April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
He is the President no one knows. If school children remember him at all, it is as a name that comes somewhere between the Mexican War and the Civil War—and that judgment is strangely close to the heart of the matter. The generation of Webster, Calhoun, and Clay was gone by 1852. In Baltimore, where the divided Democrats were meeting to select a presidential candidate, forty-eight ballots failed to produce a two-thirds vote for any of the contenders. Then, on the forty-ninth, the delegates gave the nomination to Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, whose only virtue seemed to be that no one hated him enough to keep it from him. He was safe, and safe was what a man had to be in Baltimore in 1852.
On the advice of older, wiser politicians, the candidate did as little as possible and said almost nothing during his campaign against General Winfield Scott. The Whigs called him coward, a drunkard, and an ami Catholic, and there was some substance behind each ugly charge; but when the ballots were counted, Franklin Pierce had 214,000 more than Scott, 254 electoral votes against 42, and that was all that mattered—or so it seemed.
His program, he said, would be to provide territorial and commercial expansion (which would please the radicals) and to preserve the Union (which would keep the conservatives happy). Pierce considered it a safe, sound policy, and if the year had not been 1853 it might have been. But just then it was perhaps the most difficult and dangerous course he could have steered.
In an effort to achieve harmony, he gave representation in his cabinet to every faction in the Democratic party, thereby ensuring trouble under the best of circumstances. Only there were to be no best of circumstances, but instead a violent eruption of national emotions. The Administration’s Kansas-Nebraska Bill resulted in Bloody Kansas; the anti foreign, anti-Catholic movement took dark shape in the Know-Nothings; westward expansion and industrialization were shaking the uneasy balance which had existed between North and South, and southerners saw the handwriting on the wall. The times demanded daring and ingenuity and brilliance, hut Pierce had none of them; nor did he comprehend the irresistible tide of forces he was attempting to stem. So at the end of four years, with the nation rushing toward disaster, the Democrats ux*k the unparalleled course of turning their own man out and selecting another who appeared to be safer even than Pierce had seemed in 1852—James Buchanan. And Franklin Pierce, fourteenth President of the United States, disappeared from the stage of history as ignominiously as he had entered upon it.
But there is more to his story than posterity has cared to remember, and much of it is revealed in the photograph Mathcw Brady took at the time of his inauguration. This is not the proud, determined look of an incoming President; it is the haunted expression of a man drained of vitality, unaware of the camera, whose deeply troubled eyes search the distance as if seeking some answer to his questions.
The first years of his life had been good ones, and Franklin Pierce emerged from New Hampshire polities to become a United States congressman and senator. Then fortune turned against him. His first son lived only three days: his second died at the age of four. His wife, a melancholy, deeply religious invalid, hated Washington, partly because of the climate, mostly because of the alcoholic temptations to which politics subjected her weak husband. Against her wishes lie had gone to Mexico as a political general, and there fate gave him three opportunities for glory. The first time in action his horse shied, the pommel hit Pierce in the groin, and he fainted; the next day, advancing with his troops, he twisted a knee and fainted again; and at the storming of Chapultcpec, where he had his last chance, he was in bed with diarrhea.
Five years later fortune beckoned once more, this time with the incredible offer of the nation’s highest office, which Pierce saw largely as an opportunity to build a heritage for eleven-year-old Bcnnie, his surviving son. (When he heard the news of his father’s nomination, Bcnnie wrote his mother: “J hope he won’t be elected for I should not like to be at Washington and 1 know you would not either.”)
Early in January, 1853, two months before the inauguration, the Pierces were riding the morning train to Concord. A mile out of Boston it was suddenly derailed; their car teetered over an embankment and rolled into the field below. Neither the President-elect nor his wife was injured, but Bcnnie, the one absorbing interest of their lives, was caught in the wreckage and horribly killed before their eyes.
From that moment on the prospect of the Presidency became a nightmare. From the twisted depths of her Galvinistic conscience, Afrs. Pierce fashioned the idea that her husband’s great honor had been purchased by the sacrifice of their son. With this shattering accusation of guilt added to the unimaginable horror of the boy’s death, Franklin Pierce went to Washington, alone, to lead the United States in its hour of need.