Looking Back

Statue of President Franklin Pierce, a New Hampshire native, on the state capitol grounds in Concord. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith 2017

On the evening of Monday, Dec. 25, 1848, the Judiciary Committee of the New Hampshire House of Representatives convened at the State House in Concord. A series of meetings had been held from Dec. 13-23 where the committee had heard from witnesses accusing the Shakers, a Protestant religious sect, of harmful practices. Much of the testimony presented had been compelling, and at times it had even been shocking. The witnesses had appeared in support of four petitions that had been signed by 498 people who wanted the legislature to pass laws to rein in the Shakers. One of the petitioners was Mary Marshall (formerly Dyer), whose public struggle against the Shakers had begun in 1815 when she had left the sect.

On that Christmas Day in 1848 the committee began hearing from witnesses who spoke on behalf of the Shakers. That week a series of meetings was held to accommodate the 34 men and women who had been summoned. Many of them were Shakers who lived in either the Enfield or the Canterbury Shaker community. Also appearing were several non-Shakers who had interacted with the Shakers in their professional capacities, including at least one attorney, N.W. Westgate of Enfield, and several physicians.

The witnesses were questioned by a team of lawyers representing the Shakers. The lead attorney was the formidable Franklin Pierce. The handsome 44-year-old was a former United States congressman and senator, who would later become the 14th President of the United States. Although the counsel for the petitioners, John S. Wells, conducted cross-examinations, the testimony presented generally undercut the negative stories told by the earlier anti-Shaker witnesses. The committee heard statements attesting to the fine quality of the Shaker schools and of the good medical care provided to the residents in the two communities. Attorney Westgate said of the Shakers, “I know nothing but that they are an industrious and temperate people.”

The Shaker men and women spoke plainly and in positive terms about their Society. Elder John Lyon of Enfield said, “We teach love and good will to all mankind, and not to hate any. ... All that was ever taught or extended to me was kindness in regard to children, and I have always inculcated the same. I never whipped or struck a child in my life, and never saw one whipped in our Society.” Miranda Clifford, who had joined the Shakers with her seven children when the family was poverty-stricken, testified, “The condition of myself and children, since I have been with the Shakers, I have considered to be the best. I was always treated kindly, and my children also. ... I could always see my children when I desired; I was never deprived the privilege of seeing them.”

The committee’s work being done, at 3 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 29, the New Hampshire House of Representatives met to hear the closing statements. State senators and Governor Jared W. Williams attended the assembly, along with a large crowd of curious citizens. The topic was of great interest to the general public, but Franklin Pierce’s famous ability to command an audience was the real attraction. He was first to speak, and except for a short break, he continued with his arguments until around 7:30 p.m. According to Pierce biographer Peter A. Wallner, “Quoting frequently from a Bible that he held in his hand, Pierce showed that the Shakers’ doctrine was contained in the scriptures. He reviewed the 30 years of attacks on the Shakers and declared that they were entitled to a statute of limitations. Pierce declared the accusations unfounded and unproven and the proposed legislation punitive. He reminded the audience that the Shakers were subject to the same laws as everyone else, and that special laws were not necessary.”

In the end, Pierce made a case for allowing the Shakers to exercise freedom of religion, stating, “They are in a church which they believe to be the true church. They are lifted above the things of the world, above earthly connections, above ties of blood and nature ...” After he was finished, Attorney Wells delivered a harsh assessment of the Shakers that went on for almost three hours, amplifying the complaints presented by the anti-Shaker witnesses.

Next week: Will the New Hampshire legislature act to restrict the Shakers?

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter

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