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Column: What New Hampshire Can Learn About Its History From Franklin Pierce

Lebanon

The New Hampshire House has quietly tabled a bill that would have honored Franklin Pierce, the only Granite Stater elected president of the United States.

Why were our legislators reluctant to name a day after the only native son to rise to the highest office in the land? The reason given by the bipartisan committee that unanimously recommended killing the bill outright was that Pierce “was a very controversial figure in his time and the controversy is still alive today.” This bill was not a new dispute for the Legislature. Forty-four years had to pass after the death of Pierce, a Democrat, before Republicans could finally agree to commission the statue on the Statehouse lawn that honors New Hampshire’s sole occupant of the White House.

The enduring reservations are easy to understand. From a human-rights perspective, there is precious little pride to be taken in being from the same state as Pierce. He was a pro-slavery man in word and deed. There were a few occasions when he publicly said he was personally opposed to slavery, but he always tempered such statements with explanations of why he could not and should not act on his conscience. Slavery might be “a social and political evil,” Pierce said, but interfering in any way with the right of Southerners to own black people was an even greater sin. There is no question of where he really stood on what he preferred to call “the domestic institutions” of the slaveholding states. From the start of his long career on the national stage to the end, he was a faithful friend to Southern slaveholders and a harsh critic of anyone who sought to limit slavery in any way.

Pierce was particularly hostile to abolitionists. For him, abolitionism was “evil, and only evil.” In late 1835 and early 1836, he was in the vanguard of members of the U.S. House who wanted to shut down a flood of petitions coming in from anti-slavery activists asking Congress to abolish slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. He served on a select committee that proposed what eventually became the infamous “Gag Rule” — for years, Congress simply refused to consider any citizen petitions concerning slavery.

The official record of the petitions debate contains a chillingly craven comment Pierce made after Southern members complained that the petitions originated in Northern states: “Mr. P. had only to say that, to some sweeping charges of improper interference (in the affairs of Southern states), the action of the people of the North at home during the last year ... was a sufficient and conclusive answer.” The “action of the people of the North” Pierce referred to was mob violence against abolitionists, which was rampant across the North in 1835. Mobbers shut down an integrated school in Canaan. Rioters in Concord chased the barnstorming abolitionist George Thompson out of town, burned his effigy on the Statehouse lawn, and stoned his mild-mannered Quaker companion — the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. A Boston mob almost succeeded in lynching William Lloyd Garrison, the founder of the New-England Anti-Slavery Society.

It was as president that Pierce most distinguished himself as a friend of slavery. In his inaugural address of 1853, he declared slave-owning a constitutional right “like any other admitted right,” and vowed to vigorously enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. His diplomats cooked up a plan to seize Cuba from Spain to make it a new slave state. He signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery north of the parallel 36°30’ north and sparked a bloody civil war in Kansas. When runaway slave Anthony Burns was arrested in Boston, Pierce authorized federal officials in Massachusetts to incur “any expense” to return Burns to slavery; and when the residents of Boston rose up in outrage, Pierce approved the deployment of federal artillery and Marines to ensure Burns got shipped off to a Virginia slave pen and the auction block.

That’s a record unworthy of celebration, to be sure, and the House’s discreet disposal of the bill has saved future governors from having to proclaim Nov. 23 “Franklin Pierce Day.” But we may be the poorer for not heeding the bill’s call for schools to conduct “appropriate educational activities” every year with regard to Pierce’s legacy. That’s because the objections to the Pierce memorial were based in part on the mistaken idea that he was an exception, that Pierce was out of place in his own time.

Pierce was not an aberration in some glorious New Hampshire past of unflagging support for black emancipation. New Hampshire’s entire congressional delegation voted with Pierce to ignore the anti-slavery petitions. New Hampshire’s Sen. Isaac Hill sought to mollify his implacable Southern colleagues by boasting on the Senate floor of the anti-abolitionist mob actions in Concord and Canaan. Even Daniel Webster — that revered son of New Hampshire — shared Pierce’s disdain for the abolitionists, his commitment to compromise with the slaveholding states and his fervor for enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.

Pierce and Webster ended up unpopular at the end of their careers because the world finally shifted from where they planted their feet. But they were not lonely figures before then. New Hampshire was a solidly Jacksonian Democrat state for decades before voting for a Republican presidential candidate in 1856, and its voters elected Pierce to state and federal office a total of eight times. You cannot separate a politician that successful from his constituency — and that’s a legacy New Hampshire should remember in all its unadorned reality. Historian Junius Rodriguez says Pierce was one of hundreds of Northern politicians “who found it easier to condone slavery than to confront it.” Likewise, voting to ignore Pierce is easier than contemplating our complex past.

Dan Billin, a former staff writer for the Valley News, lives in Lebanon.