Franklin Pierce, one of eight children of Benjamin and Anna Kendrick Pierce, was born in Hillsborough, N. H., on Nov. 23, 1804. His father had served in the American Revolution and later became governor of New Hampshire. Pierce was educated at Hillsborough Center, Hancock Academy, and Bowdoin College, from which he graduated in 1824 after advancing from last place to fifth from the top of his class.
In 1829, he was elected to the state legislature, two years after his father won election to the governorship. Pierce was then chosen Speaker of the House in 1831. Franklin Pierce was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he voted the Democratic party line on nearly all issues. Life in Washington took its toll on Pierce. The city in the 1830s was an unpleasant place.
Politicians serving there mostly lived in shabby boardinghouses. Bored and homesick, many found comfort in alcohol. Drinking quickly became a problem for Pierce. In 1834, the congressman married Jane Means Appleton, the daughter of Jesse Appleton, who had been President of Bowdoin College. Franklin and Jane Pierce seemingly had little in common.
Socially, Jane Pierce was reserved and shy, the opposite of her husband. She disliked Washington and usually refused to live there, even after Pierce became an U.S. Senator in 1837.
By 1841, Pierce and his wife had had enough of Washington, and he resigned from the Senate, moving his family back to New Hampshire. Returning to Concord early in 1848, Pierce continued his law practice and gave strong support to the Compromise of 1850. In June 1852 the Democratic national nominating convention, unable to choose among Stephen A. Douglas, James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, and William Marcy, named Pierce on the 49th ballot. The presidential election of 1852 brought Pierce into contention with his former military commander, Gen. Winfield Scott. Scott divided his party by hinting that he might approve the modifications of the Fugitive Slave Act.
He pledged a strong foreign policy and promised to respect the rights of the states. The freedom with which he promised to do favors and the difficulty he experienced in saying “no” to admirers brought him votes on election day, but at the cost of problems later, when he found that he had promised more than he could deliver. At age 48, Pierce, now nicknamed “Young Hickory of the Granite Hills,” became president.Jane Pierce was a deeply religious woman, and her beliefs penetrated almost every aspect of the family’s lives.
No meal took place without grace being said first. Before his tragic death, her son, Benjamin Pierce, was sent to church every single morning. Pierce and his wife had already lost two of their children from typhus — an infant in 1836 and a four-year-old in 1843. The losses had left Jane Pierce a gloomy woman. Both she and her husband were deeply devoted to Benjamin, their only surviving child.
On January 6, 1853, Pierce and his family were traveling home to Concord on a train. The United States was still a nation of bad roads in the 1850s, and the railroads were the most reliable transport. The railroad building boom of the era had outstripped the industry’s ability to manage the busy traffic, and much of America’s railroad system was poorly constructed.
Approaching Boston, the train broke an axle and derailed, and the car in which they were riding plunged down an embankment. While both adults escaped injury, their thirteen-year-old son was crushed to death before their eyes. After the catastrophe, religion seemed to be the only comfort for his parents.
Jane Pierce became convinced that the tragedy had been punishment from God for her husband’s acceptance of the presidency. With the President and his wife still in mourning when they moved to Washington, the White House was a dark and gloomy place. Because of Jane Pierce’s frail health, opposition to drinking, and her depression over the loss of her child, social functions at the White House were almost unheard of during the first half of the Pierce administration. In its later stages, she did manage some appearances at events there, but she came to be known as “The Shadow in the White House.”Franklin Pierce came to office during a period of growing tension between the North and South.
Pierce was behind one of the most crucial pieces of legislation in American history. Although he did not author the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he did encourage its passage by Congress. And that piece of legislation set the nation on its path to civil war. Jane’s disgust with the political life in Washington must have been behind Pierce’s decision to resign from the Senate in 1841. Subsequently, he served in the Mexican-American War, and in something of a surprise was elected President in 1852.Franklin Pierce’s life following the presidency proved no happier than his life during it.
He spent most of the pre-Civil War years in Europe, mulling his political misfortunes. When the Civil War erupted, Pierce voiced support for the northern cause, which was ironic in light of his earlier proslavery stance. But Pierce, a loyal Democrat, did not support the new president, Abraham Lincoln.
In fact, Pierce publicly tried to blame Lincoln for the war. This outspoken criticism cost him a number of longtime friendships. Jane Pierce, meanwhile, was slowly wasting away from tuberculosis, and he traveled with her to the West Indies in hopes that the warmer climate would benefit her.
It did not, and she died in late 1863. Pierce returned to the United States and settled in New Hampshire. Always fond of liquor, he had returned to it as his only comfort. When Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, an angry mob surrounded Pierce’s home.
Only a final display of the old lawyer’s once famed oratorical skills kept his house in one piece: he gave a speech urging the crowd to disperse peacefully, and they did.Pierce hoped to be re-nominated in 1856, but the rising agitation over slavery and his connection with the Kansas controversy ruled him out of the running. The Democratic convention turned instead to James Buchanan. Pierce left the White House with little sense of gratification and set out with his wife on a European tour. After additional traveling in the United States and the West Indies, he settled permanently in Concord in 1860.
He attacked the Lincoln administration for provoking the Civil War and disregarding the constitution in prosecuting it. He spent his last years in virtual seclusion and died in Concord on Oct. 8, 1869.
The great irony of Franklin Pierce is that a man less than qualified to be President was behind one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in American history. He serves as a prime example of why difficult times require activist and focused leadership that is sensitive to issues both of change and continuity affecting the political scene. Overall, I believe that Pierce was a good president. He did his best even though he had lost his only surviving child and his wife had even shut him out.