Sunday, April 10, 2005

"Lies Across America": Franklin Pierce and the Homestead Act

I so enjoyed James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, I recently purchased his Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong (New York: Touchstone, 1999).

This morning I was reading (pp. 433-435) about a marker in Concord, New Hampshire, dedicated to former American President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869). According to Loewen, the marker reads
[Pierce was] Fourteenth President of the United States (1853-57). Lies buried in nearby Minot enclosure. Native son of New Hampshire, graduate of Bowdoin College, lawyer, effective political leader, Congressman and U.S. Senator, Mexican War veteran, courageous advocate of State's Rights, he was popularly known as "Young Hickory of the Granite Hills."
Loewen says Pierce was "popularly known" by no name.
The "Young Hickory of the Granite Hills" moniker was a Democratic Party campaign slogan.

But of greater interest was Loewen’s comment that, unlike what the monument says, Pierce wanted nothing to do with "States’ Rights." If anything, he was a strong nationalist. But--and here I began to realize how language can become confusing--he was pro-Southern slaveholders all the way. And if you think of the slaveholder interests as being "States’ Rights" advocates (and post-Lincoln, one can understand how and why one might think of "States’ Rights" as being synonymous with pro-Southern/pro-slavery), then one can understand how and why someone might suggest Pierce was an "advocate of States’ Rights."

It gets more interesting, however. Loewen notes that
Pierce . . . opposed a homestead bill in the West simply because slaveholders saw that letting Americans get land cheaply was a threat to slavery. Homesteading had to wait until the Lincoln administration a decade later.
I had never thought about the conflicting political and social goals a liberal and/or freedom-loving American has to face when considering the effects of the Homestead Act. Four things quickly sprang to mind when I read Loewen’s comments about Pierce.
  1. Someone in favor of small government (i.e., therefore, someone who believes in the Jeffersonian ideal that "that government is best which governs least") should oppose the idea of the national/federal government "owning" and/or being able to "grant" or "give away" large tracts of land. I.e., therefore, such a person should oppose the Homestead Act.

  2. On the other hand,

  3. Jefferson himself and, decades later, when the Democratic Party first came into existence, the Democrats, were officially supportive of small landholders, small farmers (in opposition to big business and banking interests). If you are in favor of "the little guy," and especially if you are more pragmatist than idealist, then I would expect you might support the idea that the federal government ought to be able to "grant land" to homesteaders.

  4. On the other hand,

  5. If you are concerned about the rights of Native Americans; if it bothers you that the federal government repeatedly failed to live up to its treaty obligations toward the Indians: well, then, I would expect you should oppose the Homestead Act--because the Act brought a flood of European-Americans into territory that the native peoples, by treaty, had a right to possess.

  6. But, apparently,

  7. As Loewen suggests, someone who is distressed by black slavery should support the Homestead Act because it made the entire institution of slavery that much less tenable.

So where do you stand with respect to the Homestead Act?

(Isn’t history fun?!?)


While I’m at it, let me make one last comment about Pierce’s alleged pro-States’ Rights perspective.

I had always understood that the Democratic Party, up until the turn of the 20th Century, was the "small government" party. It was the Republicans, most famously exampled in their first major leader, Abraham Lincoln, who were the party of "big government." It was they who were the nationalists. But according to Loewen, the Democrats really were a strong nationalist and anti-States’ Rights party--at least while Pierce was president:
Pierce supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which the Democratic party pushed through Congress in 1854. This law opened Kansas to slavery even though it lay north of the Missouri Compromise line set up in 1820 to separate slave from free states. The result was a rush by slaveowners and free soilers to settle Kansas.

The antislavery settlers won. In 1855 their leaders met in Topeka and wrote a constitution in the first attempt to organize a state government. Although the Kansas-Nebraska Act supposedly allows new territories and states to decide for themselves whether to adopt slavery, Pierce refused to allow states’ rights. A Kansas historical marker in Topeka tells the result: "The next year their legislature was dispersed by U.S. dragoons under orders from President Franklin Pierce." Emboldened by support from the national government, pro-slavery forces in Missouri crossed over to vote illegally and intimidate free soilers from voting. Pierce approved the results even though his own appointees in Kansas criticized the election.
My thought: "States’ Rights" is often supported or opposed depending solely on whose party is in control of the national v. the states’ levers of government.
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