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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 203

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This is the grave of Franklin Pierce.

One of the most detestable people to ever sit in the White House, a man so bad that he compares in quality to Donald Trump, Franklin Pierce was born in 1804 in Hillsborough, New Hampshire to a long-standing family that went back to the Puritans. His father was a locally prominent Jeffersonian and a landowner so Franklin was brought up in relative comfort and around politics. He went to Bowdoin College, where he became good friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne, and graduated in 1824. He was admitted to the bar in New Hampshire in 1827 and started a practice, but as was so common in this era, the law practice was really a way to enter politics. In 1828, Pierce’s father was elected governor of the state as a Jacksonian Democrat and in 1829, Franklin won an election for the New Hampshire House, where he became Speaker in 1831. He was then sent to Congress in 1833.

Pierce made a name for himself in Congress as a strong Jacksonian who was more opposed to federal funds for internal improvements than even most members of his own party. He of course absolutely opposed rechartering the Bank of the United States. Pierce claimed a moral opposition to slavery but did not actually care to do anything about it. Far more important to him was the much more critical moral point that the federal government be powerless to do anything about slavery. Moreover, he found even the growth of petitions being sent to Congress by abolitionists to be annoying. Even in the 1830s, he stated, “One thing must be perfectly apparent to every intelligent man. This abolition movement must be crushed or there is an end to the Union.” Thus he supported the Gag Rule that barred any discussion of slavery and abolition on the House floor. Already, opposition newspapers targeted Pierce was the epithet of “doughface,” or a northern man with southern principles. Nothing would define Pierce better.

Pierce moved on to the Senate in 1836 when Isaac Hill resigned to become governor. He was a party man in the Senate, certainly not on the level of the great senators of that era that so dominated the institution such as Clay and Webster. He voted the Calhoun line on all things slavery and supported Van Buren’s independent treasury scheme, as well as other terrible ideas to address the economic crisis brought on by Democratic economic policy in 1837. New Hampshire had an odd tradition at the time that no one should serve more than 6 years in the Senate and given that one had to be elected by the state legislature, there wasn’t any chance of reelection, so he resigned in 1842 and returned home.

Back in New Hampshire, he restarted his law practice in Concord and stayed deeply involved in Democratic politics. A big supporter of James Polk’s 1844 presidential run, the president repaid Pierce by naming him U.S. Attorney for New Hampshire after he turned down the offer of Attorney General. Pierce also led the fight to annex Texas as a slave state in 1845, which split the Democratic Party. The political soil was shifting and Pierce would be sure to end up on the side of the Slave Power at all costs. Pierce, who had a lifelong dream to fight in a war, immediately volunteered for the Mexican War (feeling a war was coming, this was why he turned down the AG offer) and became commander of the 9th Infantry. He fought in the campaign from Veracruz to Mexico City that resulted in the United States stealing half of Mexico to expand slavery. Pierce led the campaign to elect Lewis Cass president in 1848 and although he failed, New Hampshire was Zachary Taylor’s worst state, raising Pierce’s profile.

By 1852, national politics were a mess. Both parties were shifting rapidly with the Whigs on the verge of collapse over slavery. The Democrats had many people who wanted to be president but they mostly had as many enemies as supporters. With the party requiring a 2/3 majority for a nomination, basically a tool to ensure the South could veto anyone, it was hard for someone prominent to win. So, as was common in the 19th century, a compromise candidate had to be found, one that no one hated too much but one that was usually a second-rate hack. Franklin Pierce fit this description perfectly. Lewis Cass and James Buchanan were the leading candidates, but neither could get to that 2/3 majority. Pierce publicly stated he didn’t want to be president, but this was a prevarication and he was really excited about the possibility. He published statements talking up his support for the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act to help him out, which the Calhounites loved from their northern hacks. On the 49th ballot, Pierce won the nomination. He blew out Winfield Scott in the general election, with the general only winning four states. Scott’s people publicized Pierce’s noted alcoholism, wryly writing he was “the hero of many a well-fought bottle.”

Pierce’s boozing was not helped by the train accident he and his family was in shortly after the election, in which he witnessed his son’s near-decapitation. Reading about 19th century train accidents is an amazing thing; that technology was laughably, absurdly unsafe and it’s amazing that people rode those things. Safety was a total joke.

Pierce’s presidency was an unmitigated disaster. Facing a fractious party, he ruled by doing whatever the South wanted. Among his Cabinet appointees was Jefferson Davis as Secretary of War, who pursued forcing Mexico to cede even more land so he could push for a transcontinental railroad built across the South, giving that region more power. That resulted in the Gadsden Purchase, today the New Mexico boot heel and southern Arizona, including Tucson. There were a bunch of other diplomatic issues during these years, including tensions with Britain over a number of issues, but they all pale in comparison to Pierce’s actions on slavery.

The Compromise of 1850 was suppose to solve the slavery question. It was completely untenable for a number of reasons. The Fugitive Slave Act, an incredibly stupid move on the part of the South, created far more anti-slavery agitation in the North than existed before. But the South was becoming increasingly insatiable in their demands, effectively wanting to make the United States a slave nation in terms of having the right to take their human property wherever they wanted. And given the failure of the Mexican War to create new slave states, with California coming in as a free state, Utah opposing slavery, and New Mexico a weird place with people neither black nor white so what do you do, the South really wanted more slave states.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act became the answer to this and Pierce’s support of it is a permanent black mark on his reputation. This was more Stephen Douglas’ baby than Pierce, but Democrats whipped their party into supporting it and Pierce was more than happy to sign it. Pierce had no response to the Bleeding Kansas situation that followed except to do what he could to support the Slave Power, even though the actual citizens of Kansas wanted to be a free state. When free staters set up a government, Pierce dispatched federal troops to break up their meeting. He also ordered federal troops into Boston to take the escaped slave Anthony Burns back to the South. Determined to use the Fugitive Slave Act as aggressively as possible, Pierce infuriated a Boston that twenty years earlier had attempted to lynch William Lloyd Garrison, turning that city into an anti-slavery hotbed.

Moreover, Pierce was supportive of the ridiculous filibustering expeditions of William Walker, the pro-slavery adventurer who nearly blew up the Gadsden Treaty negotiations by invading Mexico and trying to take over Baja California and Sonora and who then went into a Nicaraguan civil war, took over the capital, and declared himself president while legalizing slavery. While this was totally untenable–his yahoo military force wasn’t going to be able to resist the Nicaraguan military for long without direct U.S. support, Pierce decided to recognize Walker as the legitimate president of Nicaragua! Walker ultimately wanted to connect Nicaragua to the U.S. in some way, either as a state or some sort of adjunct colony or client state. Of course he was defeated and killed in Honduras a few years later, but the sheer gall of Pierce recognizing this just to please his southern masters is a good sign of the total depravity of this president. Or maybe he was just drunk. Pierce also supported the annexation of Cuba, which would have really solidified the U.S. as a slave nation since slavery was so entrenched with big money sugar interests there. His State Department issued the Ostend Manifesto, laying out the justifications for annexation and calling for military action to take it from Spain. This led to even more outrage and fury from northern states.

Pierce was pretty self-deluded. He believed he was a great president. The booze probably helped. He thought he should be nominated again in 1856. This despite the fact that the 1854 elections led to devastation for the Democrats in the North, with the Know-Nothings taking the place of the now defunct Whigs and winning even Pierce’s home of New Hampshire, the most Democratic state north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Republicans would soon build on the discontent, combining northern Whigs with anti-slavery Democrats to outflank the Know-Nothings and be the second party challenger to the Democrats in 1856. Democratic leaders worried that Pierce would lose if he was renominated. So he was dispensed with and James Buchanan was nominated instead. Another doughface of equal horror, he would be third consecutive president and fifth out of six (Taylor being the exception) to move the nation materially toward the Civil War.

Pierce went traveling in Europe after his presidency, drinking all the way of course. As the Democrats fell apart in 1860, some supported Pierce as the candidate that could unite all the factions, and maybe he could have since he was such a toadie for Southern radicals, but he refused to run. When the Civil War began, most northern Democrats came together behind Lincoln, at least temporarily, around the point that he had to keep the Union together, by force if necessary. But not Pierce. He was a firm believer in the right to secede and opposed the war strongly. His enemies called him a traitor and a spy for the Confederacy; he wasn’t, but he was traveling around the North, visiting other anti-Lincoln fanatics. Pierce hated Lincoln. When the arch-traitor Clement Vallandigham was arrested in 1863, Pierce bitterly criticized the president, saying “Who, I ask, has clothed the President with power to dictate to any one of us when we must or when we may speak, or be silent upon any subject, and especially in relation to the conduct of any public servant?” After Lincoln was assassinated, Pierce refused to fly the American flag outside his house, quite an insult from a living ex-president and enough of an outrage that a mob formed outside his house to demand he do so. He did not submit to their demands.

Now, it turns out that massive boozing will have a negative impact on one’s health as one ages. Such was the case for Pierce, whose health became terrible by the end of the Civil War. He used his now limited political influence for another noble cause–to make sure Jefferson Davis got better treatment in prison. He also announced his support for all of Andrew Johnson’s policies. Bad racist drunken presidents attract. He died in 1869 of cirrhosis of the liver.

Franklin Pierce is buried in Old North Cemetery, Concord, New Hampshire.

If you would like to support this series visiting more drunken presidents, doughfaces, or bad Granite State politicians, you can donate here to cover the travel required. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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