Books: “Franklin Pierce”

June 13, 2010

FRANKLIN PIERCE

When I was a kid, a bubble gum company came out with a line of president cards which I guess were intended as the nerd’s alternative to baseball cards. I was into baseball – including the cards – but I was also into history. Also, my Dad owned a grocery store, so I had easy access to whatever the gum companies were peddling.

I recall sitting across from my father at the kitchen table. He held the president cards, arranged in chronological order, and I would try to list them from memory. I can still hear him saying one night when I got stuck somewhere in the latter 19th century: “C’mon! What street does your Aunt Ida live on?” The answer was Garfield Place, as in James A.

It occurred to me at that young age – it was during Dwight Eisenhower’s first administration – that Franklin Pierce had the best-looking face on those cards.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

Pierce is the subject of a new little biography – part of a Time Books series on the presidents. This one is written by Michael F. Holt, a history professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on the political life of the country in the years leading up to the Civil War. Sure enough, Holt points out that Pierce was not only handsome, but charming and warm hearted as well. Unfortunately, those qualities carried a lot more weight in the internal politics of Democratic New Hampshire than they did when spread out over a nation that was on the verge of committing suicide over the issue of expanding slavery into the western territories.

In fact, Pierce was nominated for the presidency in 1852 not so much because his party thought he was the Man of the Hour but because the party couldn’t muster a winning vote for any of the three leading candidates – one of whom was not Pierce. He was the original Dark Horse, as far as the presidency of the United States was concerned.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

Pierce actually showed some skill in managing the foreign affairs of the country, and he directed the Gadsden Purchase, which was the last major territorial acquisition in what is now the contiguous 48 states. But the crisis of the moment had to do with whether the institution of slavery was going to migrate west along with settlers – an argument that many thought had been closed with the Compromise of 1820. Pierce’s attitude on this issue was complex. First of all, he was a strict constructionist, meaning that he didn’t believe the federal government had any right to interfere in the internal affairs of states, including slavery. Pierce was not pro-slavery per se, but he believed that as long as slavery was protected by the Constitution, the federal government had no right to intrude.

JEFFERSON DAVIS

Pierce was also fiercely determined to hold the Union together, and that inspired his  loathing of the abolition movement. He considered abolitionists fanatics whose shenanigans were threatening the solidarity of the nation. And so, Pierce was a New Englander who consistently supported the Southern slave-holding oligarchy.

Another error in Pierce’s thinking, Holt explains, was an attempt to unify the Democratic party – which was suffering regional and philosophical tensions – by doling out federal patronage jobs to men who represented the whole spectrum of opinion. Among other things, he appointed his friend Jefferson Davis – soon to be president of the Confederacy – as Secretary of War, a move that did not endear Pierce to northern interests that despised and feared the southern plantation establishment. Rather than unifying the party, this policy succeeded in irritating just about everybody but those who got lucrative or influential positions.

JANE PIERCE

Pierce made enough mistakes that he was denied re-nomination by his own party. He was gracious in defeat, Holt reports, but he had to have been sorely disappointed. Among those who probably was not disappointed at all was the president’s wife, Jane Appleton Pierce, who had no patience with politics or life in the capital. In fact, when a rider caught up with the Pierces’ carriage to report that Pierce had been nominated for president, Jane fainted dead away. The poor woman was shy and fragile, and she and her husband endured a series of tragedies that unfortunately were not uncommon in the mid 19th century. They had three sons. Two died at very young ages and the third was killed when a railroad car in which the parents and child were riding left the track and overturned. Holt mentions that although Pierce did not approve of Abraham Lincoln’s policies, he wrote Lincoln a heartfelt note of sympathy when one of Lincoln’s sons died in the White House.

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE

Pierce was a heavy drinker – a problem drinker, actually – during much of his life, including the years after Jane died in 1863.

An interesting aspect of Pierce’s life was his compassion for other people – the most prominent of whom may have been Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Pierce met while a student at Bowdoin College. The men were so close that when Hawthorne sensed that he was dying he asked to spend some of his last days with Pierce. Although Hawthorne could travel only with difficulty, Pierce accommodated him and set off with him on a trip that was to be Hawthorne’s last. Pierce found the writer dead in a room at a hotel where the two men had stopped on their journey. Pierce, who was well off, included Hawthorne’s children in his  own will.

Pierce is consistently ranked as one of the least effective, or “worst,” of American presidents. But life isn’t lived on historians’ templates; it is lived between the ground and the sky in specific times and places and under specific and complex conditions. Calling a man one of the “worst” in any realm might have as much to do with what we expect of him at a comfortable distance than it has to do with the choices and challenges that confronted that man in his  own circumstances. When Abraham Lincoln had been murdered, an angry crowd approached Pierce’s home demanding to know why he wasn’t displaying a flag. Pierce pointed out that his father, Benjamin, had fought in the Revolution, his brothers in the War of 1812, and he himself in the Mexican War: “If the period during which I have served our state and country in various situations, commencing more than thirty-five years ago, have left the question of my devotion to the flag, the Constitution, and the Union in doubt, it is too late now to remove it.”

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5 Responses to “Books: “Franklin Pierce””

  1. Steve Frank Says:

    Great job as always. Interesting last sentence on the eve of Flag Day. Was this a coincidence?

  2. bronxboy55 Says:

    Thank you for a very informative piece about one of the lesser-known presidents. You’re right, of course: we judge historical figures from our perspective, rather than from the times in which they lived. Some of the presidents now considered great weren’t necessarily thought of that way when they were alive. And some who are now all but forgotten were much loved and admired during their lifetimes.

    Your posts are always well-researched, balanced, and fair. Thanks again.

  3. charlespaolino Says:

    We do tend to use a narrow focus when regarding former presidents. I have been a student of Andrew Johnson for most of my life, and he provides a good illustration. Overall, his career was an example of how a determined person could overcome a lack of advantages to build a successful private life and a record of public service. The fact that Johnson wound up as Lincoln’s vice president was a result of his willingness to stand with the Union while the rest of the southern congressional delegation participated in secession. Johnson and his family suffered considerably because of his decision, and he put himself in harm’s way by accepting appointment as military governor of Tennessee, in which capacity he personally directed the defense of Nashville. No one, including Johnson, anticipated that he would abruptly succeed Lincoln, and Johnson clearly was not equipped to handle the complex issues of the moment. Inasmuch as he was a Democrat who ran on a fusion ticket and was confronted with an aggressive Republican Congress, he might not have succeeded anyway, regardless of his skills. Today he is often excoriated, perhaps properly so, for his bullheaded approach to Reconstruction — and inaccurately labeled a drunk — as though the rest of his remarkable life had never occurred.

  4. bronxboy55 Says:

    For a long time, Johnson’s one sentence description was “The only president to be impeached,” or something to that effect. Again, as if that summed up his entire life. I wonder if that’s what it said on the back of his bubble gum card.

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