Monday, February 20, 2012

Franklin Pierce

Three years ago, on President’s Day, I randomly selected a President, read the wikipedia article about him, and wrote a blog post commenting on what I read. That President was Chester A. Arthur, and you can read my blog post here.

For this year’s President’s Day, I will do the same thing for another President who is not overly well-known: Franklin Pierce.

Where was Franklin Pierce’s Presidency in history? Pierce was President from 1853-1857. Go two Presidents back from Abraham Lincoln, and you arrive at Franklin Pierce. The issues of Pierce’s day were American expansionism and slavery, and the guy who would become President of the Confederacy years later, Jefferson Davis, was Pierce’s Secretary of War.

Here are four things that stood out to me in the wikipedia article on Pierce:

1. Pierce was good friends with author Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, and First Lady Barbara Pierce Bush is a distant cousin of Franklin Pierce.

2. Pierce served in the Mexican-American war over who would have Texas. His leg was wounded when he fell from a horse, and during a battle the pain was so intense that people carried him off of the field, which later political opponents cited as an example of cowardice on his part. But Pierce returned to battle and led his brigade to capture Mexico City.

3. Pierce experienced a lot of tragedy in his life. He lost his three children before he officially served as President. He saw one of his kids become decapitated in a train accident. This event put Pierce’s wife into a state of severe depression, and she thought that God was punishing her family for her husband’s political aspirations.

4. Pierce was a Northerner in that he had strong roots in New Hampshire and served and represented that state politically. But he was considered to be a “doughface”, a Northerner who sympathized with the South. Like the term RINO (Republican in Name Only) today, “doughface” was a pejorative term in those days. Abraham Lincoln accused his political opponent, Stephen Douglas, for instance, of being a doughface. Doughfaces tended to alienate the South on some issues, too, for they were usually supporters of popular sovereignty, the notion that white males in states should vote on whether or not their states would be slave or free. When the anti-slavery movement grew, popular sovereignty looked less attractive to white Southerners, who feared that the free states would outnumber the slave states, which could give free states more representation and thereby threaten the institution of slavery.

In the 1852 general election, Pierce ran against Whig candidate Winfield Scott, who was Pierce’s superior officer in the Mexican-American war. Both were war heroes, and so being a war hero did not help either candidate. But Scott was anti-slavery, which alienated Southern voters. Pierce, by contrast, was not anti-slavery.

As President, Pierce supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which stipulated popular sovereignty for Kansas and Nebraska. That proved to be disastrous because it elevated tensions over slavery, and Pierce was not renominated by the Democratic Party for a second term. Historians Philip B. Kunhardt and Peter W. Kunhardt state that Pierce “has been criticized as timid and unable to cope with a changing America.” At the same time, people still held out hope for a political comeback on the part of Franklin Pierce. Because he was a Northerner with Southern sympathies, some thought that he would be a good Democratic candidate in 1860, one who could unite the Northern and the Southern factions of the Democratic Party. But Pierce chose not to run.

What interested me most was Pierce’s post-Presidential life. Pierce continued to live in New Hampshire, which is in the North. But Pierce was critical of President Abraham Lincoln for suspending Habeas Corpus, for Pierce did not believe that civil liberties should go out the door during wartime. Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, accused Pierce of belonging to a pro-Southern group known as the Knights of the Golden Circle. Pierce responded and wanted Seward to include Pierce’s response in the State Department’s official files, but that did not happen, and so a supporter of Pierce in the U.S. Senate read the correspondence between Seward and Pierce. The wikipedia article states (whether accurately or inaccurately, I do not know) that “Nearly every Seward biographer has since considered the Pierce-Seward exchange as a blot on the Secretary’s otherwise notable career.”

When Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ plantation was captured by Union soldiers, it was learned from Davis’ papers that Pierce was a friend of Davis and was critical of Northern abolitionism and the Civil War, whose purpose Pierce said was to “to wipe out the states and destroy property” (Pierce’s words). Abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe had long disliked Pierce, and she now referred to him as an “archtraitor”.

When Lincoln was assassinated, an angry mob gathered outside of Pierce’s home, demanding to know why his house was not decked with black and with American flags in mourning of President Lincoln’s death. Pierce responded that he, too, was saddened by Lincoln’s death, and that he (Pierce) was a loyal American who fought for his country. He also appealed to the service of his father, who fought in the Revolutionary War. The mob quieted down and some even cheered Pierce as he went back into his house.

When Pierce died, President Ulysses S. Grant (who, as many of you know, was a general in the Union Army) declared a day of national mourning. Grant also defended against detractors Pierce’s record of service in the Mexican-American War (perhaps because political opponents called Pierce a coward for having to leave battle due to his hurt leg).

Pierce is considered to be a talented politician but an inept President. It was especially interesting to me to learn how he, as a Northerner, received criticism for his anti-Lincoln views and his Southern sympathies, especially during and after the Civil War. I cannot condone his views on slavery, but I can somewhat understand his opposition to the Civil War and his concern about civil liberties. The Civil War may have been a good cause on the part of the North, but so many lives were lost. That’s not to say that I’m against the Civil War, but rather that I understand why there were people who wanted to prevent it.

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