“To be an American is a text of deep and varied meaning.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne
When I was but a wee lad, I contracted tonsillitis as many wee lads do. As I was recovering in the hospital from the removal of this lymphoid tissue, my dear Mother distracted my attention from my discomfort by coaching me in memorizing the names of all of the American Presidents who had served until that time, Washington through Kennedy. That a kindergarten student could then perform such a fete made me something of a side show at our elementary school, and I was shuttled among the upper classes to display this extraordinary command of American history. My memory serves that there might have even been a school assembly involved. I was a legend in my own mind.
That interest in the presidency has remained with me my entire life. It actuated decades of subsequent involvement in practical politics, and a long succession of gifts from my Mother: books, pictures, recordings, memorabilia, trivia games all about the Presidents. This interest also encouraged me several years ago to ask my Congressman to inquire of the Librarian of Congress for a list of one, definitive biography of each of the Presidents. I am now reading these biographies in the order in which each President served, and it has been an enjoyable, edifying journey through American history. My command of American history has been strengthened as I travel through it repetitively and incrementally, one President at a time.
I have now made my way through the life and times of Franklin Pierce, our fourteenth President. The Librarian of Congress’ bibliography commended the 1931 biography of Pierce by Roy Franklin Nichols. In the time since my project was initiated, Dr. Peter A. Wallner of the Graduate School at Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire has published a more recent, two-volume set on Pierce which must now be regarded as the definitive work. Wallner didn’t undertake this project for the money, to be sure.The popular market for biographies of Franklin Pierce can’t be huge. Wallner is to be commended for doing an historian’s work, keeping the torch lit and for improving our understanding of this often misunderstood president.
Some contemporary pundit has observed that every Presidency is ultimately reduced to the equivalent of a Twitter post: “Father of Our Country,” “Freed the Slaves’, “Trust Buster,” “Saved Us From The Depression,” “Disgraced by Watergate,” etc. As someone who has had his head in the presidency since a young age, I confess that, before reading Wallner’s work, I would have summarized the Pierce Presidency as have many others: “An Accidental, Inept, Southern-Sympathizing, Drunkard.” While there are elements of truth in all of these disparagements, as one might suspect, a life of genuine distinction cannot be justly or thusly trivialized.
Franklin Pierce was a son of the American Revolution. The most influential figure in his life was his father, Benjamin Pierce, a distinguished veteran of the revolution and an early governor of New Hampshire. Wallner writes that Frank Pierce was:
“…a product of the Granite State. He admired the independent small farmers who eked out a living from its hardscrabble lands as well as the artisans, shopkeepers, and merchants who made up the small town life he knew so well. He was raised on the participatory democracy of northern New England: the annual town meeting, the frequent elections, short terms for office holders, and regular rotation in office. In these communities public office was seen as a duty, an obligation, as one was called to serve by one’s neighbors, not as the fulfillment of personal ambition or the opportunity to pursue self-interest or self-aggrandizement. This sense of duty or calling was ingrained in Pierce by his father and his Hillsborough upbringing, before Jacksonian Democracy emerged to put a party label around the creed of limited government, state sovereignty, local control, strict interpretation of the Constitution, nationalism, and respect for the common man. Pierce was a true Jeffersonian.”
A row between Jeffersonians and Federalists caused Pierce to eschew an otherwise obvious enrollment at Dartmouth in favor of Bowdoin, where he not only acquitted himself well as a scholar, but established a lifelong, intimate friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became at an early age a state legislator, then Representative to Congress, then United States Senator before deciding to return to law practice in Concord whilst keeping his toe in as chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.
The Mexican War gave Pierce the opportunity to perpetuate the family’s patriotism in military service. He led New Hampshire men as a brigadier in the army of Winfield Scott and saw action at Churubusco, Contreras, El Molino del Ray and Mexico City. While present in the action, Pierce always seemed to somehow become disabled early in the engagements which both kept his service from distinguishing merit and offered later political opponents the opportunity to accuse him of cowardice. One adversary later referred to him as the “Hero of many a well-fought bottle,” which raises the matter of Pierce and his alcohol.
While Wallner never explicitly refers to Pierce as an alcoholic, it is clear that Pierce lived an off-and-on-the-wagon relationship with the spirits, right up to his death. He would swing back and forth from public profession of support for the Temperance movement to a series of real benders with his cronies. Yet nowhere in the story is there a suggestion that drink impaired his ability to perform the duties of his various offices, nor an account of him being intoxicated in the presence of official visitors or conferees. Accounts of his death suggest however a well-pickled liver.
After nearly a ten year sabbatical from the national limelight, a Democratic Party pulled in multiple directions by sectional interests, largely around the issue of slavery, turned to “General” Pierce to carry its standard after the 49th ballot of its convention in Baltimore. The dark horse character of this candidacy is what lends credence to the idea of the Pierce presidency as accidental. Wallner’s study demonstrates, as I have written on the lives of other presidencies, that no one becomes President of the United States by accident. Pierce enjoyed a reputation as an outstanding public servant and war hero of sorts. Further while his ambition was well-covered in the veneer of Yankee selflessness, Pierce always had a notion that he might someday be President and, as Wallner’s account reveals, was substantially more methodical in becoming the nation’s first magistrate than we have been previously led to believe. Hawthorne wrote of his friend Pierce at the time, “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.”
Pierce won an easy victory over his former military chieftain, General Winfield Scott, the Whig nominee in the election of 1852. His longstanding antipathy toward organized religion, only to be remedied in the years before his death, interestingly led him to be the only person to “affirm” rather than swear the presidential oath of office. Save that one for your trivia contests.
Pierce was married to a most difficult woman Jane Means Appleton Pierce. She was stern, hypochondriacal, austere and exceedingly private. She not only was rarely seen in his public life, but greatly disdained it. PIerce was less than transparent with her in making her aware of his political moves in 1852. When they were greeted in a carriage with the news of his nomination, she was surprised and fainted. On their way to Washington after the election, their only child, Benny, was killed in a train accident that the two of them survived. Jane was not only grief stricken, reclusive and in mourning throughout the Pierce presidency, but also maintained a Calvinistic view that their son’s death was a punishment for her husband’s surreptitious return to politics. A rough way to begin one’s presidency.
Pierce presided over turbulent times, as well. Most notably, he sided with Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the legislation that sought to bring Kansas and Nebraska into the Union with local voters in the new territories making their own decisions on whether the new states would be slave-holding or free. While there were other failures in the Pierce presidency, this was its death blow. It was what modern political analysts would call a “squishy” decision, made to try to satisfy everyone, but which in the end delivered disappointment to every constituency on a matter of the greatest national import. It was a decision that created “Bloody Kansas,” though Wallner makes repeated comments suggesting the exaggeration of the bloodshed by northern abolitionists. It is inarguable, however, that Pierce’s decision repealed the stabilizing effects of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, unleashed the terrorism of John Brown and hastened the nation’s march to civil war. it was also during Pierce’s presidency that Rep. Preston Brooks caned Senator Charles Sumner to within a inch of his life, right on the Senate floor. Wallner engages in hagiography I fear when he refers to Pierce as a “Martyr for the Union.” I myself am unconvinced.
Pierce not only became the only sitting President to be denied renomination by his Party, but spent most of his post-presidential years as a tragic character living on the wrong side of history. His public remarks and movements after the Civil War began caused many to question his patriotism, even some to accuse him of being a Confederate spy. Consider this scene on the evening of Lincoln’s death:
“…the citizens of Concord, New Hampshire, took to the streets, motivated by a mixture of sorrow and anger and seeking the solace of friends with whom to share their inexpressible grief. After gathering before the Statehouse, the crowd of nearly four hundred began to march south in Main Street, drawn toward one residence in particular. Along the way they called at the homes of neighbors who had yet to display the flag as a gesture of patriotic reverence for their fallen leader. Around 9:00 p.m., the mob reached its destination, the house rented by the former President, Franklin Pierce. Throughout the war Pierce had been an outspoken critic of Lincoln and his war policy, and on this night no flag graced his porch. The mob called for Pierce, who came outside to confront them. As one man in the crowd shouted, ‘Where’s your flag?’ Pierce began to speak…Barely twelve years earlier, New Hampshire’s then-favorite son had stood before a crowd of nearly thirty thousand at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.”
He spent his last years mourning the passing of his dear but difficult wife, and the loss of his dearer friend, Hawthorne, whose pall he bore to the grave with Emerson and Longfellow. The long wear and tear of alcohol on his body in time took its toll on him, as well.
While Wallner paints a picture of Pierce as a man of absolute integrity to his principles, his endearment with his subject, in this reader’s opinion, glosses over Pierce’s nineteenth century racism which blinded him to the evil of human bondage, a sin that even fidelity to the U. S. Constitution can by no means redeem. Still, his presidency was not without credit:
“It had honestly and effectively managed a growing treasury. It had aggressively pursued U.S interests abroad, achieving success and gaining the respect of European powers without risking war. It had impartially enforced the laws and had strictly interpreted the Constitution, in the process of obstructing the schemes of self-aggrandizing politicians, speculators, and filibusters. It had modernized the Army and Navy, and expanded U.S. territory. But only one issue mattered, and by supporting the Kansas-Nebraska bill, the Pierce administration had precipitated a political crisis over slavery that could not be resolved except by civil war.”
The benefit of having such a new account of the Pierce presidency is that we might more clearly see its relevance to our own present circumstances. Wallner observes:
“In fact, Pierce’s public life is relevant today, as he took unequivocal positions on many issues that still resonate. In his time Pierce addressed such current issue as the control of immigration, the imposition of religious agendas into the political process, the proper role of the federal government in people’s lives, the assumption of vast power by the executive in times of national emergency, the limits of dissent and the place of the Bill Rights in wartime, and America’s role in defending and spreading democracy around the world.”
Franklin Pierce’s life was lived in full. We ought not synthesize his life, nor that of any other President, to a sound bite. His public service was always motivated by what he honestly thought were the best interests of a nation he loved. Not all thusly motivated Presidents, including Pierce, got it right.