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Franklin Pierce (November 23, 1804 – October 8, 1869) was the 14th President of the United States, serving from 1853 to 1857, an American politician and lawyer. To date, he is the only President from New Hampshire.
Pierce was a Democrat and a "doughface" (a Northerner with Southern sympathies) who served in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Later, Pierce took part in the Mexican-American War and became a brigadier general. His private law practice in his home state, New Hampshire, was so successful that he was offered several important positions, which he turned down. Later, he was nominated for president as a dark horse candidate on the 49th ballot at the 1852 Democratic National Convention. In the presidential election, Pierce and his running mate William R. King won by a landslide in the Electoral College, defeating the Whig Party ticket of Winfield Scott and William A. Graham by a 50% to 44% margin in the popular vote and 254 to 42 in the electoral vote. According to historian David Potter, Pierce was sometimes referred to as "Baby" Pierce, apparently referring to both his youthful appearance and his being the youngest president to take office to that point (although he was, in reality, only a year younger than James K. Polk when he took office).
His inoffensive personality caused him to make many friends, but he suffered tragedy in his personal life and as president subsequently made decisions which were widely criticized and divisive in their effects, thus giving him the reputation as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. Pierce's popularity in the North declined sharply after he came out in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, repealing the Missouri Compromise and reopening the question of the expansion of slavery in the West. Pierce's credibility was further damaged when several of his diplomats issued the Ostend Manifesto. Historian David Potter concludes that the Ostend Manifesto and the Kansas-Nebraska Act were "the two great calamities of the Franklin Pierce administration.... Both brought down an avalanche of public criticism." More important says Potter, they permanently discredited Manifest Destiny and "popular sovereignty" as a political doctrine and slogan of that time that purported to delegate the decision whether slavery should be allowed in a particular territory to the eligible white male voters therein, instead of being determined by a national scheme such as that embodied in the Missouri Compromise and similar agreements between the free and slave interests.
Abandoned by his party, Pierce was not renominated to run in the 1856 presidential election and was replaced by James Buchanan as the Democratic candidate. After losing the Democratic nomination, Pierce continued his lifelong struggle with alcoholism as his marriage to Jane Means Appleton Pierce fell apart. His reputation was destroyed during the American Civil War when he declared support for the Confederacy, and personal correspondence between Pierce and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was leaked to the press. He died in 1869 from cirrhosis.
Philip B. Kunhardt and Peter W. Kunhardt reflected the views of many historians when they wrote in The American President that Pierce was "a good man who didn't understand his own shortcomings. He was genuinely religious, loved his wife and reshaped himself so that he could adapt to her ways and show her true affection. He was one of the most popular men in New Hampshire, polite and thoughtful, easy and good at the political game, charming and fine and handsome. However, he has been criticized as timid and unable to cope with a changing America."
UpbringingEditFranklin Pierce was born in a log cabin in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, on November 23, 1804, the second future U.S. president to be born in the nineteenth century. The site of his birth is now under Franklin Pierce Lake. Pierce's father was Benjamin Pierce, a frontier farmer who became a Revolutionary War soldier, a state militia general, and a two-time Democratic-Republican governor of New Hampshire. He was a direct descendant of Thomas Pierce (1623-1683), who was born in Norwich, Norfolk, England and settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Franklin Pierce's mother was Anna B. Kendrick. He was the fifth of eight children; he had four brothers and three sisters. Former First Lady of the United States Barbara Bush is a distant cousin.
Pierce attended school at Hillsborough Center and moved to the Hancock Academy in Hancock at the age of 11; he was transferred to Francestown Academy in the spring of 1820. Friends recalled that just after he entered the school, he became homesick and returned home barefoot. His father put him in a wagon, drove him half way back to the academy, and left him on the roadside, never saying a word. The boy trudged the remaining seven miles back to school. Later that year he was transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy to prepare for college. In fall 1820, he entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where he participated in literary, political, and debating clubs.
There he met writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, with whom he formed a lasting friendship, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He also met Calvin E. Stowe, Seargent S. Prentiss, and his future political rival, John P. Hale, when he joined the Athenian Society, a group of students with progressive political leanings.
In his second year of college his grades were the lowest of his class, but he worked to improve them and upon graduation in 1824 ranked third among his classmates. In 1826 he entered a law school in Northampton, Massachusetts, studying under Governor Levi Woodbury, and later Judges Samuel Howe and Edmund Parker, in Amherst, New Hampshire. He was admitted to the bar and began a law practice in Concord, New Hampshire in 1827.
Early political careerEdit
After graduating from college, Pierce entered politics and rose to a central position in the Democratic party of New Hampshire and became a member of the Concord Regency leadership group. In 1828 he was elected to the lower house of the New Hampshire General Court, the New Hampshire House of Representatives. He served in the State House from 1829 to 1833, and as Speaker from 1832 to 1833. Pierce served in the state legislature of New Hampshire while his father was governor.
In 1836, he was elected by the New Hampshire General Court as a Democrat to the United States Senate, serving from March 4, 1837, to February 28, 1842, when he resigned. He was chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Pensions during the 26th Congress.
After his service in the Senate, Pierce resumed the practice of law in Concord with his partner Asa Fowler. He was United States Attorney for the District of New Hampshire from 1845 to 1847. He refused the Democratic nomination for Governor of New Hampshire and declined the appointment as Attorney General of the United States tendered by President James K. Polk.
On November 19, 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton (1806–63), the daughter of a former president of Bowdoin College. Appleton was Pierce's opposite. Born into an aristocratic Whig family, she was extremely shy, often ill, deeply religious, and pro-temperance. They had three children, all of whom died in childhood. The last child, who lived the longest, was killed in a train wreck at the age of 11. None lived to see their father become president.
Jane was never happy with her husband's involvement in the political world. She took no pleasure from life in Washington, D.C., and encouraged Pierce to resign his Senate seat and return to New Hampshire, which he did in 1841. After the gruesome death of her last child, shortly before Pierce's inauguration, she was overcome with melancholia and distanced herself from her husband during his presidency. She became known as "the shadow of the white house."
Franklin Pierce, Jr. (February 2, 1836 – February 5, 1836) died three days after birth.
Benjamin "Bennie" Pierce (April 13, 1841 – January 16, 1853) died at the age of 11 in a railway accident in Andover, Massachusetts which his parents witnessed, two months before the inauguration of his father.
He enlisted in the volunteer services during the Mexican-American War and was soon made a colonel. In March 1847, he was appointed brigadier general of volunteers and took command of a brigade of reinforcements for Winfield Scott's army marching on Mexico City. His brigade was designated the 1st Brigade in the newly created 3rd Division and joined Scott's army in time for the Battle of Contreras. During the battle he was seriously wounded in the leg when he fell from his horse.
He returned to his command the following day, but during the Battle of Churubusco the pain in his leg became so great that he passed out and had to be carried from the field. His political opponents used this against him, claiming that he left the field because of cowardice instead of injury. He again returned to command and led his brigade throughout the rest of the campaign, culminating in the capture of Mexico City. Although he was a political appointee, he proved to have some skill as a military commander. He returned home and served as president of the New Hampshire state constitutional convention in 1850.
Election of 1852Edit
At the Democratic National Convention of 1852, Pierce was not initially considered for the presidential nomination. He had no credentials as a major political figure or leader, he was not a military hero, and had not held elective office for the last ten years. The convention assembled on June 1 in Baltimore, Maryland, with four major contenders—Stephen A. Douglas, William L. Marcy, James Buchanan and Lewis Cass — for the nomination. Most of those who had left the party with Martin Van Buren to form the Free Soil Party had returned. Before the vote to determine the nominee, a party platform was adopted, opposing any further "agitation" over the slavery issue and supporting the Compromise of 1850 to unite the various Democratic Party factions.
When the balloting for president began, the four candidates deadlocked, with no candidate reaching even a simple majority, much less the required supermajority of two-thirds. On the thirty-fifth ballot, Pierce was put forth to break the deadlock as a compromise candidate. Pierce was generally popular due to his long career as a party activist and consistent support of Democratic positions. He had never fully articulated his views on slavery, allowing all factions to view him as reasonably acceptable. His service in the Mexican-American War would allow the party to portray him as a war hero. Pierce was nominated unanimously on the 49th ballot on June 5. Alabama Senator William R. King was chosen as the nominee for Vice President.
The United States Whig Party's candidate was general Winfield Scott of Virginia, under whom Pierce had served in the Mexican-American War; his running mate was Secretary of the Navy William A. Graham. Scott — nicknamed "Old Fuss and Feathers" — ran a blundering campaign.
The Whigs' platform was almost indistinguishable from that of the Democrats, reducing the campaign to a contest between the personalities of the two candidates and helping to drive voter turnout in the election to its lowest level since 1836. Pierce's affable personality and lack of strongly held positions helped him prevail over Scott, whose antislavery views hurt him in the South. Scott's strength as a celebrated war hero was countered by Pierce's service in the same war.
Pierce was also helped by Irish Catholic support of the Democratic Party and disdain for the Whig Party.
The Democrats' slogan was "We Polked you in 1844; we shall Pierce you in 1852!" (a reference to the victory of James K. Polk in the 1844 election). This proved to be true, as Scott won only the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Vermont. The total popular vote was 1,601,274 to 1,386,580, or 50.9% to 44.1%. Pierce won 27 of the 31 states, including Scott's home state of Virginia. John P. Hale, who like Pierce was from New Hampshire, was the nominee of the remnants of the Free Soil Party, garnering 155,825 votes (5% of the total).
The election of 1852 would be the last presidential contest in which the Whigs fielded a candidate. In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act divided the Whigs; Northern Whigs were strongly opposed. The Whig Party splintered and most of its adherents migrated to the nativist American Party Know Nothings, the Constitutional Union Party, and the newly formed Republican Party.
At his inauguration, Pierce, at age 48, was the youngest President to have taken office, a record he would keep until the inauguration of a 46-year-old Ulysses S. Grant in 1869.
Pierce served as President from March 4, 1853, to March 4, 1857. He began his presidency in a state of grief and nervous exhaustion. Two months before, on January 6, 1853, the President-elect's family had boarded a train in Boston and shortly thereafter were trapped in their derailed car when it rolled down an embankment near Andover, Massachusetts. Pierce and his wife survived, merely shaken up, but saw their 11-year-old son Benjamin crushed to death. Jane Pierce viewed the train accident as a divine punishment for her husband's pursuit and acceptance of high office.
Pierce chose to "affirm" his oath of office rather than swear it, becoming the first president to do so; he placed his hand on a law book rather than on a Bible while doing so. He was also the first president to recite his inaugural address from memory. In it Pierce hailed an era of peace and prosperity at home and urged a vigorous assertion of US interests in its foreign relations. "The policy of my Administration," said the new president,
The nation was enjoying a period of economic growth and relative tranquility. The Compromise of 1850 seemed to have calmed the storm about the issue of slavery. When the issue flamed up early in his administration, though, Pierce did little to cool the passions it aroused, and sectional fissures reopened.
Pierce selected men of differing opinions for his Cabinet, including colleagues he knew personally and Democratic politicians. Many expected the diverse group would soon break up, but it remained unchanged for the duration of Pierce's four-year term (as of 2009, the only presidential cabinet to do so). In foreign policy, Pierce sought to display a traditional Democratic assertiveness. Various interests nursed ambitions to detach nearby Cuba from a weak and distant Spain, open trade with a reclusive Japan, and gain the advantage over Britain in Central America. Although the Perry Expedition to Japan was a success, Pierce's leadership increasingly came into question when poorly anticipated developments exposed failures of Administration planning and consultation.
Pierce's administration aroused sectional apprehensions when it pressured the United Kingdom to relinquish its interests along part of the Central American coast, and when three US diplomats in Europe drafted a proposal to the president in 1854 to purchase Cuba from Spain for $120 million (USD), and justify the "wresting" of it from Spain if the offer were refused. The publication of the Ostend Manifesto, which had been drawn up on the instance of Pierce's Secretary of State, provoked the scorn of Northerners who viewed it as an attempt to annex a slave-holding possession to bolster Southern interests, and contributed to the discrediting of the expansionist politics the Democratic Party had famously ridden to victory in 1844; the completion and ratification of the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico, while ultimately successful, similarly exposed the seething unresolved sectional conflicts inherent in national expansion.
The greatest challenge to the country's equilibrium during the Pierce administration, though, was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. It repealed the Missouri Compromise and reopened the question of slavery in the West. This measure, sponsored by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, had its origins in the drive to facilitate the completion of a transcontinental railroad with a link from Chicago, Illinois to California through Nebraska.
Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, advocate of a southern transcontinental route, had persuaded Pierce to send James Gadsden to Mexico to buy land for a southern railroad. He purchased the area now comprising southern Arizona and part of southern New Mexico for $10 million (USD), commonly known as the Gadsden Purchase. This became known as the greatest success of the Pierce presidency.
Douglas, to win Southern support for the organization of Nebraska, placed in his bill a provision declaring the Missouri Compromise to be invalid; the bill provided that the residents of the new territories could decide the slavery question for themselves. Although his cabinet had proposed an alternative plan, Pierce was subsequently persuaded to support Douglas' plan in a closed meeting with Douglas and several southern Senators, having consulted with Jefferson Davis alone of his cabinet members.
The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act triggered a series of events that became known as Bleeding Kansas. Pro-slavery Border Ruffians, mostly from Missouri, illegally voted in a government that Pierce recognized, and Pierce called the Topeka Constitution, a shadow government set up by Free-Staters, an act of "rebellion." Pierce continued to recognize the pro-slavery legislature even after a congressional investigative committee found its election illegitimate, and dispatched federal troops to break up a meeting of the shadow government in Topeka.
The Act provoked outrage among northerners who saw Pierce as kowtowing to slave-holding interests, provided the impetus for the formation of the Republican Party, and contributed to critical estimates of Pierce as untrustworthy and easily manipulated. Having lost public confidence, Pierce failed to receive the nomination by his party for a second term. Testament to Pierce's ruined reputation is the fact that he was the first president to have a full-time bodyguard, having been attacked once with a hard-boiled egg.
Pierce has been ranked among the least effective Presidents. He was unable to steer a steady, prudent course that might have sustained a broad measure of support. Having publicly committed himself to an ill-considered position, he maintained it steadfastly, but at disastrous cost to his reputation.
Major legislation signedEdit
Supreme Court appointmentsEdit
Pierce appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:
States admitted to the UnionEdit
After losing the Democratic nomination for reelection in 1856, Pierce retired and traveled with his wife overseas. He returned to the U.S. in 1859 in time to comment on the growing sectional crisis between the South and the North, often criticizing Northern abolitionists for encouraging ugly feelings between the two sections. In 1860 many Democrats viewed Pierce as a solid compromise choice for the presidential nomination, uniting both Northern and Southern wings of the party, but Pierce declined to run.
During the Civil War, Pierce attacked Lincoln for his order suspending habeas corpus. Pierce argued that even in a time of war, the country should not abandon its protection of civil liberties.
Pierce's stand won him admirers with the emerging Northern Peace Democrats, but enraged certain members of the Lincoln administration: in 1862 Secretary of State William Seward sent Pierce a letter virtually accusing him of being a member of the seditious Knights of the Golden Circle. Outraged, Pierce responded and demanded that Seward put his response in the official files of the State Department. When that didn't happen, a Pierce supporter in the US Senate, Milton Latham of California, had the entire Seward-Pierce correspondence read into the Congressional Globe. Nearly every Seward biographer has since considered the Pierce-Seward exchange as a blot on the Secretary's otherwise notable career.
In 1864, friends again put his name in play for the Democratic nomination, but by a letter read out loud to the delegates, Pierce said he would not run.
The year before, Pierce's reputation was greatly damaged in the North during the aftermath of Vicksburg, Union Soldiers under General Hugh Ewing's command captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis' Fleetwood Plantation, and Ewing turned over Davis' personal correspondence to his brother-in-law William T. Sherman. However, Ewing also sent copies of the letters to friends in Ohio. Those letters again revealed his deep friendship with Davis and his ambivalence about the goals of the war. As early as 1860, Pierce had written to Davis about "the madness of northern abolitionism." Another letter stated that he would "never justify, sustain, or in any way or to any extent uphold this cruel, heartless, aimless unnecessary war," and that "the true purpose of the war was to wipe out the states and destroy property." Abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had long disliked Pierce, now referred to him as "the archtraitor."
On April 16, 1865, when news had spread of the murder of President Lincoln, an angry mob composed mostly of young teenagers gathered outside of Pierce's home in Concord. Earlier that day a different mob had thrown black paint on the front porch of former President Millard Fillmore, who, like Pierce, was also regarded as a Lincoln detractor. The crowd in Concord wanted to know why Pierce's house was not dressed with black bunting and American flags, the visual proof of grief being used that day by millions of people across the country. Pierce came outside to confront the crowd and said he, too, was saddened by Lincoln's passing. When a voice in the crowd yelled out "Where is your flag?" Pierce became angry and recalled his family's long devotion to the country, including both his and his father's service in the military. He said he needed to display no flag to prove that he was a loyal American. The crowd soon quieted down and even cheered and applauded the former president as he went back into his home.
Franklin Pierce died in Concord, New Hampshire at 4:49 a.m. on October 8, 1869, at 64 years old. President Ulysses S. Grant, who later defended Pierce's service in the Mexican War, declared a day of national mourning. Newspapers across the country carried lengthy front-page stories examing various aspects of Pierce's colorful and controversial career. He was interred in the Minot Enclosure in the Old North Cemetery of Concord.
In his last will, which he signed January 22, 1868, he left an unusually large number of specific bequests to friends, family and neighbors, including the children of Nathaniel Hawthorne. He left a thousand dollars in trust forever to the local library with the interest used for the purchase of books. He remembered 51 persons with gifts of money, paintings or other specific individual items, including several with patriotic associations. The cane of General Lafayette was among the bequests. His nephew Frank Pierce received the residue.
Places named after President Pierce: