An example of how historical evaluations change is how our 14th president, Franklin Pierce, has been depicted by historians. Pierce, who occupied the White House from 1853 to 1857, was a Northerner with Southern sympathies. Franklin Pierce ranks in the top ten most handsome presidents as well as the top ten youngest presidents.
Some historians have considered him a failed president. Their disparagement of Pierce stems from his refusal to act aggressively to end slavery. But Pierce maintained that since slavery was legal, Congress must amend the Constitution making it illegal. Otherwise, he didn’t have the authority to eliminate it. That was a correct decision.
Franklin Pierce was also criticized for his support of popular sovereignty, allowing residents to decide how their states would be governed. Pierce signed into law the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed residents of these newly formed states to decide for themselves whether slavery would be allowed. The creation of these states involved the repeal of the Missouri Compromise which had outlawed slavery in these lands. Some maintain these actions lead to the Civil War. But that conflict had been brewing for some time, the result of long-standing social and political differences between the regions.
Slavery stereotypes characterize vignettes of the antebellum South. Although 75% of Southern families in the eighteen-hundreds did not own slaves, establishment journalists portray the antebellum South as a slaveocracy. But contrary to what many believe, only 4% of antebellum White Southerners lived on plantations with 20 or more African slaves. The vast majority of White Southerners were not wealthy and had to work to support themselves, many working alongside African slaves.
Before becoming president, Franklin Pierce served in the Senate with Jefferson Davis who would later become president of the Confederate States of America. The two became lifelong friends and when Pierce became president, he made Davis his Secretary of War. When, after the Civil War, Davis was imprisoned awaiting trial for treason, Pierce offered to defend him. Davis looked forwarded to testing the legality of secession in court but Northern prosecutors canceled the trial and released Davis.
Although today’s journalists associate slavery with the antebellum South, the practice was common in other parts of the country. It is estimated that the Cherokee Nation owned roughly 5,000 African slaves. The use of slave labor was a common practice even in prehistoric times. Long before towns and villages were established, nomadic hunters and gatherers used slave labor. The institution of slavery even predates the emergence of religious beliefs and is still a common practice in many parts of the world.
Although journalists were once considered members of a profession and held in esteem, their attempts to report history have not been successful. Today’s news reporters have achieved more celebrity-hood than their predecessors but they are not esteemed by the public. Impartial journalistic reporting has essentially been replaced with advocacy journalism.
The news of the day can be so distressful that it could cause something akin to “paranoia” in a growing segment of the population. Many persons consider paranoia to be a form of mental illness but the term can simply mean dreading something that may or may not occur. Slanted media coverage of a particular phenomenon might make the public hypersensitive about what is happening. The average person is highly unlikely to scrutinize media reports so whatever is reported is usually accepted, even stereotypical views.
In the past, establishment historians tended to rank Franklin Pierce as a failed president. But recent biographies have re-assessed his presidency and it is now being presented in a more favorable light. During his presidency, Pierce had to cope with his wife’s mental deterioration, the deaths of his three young sons before their twelfth birthdays, and his periods of depression and his dependence on alcohol. But regardless of setbacks, Franklin Pierce was a fully functioning president and never neglected his presidential duties.
At this time of year we should recall that Franklin Pierce was the first president to include a Christmas Tree in the White House.
Gail Jarvis is a Georgia-based free-lance writer. He attended the University of Alabama and has a degree from Birmingham Southern College. His writing is influenced by years of witnessing how versions of news and history were distorted for political reasons. Mr. Jarvis is a member of the Society of Independent Southern Historians and his articles have appeared on various websites, magazines, and publications for several organizations. He lives in Coastal Georgia.