Unloved President Franklin Pierce Had Seacoast Connections
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Franklin Pierce  medal smallHISTORY MATTERS

If he visited no other place, the departing President Franklin Pierce told a local crowd in 1856, he must come to Portsmouth. It was here that he spent some of the most agreeable years of his life, he said. Fresh out of BowdoinCollege, the athletic and strikingly handsome dark-haired Pierce had studied law in Portsmouth three decades earlier with the enormously popular Judge Levi Woodbury. (Click headline for full article) 

First of Two Parts 

Maybe Portsmouth would rather forget that Franklin Pierce had close personal ties to the seacoast region. The fourteenth president left office in disgrace, the only president in history whose party refused to nominate him for a second term. In the heady politics of the day, his opponents maligned him as a drunk, a military coward, a sympathizer of Southern slavery, and an intellectual lightweight. Historians sometimes brand Pierce as the man most responsible for the bloody Civil War.

By 1856, even many of Pierce's former allies had come to hate him. J.P Hale of Dover, the nation's first openly abolitionist senator, called him "reprehensible" from the Senate floor.  New Hampshire chief justice George Kittredge once remarked of Pierce: "In hell they'll roast him like a herring." Poet Walt Whitman declared that the president "eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it, and tries to force it on the states."

As the Pierce administration ended months later the New York Herald announced "Hallelujah! At twelve o'clock this day, the worst of the United States presidents will retire into private life. He has satisfied no one and disappointed all."

 FranklinPierce Closeup

Early Pierce days

Born  on a Hillsborough farm and tavern in 1804, one of eight children, New Hampshire's native son was very much a product of his environment. His mother Anna was charming, outgoing, maybe even a little tipsy and risqué. His father Benjamin Pierce had fought in the American Revolution and was twice elected governor of New Hampshire.

By age 16 Franklin was a reluctant student at the exclusive Bowdoin College in Maine where, for the first two years, he partied hard and ranked dead last academically. In a sudden conversion, Franklin hit the books and rose toward the top of his class. He also proved to be a strong leader of his school military company, a group that included future writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Hawthorne would remain his loyal friend for life.

Hawthorne later described the young Pierce as "vivacious, mirthful, slender, of  fair complexion." His cheerful nature "made a kind of sunshine, both as regarded its radiance and its warmth."

There is little left of the Portsmouth law office where Pierce worked under Levi Woodbury who, like Benjamin Pierce, also served as state governor. Built after the fire of 1802 the large U-shaped bank building stood at the heart of Market Square. The right half of the building was gutted and refaced in 1903, but the South wall is still standing. The left hand side was razed and replaced in 1903 with the building that is today the Ri Ra Irish Pub. By 1827 Franklin Pierce had established his own law office in Concord, NH. 

Levi Woodbury would go on to become a U.S. Senator, Secretary of the Treasury and the Navy under Andrew Jackson, and a justice of the Supreme Court. Woodbury is one of the only men in American history to serve in all three branches of the government, and he was nearly nominated for president just prior to his death in 1851.


Married with children

Jane Means Appleton PierceShe is among "the least studied and most misunderstood of America's first ladies," one historian notes. It is a little-known fact that Jane Mead Appleton Pierce was born in Hampton, NH in 1806. That's because her father, Rev. Jesse Appleton, moved the family to Maine the following year where he was appointed president of Bowdoin College. A pious Calvinist and obsessive scholar, Appleton died of typhus when Jane was 14 and the family moved to her mother's ancestral home in Amherst.

Although frail and nervous with a history of sleeplessness and poor digestion, Jane got a solid education in strictly-run boarding schools. One of her two sisters married a manager of the profitable textile mills at Rollinsford and Dover. The youngest of three girls, Jane was 28 when she married Franklin Pierce in a small private ceremony after a six year courtship.

Franklin apparently had eyes only for Jane, says historian Peter Wallner of Manchester. Wallner has written the definitive two-volume biography of Franklin Pierce. The 30-year old bachelor confessed to a friend that Jane was everything he thought about, Wallner says, although she originally had little interest in the country bumpkin lawyer. She was a semi-invalid, Wallner says, and Franklin wanted to be her helpmate. Jane was deeply pious, while Franklin had no religious affiliation. Advancing from state legislator, he was soon a freewheeling and gregarious Congressman from New Hampshire, while his wife hated politics and parties, preferring to stay home or visit family members.  

From the start of their marriage in 1834, Wallner says, "Pierce led two lives -- one when he was around Jane, the other when he was with his buddies" in the law office and in Washington, DC.

The couple's first son Franklin lived only three days in 1836. His death was God's will, Jane reasoned. Franklin was in Washington at the time. Despite his promise to stay out of politics, the following year Franklin found himself, at 33, elected as the youngest member of the United States Senate and keeping company with men like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.

Frail, weighing under 100 pounds, Jane hated the boring ceremonial life of a Senator's wife. As Franklin politicked, she lost a sister to disease, both of Franklin's parents died, and soon Jane was pregnant again. "My mind is sometimes, yes much of the time, in a perfect chaos, and I hardly know what I think or feel, or whether I feel at all," she confided to a friend.

When their second son Frank Roberts died at age four, Franklin Pierce quit his Senate job and returned to the law in Concord. Home with Jane, he drank less than when he was away and supported the temperance movement. But by 1844 he was inching his way back into politics as the district attorney of New Hampshire, appointed by President James Polk.

Always drawn to the soldier's life, Franklin signed on to serve in the controversial Mexican-American War. In 1847, against Jane's objections, he left her and their third son Benjamin, then six. Although he had no formal military experience, thanks to President Polk, he was soon commanding 2,000 men en route to Veracruz. But his horse stumbled at a critical battle. Pierce was thrown to the ground, his leg was crushed, and he passed out. Although officially a brigadier general with a war record, he was derided unfairly by some opponents as "Fainting Frank."

Dark-horse from NH

Franklin pierce seatedFranklin Pierce is sometimes presented as the unwitting pawn in a complex machine of party politics. But contemporary research shows that he was always in search of high office and cleverly positioned himself behind the scenes. Although undistinguished as a senator and a debatable war hero, he had a deep rich voice and fantastic memory which made him a potent public speaker. Kind and generous to all, unwilling to hold a grudge, he was the type of  guy men wanted to have a beer with, or many beers. While he has been called a "Copperhead" for his Yankee acceptance of Southern ways, he was technically opposed to slavery. "I wish it had no existence upon the face of the Earth," he once said.

If nothing else, Franklin Pierce was fiercely and unquestionably committed to holding the Union together at all costs. It was unconstitutional, he said, to force the southern states to abandon slavery. If the Union remained intact through compromise, he believed, the evil practice of human bondage would eventually fade away. But a growing number of Americans were coming to believe that an immoral law should be changed or disobeyed. Struggling to hold the Union together, Pierce saw the increasingly aggressive abolitionists themselves as the cause of a potential civil war.

"This abolition movement must be crushed or there is an end to he Union," Pierce had proclaimed as early as 1836.

To some Democrats, Franklin's respectful link to the South made him an ideal compromise candidate. Jefferson Davis, future leader of the Confederacy, was among Franklin's closest friends. Franklin was, after all, a handsome but little-known northerner. With no clear candidate apparent after 32 ballots, Franklin's name was placed in nomination in the Democratic Convention of 1852. Although some considered him "to small a man for the job," his name gained more votes with succeeding ballots until he broke the deadlock on ballot number 49.

Franklin and Jane Pierce were riding in a carriage in Concord, New Hampshire when a friend pulled up to them on horseback.

"Who do you suppose has got the nomination?" the friend announced with excitement. "It is no other person than yourself."

"Impossible. It cannot be," Franklin Pierce said as Jane fainted dead away.


Big win, big losses to come

Jane Pierce with son BennieThe Democrats managed a brilliant campaign. Pierce ran against his old Mexican War commander Gen. Winfield Scott. Nicknamed "Old Fuss and Feathers," the 300-pound Whig candidate reportedly gave long dull speeches. The more Scott campaigned, the better Franklin looked.

"His portrait is everywhere and in all sorts of styles," Franklin's school friend Nathaniel Hawthorne said with surprise. Franklin's handsome figure, seated and on horseback, appeared etched in wood, on metal plaques, on brass medallions, and even on ladies' handkerchiefs. With great reluctance, Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, agreed to write a quick campaign biography for Pierce. His job, Hawthorne wrote, was simply to balance the "indiscriminate abuse" and "aimless praise" to create a true picture of the true Franklin Pierce. Boston publisher James T. Fields, who grew up in the south end of Portsmouth, quickly released 13,000 copies of the campaign biography.

The candidate made few personal appearances, said little, and stayed out of sight. Between Franklin's nomination and the coming election, the Pierce's got in a little vacation time. They spent much of the summer at Rye Beach, New Hampshire. There Franklin, a rugged specimen of manhood, was seen frolicking in the waves with his son Benny.

It was during this period that Hawthorne spent 10 days at the Isles of Shoals, lodging at the Appledore Hotel with the Laighton family. He played whist with their beautiful teenaged daughter Celia, recently married to another Bowdoin graduate named Levi Thaxter. The future President of the United States made a daytrip out to the Isles of Shoals to visit Hawthorne. 

There would be few such happy days ever again. Jane Pierce was horrified when she learned in November of 1852 that her husband had won the election in a landslide popular vote. She knew she was not fitted for life as the First Lady, or for the constant public attacks against her husband, but she was resigned to do her best. Franklin would not take office until March.

About 1 pm on January 6, 1853, having attended the funeral of a relative in Boston, the Pierce's boarded a train in Andover and headed back to Concord. There was only one passenger car. Jane and Franklin sat together on the front bench with Benny sitting behind them.

About a mile down an icy track an axle snapped. The railroad car spun around and then plunged down a rocky embankment, landing upside down. Benny, who at first appeared to be lying unconscious, was the only passenger killed. The back of his head had been sheared off in the crash. Jane Pierce, with the last of her three sons gone, would disappear into a state of grief that lasted through half of her husband's tumultuous presidency.    

To be continued

SOURCES: Franklin Pierce, NH's Favorite Son (2004) by Peter Wallner; The Expatriation of Franklin Pierce (2006) by Gary Boulard; Franklin Pierce (2010) by Michael F. Holt; The Life of Franklin Pierce (1852) by Nathaniel Hawthorne; Rambles About Portsmouth (1994) by Ray Brighton; and "Revealing Relationships: The Family and Friends of Franklin Pierce," (2005) in Historical New Hampshire.  


Copyright © 2014 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS.   

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