Franklin Pierce

So I’m reading about the presidents, and I reach Franklin Pierce, our fourteenth chief executive. Pierce is not someone you would have expected to become president. In fact, he left politics to tend to his lucrative law practice (which, like fellow ex-president Millard Fillmore’s, is still around today.) However, the Democratic Party, torn apart by sectional rivalries and a feud between the old Jacksonians and the “New Americans,” chose Pierce as a compromise candidate. Like Fillmore, whom he replaced, Pierce wasn’t even looking for the presidency.

Yet he was one of the first candidates in a long time who was well-suited for the job. Van Buren was too much the political magician. Harrison was a shell of his former self when he died in office. Tyler was unnecessarily duplicitous in his job. Taylor lacked education and experience, and Fillmore was a hack. Only James K. Polk, who had been Speaker of the House and Governor of Tennessee, was really worth running.

Pierce had it all – A good family pedigree that included a Revolutionary War hero father, good education, good connections. Considered the best looking man to have ever run for president – His nickname was Handsome Frank – Pierce preceded Warren Harding, Jack Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and every president from Clinton onward as a perfectly presidential-looking candidate. It helped that Pierce had an amiable personality and enjoyed (maybe too much) his drink.

Pierce had comported himself well in Congress and in the Senate, a northerner with Southern sympathies. As such, Pierce was seen as someone who could derail the Whigs (which he helped do) while bridging the widening gap between North and South (he failed).

In Michael F. Holt’s biography of Pierce, the man is hardly present during the narrative of his own administration. Pierce was screwed the moment he tried to spread his patronage among all the Democratic Party’s various factions. Holt’s focus is on those around Pierce. He is particularly unforgiving of former Secretary of State James Buchanan, now universally considered the worst president in US history. Buchanan succeeds Pierce in vindictive fashion, mercilessly purging Pierce appointees, then proceeding to indulge in the same policy of appeasing the South that doomed Pierce.

Part of what made Pierce so ineffective was the death of his son in 1853 in a train accident. A heavy drinker to begin with, the tragedy on the way to the White House probably pushed him into the alcoholism that would effect him the rest of his life. The public could not wait until Pierce was out of office, yet when Buchanan was nominated, they changed their minds. Once the campaign began in earnest, however, voters were disgusted with Buchanan and the Known Nothings and underwhelmed by both the final Whig candidate for President, General Winfield Scott, and the Republicans’ first candidate, the self-aggrandizing John C. Fremont. A groundswell to get Pierce to run once more for president failed to persuade the lame-duck president, and Buchanan won as the least of four evils. Pierce spent the next four years rolling his eyes at the pettiness and ineptitude of his former Minister to Great Britain.

Pierce’s final years found him deep in Union territory opposing Mr. Lincoln’s war (as Southern sympathizers thought of it.) He also was friends with Jefferson Davis, his former Secretary of War and close confidant. Ironically, Davis, now Lincoln’s counterpart in Richmond, had been reluctant for Mississippi to secede from the Union and did not seek the presidency of the new Confederacy.

Pierce’s problems with Union loyalists culminated on the day Lincoln was assassinated when an angry and grieving crowd converged on his home demanding to know why he wasn’t flying the flag. Pierce had only just found out about Lincoln’s death and voiced his own sorrow over the tragedy. While opposing Lincoln, he, like many Southerners, saw the slain president as the South’s best hope in the post-war era.

Pierce’s final years were spent childless with his wife in poor health. He drifted deeper into alcoholism and died in 1869 as one of our more obscure presidents.

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