Franklin Pierce

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Franklin Pierce

14th President of the United States (November 23, 1804 – October 8, 1869)

Age at inauguration: 48 years old

Vice President: William R. King (Mar–Apr. 1853)

                            None (1853–1857) [Note]

Nicknames: 

  • Young Hickory of the Granite Hills  "Young Hickory" compared his military deeds (in the Mexican–American War) with those of Andrew Jackson. "The Granite Hills" were his home state of New Hampshire
  • Handsome Frank

Preceded by:  Millard Fillmore
Succeeded by:  James Buchanan

Born: Franklin Pierce November 23, 1804 Hillsborough, New Hampshire, U.S 

Died: October 8, 1869 (aged 64) Concord, New Hampshire, U.S.

Cause of Death: Dropsy [Note]

Resting Place: Old North Cemetery Concord, New Hampshire, U.S.

Father: Gov. Benjamin Pierce
Mother:  Anna B. Kendrick 
Married:

Children:  

  • Franklin Pierce, Jr., 1836 died three days after birth
  • Frank Robert Pierce (August 27, 1839 – November 14, 1843) Age 4
  • Benjamin “Bennie” Pierce (April 13, 1841-January 16, 1853) Age 11
  • Jane Pierce

Religion: Unitarian

Education: 

  • Bowdoin College, Northampton Law School

Occupation: Lawyer

Other Government Positions: United States Senator from New Hampshire March 4, 1837 – February 28, 1842

Presidential Salary: $25,000/year

Franklin Pierce (November 23, 1804 – October 8, 1869) was the 14th president of the United States (1853–1857), a northern Democrat who saw the abolitionist movement as a fundamental threat to the unity of the nation. He alienated anti-slavery groups by championing and signing the Kansas–Nebraska Act and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, yet he failed to stem conflict between North and South, setting the stage for Southern secession and the American Civil War.

Pierce was born in New Hampshire, and served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate until he resigned from the Senate in 1842. His private law practice in New Hampshire was a success, and he was appointed U.S. Attorney for his state in 1845. He took part in the Mexican–American War as a brigadier general in the Army. He was seen by Democrats as a compromise candidate uniting northern and southern interests and was nominated as the party's candidate for president on the 49th ballot at the 1852 Democratic National Convention. He and running mate William R. King easily defeated the Whig Party ticket of Winfield Scott and William A. Graham in the 1852 presidential election.

As president, Pierce simultaneously attempted to enforce neutral standards for civil service while also satisfying the diverse elements of the Democratic Party with patronage, an effort which largely failed and turned many in his party against him. He was a Young America expansionist who signed the Gadsden Purchase of land from Mexico and led a failed attempt to acquire Cuba from Spain. He signed trade treaties with Britain and Japan, while his Cabinet reformed their departments and improved accountability, but these successes were overshadowed by political strife during his presidency. His popularity declined sharply in the Northern states after he supported the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which nullified the Missouri Compromise, while many whites in the South continued to support him. Passage of the act led to violent conflict over the expansion of slavery in the American West. Pierce's administration was further damaged when several of his diplomats issued the Ostend Manifesto calling for the annexation of Cuba, a document which was roundly criticized. He fully expected to be renominated by the Democrats in the 1856 presidential election, but was abandoned by his party and his bid failed. His reputation in the North suffered further during the American Civil War as he became a vocal critic of President Abraham Lincoln.

Pierce was popular and outgoing, but his family life was a grim affair, with his wife Jane suffering from illness and depression for much of her life. All of their children died young, their last son being gruesomely killed in a train accident while the family was traveling shortly before Pierce's inauguration. He was a heavy drinker for much of his life, and he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1869. Historians and scholars generally rank Pierce as one of the worst and least memorable U.S. Presidents.

 

Early life and family

 The Franklin Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough, where Pierce grew up, is now a National Historic Landmark. He was born in a nearby log cabin as the homestead was being completed.
 

Childhood and education

Franklin Pierce was born on November 23, 1804 in a log cabin in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. He was a sixth-generation descendant of Thomas Pierce, who had moved to the Massachusetts Bay Colony from Norwich, Norfolk, England in about 1634. His father Benjamin was a lieutenant in the American Revolutionary War who moved from Chelmsford, Massachusetts to Hillsborough after the war, purchasing 50 acres (20 ha) of land. Pierce was the fifth of eight children born to Benjamin and his second wife Anna Kendrick; his first wife Elizabeth Andrews died in childbirth, leaving a daughter. Benjamin was a prominent Democratic-Republican state legislator, farmer, and tavern-keeper. During Pierce's childhood, his father was deeply involved in state politics, while two of his older brothers fought in the War of 1812; public affairs and the military were thus a major influence in his early life.

Pierce's father ensured that his sons were educated, and he placed Pierce in a school at Hillsborough Center in childhood and sent him to the town school at Hancock at age 12. The boy, not fond of schooling, grew homesick at Hancock and walked 12 miles (19 km) back to his home one Sunday. His father fed him dinner and drove him part of the distance back to school before kicking him out of the carriage and ordering him to walk the rest of the way in a thunderstorm. Pierce later cited this moment as "the turning-point in my life". Later that year, he transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy to prepare for college. By this time, he had built a reputation as a charming student, sometimes prone to misbehavior.

Novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne remained lifelong friends with Pierce. He wrote the glowing biography The Life of Franklin Pierce in support of Pierce's 1852 presidential campaign.

In fall 1820, Pierce entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, one of 19 freshmen. He joined the Athenian Society, a progressive literary society, alongside Jonathan Cilley (later elected to Congress) and Nathaniel Hawthorne, with whom he formed lasting friendships. He was the last in his class after two years, but he worked hard to improve his grades and graduated in fifth place in 1824 in a graduating class of 14. John P. Hale enrolled at Bowdoin in Pierce's junior year; he became a political ally of Pierce's and then his rival. Pierce organized and led an unofficial militia company called the Bowdoin Cadets during his junior year, which included Cilley and Hawthorne. The unit performed drill on campus near the president's house, until the noise caused him to demand that it halt. The students rebelled and went on strike, an event that Pierce was suspected of leading. During his final year at Bowdoin, he spent several months teaching at a school in rural Hebron, Maine, where he earned his first salary and his students included future Congressman John J. Perry.

Pierce read law briefly with former New Hampshire Governor Levi Woodbury, a family friend in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He then spent a semester at Northampton Law School in Northampton, Massachusetts, followed by a period of study in 1826 and 1827 under Judge Edmund Parker in Amherst, New Hampshire. He was admitted to the New Hampshire bar in late 1827 and began to practice in Hillsborough. He lost his first case, but soon proved capable as a lawyer. Despite never being a legal scholar, his memory for names and faces served him well, as did his personal charm and deep voice. In Hillsborough, his law partner was Albert Baker, who had studied law under Pierce and was the brother of Mary Baker Eddy.

Marriage and children

Pious and reserved, Jane Pierce was her husband's opposite in many ways.

On November 19, 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton (March 12, 1806 – December 2, 1863), the daughter of Jesse Appleton, a Congregational minister and former president of Bowdoin College, and Elizabeth Means. The Appletons were prominent Whigs, in contrast with the Pierces' Democratic affiliation. Jane Pierce was shy, devoutly religious, and pro-temperance, encouraging Pierce to abstain from alcohol. She was somewhat gaunt, and constantly ill from tuberculosis and psychological ailments. She abhorred politics and especially disliked Washington, D.C., creating a tension that would continue throughout Pierce's political ascent.

Jane Pierce disliked Hillsborough as well, and in 1838, the Pierces relocated to the state capital, Concord, New Hampshire. They had three sons, all of whom died in childhood. Franklin Jr. (February 2–5, 1836) died in infancy, while Frank Robert (August 27, 1839 – November 14, 1843) died at the age of four from epidemic typhus. Benjamin (April 13, 1841 – January 6, 1853) died at the age of 11 in a train accident.

Presidency

When Franklin Pierce departed New Hampshire for the inauguration, Jane Pierce chose to remain. Pierce, then the youngest man to be elected president, chose to affirm his oath of office on a law book rather than swear it on a Bible, as all his predecessors except John Quincy Adams had done. He was the first president to deliver his inaugural address from memory. In the address he hailed an era of peace and prosperity at home and urged a vigorous assertion of U.S. interests in its foreign relations, including the "eminently important" acquisition of new territories. "The policy of my Administration", said the new president, "will not be deterred by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion." Avoiding the word "slavery", he emphasized his desire to put the "important subject" to rest and maintain a peaceful union. He alluded to his own personal tragedy, telling the crowd, "You have summoned me in my weakness, you must sustain me by your strength."

 

Administration and political strife

In his Cabinet appointments, Pierce sought to unite a party that was squabbling over the fruits of victory. Most in the party had not originally supported him for the nomination, and some had allied with the Free Soil party to gain victory in local elections. Pierce decided to allow each of the party's factions some appointments, even those that had not supported the Compromise of 1850.

All of Pierce's cabinet nominations were unanimously and immediately confirmed by the Senate. Pierce spent the first few weeks of his term sorting through hundreds of lower-level federal positions to be filled. This was a chore, as he sought to represent all factions of the party, and could fully satisfy none of them. Partisans found themselves unable to secure positions for their friends, which put the Democratic Party on edge and fueled bitterness between factions. Before long, northern newspapers accused Pierce of filling his government with pro-slavery secessionists, while southern newspapers accused him of abolitionism.

Factionalism between the pro- and anti-administration Democrats ramped up quickly, especially within the New York Democratic Party. The more conservative Hardshell Democrats or "Hards" of New York were deeply skeptical of the Pierce administration, which was associated with Marcy (who became Secretary of State) and the more moderate New York faction, the Softshell Democrats or "Softs".

Buchanan had urged Pierce to consult Vice President-elect King in selecting the Cabinet, but Pierce did not do so—Pierce and King had not communicated since they had been selected as candidates in June 1852. By the start of 1853, King was severely ill with tuberculosis, and went to Cuba to recuperate. His condition deteriorated, and Congress passed a special law, allowing him to be sworn in before the American consul in Havana on March 24. Wanting to die at home, he returned to his plantation in Alabama on April 17 and died the next day. The office of vice president remained vacant for the remainder of Pierce's term, as the Constitution then had no provision for filling the vacancy. This extended vacancy meant that for nearly the entirety of Pierce's presidency the Senate President pro tempore, initially David Atchison of Missouri, was next in line to the presidency.

Pierce sought to run a more efficient and accountable government than his predecessors. His Cabinet members implemented an early system of civil service examinations which was a forerunner to the Pendleton Act passed three decades later. The Interior Department was reformed by Secretary Robert McClelland, who systematized its operations, expanded the use of paper records, and pursued fraud. Another of Pierce's reforms was to expand the role of the U.S. attorney general in appointing federal judges and attorneys, which was an important step in the eventual development of the Justice Department. There was a vacancy on the Supreme Court—Fillmore, having failed to get Senate confirmation for his nominees, had offered it to newly elected Louisiana Senator Judah P. Benjamin, who had declined. Pierce also offered the seat to Benjamin, and when the Louisianan persisted in his refusal, nominated instead John Archibald Campbell, an advocate of states' rights; this would be Pierce's only Supreme Court appointment.

Later life

Post-presidency

After leaving the White House, the Pierces remained in Washington for more than two months, staying with former Secretary of State Marcy. Buchanan altered course from the Pierce administration, replacing all of his appointees. The Pierces eventually moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where Pierce had begun to speculate in property. Seeking warmer weather, he and Jane spent the next three years traveling, beginning with a stay in Madeira and followed by tours of Europe and the Bahamas. In Rome, he visited Nathaniel Hawthorne; the two men spent much time together and the author found the retired president as buoyant as ever.

Pierce never lost sight of politics during his travels, commenting regularly on the nation's growing sectional conflict. He insisted that northern abolitionists stand down to avoid a southern secession, writing that the bloodshed of a civil war would "not be along Mason and Dixon's line merely", but "within our own borders in our own streets". He also criticized New England Protestant ministers, who largely supported abolition and Republican candidates, for their "heresy and treason". The rise of the Republican Party forced the Democrats to defend Pierce; during his debates with Republican Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln in 1858, Douglas called the former president "a man of integrity and honor".

As the Democratic Convention of 1860 approached, some asked Pierce to run as a compromise candidate that could unite the fractured party, but Pierce refused. As Douglas struggled to attract southern support, Pierce backed Cushing and then Breckinridge as potential alternatives, but his priority was a united Democratic Party. The split Democrats were soundly defeated for the presidency by the Republican candidate, Lincoln. In the months between Lincoln's election, and his inauguration on March 4, 1861, Pierce looked on as several southern states began plans to secede. He was asked by Justice Campbell to travel to Alabama and address that state's secession convention. Due to illness he declined, but sent a letter appealing to the people of Alabama to remain in the Union, and give the North time to repeal laws against southern interests and to find common ground.

Final years and death

Pierce's drinking impaired his health in his last years, but he grew increasingly spiritual. He had a brief relationship with an unknown woman in mid-1865. During this time, he used his influence to improve the treatment of Davis, now a prisoner at Fortress Monroe in Virginia. He also offered financial help to Hawthorne's son Julian, as well as to his own nephews. On the second anniversary of Jane's death, Pierce was baptized into his wife's Episcopal faith at St. Paul's Church in Concord. He found this church to be less political than his former Congregational denomination, which had alienated Democrats with anti-slavery rhetoric. He took up the life of an "old farmer", as he called himself, buying up property, drinking less, farming the land himself, and hosting visiting relatives. He spent most of his time in Concord and his cottage at Little Boar's Head on the coast, sometimes visiting Jane's relatives in Massachusetts. Still interested in politics, he expressed support for Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction policy and supported the president's acquittal in his impeachment trial; he later expressed optimism for Johnson's successor, Ulysses S. Grant.

Pierce's health began to decline again in mid-1869; he resumed heavy drinking despite his deteriorating physical condition. He returned to Concord that September, suffering from severe cirrhosis of the liver, knowing he would not recover. A caretaker was hired; none of his family members were present in his final days. He died at 4:35 am on October 8. President 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. Pierce was interred next to his wife and two of his sons in the Minot enclosure at Concord's Old North Cemetery.

In his last will, which he signed January 22, 1868, Pierce left a large number of specific bequests such as paintings, swords, horses, and other items to friends, family, and neighbors. Much of his $72,000 estate (equal to $1,360,000 today) went to his brother Henry's family, and to Hawthorne's children and Pierce's landlady. Henry's son Frank Pierce received the largest share.

 

Franklin Pierce

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