Term in Office: 14th president, 1853-1857
Home State: New Hampshire
If you think your calling in life is difficult and thankless, consider poor Peter Wallner. A history teacher and eventually college professor, Wallner has made it his one-man crusade to rehabilitate Franklin Pierce’s moribund reputation. He’s published two volumes on Pierce’s career, probably the most thorough scholarship ever completed on our fourteenth president, and he maintains throughout that Pierce was a capable and scrupulous man who served in impossible times. He is also a proud New Hampshire native, and I understand why he is so intent on reimagining Pierce, the only Granite State president. One can no more blame Wallner for defending Pierce than I can blame a hapless man in Sacramento who supports the Kings after they fail to make the playoffs year after year. We love our homes, and we want to praise those who would do our homes proud. He is, in an academic rather than athletic sense, a homer. While his research skills are sound and the product of deep digging, in his intent to rescue Pierce from obscurity, he misses the deep flaws in leadership that made Pierce a failure and cleaved his country apart.
Pierce is in the bottom ten, and almost always in the bottom five, in every mainstream ranking of the presidents that I have ever seen. I have kept him in the bottom ten, but plucked him out of the bottom five, not because I regard him more highly, but because there are a handful of miscreants and war criminals who should be lower than he. The persistent problem Pierce demonstrates is a failure to manifest any leadership, and an unwillingness to engage in long-term solutions over short-term fixes. I believe in punishing malice more than incompetence, and on these grounds, Pierce gets a small reprieve from me.
Here’s some Pierce trivia that may or may not be relevant: he is, alongside Clinton, the only president to have spent his political career representing a small state (if we define ‘small’ as fewer than 10 electoral votes). For the first 100 years of the U.S. presidency, only Grant was younger at the time of his inauguration. He is the only elected president who sought his party’s renomination and didn’t get it. And maybe most striking: between the presidencies of William Henry Harrison/John Tyler and the former’s grandson Benjamin (an almost fifty year gap), he is the only scion president, the only one whose father held high office. In other words, he was a privileged aberration in an age that almost demanded their presidents have been barefoot boys born in log cabins.
His father, Benjamin, was in fact something of a Revolutionary War hero who served as governor of the state. Pierce went to Bowdoin College in nearby Maine, and befriended a young Nathaniel Hawthorne. I’m sure he had some innate talent, but Pierce’s meteoric rise can largely be attributed to his family name: he was speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives before he turned 30, and a senator before he was 35. Five years into his term, he inexplicably quit, moved back to New Hampshire (well, not exactly “inexplicably”; he was involved in a drunk carriage accident wherein an elderly lady was run over). He now led the state’s Democratic Party behind the scenes, cultivating ties with other party leaders, but shouldering no meaningful responsibilities. To wit, there were only two significant undertakings during the decade before he became president. These were: a laughably bad tenure as a general in the Mexican War (on two occasions, he injured his groin and fainted), and a debate over slavery with his lifelong frenemy, Senator John Hale. (Pierce, predictably, took the side of slavery.)
When the Democrats convened in 1852 to choose a presidential candidate, they were unable to choose between James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, and Stephen Douglas (I sure couldn’t). With the convention deadlocked, the New Hampshire delegation put forth Pierce’s name, and since many delegates knew of him and were impressed by his charm, he became a compromise choice that offended no one, a Northerner inoffensive to the South. In this sense, Pierce was perhaps the truest “Dark Horse” ever nominated; even a reasonably astute and informed citizen could be forgiven if he or she never heard of Pierce. His Whig opponent ended up being Winfield Scott, his former commanding officer (I think this is the only time this ever happened in the history of presidential elections.) I rather like Scott, and think him the finest military mind the United States has produced, but he was nominated at the wrong time; Fillmore’s administration had caused both North and South to distrust the Whigs, and Pierce rolled into office with a true mandate, carrying all but four states.
To understand Pierce’s administration and the peril of the Democratic Party’s position at this time, let me make a short allegory: let’s say you have a son of a somewhat well-respected football coach suddenly put in charge of one of the most prestigious college programs in the country after a couple years coaching high school football and perhaps serving as an assistant coach at a small liberal arts school. But there’s a big problem: the team is wracked with disarray, entire factions on the team distrustful and suspicious, and not unwilling to undercut the team’s success to satisfy a vendetta. Worse, our young coach’s playbook is thirty years old, and he lacks the capacity to recalibrate and reimagine a dog-eared collection of outdated plays, passes, and strategies. Even worse still, imagine our football coach routinely seemed to favor one faction over the others. Put all of these factors together, and you have the makings of a truly disastrous season, (and having gone to Buffalo for grad school, I’m no stranger to bad football.)
In short, as Michael Holt concludes in his short book on Pierce’s administration, Franklin Pierce cared more about keeping the Democratic Party together than keeping the country together. And in the end, he haplessly failed on both counts. Still, it is not difficult to see why Pierce was so concerned. From the Oval Office, he had virtually a front-row seat to the disintegration of the Whig Party, and the emergence of two viable rivals, the American Party (which your high-school textbook remembers as the Know-Nothing Party), and the Republican Party. In no other time did the party system seem so fluid and transitory, and the idea of the Democrats dying out surely crossed his mind.
Unfortunately for Pierce, “keeping the party together” always seemed to mean “acquiescing to the South.” His friends during his early days in Washington were usually Southerners, and eventually Pierce adopted many of their views on the constitutionality of slavery, and the black man’s unsuitability for the blessings of liberty. From the beginning, he allowed the South to dictate his choices for the cabinet, so that even its northerners had Dixie’s stamp of approval and would not rock the boat on the slavery question. Secretary of State William Marcy of New York was intended to be the strongest “Northern” voice in the cabinet. But he was routinely undermined by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (doesn’t that just scream ‘bad judgment’ in hindsight?) and Caleb Cushing, a manipulative proslavery Massachusetts man who served as Attorney General.
If you know anything about Franklin Pierce’s administration, you probably know that he served during the “Bleeding Kansas” controversy. Pierce had been convinced to support Stephen Douglas’s plan to divide Kansas-Nebraska territory into two, and open both to “popular sovereignty,” allowing their citizens to determine for themselves whether or not to permit slavery. Effectively canceling the Missouri Compromise hammered out more than thirty years earlier, it opened this territory to the possibility of slavery. Understandably, the North saw this as a power grab- and even those who were not abolitionists were seriously pissed off; for over a generation, this land was thought of as a refuge for “Free labor”— where white men could go and seek their fortune, without having to compete against cheap slave manpower.
Eventually, abolitionist societies and Southern planters alike paid off settlers to go to Kansas and vote their way, and plenty of firearms were sent with them. Violence, naturally, followed as each faction distrusted the other and popular sovereignty created a sense of a zero-sum game, where one’s side success meant the other’s failure; a compromise could not be brokered. And so Kansas, with very few actual slaves in residence, became a battlefield fought over, in the words of one wag, “an imaginary Negro in an impossible place.” When you consider that the Union ultimately dissolved over the question of slavery in the territories, you have to consider that Pierce was the president who opened that can of worms, and allowed slavery in the territories to be contested, nullifying the Compromise of 1820, an imperfect agreement that had nonetheless settled the question of which areas in the west would and would not broker slavery.
To make matters worse, Pierce was serious about carrying out the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act, which his predecessor Fillmore would have preferred to ignore. Consider the case of Anthony Burns, a slave who had escaped and now lived in Boston. Even though a number of prominent Bostonians urged Pierce to let him go, even though his former master offered to sell Burns his freedom, he sent the federal marshals to Boston and apprehend Burns and take him back into slavery. Mobs gathered in protest, one federal marshall was killed, and the city of Boston was held temporarily under martial law until Burns could be ferried away. Textile mogul Amos Lawrence captured the feeling of the New England elite when he said, in response to the incident, “we went to bed one night old fashioned, conservative Compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad abolitionists.” The results were disastrous for the Democrats in New England, Pierce’s home turf. To put this in perspective, for the remainder of the 19th century, no New England state voted for any Democratic presidential candidate (with the exception of Connecticut’s support for Tilden and Cleveland). Under Pierce, mistrust had lackadaisically been allowed to degenerate into bloodshed, and a sectional rivalry devolved into sectional violence and fratricide. I do not believe in inevitability, but if I did, Pierce’s misdirection dialed up the “inevitability” of a sectional conflict up several notches.
To compound this, Pierce’s cabinet directed him into a revival of full-throttle imperialism. Pierce revived Polk-ish Tyler-esque expansionism, but with far less grace than Tyler, and far less success than Polk. “My administration will not be control by any timid forebodings of evil form expansion,” he orated in his inaugural address, and on this matter, at least, he was true to his word. Nathan Miller writes, “Had he been more imaginative [Pierce] might have made a Jacksonian appeal to the common man by supporting a homestead act to provide cheap land to small farmers, a bill to create land-grant colleges open to all, and tariff reduction.” Instead, Pierce squandered his broad mandate, and under advisement from Davis, attempted to gain territory that could potentially be used to enrich slave-state influence. Pierce tacitly encouraged “filibustering” expeditions to Cuba, where swashbuckling adventurers attempted to foment rebellion on the island and wrest it away from Spain. Pierce’s appointments then conspired to advise Marcy in what became known as the Ostend Manifesto: offer Spain $120 million for Cuba, but if the Iberian nation refused, the U.S. would have ample justification to take it by force, creating one very big and very lucrative slave state in the process. When the Manifesto was intercepted and made public, it was not only an international embarrassment for the Pierce administration, it was one more reminder to Northern voters where Pierce’s loyalties lay.
The underlying theme is a lack of leadership, and it infected nearly every aspect of his administration. Wallner points out that Pierce is the only full-term president whose cabinet stayed intact throughout his administration. This is true, but Pierce was deferential to his cabinet, uninterested in its affairs, and unwilling to hold anyone’s feet to the fire. He allowed men who did not have the national interest at heart run matters in his stead. Yet, most contemporaries agree Pierce was charming and personable one-on-one. But oftentimes, two very different parties could walk away from a meeting with Pierce and think he was on their side. Pierce was a mere vacuum, and the most capable and most assertive voice in his administration, usually Jefferson Davis, filled the void. Alvin Felzenberg captures the problem in The Leaders We Deserved: “Rather than use the high standing he enjoyed among southern politicians to entice them to tone down their demands, Pierce allowed himself to become a tool of the firebrands. While it cannot be known whether another president facing similar circumstances might have been able to calm tensions and dull sectional divisions, Pierce lacked the courage to try.”
Pierce seemed to desire a second term, but his support tapered out after the third vote of the 1856 convention, a terrible showing for an incumbent president who lost the confidence of every faction. When Fillmore left office, few guessed how badly he screwed up, but when Pierce stepped down, he was roundly reviled. His old sparring partner John Hale contended, “no man in modern times has inflicted such serious and lasting injury upon his country as Franklin Pierce.” One historian noted that whenever Sam Houston’s pen turned to Pierce, its legibility dissolved into an angry scrawl. And so, Pierce embarked upon an ignoble retirement, captured in Garry Boulard’s book The Expatriation of Franklin Pierce. He descended into alcoholism (contrary to some reports, Pierce more or less stayed on the wagon throughout his presidency), and to the rage of many Northerners, publicly doubted the necessity of civil war, and criticized Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus. When Jefferson Davis’s home was raided by Union soldiers, a long correspondence with Pierce was discovered, in which Pierce made borderline-disloyal comments about the cause of union. All of this damaged Pierce’s reputation in retirement, which wasn’t very long; he died in 1869 from cirrhosis of the liver, possibly a result of his sporadic drinking binges.
Out of all the presidents in my bottom ten, he and Van Buren stand out as the least bad men. It needs to be said that Pierce was a terrific husband to a wife who suffered extreme duress,. Two months before his inauguration, he and his wife watched their only son die in a freak railroad accident, adding personal tragedy to a tense geopolitical environment. (Mrs. Pierce spent the first two years of Pierce’s administration in the second floor of the White House and wouldn’t come down, preferring to write maudlin letters to their dead son. In fact, Siena College has published a ranking of first ladies every five years or so, and the last three times, Jane Pierce ranked last.) And he was a faithful friend, even present at the deathbed of his old compatriot, Hawthorne. He was known for doing legal work for poor families pro bono. Like the best Jacksonians, he at least believed that white men were created equal, and did his best to quell anti-Catholicism when that repugnant view punched many a political meal ticket in New England.
But as a president, Pierce failed. He was unable and unwilling to exert leadership on the issue of slavery and expansion, and what directions he did establish always seemed to favor the South time and again. One of our most outwardly religious presidents, Pierce was also a striking moral agnostic, unable to see why abolitionists pursued their cause with such enthusiasm; he was unable to fathom a group that refused to “go along to get along” as he did. Still, Pierce’s problem isn’t merely abetting slavery; lots of presidents did that. It was not that he failed to see both sides (or rather, a multitude of sides) of a national problem, it is that he failed to recognize there was a problem in the first place. He wastefully squandered a delicate balance, and in the process, the Democratic Party, the only real national institution with both northern and southern support, would be seen as the “southern party,” and what became the Republicans would be seen as “the northern party,” and with a number of exceptions, it would remain so well into the twentieth century. Pierce’s policies, not through malice, but sheer thickheadedness, brought his country to a point where no common ground could be had, and no common trust could be established.