Thursday, March 21, 2013

Our Frank

Franklin Pierce came home to Concord, N.H., after his presidency and lived there throughout the Civil War. An engaging challenge in writing Our War was to show Pierce, like the other people in the book, as a real, multidimensional person living through the nation’s greatest crisis.

Pierce is the central character in two chapters and appears in several others. In reading his letters and other source material, I developed a strong impression of him.

Politically, he was an ideologue. He had inherited his father’s anti-federalist views. He favored weak national government and respected the constitutional compromises that gave states the authority to establish institutions, including slavery. This made him a Doughface president – a northerner with southern views. He claimed to deplore slavery personally and to think it would eventually die out, but in the meantime he fervently believed northern states must respect southerners' right to keep slaves.

Above all, Pierce feared a civil war if the compromises that supported slavery broke down. He also rationalized his position through fear-mongering. Should the slaves gain freedom, he often said, southern whites would be at their mercy. Savage freedman would destroy property and kill and rape to avenge their years of bondage. Politicians of both parties had used this argument to put down abolitionist agitation in the North for decades.

Pierce was the leader of New Hampshire’s Democratic Party. Before his presidency, the party held power most of the time. Pierce was so rigid about northern Democrats supporting the South on slavery that he personally cast some who strayed from it out of the party. His small-tent partisanship caused a Democratic schism during the mid-1840s when Sen. John Parker Hale and others resisted extending slavery into Texas and other western territories. Pierce tried in vain to destroy Hale’s political career.

On the other hand, Pierce could be a sympathetic character. This was particularly evident in his relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne. The two had been classmates at Bowdoin College during the 1820s.  Never was Pierce’s loyalty and friendship more on display than during Hawthorne’s final illness in 1864. Because the story involved some of the giants of 19th-century American culture, showing this side of Pierce in Our War was a rewarding experience.

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