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Delmarva Heritage Series

* James A. Pearce

Salisbury Times - July 26, 1963

About 25 years ago, in an address to the Eastern Shore Society of Baltimore City, Judge J. Harry Covington said: "In a day when general scholarship was not so widely diffused as at the present time it was an Eastern Shore United States senator, James Alfred Pearce of Kent County, who, nearly a century ago proposed and carried through the Congress the legislation to establish

the great Botanical Gardens which have been since that time the location of the manifold and continuous experiments in scientific plant culture which have been so important to us."

A second writer said of him: "Sen. Pearce was a typical Maryland gentleman of the old school. Political discord never prevented him from maintaining amicable relations with men of opposite opinions. His purity of character and extensive attainments, as well as his marked abilities and judicial temperament, caused his name frequently to be mentioned in connection with the Presidency of the United States, although he never figured prominently as a candidate. Despite his strong southern predilections and the acridity of the politics at the time of his death the public tributes paid his memory by northern senators were as generous as those of men of his own way of thinking."

Just a little more investigation has convinced this writer that James Alfred Pearce was a rather interesting and influential man during the first half of the 19th century. He did not have the color, showmanship, nor the enormous political power of Henry Clay or Daniel Webster. Nevertheless he was "one of the most successful public men of his period."

James Alfred Pearce, a descendant of William Pearce who had settled in Maryland about 1660, was the son of Gideon and Julia Pearce of Kent County. Mrs. Pearce was the daughter of Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick of Virginia, one of the physicians who cared for George Washington at his final illness.

Pearce was born at the home of his maternal grandfather at Alexandria, Va., (then in the District of Columbia) on Dec. 14, 1805. His mother died when he was just three years old, and from that time on his care and education was directed by his grandfather. The early years of his formal education were obtained at a private academy in Alexandria, after which, at the age of 14, he entered the College of New Jersey (Princeton). The young Pearce was a very good student and when he graduated from college in 1822 it was with high standing.

Pearce's chosen profession was law, and after graduation he studied in the office of Judge John Glenn of Baltimore. After two years of study he was admitted to the bar in 1824 and commenced his practice on the Eastern Shore at Cambridge. Just at the beginning of his legal career, after a year's practice, he joined his father in Louisiana, where he engaged for the next three years in the production of sugar. Those three years on the plantation in the Red River region of Louisiana probably helped to stimulate Pearce's deep interest in agriculture, which he maintained throughout his life. When Pearce returned to the Eastern Shore, at the end of the three-year period, he resumed his law practice at Chestertown, "though he at the same time found expression for his agricultural tastes by cultivating a farm successfully."

For the rest of his life, Pearce maintained a home in Kent County. On Oct. 6, 1829, he married Martha J. Larid (who died in 1845), and remarried Mathilda Cox (Ringgold) on March 22, 1847.

In his late twenties, Pearce began his rather brilliant political career, when he was elected to Maryland Legislature in 1831. In 1835, Pearce was sent to Congress to represent the Eastern Shore District. He was a member of the Whig Party, and with the exception of a single term, 1839-41, when he suffered the only defeat of his political career by a very small majority, Pearce served in the House until 1843.

In the latter year he was elected by the Maryland Legislature to a seat in the United States Senate, where he served though three successive elections until his death in 1862. After the break-up of the Whig Party in the late 1850's, Pearce was elected to the Senate in the campaign of 1859 as a member of the Democratic Party.

Two separate sources give us a good brief view of Pearce's leadership and influence in the Senate. One man wrote: "In the senate he quickly attracted notice and continued to grow in influence until the breaking out of the war of secession, after which he was one of the small number of opposition senators who were helpless in the presence of an overwhelming majority." Another has written: "It was probably in the committee rooms that his influence as a senator was most felt, for there his analytical mind, the extent of his information, his industry, and his patience for details gave his opinions authority.

Throughout his life, Pearce was somewhat of a student - a man with a broad culture, but specially attracted to the fields of education and science. For years he was a member of the Board of Visitors and Governors for Washington College at Chestertown, and he was also a law lecturer there from 1850 to 1862. As a public servant, he had a major interest in the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the botanical gardens of the District of Columbia, and the United States Coast Survey. For many years he was the chairman of the Senate's Committee for the Library of Congress.

This man of many interests still found time to play an active and influential role concerning some of the major domestic and foreign problems of the period. In the 1840's, when America was experiencing the pressure of "Manifest Destiny," and the people were talking of war with Great Britain because of the Oregon boundary dispute, Pearce's logical and calm judgment led him to see that the British claims were not without foundation. Pearce argued for arbitration, and said that the slogan "Fifty-four forty or fight," made him wonder whether our national bird was "an eagle at all, or some obscene bird of prey."

This Maryland senator's thinking on a civil service system was also in advance of the period. He took a firm and practical stand against the "spoils system" then in use of making appointments; he declared that he had never attempted the removal of any individual because of his political views, if that person was an efficient worker, and that he, Pearce, never intended to do so.

In 1850, when Henry Clay and others in congress were attempting to deal with boundaries of some territory which the United States had recently acquired and at the same time quiet the slavery agitation with compromise measures in 1850, known as the "Omnibus Bill," Pearce became a bitter opponent of Sen. Clay. Pearce claimed that too many different problems were being grouped together, and that unless amendments and changes were made, the bill would be defeated. The defeat of the bill happened, but Clay blamed Pearce for the defeat, resulting in bitter feelings between the two men. Pearce wrote to a friend, "The compromise bill was lost by Mr. Clay's one blunder, tho', like Napoleon, who never lost a battle, but charged every defeat on some subordinate, he has endeavored to make me the scapegoat falsely and unjustly, for which I will never forgive him."

In this same year, when Millard Fillmore became President, Pearce was offered the judgeship of the U.S. District Court for Maryland, and also nominated by the President for Secretary of the Interior. Although the latter nomination was confirmed by the Senate, Pearce, preferring to remain in the Senate, declined the offers.

Concerning the important slavery question, Pearce represented the attitude of the conservative southerner, but he usually avoided discussing the subject, believing agitation unwise, unless there was some major issue presented. He was very active in the debates of 1854 discussing the Kansas-Nebraska bill, at which time he moved to amend the bill so that only bona fide citizens of those two territories would have the right to vote. In 1856 he opposed the admitting of Kansas into the Union under the so-called "free state" constitution. And in the same year he was appointed a member of the Senate Committee to consider the action to be taken in the rather famous Brooks-Sumner Affair - when Rep. Brooks of South Carolina cane-whipped Sen. Sumner of Massachusetts.

The election of Lincoln and the secession of the seven states of the lower South caused Pearce much distress. Since he had become a member of the Democratic Party he had been most active in defending the rights and interests of the South, but now he visioned divided duties and loyalties. Pearce was opposed to secession, but he equally deplored a union maintained by force. He said in the Senate: "I look upon it secession as the most important interest of my state of all others, that the Union should be maintained in its integrity." He also spoke: "I have no idea that this Union can be maintained or restored by force. Nor do I believe in the value of a union, which can only be kept together by dint of a military force."

In his home state of Maryland, Pearce denounced the arrests by the federal authorities of prominent citizens, and he also denounced the contempt displayed by the military personnel for the writ of habeas corpus. Although he tried, he was not successful in ending those forms of petty tyrannies.

Pearce's health had been failing for some time, and the crisis of the day may have helped to weaken him. March 24, 1862, was his last day in the Senate chamber. He returned to his home in Kent County where he lingered on for almost nine months, dying on Dec. 20, 1862. Thus died an Eastern Shoremen of the "old school," a warm gentle man, who was a brilliant conversationalist, and no politician in the ordinary sense.

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