Franklin Pierce (American Presidents Series)by Michael F. Holt
The genial but troubled New Englander whose single-minded partisan loyalties inflamed the nation's simmering battle over slavery
Charming and handsome, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire was drafted to break the deadlock of the 1852 Democratic convention. Though he seized the White House in a landslide against the imploding Whig Party, he proved a dismal failure… See more details below
The genial but troubled New Englander whose single-minded partisan loyalties inflamed the nation's simmering battle over slavery
Charming and handsome, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire was drafted to break the deadlock of the 1852 Democratic convention. Though he seized the White House in a landslide against the imploding Whig Party, he proved a dismal failure in office.
Michael F. Holt, a leading historian of nineteenth-century partisan politics, argues that in the wake of the Whig collapse, Pierce was consumed by an obsessive drive to unify his splintering party rather than the roiling country. He soon began to overreach. Word leaked that Pierce wanted Spain to sell the slave-owning island of Cuba to the United States, rousing sectional divisions. Then he supported repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which limited the expansion of slavery in the west. Violence broke out, and "Bleeding Kansas" spurred the formation of the Republican Party. By the end of his term, Pierce's beloved party had ruptured, and he lost the nomination to James Buchanan.
In this incisive account, Holt shows how a flawed leader, so dedicated to his party and ill-suited for the presidency, hastened the approach of the Civil War.
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The American Presidents
By Michael F. Holt, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sean Wilentz
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2010 Michael F. Holt
All rights reserved.
A Precocious Start
Franklin Pierce was born on November 23, 1804, in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. He was the sixth child of Anna Kendrick Pierce and General Benjamin Pierce, who also had a daughter from a previous marriage. Pierce later described his mother as affectionate and endlessly forgiving of his youthful hijinks, but it was his far sterner father, the most influential man in Hillsborough County, who had the greater impact on him. A native of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, Benjamin Pierce had enlisted in the Continental army as a teenager as soon as he heard about the fighting at Lexington and Concord. He fought in the battles of Breed's Hill and Ticonderoga, among others, and spent the winter with George Washington at Valley Forge. He was mustered out of the army with a medal from Washington, and at the rank of lieutenant, in 1784. In short, he had the credentials of a Revolutionary War hero, and his war stories inspired young Franklin with a desire to emulate his father's military service. That two of his older brothers as well as his half sister's husband fought in the War of 1812 intensified this yen.
His reputation as a war hero served Benjamin Pierce well when he moved to the frontier town of Hillsborough in western New Hampshire in 1786. Not only would he quickly become the commanding general of the state's militia, but he was also elected to several terms as the county's sheriff, where he became famous for his generosity toward jailed debtors. He also sat on the governor's council. In the late 1820s, he served two one-year terms as governor of the state. Benjamin Pierce was a Jeffersonian Republican who loathed Federalists as elitist snobs, and that hatred deepened when a Federalist majority in the state legislature purged him from the office of sheriff after he had defied an order from a Federalist judge.
Frank Pierce was hardly a bookish youth. He loved the outdoors and enjoyed roughhousing, swimming, fishing, and ice skating far more than lessons in school. Even as a boy he evinced the personal charm that would smooth his political rise. He was his playmates' ringleader, and adults, especially adult women, found him an altogether winning lad — honest, polite, and poised. To put it differently — and perhaps more ominously — from boyhood on Pierce was eager to please other people. Pierce did not like school, but his father, who lacked a formal education of his own, was determined that his sons attend college. Thus Pierce was dispatched to a series of academies outside Hillsborough to learn Latin and Greek in preparation for the required college entrance exams. One of Pierce's older brothers had attended West Point and another Dartmouth College. When the time came to send Frank off to college, however, Federalists controlled Dartmouth, and Benjamin Pierce would not consider it. He determined instead to send Frank to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.
Pierce and his parents arrived in Brunswick for the beginning of the 1820 fall term several months before Frank's sixteenth birthday. Bowdoin was then a very small college, but it attracted an astonishing number of young men destined for national eminence. William Pitt Fessenden, the future Whig and Republican U.S. senator from Maine, was in the class ahead of Pierce's, and James Bradbury, a future Democratic senator from Maine, was in the student body at the same time. John P. Hale, who would later run against Pierce for president, was a freshman when Pierce was a senior. Calvin Stowe, the future husband of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was valedictorian of Pierce's class. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was in the class of 1825, and two other members of that class would play important roles in Pierce's future life. One was Jonathan Cilley of New Hampshire, later a Democratic congressman who lived in the same boarding house with Pierce in Washington during one of his congressional terms. The other was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who remained Pierce's lifelong friend and who would write a campaign biography for him in 1852.
While he struggled with mathematics, Pierce's training in classical languages served him well — indeed too well — during his first years at Bowdoin. The cold fact is that during his first two years, Pierce played far more than he studied. He frequently skipped mandatory recitation periods in order to hike in the nearby woods or fish in nearby streams. In the dormitory at night, when solitary study was the prescribed regimen, Pierce was famous for bursting into other students' rooms to start furniture-smashing wrestling matches. He usually won those contests. Ten years later, a fellow Democratic state legislator with whom Pierce tussled described him as "the most powerful man of his size I know of." Wrestling was not Pierce's only nighttime activity in those first years at Bowdoin. In violation of the school's rules, Pierce and his closest pals snuck out of the dorm to frequent a Brunswick tavern.
Heavy drinking and Pierce's name go together like a horse and carriage, and years later his political opponents would label him a drunkard. In the 1820s, young men were as likely as those today to seek amusement and drink heavily in bars, and there seems little doubt that the gregarious and fun-loving Pierce enjoyed socializing with his friends. From his perspective, not to do so would be an insult to those friends. It appears that his tolerance for alcoholic intake was low and that he often became riotously giddy much sooner than his drinking partners. But there is no evidence that Pierce's drinking sprees impaired his mental faculties once he had sobered up. Some of Pierce's behavior then and especially after he left the White House suggests that he suffered from alcoholism, but at this distance in time it is impossible to render a definitive diagnosis.
As a result of Pierce's carefree behavior, he ranked dead last academically in his class by the end of his sophomore year at Bowdoin. When he learned of his embarrassing status, he determined to reform. Gone were the hikes in the woods and the evenings in the tavern. Instead of copying other students' work to turn in as his own as he had done for two years, he arose at 4 A.M. every morning to hit the books. Overseeing this transformation to academic self-discipline was a new member of his class, a devout Methodist from Maine named Zenas Caldwell, who brought Pierce home with him during the midwinter break. In his senior year, Pierce roomed with the sober-minded Caldwell, and with the help of his strict supervision the onetime dunce graduated fifth in his class, now reduced to fourteen students, and had the honor of delivering a seven-minute disquisition in Latin at graduation in August 1824.
Pierce was far too fun-loving and far too addicted to outdoor exercise, however, to become a total bookworm. In the spring of his junior year he organized a military company called the Bowdoin Cadets, which "Captain" Pierce led in marching drills around the campus. Like most colleges in that day, Bowdoin boasted rival debating societies, and during Pierce's senior year, the impending presidential election of 1824 became the focus of their competition. One of these societies proclaimed the merits of John Quincy Adams, while, tellingly, Pierce's club touted those of Andrew Jackson.
After graduation Pierce returned to his parents' house in Hillsborough and began to read law with a local attorney. He moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the spring of 1825 to study in the office of Levi Woodbury and, after Woodbury left to serve in the U.S. Senate, to another lawyer in Northampton, Massachusetts. He completed his legal studies in Amherst, New Hampshire, the Hillsborough county seat, and was admitted to the bar there in September 1827, two months shy of his twenty-third birthday. He then returned to Hillsborough to start his practice.
The interest Pierce developed in national politics at Bowdoin quickened during his months in Portsmouth, a former Federalist and now pro-Adams bastion. Like other supporters of Andrew Jackson, Pierce was infuriated by the so-called Corrupt Bargain that had placed Adams in the White House. He sympathized with the efforts of Woodbury and Isaac Hill, a Concord editor, to organize a pro-Jackson opposition party. "A Republic without parties is a complete anomaly," he wrote a friend. "The citizens are convinced that Jeffersonian principles are the principles for a free people, and I trust they have no notion of renouncing their faith."
Pierce put these beliefs into practice when he returned to Hillsborough. In 1827 his father was elected governor for the first time with no organized opposition, but in 1828, the presidential election year, pro-Adams men rallied to stop his reelection. Frank Pierce campaigned aggressively for his father. He helped organize a pro-Jackson demonstration on the anniversary of Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans in January. Two months later, Frank made his formal political debut at the annual Hillsborough town meeting. Town meetings in New Hampshire did more than discuss local affairs. They also cast votes each year for state officials and, in odd years, for U.S. congressmen. Hillsborough, like many other New Hampshire towns, was divided between Adams and Jackson men. To the surprise of many, Jacksonians elected young Frank Pierce moderator of the meeting, as they would during the next five successive years. That, however, was the only Pierce victory that March. Benjamin's bid for reelection failed, an accurate portent of Jackson's defeat in New Hampshire in the presidential election the following November. Yet Benjamin, now openly aligned with the Jacksonians, would win the governorship again in March 1829, and at the Hillsborough town meeting that year Franklin Pierce, barely twenty-four years old, was unanimously elected to the state legislature. The town meeting repeated that choice over the next three years, and in the final two of them Pierce's admiring colleagues in the state house of representatives elected him their Speaker.
* * *
Pierce's interest in politics, devotion to Jeffersonian principles, and deep commitment to the new Jacksonian Democratic Party endured for the remainder of his life. Nonetheless, he had studied law to earn a living, not to run for office. Initially his practice was confined primarily to the semiannual sessions of the county court of common pleas in Amherst. He lost his first case there in the spring of 1828, but gradually he developed into a very successful advocate. Pierce lacked an incisive legal mind, but he had other attributes that served him well in the civil and criminal cases he argued before juries. He displayed a prodigious memory for names and faces, a trait that obviously benefited him in his political career as well. He could address individual jurors by name when pleading cases, and he would remember those names for years thereafter. He had a deep, rich voice, again a trait that helped his political career because his audience could actually hear his unamplified voice at political rallies. Most important, he exuded a personal charm, an amiable temperament, and an instinctive human empathy. Pierce directed his arguments to the emotions of jurors, not to their collective logic, and he usually won.
The state legislature met in Concord each June, between the semiannual sessions of the court of common pleas, and occasionally in November and December, after the fall session. Much of the legislature's business was so humdrum that no one even bothered to demand roll-call votes. The public policy issues that evoked partisan conflict between the Adams men, who referred to themselves as National Republicans after Adams's defeat by Jackson in 1828, and the fledgling Jacksoni-ans were primarily economic: the role of government in constructing internal improvements such as turnpikes, canals, and railroads; the incorporation of, and the privileges awarded to shareholders in, corporations, especially those that absolved them from any responsibility for companies' debts; and banking and paper money. Indeed, most partisan conflict between 1834 and 1856, what historians call the Second American Party System, was fueled by these issues.
In New Hampshire, these questions, especially those surrounding the chartering of banks and railroad companies, had a regional dimension. The coastal towns of southeastern New Hampshire were the first settled in the state, had once been Federalist strongholds, and were closely aligned with business interests in Boston. They had financial stakes in locating banks in and pushing railroad tracks to the more recently settled western and northern regions of the state. Many residents of those western and northern areas, in turn, viewed Boston-owned banks and especially Boston-owned railroads as outside imperial monopolists that would gut farming folk for their own distant profit. The legislative tussles over these issues catalyzed Franklin Pierce's commitment to what would soon develop into Jacksonian orthodoxy: opposition to any government subsidization of economic development, to corporate privilege, and to paper-money banking.
Beyond the reinforcement of these rigid policy stances, however, something more important was happening in New Hampshire between 1829 and 1832. Benjamin Pierce's reelection as governor as an avowed Jackson man in 1829 heralded New Hampshire's transition from a competitive state to a granite-ribbed Democratic one. In 1832, when his primary opponent was the Kentuckian Henry Clay, rather than the New Englander Adams, Andrew Jackson would carry New Hampshire, and from that date until the mid-1850s New Hampshire would remain the most reliably Democratic state in the North. During Pierce's four brief terms in the state legislature, New Hampshire became the political anomaly of New England, certainly an anomaly compared to its neighbors to the south and west. Not only would Massachusetts and Vermont become veritable fortresses of Whiggery, but both, especially Vermont, were swept by the Antimasonic tornado in the late 1820s and early 1830s. From 1831 to 1837, indeed, Antimasons won every annual gubernatorial election in Vermont, and it was the only state carried by the Antimasonic candidate for president in 1832. By contrast, Antimasons had negligible sway in New Hampshire, although they did manage to run a separate congressional ticket in 1833 that helped divide those who opposed the dominant Democrats.
One of the most important — if also most mystifying — political phenomena of the 1820s and 1830s, the Antimasonic Party represented a populistic grassroots protest movement against the purported legal, economic, social, and political privileges of members of Masonic lodges vis-à-vis nonmembers or outsiders. Its political goals were to purge Masons from elective and appointive public offices and then to eradicate Masonry altogether by stripping Masonic lodges of their state charters and making membership in the fraternity a criminal offense. Confined primarily to northeastern states, it attracted those who harbored grievances against the dominant party or faction of each particular state, whether it was the friends of Adams in Vermont and Massachusetts or those of Andrew Jackson in New York and Pennsylvania.
Because the economies, topography, and mix of religious denominations were so similar in Vermont and neighboring New Hampshire, historians have long been puzzled about why Antimasons were so strong in the former and so weak in the latter. One answer may be the stark difference in the competitive balance between Adams men (i.e., National Republicans) and Jacksonians in the two states. In 1828 Adams won 75 percent of Vermont's popular vote compared to Jackson's meager 25 percent. In New Hampshire, in contrast, Adams edged Jackson 52 percent to 48 percent. For those opposed to National Republicans who controlled both states, a new party may have seemed far more necessary in lopsided Vermont than in closely contested New Hampshire.
Franklin Pierce benefited markedly from New Hampshire's unique political trajectory. Because the 250 members of the state legislature assembled in Concord in June, rival state parties held their state conventions there that month so that members of the legislature could represent their home districts. Until the mid-1840s, New Hampshire chose its congressmen on statewide general tickets, rather than by individual districts. And in June 1832, the Democratic state convention put Pierce, then only twenty-seven years old, on the Democratic slate of five congressional candidates to be chosen by town meetings the following March. By 1832 that nomination virtually guaranteed his election; he went on to receive almost 76 percent of the statewide vote. His political horizons had widened.
A New Hampshire newspaper editorial at the time of his nomination merits quotation, for it identifies this fun-loving, friendly, and politically talented young man as the state's emerging favorite son. "Frank Pierce is the most popular man of his age that I know of in N.H. — praises in every one's mouth. Every circumstance connected with him seems to contribute to his popularity. In the first place, he has the advantage of his father's well earned reputation to bring him forward, and there is aristocracy enough, even in a community Democratic as our own, to make this of no trifling importance to a young man just starting his life. In the next place he has a handsome person, bland and agreeable manners, a prompt and off-hand manner of saying and doing things, and talents competent to sustain himself in any station." As would become clear later in Pierce's political career, that last encomium was mistaken.
Excerpted from Franklin Pierce by Michael F. Holt, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sean Wilentz. Copyright © 2010 Michael F. Holt. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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