“Franklin Pierce was arguably the most handsome man ever to serve as president of the United States. He was certainly one of the most amiable and congenial men to hold that office.” Don’t you love it when pretty boys get put into office? I mean, look how well things went with Fillmore!
Short rundown on Pierce: he held a lot of offices in New Hampshire--state House, speaker of the House, national House, US Senate, and he was a brigadier general in the Mexican-American war. “Democrats nominated him for president in 1852 in order to break a deadlock at their national convention, and in November, a few days before his forty-eighth birthday, he carried twenty-seven of thirty-one states to become the youngest man yet elected to the White House.” Two of his sons died before age 5 and shortly before he left for his inauguration, the last of his young sons was killed in a train accident. His wife was shy and morose and hated politics.
“Historians, indeed, usually rank Pierce among the six or eight worst presidents the country has ever had.” Why? Two reasons:(a) Pierce was a Democratic party loyalist who managed to divide his party into warring factional camps, and (b) he helped propel the nation along to the Civil War. Democrats had huge defeats in the off-year congressional elections of 1854-55 and were a minority of the national electorate until the mid-1870’s. Oddly enough, this book claims that Pierce was the only president in the 19th century who sought, but was denied, renomination. Oh really? Fillmore wasn’t wanted either. Tyler wasn’t. This author argues that Pierce’s problem wasn’t not being farsighted or fundamentally weak and who needed approval and deferred to stronger people or external factors, but his obsession with preserving the unity of the Democratic Party. Which is to say, if the opposing side is dying off (i.e. Whigs at the time), a party is in jeopardy because of a lack of competition, and then they’ll fragment off.
As a youngster, Pierce was an athlete, charming, and eager to please. He pretty much spent the first two years of college skipping class to go hiking or fishing. “Pierce was famous for bursting into other students’ rooms to start furniture-smashing wrestling matches. He usually won these contests.” He also frequently snuck out to go drinking. “Heavy drinking and Pierce’s name go together like a horse and carriage, and years later his political opponents would label him a drunkard.” This book thinks it’s impossible to diagnose Pierce as an alcoholic, though. After he came in dead last in his class by the end of sophomore year, Pierce reformed, stopped cutting class to hike, and actually did his homework at 4 a.m. “The one-time dunce graduated fifth in his class, now reduced to fourteen students.” After that, he moved home and took up law.
Pierce was a Jacksonian Democrat. Apparently he had a really good memory for names and faces and a deep, rich voice and charm, amiability, and empathy. “Pierce directed his arguments to the emotions of jurors, not to their collective logic, and he usually won.” He was the most popular guy of his age in New Hampshire, according to a newspaper editorial. His father had a prominent reputation, Pierce came off as some kind of aristocrat, and he was handsome and supposedly had talents “competent to sustain himself in any situation.” Okay, I don’t think that last one happened.
Oh hey, who wants to hear more about the Anti-Masons? Their goals were to purge Masons from elective and appointive public offices, then strip Masonic lodges of their state charters and make membership a criminal offense. So yeah, they seem a little much and insane.
Pierce married Jane Appleton, who was from a wealthy Federalist family. Jane wasn’t pretty, wasn’t social, she was sickly and depressed, hated substance abuse and politics. Opposites attracted, I guess, because otherwise this match makes no sense whatsoever.
On the question of slavery (again): “Pierce was hardly proslavery, but he detested the abolitionist movement almost from the moment that it began to organize….he found the holier-than-thou attitude of abolitionists, and their penchant for condemning anyone who did not join their movement as a sinner, deeply offensive, indeed intolerable.” The author seems to think this is kinda ironic, given what his wife was like. He thought abolitionists, if unchecked, could break up the union, and “Pierce was committed to the preservation of the Union, and he resented and rejected anything that he believed might threaten its perpetuity.” He eventually evolved to hate any group that opposed slavery and its expansion. He became pro-southern, not just anti-anti-slavery.
In 1835, Rep. James H. Hammond of South Carolina demanded that the House reject abolitionist petitions without even considering or officially receiving them. Pierce and other congressmen (including Southerners, whaaaat) thought this was too much and violated the constitutional right of petition. So Pierce said the proper course is to receive them but automatically table such petitions without further consideration. REALLY, PIERCE? REALLY? Also, isn’t this some kinda deja vu from the JQA Senate period? This was adopted and called the Gag Rule. Pierce even bragged that in New Hampshire there was not one in a hundred who doesn’t “entertain the most sacred regard for the rights of their Southern brethren-nay not one in five hundred who would not have those rights protected at any and every hazard.” Oh lord.
John C. Calhoun, who you know is a special fucking favorite of mine, complained that New Hampshire residents sympathized with abolitionists and sent a newspaper clipping as proof citing that Pierce lied when he said that only one person in 500 was an abolitionist sympathizer. The Herald of Freedom added up the number of signatures on petitions from the state and divided that number by the states’ population in the 1830 census and said the ratio was 1 in 33. “If Pierce was so ignorant of his constituency, the article added, he should resign.” It also called him a doughface. Calhoun was publicly chastised for this and apologized, but Pierce still got permission to rant in the House about it anyway. He said that the vast majority of signatures on the petitions were women and children, who don’t count, that all nominating conventions had badmouthed abolitionists, and he’s not a doughface. HAHAHAHAH NO YOU ARE.
After resigning from the Senate to be with his family (while sober, which I bet he hated), Pierce served as the de facto boss of the New Hampshire Democratic state party until he was nominated for president. He spent a lot of time dealing with squabbles and trying to have unity. So basically he did that by ousting people who said anything against slavery. However, Democratic Party was very strong in New Hampshire (atypically), so he was probably more committed to party loyalty.
“That Pierce resigned his Senate seat after spending only four months in the minority is telling. He liked to compete only when he held a winning hand. Political defeat was a new and intolerable experience.”
Anyway, since the Whigs had become weak, Pierce got elected in a landslide. However, how was he going to hold all of the Democrats together without an enemy to fight against? Uh..... well, remember how that went during Monroe’s term?
“From mid-1846 until his election as president in November 1852, Pierce’s life was primarily shaped by the course and consequences of a single event: the Mexican-American War.” Polk wanted to annex Upper California. When attempts to buy it failed, Polk ordered Taylor’s troops to hang around the Rio Grande and then used the inevitable fight to get a declaration of war. Pierce and Polk were friends and Polk appointed him as the US attorney for New Hampshire. Polk appointed him as a colonel to raise a regiment in, and he managed to transport a lot of supplies and men through enemy territory pretty successfully and that was his big war accomplishment. At one point he fell off a horse and hurt his knee when the horse startled at gunfire and people thought he fainted, so someone yelled out that “General Pierce is a damned coward.” In the next battle, Pierce managed to injure his knee again and fell down, and on the final battle of the campaign he was in his tent with diarrhea. SO THAT WENT WELL.
At some point Pierce gave a speech saying that he disliked the Fugitive Slave Act and considered portions of it inhumane, but it must be obeyed. He insisted that Northerners must not insist on any platform plank offensive to the South.
At the convention, Pierce got nominated pretty much as a backup because nobody could agree on the current candidates. The party platform was that Democrats would abide by the Compromise of 1850/Fugitive Slave Act and would resist all attempts and arguing about slavery. Pierce and his wife went on a carriage ride during this and were notified when they returned, and his wife fainted.
“The Whig-affiliated Boston Atlast attributed Pierce’s nomination exclusively to “his complete and abject devotion to the demands of the South. No man has ever earned for himself more deservedly the reputation of a most through-paced dough-face.” Hah. The Whigs called Pierce out as being “obscure and unknown.” Or “Hero of many a well fought bottle.” Har. Or they went on about his cowardice in Mexico. None of that really mattered because the electorate wasn’t real motivated to turn out. “General Apathy is the strongest candidate out there,” wrote a wag from Cincinnatti. The electorate was unenthused by their options. The turnout rate was the lowest since 1836 and remained the lowest until the 1920’s. The author says, “The nation’s electorate had apparently spoken emphatically. It wanted no tampering with the Compromise of 1850, no further agitation of the slavery issue and no part of the party that hoped to keep the slavery issue alive.”
The Whigs were routed in 1852, thanks to overwhelming Democrat dominance. This increased the chances of Democratic fragmentation. “Preserving the unity of the national Democratic Party became his top priority as president.” Pierce wanted a party-unifying cabinet. He had no intention of keeping any of Polk’s cabinet in his own, he wanted to share cabinet positions and subcabinet jobs across every faction of the party. Pierce balanced out his cabinet by region, and for once somebody actually did a pretty good job of cabinet selection and management. “Pierce’s cabinet would prove to be one of the most ethical and effective group of advisers to serve the nation in the nineteenth century. It was also the only cabinet during that century to remain intact for an entire four-year presidential term.”
In 1853, the Pierces were on a train that derailed. Pierce and his wife survived, but their remaining son Benny had the back of his head sheared off right in front of them and died instantly. Jane pretty much fell apart after that.
Because there was no enemy to go up against, the Democrats started breaking up into really silly named factions: the “Soft-Shell,” the “Hard-Shell” and the “Barnburners” (they’re still around?). Pierce stuck with happily enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, saying slavery was recognized by the constitution and the 1850 laws were constitutional. “I fervently hope that the [slavery] question is at rest, and that no sectional or fanatical excitement may again threaten the durability of our institutions or obscure the light of our prosperity.” SO THAT WENT WELL.
“In hindsight, it is clear that Pierce’s attempts to distribute the loaves and fishes among all elements of the party proved an unmitigated disaster. Politicians who considered themselves worthy of selection fumed when members of rival factions instead got the jobs. Some of this anger had nothing to do with the administration’s commitment to the compromise.”
Due to splits between Soft Shells, Hard Shells and Barnburners, Whigs got a few more triumphs in elections in northern states when the votes were split. By 1853, the party was approaching internal disintegration. And this book says that Pierce’s biggest (or second biggest?) mistake of his career was signing off on the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which allowed people there to decide on slavery themselves. Why was this? Honestly, I got bored trying to read the explanation. Something about foreign policy that bored me too much to read, or he was seeking Southern approval, or that Douglas persuaded him. Or that he was trying to preserve the internal unity of the Democratic Party. Anyway, Pierce’s hope of uniting the Democratic Party behind the Kansas-Nebraska bill bombed. Northern Democrats didn’t agree on it and Southern Whigs voted for it, which ticked off the Northern Whigs... I can’t keep track. Anyway, the Democrats did terribly in the 1854 elections. “Pierce had helped to end Democratic dominance in his home state.” All the new political coalitions competed with the Whigs and ended the Whig Party by competing with them for the anti-Democratic vote.
“A crucial facet of nineteenth-century political life can help the modern reader understand how this could happen. After all, today’s major parties, the Democrats and Republicans, appear almost invulnerable to challenges from new parties. But that invulnerability is largely attributable to the fact that state governments print the ballots voters cast, punch, or mark, and the same governments control the access that parties have to those publicly printed ballots. Thus challengers to the major parties must jump through hoops, usually by collecting signatures on petitions, to get on the ballot so that people might have a chance to vote for them. In the nineteenth century, however, governments did not print and distribute ballots. That was the job of the political parties themselves. In effect, this system meant that all that was needed to launch a new party was access to printing presses and enough volunteer manpower to distribute its ballots at the polls.”
Whig leaders started joining with anti-Nebraska Democrats and Free Soilers and calling themselves the Republican Party. They denounced slavery, wanted to defy the Fugitive Slave Act, and wanted slavery extension prohibited. Buuuuuut.... “The mission of the Republican Party was less opposition to slavery than opposition to southern slaveholders.”
There’s a random quote from Rutherford B. Hayes’s diary about the Know-Nothings: “How people do hate Catholics, and what happiness it was to thousands to have a chance to show it in what seemed like a lawful and patriotic manner.” I’m not 100% sure if he agreed with this or was a master of snark.
In 1855, Pierce was urged to seek renomination by his cabinet. But why did he think he had a chance at all given how things were going right now? Dude was getting burned in effigy at home, for fuck’s sake. Was he totally delusional? Well, some people were into him. The Republican party started growing though. Meanwhile, James Buchanan had been in England for 1854-55 so he escaped any personal responsibility for the administration’s policy toward Kansas, so he seemed like the safest candidate. After Buchanan won the nomination, the New York Times snarked on Pierce, “He was taken up, in the first place, because he was unknown, and now he is spurned because he is known.” And “What a book he might write about the ingratitude of parties!”
Anyway, on his way out the door...“Thus in his valedictory address to Congress and the nation, Franklin Pierce exempted himself from any personal responsibility for the reverses suffered by the northern Democratic Party and the escalating sectional conflict over slavery extension that afflicted his beloved Union. That conflict, after all, “was inherent in the nature of things.” What this historian, at least, does not know is whether Pierce actually believed what he had written.
In retirement, Pierce was pretty well off, so he spent his time taking care of his sick wife. Regarding the Civil War, Pierce kept silent because he wasn’t in favor of war intended to subjugate the South. He politely didn’t say anything against Lincoln (sent a condolence note after his son died, even) until 1863, when he got mad after Clement L. Vallandigham got arrested for calling the war a failure-an arrest and prosecution that Lincoln defended. Pierce thought it was a violation of civil liberty and he spoke at a mass Democratic rally in Concord to defend the right to free speech. He called the Union’s war fearful, fruitless and faiteful and could never produce peace. Gettysburg was announced very soon after this, ahem.
After James Buchanan left the White House, he wrote a defense of his own administration. Pierce didn’t. His personal secretary eventually did. “Until quite recently, no subsequent biographer or historian who assessed the Pierce administration treated it as kindly as did Webster. Even when they admitted the honesty of the administration, which compared so favorably to the corruption that stained Buchanan’s tenure, they faulted Pierce for a misbegotten patronage policy and a disastrous decision to endorse the Kansas-Nebraska Act that helped bring on the Civil War. And they usually tended to attribute those mistakes to Pierce’s alleged character flaws: a weak will, too great of an eagerness to please others, decided prosouthern proclivities. As a result, Pierce has languished near the bottom when historians periodically go about ranking American presidents. “
Finally, the author says, “My purpose in this intentionally brief life of Pierce has not been to challenge such rankings or to defend Pierce’s administration. Rather it has been to try to explain why Pierce did what he did. And rather than see personal weakness as the source of his missteps in the White House, I attribute Pierce’s most fateful political decisions to his obsession with preserving the unity of the Democratic Party.”
Ooookay then. I’ll give this three and a half stars. Pierce isn’t the most fascinating dude, but the author does try to explain why he did what he did.