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Remembering Handsome Frank

It was 145 years ago today, on October 8, 1869, that Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, died at his home in Concord, New Hampshire, at the age of 64. He died from cirrhosis of the liver, the result of what was almost certainly Pierce's alcoholism. (Pierce is quoted, truthfully or otherwise, as saying, when he lost his party's bid for renomination, "there's nothing left, but to get drunk." Whether or not the quote is accurate, unfortunately the sentiment mirror's much of Pierce's later life.)



Pierce was the only President to come from New Hampshire. He was a Democrat and was pejoratively called a "doughface" (a Northerner with Southern sympathies). He served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate and he also fought in the Mexican-American War where he became a brigadier general. He was also very successful in his private law practice in his home state, to the extent that he turned down a number of important positions that he was offered, including Attorney-General in the cabinet of James K. Polk. He was nominated as the Democratic party's candidate for president on the 49th ballot at the 1852 Democratic National Convention. In the presidential election, Pierce and his running mate William R. King won soundly defeated the Whig Party ticket of Winfield Scott and William A. Graham by a margin of 50 percent to 44 percent in the popular vote and 254 to 42 in the electoral vote. (They did so with the slogan "We Polked You in 1844 and We Shall Pierce You in 1852!" Spin doctors of that day left a lot to be desired.)

Nicknamed "Handsome Frank" for his good looks, Pierce was considered to be a likeable and affable man, but he suffered tragedy in his personal life. All of his three sons died young. When his last son, eleven year old Benny, was killed in a horrible train accident while traveling with his parents for his father's inauguration in early 1853, Pierce's wife Jane viewed it as a punishment from God for her husband's vanity. She lapsed into a very severe depression.

As president, Pierce made many divisive decisions which seemed to make him unpopular with everyone. Pierce's popularity in the northern states declined sharply after he supported the Kansas–Nebraska Act, legislation that replaced the Missouri Compromise and renewed debate over the expansion of slavery in the American West. The Kansas-Nebraska Act caused considerable political animosity and polarization and Pierce's backing of the pro-slavery side in the dispute hurt him politically. Rather that unifying the country, Pierce fanned the flames of the abolition movement and created a climate for the rise of the Republican Party, which in turn made the south feel more persecuted. After losing the Democratic nomination for reelection in 1856, Pierce retired and traveled with his wife overseas. Although he had curtailed his drinking while in office, he made up for lost time after leaving the presidency.

Pierce and his wife returned home from their travels in Europe in 1859 just as the growing sectional crisis between the South and the North was coming to a boil. Pierce was a critic of northern abolitionists, who he blamed for encouraging ugly feelings between the two sections. In 1860 many Democrats believed that Pierce would be a solid compromise choice for the presidential nomination, uniting both Northern and Southern wings of the party, but Pierce declined to run.

During the Civil War, Pierce criticized President Abraham Lincoln for his order suspending habeas corpus. Pierce argued that even in a time of war, the country should not abandon its protection of civil liberties. His stand won him admirers with the emerging Northern Peace Democrats, but enraged members of the Lincoln administration. Secretary of State William Seward accused Pierce of being a member of the seditious Knights of the Golden Circle. Outraged, Pierce responded and demanded that Seward put his response in the official files of the State Department. Seward refused to do that, so a Pierce supporter in the US Senate, Milton Latham of California, had the entire Seward-Pierce correspondence read into the Congressional Globe, which had the effect of making Seward look like someone who had falsely maligned the reputation of a former President.

On December 2, 1863, Pierce's wife Jane died of tuberculosis. It is believed that their marriage was not a happy one ever since Bennie's tragic death. After the death of the last of her three sons, Jane Pierce was overcome with depression and distanced herself during her husband's presidency. She never recovered from the tragedy. For nearly two years, she remained in the upstairs living quarters of the White House, spending her days writing maudlin letters to her dead son.



In 1864, friends once again put the name of Franklin Pierce in play for the Democratic nomination, but again Pierce refused to run. Pierce's reputation was greatly damaged in the North during the aftermath of the Siege of Vicksburg when Union soldiers captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis' Fleetwood Plantation, correspondence was found between the two men, who had been close friends for a long time. (Davis served in Pierce's cabinet and the two men's wives were very close friends. Mrs. Varina Davis often filled in for Jane Pierce in her duties as first lady.) Pierce had written to Davis about "the madness of northern abolitionism" and he had also said that he would "never justify, sustain, or in any way or to any extent uphold this cruel, heartless, aimless unnecessary war," adding that "the true purpose of the war was to wipe out the states and destroy property."

On April 16, 1865, when news had spread of the murder of President Lincoln, an angry mob of young teenagers gathered outside Pierce's home in Concord. Earlier that day a different mob had thrown black paint on the front porch of former President Millard Fillmore, who, like Pierce, was also regarded as a Lincoln detractor. The crowd in Concord wanted to know why Pierce's house was not dressed with black bunting and American flags, a respectful display of grief being used that day by millions of people across the country. Pierce came outside to confront the crowd and said he, too, was saddened by Lincoln's passing. When a voice in the crowd yelled out "Where is your flag?" Pierce became angry and recalled his family's long devotion to the country, including both his and his father's service in the military. He said he needed to display no flag to prove that he was a loyal American. The crowd soon quieted down and even cheered and applauded the former president as he went back into his home.

Brady-Pierce

Franklin Pierce died in Concord, New Hampshire, at 4:49 am on October 8, 1869, at 64 years or age from cirrhosis of the liver. President Ulysses S. Grant, who later defended Pierce's service in the Mexican War in his autobiography, declared a day of national mourning. Franklin Pierce was interred next to his wife and two of his sons, all of whom had predeceased him, in Old North Cemetery in Concord, New Hampshire.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
seaivy
Oct. 8th, 2014 11:33 am (UTC)
it's almost a Greek tragedy
a man who has every public success has private sorrow upon sorrow and finally all that fame crumbles
Handsome Frank and Ugly Abraham - material for creating something
kensmind
Oct. 8th, 2014 01:15 pm (UTC)
Pierce has a remarkable story complete with so many fascinating elements: triumph, tragedy, alcoholism, strong misguided principles. In spite of his doughface sympathies and his lack of insight into the evil of slavery, it is difficult to hate the man.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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