Franklin Pierce, the Rodney Dangerfield of Presidents

Two hundred years after his birth, Franklin Pierce still gets no respect.

Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce.

In 2009 the United States will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of our sixteenth President, Abraham Lincoln. The date is nearly five years away yet Congress has already established a 15-person national committee and appropriated millions of dollars solely for the planning of the celebration. In contrast, November 23 of this year will mark the bicentennial of the birth of President Franklin Pierce (1804-69), an anniversary that might have passed without notice if it weren’t for Jayme Simões, chairman of the comparatively modest Franklin Pierce Bicentennial Committee. 

In C-SPAN's 1999 survey of Presidential leadership, historians and C-SPAN viewers alike rated Pierce 39th-best among 41 past Presidents. Perhaps that explains why no one was particularly enthusiastic about highlighting Pierce’s life and accomplishments. Yet, Simões called on a variety of museums and institutions in Pierce's home state of New Hampshire and managed to establish an impressive series of programs designed to get the public talking about our much-maligned fourteenth President. “The goal of the committee is to have a decent commemoration of Pierce and to foster discussion,” says Simões. “And that’s what we’re doing.”

The committee’s first obstacle is Pierce's lack of name recognition. “About 99 percent of the American public say: ‘Who the hell is Franklin Pierce?’” admits Simões. The few that do know Pierce tend to hold him in low regard. “Those people who know anything about the history of the United States remember him as one of our worst Presidents,” says Peter A. Wallner, author of a new biography on Pierce entitled, “Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son” (Plaidswede). “He’s usually considered a weak man who because of his weakness as President brought on the crisis that became the Civil War.” 

But according to both Simões and Wallner, Pierce’s reputation as an incompetent President is largely undeserved. While Pierce’s adult life started inauspiciously—he was last in his class of 17 after two years at Maine’s Bowdoin College—he proved to be a naturally gifted politician, elected to the New Hampshire state legislature at the age of 24 and Speaker of the [state] House two years later. “He had a common touch and was great with crowds. People flocked to hear him speak,” notes Wallner. Determined, hard driving, and even ruthless at times, he built up a powerful political machine in New Hampshire that won election after election for close to two decades. “Pierce was a very able and dynamic man, a terrific lawyer, and a patriot who believed he was doing the right thing. He combined all the elements that make a successful politician,” continues Wallner. 

In fact, it was a clever political strategy that allowed Pierce to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 1852. Pierce was ten years removed from serving in public office, having spent the preceding decade fighting in the Mexican War, focusing on his law practice, and raising a family with his wife Jane. But Pierce felt that none of the potential Democratic nominees were strong enough to get the two-thirds vote needed to receive the nomination at the convention in Baltimore. “The textbooks say Pierce was a dark horse who was chosen out of the blue, but the reality was that six months before the convention his group of supporters from New Hampshire predicted exactly what would happen,” says Wallner. 

What happened was that his political allies lobbied behind the scenes to make Pierce the delegates’ second choice. “Pierce, who was in New Hampshire, was telling them to go ahead and do it, but to make sure his name was never even mentioned on the convention floor until the three leading candidates had basically been knocked out. He felt the convention at that time would have grown tired and weary. When his name would be presented as an alternative everyone would say, ‘Yeah, he’s a pretty good guy,’” observes Wallner. The political savvy Pierce demonstrated is not lost on Simões, who says, “Pierce pulled off one of the greatest political coups in the history of the United States and no one even knows about it. He orchestrated his nomination to be the Democratic candidate without ever putting his foot on the floor of the convention.”

Pierce went on to win the election and served as President from 1853-57. The predominant issue during his term was slavery, but it was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) that led the public to perceive him as a weak Northerner who was pro-South. Although Pierce considered slavery a “social and political evil” he believed that the issue should be decided by the individual states, and as President it was his job to enforce the nation's laws. “The Kansas-Nebraska bill was controversial,” reminds Wallner, “because it allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not they would be slave states. People in the North were shocked because they thought the Missouri Compromise—which had drawn a line across the country and said that slavery was banned anywhere north of that line—was still in effect. When the Civil War occurred, if you were seen as pro-South at any time in your life you were seen as a traitor to the nation or someone who helped bring about the war,” he continues. 

The slavery controversy aside, Pierce played an active role in trying to improve the welfare of the country. He sent explorer Commodore Perry to open up Japan for trade, established free trade between the U.S. and Canada, focused on paying off the national debt, and had five routes to the Pacific surveyed for the transcontinental railroad—three of which were later used. He also rebuilt the Navy (replacing sailing ships with steam ships), increased the size of the Army, and outfitted its soldiers with modern rifles. In addition to the impact he had on the country’s economy, Pierce’s personal reputation was a good one. “He was one of the most honest Presidents we had in the 19th century. There was not a single scandal of corruption or embezzlement in the Pierce administration,” says Simões. “Three of his cabinet members were considered among the five best cabinet members of the century,” adds Wallner, furthering that sentiment. 

Simões hopes that the ongoing events surrounding the Pierce bicentennial will get the public to take a closer look at the man's life and accomplishments, most notably the expansive Pierce exhibition (“Franklin Pierce: Defining Democracy in America”) that runs through May 8, 2005 at the Museum of New Hampshire History in Concord. “It breaks Pierce's life into seven different sections and tries to put Franklin Pierce into context,” begins Simões. “There are also programs at the Pierce manse—the house he lived in before he was President—and at Franklin Pierce College and Franklin Pierce Law Center.” Among the interesting tidbits one might learn: Pierce was a lifelong friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of “The Scarlet Letter.” And Barbara Pierce Bush—mother of current President George W. Bush—is a fourth cousin (four times removed). Meanwhile, Wallner’s book—the first biography about Pierce in 75 years—does its part by reassessing several commonly held beliefs about the man and his Presidency. 

At the same time, the author doesn’t mean to suggest that Pierce was one of our finest Presidents. “I would certainly move him up a few notches but I would not put him above average,” says Wallner, referring to the C-SPAN rankings. “There is some similarity between his administration and [Jimmy] Carter’s in the sense that Carter was also viewed as a weak President. He was blamed for the oil embargoes and Iran hostage situation, yet it’s questionable how much he could have done to make things better. Pierce is the same way. The issues of his time were beyond the ability of one President to solve.” 

If nothing else, Pierce's legacy remind us how fickle Americans can be when it comes to political figures. “You wish people would say, ‘Look at the things he did and what he accomplished,’” begins Wallner. “He was born in a log cabin, a college graduate, the most brilliant attorney in New Hampshire history, elected to Congress, never lost an election, was the youngest senator during his time, a brigadier general in the Mexican War, and President of the United States. I don’t know how somebody with that kind of résumé can be considered a failure.”

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