We'll Pierce 'em in '52
November 13, 2008
by William P. Meyers

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The Barack Obama campaign has done a lot of talking about hope and change. But certainly he has brought no change to the two-party system. Compare that to the elections of the 1850's, cumulating in the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Now that was change, and it was change for the better. And it required the destruction of a major political party, the Whig Party, to get done.

I have been thinking a lot about the political psychology of American citizens. One of my litmus tests is war crimes. Why do almost all Americans apply a double standard for war crimes and crimes against humanity? I have found this to be just as true of most "progressives" and liberals as of conservative Americans.

To get at the heart of that matter, I have been studying the history of relations between the United States of America and Japan (See The U.S. Bullies Japan in the 1850's). These relations started while Franklin Pierce was President of the United States. Yet like most Americans, I know little about President Pierce.

It turns out (I am garnering this from Bailey's The American Pageant, but you can look at the President Franklin Pierce Wikipedia page) Pierce was a member of the Democratic Party. He was from New Hampshire, where he had worked his way up from the state legislature to the U.S. Senate. He sounds a bit like Barack: "youngish, erect, smiling, and convivial." The Democratic Party at the time was many things, but foremost it was the party of slavery. "As a pro-Southern Northerner he was acceptable to the slavery wing of the Democratic Party." [Bailey p. 384-385]

Pierce's main opponent was the Whig Party candidate, General Winfield Scott. But the Whigs were divided internally over the slavery question, with the Southern Whigs of course for slavery and the Northern Whigs mostly against it. Scott's campaign was inept. Pierce won with 1.6 million popular votes to 1.4 million for Scott.

More important in retrospect, but obscure at the time, other parties took about 6% of the vote. John P. Hale of the Free Soil party picked up 6% of the vote. This party would become the nucleus of the Republican Party, which would first field a presidential candidate in 1856.

Pierce's Presidency was as predatory as any in U.S. history. His Secretary of War was Jefferson Davis, who would later become President of the Confederate States of America. The Democratic Party had, as a goal, acquiring more territory where slavery would be legal. The new territories recently muscled away from Mexico would mostly become Free states. Cuba was the prime target, but ironically it would be the Republicans who grabbed Cuba later in the century. Anti-slavery Americans killed the Pierce administration's attempt to buy Cuba.

However, Pierce did preside over the Gadsden Purchase.

The pro-slavery Democrats thought they won a victory in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Instead they re-opened the slavery question that most people that had been settled by the Missouri Compromise. Both the Whigs and the Democrats had both pro-slavery and anti-slavery wings, but the anti-slavery wing of the Democrats was weak. As the abolition of slavery increasingly became an issue, anti-slavery Democrats defected to the new Republican Party.

We like say things like, "it was President Pierce who sent a war fleet under Perry to attack Japan in 1854." But Franklin Pierce just happened to be President when the ruling elite of this nation decided Japan's time was up. Winfield Scott would have done the same thing. At least in 1852 electing a civilian, rather than a general, did not affect the level of aggression in U.S. foreign policy.

There have been some truly powerful Presidents in U.S. history, notably Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But most U.S. Presidents can exercise their judgment only over a limited set of options. Those options are presented by the ruling class. In Pierce's era that ruling class consisted mainly of slavers and other very wealthy business people. They wanted to exploit China and Japan; they wanted to build railroads; they wanted to advance the industrial revolution. And they did.

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