Essays: Why We Remember Pierce

While many New Hampshire-born men and women have achieved greatness, only one has attained the pinnacle of political leadership: Franklin Pierce.

The Franklin Pierce Bicentennial has asked several historians and scholars to discuss why we should remember Pierce, and how his role is history may still hold lessons for us today. If you wish to contribute an essay, please send it to Pierce200@LKarno.com. Please try to use 250 words or less. We reserve the right to select appropriate essays.

 

1. In reading his biographies, I sense a uniform opinion that he was an important man, but not a great man. Roy F. Nichols put it well when he wrote, "He was an inexperienced man, suddenly called to assume a tremendous responsibility, who honestly tried to do his best."

Aside from Pierce's abilities or disabilities as a lawyer, politician, general, and President, he is a figure that is studied and even looked up to by tens of thousands of schoolchildren to this day. Being a President of the U.S. and the only President from New Hampshire, this is certainly his due. I can only hope that in continuing to study his life, both children and adults will learn something about politics in a democracy and the ups and downs we all must go through.

William Copeley, Librarian
New Hampshire Historical Society
30 Park Street
Concord, NH 03301-6384
603-856-0641


2. The Franklin Pierce Bicentennial is all about understanding Pierce, not celebrating him. That is because Pierce remains a controversial and contradictory figure. Opinion on Pierce usually falls into three camps: admirers, detractors, and the vast majority who have no idea who Pierce was. As a nation, we cannot afford to exile Pierce to oblivion, or worse, to heap blame on him for problems that we need to face as a society. This is an opportunity to invite discussion on all levels to better understand who Pierce the man was, and how he represented his times. He is remembered as a virile proponent of slavery, yet he also fought, at his own expense, a law banning the Shaker movement in New Hampshire. He appointed a Jew to a Federal position, welcomed Catholics to Concord, and defended the rights of immigrants. Yet, he also ordered a fugitive slave to be arrested in Boston and returned to the south. These contradictory tendencies show the dangers in dismissing or praising leaders of the past. And, they demonstrate how we need to work as a nation to better understand the roots of the problems that we face today. Pierce began his presidency convinced that slavery was a non-issue, and it ended up destroying his political career. By examining Pierce's journey, we can strengthen the bonds of our often-divided society and see how we got to be where we are today.

Jayme H. Simões
Franklin Pierce Bicentennial chairman

3. Beyond holding a place in the succession of American Presidents, Franklin Pierce possessed many admirable qualities-qualities still sought in public servants today. Yet Pierce served at a price: those same venerable qualities brought him defamation, both during and since his presidency.

First, Pierce should be remembered for his unwavering personal loyalty. Throughout his life, he demonstrated steadfast and self-less loyalty to his friends, family, and political party. Second, Pierce held firmly to his principles. Always strongly pro-Union, even after the onset of the Civil War, Pierce would not vary from what he knew to be right because public sentiment was against him. While some might see his tenaciousness as entrenchment, Pierce wholeheartedly believed in the founding principles of our country, born in men like Jefferson and Jackson, whom he revered. If Pierce can be faulted here, it is only that he did not effectively translate his ideals to address the issues faced by a changing country.

Finally, on a very personal note, regardless of what you think of Pierce's politics or effectiveness as a president, here is a man who gave everything in the service of his country. After his son died in a train accident, just following his election to the presidency, his wife convinced him that God had taken their only son to allow Pierce to concentrate fully on the task before him. Still, truly an American patriot, he took the burden of the office and faithfully served in a very difficult time.

Jack Calhoun
Historian/Writer
Mason, Michigan

4. Franklin Pierce was a man fueled by ambition, touched by tragedy and whose life was filled with sacrifices. Ironically, Franklin Pierce is probably most famous for being the least famous of our Presidents of the United States. But when learning about Pierce and his times, one shouldn't focus on how he is remembered, the focus should be on what made him the man that he was.

Pierce was extraordinarily ambitious and rose through the ranks of New Hampshire politics quickly. At a young age he became a congressmen and became very well-known in Washington social circles. At this point in his life, Pierce sacrificed his family for his ambition. His wife hated Washington and politics and stayed in New Hampshire. Pierce's first two children died in infancy and the devastated Senator felt he could sacrifice his family no more. He resigned, returned to New Hampshire and tried to rebuild his family.

Now, Pierce was ready to sacrifice something else...his ambition. He kept it in check, along with his heavy drinking, and turned down several high-level positions including Attorney General in President Polk's cabinet and the gubernatorial nomination of his beloved home state. Pierce declared that he would never "be voluntarily separated from my family except at the call of my country in time of war".

His country called on him in 1846 and Pierce fought in Mexico. While some say Pierce fought bravely, others claim his war record is not so distinguishable. Nonetheless, he returned to New Hampshire and was considered a war hero. Despite Pierce's intent to continue raising a family, he didn't turn down his party's nomination for President. The fact that Franklin Pierce had no political enemies and his favorable support of Southern interests made him the compromise choice of a deadlocked Democratic National Convention.

Once again, Pierce sacrificed his family life for his ambition and the call of his country. When his only remaining son died in a train wreck while the Pierces were on their way to Washington for the inauguration, Franklin had nothing left to sacrifice. His family was destroyed, his wife distraught for the rest of her life. Pierce went to Washington alone, devastated by personal loss and unprepared for the job that awaited him and easily swayed by his closest advisers.

The history of Franklin Pierce's presidency is easy to find. Its universally agreed that he was not a very good administrator. But what is often overlooked is that, in the time period that he governed, the country was not very administrable. Very few men could have done a better job than Pierce in such a chaotic environment. Pierce's inability to be a strong leader helped bring the nation to the brink of civil war, but it is unfair to judge him as a main catalyst of that great conflict.

It is my hope that more people will look at the man who Franklin Pierce was, rather than simply what kind of President he was. He gave up so much to serve his country and his state and he probably suffered more due to his sacrifices than almost any other President. The life of Franklin Pierce is truly an American story. He is someone who achieved greatly, suffered deeply, sacrificed plenty and, most importantly, did the best that he could for the country that he loved despite all of his faults, tragedies, obstacles and bad luck.
Anthony Bergen
Writer
Sacramento, California

5.The Autobiography of Franklin Pierce
By Cynthia Van Hazinga

If Gertrude Stein could do it, so can I.

I’ve always felt close to Franklin Pierce, our own New Hampshire president, the only one so far—who hailed from Hillsborough, my own hometown.

It’s made us famous, or almost famous. All my life, I’ve identified my hometown as “the birthplace of Franklin Pierce,” and you can just imagine the guilt and confusion I’ve stirred in new acquaintances as they struggled to remember who he was. “Let’s see . . . that sounds so familiar? Franklin Pierce? Did he found a grocery empire?”

Franklin Pierce is the reason I never have become president. I mean, how could there be two presidents from one tiny little New Hampshire mill town? That’s as unlikely as a father and son both being presidents.

I was very young when I understood that the laws of probability cut me out, and I couldn’t begrudge it. It was a big country, and a small town. There were only 1800 of us when I was growing up, and just about the same number in Pierce’s day. Both of us saw, and expected, nothing but progress. The population was increasing, for the region was infected with the “sheep fever” that followed the tariff on imported woolens after the War of 1812, which made raising merino sheep look like a sure route to prosperity. While he was growing up, cotton, silk and woolen mills opened in Hillsborough. In my day, those same mills were coughing and sputtering to an agonizing death. The whistle still blew, everyone knew someone who worked in the mills, but clever businessmen had moved their money to the Southern states, and sensible sheep farmers had gone to Montana.

I suppose there were some sheep in Hillsborough in the mid-20th century, but most of the farmers kept cows. The town desperately needed industry, and tried out a slipper factory, then a box maker, and finally persuaded a light bulb manufacturer to move in. It’s proved just as economically significant as the mills that turned for a hundred years.

But back to Franklin Pierce.

There was a strong sense of infinite possibilities, when Franklin was a boy. It was a very new nation; his father had been present at its birth, and so much was changing, so fast. So it was in the 1950s. The war was over, we had won because we were right. Social justice was next, if we kept the Commies out. My own father was the town newspaperman, as idealistic as any 18th-century philosopher. To my family, elections were our personal forums; votes were our bullets. My father had been born to immigrants, survived a lean childhood and now look! We were living in a growing town with traditions, in a wonderful house near a pristine state forest. For anyone who tried, who attended school and studied, who followed the rules, there would be a glorious future.

As did I, Franklin Pierce grew up in a fiercely patriotic, military-minded town. War was not far behind and war was always possible, although if it came, we would win again.

Pierce’s father Benjamin had served 10 years in the Continental Army before moving to Hillsborough from Massachusetts, picking up a large tract of land for 50 cents an acre. He never ceased being a soldier. In 1786, he was appointed major of the local militia and later, when Franklin was 8 and old enough to know about it, he went off to fight the British again in the War of 1812, along with Franklin’s two older brothers, Benjamin K. and John S. Pierce.

Franklin was doubtless impressed by his daring brothers and probably dazzled by his charismatic father, although it is said that his mother was the better educated. Both parents were noted for high spirits and hospitality, and in fact, ran a tavern in their large home on the Second New Hampshire Turnpike (better known today as Route 31). Living in an isolated country tavern provides a lively and varied social life. Travelers stopped in, some of them prosperous, important men, some desperados. No doubt Franklin heard some fine speeches and some good jokes. There was music and dancing upstairs, as well as rallies of the local militia.

For Benjamin Pierce, twice elected Governor, keeping in touch with his fellow veterans and honoring the Spirit of ’76 was the breath of life. New Hampshire had been the ninth state to ratify the Constitution. The union was sacrosanct. Young Franklin was challenged and inspired, hearing the old war stories told and retold around the fireside. Did he play with toy soldiers, reenacting the battles that were legends of the time? Did he reenact Bunker Hill with his friends in the pasture across the street? Did he fear he had been born too late for action?

I grew up in a Hillsborough house haunted by history only a few miles away. I feel sure Franklin and I climbed the same hills, picked blueberries on the same slopes, marveled at the huge boulders scattered by the Ice Age, and fished and swam in the same secret pools. He must have pulled huge trout from the swift-moving Contoocook River, and played in streams now covered by the lake that bears his name today. Did he crawl through the smooth-hewn tunnel at Gleason’s Falls? Did he wriggle into the cavern at House Rock?

Children raised in rocky, rugged terrain like ours learn to walk softly through the forest, to drink from springs and chew spruce gum, to test the ice carefully, to listen for owls and have a deep respect for mosquitoes and winter. Similarly, we wilt in the heat. (How Franklin must have suffered in Mexico, and even in hot, humid Washington.) Like Franklin, I was eager to get out of town and see the world. (Perhaps even more eager, since “small towns are smaller for girls.”) He was sent off to Hancock and then Francestown to study; I was shipped to Northfield, and both of us headed off for college as soon as eligible, where we made some of the best friends of our lives.

The friends were sustaining, but oh! the trials of adult life. Practicing law was profitable, but long hours indoors bored Pierce. He was ambitious, felt entitled to success, but really preferred the company of old friends.

As I did, Franklin had opportunities denied young people in bigger towns and bigger states. He was good looking, a smooth talker and liked by his fellows. College was a snap, once he put his mind to it. He went to Portsmouth to study with the famed attorney Levi Woodbury. At 24 he was elected to the state legislature and became Speaker, and in town, he served as postmaster and town moderator. (It reminds me of the year I was president of both the 4-H Club and the Girl Scouts and carried the flag at the Memorial Day parade.) Easily, by birth and background, Pierce was one of the Old Boys or the so-called Concord Clique, a group of Democratic lawyers and politicians who ran the state. His was high-status work, but he wanted something else. He wrote letters to his friends, visited his former classmate Nathaniel Hawthorne in Salem.

It was all too easy. With the help of the Clique he was elected to the House of Representatives. After a long courtship he chose Jane Appleton of Amherst, a delicate and deeply religious woman whose father had been a minister and president of Bowdoin College. But Pierce’s parents fell ill and then died, and his first two sons died as babies. The atmosphere of sadness in his home was suffocating. Pierce took refuge in politics. He ran for the U.S. Senate and won; his law practice flourished. It was too much. His depressed wife hated Washington and politicians. She sympathized with the Abolitionists as did her family. Franklin was determined to uphold the law. He resigned from the Senate, probably at Jane’s request, and concentrated on running New Hampshire politics. He declined to be nominated for Governor and turned down a cabinet position offered by President Polk.

But then the Mexican war came along—his war. His wife deplored war. His only living son was six years old. All his boyhood longings to be a military hero, all the stories he had heard from his neighbors John Gilbert, Isaac Farrar, John McNiel and his father filled his heart. He enlisted as a private in an all-volunteer company raised in Concord. He sailed from Newport to Vera Cruz. He faced disease, privation, guerillas, bandits, corruption and unbelievable heat. He was injured when his horse stumbled on a rocky ledge. Nonetheless, he was promoted to Brigadier-General.

Just 43, Pierce came home to New Hampshire feeling far older. The clear rivers, green forests and neat towns looked like heaven. He taught his son to ride and shoot; both parents delighted in little Benny, sent him to school and taught him at home.

But . . . the Concord Clique had a plan for Franklin Pierce. New Hampshire had never put a man in the White House. The Democratic party’s platform was unsettled, made more so by the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law. It seemed the Union, for which his father’s generation had fought, which he had been raised to revere above all, might not hold. The party wanted a dark horse candidate, someone no one disliked much, a good-looking, well-spoken fellow. Franklin Pierce did not declare his candidacy, campaign for it, or attend the convention in Baltimore where he was nominated with 282 of 288 votes.

They say Jane Pierce fainted when she heard the news.

And I, though I haven’t carried the flag in many years, believe I understand how Pierce felt. Bemused, saddened by the tragic accidental death of his last son, distressed by his wife’s misery—and upset by the boldness of her Abolitionist convictions—disheartened by the discord between the states and between men he respected, determined to abide by his party’s positions and to uphold the Constitution, he was not triumphant. But he did his duty.

6. The Gadsden Purchase: Franklin Pierce’s Forgotten Accomplishment

During the presidency of Franklin Pierce, a treaty was signed that has since been downplayed in history books. Now referred to as a minor event or a bit of trivia, the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 should be listed among the most underappreciated events of American expansionism.

Shortly after taking office, Pierce sent James Gadsden to Mexico with instructions to fix the boundary between the two countries. Just under 30,000 square miles were purchased in return for ten million dollars. This purchase also served the purposes of expanding America’s holdings and providing a location for a southern railway. This was the final addition to the continental United States, fixing the borders at their present location.

With the border dispute settled, hostilities lingering form the Mexican War of 1845 to 1848 were eased. The Southern Pacific Railroad was built on this newly acquired land, reaching east to New Orleans by 1883. With a rail route across the south, the demand for more convenient access to California which followed the gold rush of 1848 was satisfied and the struggling southern economy benefited from its connection to the western territories.

In this one supposedly unimportant treaty, President Pierce greatly benefited his country by serving as peacemaker, expansionist and friend of commerce. Now that historians have over 150 years of distance from which to look at this event, perhaps Pierce will soon get some of the respect he deserves for this contribution to his country which has unfortunately been overshadowed by the buildup to the Civil War.

Kevin Hogg, British Columbia, Canada

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