters of popular sovereignty argued that the people who lived in a given political region should choose its future laws rather than have the federal government impose them.
In the face of growing concerns over territorial expansion, Douglas and co-author Andrew Butler wrote a piece of legislation known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act that ushered in a new wave of sectional violence. The Kansas-Nebraska Act divided unorganized territory into two new areas and advocated popular sovereignty. Though Douglas supported popular sovereignty, he also wanted a transcontinental railroad to take a more northerly route in order to benefit his home state and propel Chicago’s growth as a transportation hub. Douglas knew that the unorganized land north of Texas needed a territorial government before construction could start on a northern route for a transcontinental railroad. Southerners embraced the Kansas-Nebraska Act since it included language that repealed the Missouri Compromise and entrenched popular sovereignty, in regards to slavery, as the new standard for organizing territories into states.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed on May 30, 1854. Asa Packer voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Biographer W. Ross Yates notes that Packer voted for the act on the grounds of facilitating a transcontinental railroad. Yates gives no evidence to back this assertion, but it remains a possibility. One historian affirms Yates’ contention and argues that the act originally meant to advance Northern settlement and the construction of the transcontinental railroad with concessions to slave-owners added on later. As with many events from his life, there is no direct evidence that clarifies why Packer voted for the act, but it is likely that he supported a transcontinental railroad and popular sovereignty. Many Democrats of the mid-nineteenth century supported the idealization of agrarian life and a Jeffersonian-like preference for small government. Far from providing order and stability, the Kansas-Nebraska Act triggered an era of bloodshed known as “Bleeding Kansas" and fractured the Democratic Party. Of the 87 Northern Democrats who voted on the act, 44 cast ballots in favor and 43 went against it. Only 7 of the 22 Northern Democrats who voted for the act and ran for reelection won, Asa Packer included. One scholar assessed the voting patterns of the 22 Northern Democrats toward Southern issues and found that Packer fell into the moderate group. Neither pro-South nor a proto-Republican, Packer voted against Southern issues 5 out of 13 times.
Nebraska’s population predominately originated from Northern states and easily voted against the acceptance of slavery. Kansas proved a different story. President Pierce tried to appoint a governor for Kansas that could keep the peace. Asa Packer and John W. Forney recommended Andrew H. Reeder, a Democrat and “extreme sympathizer with the South at all times,” from Easton, Pennsylvania. Reeder soon became Kansas’ first territorial governor. It appears that Reeder did not discourage slavery, but he did discourage disorder. As governor, he denounced the frauds perpetrated by non-residents of Kansas who tried to vote in local elections. For example, when Reeder held elections, the voting population of Kansas totaled about 3,000 adult, white men. Yet, pro-slavery candidates received about 6,000 votes. Clearly, pro-slavery Missourians crossed the border and illegally voted to ensure their view won the day. Reeder disliked this turn of events and overturned many of the fraudulent elections. However, the pro-slavery lobby in congress, led by Jefferson Davis, soon forced Reeder out as governor. Asa Packer’s nominee soon turned into an abolitionist and gained fame as he returned to Easton via northern cities that celebrated his adherence to law and order.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act sparked one final controversy that Asa Packer weighed in on: Preston Brooks’ caning of Charles Sumner.
On May 19 and 20, 1856, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner delivered a five-hour long speech that he called “The Crime Against Kansas.” Sumner rebuked white Southerners for their views on slavery and the illegalities around voting in Kansas. He insulted South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler directly by proclaiming Butler had a mistress, “the harlot, slavery.” Representative Preston Brooks, a much younger cousin of Butler, attacked Sumner with a cane on the Senate floor two days after the speech.
The cane splintered as Sumner took repeated blows on his head and he never fully recovered physically or cognitively from the attack. Asa Packer voted to expel Brooks from the House, but the vote failed to gain enough support. Regardless, Brooks resigned from his seat and easily won re-election.
The 1850s proved a challenging time for politicians. Unlike his time spent in Harrisburg creating Carbon County, it is unclear why Packer sought a seat in the United States Congress. In typical Packer fashion, he only uttered one line during his four years as a congressional representative. As a member of the Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads, he uttered the following, “I ask the gentleman to withdraw the call for the previous question a moment, to allow me to ask his colleague, the chairman of the Committee on the Post Office and Post roads a question.” Packer was ignored. Serving from March 4, 1853 to March 3, 1857, Packer’s time in Washington, D.C. saw him vote on an important piece of legislation that contributed to the fracturing of his political party and the nation. In terms of his personal service, Packer missed many votes in his capacity as a representative, especially during his second term. Why Packer served in Congress while his railroad business lay in a vulnerable infancy remains an unanswered and intriguing question.