On this day (Oct. 8) in 1869, the 14th U.S. president, Franklin Pierce, died at the age of 64, in Concord, N.H.
Pierce’s life was pre-eminently one of tragedy. Born on Nov. 23, 1804, in Hillsborough, N.H., Pierce usually is regarded as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. However, he began life with all of the advantages that a famous father and devoted mother could bestow upon their fun-loving son.
While not overly studious, he did receive an excellent pre-college classical education. Pierce’s father, Benjamin (a Jeffersonian), refused to send his son to the nearby “Federalist” Dartmouth College, but instead enrolled his son in Bowdoin College, from where the 19-year-old graduated fifth of 14 students in 1824. He then studied law, and in 1827 was admitted to the bar and set up a law practice in Hillsborough.
Success at the bar inevitably led to a political career. In 1829, he was elected to the first of four terms in the New Hampshire state House of Representatives (1829-1833). In 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton, with whom he had three sons. Thereafter, the young couple experienced great personal tragedy.
The first two sons both died before the age of 5. The third son, Benjamin “Benny,” tragically was killed in a train accident in 1853. Through all of this travail, Pierce’s wife was never much of a helpmate, personally or professionally, to her husband.
Service in the New Hampshire legislature was followed by two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1833-1837) and election in 1837 to the U.S. Senate, from which he was persuaded by his wife to resign in 1842.
In the period from 1842 to 1852, Pierce diligently pursued his legal career and active social life with only a brief hiatus during the war with Mexico, when he served as a brigadier general in the U.S. Army on General Winfield Scott’s staff in Mexico. During his 10 years out of national politics, Franklin did, as an ardent “Jacksonian Democrat,” keep active in local and state affairs.
Much to his surprise and to his wife’s consternation, Pierce won the 1852 Democratic Party’s nomination for president on the 49th ballot, beating out his more famous rivals, James Buchanan, Lewis Cass and Stephen Douglas. He then went on to win a convincing electoral victory over his former military commander, Whig candidate Winfield Scott, to become president.
With sizeable majorities in both houses of Congress, Pierce and the Democratic Party were given an opportunity to accomplish much to ameliorate the sectional differences (mainly over the extension of slavery). However, Pierce’s “doughface,” pro-southern, pro-slavery policies alienated almost everyone and led to his not being renominated in 1856.
The few accomplishments of his ill-fated presidency would include the sending of Matthew Perry in 1853 to open up Japan to world trade and the signing of the Gadsden Purchase Act of 1853, which added 29,000 square miles to the country for $10 million.
The biggest single negative act was Pierce’s signing of the infamous 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which, with its pro-slavery provisions concerning “popular sovereignty,” probably hastened and made almost inevitable the tragic Civil War.
Upon his involuntary political retirement, Franklin Pierce returned to New Hampshire, where, especially after his wife’s death in 1863, he became what we would characterize today an as alcoholic. His death from liver failure, on this day in 1869, was widely reported but not widely lamented.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.