Franklin Pierce: Life Before the Presidency

Franklin Pierce: Life Before the Presidency

Born on November 23, 1804, Franklin Pierce, though by no means wealthy, had more advantages than most young boys in rural New Hampshire. His father, Benjamin Pierce, had led the local militia to victories in the American Revolution, and as a result, he enjoyed a status in the area of Hillsborough that gave him influence in local politics. Both he and his wife Anna Kendrick's families had been in America since the early Puritan settlements of the 1620s. Like other ambitious parents, Benjamin and 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 many friends, including a budding young writer named Nathaniel Hawthorne. At first, young Franklin enjoyed the social life at Bowdoin so much that his schoolwork took second priority. Soon he was last in his class. He gradually began to apply himself to his studies and by graduation in 1824, he ranked fifth in his class.

Rapid Rise to National Politics

While at Bowdoin, Pierce had honed his public speaking, which made him a natural for the legal profession. In 1829, he was elected to the state legislature, two years after his father won election to the governorship. Attractive and well-connected, the popular Pierce was chosen Speaker of the House in 1831. Both Franklin Pierce and his father were fervent supporters of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the War of 1812, whose modest origins and country manners inspired great affection from farmers and the working class. Both men rejoiced when "Old Hickory" was elected President in 1828. Jacksonian Democrats were the rising party and in 1832, in the same election that gave Old Hickory his second term, Franklin Pierce—still not thirty years old—was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he voted the Democratic Party line on nearly all issues.

Life in Washington took its toll on Pierce. The city in the 1830s was an unpleasant place with ill-smelling swamps and political intrigue. Politicians serving there lived mostly in shabby boardinghouses. Bored and homesick, many found comfort in alcohol. Drinking quickly became a problem for Pierce. Before long, stories of his partying and drunken escapades were a staple of the capital's grapevine.

In 1834, the congressman married Jane Means Appleton, the daughter of Jesse Appleton, who had been president of Bowdoin College, Pierce's alma mater. Franklin and Jane Pierce seemingly had little in common, and the marriage would sometimes be a troubled one. The bride's family members were staunch Whigs, a party largely formed to oppose Andrew Jackson, whom Pierce revered. Socially, Jane Pierce was reserved and shy, the polar opposite of her new husband. Above all, she was a committed devotee of the temperance movement. She detested Washington and usually refused to live there, even after Franklin Pierce became a U.S. senator in 1837. Jane Appleton and Franklin Pierce had three children, only one of whom survived early childhood.

As a senator, Pierce's legislative record was no more distinguished than it had been when he was a U.S. representative. No important bills bore his name, and his personal convictions followed the Jacksonian positions—the use of hard money, opposition to the United States Bank, and suspicion of internal improvements. Only one cause seemed to inspire any real passion in him: opposition to the abolitionist movement. Many of Pierce's best friends on the Washington party circuit were southerners, and he came to sympathize with their proslavery views. One of these, 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.

Skilled Attorney and Politico

In his thirties, Pierce stopped drinking and joined the temperance movement. He then led a successful drive to outlaw liquor in his new hometown of Concord. He opened a law practice there as well, and with his skill as a public speaker and his local fame, he was an immediate success as a trial lawyer. Courts of law were a prime form of entertainment, and Franklin Pierce was a star in this setting during the 1840s. Citizens from all over New Hampshire fought for a place in his courtrooms, and he seldom disappointed them. Pierce had little interest in the drab bookwork of the law, but he was a master at assessing a jury and then appealing to its emotions. He took high-profile cases and consequently his fame spread. He also remained involved with politics, managing Democrat James K. Polk's successful bid for the White House in New Hampshire. The grateful new President offered several patronage positions that Pierce refused.

Mexican War Military Service

Aware of the positive effect of military service on his father's political success, Franklin Pierce saw an opportunity in the Mexican-American War. He helped enlist men into the New Hampshire Volunteers and was himself a private. Using his connections, he appealed to President James Polk for a commission. The President repaid Pierce's old campaign favors. By the time the force sailed for the Mexican shores of Veracruz in mid-1847, Pierce was a brigadier general commanding over two thousand men, though he had no military experience whatsoever.

The American commander for this invasion force was General Winfield Scott, seemingly larger than life (six and a half feet tall and three hundred pounds), who insisted on by-the-book discipline and protocol that inspired the nickname "Old Fuss and Feathers." Despite decisive victories in northern Mexico by General Zachary Taylor, the Mexican government refused to agree to American demands, and as a result, Pierce's forces joined with Scott's at the city of Puebla in May 1847, after a 150-mile march from Veracruz during which they were frequently harassed by Mexican guerrillas. The combined force then set out for Mexico City.

In August, the army won two battles against Mexican forces southwest of Mexico City. Unfortunately, the war soon proved less than kind to the inexperienced Brigadier General Pierce. At the Battle of Contreras on August 19, his horse stumbled. Pierce was thrown onto the pommel of his saddle and fell off his horse, crushing his leg. He passed out from the pain and some of the men under his command began to break ranks and flee. The injured Pierce was able to ride again within a month but he arrived too late to participate in decisive victory at the Battle of Chapultepec in September 1847. Some soldiers, perhaps resentful of a political general like Pierce, began referring to him behind his back as "Fainting Frank." The unfair allegations later followed him into presidential politics. Pierce returned home to New Hampshire at war's end. His résumé now included a war record and the title "Brigadier General Franklin Pierce."

Building a Political Career

After his return, Pierce, already a well-known lawyer, was active in New Hampshire's Democratic Party and became its undisputed leader.

By the election year of 1852, the issue of slavery in the territories divided the nation, with Southerners insisting that they should be allowed to take their slaves into any new territories, and a growing group of Northerners committed to free soil without the competition of slaves. Both Democrats and Whigs found it more and more difficult to appeal across the sectional divide. In order to protect the South, the Democratic Nominating Convention required a two-thirds majority of votes for President. But a proslavery Northerner might attract both sides.

Franklin Pierce was that man. Nominated in 1852, after the convention deadlocked for 48 ballots, Pierce ran againt the Whig General Winfield Scott, his commander in the Mexican War. Historians agree that "Fainting Frank" did not so much win the election; rather, "Old Fuss and Feathers" bungled the campaign with long, uninspiring speeches. More importantly, the Whig party was losing popularity, and Scott was its last presidential candidate.

Like most Americans, Pierce remained firmly opposed to the abolition of slavery in the states where it already existed. He also upheld the right of Americans to own property, even human property. And he took Southern positions on the right of Southerners to take slaves into new territories, particularly Kansas. He firmly supported the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act, the end of the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and the admission of California as a free state.