Monday, July 04, 2011

Franklin Pierce

now finished:
Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire's Favorite Son by Peter Wallner

Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union by Peter Wallner

It's interesting to consider what is meant by "martyr for the union." I mean, I personally think it is awesome to be "New Hampshire's favorite son" too, but I can see where many regular U.S.A. folk don't necessarily get all jolly and fascinated about states as I do, so for this paragraph we'll stick to what it means to be a martyr for the union. I can imagine a chorus of talking heads using those phrases in praise of someone who gave his all for the United States. But you know what it really meant, in 1852, 1853, 1854, 1855, and 1856? It meant continuing to prevent the abolitionists from getting very far in abolishing slavery. I say this not as a particular indictment of Franklin Pierce. He was actually a man of integrity who honored his father, tried to rid the government of corruption and steadfastly refused to do things he didn't think the president had Constitutional power to do.

Also, he was not alone. My boy Millard Fillmore before him was also a man who is much overlooked by history, probably partly because he kept the status quo - i.e., the union. The union of slave states and free states who were sliding farther and farther apart, threatening this amazing thing the founding fathers had recently created. And there were others, many others, who might wring their hands and weep and wail and gnash teeth, but really just let slavery keep on keeping on, as it were.

Why? Well, let me tell you this: these two Peter Wallner volumes about Franklin Pierce make it quite clear how very extreme the abolitionists were. I feel like these days in the U.S. we tell ourselves, subconsciously but also through all our institutions and prevailing narratives of society, that the abolitionists and Abraham Lincoln were the Good Guys and the slaveholders and Jefferson Davis and anyone who wanted to not emancipate slaves were the Bad Guys, and there was a clear dichotomy, and it was simple. And to be honest, that was not the case. Abolitionists were largely reviled and shunned, even though we later call them "right."

Abolitionists were the Michael Moore of their day.

They dared to speak truth to power, and even their churches disliked it. The president had no use for them. The state political parties were infuriated that these believers who wanted such a fundamental transformation would threaten the stability of the union, political harmony, etc. Furthermore, it was not actually easy to be the president and just "do something" about slavery. The president was also president of the southern states. The Kansas-Nebraska act and all that followed in "bleeding Kansas" pretty much destroyed Franklin Pierce's political career. Jefferson Davis was his Secretary of War. (I'm glad we don't have that job title anymore - I wish we also didn't have that job.)

Here I must interject. Jefferson Davis was actually smart and kind of awesome. Sure, sure, a few years later he would preside over the less awesome (and less smart?) Confederacy. But during the 1850s he was successful and he cared about the United States and he did some really cool shit, like import CAMELS! real camels! into Texas and the Southwest, newly acquired U.S. land, for transporting military supplies and the like. He sent some armed forces minions to observe the Prussian War and all that went along with it, and they returned talking about camels in the Middle East, and one thing led to another and - so awesome. I really, really want to find out what happened to the descendants of these camels in Texas when the nasty Civil War interrupted and took everyone's attention away from the Southwest camel program.

But seriously, that interjection is also partly my point. Jefferson Davis was not a monster or devil. He wasn't even a Hitler. He was part of the United States. And there were millions and millions of citizens - churchgoers, politicians, family men, family women, business leaders, frontier renegades, and so forth - all of whom were equally convinced that the southern slave holding states' peculiar institution was not something the Constitutional federal government could do thing one about.

And, most of you today would have been willing to go along with that majority, keeping the peace, not shaking things up too much. I know, because I see the way you react to Michael Moore, and truthout, and Noam Chomsky (who might be one of our smartest living humans), and to those of us who speak out against the evil, awful warmongering of the U.S.

Finally, Franklin Pierce was awesome because he went to college in Maine with Nathaniel Hawthorne and then they were BFFs for life. That job in the customs house? Thanks, pal in the federal government. Ditto for the stint in London. Nathaniel even came to Franklin's house to die instead of setting up his deathbed back home with his wife.

I love my presidential-bios-to-see-where-we-went-wrong project.

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