I have not only always thought that Franklin Pierce would be a perfect subject for some sort of dramatic interpretation, but I have considered writing it myself. In fact, I’m still considering it. It would be good as a movie or a mini-series, but I’ve been thinking for the past year or so about writing it as a stage play.
Pierce is one of, if not the, most obscure Presidents in American history, so it may seem like an odd choice, but there was so much heartbreak and tragedy in his life to match the triumphs (and there were remarkable triumphs) that there is a deep story there. It has some serious Shakespearean themes in it and that’s as straightforward history without even dramatizing it or taking creative liberties.
There is something there with Pierce and I’ve been drawn to him for as long as I’ve been seriously studying the Presidents. One of my first publications as a Presidential historian was an essay for the New Hampshire Historical Society’s Franklin Pierce Bicentennial Commission. I’m drawn to him, and I think I’ll eventually make the jump.
•Oh, and I’ve mentioned this before even though it would never happen, but Johnny Depp was born to play President Pierce:
14th President of the United States (1853-1857)
Full Name: Franklin Pierce
Born: November 23, 1804, Hillsborough, New Hampshire
Term: March 4, 1853-March 4, 1857
Political Party: Democratic
Vice President: William Rufus DeVane King
Died: October 8, 1869, Concord, New Hampshire
Buried: Old North Cemetery, Concord, New Hampshire
“Handsome Frank” was the darkest of Dark Horse candidates when he routed General Winfield Scott in the 1852 Presidential election and the youngest President up to that point at the time of his Inauguration. There were even darker shadows looming over his Presidency — personal and political. The country was heading towards Civil War and President Pierce was a Northerner with Southern sympathies. After four years where Pierce’s decisions about issues were usually influenced by whoever the last person was that he spoke to (and that was often his close friend and Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, the future Confederate President), the nation wanted a better leader. So did Pierce’s Democratic Party which, in 1856, became the only party in history to deny renomination to a President. Unfortunately for the Democrats — and the country — Pierce was succeeded by an even worse President, James Buchanan.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: 27 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 28 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 35 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 36 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 33 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 39 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 39 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 38 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 40 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 40 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 39 of 40
(Today is the 207th anniversary of Franklin Pierce’s birth, so here’s an article I wrote in August 2009 about a tragic, unique link between Pierce and Abraham Lincoln)
You would be hard-pressed to find many comparisons between Franklin Pierce, 14th President of the United States, and Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. Most historians agree that Lincoln is probably the greatest President in American History; a similar amount of historians usually rank Pierce as one of the worst. Lincoln guided the country through Civil War and to victory; the policies of Pierce’s Administration helped divide the nation and make Civil War a reality. Despite being born in the South, Lincoln fought during every minute of his Presidency to keep the Union together; Pierce, born and raised in New Hampshire, was a “doughface”, Southern sympathizer, and close friends with Confederate President Jefferson Davis who served as Secretary of War in Pierce’s Administration. Lincoln died just days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and was immediately considered a martyr by the American public after his death. After dispersing a crowd that angrily gathered in front of his home following Lincoln’s assassination, Franklin Pierce went back to doing what he had done since leaving the White House in 1857 — drinking himself to death.
There is one thing that links these two men beyond the fact that they were both Presidents during the most divisive period in American History — tragedy. In the exclusive fraternity of American Presidents, it’s impossible to find two more melancholy individuals than Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln battled deep depression throughout his life and, as a young man in Illinois, Lincoln admitted that he contemplated suicide at times. During his career as a lawyer riding the Illinois court circuit, Lincoln’s friend Joshua Speed recalls the future President remarking “If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode that I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”
What troubled Lincoln is difficult to pinpoint. Before he married Mary Todd, Lincoln was romantically interested in Ann Rutledge, the daughter of a New Salem, Illinois tavern owner. Lincoln was a frequent visitor to the Rutledge home and was devastated when Ann died of typhoid fever in 1835. William H. Herndon — Lincoln’s longtime law partner and one of the first biographers of Lincoln — acknowledged that the future President loved Ann Rutledge and that the grieving Lincoln was suicidal in the days and weeks following Ann’s funeral. Five years after Ann Rutledge’s death, Lincoln and Mary Todd were engaged, and the couple married in 1842. Mary had a terrible temper and her mental condition was so tenuous that her son, Robert, finally had her committed to an asylum after President Lincoln’s death. Mary was a lot of things that Lincoln was not — short, overweight, confrontational, insecure, and temperamental. The marriage was rocky at times, but Lincoln was passionately defensive about charges against his wife. When Mary lost control and screamed at Lincoln or charged the President with jealous accusations, Lincoln walked away from the fights and always returned to check on Mary’s condition once she cooled down. For a President trying to save his country from destruction, these personal domestic crises had to be taxing on Lincoln.
To find a bright spot somewhere, Lincoln turned to his children for solace. Lincoln’s four sons were all born in Springfield, Illinois with Robert Todd Lincoln leading the way in 1843. By the time of Lincoln’s Presidency, Robert was an adult attending Harvard and he spent the last months of the Civil War on the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant. The second son, Edward Baker Lincoln, was another source of sadness for the Lincolns. Edward died at the age of four; an event that left Mary on the brink of breakdown and pushed Lincoln to cherish the next two children, Willie (born in 1850), and Tad (born in 1853). As President, Lincoln was horrified by dispatches describing the ongoing Civil War, tried to shut out the distractions caused by his unstable wife, and discovered happiness only in those moments where he could play with Willie and Tad.
Willie Lincoln was dedicated to his love for books, much like his father, and it was no secret to anyone that Willie was the President’s favorite child. Tad was more rambunctious, always into joking and playing around, and Lincoln took great satisfaction from Tad’s affinity for dressing up like the soldiers who protected Washington and the White House from the rebel forces. Like the Biblical Job, however, Lincoln had to face adversity while persevering relentlessly towards his goal. In February 1862, Willie Lincoln took ill after riding his beloved pony in chilly weather. Doctors ordered bed rest and Willie rallied at first, but on February 20th, he died from what is thought to be typhoid fever. The Lincolns were devastated, Mary was inconsolable and shut herself off from the world for three weeks. Lincoln worried about Mary while also nursing his youngest son, Tad, who came down with the same illness that killed Willie and was in critical condition himself. Tad recovered, but Lincoln was at times overcome by sadness. Every Thursday for several weeks, Lincoln locked himself in the Green Room of the White House, the room where Willie died, and cried for his lost son. Willie’s death “showed me my weakness as I had never felt it before.” The light had gone out of Abraham Lincoln’s life forever. Only once more did he feel a pinch of happiness and that was on the day that he truly considered the Civil War to finally be over — April 14, 1865. That night, John Wilkes Booth ended Abraham Lincoln’s suffering.
It was Willie Lincoln’s death in the White House in 1862 that brought Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln the closest that they would ever be. Men of different political parties, different backgrounds, and different viewpoints on the biggest issue of the day; they were as far apart politically as they were in physical appearance. Lincoln was described by even his closest friends as “ugly” and his opponents likened him to a “baboon”. Lincoln wore the same old suit constantly, he rarely took the time to comb his hair, and he didn’t care what people thought of his “style”. Franklin Pierce looked like a Roman statue come to life. Pierce had long, curly, jet-black hair that he combed over the side of his forehead, he dressed impeccably, and one historian calls him “perhaps the most handsome President”. Even President Harry Truman — a vicious detractor of Pierce’s Presidency — called Pierce “the best-looking President the White House ever had” and suggested that he “looked the way people who make movies think a President should look”.
Behind those looks, however, was a man who was as unsuccessful at fighting depression as he was at fighting alcoholism. Franklin Pierce was ambitious and rose to the Presidency at a younger age than any of his predecessors. His ambition, however, strained his marriage with Jane Means Appleton, who hated politics and hated Washington, D.C. Pierce didn’t help the marriage by not consulting with Jane before undertaking a life-changing experience such as accepting the Democratic nomination for President in 1852. Jane had heard that Franklin was being considered as a compromise choice by the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, but believed that he had no chance against better-known names such as James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, and Stephen A. Douglas. While out for a carriage ride in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a rider galloped up to the wagon carrying the Pierces with the news that Franklin had won the Democratic nomination. Franklin smiled excitedly, but Jane nearly passed out. Pierce had promised that he was done with politics, that they were done with Washington forever, and now it was a near-certainty that he would be elected President of the United States.
Like the Lincolns, the Pierce family had lost two sons at young age. The first born, Frank Jr., died as an infant, and their second son, Franklin Robert Pierce, died at the age of four. Their son Benjamin was their only surviving offspring, and they devoted all of their parental love to Bennie. In times of the deep depression that both Franklin and Jane suffered from, both parents could turn to Bennie for some joy and to remind themselves that not all was lost. Like his mother, Bennie was shy and unhappy about a potential move to Washington. Shortly after Pierce won the Democratic nomination, Bennie wrote his mother: “I hope he won’t be elected for I should not like to be at Washington. And I know you would not be either.” The hopes and prayers of his wife and his son were in complete opposition to those of Franklin Pierce. He wanted, more than anything, to be President. On Election Day, he was granted his wish as he trounced General Winfield Scott on won the Presidential election.
While Franklin prepared to take the reins of the country, Jane and Bennie prepared for the dreaded move into the White House in Washington. Jane tried her best to project some happiness for Franklin’s sake, and she found some assistance from her religious devotion. As 1853 began, the Pierces prepared for the move to Washington, D.C. and left New Hampshire in January, deciding to stop in Massachusetts for visits with family and friends before arriving in Washington for the inauguration scheduled on March 4th.
On January 6, 1853, a train carrying the young President-elect, his wife, and their only surviving son left Andover, Massachusetts. Just a few minutes after departing Andover, the passenger car detached from the train and rolled down an embankment. None of the passengers including Franklin Pierce and his wife were injured except for one person. In front of his horrified parents, Benjamin Pierce was thrown from the train and was nearly decapitated as his head was gruesomely crushed. Bennie Pierce was killed instantly, and his parents would never be the same.
Less than two months later, Pierce was sworn in as President. The only President who memorized his inaugural address, Pierce started by telling the crowd in front of the U.S. Capitol, “It is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.” Traumatized by Bennie’s death, Jane refused to continue any further towards Washington than Baltimore. Pierce had to face the Presidency and the mourning period for their son without his wife. As he told the American public in his inaugural address, “You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me with your strength.”
When Jane finally arrived at the White House, she still didn’t make much of an impact. People referred to her as “the shadow of the White House” and she frequently closed herself off in an upstairs bedroom where she wrote letters to her dead children and stuffed them in a fireplace. Jefferson Davis’s wife, Varina, often substituted as White House hostess. In a way, Jane indirectly blamed her husband for Bennie’s death, claiming that God took Bennie from them so that Franklin would have nothing distracting him from his accomplishments. When Jane died in 1863, Pierce’s closest friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, said that she was never interested in “things present”.
Franklin’s “accomplishments” were not much. He had a difficult time saying “no”, and often agreed to go along with the last person he talked to before making a decision. Pierce was indeed absent of distractions, but he needed some. The country was being torn apart by the slavery question and the Kansas-Nebraska Act inflamed tensions; it was no longer a matter of debate — in some places, open warfare was breaking out. The President found his distraction came in the form of a bottle. The President was an alcoholic and in 1856, his own party refused to consider him for re-election. As his term ended at the beginning of 1857, Pierce said, “There’s nothing left to do but to get drunk.” He lived by that motto until his drinking finally killed him in 1869.
During Franklin Pierce’s retirement, he spoke out against Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War itself. Some called him a traitor, and even his close friends snubbed him. When Pierce’s friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, died, he wasn’t even allowed to be a pall bearer as Hawthorne requested. But despite their many differences, Lincoln found himself in a place that only Franklin Pierce knew — mourning a lost child and worrying about an unstable wife while running a divided country. A few weeks following Willie’s death, President Lincoln received this letter:
Concord N. H.
March 4 1862
My dear Sir,
The impulse to write you, the moment I heard of your great domestic affliction was very strong, but it brought back the crushing sorrow which befel me just before I went to Washington in 1853, with such power that I felt your grief, to be too sacred for intrusion.
Even in this hour, so full of danger to our Country, and of trial and anxiety to all good men, your thoughts, will be, of your cherished boy, who will nestle at your heart, until you meet him in that new life, when tears and toils and conflict will be unknown.
I realize fully how vain it would be, to suggest sources of consolation.
There can be but one refuge in such an hour, — but one remedy for smitten hearts, which, is to trust in Him “who doeth all things well”, and leave the rest to —
“Time, comforter & only healer
When the heart hath broke”
With Mrs Pierce’s and my own best wishes — and truest sympathy for Mrs Lincoln and yourself
I am, very truly,
The melancholy Presidents — so far apart in each and every other aspect of their lives — could at the very least find companionship, if not comfort, in the other’s strength through painful weakness.
There is peril to power and danger in ambition. They called him “Young Hickory of the Granite Hills” and “Handsome Frank”. He looked like a poet and lived a Shakespearean tragedy. He was intelligent and eloquent, with top-notch oratorical skills and impressive charisma. Unable to resist the political opportunities that opened up to him, Franklin Pierce’s trajectory from New Hampshire lawyer to 14th President of the United States was so steep that he couldn’t fathom the ramifications of his quick rise. In fact, by the end of his life, it seemed Franklin Pierce had made a Faustian bargain — he gave up his world, ruled the nation, and ended up drinking himself to death and dying alone.
Franklin Pierce was haunted in the White House by personal demons and national difficulties. Stunningly elected over Mexican War hero Winfield Scott, Pierce was just 48 years old when he took the oath of office in 1853, and for four years he barely presided over a divided nation that burst apart into Civil War just four years after he left office. Throughout his term, he was shadowed by the weight of his political aspirations, the menace of alcoholism and depression, his own malleable nature, and the madness of a grieving wife who despised politics and blamed Pierce for the many tragedies which had befallen their young family.
Pierce was strikingly handsome, with dark, pained eyes and trademark, jet-black hair that was long, curly, and swept over his forehead. In photographs of Pierce, he almost exudes sadness, as if he were some pale, gothic specter sprung from the pages of an Edgar Allan Poe story. And that’s without even knowing Pierce’s history.
Born exactly 207 years ago today, November 23, 1804, Pierce was the son of a Revolutionary War veteran and New Hampshire Governor, Benjamin Pierce. The only President born in New Hampshire, Pierce grew up in the Granite State and went to school at Bowdoin College in Maine where his classmates included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the person who would become Pierce’s best friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne. After graduating from Bowdoin, Pierce practiced law in Hillsborough, New Hampshire before being elected to the New Hampshire General Court — the state legislature — in 1829.
Just 25 years old when he entered the statehouse, Pierce skyrocketed from there. At 27, he was elected Speaker of the General Court of New Hampshire. At 29, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives — at the time, Pierce was one of the youngest Congressmen elected in American History. In 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton, the sister-in-law of one of Pierce’s instructors at Bowdoin. Jane hated politics, but loved her husband and believed Pierce when he urged her that politics was a temporary phase in his young life.
She probably should have known better. The Pierces’ honeymoon was a trip to Washington, D.C. so Pierce could return to work representing New Hampshire in Congress. Their first home was a crowded boardinghouse in swampy Washington, D.C., a horse-trading post for politicians, as well as a city full of slaves and slaveowners — anathema to Jane, a New Englander. Jane didn’t last long in Washington; she returned to New Hampshire while Pierce served out his term in Congress. In 1836, Jane gave birth to their first child, but the infant died several days later and the Pierces were devastated by the loss.
Franklin remained in Washington and began drinking heavily. Always a social drinker, Pierce was well-known for being a fun companion. His company was well-regarded and sought out at parties and political events in Washington while Congress was in session. Along with being outgoing, Pierce had an addictive personality and an aversion to saying no. When he later became President, it was said that Pierce’s decision would match the argument of whoever the last person was to speak to him. In the heavy-drinking days of Jacksonian-era Washington, Pierce was not one to hold back. Some people even openly worried about whether Frank Pierce had a drinking problem.
Besides alcohol, Pierce was driven by his ambition. His grief over the child that he and Jane had lost was tempered by news that he had been elected to the United States Senate, taking office in 1837 at the age of just 32 years old. During his five years in the Senate, Pierce showed himself to be a strong Democrat and a “doughface” — a Northerner with Southern sympathies. Pierce voted with Southerners on many issues related to slavery and ignored the abolitionists who made up the majority of his constituency in New Hampshire. Pierce, however, was popular among people in New Hampshire and extremely popular among his colleagues in Congress. The young Senator was a rising star.
While his political career grew, his personal life was troubled. Pierce was blinded by ambition and accomplishments. His wife was frequently ill and her health became worse anytime she visited Pierce in Washington. As Pierce was making a name for himself in the Senate, Jane began wishing that he would leave politics altogether, worrying that if his workaholic manner didn’t kill him, his increasingly alcoholic lifestyle would. The birth of two children — Frank in 1839 and Benjamin in 1841 — helped Jane’s spirits, but also gave her a good platform on which to argue her case. After Bennie’s birth, Franklin Pierce caved in to his wife’s demand and promised to quit politics forever. In 1842, the 37-year-old Pierce resigned from the Senate and moved back to New Hampshire to practice law.
Jane was ecstatic, happy, and her health improved quickly upon Pierce’s return to New Hampshire. Pierce was depressed, but he kept his promise and even refrained from drinking for quite a while. The pull of politics was alluring. Pierce participated in local and state party politics, helping choose Democratic candidates in New Hampshire and even making speeches in support of candidates in districts throughout the state. Still, Pierce impressively turned down an appointment by the Governor to return to the U.S. Senate in 1845. Franklin and Jane’s son, Frank Robert, had died in 1843 and Pierce kept his promise to his wife. When President James K. Polk offered to nominate Pierce to join the Cabinet as Attorney General, Pierce turned Polk down, as well. Pierce continued practicing law and still kept his promise about not leaving to re-enter political life.
Instead, he went to war.
When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, Pierce immediately began working to gain a commission as a military officer. Jane, of course, didn’t know anything about it and would have strongly objected as Pierce the soldier was an even worse idea to her than Pierce the politician. When Pierce was offered to be commissioned as an infantry colonel, the ambitious future President held off on accepting the position — and on notifying his wife. When he was commissioned a brigadier general, he finally accepted — but still didn’t tell Jane, writing to his friend Congressman Edmund Burke, “My purpose is fixed…although I have not yet broached the subject with my wife.”
Pierce’s military record is blurry. His political opponents labeled him a “coward” and claimed that he fainted in battle, which he did. However, Pierce’s soldiers revered him and explained that his fainting came from a severe knee injury that Pierce ignored while leading his men and succumbed to during the battle, yet refused to allow his men to evacuate him to safety until the battle was over. When Pierce finally returned home to New Hampshire, it was with a reputation as a war hero — and war heroes tend to become political icons.
Pierce knew that he could easily be elected Governor of New Hampshire upon his return to the Granite State, but he promised his wife that he was done with politics, and he continued to resist breaking that promise. However, as happy as it was making his wife, it was tearing him apart. Still active in state and local politics, Pierce was jumping at any chance to be involved. He knew that he had promise as a politician, but he had the promise not to be a politician holding him back.
In 1852, Franklin Pierce could no longer resist.
As Democrats prepared to nominate a Presidential candidate in 1852, the New Hampshire Democratic Party put forth Franklin Pierce as a “favorite son” candidate. For the most part, favorite son candidates are not serious candidates. The favorite son is more of a parliamentary procedure, used to hold and shift delegates from one major candidate to another. Pierce wasn’t seen as a legitimate candidate for the Presidency. After all, he had been out of elective office for ten years and had shown no indication that he would re-enter public life due to his promise to his wife.
Along the way to the Democratic National Convention in June in Baltimore, Franklin Pierce worked quietly to break his promise and promote his candidacy. Jane had no idea what was going on, but Franklin Pierce was no longer sitting on the sidelines and he was no longer interested in being a place-holder for delegates. As the convention approached, Pierce was being touted as a potential compromise candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
The favorites in Baltimore were James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, and Stephen Douglas. On the first day of voting at the convention, no candidate was able to clinch the nomination. By the next night, the convention had held thirty-three ballots without agreeing on a nominee. Franklin Pierce sat at a telegraph office in Concord, New Hampshire and followed the deliberations of the convention as news was reported. The convention remained deadlocked for the next several days as Pierce nervously awaited word on whether his name had been introduced as a compromise.
On June 5, 1852, Franklin and Jane went for a carriage drive outside of Boston, where they had traveled the day before. Jane had no idea what was going on in Baltimore and Franklin didn’t let on that he had knowledge of anything unusual happening at the Democratic Convention. As the carriage was winding through the woods of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a messenger on a horse rode towards the Pierces. “Sir,” the rider exclaimed to Pierce, “the Democrats have nominated you for President!”. Pierce excitedly shouted his appreciation and smiled while his wife, who had no idea that her husband was a candidate for anything let alone the Presidency, fainted.
Pierce had become a compromise candidate at the Democratic convention — someone who everyone could unite behind once the major candidates became deadlocked. On the forty-ninth ballot, the exhausted delegates in Baltimore nominated Pierce for the Presidency. Jane openly prayed that he would be defeated, but Pierce faced his old Mexican War commander Winfield Scott, who was hindered by a weakened Whig Party. On election day, Pierce trounced General Scott, 254-42 in the electoral college.
Franklin Pierce’s victory in November 1852 was an astonishing rise for a dark horse compromise candidate who had been retired from national politics for the previous decade. In the Pierce Homestead, the change was stunning and Jane Pierce dreaded the fact that her family was now going to have to return to dreary Washington and become the center of the American political world. During the campaign, 11-year-old Bennie Pierce — the only surviving child of Franklin and Jane — wrote a letter to his mother. Bennie was doted on by his parents. Both Franklin and Jane had been genuinely devastated by the losses of their first two children — the infant Franklin Jr. in 1836 and four-year-old Frank Robert in 1843. In Bennie’s letter to Jane, he worried about the fact that his father might become President. “I hope he won’t be elected,” Bennie wrote, “for I should not like to be at Washington. And I know you would not be either.”
On January 6, 1853, the President-elect and his family were traveling on a train outside of Boston. The train derailed and rolled down a hill, but almost no passengers were injured — except for a young boy. Bennie Pierce was thrown from the car, nearly decapitated and killed when his head was crushed while his horrified parents watched. Jane Pierce took Bennie’s death as a sign that God was removing all distractions from her husband’s path so that he could focus on his duties as President. This did not help her feelings about political life. Franklin took Bennie’s death as a sign that God was punishing him. This did not help his depression or ability to govern.
Jane didn’t know that Franklin Pierce had broken his promise and willingly returned to politics. After his nomination by the Democrats, Franklin insisted that he was simply a compromise candidate and had no choice in the matter. After his election, Franklin claimed that it was his duty as a public servant and a patriot to fulfill the wishes of the American electorate and serve as their President. The week of Pierce’s inauguration, Jane found out that Pierce had broken his promise and outright lied to her. Not only had he re-entered political life, but had actively worked to earn the nomination and be elected President. Jane — already in precarious physical and mental health due to Bennie’s gruesome death — became bitter and angry at Franklin, directly blaming him for the death of their only child.
On March 4, 1853, Pierce was inaugurated as the 14th President of the United States. Pierce was the first President to ever “affirm” his oath of office rather than swear it, and placed his hand on a law book instead of the customary Bible. A strong speaker with a prodigious memory, Pierce was the only President in American History who memorized his Inaugural Address and spoke without notes. Addressing his personal tragedy, Pierce also foreshadowed an insecurity in his own abilities as he began his speech, “It is a relief that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.” In one of the more candid comments ever made in a President’s Inaugural Address, Pierce told his fellow Americans, “You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me by your strength.”
Pierce’s Inaugural Address, though, went on to set the tone for his Administration. Pierce, who was the son of a Revolutionary War veteran who fought for independence and someone who grew up in New England, the cradle of the abolitionist movement, clearly stated his support for the institution of slavery. “I believe,” Pierce said, “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…I fervently hope that the question (of slavery) is at rest.”
President Pierce built a Cabinet which was dominated by one of his closest friends — the Secretary of War, who happened to be future Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Pierce had a reputation for being pliant, and his support for Southern institutions made him deeply unpopular in his native North. As sectarian violence spread throughout the United States due to pro-slavery and free-soil advocates clashing over newly admitted territories, Pierce remained unmoved. A bloody mini-Civil War broke out between the opposing sides in the Kansas and Nebraska Territory, but Pierce did nothing, holding to his definition of federal power which limited government intervention in the matters of individual states.
While his nation was being torn apart, President Pierce’s home was a dark, gloomy place. If other First Ladies made their mark with their style and designs, Jane Pierce decorated the White House with melancholy. Dressing in her black mourning clothing throughout her husband’s term, Jane mainly stayed in an upstairs bedroom of the White House Residence, writing letters to her dead children and burning them in the fireplace. Most White House events were hosted not by Jane, but by Varina Davis, the wife of the Secretary of War and the future First Lady of the Confederacy. Pierce, for his part, barely tried to cheer his wife up. In fact, Pierce spent most of his Presidency depressed and fighting a losing battle against alcoholism.
In 1856, Pierce became the first — and, to this day, only — elected President in American History who was denied renomination by his own party. The Democrats knew that Pierce was deeply unpopular in the North and his support in the South wasn’t strong enough to carry him to victory throughout the rest of the country. Pierce had hoped to be renominated, but there was no chance. When he left office in 1857, the United States was in drastically worse shape than it had been upon his inauguration four years earlier.
When Pierce turned over the White House to his successor, James Buchanan, an observer noted that Pierce left office as “a staid and grave man, on whom the stamp of care and illness was ineradicably impressed.” Pierce put it more simply, saying that “There’s nothing left to do but to get drunk.” For a while, retirement wasn’t too bad. Pierce and Jane traveled to Europe and Jane’s health improved quite a bit from its low point during her time in the White House. Jane, however, died in 1863 and Pierce was lonely and bored.
Two friendships continued throughout his retirement. Pierce’s closest friend was the legendary author Nathaniel Hawthorne — a classmate at Bowdoin who wrote Pierce’s campaign biography in 1852 and was appointed U.S. Consul in Liverpool during his friend’s Presidency. After Pierce left the White House, Hawthorne remained loyal — even as Pierce’s popularity continued to plummet and the former President’s support for the Union was questioned. Pierce was at Hawthorne’s bedside when the author died in 1864 while he and Pierce were on vacation in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Pierce was devastated by his friend’s death and even more deeply hurt when Hawthorne’s family and friends refused to allow the unpopular former President to act as a pallbearer at Hawthorne’s funeral.
By the time of Hawthorne’s funeral, Pierce was practically despised in the North — even in his home state of New Hampshire. The famous abolitionist and author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, called Pierce an “archtraitor”. It wasn’t merely his “doughface” views that caused the hostility towards Pierce. The former President’s other closest friend was Jefferson Davis, the leading voice for Southern secession, Pierce’s Secretary of War, and the President of the Confederate States of America. Pierce and Davis had been friends for decades by the time the Civil War broke out, but the friendship continued throughout the war. In 1860, Pierce had recommended Davis for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
During the war itself, Union soldiers captured Davis’s plantation in Mississippi and found a trove of letters between Pierce and Davis. While Pierce remained loyal to the Union, he also largely blamed Northern abolitionists and agitators for secession and for the outbreak of violence. Pierce also heavily criticized Abraham Lincoln during the war, blasting the suspension of habeas corpus, and denouncing the Emancipation Proclamation as an interference “with states’ rights and the right of private property.” However, when Lincoln’s young son Willie died in the White House in 1862, Pierce wrote a heartfelt, extraordinary letter to Lincoln, commiserating with his fellow President as a father who lost a young child in a difficult time, “Even in this hour, so full of danger to our Country, and of trial and anxiety to all good men, your thoughts, will be, of your cherished boy, who will nestle at your heart, until you meet him in that new life, when tears and toils and conflict will be unknown.”
For the most part, Pierce drank. When Lincoln was assassinated, an angry mob gathered outside of Pierce’s home in Concord, New Hampshire. A similar mob had vandalized former President Millard Fillmore’s home in New York, claiming that Fillmore hadn’t shown enough tribute to the fallen President. The crowd outside of Pierce’s home challenged the former President and questioned his patriotism, inquiring where his American flag might be. In one last gasp of oratorical magic, the 60-year-old former President said that he didn’t need a flag to demonstrate loyalty as he had spent his entire life in public service and that was his demonstration. The crowd, impressed by Pierce’s passion, dispersed without further trouble.
In the last few years of his life, Franklin Pierce did nothing to rehabilitate his reputation. Pierce didn’t write a book or defend his record. His most public action after Lincoln’s assassination was a trip to Fortress Monroe in Virginia to visit his imprisoned friend, Jefferson Davis, and call for his release by Andrew Johnson. Largely forgotten and widely reviled, Pierce literally drank himself to death. On October 8, 1869, the 64-year-old former President died alone in his home in Concord, New Hampshire, a victim of chronic stomach inflammation and cirrhosis of the liver. Funeral services were quiet and he was buried next to his wife and three young children in Concord. It took nearly fifty years for his home state to recognize Franklin Pierce with a statue at the New Hampshire State Capitol. It wasn’t until 1946 that a granite memorial was placed at his grave. When he died, Franklin Pierce’s obituary wasn’t printed until the third page of The New York Times.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about his friend that, “He has in him many of the chief elements of a great ruler. His talents are administrative, he has a subtle faculty of making affairs roll onward according to his will, and of influencing their course without showing any trace of his action. There are scores of men in the country that seem brighter than he is, but he has the directing mind, and will move them about like pawns on a chess-board, and turn all their abilities to better purpose than they themselves could do.” Hawthorne, obviously, was too sympathetic. Theodore Roosevelt said that Pierce was “a small politician, of low capacity and mean surroundings, proud to act like a servile tool of men worse than himself but also stronger and abler.” That might be too harsh. Pierce’s obituary in the Times in 1869 may have put it best: “His place will not be missed by those actively engaged in political affairs, and although his record as a statesman cannot command the approbation of the nation, he still should be followed to the grave with that respect which is due to one who has filled the highest office in the gift of the people — a President of the United States.”
Franklin Pierce was a complex figure, consumed by ambition and crippled by personal obstacles, who was overmatched by the times that he was destined to preside over. His story, however, is fascinating and has slipped through the cracks of a history featuring giant personalities that were bigger than he could ever measure up against. Presidents come and go. They are good and bad, effective and incompetent, legends and failures. What’s important to remember, though, is that each of them was a person — an individual with triumphs and tragedies and real feelings that, in the case of Pierce, are almost unfathomable to us, especially in conjunction with the awesome responsibilities that come along with the position that they hold. Franklin Pierce is one of the most obscure Presidents in American History, but he held the same office as George Washington and is a member of the most exclusive fraternity in the history of the world. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that these guys are people — individuals just like you and I — and then you learn about obscure Franklin Pierce and you pull the thread and see all of the stories that are a part of him. And I don’t know about you, but that’s when I am most amazed by the power of history and the magnificence of the people who make history.
Volume I: Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son
Volume II: Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union
By Peter A. Wallner
Hardcover. Vol. 1: 321 pages/Vol. II: 498 pages
Plaidswede Publishing. Vol. 1: 2004/Vol. II: 2007
I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’er-leaps itself,
And falls on th’ other.
-Macbeth, Act One, Scene VII
It’s a story that seems as if it would have sprung forth from the mind of Shakespeare. A young Prince who quickly climbed to the top as his weaknesses tried to anchor him to the Earth. A young Prince whose friends were men of letters, men of art — men like Nathaniel Hawthorne. A young Prince who was shadowed by tragedy throughout his life, who was plunged into darkness every time the spotlight shone upon him. A young Prince who became a young King as his country collapsed around him, his countrymen and colleagues deserted him, and all of his powers of persuasion and political magic dissipated along with the supposed union that he had sworn to protect and defend. Finally, the King was no longer a prince – no longer young –and after he lost his crown and his kingdom was shattered, he was all alone, abandoned by his people and his party and his friends. In the Granite State where he was once unassailable, he became radioactive – considered a failure and, worse, a traitor. And there, by himself, all alone, he drank himself to death.
The draw to the story, though, is that it is not fiction and it is not Shakespeare. It is history – our history. It is the story of Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States. Our nation’s history features a host of fascinating figures and interesting characters, and we often overlook some of those quieter biographies – some of those black and white photos that we don’t give color to. For years, I’ve wanted to tell Franklin Pierce’s story. For a long time, the most complete biography about Pierce was Roy Franklin Nichols’ Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills, which was originally published in 1931. Pierce’s story had not been fully told or given the advantage of modern research. If no one had told the story, I was hoping to have the chance to do it myself. But Peter A. Wallner beat me to it, and he did a far better job than I ever could have in two sweeping volumes, Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son (2004, Plaidswede Publishing) and Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union (2007, Plaidswede Publishing).
Dr. Wallner left his job behind and moved to New Hampshire to research Franklin Pierce. In two expansive volumes, Franklin Pierce has received his just due. Pierce’s story, and the story of the United States in the fractious period before the beginning of the Civil War, is told in full. Wallner has expertly and deeply researched every aspect of the life of Pierce, the life of New Hampshire, and the life of the nation and he has left behind the finest biography ever written of one of our most controversial and most forgotten leaders – a man that many people don’t even know existed.
In Dr. Wallner’s first volume, Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son, Wallner focuses on Pierce’s meteoric rise – the son of a Revolutionary War veteran who later became Governor of New Hampshire. A handsome man with dark, curly hair that swept over his forehead as if he were a poet, Pierce was a natural politician and quickly climbed the ranks through the New Hampshire State Legislature before being elected Speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives by the age of 28. A year later, Pierce was elected to Congress and, at 33, became one of the youngest United States Senators in American History.
Politics, however, was not the life that Pierce’s wife, Jane, wanted for their family. Pierce wanted to be a good husband and he left Washington, attempting to make a living as a lawyer back in New Hampshire while the political life tugged at him from every direction. Finally, that urge to be in the public service was too strong and Pierce enlisted in the military during the Mexican War, eventually rising to Brigadier General and making a bigger name for himself due to his service during the war.
As Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son continues to focus on the growth of Pierce’s reputation and name as a national figure, we see the unthinkable happen. In 1852, Pierce’s name was floated at the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore. The darkest of dark horses, by the 49th ballot, the deadlocked convention turned to a compromise choice: Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire. The man who had left politics at the urging of his wife hadn’t mentioned to her that he was a potential candidate for the Presidency. When she learned of his nomination during a carriage ride, Jane Pierce fainted.
Jane was not happy and the Pierce’s only surviving son, Benjamin, also hoped that Franklin Pierce would remain in New Hampshire. In a letter to his mother, 11-year-old Benjamin wrote, “I hope he won’t be elected for I should not like to be at Washington and I know you would not be either.” But Franklin Pierce was elected, overwhelmingly, with a landslide victory over an even bigger hero of the Mexican War, General Winfield Scott.
As Peter Wallner’s first volume, Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son, ends, President-elect Pierce and his family were preparing to move to Washington for Inauguration Day. In January 1853, tragedy once again strikes Pierce and his wife. Having already lost their other two children, the train that they were traveling on derailed and Benjamin Pierce was killed instantly – nearly decapitated as his horrified parents looked on. For Jane Pierce, this was the last straw. It convinced her that God had cleared any and all distractions from the life of her husband so that he could focus on the Presidency. The White House was about to become a very dark place.
Dr. Wallner’s second volume, Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union picks up on the morning of Pierce’s first day in office. Still in deep mourning for his son’s death, Pierce had alluded to his mood in his Inaugural Address on March 4, 1853, telling Americans, “You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me by your strength.” The youngest man elected to the Presidency to that point, Pierce found himself in control of a nation being torn apart by the sectional crises resulting from slavery.
Things do not get better. As Dr. Wallner chronicles in Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union, President Pierce was a stronger leader than he has been given credit for. A man of integrity and good humor, he appointed one of the strongest Cabinets in American History – a loyal Cabinet which is the only one in Presidential History to remain together throughout an entire Presidency. However, the nation’s troubles are too much for one man. Pierce can’t lead the country in the direction he wishes, and the people turn against a President who they see as a Northerner with Southern loyalties. They question his patriotism and his fidelity for the Union. As Pierce’s Presidency continues, the nation falls apart with partisan struggles, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and troubles in all corners of the young country. Yet, Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union gives a human side to the story. Yes, Pierce was a poor President, but he was a human being who tried his best. Pierce’s best simply wasn’t good enough.
In both readable volumes, Dr. Wallner focuses on one of the treasures of Pierce’s life: his fascinating friendships with some influential, intriguing Americans. One of Pierce’s best friends was his schoolmate from Bowdoin College, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Pierce appointed Hawthorne consul in Liverpool so that Hawthorne could focus on his writing while drawing a salary. After his Presidency, Hawthorne is one of Pierce’s dearest, last friends – when Hawthorne dies, it is with Pierce at his side. One of Pierce’s other closest friends was Jefferson Davis, future President of the Confederate States of America. Davis was appointed Secretary of War by President Pierce and became one of the ablest, most visionary Cabinet members in American History. Shortly before the Civil War, the correspondence between Pierce and Davis results in even more questions about Pierce’s loyalty. After the Civil War, Pierce worked to get Davis released from prison.
Dr. Wallner’s Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union concludes with the last years of the life of President Pierce. In 1856, Pierce became the first President whose party refused to renominate him. Desperately unpopular, Pierce retired to New Hampshire, which looked upon him with disdain due to his supposed Southern loyalties. With Jane, Pierce traveled the world as he worked to help his wife regain her health. For a while it worked, but when Jane died in 1863, Franklin Pierce was all alone. In his final years, he became a virtual recluse. His loyalty was questioned throughout the Civil War. A mob appeared on his doorstep to ask where his flag was on the night of Lincoln’s death. Pierce started drinking again. Heavily. Wallner describes Pierce’s declining years with unprecedented depth and research; for the first time, we are given a glimpse of what became of our 14th President in those last lonely years of a life that has rarely been fully studied.
I don’t know why Franklin Pierce has always fascinated me. Perhaps it is because he is as human as we are, and he’s one of the few Presidents who we do not see as a statue or a monument. He was defined by his flaws and his failures, not his accomplishments and great achievements. Franklin Pierce was American in every sense of the word, and it is a story that has been long been begging to be told. I wondered if there was enough research surviving to tell Pierce’s story. I don’t know if I could have found it, but Peter A. Wallner did. Both volumes, Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son (Volume I) and Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union (Volume II), are wonderfully readable and I don’t know that this story can be told better than Dr. Wallner has done it. I must also note that I have both hardcover and both paperback versions of the books and Plaidswede Publishing has crafted two beautiful sets of volumes which appear classy and elegant in either hardcover or paperback. The colors of the portraits on the dust jackets are brilliant, and Pierce’s signature is embossed on both hardcover volumes in graceful red lettering.
In every way, the two volumes of the Franklin Pierce biography from Peter A. Wallner, Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son and Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union, are beautiful books. I highly recommend this set from Plaidswede Publishing – the complete story of one of our most fascinating Presidents.
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