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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.
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.
A little more than a year later Congress passed the legislation that produced in rapid succession the Border Ruffians in Missouri, the Wakarusa War, John Brown, and Bleeding Kansas. What, in a more general way, the Kansas-Nebraska Act did was to shatter all those carefully contrived accommodations that had held the country together since 1789. It thus opened once again the debate over the place of slavery in society. It became, in time, not so much a debate as a surrealist composition of mad acts, messianic censure, and paranoid assertion that consumed the available energy in all sections—North, South, and West.
To deal with such a contingency was not why Franklin Pierce had been brought to the Presidency. It fit neither his temperament, the dimensions of his previous experience, nor his plans for the increase of domestic tranquillity. It is very hard to engage in the politics of good housekeeping when all hell is breaking loose. Therefore, the sad fact is that he had little opportunity to fulfill Butler’s dictum: he could not do the kind of work he had hoped to do in connection with the surroundings. Instead he tried hard to hold things together when they seemed about to fly apart—which is certainly the obvious, and maybe, in most cases, the prudent thing to do. Though he was a good deal better than his successor, James Buchanan, he was not very good at it. Quite probably no one in those surroundings would have been good enough. It was not a time to pursue the obvious and the prudent.
Perhaps, of all those in politics, only Abraham Lincoln fully understood the predictable consequences of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Roused by its passage from a long, torpid period, he returned to public life. During the next few years, in persistent, unequivocal argument, he continued to expose the realities of a house so much divided, until the war came.