Franklin Pierce was born November 23rd, 1804 and died October 8th, 1869. He was the 14th President of the United States (1853–1857) and 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 the Senate. Pierce took part in the Mexican-American War and became a brigadier general in the Army. 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 as the party's candidate for president 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. They defeated the Whig Party ticket of Winfield Scott and William A. Graham by a 50 percent to 44 percent margin in the popular vote and 254 to 42 in the electoral vote.
He made many friends, but he suffered tragedy in his personal life; all of his children died young. As president, he made many divisive decisions which were widely criticized and earned him a reputation as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. Pierce's popularity in the Northern states declined sharply after he supported the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which replaced the Missouri Compromise and renewed debate over the expansion of slavery in the American West. Pierce's credibility was further damaged when several of his diplomats issued the Ostend Manifesto. The 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 importantly, says Potter, they permanently discredited Manifest Destiny and "popular sovereignty" as political doctrines.
Despite a reputation as an able politician and a likable man, during Pierce's presidency he served only as a moderator among the increasingly bitter factions that were driving the nation towards Civil War. Abandoned by his party, Pierce was not renominated to run in the 1856 presidential election. His reputation was destroyed during the Civil War when he declared support for the Confederacy, and personal correspondence between Pierce and the Confederate President Jefferson Davis was leaked to the press.
Franklin Pierce was born on November 23rd, 1804, likely at the Franklin Pierce Homestead, which his father had built that year in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. Another possible birthplace was the family's former log cabin, which site is now under Franklin Pierce Lake. He was the fifth of eight children. Their father was Benjamin Pierce, a frontier farmer who had been a Revolutionary War soldier, and a state militia general. He was elected as a two-time Democratic-Republican governor of New Hampshire when Franklin was a young man. Benjamin Pierce was a direct descendant of Thomas Pierce (1618–1683), who was born in Norwich, Norfolk, England and immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Franklin Pierce's mother was Anna B. Kendrick. Former First Lady of the United States Barbara Pierce Bush is a distant cousin.
Pierce lived at the Homestead from infancy to his marriage in 1834, with the exception of seven years spent at school, college and the study of law. Pierce family descendants owned the house until 1925.
Pierce attended school at Hillsborough Center and moved to the Hancock Academy in Hancock at the age of 11; he 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. Soon the boy walked the seven miles back to school. Later that year he transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy to prepare for college. In fall 1820, Pierce entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where he joined literary, political, and debating clubs.
At Bowdoin he met the writers 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, Pierce had the second lowest grades in his class, but he worked to improve them; he ranked third among his classmates when he graduated in 1824. In 1826 he entered Northampton Law School in Northampton, Massachusetts, and he later studied under Governor Levi Woodbury and Judge Edmund Parker in their practice in Amherst, New Hampshire.
Pierce was admitted to the bar and began a law practice in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1827.
After graduating from college and completing his law degree, Pierce entered politics. He rose to a central position in the New Hampshire Democratic Party and became a member of the Concord Regency leadership group.
After establishing his law practice, in 1828 he was elected to the lower house of the New Hampshire General Court, the New Hampshire House of Representatives, the same year that his father was elected as governor. He served in the State House from 1829 to 1833, and was elected Speaker from 1832 to 1833.
In 1832, Franklin Pierce was elected as a Democrat to the 23rd and 24th Congresses (March 4th, 1833 – March 4th, 1837). He was 27 years old, the youngest U.S. Representative at the time.
In 1836, he was elected by the New Hampshire General Court as a Democrat to the United States Senate, serving from March 4th, 1837, to February 28th, 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 appointed as the 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.
November 19th, 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton (1806–63), the daughter of Jesse Appleton, a former president of Bowdoin College. Jane was Pierce's opposite. Born into an elite Whig family, she was shy, whereas he was very extroverted. Often ill, she was deeply religious and pro-temperance. They lived permanently in Concord. They had three children, all of whom died in childhood:
Pierce volunteered to serve in the Army during the Mexican-American War. He was commissioned as a Colonel in the Infantry on February 16th, 1847. On March 3rd, 1847 he was promoted to Brigadier General 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 injured, including a sprained left knee, when his horse stepped into a crevice, broke its leg and fell, pinning Pierce underneath.
He returned to his command the following day, having to be tied onto his saddle because of his injuries, 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. In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant (not a supporter of Pierce politically), who observed Pierce firsthand during the war, described criticism of Pierce's service as "unfair and unjust," and Pierce as "a gentleman and a man of courage." Pierce returned to command and led his brigade throughout the rest of the campaign, resulting in the capture of Mexico City. He resigned from the Army on March 28, 1848.
Although he was a political appointee, he proved that he had some skill as a military commander. He returned home and served as president of the New Hampshire state constitutional convention in 1850.
At the 1852 Democratic National Convention Pierce was not considered a serious candidate for the presidential nomination. He had no credentials as a major political figure or leader, 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. To unite the various Democratic Party factions before voting on a nominee, delegates adopted a party platform that rejected further "agitation" over the slavery issue and supported the Compromise of 1850.
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's long career as a party activist and consistent supporter of Democratic positions made him popular among delegates. He had never fully explained 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. On June 5, delegates unanimously nominated Pierce on the 49th ballot. Alabama Senator William R. King was chosen as the nominee for Vice President
The 1852 election was the last presidential contest in which the Whigs fielded a candidate. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed in 1854, divided the Whigs. 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 Ulysses S. Grant took office in 1869 at 46 years old.
On January 6th, 1853, weeks after his election as president, the Pierces and their last son Benjamin were in a train accident. The boy was nearly decapitated. Pierce covered him with a sheet, hoping to spare his wife, but Jane also saw their son. They both suffered severe depression afterward, which affected Pierce's performance throughout his presidency. After Benjamin's death, Jane was overcome with melancholia and became distant from her husband during his presidency. She was known as "the shadow in the White House".
Pierce served as President from March 4, 1853, to March 4, 1857. He began his presidency in mourning. Two months before, on January 6th, 1853, the President-elect's family had been trapped in a train from Boston when their car derailed and rolled down an embankment near Andover, Massachusetts. Pierce and his wife survived but saw their last son, 11-year-old Benjamin, crushed to death. Jane Pierce viewed the train accident as a divine punishment for her husband's pursuit and acceptance of high office.
The first president elected to be born in the 19th century, 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. He was the first president to recite his inaugural address from memory. Pierce hailed an era of peace and prosperity at home and urged a vigorous assertion of US interests in its foreign relations.
Pierce selected men of differing opinions for his Cabinet, including colleagues he knew personally and Democratic politicians. Many anticipated the diverse group would soon break up, but it remained unchanged during Pierce's four-year term (as of 2013, 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. Three US diplomats in Europe drafted a proposal to the president 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 insistence 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. It helped discredit the expansionist policies the Democratic Party had supported in the 1844 election. The Gadsden Purchase from Mexico similarly exposed the seething unresolved sectional conflicts inherent in national expansion.
Pierce fulfilled the expectations of Southerners who had supported him by vigilantly enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act when Anthony Burns was seized in Boston in 1854. Federal troops enforced the return to his owner against angry crowds.
Organizing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska sparked more tensions related to whether to permit slavery there. To win Southern support for organizing Nebraska, Douglas added a provision declaring the Missouri Compromise to be invalid. The bill provided that the residents of the new territories could vote to determine whether they could allow slavery. Although Pierce's cabinet had made other proposals on this issue, Douglas and several southern Senators successfully persuaded Pierce to support Douglas' plan.
As the act was being debated, settlers on both sides of the slavery issue rushed into the state to be present for the voting. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act resulted in so much violence between groups that the territory became known as Bleeding Kansas. Pro-slavery Border Ruffians, mostly from Missouri, illegally voted in the elections to set up the government, but Pierce recognized it anyway. When Free-Staters set up a shadow government, called the Topeka Constitution, Pierce termed their work an act of "rebellion." The president continued to recognize the pro-slavery legislature, which was dominated by Democrats, even after a Congressional investigative committee found its election to have been illegitimate. He dispatched federal troops to break up a meeting of the shadow government in Topeka.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act provoked outrage among northerners, who already viewed Pierce as kowtowing to slave-holding interests. This contributed to the Republican Party, as well as to critical assessments of Pierce as untrustworthy and easily manipulated. Having lost public confidence, Pierce was not nominated by his party for a second term. As a result of threats and the passions inspired by Kansas, Pierce hired a full-time bodyguard - the first president to do so.
Historians have ranked Pierce as 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, at a disastrous cost to his reputation.
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 President Abraham 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.
According to author Garry Boulard, 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 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 serving 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 revealed Pierce's deep friendship with Davis and 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 16th, 1865, when news had spread of the murder of President Lincoln, an angry mob of young teenagers gathered outside 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 am on October 8, 1869, at 64 years old from cirrhosis of the liver. 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 examining Pierce's colorful and controversial career. He was interred next to his wife and two of his sons, all of whom had predeceased him, in the Minot Enclosure in the Old North Cemetery of Concord.
In his last will, which he signed January 22th, 1868, he left an unusually large number of specific bequests to friends, family and neighbors, including the children of Nathaniel Hawthorne. He left $1,000 in trust to the local library. The interest was used to purchase books. He left gifts of money, paintings, and other items to various people. The cane of General Lafayette was among the bequests. His nephew Frank Pierce received the residue. Pierce died on October 8, 1869 from cirrhosis after years of struggling with alcoholism.
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