I was the chair of the 2004 Franklin Pierce Bicentennial Committee, helping to organize the events and programs that marked the 200th birthday of the 14th President of the United States. I agree that removing Franklin Pierce’s name from the UNH Law School is a good idea.
Here is why.
Back in 2004, we were clear that our goal was not to celebrate but to remember Pierce. As with any US president, his legacy had good and bad points. And, as with the 13 men who proceeded him, he supported human slavery under a flawed belief that it held the Union together. But, his brutal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act had to be the low point of his political career, along with the disastrous Bleeding Kansas. These acts awoke much of the nation to the horrors of slavery, and set the table for a Civil War. As with every president who proceed Lincoln, Pierce could have acted to end slavery, and failed to. He supported and enforced laws that empowered slavery and perpetuated lies and cruelty. Regardless of the times, law without reason is criminal.
In judging historical figures, we often have to ask, what was the world like in their lifetime? If we apply that measure to Pierce, we learn a lot. France abolished slavery in 1794, and then again in 1848. Britain ended slavery between 1833 and 1838. Canada also ended slavery in 1833. Already, Western nations were in the process of ending slavery — while the US, under Pierce, had no progressive dialog.
I agree with removing the name of people who either supported racism or fought to preserve it. In this bucket we can easily put Andrew Jackson, who should be taken off the $20 bill, Woodrow Wilson, whose name is linked to racism and anti-Semitism, and the 45th President of the United States, who called white supremacists “good people.”
But, there is one vital issue I wish to address too. With the legacy of historic figures, the worst thing we can do is strike their names from history all together. Yes, statues, naming schools after them or giving them holidays is white washing history, and ignoring difficult truths is wrong. But so is pretending it never happened. Pierce’s time was a complex one, and many of the issues he faced including imperialism, immigration, military spending, geography expansion, and foreign trade, have consequences today. While his failures should not be forgotten, nor should his journey. History is not a march of progress, it is often filled with failure, bad calls, and brutal truths. We need to stop celebrating people who were not role models, but we cannot fall into the trap of crafting a Gone with the Wind narrative, ignoring the harsh truths and making us feel good about the past.
As Dr. King put it: We should never forget that everything Adolph Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal; and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany.
So, yes, take Pierce’s name off the law school. But in its place, put up a plaque, or build a website looking at his times and his legacy, encourage discussion, and teach truth. Don’t hide what happened and move on — but foster a conversation of how we got here, and what we need to do to address the legacy of our past. That is how we heal.