Franklin Pierce and the Consequences of Ambition

Anthony Bergen
Nov 23, 2015 · 16 min read

There is peril to power and danger in ambition. They called him “Young Hickory of the Granite Hills” and “Handsome Frank”. He looked like a poet and lived a Shakespearean tragedy. He was intelligent and eloquent, with top-notch oratorical skills and impressive charisma. Unable to resist the political opportunities that opened up to him, Franklin Pierce’s trajectory from New Hampshire lawyer to 14th President of the United States was so steep that he couldn’t fathom the ramifications of his quick rise. In fact, by the end of his life, it seemed Franklin Pierce had made a Faustian bargain — he gave up his world, ruled the nation, and ended up drinking himself to death and dying alone.

Franklin Pierce was haunted in the White House by personal demons and national difficulties. Stunningly elected over Mexican War hero Winfield Scott, Pierce was just 48 years old when he took the oath of office in 1853, and for four years he barely presided over a divided nation that burst apart into Civil War just four years after he left office. Throughout his term, he was shadowed by the weight of his political aspirations, the menace of alcoholism and depression, his own malleable nature, and the madness of a grieving wife who despised politics and blamed Pierce for the many tragedies which had befallen their young family.

Pierce was strikingly handsome, with dark, pained eyes and trademark, jet-black hair that was long, curly, and swept over his forehead. In photographs of Pierce, he almost exudes sadness, as if he were some pale, Gothic specter sprung from the pages of an Edgar Allan Poe story. And that’s without even knowing Pierce’s history.

Born on November 23, 1804, Pierce was the son of a Revolutionary War veteran and New Hampshire Governor, Benjamin Pierce. The only President born in New Hampshire, Pierce grew up in the Granite State and went to school at Bowdoin College in Maine where his classmates included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the person who would become Pierce’s best friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne. After graduating from Bowdoin, Pierce practiced law in Hillsborough, New Hampshire before being elected to the New Hampshire General Court — the state legislature — in 1829.

Just 25 years old when he entered the statehouse, Pierce skyrocketed from there. At 27, he was elected Speaker of the General Court of New Hampshire. At 29, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives — at the time, Pierce was one of the youngest Congressmen elected in American History. In 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton, the sister-in-law of one of Pierce’s instructors at Bowdoin. Jane hated politics, but loved her husband and believed Pierce when he urged her that politics was a temporary phase in his young life.

She probably should have known better. The Pierces’ honeymoon was a trip to Washington, D.C. so Pierce could return to work representing New Hampshire in Congress. Their first home was a crowded boardinghouse in swampy Washington, D.C., a horse-trading post for politicians, as well as a city full of slaves and slaveowners — anathema to Jane, a New Englander. Jane didn’t last long in Washington; she returned to New Hampshire while Pierce served out his term in Congress. In 1836, Jane gave birth to their first child, but the infant died several days later and the Pierces were devastated by the loss.

Franklin remained in Washington and began drinking heavily. Always a social drinker, Pierce was well-known for being a fun companion. His company was well-regarded and sought out at parties and political events in Washington while Congress was in session. Along with being outgoing, Pierce had an addictive personality and an aversion to saying no. When he later became President, it was said that Pierce’s decision would match the argument of whomever the last person to speak to him. In the heavy-drinking days of Jacksonian-era Washington, Pierce was not one to hold back. Some people even openly worried about whether Frank Pierce had a drinking problem.

Besides alcohol, Pierce was driven by his ambition. His grief over the child that he and Jane had lost was tempered by news that he had been elected to the United States Senate, taking office in 1837 at the age of just 32 years old. During his five years in the Senate, Pierce showed himself to be a strong Democrat and a “doughface” — a Northerner with Southern sympathies. Pierce voted with Southerners on many issues related to slavery and ignored the abolitionists who made up the majority of his constituency in New Hampshire. Pierce, however, was popular among people in New Hampshire and extremely popular among his colleagues in Congress. The young Senator was a rising star.

While his political career grew, his personal life was troubled. Pierce was blinded by ambition and accomplishments. His wife was frequently ill and her health became worse anytime she visited Pierce in Washington. As Pierce was making a name for himself in the Senate, Jane began wishing that he would leave politics altogether, worrying that if his workaholic manner didn’t kill him, his increasingly alcoholic lifestyle would. The birth of two children — Frank in 1839 and Benjamin in 1841 — helped Jane’s spirits, but also gave her a good platform on which to argue her case. After Bennie’s birth, Franklin Pierce caved in to his wife’s demands and promised to quit politics forever. In 1842, the 37-year-old Pierce resigned from the Senate and moved back to New Hampshire to practice law.

Jane was ecstatic, happy, and her health improved quickly upon Pierce’s return to New Hampshire. Pierce was depressed, but he kept his promise and even refrained from drinking for quite some time. The pull of politics was alluring. Pierce participated in local and state party politics, helping choose Democratic candidates in New Hampshire and even making speeches in support of candidates in districts throughout the state. Still, Pierce impressively turned down an appointment by the Governor to return to the U.S. Senate in 1845. Franklin and Jane’s son, Frank Robert, had died in 1843 and Pierce kept his promise to his wife. When President James K. Polk offered to nominate Pierce to join the Cabinet as Attorney General, Pierce turned Polk down, as well. Pierce continued practicing law and still kept his promise about not leaving to re-enter political life.

Instead, he went to war.

When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, Pierce immediately began working to gain a commission as a military officer. Jane, of course, didn’t know anything about it and would have strongly objected as Pierce the Soldier was an even worse idea to her than Pierce the Politician. When Pierce was offered to be commissioned as an infantry colonel, the ambitious future President held off on accepting the position — and on notifying his wife. When he was commissioned a brigadier general, he finally accepted — but still didn’t tell Jane, writing to his friend Congressman Edmund Burke, “My purpose is fixed…although I have not yet broached the subject with my wife.”

Pierce’s military record is blurry. His political opponents labeled him a “coward” and claimed that he fainted in battle, which he did. However, Pierce’s soldiers revered him and explained that his fainting came from a severe knee injury that Pierce ignored while leading his men and he passed out from the pain during the battle, yet refused to allow his men to evacuate him to safety until the skirmish was over. When Pierce finally returned home to New Hampshire, it was with a reputation as a war hero — and war heroes tended to become political icons in the 19th Century.

Pierce knew that he could easily be elected Governor of New Hampshire upon his return to the Granite State, but he promised his wife that he was done with politics, and he continued to resist breaking that promise. However, as happy as it was making his wife, it was tearing him apart. Still active in state and local politics, Pierce was jumping at any chance to be involved. He knew that he had promise as a politician, but he had the promise not to be a politician holding him back.

In 1852, Franklin Pierce could no longer resist.

As Democrats prepared to nominate a Presidential candidate in 1852, the New Hampshire Democratic Party put forth Franklin Pierce as a “favorite son” candidate. For the most part, favorite son candidates are not serious candidates. The favorite son is more of a parliamentary procedure, used to hold and shift delegates from one major candidate to another. Pierce wasn’t seen as a legitimate candidate for the Presidency. After all, he had been out of elective office for ten years and had shown no indication that he would re-enter public life due to his promise to his wife.

Along the way to the Democratic National Convention in June in Baltimore, Franklin Pierce worked quietly to break his promise and promote his candidacy. Jane had no idea what was going on, but Franklin Pierce was no longer sitting on the sidelines and he was no longer interested in being a place-holder for delegates. As the convention approached, Pierce was being touted as a potential compromise candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

The favorites in Baltimore were former Secretary of State James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, and Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. On the first day of voting at the convention, no candidate was able to clinch the nomination. By the next night, the convention had held thirty-three ballots without agreeing on a nominee. Franklin Pierce sat at a telegraph office in Concord, New Hampshire and followed the deliberations of the convention as news was reported. The convention remained deadlocked for the next several days as Pierce nervously awaited word on whether his name had been introduced as a compromise candidate.

On June 5, 1852, Franklin and Jane went for a carriage drive outside of Boston, where they had traveled the day before. Jane had no idea what was going on in Baltimore and Franklin didn’t let on that he had knowledge of anything unusual happening at the Democratic Convention. As the carriage was winding through the woods of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a messenger on a horse rode towards the Pierces. “Sir,” the rider exclaimed to Pierce, “the Democrats have nominated you for President!”. Pierce excitedly shouted his appreciation and smiled while his wife, who had no idea that her husband was a candidate for anything let alone the Presidency, fainted.

Pierce had become a compromise candidate at the Democratic convention — someone who everyone could unite behind once the major candidates became deadlocked. On the forty-ninth ballot, the exhausted delegates in Baltimore nominated Pierce for the Presidency. Jane openly prayed that he would be defeated, but Pierce faced his old Mexican War commander, General Winfield Scott, who was hindered by a weakened Whig Party. On election day, Pierce trounced General Scott, 254–42 in the Electoral College.

Franklin Pierce’s victory in November 1852 was an astonishing rise for a dark horse compromise candidate who had been retired from national politics for the previous decade. In the Pierce Homestead, the change was stunning and Jane Pierce dreaded the fact that her family was now going to have to return to dreary Washington and become the center of the American political world. During the campaign, 11-year-old Bennie Pierce — the only surviving child of Franklin and Jane — wrote a letter to his mother. Bennie was doted on by his parents. Both Franklin and Jane had been intensely devastated by the losses of their first two children — the infant Franklin Jr. in 1836 and four-year-old Frank Robert in 1843. In Bennie’s letter to Jane, he worried about the fact that his father might become President. “I hope he won’t be elected,” Bennie wrote, “for I should not like to be at Washington. And I know you would not be either.”

On January 6, 1853, the President-elect and his family were traveling on a train outside of Boston. The train derailed and rolled down a hill, but almost no passengers were injured — except for a young boy. Bennie Pierce was thrown from the car, nearly decapitated and killed when his head was crushed while his horrified parents watched. Jane Pierce took Bennie’s death as a sign that God was removing all distractions from her husband’s path so that he could focus on his duties as President. This did not help assuage her feelings toward political life. Franklin took Bennie’s death as a sign that God was punishing him. This did not help his depression or ability to govern.

Jane didn’t know that Franklin Pierce had broken his promise and willingly returned to politics. After his nomination by the Democrats, Franklin insisted that he was simply a compromise candidate and had no choice in the matter. After his election, Franklin claimed that it was his duty as a public servant and a patriot to fulfill the wishes of the American electorate and serve as their President. The week of Pierce’s inauguration, Jane found out that Pierce had broken his promise and outright lied to her. Not only had he re-entered political life, but he had actively worked to earn the nomination and be elected President. Jane — already in precarious physical and mental health due to Bennie’s gruesome death — became bitter and angry at Franklin, directly blaming him for the death of their only child.

On March 4, 1853, Pierce was inaugurated as the 14th President of the United States. Pierce was the first President to ever “affirm” his oath of office rather than swear it, and placed his hand on a law book instead of the customary Bible. A strong speaker with a prodigious memory, Pierce was the only President in American History who memorized his Inaugural Address and delivered all 3,329 words without notes. Addressing his personal tragedy, Pierce also foreshadowed an insecurity in his own abilities as he began his speech, “It is a relief that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.” In one of the more candid comments ever made in a President’s Inaugural Address, Pierce told his fellow Americans, “You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me by your strength.”

Pierce’s Inaugural Address, though, went on to set the tone for his Administration. Despite being the son of a Revolutionary War veteran who fought for independence and someone who grew up in New England, the cradle of the abolitionist movement, the new President clearly stated his support for the institution of slavery. “I believe,” Pierce said, “that involuntary servitude, as it exists in different States of this Confederacy, is recognized by the Constitution. I believe that it stands like any other admitted right…I fervently hope that the question (of slavery) is at rest.”

President Pierce built a Cabinet which was dominated by one of his closest friends — the Secretary of War — who happened to be future Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Pierce had a reputation for being pliant, and his support for Southern institutions made him deeply unpopular in his native North. As sectarian violence spread throughout the United States due to pro-slavery and free-soil advocates clashing over newly admitted territories, Pierce remained unmoved. A bloody mini-Civil War broke out between the opposing sides in the Kansas and Nebraska Territory, but Pierce did nothing, holding to his definition of federal power which limited government intervention in the matters of individual states.

While his nation was being torn apart, President Pierce’s home was a dark, gloomy place. If other First Ladies made their mark with their style and designs, Jane Pierce decorated the White House with melancholy. Dressing in her black mourning clothing throughout her husband’s term, Jane mainly stayed in an upstairs bedroom of the White House Residence, writing letters to her dead children and burning them in the fireplace. Most White House events were hosted not by Jane, but by Varina Davis, the wife of the Secretary of War and the future First Lady of the Confederacy. Pierce, for his part, barely tried to cheer his wife up. In fact, Pierce spent most of his Presidency depressed and fighting a losing battle against alcoholism.

In 1856, Pierce became the first — and, to this day, only — elected President in American History who was denied renomination by his own party. The Democrats knew that Pierce was deeply unpopular in the North and his support in the South wasn’t strong enough to carry him to victory throughout the rest of the country. Pierce had hoped to be renominated, but there was no chance. When he left office in 1857, the United States was in drastically worse shape than it had been upon his inauguration four years earlier.

When Pierce turned over the White House to his successor, James Buchanan, an observer noted that Pierce left office as “a staid and grave man, on whom the stamp of care and illness was ineradicably impressed.” Pierce put it more simply, saying that “There’s nothing left to do but to get drunk.” For a while, retirement wasn’t too bad. Pierce and Jane traveled to Europe and Jane’s health improved quite a bit from its low point during her time in the White House. Jane, however, died in 1863 and Pierce was lonely and bored.

Two friendships continued throughout his retirement. Pierce’s closest friend was the legendary author Nathaniel Hawthorne — a classmate at Bowdoin who wrote Pierce’s campaign biography in 1852 and was appointed U.S. Consul in Liverpool during his friend’s Presidency. After Pierce left the White House, Hawthorne remained loyal — even as Pierce’s popularity continued to plummet and the former President’s support for the Union was questioned. Pierce was at Hawthorne’s bedside when the author died in 1864 while he and Pierce were on vacation in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Pierce was devastated by his friend’s death and even more deeply hurt when Hawthorne’s family and friends refused to allow the unpopular former President to act as a pallbearer at Hawthorne’s funeral.

By the time of Hawthorne’s funeral, Pierce was practically despised in the North — even in his home state of New Hampshire. The famous abolitionist and author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, called Pierce an “archtraitor”. It wasn’t merely his “doughface” views that caused the hostility towards Pierce. The former President’s other closest friend was Jefferson Davis, the leading voice for Southern secession, Pierce’s Secretary of War, and the President of the Confederate States of America. Pierce and Davis had been friends for decades by the time the Civil War broke out, but the friendship continued throughout the war. In 1860, Pierce had recommended Davis for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

During the war itself, Union soldiers captured Davis’s plantation in Mississippi and found a trove of letters between Pierce and Davis. While Pierce remained loyal to the Union, he also largely blamed Northern abolitionists and agitators for secession and for the outbreak of violence. Pierce also heavily criticized Abraham Lincoln during the war, blasting the suspension of habeas corpus, and denouncing the Emancipation Proclamation as an interference “with states’ rights and the right of private property.” However, when Lincoln’s young son Willie died in the White House in 1862, Pierce wrote a heartfelt, extraordinary letter to Lincoln, commiserating with his fellow President as a father who lost a young child in a difficult time, “Even in this hour, so full of danger to our Country, and of trial and anxiety to all good men, your thoughts, will be, of your cherished boy, who will nestle at your heart, until you meet him in that new life, when tears and toils and conflict will be unknown.”

For the most part, Pierce drank. When Lincoln was assassinated, an angry mob gathered outside of Pierce’s home in Concord, New Hampshire. A similar mob had vandalized former President Millard Fillmore’s home in Buffalo, New York, claiming that Fillmore hadn’t shown enough tribute to the fallen President. The crowd outside of Pierce’s home challenged the former President and questioned his patriotism, inquiring where his American flag might be. In one last gasp of oratorical magic, the 60-year-old former President said that he didn’t need to merely display a flag to demonstrate loyalty as he had spent his entire life in public service and that was his demonstration. The crowd, impressed by Pierce’s passion, dispersed without further trouble.

In the last few years of his life, Franklin Pierce did nothing to rehabilitate his reputation. Pierce didn’t write a book or defend his record. His most public action after Lincoln’s assassination was a trip to Fortress Monroe in Virginia to visit his imprisoned friend, Jefferson Davis, and call for his release by President Andrew Johnson. Largely forgotten and widely reviled, Pierce literally drank himself to death. On October 8, 1869, the 64-year-old former President died alone in his home in Concord, New Hampshire, a victim of chronic stomach inflammation and cirrhosis of the liver. Funeral services were quiet and he was buried next to his wife and three young children in Concord. It took nearly fifty years for his home state to recognize Franklin Pierce with a statue at the New Hampshire State Capitol. It wasn’t until 1946 that a granite memorial was placed at his grave. When he died, Franklin Pierce’s obituary wasn’t printed until the third page of The New York Times.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about his friend that, “He has in him many of the chief elements of a great ruler. His talents are administrative, he has a subtle faculty of making affairs roll onward according to his will, and of influencing their course without showing any trace of his action. There are scores of men in the country that seem brighter than he is, but he has the directing mind, and will move them about like pawns on a chess-board, and turn all their abilities to better purpose than they themselves could do.” Hawthorne, obviously, was too sympathetic. Theodore Roosevelt said that Pierce was “a small politician, of low capacity and mean surroundings, proud to act like a servile tool of men worse than himself but also stronger and abler.” That might be too harsh. Pierce’s obituary in the Times in 1869 may have put it best: “His place will not be missed by those actively engaged in political affairs, and although his record as a statesman cannot command the approbation of the nation, he still should be followed to the grave with that respect which is due to one who has filled the highest office in the gift of the people — a President of the United States.”

Franklin Pierce was a complex figure, consumed by ambition and crippled by personal obstacles, who was overwhelmed by the times that he was destined to preside over. His story, however, is fascinating and has slipped through the cracks of a history featuring giant personalities that were bigger than he could ever measure up against. Presidents come and go. They are good and bad, effective and incompetent, legends and failures. What’s important to remember, though, is that each of them was a person — an individual with triumphs and tragedies and real feelings that, in the case of Pierce, are almost unfathomable to us, especially in conjunction with the awesome responsibilities that come along with the position that they hold. Franklin Pierce is one of the most obscure Presidents in American History, but he held the same office as George Washington and is a member of the most exclusive fraternity in the history of the world. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that these guys are people — individuals just like you and I — and then you learn about obscure Franklin Pierce and you pull the thread and see all of the stories that are a part of him. And I don’t know about you, but that’s when I am most amazed by the power of history and the magnificence of the people who make history.

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Anthony Bergen

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