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Franklin Pierce and Slavery – posted 10/20/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 11/7/2019

October 20, 2019 1 comment

In writing about the New York Times 1619 Project and slavery, I made a notable error. As pointed out by Concord Monitor reader, William Judd, I had included New Hampshire’s only president, Franklin Pierce, on a list of presidents who owned slaves. He did not.

As someone who attended Franklin Pierce Law Center and as someone who has been to the Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough, I became curious about Pierce and the slavery question. There is not much good quality information readily available about Pierce.

I had previously read that a consensus of historians generally ranked him as one of our worst presidents. While it is true that Franklin Pierce did not own slaves, I think it is fair to say his slavery views and his handling of slavery-related issues were beyond abysmal.

Pierce hated abolitionists. It was a defining passion for him. Pierce was a Democrat and in that era before the Civil War, the Democrats were the political party generally aligned with pro-slavery interests. Although he was a Northerner, he had Southern-type principles.

When an Anti-Slavery Society formed in New Hampshire in 1835, Pierce wrote to a friend:

“One thing must be perfectly apparent to every intelligent man. This abolition movement must be crushed or there is an end to the Union.”

Before the Civil War, the country was incredibly divided over the slavery question. Pierce was a compromise presidential candidate in 1852. Democrats correctly believed Pierce would have national appeal since he was loyal to the Union but with a pro-Southern ideology. Pierce was the most pro-slavery New England politician.

Pierce won the Democratic nomination on the forty-ninth ballot at the 1852 Convention. He upset James Buchanan who had been expected to be the nominee. Senator William King of Alabama became Pierce’s Vice-President. Senator King’s family was the largest slaveholding family in Alabama.

After the 1852 Convention, New Hampshire Congressman Edmund Burke wrote to Pierce:

“I think we did right in putting King on the ticket. You know he is Buchanan’s bosom friend and thus a great and powerful interest is conciliated….The slave states will fall into our laps like ripe apples.”

At his inauguration in 1853, Pierce had this to say about slavery:

“I believe that involuntary servitude, as it exists in different States of this Confederacy, is recognized by the Constitution. I believe that it stands, like any other admitted right, and that the States where it exists are entitled to efficient remedies to enforce the constitutional provisions.”

Jefferson Davis, later the president of the Confederacy, was one of Pierce’s best friends. After his 1852 election to the presidency, Pierce made Jefferson Davis his secretary of war.

A crucial issue for Pierce was the expansion of slavery into the western territories beyond what was then the United States. Kansas and Nebraska were two places that were in play.The Compromise of 1820 had previously banned slavery north of the 36 degree 30” parallel, excluding Missouri. The South wanted to overturn that compromise.

There was a continuing battle between slave and free states that was reflected in the Compromise of 1850. Pierce was pushed by Senator Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and other Southern interests to weigh in on the side of the South. Pierce did so when he signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, a highly consequential piece of legislation that repealed the Missouri Compromise.

Both pro- and anti-slavery advocates poured into Kansas, leading to violent political confrontation in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas”. Probably no act of Congress divided the nation as much, heading the United States toward Civil War.

Pierce became unpopular in the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Democrats moved on from him, making James Buchanan the party’s presidential nominee in 1856. Pierce was generally seen as someone who advocated for the pro-slavery states.

It needs to be mentioned that as president, Pierce enforced the Fugitive Slave Act. When an escaped slave named Anthony Burns was seized in Boston, President Pierce dispatched federal troops to enforce Burns’ return to Virginia. That show of force backfired and turned many New Englanders against slavery, so much so, that a multi-racial crowd of abolitionists attacked the court in Boston where Burns was being held and tried to free him. Pierce became hated for his role in this affair.

After his tenure as president, Pierce became a harsh critic of President Lincoln. When Lincoln was assassinated, a mob gathered outside Pierce’s home in Concord demanding to know why Pierce had not raised a flag as a public mourning gesture. Pierce was able to talk the mob down.

Pierce had been a very successful trial lawyer in Concord in the 1840’s. Before he became President, he had a long record of public service, including Speaker of the House in the New Hampshire Legislature, Congressman and Senator.

Although on domestic policy, Pierce had inflamed conflict, he had tried to unite the country with a very aggressive program of imperialism and foreign expansion. He had sought to annex Hawaii and purchase Cuba. Many abolitionists believed though that he wanted to acquire new territory for slavery.

Pierce suffered deep tragedies in his life, including the death of his three children. His eleven year old son Benny died in a horrible train accident in Andover Ma right before Pierce became president. Both he and his wife were there.

Pierce had a serious alcohol problem. He persisted in drinking even though his physical condition was deteriorating. He died in 1869 of cirrhosis of the liver. None of his family members were present. In his last years he had expressed support for Andrew Johnson’s version of Reconstruction and he applauded Johnson’s acquittal after he was impeached.

While to his credit, Pierce was not a slaveholder, I submit there is almost nothing there to feel good about. He was from New Hampshire but fundamentally he was a slavery collaborator.

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A case for the Green New Deal – posted 10/14/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 10/24/2019

October 14, 2019 Leave a comment

One thing that separates the 2020 presidential race from past contests is our more dire state of climate emergency. The evidence is right in front of our eyes: the wildfires in Los Angeles, the superstorms like Hurricane Dorian and Maria, the burning of the Amazon rain forest and the melting of Greenland’s ice shelf.

Due to Greta Thunberg, the Sunrise movement, and writers like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, we are much more aware that our times are anything but normal.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that if countries want to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, they have to halve global emissions by 2030, become carbon-neutral by 2050 and go carbon-negative thereafter. That is a daunting challenge by any measure.

While most Democrats agree climate change is a major concern and they also agree the United States needs to zero out its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, presidential candidates’ plans about combatting climate change vary dramatically. Most of the Democrats have modest proposals and, in my opinion, pay climate change lip service. Many say they support the concept of a Green New Deal but few address the enormous funding required.

Part of the problem is the too-moderate bent of the Democratic party establishment. For so long they have sold small change as an adequate response to a wide range of problems including climate, economic inequality, lack of universal health coverage, mass incarceration and institutional racism.

During the Clinton era, that approach was best summed up by the term “triangulation”. Be a moderate Democrat but act like a centrist Republican. Too many Democrats have remained wedded to that approach. It actually allowed Trump to run against the Democrats as a status quo party.

Problem is though, when you face an emergency like climate change, small change does not cut it. The scientific community is telling us we have less than 11 years to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels. We could be facing uninhabitability for much of the planet and a Mad Max-like dystopia.

Fortunately, not all Democrats have signed on to a minimalist platform. The progressive wing of the party led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have endorsed a more full-bodied version of the Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal is both an outlook and a political program. It is inspired by the vision of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who in the face of the Great Depression advanced a New Deal in the 1930’s. In spite of significant opposition, especially from the business community, the New Deal launched a massive transformation that included jobs, relief programs, and infrastructure.

The Green New Deal aims for a similar transformation to avert climate catastrophe and to create millions of new jobs. Some of the component parts include:

  • reaching 100% renewable energy for electricity and transportation by no later than 2030 and complete decarbonization by 2050
  • leading the international fight to reduce emissions throughout the world by rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and working to enforce aggressive climate reduction goals
  • rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure including the nation’s water systems so that we can better deal with floods, hurricanes, and wildfires
  • preserving our public lands and reinstating the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that conserved wilderness
  • creating 20 million good-paying jobs in steel and auto manufacturing, construction, energy efficiency retrofitting, and renewable power plants
  • holding the fossil fuel industry accountable, making them pay for their pollution and the damage they have caused
  • helping workers in the fossil fuel industry transition to new work and careers
  • Incentivizing farmers to develop ecologically regenerative farming systems that sharply reduce emissions

Obviously in a proposal of this magnitude, questions abound. How this plan will be paid for is a totally legitimate question. As is the question of how it will get passed considering present opposition.

Green New Deal sponsors acknowledge the size of the price tag but they articulate a plan for payment. The plan generates money from different sources: revenue from selling energy via power marketing authorities, income taxes from the new jobs created, and money related to reducing military spending connected to protecting oil shipping lanes.

When opponents complain about the cost, the best response is consideration of the the cost of doing nothing. You can pick your doomsday scenario.

I think the biggest obstacle to the Green New Deal is the enormous cynicism and defeatism that exists about the state of the planet. Also there is huge cynicism about whether the system here can be changed to push through needed, radical changes. Our government has operated like a paralysis machine.

We can count on Green New Deal opponents to spread fear of an austere future and a too big federal government. That is predictable.

Overcoming the legacy of inaction and passivity is still on the agenda. The scientific knowledge about climate change has been out there for 30 or 40 years and we have not responded.

Naomi Klein put it this way:

“…I have been trying to figure out what is interfering with humanity’s basic survival instinct – why so many of us aren’t acting like our house is on fire when it so clearly is.”

A great place to start in learning about the Green New Deal is to read the full text of Congress’ Green New Deal Resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in February 2019.

As we consider the Democratic presidential candidates, I think a critical distinction to consider is each candidate’s Green New Deal position, if they have one. I would ask these questions: Does the candidate put dollars behind his/her proposal? How comprehensive is the plan? How deep does it go? Is it bold enough?

The extreme weather and climate disasters we face are a national emergency. We need to start acting like it.

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Lisa Baird, 10 Years Later – posted 10/6/2019

October 6, 2019 7 comments

This October marks ten years since my sister Lisa died. I often think about her. To say Lisa was a warm presence does not do her justice. She could fire up any room. Her sense of empathy was off the charts. Even with all her own hardships, she was always very concerned about the people around her. That included her clients as well as family and friends.

When someone dies, it is hard to appreciate the magnitude of the loss. Lisa’s loss shattered and splintered my family. She had held family together. I often think if she had not died how different events would have played out. I have no doubt that family togetherness would have been much more maintained.

It is funny how a charismatic person can have that power to stop potentially warring family factions from warring.

I have many wonderful memories of Lise that go back to early childhood. Although she was two years younger than me, she was a mentor. She often advised me, literally telling me what to say in all kinds of situations. She could have been a script writer. She had an opinion on everything. When younger, she would often come in to my bedroom, do homework and fall asleep on one of my twin beds. We talked non-stop for years. In the era before texting, she was a big phone-caller.

Lise was an early bird, never a night owl. She always had a wide circle of friends. She introduced me to many of her girl friends and I dated some of them. She used to joke that I was “stealing” her friends.

Lise was pretty athletic. I mostly remember her horseback riding and her swimming. She won awards at Camp Red Wing, riding English. She was always a strong swimmer. She did laps and could go for a couple miles. She used to go for long distance swims around Atlantic City with her friend Joyce Abrams.

Lise and I had bobbing contests in the pool at the Longport Seaview in Longport, NJ, when my parents had a place there. I always beat her and she would be pissed off in a good-natured way. She would say, “Boo-boo, you cheated” if she had an angle to argue.

Lise was not usually at a loss for words. She was a talker and her verbal skills were quite remarkable. The fact that she became a lawyer was quite appropriate.

She was a leader. Starting in school, she routinely got elected class president or Student Council president. During her years in the October League, she was district organizer in Philadelphia. Carl Davidson, a pretty famous radical in his own right, described Lisa as a “legendary organizer” in Philadelphia.

Lisa was politically precocious, figuring out capitalism at age 16. As a teenager, she went to meetings of Philadelphia Resistance, a draft resistance organization. At Baldwin School, Lisa locked horns with the head of the school, Ms. Cross. Lisa fought for minority scholarships at a time when the school was overwhelmingly white.

The school did not appreciate Lisa’s efforts. Although she was a fine student, Ms Cross blackballed her. Cross privately contacted all the colleges where Lisa applied, said she had “mental issues” and went on to describe my parents as “hippies” which was beyond laughable.

Lisa got accepted at none of the colleges where she had applied. That was mysterious because Lise was a very good student and I think it is fair to say she was widely liked by other students. My parents found out about the blackballing years later.

Lisa moved to Cambridge Ma after high school with her boyfriend Rusty Conroy. They had met on an American Friends Service Committee summer project on the Northern Cheyenne Indian reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. Rusty was Lisa’s first boyfriend and they remained great friends, always.

Lisa decided to go to college at the University of Texas in Austin. Austin was a very happy time in Lisa’s life. Political organizing became a passion for her. Since Lise never did anything the easy way, she did not finish at UT. She eventually moved back to Philadelphia and eventually finished her undergraduate work at Temple. Along the way, she learned Spanish.

In 1982, Lisa decided to go to law school. Her legal career was diverse. She started off working for Lehigh Valley Legal Services, worked as a staff attorney for Philadelphia City Council, then worked for HIAS and eventually she went into private practice. She had her own office on Cherry Street in Philadelphia.

In thinking about her lawyering career, I think of how much was lost when she died. She specialized in immigration law, representing clients who faced deportation or had asylum claims. Her advocacy skills are desperately needed now.

The synagogue shooter in Pittsburgh was angry at HIAS and that was where Lisa worked for some time. Lisa actually played an important role in pushing HIAS to represent clients from all over the world. HIAS had a past history of representing Russian Jews. Lise represented Ugandan child soldiers, women who were victims of female genital mutilation, Vietnamese boat people, and Chinese and Japanese restaurant workers, among others.

I know Lisa would have been in the thick of the fight against Trump’s immigration policies. She was a warrior. Walking around Philadelphia with Lisa was a trip. She knew so many people and had so many clients. Clients would always be coming up to Lise and saying things like, “Ms. Lee-ze, we will pay you.” Lise was a terrible bill collector. She needed a paralegal and a secretary and she functioned much better when she had one.

Considering her breast cancer, her productivity remained amazing. She did not let cancer slow her down that much until the end. After she died, my mom received a lovely card from the Immigration Court in Philadelphia signed by the judges and staff. The Court appreciated Lisa’s passion and excellence as an advocate. She fought hard for all her clients.

I think of the words of the lawyer, Gerry Spence, which fit Lisa:

“Lawyers should be chosen because they can demonstrate a history rich in human traits, the ability to care, the courage to fight, the will to win, a concern for the human condition, a passion for justice and simple uncompromising honesty. These are the traits of the lawyer.”

Lise brought the same dedication and passion to her role as a parent that she did to her lawyering. She was absolutely devoted to Molly and Lou. They were central in her life. I think all critical decisions she made, she made with her children in mind.

Lisa’s death left a gaping hole in my life that can never be filled. The sibling relationship is so special because you share a lifetime experience. No one else has that same kind of shared knowledge and experience.

When my parents died in their eighties, I at least felt like they were able to live long and good lives. I do not feel the same way about Lise. Her death was not in the natural order of things. She died at 56. I still miss her terribly.

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More Dogs – posted 10/4/2019

October 5, 2019 1 comment
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