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Unloved President Franklin Pierce Had Seacoast Connections

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.


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