President Franklin Pierce, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1853
I have never liked Presidents’ Day. Why celebrate all presidents when only a select few of them, like Washington and Lincoln, deserve to be celebrated? Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, which actually won’t occur until February 22. However, I will keep up my tradition of writing about presidents on this day. Today we will look at a President who has vanished from popular memory.
Franklin Pierce was a doughface, the pejorative applied to Northern politicians prior to the Civil War who embraced the South’s view of slavery. While personally opposed to slavery, where have we heard that formulation before, Pierce also opposed all efforts to restrict slavery, fearing that such efforts would merely antagonize the South and ultimately lead to civil war. He was thrust into the Presidency as the darkest of dark horse candidates, nominated by the Democrats in 1852 on the 49th ballot, winning easily in the fall against his former Mexican War commander, Winfield Scott, the last presidential candidate of the dying Whig Party.
Historians, the few who have examined his term in office in detail, have been generally scathing about his service as President, as Pierce did nothing to halt the drift towards the civil war he so feared, with his steadfast determination to yield to the South in the face of growing Northern anger. Perhaps fortunately for his historical reputation, Pierce ranks high on the list of forgotten presidents, his life largely going down the memory hole of the general public. That process began during his lifetime, as the whirlwind of events that would lead to the Civil War passed him by. Pierce perhaps sensed this himself, stating as he left office in 1857, that all he had left now to do was to get drunk. To be fair to Pierce, few men had more to get drunk about, all three of his sons having died in childhood, his last son at eleven years of age after having been almost totally decapitated in a train accident in front of his shattered parents, just before Pierce assumed the office of President. After his wife died in 1863, his drinking got completely out of hand and he died of cirrhosis of the liver on October 8, 1869. President Grant, who had served with Pierce in the Mexican War made sure that the forgotten man received the honors in death that he warranted as a former President. In his memoirs Grant went out his way to praise Pierce and we will let him have the last word on Pierce:
General Franklin Pierce had joined the army in Mexico, at Puebla, a short time before the advance upon the capital commenced. He had consequently not been in any of the engagements of the war up to the Battle of Contreras. By an unfortunate fall of his horse on the afternoon of the 19th he was painfully injured. The next day, when his brigade, with the other troops engaged on the same field, was ordered against the flank and rear of the enemy guarding the different points of the road from San Augustin Tlalplan to the city, General Pierce attempted to accompany them. He was not sufficiently recovered to do so, and fainted. This circumstance gave rise to exceedingly unfair and unjust criticisms of him when he became a candidate for the Presidency. Whatever General Pierce’s qualifications may have been for the Presidency, he was a gentleman and a man of courage. I was not a supporter of him politically, but I knew him more intimately than I did any other of the volunteer generals.
Grant reminds us that public service of a President can tell us only so much about the private man, and here endeth the lesson.