Franklin Pierce - Early career

The convivial New Hampshire politician who was caught in this cosmopolitan historical trap had been born and bred to be a delightful provincial. He came into the world in a backwoods log cabin in Hillsbo-rough County on 23 November 1804. His father, Benjamin Pierce, was a rough-hewn local quasi squire who had been something of a Revolutionary War hero. For himself, the elder Pierce aspired to be a leader of the Granite Hills, but for his son, he wished an education a little better than New Hampshire could provide.

Franklin Pierce was accordingly sent to Bowdoin College in Maine. There he studied enough to graduate fifth in his class. More important, he was so attractive a personality as to gain the lifelong friendship of the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne's least impressive literary effort would someday be the campaign biography of his college chum turned presidential candidate. Franklin Pierce's affability was even in college pointing the way ahead.

After graduation, Pierce wandered through several law offices in search of training. At this time, his swashbuckling father was reaching the top of New Hampshire politics. Frank Pierce plunged into his father's partisan political campaigns with great zest. The two Pierces rose together, both carried upward in the Jacksonian ascendancy. In 1827, the father was elected governor, and two years later the son was elected to the state legislature. In March 1833, the younger Pierce, not yet thirty, was elected to Congress.

Through it all, Pierce's family, fraternity, faith, and fortune rested in his partisan god, the Democratic party. "A Republic without parties," ran the future president's very first political pronouncement, "is a complete anomaly." For an undereducated young frontiersman without much taste for book learning but with great relish for political combat and camaraderie, the received wisdom of a rough-and-ready father, as embodied in the Democratic party, provided the best preparation for the political life. Or so it seemed to those in the Granite Hills who were charmed by the governor's heir apparent.

In Washington, affability was not enough, even to those who spent months drinking and chatting as residents of Washington's boardinghouses. Frank Pierce spent ten years in Congress, the first four in the House and the last six as a very young senator. In all that time, he made not one noteworthy speech, sponsored not one important bill, emerged not once from the shadows of the congressional hanger-on. He was known chiefly for being the congressman least able to hold his liquor. The reputation came naturally to this man of friendly manner, relaxed joshing, and relish for gossiping and partying. The New Englander, so often so tight-lipped and full of righteous learning, was here as genially openhearted as the stereotypical southerner.

The similarity of manner may explain part of Pierce's one congressional political passion, a wholehearted adoption of the southerners' hatred for New England abolitionists. Because the Democratic party was so strong in the South and the abolitionists so drawn to northern Whiggery, the northerner with southern principles was most often a Democrat. Nowhere in New England were southern sympathizers so common as in New Hampshire. Frank Pierce was the perfect example of the New Hampshire Democrat as friend of the slaveholder.

Pierce made his feelings clear in the "gag rule" controversy of the 1830s, the beginning of the great contest over slavery for his generation of politicians. He was a passionate advocate of the Democratic party's policy of gagging antislavery proposals without debate. He ridiculed abolitionists as consisting of "children who knew not what they did," ladies who were outside "their proper sphere," and feminized men who outrageously interfered in other people's homes. Congressman Pierce found nothing such fun as having a couple of toddies with southern friends, quickly becoming boisterously tipsy, and then pouring drunken hatred on the fanatics who would break up the Union to abolish bondage.

In the early 1840s, Pierce came to realize such adventures were getting him nowhere. Strident support of the South and automatic acceptance of everything Jacksonian were making for a career of mere competence. Meanwhile, the Washington boardinghouse scene was altogether too tempting for one of his propensity for hard drinking. Residence in Washington was even worse for Mrs. Pierce, who was exactly the kind of righteous, unbending New Englander her husband so little resembled. In 1842, the failed senator and his scoffing wife returned to New Hampshire in search of better fortune.

Back home, Pierce found that his talent for social intercourse could indeed lead to a fortune. He became one of New Hampshire's richest and most successful trial lawyers. His genius was not in legal learning, for he rarely bothered searching the books for precedents. He was, rather, inordinately adept at sizing up a jury and appealing to their most intimate feelings. No opposing lawyer was as likable as Pierce. Few juries could resist his easy manner.

When the Mexican War came in the mid-1840s, Pierce was once again called away from his successes in the Granite Hills, summoned to a duty beyond his talents. A brigadier general, he was to lead his men in the assault on Mexico City but arrived too late for the final battle. He was wounded grievously and ingloriously: when his horse badly stumbled, he fainted and fell. His aching frame had to be hoisted into the saddle to ride out too late for the climactic Battle of Chapultepec.

When the war ended, he was once again glad to return to his smiling New Hampshire homeland. He once again became the most ingratiating of trial lawyers and the most pleasant of backwoods talkers. This was the man who one last time was called out of New Hampshire, this time to be president of the United States at a time of grave national peril.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: