Franklin Pierce: NH's Forgotten President
Franklin Pierce may not have been the best president ever (in fact, for a long time he was considered exactly the opposite), but hey, he’s ours
The first thing to understand about Franklin Pierce, New Hampshire’s very own lower-tier American president, is that he is very, very little-known. How little? Well, each August, Pierce’s hometown of Hillsborough holds an annual Living History Event. The guest of honor at this year’s event? A man portraying President ... Ulysses S. Grant. There aren’t, you see, any Pierce re-enactors to invite.
There’s not a demand [for Pierce re-enactors], generally,” says Site Manager Sara Dobrowolski of Concord’s Franklin Pierce Homestead. “We’d be the only place [that would hire him], probably.”
The man fares no better outside of Hillsborough: A 2014 study found only 7 percent of Americans could name him as a president. Only Chester A. Arthur was more obscure. Probably most of that 7 percent know of Pierce only as the US president whose name stands between those of fellow little-knowns Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan — not exactly the heart of the White House batting order.
Of course, there are worse things than obscurity. Like, say, infamy. “He was taken up [in the public eye] because he was unknown,” wrote The New York Times in 1856, shortly after Pierce became the only president to be rejected by his own party for re-nomination. “And now he is spurned because he is known.” Historians have been ranking the presidents since 1948; only once has Franklin Pierce made it out of the bottom five, and that time he was sixth worst.
This is at least partly his own doing. The post-Civil War universe has not looked kindly on the “Northern man with Southern sympathies,” who defended the rights of slave owners and criticized anti-slavery “agitation,” and even trekked to a military garrison to visit Jefferson Davis after the war ended. But at other times this admittedly flawed public man deserved the benefit of the doubt and didn’t get it, like when he was briefly, and bizarrely, investigated for treason by members of the Lincoln administration because he’d criticized Honest Abe to some friends.
“Ronald Reagan was called the ‘Teflon president’ because nothing that happened during his administration stuck to him,” says historian Peter Wallner, one of the few who have studied Pierce closely. “Pierce was just the opposite. He would be the ‘Velcro president.’ Everything that happened during his administration stuck to him.”
These real and perceived flaws have kept our 14th president out of the historical spotlight for more than a century and a half. But even presidents who don’t end up on Mount Rushmore leave us ways to rediscover them. Franklin Pierce’s historical afterlife may be on the small, quiet side, but it’s there for the finding in New Hampshire — if you know where to look.
The Estimable Citizen
The Pierce Homestead is as good a place as any to start.
“They were a fun family,” explains Sara Dobrowolski about the Pierces. “You hear all these stories about Franklin and his wife, and they’re all so sad, but the first half of his life that was spent here was just incredibly happy.”
This elegant frame and clapboard house was the work of Pierce’s father, Benjamin, who had walked off the family farm to join the Colonial forces at Bunker Hill and ended the American Revolution as a general. Surveying work brought Benjamin Pierce to New Hampshire, but he put his roots down as a politician: He built the homestead on a post road in Hillsborough’s Lower Village and used its enormous second floor ballroom and ornate parlors in turns as training space for the local militia, a public tavern and campaign headquarters; he would twice serve as New Hampshire governor.
“Benjamin was one of those people where he couldn’t stand it if the house was too empty,” Dobrowolski says. “He wanted it full, he wanted noise.” So did Franklin, seventh of nine Pierce children and an A-level socializer in his own right. At Bowdoin College, the future president was known for starting what one historian called “furniture-smashing wrestling matches” with classmates or sneaking out of the dorms to hang out at the local tavern. He also shared his dad’s political ambition: Just a few years out of college, “Handsome Frank” was the Speaker of the New Hampshire House, the youngest ever, and General Pierce was clearing out of his office at the homestead to make room for his son. A few years later, Pierce was the youngest man in the United States Congress, serving four years in the House and five in the Senate before returning to his family and his private law practice in New Hampshire in 1842.
That’s where Pierce probably would have stayed for the rest of his life, had it been up to his Washington-averse wife. But Pierce never fully put politics behind him — he remained involved in the state Democratic Party and bought a house just down the street from the New Hampshire Statehouse. He volunteered for the war with Mexico, knowing that the title of brigadier general never hurt a man with an eye toward high office.
And then, in 1852, the Democratic Party needed a compromise candidate to break a long deadlock between its frontrunners. Despite assuring his wife that he’d left Washington for good, “it was him saying ‘pick me,”’ Wallner says. “He was very much involved with his supporters in Washington, DC, and around the country. I’m not 100 percent sure he thought he could get it, but he was definitely trying hard to get it.” To say he was an unknown would be putting it mildly — Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas joked that if an obscurity like Pierce could end up a presidential nominee, “hereafter, no private citizen is safe” — but the Democrats turned to Pierce’s old college friend, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, to fill in their nominee’s biographical blanks.
Hawthorne’s “The Life of Franklin Pierce” is a fascinating piece of campaign spin. It portrays Pierce as a man of high character and good judgment, but not exactly an overachiever. Though Pierce didn’t author any notable legislation in Congress, instead winning a reputation for partying and drinking, Hawthorne says his friend “rendered unobtrusive, though not unimportant, services to the public.” Senator Pierce, he adds, stayed quiet in the Senate because there was simply too much intellectual firepower in the chamber already for a new guy to break through. “With his usual tact, and exquisite sense of propriety,” Hawthorne writes, “he saw that it was not the time for him to step forward prominently.” Critics mocked Hawthorne’s attempt to turn a lowly backbencher, out of the arena for a decade, into the second coming of Andrew Jackson as “the greatest work of fiction he ever wrote.” Nonetheless, the book was a hit, as was the Democratic Party’s unintentionally terrifying campaign slogan — “We Polked you in ’44, we shall Pierce you in ’52” — and 47-year-old Franklin Pierce, ever the young man in a hurry, became, at that time, the youngest man elected president.
Franklin Pierce's portrait painted by George Peter Alexander Healy
“Pierce was ambitious for the presidency,” says Wallner. “Once he got there, it turned out not to be quite as enjoyable as he thought it would be.” Weeks before the inauguration, the Pierces’ 11-year-old son, Bennie, was killed in a train accident. Their other two children had died even younger. Jane Pierce, who by now knew her husband had been working to get back into politics all along, considered Bennie’s death a kind of divine punishment and stayed so far out of sight in Washington she was dubbed “the Ghost of the White House.”
President Pierce tried to work through his grief, but the work wasn’t much of a solace. The country’s uneasy truce over slavery, formed in the Compromise of 1850, was already fraying. Northerners made Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” a best-seller; Southerners warned they might break up the country if “states’ rights” — meaning slavery — weren’t protected and expanded into new areas. The new president tried to emphasize the “spirit of self-sacrificing patriotism” to save the Union, as his hero Andrew Jackson had done, but the North and South weren’t interested in sacrificing for each other over slavery anymore. And the man sometimes called “Young Hickory of the Granite Hills” simply wasn’t Andrew Jackson: He didn’t have the force of personality or the power base to lead the country away from growing conflict. “Pierce, poor fellow, has no hold on the nation,” observed Pennsylvania politician J. Glancy Jones. “He is the accidental head of an organization, without any cohesive power ... no one fears him, no one feels much interest in his personal welfare.”
The troubles of Pierce’s presidency came to a head when Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois introduced a bill to organize the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and allow the residents of the territories to decide for themselves whether to be free or slave. Pierce recognized it would undo decades of sectional compromises over slavery, something he’d promised not to do, but signed it anyway. Soon violence broke out between pro- and anti-slavery contingents racing to take control of “Bleeding Kansas.” Pierce eventually sent federal troops to restore order, but his happy pronouncement in 1856 of “the peaceful condition of Kansas” didn’t mention the many people who’d been killed there.
Politically, Kansas-Nebraska realigned the parties — northern Democrats who were wary of slavery didn’t think they had a home in their party anymore. “The old Dem. party is now the party of slavery,” said Maine Senator Hannibal Hamlin. “It has no other issue in fact and this is the standard on which [it] measures every thing and every man.” Hamlin joined a new coalition called the Republican Party. So did a largely obscure former congressman from Illinois, who rose out of political retirement to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska law. “We began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for SOME men to enslave OTHERS is a ‘sacred right of self-government.’ These principles can not stand together,” said Abraham Lincoln, who would, in six years, be elected the first Republican president.
The Franklin Pierce memorial coin looks quite honorable until you turn it over. Who would want their commemorative token to remember them for a sad alliterative nickname ("Poor Pierce") and the bleak motto “Fires of Civil War Lighted”?
By 1856, the Democrats considered Pierce too toxic to be re-elected, and Pierce became the only sitting president to be denied his party’s nomination. Congress ignored the outgoing president, whom the papers described as “a wreck of his former self.” New Hampshire voted for the Republican in the presidential election, and when Pierce returned home to Concord, the city voted down a proposal to give him a welcoming parade. For an ex-president, Pierce said, “There’s nothing left ... but to get drunk.”
Historians use words like “bitter” and “unhappy” to describe Pierce’s final years. He criticized President Lincoln’s handling of the Civil War, which strangely led to a treason investigation. Pierce was cleared in short order, but the Detroit Tribune spoke for many northerners in calling the ex-president a “prowling traitor spy.” It didn’t help that Pierce described the war effort as “fearful, fruitless [and] fateful” on the very day that Union troops had won the day at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. There were more personal losses too — Jane Pierce succumbed to tuberculosis in 1863, which left the former president “overwhelmed with grief,” and he was with Nathaniel Hawthorne when the great writer died, at the Pemigewasset House in Plymouth. As Pierce’s isolation increased, so did his consumption of brandy and champagne. He died in 1869 of cirrhosis. “Although his record as a statesman cannot command the approbation of the nation,” wrote The New York Times, “he still should be followed to the grave with that respect which is due to one who has filled the highest office in the gift of the people — a President of the United States.”
Pierce-a-billa and Legacy
Pierce’s reputation hasn’t budged much since that obituary. He’s been afforded the respect of a former president, and so anytime there’s a project commemorating the whole set he’s included. Consider, for example, a set of popular commemorative coins from the early 20th century. The former president looks distinguished in profile on the front side, but flip the coin and things go in a very different direction: “POOR PIERCE,” it says. After listing his political and military career, the coin passes judgment: “FIRES OF THE CIVIL WAR LIGHTED ... BETTER SOLDIER THAN STATESMAN.”
I’ve seen several wax likenesses of Pierce — his wavy hair really comes to life at Madame Tussauds in Washington, DC, though the museum near Mount Rushmore has literally stuck its Wax Pierce in a box. Down the road in Rapid City, South Dakota, where there are life-size statues of every president, Pierce holds his top hat and walking stick outside Murphy’s Pub and Grill — a bit unfortunate, given his lifelong struggle with liquor.
He has his share of presidential kitsch too: The Pierce PEZ dispenser is rather sporty, as is the little plastic Pierce figurine created in the ’50s by the toymaker Louis Marx & Company. (“They’re kind of creepy looking if you ask me,” laughs Dobrowolski, “but people love them!”) On Etsy, I saw a shop called Pet Presidents, where the artist renders the chiefs as animals. Franklin Pierce the ferret looked nice, though he seemed to trail in sales behind giraffe Abraham Lincoln and James Buchanan as a beluga whale.
Pierce outperforms his reputation in only one way: as a namesake. Presidents of the 1840s and 1850s have lots of towns, counties and streets named for them because they were handy namesakes as America moved west. But not everyone has been on board with Pierce the namesake. In Topeka, Kansas, there’s a series of streets named for the early presidents, but in between Fillmore and Buchanan there’s Clay Street — no Pierce.
Even New Hampshire declined to keep the Pierce flame burning for a time. After the Civil War, the state played down its Pierce connection and put up statues of Revolutionary hero John Stark, abolitionist senator John Hale and statesman Daniel Webster instead. It wasn’t until 1914, 45 years after Pierce’s death, that the state finally put up a statue of the former president — albeit one that’s outside the walls of the Statehouse grounds.
But then came the Pierce Brigade, and for a time there was a real, genuine, sustained effort to pull the 14th president out of the historical doldrums. In 1966, the city of Concord’s Capital Plaza North urban renewal project aimed to make way for a new street by tearing down a group of homes, including the one Pierce owned in the decade before he became president. Some 200 concerned Granite Staters formed the Brigade and mobilized to stop the demolition, making the case that Pierce had been treated too harshly. “History has been most unkind to this man, considering the problems of his time,” Iyla Bonnecaze, founding Brigade member, told the Los Angeles Times. “He was, in fact, as good a President as anyone could be.”
The Brigade was so persistent that it got the state and federal government to help cover the costs of saving the house (though it was a bit awkward that the state’s share came in part from the sale of commemorative bourbon bottles), and, in 1971, flatbed trucks brought the house from Montgomery Street to its current location on Horseshoe Pond Lane. The Pierce Brigade also successfully pushed — for 15 years — to get the Statehouse portrait of Pierce moved to a prominent position in Representatives Hall. For a time, they kind of made Franklin Pierce fun again.
And there are parts of the Pierce record even his biggest critics can celebrate. Pierce stood up for New Hampshire Catholics at a time when they were shunned, and he successfully lobbied the Legislature not to pass strict laws against the Shakers, paving the way for Canterbury Shaker Village today. Wallner notes that Pierce’s administration had none of the corruption other presidents of the era confronted. When Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son Willie died in 1862, it was Pierce who reached out, able to sympathize with Lincoln’s plight like few others could.
But the public interest in preserving Franklin Pierce’s manse hasn’t carried over into boosting Franklin Pierce’s reputation. In 2013, the New Hampshire House tabled a bill to establish November 23, the president’s birthday, as “Franklin Pierce Day.” It had received a unanimous thumbs-down from the House Executive Departments and Administration Committee, which said it “was unwilling to perpetually honor such a person.” Wallner says that “as long as people see the Civil War as a great crusade against slavery and to improve relations between the races, I think that Pierce will always look bad in that regard.”
Presidential signatures tend to fluctuate in value. This post office appointment document was selling for a $580 “buy it now” price on eBay. Compare that to a Warren G. Harding civil appointment document from 1922 priced at $1,400.
Today, those in the Pierce game are mostly playing defense, clearing up false rumors about the president and his family. “I’ll get people that come into the house sometimes, ranting because they’re convinced that the house was full of slaves,” Dobrowolski says. “It’s a really hard thing to fight against sometimes.” She says she even got pushback when the New Hampshire Historical Society’s Pierce bobblehead showed up in the homestead’s gift shop. “When they ran out,” she says, “I was not unhappy, to tell you the truth.”
The Pierce Brigade recognizes the challenge of telling the Pierce story. “You’re kind of fighting against the tide here,” says Joan Woodhead, who has led the Brigade for the last eight years. “We had President Clinton at the manse in 2009, and he was talking about the decisions that presidents have to make ... he said, when you’re president, you have the information, you look at the information, and then you have to make a decision, and you do the best you can with the information that you have at the time, and hope it will be the right thing, but you don’t know for sure that it will. I always think about that when I think of Pierce.”
New Hampshire’s Pierce tour probably isn’t going to get any shorter, at least. The homestead and the manse are both in good condition, physically and financially. Pierce’s grave, in Concord’s Old North Cemetery, is in fine shape as well. (The house known as Pierce Mansion on South Main Street in Concord, where the president died, burned down in 1981.) And his statehouse statue probably isn’t going to meet the same fate as those of the Confederate monuments being pulled down across the country. “In his case, and many others, the right thing to do is to put such monuments in context,” the Concord Monitor opined in August. “A more complete explanation of Pierce and his role leading up to and following the Civil War should be posted on the state’s website, in handouts available near his statue and in the nearby information kiosk.”
What the Pierce story needs now, though, is new tellers. His story doesn’t have to be perfect to make it worth telling. “We’re getting older; we’d love to have some new, younger members come along and join the Brigade,” says Woodhead. “For anyone out there who likes New Hampshire in the wintertime and wants to stick around here, we’d love to hear from them.”
So if there is a Franklin Pierce re-enactor out there after all, it’s about time to step forward.
The straight story of Franklin Pierce, minus the snark and malarkey, was never told better than by historian Peter Wallner, who moved to New Hampshire specifically to research and write this two-volume, definitive biography of our 14th president. Wallner stuck around to write a biography of another great (and also controversial) Granite Stater: Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. He recently retired as library director for the New Hampshire Historical Society and as an adjunct instructor in the graduate program at Franklin Pierce University, but he continues his historical writing and research.
About the Story's Author
Brady Carlson is the author of “Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders” (W.W. Norton, 2016). For more than a decade he was a host at New Hampshire Public Radio, and now hosts “All Things Considered” for Wisconsin Public Radio. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his family.