Franklin Pierce was a Northerner with strong ties to the South. At a time when the country was so divided you could feel it, there couldn’t have been a more perfect candidate for president in 1852. Well, almost perfect anyway. The Democrats went through 49 ballots before they settled on him as their nominee. Yet by the time his first term was over, the country scorned him and his own party rejected him.
What went wrong? For starters, to understand what he was dealing with as president, you have to understand the utterly heartbreaking and tragic moment that changed his life forever. And therefore, also his presidency.
What happened was so utterly devastating that just weeks later, when Pierce took the oath of office, he refused to swear on the Bible because he thought God was punishing him for his political campaigning.
Franklin Pierce is our president of the week. Keep reading and you’ll discover that while his presidency may have been a disaster, it’s hard to blame him for it.
The Accident that Shook His World
Franklin and Jane Pierce had three children. One died a few days after birth, which was devastating enough, and another died at age four from typhus (look it up. Or don’t actually. It’s grotesque and painful sounding.). The Franklin’s remaining son, Benny, was the light of their lives and their world revolved around him.
He was their everything.
Just a few weeks before Franklin took office, he, his wife and Benny were on a train headed toward Boston. Trains were a new way to travel back then and not everything always worked as it should.
In this case, something went wrong with one of the axles and really, it was a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Only a single car derailed that day and only one person died. The car that derailed was the one the Pierces were traveling in. It tumbled down a ravine, eventually breaking in two.
The one casualty from the accident was 11-year-old Benny. He was nearly decapitated. Right in front of his parents. By many of the accounts, Franklin Pierce discovered the boy’s body first and tried to shield it from his wife, but it was too late. She had seen it all and the image would stay with her for the rest of her days.
Franklin Pierce, perhaps took this as a sign that he was being punished by God for his political campaigning, or perhaps he was mad at God for what happened or maybe he was flooded with guilt. Whatever the reason, he refused to place his hand on the Bible when being sworn in as president just a few weeks later.
It’s not surprising then, given what happened, that our nation’s 14th president had a bit of a drinking problem. However, he had the problem prior to the tragic incident and actually, during his presidency abstained the best he could (though many still considered him unstable despite that). At the time, taverns were the place to discuss politics and gain allies in the political arena. And, well, there’s a lot of alcohol at taverns and there were a lot of taverns back in his day.
Franklin Pierce’s childhood was a mostly privileged one. He attended private school and was surrounded by politics. His father was even governor of New Hampshire at one point.
As his father was beginning his second term as governor, Franklin was elected to the state legislature and by the time he was 26-years-old he was the Speaker of the House. From there he was elected to the House of Representatives and then the Senate. He was only 33 and resigned a few years later after pressure from his wife. She hated politics.
Despite that, after serving in the Mexican War as a brigadier general (and becoming somewhat of a hero), he kept his interest in politics and became the 1852 Democratic nominee for president.
The Facts about His Presidency
Franklin Pierce served as president from 1853-57. His Administration was problematic from the get-go. Pierce seemed to be in no frame of mind to lead and was basically easily led and persuaded by whatever his party wanted him to do. At a time when our country was at such a crossroads, this simply didn’t cut it. The United States of America needed a real leader with his own vision.
Franklin Pierce wasn’t in the best condition to be that leader.
That pressure from his party led him to support the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 that basically said both territories could decide for themselves whether they wanted slavery or not. Anti-slavery supporters were outraged. It repealed the Missouri Compromise and basically started a prelude to the Civil War as both anti and pro-slavery supporters rushed to Kansas to gain control over it.
One good thing that came out of it though was that it fired up a lesser known man named Abraham Lincoln. He started to deliver a series of anti-slavery speeches all across the country and we all know where that will eventually lead. In fact, many Democrats who were anti-slavery and upset by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, ended up leaving the Democratic party and forming a new one: the Republicans. It was created with the sole purpose of opposing the expansion of slavery.
During all this, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (who would later become the leader of the Confederates) encouraged him, with the end goal of a railroad across the southern part of the U.S. in mind, to purchase what is now part of Arizona and New Mexico. And by the end of his presidency, Pierce had somehow settled Kansas down and the violence stopped.
However, even though he’d pretty much done all that they asked, the Democrats still refused to renominate him. He went back home to New Hampshire a broken man.
He and his wife sailed around the Caribbean and to Europe to get their mind off of their troubles and to improve his wife’s health. After his wife passed away several years later from tuberculosis, Pierce continued to drink heavily and eventually died from cirrhosis of the liver.
Historians widely agree that he fits in the “worst presidents” category because he did absolutely nothing to stop the Civil War.
Pierce’s vice president was William R. King. He passed away just a few weeks after the Inauguration from tuberculosis. He was not replaced. At the time of the inauguration, King was in Cuba trying to recover his health. He realized he wasn’t going to make it back in time, so for the first and only time in our nation’s history, Congress had to pass legislation approving the vice president to be sworn in outside the country. He was only back in the states for a day before he passed away. Crazy. I’m sure at this point, Pierce really thought he was cursed.
Jane Appleton Pierce; The Pierces were opposites in just about every way possible: she was often sickly, depressed, and a shy homebody. They even belonged to differing political parties (she was a Whig). She also hated alcohol. And well . . .
They married late for their time. He was nearly 30 and she was 28. She hated politics and begged her husband to get out of it. It’s said that she fainted upon hearing the news her husband was the Democrat’s nominee for president.
After the accident that took their son, she supposedly went off the deep end emotionally and mentally and became a ball of nervous anxiety. The White House staff referred to her as “the shadow in the White House” because she wandered around in the early mornings like a ghost. Servants heard her sobbing in her room or talking to her dead children. Her main hobby became writing letters to them.
Breaks your heart, doesn’t it?
She died a slow and steady death of tuberculosis but also suffered from chronic depression in her later years. She is now at rest alongside her sons at the Old North Cemetery in Concord, New Hampshire.
Why Franklin Pierce is Cool
He was the first president to recite his Inaugural address from memory. That alone is impressive.
He was nicknamed “Handsome Frank” and many historians claim he’s our most handsome president to date. Even those who didn’t agree with him politically described him as charming and agreeable.
For all the good he didn’t do, he at least did one thing right: he appointed what historians say was one of the strongest cabinets in history. It is the only cabinet who remained in place during the whole term.
At age 48, he was also, at the time, the youngest man elected to be president.
Hoping to cheer up his wife, he was the first president to put a Christmas tree in the White House (1856).
You can still visit Franklin Pierce’s home in Concord, New Hampshire. So, if you’re in New England, you should check it out! Also, I think it’s important to talk to our children about hard things that happen in people’s lives and how we can choose to let those things make or break us. The Pierce’s situation was so tragic that I don’t think it’s fair to judge him for the turn his presidency took because of his inability to lead at that point in his life. Although, one could argue that he could have stepped aside to deal with the loss privately before taking such responsibility. What would you have done?
Also, if Pierce had been in a better frame of mind, would that have stopped our country from entering the Civil War? It’s highly unlikely. Talk about different scenarios with your children. For example, would Abraham Lincoln have ever come forward if he hadn’t been so passionate about what was going on at the time? He is the man who eventually ended slavery. It’s interesting how even low points in our country’s history pave the way for better things to happen.
Last week, I discovered a gem of a podcast! It’s a series by The Washington Post that was done leading up to the latest election. They go in-depth on each president and talk to experts, historians, etc. Oh my goodness, it is awesome! If you are even the slightest bit interested in history, I suggest checking it out. You can find it here. The Franklin Pierce issue went into a lot more detail on the train crash that took his son and how it effected both he and his wife.
As I usually mention, I have this really awesome book I love that I bought in the Mount Rushmore gift shop. It’s a small, easy to read book aptly titled The Presidents of the United States of America. Find it here. It probably has the most thorough, in-depth summary of each president all neatly packaged into a single page for each. I love it!
Also, like I’ve mentioned before, the History Channel has an amazing documentary on the lives of each of our presidents. I’ve been watching it every single week. It is seriously fascinating. You can find it here. It’s a great watch for younger kids and especially any older kids who are learning about our American history. They also have a more condensed and less expensive version that you can find here. Both versions are great because they both have different information about each president.
Other sources are linked throughout.
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.