Franklin Pierce Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: After service in his state’s legislature and in both houses of Congress, Pierce became the nation’s fourteenth president, serving during the turbulent years between 1853 and 1857.

Early Life

Franklin Pierce was born on November 23, 1804, in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. His father, Benjamin, was an American Revolutionary War veteran and two-term state governor (1827-1828, 1829-1830). His mother, Anna Kendrick, was Benjamin’s second wife. Frank, as family and friends called him, was the sixth of their eight children.

Frank attended local schools before enrolling in Bowdoin College. Overcoming homesickness and early academic nonchalance, he was graduated fifth in the class of 1824. Classmates there included John P. Hale, the 1852 Free-Soil Party’s presidential candidate; Calvin Stowe, the husband of Harriet Beecher Stowe; and writers Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Pierce became close friends with Hawthorne, and the novelist later penned his campaign biography. Pierce taught school during semester breaks, but his major interest during his college years seemed to be the college battalion, in which he served as an officer.

After graduation, Pierce studied in several law offices including that of later United States Senator and Supreme Court Justice Levi Woodbury of Portsmouth. He was admitted to the bar in 1827 and immediately assisted in his father’s successful bid for the governorship. When his father was reelected in 1829, he simultaneously gained a seat in the state legislature.

Life’s Work

His political rise was steady. When first elected to the legislature, Pierce was named chairman of the Committee on Education. Later he served as chairman of the Committee on Towns and Parishes. In 1831, Governor Samuel Dinsmoor named him his military aide with the rank of colonel, and that same year and the next he served as Speaker of the House. In March, 1833, though he was not yet thirty years old, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives. By this time, his political course was already set. He had enjoyed rapid success because of his support for his father and the Democratic Party. From then on, he gave total loyalty to the party and to its experienced politicians.

Pierce served in the House from 1833 to 1837 before advancing to the Senate for one term (1837-1842). His service was undistinguished. He deferred to his elders (when he entered the Senate, he was its youngest member). He made no memorable speech and sponsored no key legislation. He served on several committees, eventually gaining the chairmanship of the Senate Pension Committee. He consistently accepted the Southern view on slavery, and was strongly antiabolitionist, a staunch defender of the Democratic Party, and a strong opponent of the Whig program. For example, he supported the Southern position on the Gag Rule and defended Andrew Jackson’s opposition to internal improvements.

It was during these years that Pierce made the political contacts and created the impression that would result in his later nomination and election to the presidency. He came to be known as an accommodating person, fun loving, and always anxious to please. He seemed perfectly content to follow party policy, and he gave proper respect to his elders. He was a New Englander whom Southerners trusted. He formed a close friendship with Jefferson Davis during these years.

In 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton, the daughter of a former Bowdoin College president and Congregational minister. Throughout their married life, she suffered from a variety of physical illnesses, anxiety, and depression; in addition, she held strict Calvinistic views on life. In contrast to her sociable husband, she felt very uncomfortable in social settings and consequently stayed away from Washington, D.C., as much as she could. Like many congressmen of that age, Pierce lived in a boardinghouse with several colleagues, and he joined them in drinking to try to compensate for the boredom of his existence. Pierce was no alcoholic, but he was incapable of holding any liquor. The smallest amount inebriated him. This problem, combined with his wife’s unhappiness, which was exacerbated by the death of a newborn child, convinced Pierce in 1842 that he should go back to New Hampshire. There he promised his wife that he would never drink again or return to Washington.

In New Hampshire, Pierce became a successful lawyer. He did not spend much time analyzing legal principles because he was easily able to ingratiate himself with juries and win his cases that way. He was of medium height and military bearing, dark, handsome, and an excellent dresser. People who met him at social and political gatherings liked him immediately.

During these years, Pierce also played an active role in New Hampshire’s Democratic politics. He was a driving force in most of the party’s campaigns, achieving good success, though he lost out to college classmate Hale in a party dispute over Texas annexation. President James K. Polk offered him the attorney generalship, and his party wanted to return him to the Senate. He declined both offers.

When the Mexican War broke out, Pierce’s long-held interest in military matters and his desire for more excitement than his Concord law practice provided caused him to volunteer as a private. Before he donned his uniform, he had gained the rank of brigadier general. He made many friends among the enlisted men, and General Winfield Scott named him one of the three commissioners who attempted to negotiate an unsuccessful truce. His combat record was much less sparkling. During his first combat in the Mexico City campaign, his horse stumbled, banging Pierce against the saddle horn and then falling on his leg. He fainted. Though still in pain when he was revived, he continued, only to twist his knee and faint again when he encountered the enemy. Later, he became bedridden with a severe case of diarrhea. He was happy when the conclusion of the war enabled him to return home.

Pierce resumed his legal and political pursuits. He supported the Compromise of 1850 and became president of the state constitutional convention. He helped rid the state party of an antislavery gubernatorial candidate and thereby improved his reputation in the South. When his former law tutor, Levi Woodbury, the state’s choice for the 1852 Democratic presidential...

(The entire section is 2654 words.)