Abolitionist Religious Intolerance in New Hampshire

The abolitionist Republicans of the mid-1850s had dark origins in the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know-Nothing party, and were quick to deny rights to those unlike them. President Franklin Pierce appointed Mexican War hero Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as his Secretary of War.

Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865

Abolitionists Religious Intolerance in New Hampshire

“In late 1848, Pierce’s law practice brought him before the State legislature to defend the Shakers against an attempt to pass a law restricting their religious activities. The “United Society of True Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing” known as the Shakers, were being accused by former members of the society of a range of charges including the breakup of families, confiscation of personal property, and child abuse. The Shakers existed in New Hampshire since the 1790’s. By 1848 there were some 275 Shakers living in two communities, Canterbury . . . and Enfield.

Over the years, disgruntled former Shakers had periodically petitioned the legislature to take action against the sect. In December, 1848, Asa Fowler, State representative from Concord and Pierce’s former law partner, who was now an active antislavery advocate, presented four different petitions signed by nearly five hundred persons asking for a law to be passed “prohibiting the boarding of minor children to the Shakers . . .”

The Shakers wisely chose Franklin Pierce as their lead attorney . . . Pierce was able to establish that most of the reports of child abuse were secondhand and had not been experienced or observed by the witnesses. Pierce declared the accusations unfounded and unproven and the proposed legislation punitive.

[The Committee on the Judiciary] led by chairman Moses Norris, Jr. . . concluded that “Here then, in the free State of New Hampshire, where we boast of our civil and religious freedom . . . it is seriously proposed to visit upon the free exercise of the rights of conscience, a penalty more severe than is visited upon the most hardened and desperate villain now within the walls of the State prison.”

That Pierce was willing to defend, in such a public forum, such an unpopular fringe religion, none of whose members voted, demonstrates his courage for standing up for the rights of all citizens. Equally noteworthy is the role played by the antislavery leaders of the legislature in attacking the Shakers. No doubt they saw a parallel between the closed society of the Shakers and the slavery they so opposed . . . and the attacks on them can only be seen today as a sign of ignorance and intolerance. Considering what he had experienced from the antislavery politicians who supported temperance legislation, restrictions on Catholics and Shakers, and denial of voting rights to immigrants, Pierce equated all of the (abolitionist) reform agenda as an intolerant movement by some to deny rights to others, including of course, Southerners . . . ”

(Franklin Pierce, New Hampshire’s Favorite Son, Peter A. Wallner, Plaidswede Publishing, 2004, pp. 161-166)