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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
That was an election year. In the early running, Levi Woodbury of New Hampshire was generally accepted as the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency. When he died suddenly in the fall of 1851, there were several months of confusion while supporters of Lewis Cass, James Buchanan, Stephen A. Douglas, and William L. Marcy sparred for position. In this time, friends of Pierce approached him with the suggestion that his name be put before the convention that was to meet in Baltimore in June. He rejected the idea with the qualification that he could be put forward only as “a last resort,” after all other formal candidates had been “used up,” and then only if it seemed that his nomination would bring harmony to the convention.
At Baltimore in June the candidates did in fact use themselves up in exhausting conflict; the delegates did in time turn away to look for a harmonizing influence; and they did find it in the last resort. The stone that the builder himself had rejected became, after much shrewd maneuvering by his friends, the head of the corner.
That August another convention met in Pittsburgh, which John P. Hale, a U.S. senator from New Hampshire, attended as a delegate. He had been a classmate of Pierce at Bowdoin, a longtime friend, a controlling figure in state politics, and a power in the Democratic party until he and Pierce fell out in the forties over the annexation of Texas. He had then become a prime mover, and perhaps the only wit, in the antislavery movement. At Pittsburgh, a combination of committed abolitionists, disgruntled Whigs, and restless Democrats offered him the presidential nomination of the Free Soil party, and he accepted it.
So in the election of 1852, three New Hampshire men played a determining part in the course of events. There was a front-runner who turned things toward New England before he died; there were two who received party nominations for the presidential office; and one of these was elected the President of the United States. By another way of counting, you can make it four. In the election, Daniel Webster got more than seven thousand write-in votes. It is true that he was unnominated, a Whig, a resident of Massachusetts, and dead at the time. But as everybody knows, he was probably immortal; and though his mind, body, and ambition had gone over to the Bay State, his heart, it was recognized, had remained forever in the place where he was born. But however the count is made, it is quite a record for a state of three hundred thousand in a nation of twenty-seven million.
All this may be of interest, but it does not supply the answer to the question of whatever became of the fourteenth President of the United States. It should be noticed that he came into office with a carefully devised program for what may be called enlightened domestic maintenance. Like many of those before him and most of those who came after, he promised an honest and efficient government and a Post Office that would deliver letters on time and pay its own way. But he also planned to liquidate the federal debt out of the available surplus, improve the organization and quality of the Armed Forces, straighten out some ragged edges in our continental boundaries, reorganize the departments of Justice and the Interior, and expedite the development of the West by additional aid to the railroads.
In the field of foreign affairs he was more adventuresome. As a general proposition, he intended to expand U.S. territorial holdings and commercial interests abroad. To these ends he recommended buying Cuba and Alaska, sought to remove the British influence in several parts of Central America, and planned to extract some advantageous conditions from the interminable snarl over fishing rights in the North Atlantic.
The new President put forward this program in the conviction that the country was ready, like New Hampshire before it, to settle down to the politics of good housekeeping. There was much to support this view. The great distracting issue of slavery appeared to have been resolved forever two years earlier by the Compromise of 1850. In the days before the election he had made it clear that he would do all in his power to enforce the terms of this stabilizing legislation fairly and firmly in the interests of all the citizens in the Union.
Beyond this, his own election by a landslide seemed to confirm the fact that almost all the citizens wanted to join together in getting on with their common interests. Ever since his days in the Senate he had been understood to have a generous-minded sympathy for the varying claims of the several sections of the country. Now there seemed the inviting prospect that the country would devote all its amazing energies during the Pierce administration to the development of a constructive and engaging life within its borders and to the legitimate expansion of its interests in the world beyond. Possibly even the Post Office could find ways to pay for itself. That was how it looked at the Inaugural on March 4, 1853.