Monday, December 31, 2012

Franklin Pierce, ghostwriter

Franklin Pierce faced a personal dilemma that affects few men. As an ex-president, his inclination was to stay above politics. But a century and a half ago, when President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became law and Union war efforts reached another low ebb, he couldn’t hold his tongue.

On Jan. 2, 1863, Pierce was in Andover, Mass., at the home of his wife Jane’s sister. Jane was sickly and often stayed there. The proclamation had taken effect the previous day. Pierce took pen in hand to write to John H. George, his political pal back home in Concord, N.H.

When I found this letter to George in Pierce’s papers at the New Hampshire Historical Society, I was excited to see such candor from the ex-president, even though his opinions seemed intended only for George’s eyes.

Pierce took a harsh view of  Lincoln's proclamation
But something about the words and phrases seemed familiar to me. During earlier research, I had copied many articles expressing the editorial views of New Hampshire newspapers about the proclamation. The Democratic New Hampshire Patriot loathed Lincoln and attacked the proclamation without quarter; Republican papers either favored it or, fearing its unpopularity in their closely divided state, kept mum about it.

After finding the Pierce letter, I went back to these articles, and great was my reward. There, in the Patriot of Jan. 7, 1863, under the headline “Emancipation Proclamation,” was Pierce’s letter. It was unsigned, and I originally took it to be the editorial position of the Patriot. But now I knew who the author was.

So Pierce found a way to have his cake and eat it, too – to have his say while appearing to keep the respectful silence about public policy that is traditionally the duty of an ex-president. Later in 1863, he became so incensed with Lincoln’s presidency and the conduct of the war that he spoke out openly. For the moment, however, he was content to ghostwrite his opinion.

Here is the heart of the letter and subsequent Patriot story:

“The last proclamation of the President caps the climax of folly and wickedness. No ingenuous man can say hereafter – ‘If the administration means this’ – ‘if the administration contemplates that.’ The demands of civilization, the most obvious dictates of humanity, honor and common honesty, to say nothing of patriotism, commands the withdrawal of support promptly and irrevocably.

“We know what Mr. Lincoln means, so far as he can be said to have a meaning of his own – We know what Mr. Sumner & the whole band of abolitionists throughout the land mean and Mr. Lincoln has been and is to what his limited ability and narrow intelligence [allow] their willing instrument for all the woe which has thus far been brought upon the country and for all the degradation, all the atrocity, all the dessolation and ruin which is only too palpably before us.

“It is not that the Constitution, which the abolitionists have for twenty years & more denounced as ‘a covenant with death & a league with Hell,’ is now at the bidding of that party, deliberately violated & defied by the national executive sworn to maintain it. It is not that the people have been made to contribute to the overthrow of institutions which from childhood they have respected & revered by being taxed presently & prospectively to an extent hitherto unknown. It is not that five hundred thousand men have been induced to take their places in the ranks of the Army under false pretences of a purpose solely to uphold the Constitution and preserve the Union and that one hundred thousand of them at least have poured out their life & blood for the consummation of an object to which they never did give & never could have given their approbation.

“All this would have been sufficiently replete with a degree of wrong, disgrace & honor which admits of no expression. But what will the world say of a proclamation, emanating from the President of the United States, not only in defiance of the fundamental law of the Country for the upholding of which he ought to have been willing to pour his own blood, but in defiance of all law human & Divine which invites the black race in six entire states and parts of parts of several others to use and with all the barbaric features which must be inseparable from a successful servile insurrection to slay & devastate without regard to age or sex, without any condition of restraint except that the homes smouldering in ashes shall be the homes of the descendants of men whose fathers fought with our fathers the battles of the Revolution, and whose fathers with our fathers formed & adopted the Constitution now scoffed & defied; yes, and one other, that the women and children brutally violated & slaughtered shall be white women & children.

“What will the civilized world say when they read these words sent forth by the President of the United States and countersigned by the Secy of State! They will say, and the bitter thing is that they will say justly, that a crime so fearful as that proposed was never before contemplated by any nation, civilized or barbarous.

“If it be not too late for the people of the United States to utter a voice which shall terrify duplicity and overcome fanaticism – if it be too late to rescue the Republic from ruin financially & politically – is it too late to stay the restless march of barbarism, to save such remnants of honor as may warrant as to claim & deserve a place among the civilized peoples of the earth.

“But I will say [no] more now. My heart is sick of the contemplation.”

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