President #14, C-SPAN Historians’ ranking #40
At least Nathaniel Hawthorne liked him
Franklin Pierce is a very difficult president to read about. There weren’t many biographies written about him. A man named Peter Wallner wrote a two volume biography of Pierce that was published between 2004 and 2007. However, that was two too many volumes I wanted to read about Franklin Pierce.
Why? Because Franklin Pierce was simply an awful President. He had dubious qualifications for the office. He showed no ability to be able to perform the job. He had a governing style that either had him hiding his head in the sand and hoping that a problem would go away, or, confronting the problem by taking his right arm, extending it in front of him, and then further extending his middle finger. And, he was an alcoholic. After one term in office, his own party refused him renomination, the only incumbent President (elected version) to be saddled with that ignominy.
But, other than those flaws, Franklin Pierce did an admirable job. He had good penmanship I’ve heard (or I could be fabricating that.). He gave good speeches. People thought he was good looking. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a glowing campaign biography of him. (You don’t even have to buy Cliff’s Notes to read it.)
I opted to read a 1991 book by Larry Gara, a history professor at Wilmington College (it’s in Ohio) who specializes in the antebellum era. Gara took on the thankless task of trying to make sense of the four years America had to suffer with Franklin Pierce at the helm. The resulting work was enlightening and entertaining. When you finish it, you think, “Wow, it couldn’t have gotten worse.” But, America certainly did get much worse under James Buchanan, leading up to the Civil War.
Franklin Pierce was born on November 23, 1804 in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. His father served two terms as governor of New Hampshire. Pierce stumbled his way through his education and ended up at Bowdoin College, where he became friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne. By 1827, he had graduated from Bowdoin and had set up a law practice in Concord, New Hampshire.
Pierce quickly got into politics, winning a seat in the New Hampshire General Court at the age of 24. He became Speaker of the House of Representatives in New Hampshire after two terms. He then parlayed that into a House seat in Washington in 1833, and then into the Senate in 1837. It’s not that Pierce was a shrewd legislator. But, he was a nice guy. And his father was famous.
In 1834, Pierce married Jane Appleton, the daughter of the president of Bowdoin College (not the woman depicted in the linked video). Jane was never well. They had three children. The first son died in infancy. The second died at the age of four of typhus, and the third died in a train accident at the age of 11 a few months before Pierce was inaugurated.
Because of his delicate family situation, Pierce resigned from the Senate in 1842. Pierce practiced law and gave speeches endorsing candidates, but little else. Gara also asserts that Pierce’s alcoholism had begun to develop, in part to cope with his difficult home life and also to ward off the boredom of living in Washington at the time. (Washington Nationals baseball was still years away.) Congress was rife with alcoholics at the time, Daniel Webster being the most famous one.
When the Mexican War started, Pierce enlisted as a private, but was quickly made a general. This wasn’t because he was a military genius, but rather because he was somewhat famous. He suffered a severe hip injury during a battle. He twice tried to ride into battle without sufficient treatment and passed out from the pain. Pierce was sent back home to New Hampshire, but he was now an officially certified war hero. Even though nobody really knew what he did. And he drank more to ease the pain.
By the time of the 1852 elections, American politics was a mess. Although there were nominally two parties: the Democrats and Whigs, there were almost a dozen different factions from each party that coalesced around various themes: slavery, expansion, nationalism, internal improvements, and the always popular organized beatings of immigrant Catholics.
Slavery was the most divisive issue obviously. The acquisition of territory from Mexico made Northerners afraid that the South would use that area to increase the spread of slavery. More slavery meant more political and economic power for the South. As Gara pointed out, very few of the opponents of slavery actually wanted free blacks living among them. They just didn’t want the South to increase its power.
However, both the Democrats and Whigs were national parties. So, neither could take a stand for or against slavery without losing significant amounts of support. The result was that slavery was pushed far into the background by the two parties.
Incumbent Whig President Millard Fillmore had no shot at the nomination. The Whigs wanted to nominate someone with flash and pizzazz. They turned to another hero of the Mexican War, Winfield Scott. While Scott did perform well in Mexico, he was a horrible candidate for President. He didn’t earn the nickname “Old Fuss and Feathers” for having a dynamic personality.
The Democrats had numerous candidates for the nomination, but none of them were particularly attractive. Illinois Senator Steven Douglas, former Secretary of State James Buchanan, and Michigan senator Lewis Cass (who had lost in 1848) were some of the candidates you may have heard of. And then there were a bunch that you hadn’t heard of.
At the Democratic Convention in Baltimore, there was a deadlock. The supporters of Cass and Buchanan wouldn’t budge and the voting continued ballot after ballot. On the 35th ballot, a faction of the party known as Young America (because they were young, not because they would have descendants who were David Bowie fans) decided to put Pierce’s name into nomination.
The Young Americans were a nationalist and expansionist wing of the Democratic Party. Douglas had been their standard bearer, but Douglas had ticked off too many people. So, they decided to make Pierce their candidate. It took until the 49th ballot before the supporters of Cass and Buchanan gave up and gave Pierce the nomination.
Why Pierce? Why him? It seems that New Hampshire Democrats felt that they were owed consideration for the Presidency since the state had been such a reliable Democratic vote in the last few elections. Pierce happened to be the most notable politician from the state. Also, Pierce was quite fond of the South and Southerners and would not fall in league with abolitionist forces.
You may wonder if Pierce was actively seeking the nomination. As far as I can tell, he was not NOT seeking the nomination. When Pierce found out the news, he convinced his wife to go along with the plan (which was hard to do) and he accepted the nomination. William King of Alabama was nominated as Vice President. King was an odd choice as he was suffering from tuberculosis. And he was very ill. But, he was needed to balance the ticket.
Pierce won the election rather easily over Scott with over 50% of the vote to 43% for Scott. Free Soil party candidate John Hale, a rival of Pierce in New Hampshire, took the rest. In the electoral vote, Pierce won 254 votes to 42 for Scott. Pierce won New Hampshire, but Scott won Vermont. This showed, even in 1852, that New Hampshire and Vermont are two states that only look like they should be similar. In reality, they are both populated by kooks. Before the election (as mentioned above) Pierce’s last surviving son was killed in a train accident. He and his wife were hurt, but not too badly. However, this death cast a pall on his administration. His wife rarely ventured out in public. Pierce tried to find solace in alcohol more and more often.
Vice President-elect King was so ill that he visited Cuba in an attempt to regain his health. Congress passed a law allowing him to be sworn in there. But, it was to no avail. King died 45 days after taking office.
Pierce did assemble a Cabinet that was better than what you would expect. His Secretary of State William Marcy, who knew next to nothing about foreign affairs, actually did a decent job. However, his Secretary of War was Jefferson Davis (a personal friend), ended up acting much like the vainglorious racist he would later become as President of the Confederacy. The rest of the Cabinet was loyal. Pierce is the only President to serve a full term in office and have no changes in his Cabinet.
After his inauguration, Pierce faced numerous crises, but the most pressing one was solving the problem of the expansion of slavery in the territories. The Compromise of 1850 was supposed to have delayed that problem for a while, but Congress couldn’t leave well enough alone.
Douglas proposed what would become known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Nebraska Territory (which was very large) would be split up and each section would have its inhabitants vote on whether or not slavery should be allowed in the territory.
Essentially, Douglas proposed (and Pierce agreed) to have Congress (which was presumably made up of fairly smart elected leaders) to cede its ability to legislate on the most pressing political and social issue of the day to a group of people who would most likely just be rounded up from some other part of the country, dropped into Kansas, and told how to vote. Douglas called it “popular sovereignty.” It turned out to be “Dress rehearsal for the Civil War.” [In present day California, the people rule in the same way, but we add the step of making them sign a petition shoved in front of them by a guy in front of the local Target. If someone spent enough money to round up the signatures, I’m sure Californians would vote on whether or not to reinstitute slavery. Those guys in front of Target can be quite persistent. Californians have also shown a propensity for voting in favor of measures that are contrary to the United States Constitution or rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. My God, do I live in one stupidly run state. Sorry for the digression.]
Douglas proposed the bill because he thought it would ease the way for building a transcontinental railroad. Douglas was beholden politically and financially to speculators who wanted to build such a railroad. Davis wanted to build a similar railroad, but he wanted it through the South.
Southerners descended upon Kansas and set up makeshift towns. Enough them got together that they claimed to have formed a government. A proposed state constitution was sent to Washington. It required anyone holding office in Kansas to own slaves. It also made speaking out against slavery illegal in the state. Pierce thought all of this was OK by him. Congress refused to accept the proposed constitution.
Eventually, pro and anti-slavery settlers poured into the state. Nobody knew who was in charge. But, they did like shooting at each other. The territory became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Pierce was flummoxed that instead of easing tensions in the slavery debate, all the Kansas-Nebraska did was to escalate tensions. Pierce was flummoxed on most days, however.
Debates in Congress in the bill became so heated that a South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, in response to a verbal attack on a South Carolina senator by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, walked into the Senate chamber on May 22, 1856 and beat Sumner over the head with a cane. The beating was so severe that Sumner could not resume his activities in the Senate for three years. Brooks was hailed as a hero in South Carolina and received numerous canes as a gifts, some engraved “Hit him again!” (Brooks passed away in 1857. Few people missed him.)
Pierce was also presented a bill that would have established a Federally funded system of hospitals to care for indigents who suffered from severe mental illness. This was the pet project of Dorothea Dix, one of the most respected women of the day. Pierce vetoed the bill stating that the Federal government couldn’t help everyone in need and it was a state responsibility. However, months later Pierce would sign into law bills granting Mexican War veterans favorable pensions and land deals. Pierce was in favor of the Federal government helping out poor people who could still vote. And looked nice.
Another issue that came up was enforcement of the new Fugitive Slave Law. This law, part of the Compromise of 1850, required anyone anywhere in the United States to return a slave to its owner with barely any involvement in the legal process.
One case in Boston in 1854 saw a mob try to prevent a Fugitive Slave “commissioner” from returning a slave to the South. Pierce ordered in Federal troops to send the man back to the South and slavery. Pierce believed that preserving the “property” rights of the South were superior to the human rights of any one person. But, Pierce didn’t believe the man in custody was a person.
About the only area where Pierce wasn’t a total disaster was in foreign affairs. Fortunately, Secretary of State William Marcy was competent to run his office, even though his diplomatic corps consisted of people such as a failed Presidential candidate in Buchanan; a French national who somehow still managed to qualify to serve in the Senate, Pierre Soule; and a man who spent his time writing novels, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Marcy, through Minister to Mexico James Gadsden, expanded U.S. territory by purchase a strip of land (the Gila River Valley) in southern Arizona and New Mexico. This territory was not part of the land ceded from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. However, it was needed because surveyors determined that any Southern route for a transcontinental railroad would have to pass through it. Gadsden almost pulled off a deal that would have added Baja California and Sonora to the U.S. as well, but the Mexican government balked on dealing that area after American filibuster William Walker tried to claim the area as an independent republic.
Also, under Pierce’s watch, an American naval expedition under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry steamed to Japan (sent under orders from President Fillmore, but it took a while to get there) to open relations with what had been a hermit kingdom. The United States was able to establish trade, although not at the most favorable ports, and helped to bring Japan into the international community.
Pierce and Marcy had to deal with filibusters (using the original meaning of the word, not the delaying tactic in the Senate) in Nicaragua and Cuba. In Nicaragua, Walker tried to set up another republic for him to be in charge of, but he was eventually forced out when he lost the support of Cornelius Vanderbilt (who owned extensive shipping interests in the area), and that in turn caused Pierce to withdraw American support.
No filibuster expedition took over Cuba, but it seemed that Pierce wanted one. Marcy, along with Buchanan, Soule, and Minister to France John Mason, met in Ostend, Belgium to discuss acquiring Cuba. The men agreed that the U.S. should offer to buy the island or, if Spain refused, take it by force, either overtly or through a filibuster. This supposedly secret talk was quickly leaked to the press and became known as the Ostend Manifesto. Once Northerners heard of it, anti-slavery politicians saw it as another land grab for slaveholders. The plan was quickly dropped as other European powers expressed opposition.
If it seemed that Franklin Pierce could do nothing well, why did he become President? Gara looks to the political climate of 1852. The nation was undergoing rapid changes in its economy. Railroads were changing transportation. The telegraph was changing communications. Immigrants were changing the demographics. But, the government hadn’t adapted to these changes. Keeping matters calm was paramount.
However, more was needed. Leaders with a vision for the future were needed. But, the political system wasn’t set up to create one. Politicians of the time didn’t want to confront problems. They just wanted to keep people happy. But, they weren’t happy. They hated each other. There was a battle for economic control of the country with black slaves as the weight that tipped everything in the South’s favor.
Political leaders of the 1850s weren’t picked because they were smart or good leaders. They were picked almost solely because they were popular. And Franklin Pierce was popular. Or at least he was after some marketing.
However, once Pierce was forced to take office and actually try to deal with issues, it was apparent that he was hopelessly in over his head. He had no political base of support. There was no “Pierce Machine.” There was just one guy, Franklin Pierce, who drank a lot. Pierce had few friends in Congress. His wife was bereft with the loss of her children. Pierce was out on his own. And he was not up to the task.
Pierce was barely considered for renomination in 1856. James Buchanan, who was actually a worse President than Pierce, came back from England to become the 15th President. Buchanan mixed Pierce’s incompetence with a dash of graft and a heaping teaspoon of arrogance to break the country in half.
Pierce spent the rest of his life in New Hampshire where he was mostly ignored. He was accused of being a Southern sympathizer and an angry mob surrounded his house after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination when Pierce refused to hang a flag surrounded in black trim in memory of the slain Executive. Pierce claimed that he didn’t have to fly a flag to prove his loyalty. The mob dispersed. They likely knew that Franklin Pierce’s bigger problem was that he had to live with his own conscience. Pierce died on October 8, 1869 of cirrhosis of the liver.
I found Gara’s book to be fascinating and one of the best I’ve read about a President. Gara doesn’t try to defend Pierce or rationalize his actions in any way. Gara knows that Pierce was a poor President. In a less contentious time, Pierce may have just been mediocre. But, the slavery question turned Pierce from mediocre to horrible.
Franklin Pierce may be one of the least-known Presidents. But, maybe it’s all for the best. However, part of me thinks that Americans should know what kind of leaders we are capable of choosing if we don’t pay attention to what is truly important. America got Franklin Pierce as President, and the country deserved him for failing to realize that half of the country was living a life based on the idea that real live human beings were just “property.” Slavery had long been a slowly festering illness that was destroying the United States. By the time Pierce took office, the illness had become acute. It would get worse before it got better.
Other stuff: The childhood home of Pierce is part of a park run by the state of New Hampshire called The Pierce Homestead. The home Pierce owned in Concord is called the Pierce Manse and it houses the New Hampshire Political Library. Pierce is buried in the Old North Cemetery in Concord.