Monday, February 26, 2007

Franklin Pierce, 1804 - 1869

"The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men."
-- George Eliot
Last week, the U.S. News magazine cover story was The 10 Worst Presidents . The article ranks New Hampshire's Franklin Pierce as America's fourth worst president. This of course is just the latest such poll, but Pierce is a perennial "favorite" on 10 worst lists. President from 1853 to 1857, he was a Northern Democrat with Southern sympathies. He supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 which effectively repealed the delicate Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Missouri Compromise had, for thirty years, regulated the expansion of slavery in the western territories. The Kansas-Nebraska Act "established that settlers could decide for themselves whether to allow slavery". The results were guerrilla warfare in "Bloody Kansas", an emboldened pro-slavery faction, and eventually, the Civil War.

In a way Franklin Pierce is a symbol of nineteenth century New Hampshire's ambivalence toward slavery. Although there were no slaves in New Hampshire in the early 1800s, by Pierce's time the growing New Hampshire textile industry depended on a steady supply of cheap cotton. Many New Hampshire citizens, indeed much of the North, seemed willing to turn a blind eye to slavery in the South as they reaped the economic benefits from afar. But in 1856, possibly because of the disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act, New Hampshire voters demonstrated a profound change of heart. Abandoning the Democratic platform, they backed John Fremont of the newly formed Republican party. Fremont was strongly opposed to slavery. Of course, Fremont lost to James Buchanan, but in 1860, New Hampshire voters again backed a Republican, this time a man named Abraham Lincoln.

In his own bumbling manner then, Franklin Pierce achieved the opposite effect he intended. The Missouri Compromise was a devil's bargain that tried to preserve the union at the expensive of protecting slavery. Pierce's support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act tipped the balance in favor of slavery. Without condoning Pierce's policies, we can thank him for speeding up the inevitable: Civil War and Emancipation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One half of Franklin Pierce's inaugural address was devoted to explaining why he was unqualified to be president. Four years in the White House proved him correct. The nation learned the hard way what can happen when a popular, hard-drinking underachiever in college rides into office on the coattails of his respected politician father (Governor Benjamin Pierce).