Born in New Hampshire in 1804, Pierce in his childhood and youth enjoyed privileges unknown to a young and impoverished Millard Fillmore of New York. Father Benjamin, having distinguished himself as a military officer in the Revolutionary War, afterward moved from Massachusetts to Hillsborough, N.H. There he commanded the state militia and served in the state House of Representatives.
A prosperous Benjamin purchased a tract of land in 1804 and built a family estate. Son Franklin’s birth took place in a temporary log cabin during the construction of the large family home.
Two of Franklin’s older brothers followed their father’s military footsteps, fighting in the War of 1812. Benjamin served as New Hampshire’s 11th governor from 1827-1830.
Educated in a town school, Franklin then enrolled in and graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine. Law studies followed, then admission to the New Hampshire bar. A photographic memory paired with a charming personality and a deep voice served Pierce well, leading to his election as Hillsborough’s town moderator in 1828 and to the state’s House of Representatives.
Chosen as speaker of the state House in 1831, the young and rising Democratic star won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives the following year.
Marriage to Jane Means Appleton in 1834, however, led to personal and political challenges. Her religious devotion contrasted with her husband’s irreligiosity.
The Congregationalist, pro-temperance Jane tried to convince Franklin to abstain from alcohol. Her abhorrence of politics, and especially Washington, D.C., hung like a dark cloud over the household. The childhood deaths of their first two sons brought great suffering.
With little support from his wife, Pierce served in the House for five years, his tenure entangled in the most pressing issue of the era: slavery. Although morally opposed to the practice, he took offense at the “religious bigotry” of abolitionists who labeled their opponents as sinners.
“I consider slavery a social and political evil,” Pierce declared during this time, “and most sincerely wish that it had no existence upon the face of the earth.” And yet, “One thing must be perfectly apparent to every intelligent man. This abolition movement must be crushed or there is an end to the Union.”
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1837 at the age of 32, Pierce proved a capable senator who took an interest in the nation’s military affairs. Facing an ascendant Whig Party, however, Pierce resigned from the Senate in 1842. Moving to Concord and returning to law, he often represented poor citizens for free.
Remaining prominent within the struggling Democratic Party, Pierce advocated for the westward expansion of slavery. In addition, the Mexican-American War afforded the former senator an opportunity to serve in active military duty, as had his father and brothers.
Appointed a brigadier general, he fought in the war with mixed results. Battle-hungry and longing to be a hero, ill-timed injuries and sickness unfortunately sidelined him from most of the action, leading to lingering charges of cowardice.
Even so, in 1847 New Hampshire welcomed Pierce’s return with a hero’s reception.
Resigning from the military and resuming his law practice in Concord, Franklin Pierce defended, among other cases, the religious liberty of the Shaker sect, a small religious group accused of child abuse.
Retaining his voice in national politics from afar, Pierce supported the slavery Compromise of 1850 as the key to preserving the Union. Although abolishing the slave trade in the nation’s capital, the Compromise allowed for the possibility of slavery in the Southwest and provided greater legal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, legislation mandating that slaves escaping to the North be returned to their owners upon capture.
A discordant Democratic Party, fractured North and South over the issue of slavery, sought a return to power in 1852. Deadlocked over who to nominate for the presidency, on the 49th ballot Democratic National Convention delegates chose Franklin Pierce as a dark horse candidate.
The nomination stunned Pierce. His wife Jane fainted. Son Benjamin, their only surviving child, siding with his mother, hoped his father would not win the election.
Unfortunately for Pierce’s family, the Whig Party, also divided over slavery, ascended into greater turmoil than the Democrats. Although his opponents cast Pierce as a coward and alcoholic, he won the election of 1852. From that point, things only grew worse.
Traveling from Boston by train on Jan. 6, 1853, the president-elect’s family encountered tragedy when their car derailed and rolled down a steep embankment. Franklin and Jane survived, only to watch 11-year-old Benjamin be crushed to death.
Both parents suffered prolonged depression. Jane believed the accident to be God’s punishment upon the family for her husband’s pursuit of high political office.
She remained in mourning, refusing to attend her husband’s inauguration and making no public appearances during her initial two years as First Lady.
For his part, Pierce became only the second president to refuse an inaugural swearing upon a Bible, instead affirming the presidential oath on a law book. (The first to dispense with a Bible had been John Quincy Adams.) Pierce also distinguished himself by becoming the first president to deliver an inaugural address from memory.
A period of financial prosperity marked Pierce’s ascension to the presidency. Despite his hope that the slavery question had been put to rest in the Compromise of 1850, Pierce’s pro-slavery, westward expansion agenda plunged the nation into further discord. Even as the president voiced affirmation of America’s commitment to “universal religious toleration,” a vast and irreconcilable theological chasm stood between abolitionist northern Christians and pro-slavery southern Christians.
Passage of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act opened both territories to the possibility of slavery through local balloting, resulting in political manipulation and widespread bloodshed and violence between pro- and anti-slavery factions.
“Bleeding Kansas” overshadowed the national political landscape, spilling over into the U.S. Senate when South Carolina Representative and planter Preston Brooks viciously assaulted Massachusetts Senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner, a beating from which it took Sumner three years to recover.
Amid the slavery-driven violence and rancor that characterized Pierce’s presidency, the Democratic Party in 1856 declined to re-nominate him. Returning to New Hampshire an embittered man, he witnessed the arrival of a civil war that he had helped bring about.
Upon Jane’s death in 1863, Pierce retreated into a private life. In mourning and hoping to appease a distant God as his life drew to a close, on the second anniversary of his wife’s death the former president was baptized in Concord’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
Four years later in 1869, Franklin Pierce, a broken, lonely and irreligious man, passed away. NFJ
By Bruce Gourley