A fair appraisal of Franklin Pierce was a long time coming
By Gail Jarvis
Every age has its social and political outlook, which influences behavior, fashion, arts, and even how history is interpreted. Although these varying interpretations of the past can influence how presidents are ranked , most historians have a tendency to favor presidents who arbitrarily, and often illegally, assumed powers not allowed to the executive branch. The unintended consequences of their illicit acts are usually ignored if they pursued goals approved by the establishment. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt come to mind. On the other hand, presidents who refused to abandon the Constitution in favor of currently held opinions of “higher laws” are not held in high esteem. This is the case with our 14th president, Franklin Pierce, whose legacy had to wait almost a century for an impartial assessment.
In 2013, the New Hampshire legislature attempted to create an annual appreciation day for Franklin Pierce, the only president from that state. However, dissenters were able to block the state’s plan to honor Pierce. One state representative’s opposition repeats the establishment’s view of Pierce, which is the view usually taught to students. After describing Pierce as a “Southern sympathizer” with “pro-slavery sentiments”, the representative made this accusation: “ Pierce’s signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act precipitated bloody civil war in Kansas and it set the entire nation on the path to civil war.”
The Kansas-Nebraska Act did arouse anti-slavery sentiments. So did the Compromise of 1850 and the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but only in certain sectors of the nation, and only among certain citizens in those areas. To claim that this piece of legislation “set the entire nation on the path to civil war” is overly simplistic. No war has ever been caused by one or two isolated events. In fact, if the Kansas-Nebraska Act had not become law, the festering sectionalism between North and South as well as the potential for civil war would have remained unchanged. Over the years, despite various mediation attempts, the regional conflict between North and South continued to escalate and, by the mid-1800s, when Franklin Pierce took office, it was a serious national issue.
Many today believe that abolitionist fervor was widespread in the 1800s but it was actually limited to a zealous few. The North/South conflict certainly included slavery as one of its causes, but it was primarily a conflict over economic considerations rather than moral objections. To put this period of history and Franklin Pierce’s presidency into perspective, you have to look at the overall conditions of that time. And those conditions must be viewed with the opinions of the time in history, – not with today’s perspective.
You especially have to grasp the economic environment of the 1800s. “Cotton is King” was the popular slogan of the day. And, indeed slave-grown cotton was the largest source of income for the North as well as the South. As the South was an agricultural region only, it was dependent on the North for the financing and the other commercial aspects of the enterprise. The North was well-rewarded for bankrolling the Southern planters and eventually the bulk of the profits from slave-grown cotton ended up in Northern pockets. The rank and file citizens throughout the North also benefited from the financial ripple effect King Cotton generated throughout the nation.
Obviously, an immediate rather than a gradual end to the institution of slavery would have been detrimental not only to the North’s stability but the stability of the entire nation. The pragmatic forces in the 1800s understood the serious consequences of such an abrupt alteration to the nation’s economic machinery. They concurred that the South should be able to phase out slavery just as the North had phased it out. But another segment of society was almost fanatical in its belief that the moral justification for an immediate end to slavery took precedence over any potential economic harm it might cause. To this radical group, men like Franklin Pierce who advocated a sensible, measured phase-out of slavery were lumped together with those wanting to perpetuate it.
The North had been able to gradually phase out slavery primarily because economics, climate and the space available in the Northern area were not favorable to large agricultural pursuits. These unfavorable agricultural conditions also hurt the livelihood of families whose survival depended upon farming. Consequently there was a migration from the Northeast, first into the Midwest and later into the undeveloped Western territories. Even though slavery was legal, there were attempts to prevent it from spreading into the Western territories. Those who migrated westward wanted “free soil”; the ability to operate small farms without competition from large slave-operated enterprises. It was feared that wealthy slave interests would acquire too much of the exceptional farmland, thus denying it to migrating families. At the time of Franklin Pierce’s inauguration, those who wanted to allow slavery in the territories and those who wanted to prohibit it had grown into two powerful rival factions.
But it was not only slave labor that free-soilers wanted to keep out. They also banned free blacks from entering the territory. This earned them this sarcastic criticism: “ If the negro be free, you will not let him come! If he be a slave, you will not let him stay.” Negative opinions of blacks were fairly widespread in both North and South as well as among pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. This adds to the difficulty our generation has in finding unblemished heroes in the 1800s. For over a century President Lincoln was essentially shielded from excessive scrutiny, but in recent years, even the gatekeepers of the Lincoln legend have allowed unflattering truths about his ugly racial views to emerge. Like Lincoln, Franklin Pierce was also subject to the racial attitudes of his time. But if historians are willing to absolve Mr. Lincoln, Pierce must also be absolved.
European emigrants to the Western territories also threatened the economic livelihood of the new settlers arriving from the East and Midwest. So there was an effort to keep these emigrants out. In addition to economic fears, there was also a strong anti-Catholic bias in the territories. This was exacerbated by the influx of Irish Catholics fleeing Ireland as a result of the potato famine.
Another problem that would plague the Franklin Pierce administration also resulted from the westward expansion. Commercial enterprises in the East sought a faster way to move people and goods to and from the new territories. Without a Panama Canal even the sleek clipper ships took almost three months to sail from New York to San Francisco. But a direct railroad line could reduce that time to roughly a week. Although there was substantial agreement with the concept of a railroad line from Atlantic to Pacific, the selection of its route was fraught with disagreement. Towns located on or near the line would reap enormous financial benefits, whereas bypassed areas would languish. The North obviously wanted a Northern route whereas the South promoted a Southern route.
When Franklin Pierce moved into the White House the regional conflicts regarding slavery in the territories and the route for the transcontinental railroad had not yet erupted but had reached an impasse. Using hindsight, it is easy to fault President Pierce’s decisions on these issues, but he acted on his firmly held principles as he would throughout his presidency. His decisions were always based on adherence to the Constitution and the laws of the land.
When a portion of the vast Nebraska territory sought formal admission to the union, it was split into two states: Nebraska and Kansas. Based on the concept of popular sovereignty, and after a lengthy debate, Congress voted to allow the citizens of each state to decide whether to allow slavery or not. Establishment historians fault President Pierce for not vetoing the act. But his allowing the measure to become law did not result from “pro-slavery sentiments” or because he was a “Southern sympathizer”. Those who make these kinds of criticisms of Pierce must be reminded that his America consisted of eleven free states and eleven slave states. To condemn Pierce for his decision is to assume that other White House occupants of those years would have made a decision more compatible with contemporary opinions. But I suspect that they would also have attempted a middle-path compromise, leaving one side or the other offended.
For many politicians and newspapers in the North, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was like manna from heaven and they milked it for all it was worth. Every minor skirmish was exaggerated for political gain; to prevent the re-election of the Democrat Pierce. They even called the territory “bleeding Kansas” even though only 56 people were killed as a result of slavery issues: of those deaths 60 % were pro-slavery settlers while only 40% were anti-slavery. – At least five settlers were brutally slaughtered by the psychotic John Brown who ignored desperate pleas for mercy from wives and children.
Pierce’s support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was consistent with his belief that citizens of states could decide state laws as long as such laws were legal and did not violate the Constitution. For the same constitutional reasons, he questioned the validity of the Missouri Compromise because it prevented slavery in the territories even though slavery was legal. Although Pierce and others did not condone slavery, they felt that until law prohibited it, market forces should be allowed to phase it out. Franklin Pierce’s belief that slavery would eventually be phased out was shared with others who also held the opinion that the institution would not fare well in the Kansas topography and climate.
Even detractors of Pierce usually admit that the cabinet he selected was a niche above all other presidential cabinets in terms of experience and competence. And its membership remained unchanged during his entire administration. The cabinet member Pierce relied on most heavily was his Secretary of War and good friend Jefferson Davis, former representative and senator from Mississippi Like Pierce, Davis had also served in the Mexican-American War. President Pierce frequently called on Davis for advice and assistance even in matters unrelated to his cabinet post. The wives of the two men also formed a close relationship and the friendship between the Pierce and Davis families lasted throughout their lifetimes.
At his inauguration, Franklin Pierce took an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution”. And, unlike some presidents, he didn’t assume more power than is normally accorded to the executive branch. Pierce took his oath of office seriously and would never claim that there were “higher laws” that justified ignoring the Constitution. For Pierce, laws must be obeyed, unless and until, the laws are changed and/or the Constitution is amended. But others didn’t hold the Constitution in the same high esteem that Pierce did. Radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison publicly burned a copy of the document.
Establishment historians rarely discuss the the courage exhibited by Franklin Pierce as a private citizen during the civil war years. Although a Northerner, Pierce publicly rebuked President Lincoln for suspending the writ of Habeas Corpus without the consent of congress, as required by the Constitution. He also spoke out against Lincoln’s other illegal actions such as shutting down newspapers critical of his actions; imprisoning a dissenting congressman without due process, and arresting and detaining citizens suspected of being Southern sympathizers. As a result of his public utterances, Franklin Pierce was called a traitor by the pro-Lincoln press, and stories began circulating that his arrest by the Lincoln administration was imminent. But fear for his own safety did not deter Pierce’s continued emphatic condemnation of President Lincoln’s unconstitutional acts.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a biography of his close friend, Franklin Pierce, around the time he assumed the presidency, but detractors disparaged it as partisan politics. In 1931, Roy Franklin Nichols penned an evenhanded biography which he revised in 1958. More recently, a two volume biography, avoiding the stereotypical view of Pierce, was issued by Peter A. Wallner in 2004 and 2009. Unfortunately, the opinions most people have about historical figures do not come from reading biographies or other forms of historical investigation but is usually acquired from superficial inquiries – today that would probably involve a quick look at an Internet reference. Once they have read the brief summary of the person in question, their curiosity is satisfied, so they move on. Such a perfunctory review of Franklin Pierce will usually yield these basic assertions: his presidency was a failure; he was pro-slavery and supported the Confederacy, he suffered from a lifetime of alcoholism which caused the collapse of his marriage and his death from cirrhosis of the liver. None of these commonplace assertions will hold up under serious historical scrutiny.
Establishment historians tend to categorize Franklin Pierce’s entire four years in office as a failure only because he signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and did not aggressively denounce slavery. Actually, Pierce’s presidency was one of the very few without a scandal. He implemented testing for the qualifications of candidates which helped negate appointments by nepotism; had four years of balanced budgets and cut the national deficit by more than half. He expanded the boundaries of the United States with a strip of land extending to the Pacific to accommodate the proposed transcontinental railroad. He negotiated a commercial treaty with Canada and greatly improved our Naval forces. President Pierce sent Commodore Perry to Japan, who convinced that island to end hundreds of years isolation and agree to a trade agreement which brought vast areas of the Pacific into American markets. Working with his Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, Pierce implemented benefits for wounded veterans as well as their widows and orphans.
Franklin Pierce was not pro-slavery. He often voiced his opposition to slavery, however, he believed that until Constitutional amendments prohibited it, elected officials could not legally prevent it. Pierce also felt that when slavery did end, it should be done in the way that does the least harm to the economy and best prepares freed slaves for assuming a self-sustaining role in society. This put him in opposition to radical abolitionists who called for slavery’s immediate end regardless of the consequences. We must also remember that most antebellum presidents, except Pierce, owned slaves themselves, either before or even during their term in office. With his firm adherence to the concept of the rights of states, Pierce would not fault Confederate states as long as their actions did not violate any laws. This was a strongly held political opinion rather than support for the Confederacy.
Although Pierce’s drinking might be considered excessive, especially by many in contemporary society, it was not that uncommon for his generation. And, during his presidency, he largely avoided alcohol or used it moderately. He couldn’t have been the active and mentally alert president he was if he had been an alcoholic. Always up early, meeting with various organizations and individuals, writing and delivering his own speeches, often called upon to speak extemporaneously, engaging in long involved sessions with committees and cabinet members, working late in the day, and often ending the day by presiding at official state dinners. His weekends were also frequently interrupted by Washington visitors with whom he had to graciously interact, often personally conducting tours of the White House. Few serious alcoholics could meet the demands of such an arduous weekly schedule.
Contrary to disparaging reports implying a failed marriage, the affection between Franklin Pierce and his wife, Ann, never wavered. Existing correspondence and reports by friends and associates confirm the couple’s lifelong devotion. Pierce’s bond with Ann intensified as a result of her chronic tubercular condition and depression over the deaths of her three sons; one died at birth, another succumbed to a fatal disease in his fourth year, and she tragically witnessed a derailed train car crush her eleven year-old son. Always in poor health, disease ended Ann’s life in her late fifties. At her funeral, Nathaniel Hawthorne described Pierce as being “overwhelmed with grief.” Six years later, Pierce himself died, not from cirrhosis of the liver but inflammation of the stomach combined with congestive heart failure.
Sadly, the orthodox versions of Franklin Pierce have been repeated so often that they will be difficult to dispel. In our time, with the Constitution being labeled “archaic and outdated”, and the Founding Fathers being demeaned as “old dead white men”, we can understand the disparagement of Pierce. Although some historians are loath to find anything worthwhile about Pierce, I can’t recall him ever being described by the derisive term “custodial president”, (actually, our nation might have been better served with more custodial presidents). But, as a civil libertarian, he wisely refrained from abrupt and radical alterations to the status quo. Although he might have appeased current trends by doing so, he knew he might also set in motion unintended long-range consequences.
At the end of Franklin Pierce’s presidential administration, his cabinet members presented him with a letter of appreciation that included this tribute: “We, who have seen you most, and with the fullest opportunities of appreciation, know well, how conscientiously you have discharged the high trust devolved upon you, and we confidently believe that, as time rolls on, the voice of impartial history will ratify our attestation of the integrity and patriotism of your exercise of the executive power of the United States.” These cabinet members were long departed before “the voice of impartial history” began to be heard about Franklin Pierce.
Gail Jarvis, Member of the Society of Independent Southern Historians
Exclusive Commentary Submitted to the Society by Member Jarvis for Publication in August 2013