Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1858

Franklin Pierce by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1858

Fourteenth President of the United States Franklin Pierce was born on November 23, 1804 to an influential family in rural New Hampshire. Franklin was the first person under age fifty to be elected president, and the first president to be born in the 19th century.

Franklin’s father, Benjamin Pierce, had led local militia to victories during the American Revolutionary War, and as a result, enjoyed a status that gave him influence in local politics. Like other ambitious parents, Benjamin and wife Anna wanted their eight children to have a better education than their own. Franklin attended local schools until age twelve when he was sent to private academies. At fifteen, he entered Bowdoin College in Maine where he made the friendship of a budding young writer named Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Pierce honed his public speaking while at Bowdoin, which made him a natural for the legal profession. In 1829, two years after his father Benjamin won election to the governorship, Franklin was elected to the state legislature. Within two years he was chosen Speaker of the House.

Both Franklin and father Benjamin were ardent supporters of Andrew Jackson. Both rejoiced when “Old Hickory” was elected President in 1828. In 1832, Franklin, riding on the coattails of the Jacksonian Democrats, was elected to the United States House of Representatives, though not yet 30 years old.

Life in Washington was all that it was made out to be. Unlike the opulence of today, politicians serving at that time lived mostly in shabby boardinghouses. Bored and homesick, Pierce found comfort in alcohol and drinking quickly became a problem for Pierce. The capital’s grapevine soon became filled with stories of his partying and drunken escapades.

In 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton, the daughter of Jesse Appleton, who had been President of Bowdoin College, Pierce’s alma mater. The couple had little in common. For example, the bride’s family were staunch Whigs, a party largely formed to oppose Andrew Jackson. Pierce was a committed devotee of Jackson. Shy and reserved, Jane Pierce was the polar opposite of her raucous new husband.

Above all, Pierce’s wife was a committed devotee of the temperance movement and abhorred her husband’s drinking. She detested Washington and usually refused to live there, even after Franklin Pierce became a U.S. Senator in 1837. Together the couple had three children, only one of whom survived early childhood.

Pierce’s legislative record was fairly without distinction. He sponsored no important bills and follow Jacksonian politics almost to the letter, including the use of hard money, opposition to the United States Bank, and suspicion of internal improvements. Only opposition to the abolitionist movement seemed to inspire him at all. He became sympathetic with the proslavery views of his southern friends. In fact, future Confederate president Jefferson Davis became his closest political ally. By 1841, Pierce and his wife had had enough of Washington, and he resigned from the Senate, moving his family back to New Hampshire where he once again took up his law practice.

His skill as a public speaker made him an immediate success as a trial lawyer. In those days courts of law were a form of entertainment and Pierce became a rising star during the 1830s. Taking only high-profile cases he filled courtrooms with those wishing to be entertained, and Pierce rarely disappointed them. He was a master at sizing up a jury and appealing to its emotions.

He also stopped drinking and joined the temperance movement, leading a successful drive to outlaw alcohol in his hometown of Concord. Pierce remained active in politics and managed Democrat James K. Polk’s successful bid for the White House in New Hampshire.

During the Mexican-American War Pierce saw an opportunity to further advance his political popularity in the way that his father did during the Revolutionary War. He enlisted as a private but used some of his connections, particularly President Polk, to garner himself a commission to brigadier general, commanding over two thousand men, despite the fact that he had no military experience whatsoever.

The American commander for this invasion force was General Winfield Scott, a man who insisted on by-the-book discipline. The Mexican government refused to give in to American demands despite decisive victories in northern Mexico by General Zachary Taylor. After a 150-mile march from Vercruz, Pierce’s forces joined with Scott’s at the city of Puebla in May 1847. The combined force then set out for Mexico City.

In August, the army won two battles against Mexican forces southwest of Mexico City. Pierce returned home to New Hampshire at war’s end with his résumé now including a war record and the title “Brigadier General Franklin Pierce.”

Following his return home, Pierce became active in New Hampshire’s Democratic Party, playing a leading role. With a nation standing on the precipice of division over the issue of slavery, Pierce receive the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1852, after the convention deadlocked for 48 ballots. Pierce ran against the Whig general Winfield Scott, his commander in the Mexican War, and won the election. He served one term from March 4, 1853, to March 3, 1857.

Two months before he took office, he and his wife saw their eleven-year-old son killed when their train was wrecked. Grief-stricken, Pierce entered the Presidency nervously exhausted.

Pierce remained firmly opposed to the abolition of slavery in the states where it already existed. He took southern positions on the right of southerners to take slaves into new territories, particularly Kansas, and supported the Compromise of 1850.

After losing the Democratic nomination for re-election, he is reported to have quipped “there’s nothing left to do but get drunk,” which he did with impunity. So fervent was his drinking that he died in Concord on October 8, 1869 from cirrhosis of the liver, and was interred in Minat Inclosure in the Old North Cemetery.

Franklin Pierce Facts

  • President No.: 14th
  • When did Franklin Pierce serve? 1853-57
  • What was Franklin Pierce’s party? Democrat
  • Where was Franklin Pierce from? New Hampshire
  • Who was Franklin Pierce’s wife? Jane Means Appleton Pierce
  • When was Franklin Pierce born? November 23, 1804
  • Where was Franklin Pierce born? Hillsboro, New Hampshire
  • When did Franklin Pierce die? October 8, 1869
  • Where did Franklin Pierce die? Concord, New Hampshire
  • Which college did Franklin Pierce attend? Bowdin College
  • What was Franklin Pierce’s Jobs Before President? Lawyer, General in the Mexican War, US Senator, Congressman
  • What was Franklin Pierce’s height? 5 feet, 10 inches
  • What was the population when Franklin Pierce was president? 23,191,876
  • What transportation did Franklin Pierce use? Horse and carriage, train or steamboat
  • How did Franklin Pierce communicate? Letter, telegram

The Life of Franklin Pierce By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Book written in 1852 by Nathaniel Hawthrone about Franklin Pierce in an effort to help him get elected.

 

Speeches

Franklin Pierce Inaugural Addresses

Franklin Pierce State of the Union Addresses


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