If you find it discouraging that race-consciousness seems to cloud nearly every aspect of American politics and culture these days, consider what happened when a single issue dominated our national psyche for more than 50 years.
While slavery was a hot button topic since the founding of the United States, it was to reach fever pitch in 1817, when the territory of Missouri first applied for statehood. Notwithstanding the textbook mythology, the issue was far more complicated than “good-guy” abolitionists in the North versus “bad-guy” slave owners in the South. As perverse as it might sound to our 21st century ears, the Constitution protected slavery (Article I, Section 9), and would not have been ratified without the three-fifths compromise. Moreover, it was unclear at the time whether Congress could impose a slave or free cachet on a territory. (The Dred Scott decision in 1857 determined that Congress could not prohibit slavery in a territory.)
Besides, a significant percentage of ardent abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Parker, were most definitely racist, nativist, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic, in addition to being anti-South. Few would argue that chattel slavery represents the best of laissez-faire capitalism, but the zero sum game mercantilism as advocated by the North could hardly be sustained, either. Suffice to say, sectional rivalries dominated every national political discussion, and slavery was at the center of the sectional divide. Most lawmakers were aware that the nation was on the verge of being torn apart, so cooler heads shunned the hotheads on either side, and compromise was the byword–for a while.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed Missouri to become a slave state but banned slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase north of latitude 36°30′. As such, on March 3, 1820, Maine was admitted to the union as a free state, and Missouri as a slave state. Talk about a quota system!
Further compromises were to follow, including the Compromise of 1850, in which California was admitted as a free state, and the territories of New Mexico and Utah left to determine their own destinies on the matter. There were also provisions for the return of fugitive slaves, and the prohibition of slave trade in the District of Columbia. Virtually every single legislative move had to be a tit for tat balancing act.
It was into this environment that Franklin Pierce, former US Senator and war hero was thrust. The leading contenders for the Democratic party nomination in 1852 were Lewis Cass, Stephen A. Douglas, James Buchanan, and William Marcy, but the convention was deadlocked, and dark horse Pierce was nominated on the 49th ballot. The opposing Whigs were divided, and their candidate, popular General Winfield Scott, proved to be a boring campaigner. Pierce garnered 254 to Scott’s 42 electoral votes, carrying all but four states. It looked like everything was coming up roses for the young and handsome president-elect, but fate was to have its way with him.
His wife Jane had despised the Washington social scene when he was a senator, and dreaded returning even as First Lady. If that were to put a damper on things, it was on January 6, 1853 that disaster really hit, as the Pierces watched their only surviving child, 11-year-old Bennie, be crushed to death in an appalling train wreck. With his wife now a recluse, as well as blaming him for the tragedy, he was robbed of domestic solace, and much self-confidence. Hardly an auspicious beginning for a Chief Executive to face many searing issues.
In his inaugural address, he expressed the hope that “no sectional or ambitious or fanatical excitement” would arise over slavery. Perhaps it could be removed from national politics. If only…
Pierce formed a cabinet that represented all of America in the best 1853 sense: There were members from slave and free states, including Jefferson Davis of Mississippi (War), Caleb Cushing of Massachusetts (Attorney General), and James Campbell of Pennsylvania (Postmaster General). Divergent though their views were, Pierce’s cabinet was the only one in US history to remain intact for an entire presidential term. Campbell’s appointment and the visit of papal nuncio Gaetano Bedini was to fuel intense anti-Catholic and nativist sentiment.
In 1854, Stephen Douglas unleashed his Kansas-Nebraska act. This law would abolish the Missouri Compromise, and would allow “popular sovereignty” to determine the slave or free status of these two new states. Pierce was not in favor of the law, and not only because it would return the slavery issue to national prominence. Clearly, this was a thinly veiled power play by Douglas, to boost his presidential hopes. Southern states would support it, and northern politicians had to, as well, if they were to retain national influence. In the end, Pierce was to support it, or face total legislative paralysis.
The fruits came quickly. A civil war erupted in Kansas, the Democratic party was split, the Whig party was destroyed, and the Republican party was created. Pierce was to be denied the re-nomination, which led to James Buchanan’s one-term presidency, and the ascendancy of Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln’s career-affirming assassination, and his deification by those very Radical Republicans who had hated him in life, cast a pall over how history would remember Pierce. His obituary in the New York Times smeared his presidency in the best politically correct tradition of 1869, and most elementary history texts do little better.
Pierce, the plucky soldier who tried to prevent the worst conflict in our nation’s history is mocked, while Lincoln, a tyrant who swore total war on his own citizens is sanctified. If it is only in mythology that a healing can be achieved, one wonders how our current era will be described 100 years from now.