Franklin Pierce: Martyr For the Union
Author: Peter A. Wallner
Release Date: 2007
From 1860 to 1865, half of America went to war against the other half, and nearly three quarters of a million people died in the process, In 2017, Donald Trump asked why the Civil War could not have been avoided. I bring up both of those facts because finishing up the second part of this biography series on Franklin Pierce spends a great deal of time on the eight years leading up to the Civil War, four of which Pierce was in office as president. Certainly there is plenty to be found here in terms of causes for the Civil War.
In rankings of the best to worst presidents, guys like Pierce, Fillmore, and Buchanan are justifiably ranked near the bottom, however each came into office with issues that presented choices that would anger one half of the country into possible battle. I mentioned in my Millard Fillmore review that northern presidents of this era came off worse than southern ones in historical retrospect and that continues significantly here. The reason for that is that each compromise the presidents took to preserve “harmony” was to appease the southern slave states. Pierce went well beyond Fillmore in his support for the south however, and through fourteen presidents he was by far the worst individual to hold office (though Buchanan looks to be even worse).
Here’s how he scores up on my presidential ratings rubric:
Born into – Pierce’s father was a Revolutionary War soldier who made himself successful farmer afterward and then a tavern owner. Pierce had several siblings, but was born to his father’s second wife (named Anna Kendrick, who was also referenced in Scrappy Little Nobody which I read while I was reading the first volume of this biography set), who gave birth to Franklin Pierce as the 5th of eight children. Pierce’s father eventually became sheriff, and used that as a platform to eventually become governor of New Hampshire (while Pierce was in college). 2/5
Pre-President – Pierce was not a great student at first, being last in class after two years at Bowdoin College, before buckling down and finishing 5th out of 17. Like so many presidents before him, he became a lawyer after college. His political career began when he was elected to state legislature, becoming the youngest ever speaker of House in New Hampshire. While in the House, he voted to curtail a number of news papers that had been funded by the government to print laws; in actuality this measure was actually a shrewd manner of eliminating non-Democrat news papers. Pierce would continue to act with the best interests of the Democrat party ahead of those of the people in his state in country throughout his political career. Pierce also spent some time in the military during the Mexican American War, which provided no moments of great account for Pierce and possibly some aspersions of cowardice that would follow him around throughout his career.
Pierce followed his state service up with eight years in United States House of Representatives. While there he did not support Gag Order on discussing slavery, even though he was against abolition. I mention this because this is pretty much the only time in his political career he did something that was not the prime wishes of the southern democrats. Like Andrew Jackson, Pierce was involved in a duel that killed another member of the House of Representative, however rather than fighting in it he assisted in finding “a second” for the duel. Due to his limited role, he managed to escape the wrath of congress afterward unlike the rest of the participants.
Pierce became a Senator next, but retired partially into his only term as he wanted to go back home. His only real impact as Senator was involvement in vetting claims for Revolutionary War Pensions. Back in New Hampshire, Pierce focused on directing the path of the state Democrat party. While there his main political rivalry was with John Hale. Hale (an idealist, willing to break from party on issues if needed) versus Pierce (follow the party position on all matters) was the most interesting contrast of politicians in the first volume by Wallner. It was still fairly amazing he emerged as presidential candidate after years as the unofficial leader of Democrat party in New Hampshire, and as a dark horse candidate he even puts famous dark horse Polk to shame. Essentially it happened by Pierce becaming a compromise pick, everybody’s second choice at Democrat convention. None of the front runners saw him coming and he secured nomination rather quickly once he was presented as a candidate. As the candidate, he won in a landslide victory winning all but four states, albeit with a very low voter turnout. 3/5.
Presidential Career – Pierce’s first acts were all attempted to represent all factions of the Democratic Party in his cabinet. I thought this was admirable, not quite as much as Washington on Monroe welcoming different party views, but admirable still. Those that he ended up selecting ended up being the only cabinet (as of the writing of book) to remain the same for entire presidency. Pierce gave more responsibilities to his attorney general that had previously been done (those had belonged to Secretary of State) and created the modern justice department as a result. His first crisis/headline involved a man named Koszta who lived in America but was wanted by Hungary for his role in inciting a revolution; Pierce held strong and Hungary eventually relinquished their demand for him.
Pierce’s policy of spreading out appointments and patronage began losing him favor immediately; it cost him support particularly in New York where the “Hard” portion of the party’s appointed leader disregarded Pierce’s instructions and screwed the “Soft” and “Barnburner” democrat portions. Pierce set precedent by removing the culprit with that as the cause. Often Pierce’s ideas were good but the execution was poor. In one instance he sent an individual to finalize the Mexican border with Santa Anna; the problem being the man he sent was also an interested party in a citizen claim affected in that area. The man of course leveraged his claim into the treaty and insinuated that was Pierce’s wish as well, however Pierce did have that portion removed before submitting it to the Senate for approval. The Senate (rife with corruption and special interests at the time) reinstated it plus added other private claims.
The most famous act in Pierce’s presidency is the Kansas Nebraska act. Overturning the Missouri compromise, the act could lead to the first expansion of slavery into the north. It was supported by Pierce, which contradicted his inaugural statements that he would not agitate the slavery question. Wallner argues that non-support of the act would have had same effect towards Civil War. Pierce did not just support the act, he bribed it into existence by promising jobs to 13 House of Representatives members if they changed their vote. In the mid-terms, twelve of the thirteen were voted out of office as a result and needed them (a theme for the entire Democrat party in the midterms). Pierce also returned more fugitive slaves than any other president during his four years in office (although the length of his term versus everybody but Polk from this era makes this an unfair statement). Kansas remained the biggest issue throughout Pierce’s term. Called “Bleeding Kansas” by the press, pro and anti-slavery groups moved to the territory to try and establish a voting block on the slavery issue, and violence and voter fraud issues were common. For a time, two separate governments ended up being set up in the territory.
Pierce continued his bribing ways when he authorized $5,000 for use to persuade Canadians for a favorable settlement in a fisheries dispute. Secretary of State William Marcy was troubled by this as however Pierce did not hesistate. Once again miscommunications was a problem, as the Canadian ambassador ended up spending tens of thousands more than authorized. Another instance of this was an ambassador sent to Spain did not understand what was meant by “detaching” Cuba from Spain and failed to present the option that Pierce had intended.
Pierce focused much of his attention on foreign affairs, probably to deflect from his poor handling of issues at home. The Crimean War was occurring in Europe at the same time, but had little effect for Pierce aside from him authorizing sending three military officers to observe military tactics of multiple European armies. Pierce focused the most on British involvement in Nicaragua in speeches and inside the office. This may have had to do with Pierce’s view of the office of presidency, as he vetoed so many bills for internal improvements (which were then overturned by congress) that foreign policy was one of the only areas left for a president to make an impact. The result for all this intrigue was the Dallas-Clarendon treaty which would have Great Britain exit central America with the exception of Belize. However after all the time spend on the issue, the treaty was not passed until Pierce was out of office, at which point it was modified so much that Britain rejected it. Pierce did support the transatlantic cable, one of his positive legacies in addition to building additional Navy ships and modernizing the army prior to exiting office.
Some interesting random notes from during his presidential years.
- William Atherton (one of Pierce’s best friends and a loyal politician) died unexpectedly and left $8,000 in his will to Pierce. Scholars later found out it was for the care of his secret family and lovechild. Certainly an oddity for a sitting president to have to deal with.
- Brigham Young was appointed Territorial governor of Utah and caused problems by showing his power was greater than that of the national government, even colluding with Indians against the army. Pierce made the political move of appointing somebody else to take Young’s place that would end up declining the offer, thus not showing endorsement of Young or polygamy but also not removing him from power in Utah either.
- Pierce lost the presidential nomination to James Buchanan and never had any momentum in his favor. He is the only president who sought reelection to be denied nomination by his party.
Vice President – Vice president William R. King died very early in office, was never replaced as there was no mechanism for it at that time. .5/5
First Lady – Jane Appleton was one of the most intriguing first ladies, but not in a good way. Wallner did not seem to be a fan of her, citing statements that Jane Appleton Pierce’s only redeeming quality was keeping Pierce sober. More than anything, she seemed a tragic figure. Jane and Franklin had three children, one died at three days old, one died at four years old, and the last died at eleven years old. The last one was particularly sad, as he died when Pierce was on way to Washington with his family via train. The train crashed, and Pierce’s son Benjamin was thrown. When Pierce went up to him he thought he was unconscious but discovered the back of Benjamin’s head was missing. This drove his wife into grieving, and led to a fight 48 hours before inauguration where she told him not to worry about politics. She also decided not to give him lock of hair from Benjamin to wear at inauguration which she had previously saved. Jane remained in mourning for entire first year. In addition to being described as sad she was also mentioned as controlling, known for criticizing Pierce for his mannerisms (i.e. keeping his hands in his pockets) or for inability to resist alcohol at dinner. After he death, Pierce made comments to a writer about his wife indicating his favorite thing about his wife that that she needed him to take care of her due to always being ill. Interestingly enough, Pierce’s friendship with writer Nathaniel Hawthorne seemed more emotional than his relationship with his wife (or siblings). I’ll give her a decent score here for being memorable, though she stayed out of any roles as a First Lady. 3.5/5.
Post Presidency – Pierce didn’t take any official roles in politics after he left the office of president. Instead he spent time traveling with his wife across American and Europe. Pierce’s cabinet stayed loyal to him after office he left office, particularly Jefferson Davis. Unlike prior presidents that I’ve read about, there was a story of Pierce drinking all night with a friend and spending $30 unaccounted for in area known for gambling and brothels. It seems like every president that’s been alive four years after their loss has been asked to run again, and Pierce was no exception after the disaster of the Buchanan administration. Pierce continued to make “pro-National” speeches, chastising abolitionists. Wallner glosses over his repeated statements that whites and Africans are not equals regardless of how the law characterized them. This went on throughout the Civil War, as Pierce and other democrats remained critical of Lincoln and abolition until victory in Atlanta assured Lincoln victory. 1.5/5
Book itself – I enjoyed the second volume of Wallner’s biography better than the first, as it focused more on this fascinating time in American history. Throughout the two volumes however, there were some things that did not work as well other biographies that I’ve read. Stories of Pierce as a lawyer were full of hyperbole (there was even a part talking about how everybody would be weeping after his closing arguments were finished). Wallner also frequently made excuses for Pierce, such as his frequent use of bribes (“it shows how important Pierce felt the issue was”) or using patronage to sway votes (“what president before or after would not have done the same thing?”). However Wallner also includes some fun critical comments of Pierce such as the critics of his drinking’s nickname for Pierce as the “Hero of many well-fought bottle.” Possible military cowardice was also mentioned, however like Pierce’s drinking Wallner mainly mentions that the critics said it more than analyzing how much truth there was to it. Overall as good as can be expected on the subject, but not one of the best biographies I’ve read so far.3/5