ON JULY 1, 1853 Benjamin Brown French began his tenure as the Commissioner of Public Buildings in Washington, D.C. He had been appointed to this significant administrative post by a fellow New Hampshire native, Franklin Pierce, who had been elected the 14th President of the United States in the 1852 general election. French, 53, and Pierce, 50, had been personal friends for almost three decades and also political allies as faithful members of the Democratic Party.
During the 1850s the Democratic Party, which had been organized in the 1820s, remained a strong force on the national stage. But the Whig Party, which had been founded in 1834 and which had functioned as the main opposition to the Democratic Party, was on the decline. By the mid-1850s the power vacuum emerging in American politics was filled in part by the Native American Party, which became known as the Know-Nothing Party. As this faction had begun as a secret society, its adherents were instructed to answer “I know nothing” when asked about its activities. The main doctrine of the Know-Nothings was “nativism,” which sought to maintain the influence of Protestant, native-born American citizens. The party was opposed to immigration, especially by Roman Catholics who were arriving in America from Ireland and Germany.
In 1854 French ‘s brother-in-law Simon Brown ran for Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts on the Know-Nothing ticket. To help Brown in his campaign, French contributed three articles to a Know-Nothing newspaper in Massachusetts. Brown won his election, and in 1855-1856 he served under Know-Nothing Party member Henry Brown, who had won the governor’s race.
French’s interest in the Know-Nothing Party was short-lived. Instead, he found himself drawn to the antislavery movement. He became uncomfortable in March 1854 when the President asked him to write a letter to an influential journalist in New Hampshire urging him to support the Kansas-Nebraska Act that Pierce had co-written with Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. The law aimed to effectively abolish the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that prohibited the spread of slavery into new territories entering the Union that were north of latitude 36°30’ and west of the Mississippi River (with the exception of Missouri).
Aware that opposition to slavery was growing in New Hampshire, French declined to write the letter. Under the concept of “popular sovereignty” the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was passed and signed into effect in May 1854, allowed for the potential spread of slavery into every new territory in the west.
French felt it was a foolish move to pass this law, and in fact this controversial measure is one of the factors that led to the Civil War.
French wrote in his personal journal of a private meeting he had with Pierce on May 30, “Our conversation was the longest, I believe, that I have ever had since he became President, and was of the ‘old times’ character, such as to bring up the intimacies of our former years fresh into my mind. I separated from him feeling that I had been talking with ‘Frank Pierce’ as he was in the days when he seemed more like my brother than any man ever did who was not related to me!”
This treasured friendship was nearing its end, however, as rumors were circulating in Washington that French was a member of a Know-Nothing lodge, which was seen as a clear betrayal to the Democratic Party and to the Pierce administration. French strongly denied this, but on June 4, 1855 Pierce learned about the articles he had written for the Know-Nothing newspaper in Massachusetts. French offered to resign as Commissioner of Public Buildings, and Pierce accepted his decision. After this time, French became a harsh critic of the Pierce presidency.
On July 1, 1855 French wrote, “My mind is now made up as to my political future — my platform is established, and there I stand openly and avowedly. No more time-serving, no more equivocation, no more ‘Know Nothingism.’ For my Country and her Constitution first of all!” Even though he had broken away from Pierce, he still considered himself a Democrat, “so far as living up to the principles of those fathers of Democracy —Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson …”
Next week: Benjamin Brown French joins the new Republican Party.