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In Praise Of Pierce
He had all the right qualities. Only the time was wrong.
August/September 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
It’s been a long time since anyone put in a good word, or in fact any kind of word at all, for Franklin Pierce. I am a New Hampshire man who lives not far from the house where the fourteenth President was born and who therefore grew up, so to speak, beneath his paling shadow. From such a position I would like to take this opportunity to rearrange the perspectives now distorting or, indeed, obscuring the nature of his career. Words from Samuel Butler will serve as a text for my remarks. On observing a pipe organ built by the local carpenter, he said to his skeptical companion, “My boy, you must not judge by the work, but by the work in connection with the surroundings.”
The surroundings in which Franklin Pierce spent much of his life were the Jeffersonian words made flesh. The population of New Hampshire was of those “chosen people” who owned their own farms, tilled their own soil, and were the only depositories of both “essential virtue” and “the sacred fire.” In 1852, the year Pierce was elected to the Presidency, the largest potential source of metropolitan contamination in this community was the city of Manchester, which numbered 13,885 souls.
Great care had been taken in the preceding years to keep things that way. In 1840 the legislature took away the power of eminent domain from the railroads, and a little later it struck the limited-liability clause from all corporation charters. None could possibly do more to fulfill the injunction in the basic text to “keep the workshops in Europe.”
Within this structure of life the citizens practiced almost daily that right to manage their own affairs that the Jeffersonian scheme prescribed. In recurrent town meetings, party caucuses, ad hoc committees, and county and state conventions, they selected delegates, nominated candidates, and passed resolves on contemporary issues. On election days almost all of those qualified went to the polls to vote.
As these people believed that all men were created equal, they also assumed that almost anybody could handle affairs of state. From fence viewer to governor, almost everybody, it seemed, was at some time in his life a public servant. The “intermittent fever” that persisted in New Hampshire “throughout the year,” so they said, was “politics.”
A state with such persuasions followed naturally along the paths laid out by Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Moving steadily on these paths, New Hampshire became in due course a center of energy in the Democratic party, its place secured not only by philosophic sympathies but also by men who had an absolute mastery of political organization.
Franklin Pierce was one of these and one of the best—”a man of parts,” as they used to say. He had gone to Bowdoin College, where he had become an acquaintance of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and a lifelong friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who later wrote his biography. Soon after his graduation he married Jane Appleton, the daughter of the former president of Bowdoin. She was one of that distinguished family from New Hampshire, some of whose members had gone on to play an eminent part in the commercial, social, and intellectual life of Boston. Through such connections Pierce had been introduced to several sides of life unfamiliar to many of the people he worked with. In addition, he was a charming companion, at ease with all sorts and conditions of men, with some of whom he sometimes drank more than the claims of conviviality required.
There were, moreover, a good many other strings to his bow. As a soldier, he commanded troops in war. As a lawyer, his ability to get to the heart of the matter and put it forward clearly, simply, and, at times, with eloquence, made him equally successful before a judge or jury. As a politician, he had a sure sense of where, in that “intermittent fever,” the pulse was. He also demonstrated that, in matters of party organization, he could develop a devoted following and act decisively to maintain order in the ranks.
One other asset, less definable, he appeared to have. While not one of those “around whose head the lightning played,” he seemed bound to rise by more prosaic means. At the age of twenty-seven, after two years in the New Hampshire legislature, he was elected Speaker of the House. In the Mexican War, starting as an enlisted man, he ended up as a general officer. Two years after he was appointed the U.S. district attorney for New Hampshire, President James K. Polk asked him to become attorney general of the United States.
He was not the only one of his fellows in the state whose services were so sought. The attraction of their political views and the regularity with which they could deliver the votes of their own constituency were not lost on those in the party who were running the country’s affairs in Washington. As a result, influential voices from New Hampshire were heard not only in the well of the House and on the floor of the Senate but also in meetings of the President’s cabinet and in the chambers of the Supreme Court. The year 1852 suggests the extent to which the state, if nothing so great as the linchpin of the Union or even the life of the party, had become a moving spirit in the ordering of events.