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Kathy Sullivan: Is Bill O'Brien really better known than Franklin Pierce?

March 18. 2013 5:21PM

Recently, I read an analysis of a potential 2014 2nd District congressional matchup between incumbent Ann Kuster and former New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O'Brien. A statement leapt out at me: O'Brien was the most well-known Speaker of the House in New Hampshire history. That statement proved one thing: we need to do a better job promoting New Hampshire's history.

Despite his success in turning the revered Representatives Hall into a house of incivility and controversy, O'Brien is not the "most well-known speaker" in Granite State history. That title belongs to Franklin Pierce, who, prior to his presidency, was an extremely popular figure in New Hampshire.

Pierce was first elected to the Legislature in 1828 at the age of 24. He became speaker a short four years later. He also served in the U.S. House and later the Senate. Enlisting in the Army during the Mexican War, Pierce was promoted to Brigadier General. No matter where Bill O'Brien's career leads in the future, he will not equal the record of Franklin Pierce. Pierce's sad record as President does not take away from the fact that he is, and always shall be, a much larger figure in our state's history than O'Brien.

Another former speaker whose role in New Hampshire's history will forever eclipse O'Brien's is William Plumer. According to his National Governors Association biography, Plumer was born in Newburyport, Mass., in 1759. His service to the state was as extensive as it was influential: a state legislator, speaker of the New Hampshire House, member of two Constitutional Conventions, U.S. senator, state senator, governor and a presidential elector.

He was a historian and archivist; he is quoted on the walls of the state archives building: "I have rescued so many useful papers from inevitable preserve facts, the knowledge of which were daily passing from us."

He also was the first president of the New Hampshire Historical Society.

As Plumer's son would write in a biography of his father, "It was his fortune to live in an age of unprecedented change and revolution; of hope, expectation and alarm; or progress, demolition and reconstruction; in which the . foundations of long established opinions shaken, or overthrown."

New Hampshire was fortunate that Plumer spent his political career here. At the age of 25, he publicly expressed support for true religious freedom, opposing the provisions of the 1784 New Hampshire Constitution that limited to Christians the protections of the right to worship according to the dictates of one's conscience, and which limited elective office to Christians.

The times were tumultuous in the late 18th century Granite State. Plumer's son wrote of the feeling of general discontent that pervaded the public, with a weak, inefficient government and the people poor and in debt. Mobs would surround the courts to stop judicial proceedings, even surrounding the Legislature to demand an immediate answer to a petition for the redress. William Plumer assisted in suppressing the insurrection, helping to arrest one of the ringleaders.

In the 1791 Legislature, Plumer continued to support religious tolerance. His speech opposing a bill to make blasphemy punishable by a hot iron bored through the tongue narrowly carried the day. That year he was elected to the constitutional convention.

Plumer was so influential that in her book, The Ninth State, Lynn Warren Turner writes that the product was referred to as "Plumer's Constitution." Turner states the work was so extensive that "even the New Hampshire courts have made the mistake of referring to it as a new constitution." Most of it survives today as our governing framework.

We can thank Plumer for our State House. As governor, he played a major role in its location and construction. Both Turner and the younger Plumer wrote that after the site was purchased and work was begun, malcontents politically opposed to Plumer questioned whether the site had been properly chosen. A legislative committee vindicated the actions of Plumer and the Executive Council majority that had approved the site. Once the building was completed, Plumer was praised at the dedication: "In the obloquy that was heaped upon him, he bore himself like the man he was in conscious rectitude."

Not all of Plumer's positions have stood the test of time. Although as a U.S. senator he voted to stop the importation of slaves, some of his writings on race were less than enlightened. However, he, like a number of other public servants of the 19th and 20th century, helped create the New Hampshire in which we live today. We owe it Plumer, and the other truly important men and women who built our state, to remember them.

Kathy Sullivan is a Manchester attorney and member of the Democratic National Committee. She was chairman of the state Democratic Party from 1999-2007.

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