UNH Law restores Franklin Pierce to name despite former president’s controversial legacy

The University of New Hampshire has changed the name of its law school to once again include Franklin Pierce, the nation’s 14th president, who has a controversial legacy that includes pro-slavery views.

The law school, now known as the UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law, was founded in 1973 as Franklin Pierce Law Center. The name was changed to the University of New Hampshire School of Law after it became affiliated with the University of New Hampshire in 2010.

The most recent change comes at a time when other law schools, including Harvard Law School and University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, have moved away from controversial figures. Pierce, a New Hampshire native, was a pro-slavery Northern Democrat who many historians blame for escalating the rift between the North and South in the years prior to the Civil War. He was President from 1853 to 1857.

The law school said the most recent change was done because the Franklin Pierce name is associated globally with intellectual property, the law school’s strongest practice area. The law school features the Franklin Pierce Center for Intellectual Property.

“The Franklin Pierce Law name in the context of legal education has long been associated with excellence in the study of intellectual property law and innovative applications of law to science, engineering, and math — including with respect to the development of life-saving vaccines and important technologies that have helped many,” said Dean Megan Carpenter in an email response to questions.  

The school is mindful of Pierce’s legacy, Carpenter said.

“While we are aware of Pierce's term as 14th president of the United States, and historical accounts of that term, for us the Franklin Pierce name is a brand with very positive connotations and not one that members of our law community associate with his record as president,” she said. “To a person, every student, staff, faculty, alumnus and supporter of the school that has spoken with me about restoring the Franklin Pierce Law name has been supportive. I have not received one complaint.”

While Pierce did not own slaves, he believed that it was a Constitutional-protected right, which he made clear during his inauguration:

“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,” he said.

Many historians say he escalated the rift between the North and South because of his support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the ban on slavery in Kansas and called for a popular vote to decide whether it should be allowed. 

That led to intense fighting between anti-slavery and pro-slavery groups in the Kansas territory. “Bleeding Kansas” was coined to describe the fighting.

The National Black Law Student Association (NBLSA) is against the name change.

"Pierce’s support for the Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska Act were abhorrent,” it said in a statement. “His pro-slavery stance was immoral and irreconcilable with the basic tenets of freedom. His vacillating and ineptitude were one of many factors that led to the Civil War. We do not believe that students are best served by attending a law school named after someone who’s legacy was based on maintaining the institution of slavery.”

Three years ago, Harvard Law School removed an 80-year-old shield from campus because it was based on the crest of a family that owned slaves.

Berkeley Law has taken a number of steps to distance itself from its longstanding ties to John Henry Boalt, who was an anti-Chinese racist. The school was once known informally as Boalt Hall. Those references have been removed.

Schools aren’t just grappling with controversial names. Some Southern schools have come under fire because they have monuments to Confederacy soldiers and generals on campus. At the University of North Carolina, protestors last year tore down a statue of a Confederate solider known as Silent Sam.

Pierce was recently ranked 41st out of 44 U.S. Presidents in a C-SPAN's Presidential Historians Survey, which polled 91 historians.



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