Benefiting from good looks, a campaign biography by a famous novelist and a maladroit rival, Franklin Pierce roundly defeated Winfield Scott, his Army boss in the Mexican War, on November 2, 1852, in their race for the Presidency. Four years later, however, however, the Democrat left the White House so unpopular that his party didn’t dare renominate him for a second term, and Pierce himself had lost whatever joy his initial convincing victory brought him.
Faithful reader, you’re probably wondering why I’m writing about a nonentity such as Pierce. You might not have even heard of him, let alone know anything about him.
But there happen to be excellent reasons for getting to know the 14th President:
*Candidates who win the nation’s highest office, no matter their degree of fame, are remarkable in and of themselves. It takes drive to be positioned to win the White House.
*Such is the dynamic nature of American politics that each Presidential election is likely to reveal fascinating aspects of campaigning—and this one was no exception.
*This election offers proof that, even with two admittedly uninspiring candidates, voting really does count.
Let’s start with point #2. Many of us would love to have someone, anyone, write something nice about us for mass consumption, but imagine if that person was a friend writing a full-length campaign biography. Such was the case when Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Life of Franklin Pierce (1852) for his old Bowdoin College chum. As Slate contributor James M. Lundberg notes, the book came at the height of Hawthorne’s great creative powers—which the novelist needed to call upon as he tried to explain why Pierce’s record more than a decade before as a Congressman and U.S. Senator from New Hampshire wasn’t especially stellar. “Having a powerful and influential author like Nathaniel Hawthorne lended a lot of credibility to Pierce’s campaign,” observes blogger Lucas Mills. “He was able to reach a certain audience that may have not listened to his views before.”
(Not every fine American novelist can bring himself to support a candidate in such a way. John Steinbeck, for instance, turned down a chance to write a novel that would damage Richard Nixon—though, as we learned from a recent letter to the editor of the New York Times Book Review by biographer-blogger Bill Steigerwald, the future Nobel laureate didn’t mind a bit of skullduggery right out of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man—i.e., spreading gossip that Tricky Dick was seeing a psychiatrist.)
That brings to mind point #1 above. Despite his comparative obscurity, then and now, Pierce did possess significant gifts that enabled him to achieve the White House at age 49—the youngest man to achieve the office up to that point. His legal ability and standing in the Democratic Party were high enough that James Knox Polk had contemplated appointing him Attorney-General at the outbreak of the Mexican War. Instead, Pierce--first volunteering, then being commissioned a colonel by the President--became a war hero after being wounded in battle.
In public, Pierce was an accomplished speaker—so much so that he delivered his inaugural address from memory—and in private he was pleasant, the kind of inoffensive-seeming politico who could unite a Democratic Party hopelessly divided among several candidates at their 1852 national convention. On the 49th ballot, Pierce won the nomination.
Pierce’s good fortune continued in the general election. Scott might have been America’s greatest soldier until Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant won enduring fame in the Civil War, but in contrast to his genial opponent, he was pretentious enough to have richly earned the nickname "Ol' Fuss and Feathers" while in the military. He was also an inept candidate, disregarding handlers’ sound advice to say nothing concerning his party’s platform position on the divisive Compromise of 1850. That angered enough anti-slavery Whigs annoyed by that omnibus bill’s Fugitive Slave Act that they did not support the Whig nominee in the fall--at the same time that his general anti-slavery feelings alienated Southerners.
Ambition had taken Pierce far, but now it would take a toll on his family and his country alike. A decade before, Jane Pierce, a shy, retiring type, had persuaded her husband to give up his Senate career for the family. You can imagine her shock when, after being told by Franklin that he had no chance of winning the Democratic nomination, he informed her it had been offered to him—and he had accepted. Jane swooned upon hearing the news.
The following January, after the election, the family were traveling when their train was derailed. The last of the Pierces’ three sons, 11-year-old Bennie, died in the accident. The grieving mother became depressed, reclusive and erratic, writing letters in the White House to her dead son.
Franklin, distracted as much by his own grief as much as his wife’s fragile mental state, could not see that his “Doughface” position as a Northerner—i.e., appeasement of secessionist-leaning slaveholders—was only emboldening them rather than preserving the Union. The Kansas-Nebraska Act that he signed split the nation further and brought into being a new Republican Party founded on free-soil principles. And Pierce’s diplomatic threats to force Spain to sell Cuba to the U.S., or risk war, and to wink at William Walker's "filibustering" campaign in Nicaragua, were outrageous attempts to provide slaveholders with even more land than they had already.
Theodore Roosevelt's usual black-and-white view of people manifested itself in a bitter description of Pierce, which nonetheless contains a strong amount of rough justice. Writing as a historian in his late twenties, while his own political career was on hold, T.R. summed up Pierce as “a small politician, of low capacity and mean surroundings, proud to act as the servile tool of men worse than himself but also stronger and abler. He was ever ready to do any work the slavery leaders set him.”
Harry Truman, without T.R.’s Harvard education, was a pretty good amateur historian, with views more detailed and more pungently expressed than the Republican:
"It was Pierce's foolish notion that he could cool down the slavery question and make people forget about it by doing two things: filling his cabinet with people of different viewpoints, and concentrating almost entirely on foreign policy and territorial expansion instead of slavery problems. But the net result was that his cabinet members kept bickering with each other and didn't accomplish much, and Pierce's moves in other directions didn't distract people's attention from the slavery problems for a minute.... Pierce was one of the best-looking men ever in the White House. He was also one of the most vain, which I guess was on account of the fact that he was so good-looking. But though he looked the way people who make movies think a president should look, he didn't pay any more attention to business as president of the United States than the man in the moon, and he really made a mess of things.... Pierce was the best looking President the White House ever had -- but as President he ranks with Buchanan and Calvin Coolidge."
The post-White House years of Pierce were, in their way, just as bad as his single term as President. Unlike Jimmy Carter, who built an exemplary post-Presidential career, or the two Bush presidents, who have been largely content to let their Democratic successors work without constant carping from the sidelines, he continued to espouse his Doughface sympathies throughout the Civil War. While continuing to say that secession was wrong, he criticized the Northern attempt to put out the southern rebellion, even doing so (with Hawthorne by his side) on July 4, 1863, the day after the Union’s bloody victory at Gettysburg. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated nearly two years later, he narrowly escaped the wrath of a mob outside his New Hampshire home with a return of his once-hailed oratory. He died in 1869, largely unmourned by the republic he had done so little to keep free and united.
Commentators at the time of the 1852 Presidential election, in a twilight era following the passing of Andrew Jackson and the Senate “Great Triumvirate” of Clay, Webster and Calhoun, were wont to bemoan their sorry choice of candidates. In a sentiment that many readers of this blog will agree with, The New York Herald even editorialized that there had not been such a "ludicrous, ridiculous, and uninteresting presidential campaign" since the U.S. declared independence from Great Britain.
But the choice did matter then, just as it does today. All kinds of conspiracy theories have circulated throughout American history. But the one that, without question, did exist at the highest levels of our republic was the effort by Southern slaveholders to entrench “the peculiar institution” even more firmly, not only where it currently existed but in territories and even foreign lands where it didn’t yet. Slaveholders with increasing secessionist sentiments flourished on Capitol Hill, the military, the Supreme Court, and the Cabinet, all abetted by Northern Presidents (Pierce, plus predecessor Millard Fillmore and Pierce’s successor James Buchanan) who thought the problem would go away. Lincoln was speaking more than a bit of truth when he spoke of "a powerful plot to make slavery universal and perpetual."
What would have happened if Scott had won instead of Pierce? Though he abhorred the possibility of civil war, he would later act as one of the few people with any kind of backbone advising President Buchanan, even, at almost 74 years of age, nearly coming to blows with Georgia secessionist Robert Toombs over the attempt to supply Fort Sumter. Moreover, as a Southerner, he would not have provided the cover of Northern appeasement given by Pierce. Scott might have been a disagreeable man, but he was also more temperamentally inclined than Pierce both to face down the slaveholders on their home turf and not permit them further opportunities to spread their malign influence in the Western territories.