“Sic transit Gloria mundi” (“So passeth the glory of the world.”)
A love of history drives my writing journey as much as the creative act of writing itself. At times I considered majoring in history until I discovered the study of psychology at Wheaton and the many more applications it would offer for future employment. Understanding human motivations has helped me succeed in a career of marketing and sales.
History and psychology also merge when considering character development in a historical fiction. Thanks to Google and the Philadelphia Historical Society, I am fortunate to have unearthed several references to my great-great grandfather, Judge William Peirce, upon whom I’ve modeled my MC’s grandfather.
From FamousAmericans.net: “He was an earnest advocate of emancipation, and was the counsel of the slave in nearly every fugitive-slave case that occurred in Philadelphia under the Fugitive-Slave Act of 1850. The last important case was the great Dangerfield case, in which trial he and his colleagues (Gibbons and Hopper) argued before the court and jury from the opening of the court until sunrise the next morning. Peirce began his arguments at 4 a.m.”
He supported abolitionism despite the lack of support from many of his peers. The Philadelphia Bar Association even notes his leadership in the cause while admitting the misdeeds of its other members: “The championship of so desperate and so unpopular a cause demanded physical, no less than moral courage on the part of its advocates. The bar, as a body, conservatively gave it the cold shoulder and Mr. Hopper and his associates were, in truth, the victims, frequently, of positively uncivil treatment at the hands of their brother lawyers.”
During February’s celebration of Black History Month, I would argue the white abolitionists who would defend the rights of a black man, without any Constitutional backing, and under the shadow of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which required the return of runaway slaves, deserve celebration as well. We need to remember and honor them. In the words of William Peirce, “It is a duty we owe to our profession to cherish the memory of those who have gone before us, And I respectfully suggest to you young gentlemen, to form the habit of remembering the incidents of your profession, and of transmitting them to those who come after you. For so passeth the glory of the world”.
Thanks to my great-great grandfather and his associates, one black man, Daniel Dangerfield, a runaway from Virginia, won his freedom. How many of his descendants know of the Philadelphia lawyers who forever changed their lives?
Perhaps that’s an idea for another book. Tracking them down, possibly in Canada. For despite a not-guilty verdict and becoming free, Dangerfield was still not safe. Slave hunters dismissed the verdict and continued to seek him for the bounty placed on his head by his Virginia owners. Dangerfield was placed on the trek of the Underground Railroad to Canada.
For now, I am drawing upon the concepts and character traits of moral courage to help define my novel’s characters. A moral courage to defend the defenseless, care for those unable to care for themselves. A woman who will become a Doctor in 1901.
ADDED, February 2021: This passage below is from Isabel Wilkerson in her best-selling non-fiction August 2020 release, Caste. To me, it defines the premise of William Peirce’s legal work and personal beliefs. In the book, Wilkerson presents the sympathetic work of Albert Einstein, a Jew who fled German in 1932 as Nazism terrors commenced. Unable to endorse the American marginalization of African-Americans, he joined the NAACP and lived his life as a equal rights supporter.
From Caste: “Rare people like Einstein, who seem immune to the toxins of caste in the air we breathe, who manage to transcend what most people are susceptible to. These all-too-rare people are a testament to the human spirit, that humans can break free of the hierarchy’s hold on them. These are people of personal courage and conviction, secure within themselves, willing to break convention, not reliant on the approval of others for their sense of self, people of deep and abiding empathy and compassion. They are what many of us might wish to be but not nearly enough of us are. Perhaps, once awakened, more of us will be.”
William Shannon Peirce, Esquire, an all-too-rare person,
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