On Presidents Day, Franklin Pierce remains a mystery to many in N.H.

  • “Franklin Pierce,” by Adna Tenney (1810-1900), 1852. Courtesy of the New Hampshire Historical Society, bequest of Frances McNeil Potter. New Hampshire Historical Society

  • This copy of an engraving showing U.S. President Franklin Pierce in about 1855 was provided by the New Hampshire Historical Society. Pierce is remembered as one of the country's worst presidents, but he did have some memorable _ if tousled looking _ presidential hair. Now, just in time for Presidents Day, the New Hampshire Historical Society says a letter written by his wife suggests that Franklin Pierce's somewhat unkempt-looking hair was that way on purpose. (AP Photo/New Hampshire Historical Society) ** NO SALES ** Anonymous

Monitor columnist
Monday, February 19, 2018

So who the heck was Franklin Pierce?

I tried to find out, thinking Monday – Presidents Day – was a good time to try. Turns out, one of the most important people in the state’s history featured more gray area than a giant storm cloud.

Pierce was the 14th president of the United States, a Hillsboro native and a Concord resident. He served from 1853 to 1857. Of all that, I’m sure.

From there, the clouds roll in.

He was the nicest president ever, the most loyal, the least corrupt. He was unfairly judged and he was stronger than history recounts, considering the pitch-black darkness of his past. He was given an impossible task, considering the period in which he served.

But, historians have said, he was a terrible politician, perhaps the worst U.S. president of all time. He had no backbone, he was indecisive and he laid the groundwork for the Civil War.

In fact, Pierce was such a mystery, a contradiction, an anomaly that the statue honoring him at the State House seems out of place, or at least kind of lost. Daniel Webster, John Hale and John Stark all stand on the grounds, inside the giant arch.

Pierce is out front on the sidewalk, making him the most visible figure at the State House, yet far from the core of the complex.

“I’m ambivalent about him,” said Peter Wallner, who knows more about Pierce than anyone on the planet.

Wallner, 71, moved to Concord from New Jersey 16 years ago exclusively to write about a man who somehow got lost through the decades. Wallner got a job as the head librarian at the New Hampshire Historical Society and dug like a miner, searching for any and all letters and documents and newspaper clippings he could find.

His two-volume set includes Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son, and Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union.

Pierce served during the buildup to the Civil War, a time some believe featured more complexities and tumult than any other period in American history, including the 1960s.

I asked Wallner what drew him to Pierce. “In seventh grade I saw thumbnail pictures of presidents, and he looked like a normal person but there was nothing in (the book) about him,” Wallner said. “He was the nicest guy who was ever president, along with Bush the first.”

Historians agree that Pierce was, indeed, a great guy, funny, friendly and honorable.

“He was extremely honest and ran an honest administration,” Wallner told me. “There was no corruption and he was an exception to the rule, honest and clean. He created integrity in government.”

Joan Davis agreed. She and Wallner volunteer for the Pierce Brigade, an organization that raised money to halt the demolition of Pierce’s home in 1971 and move it, via flatbed truck, from Montgomery Street downtown to its present location on Horseshoe Pond Lane.

Davis, 83, is the coordinator for the group, and she’s been working to promote the Pierce Manse since her retirement from teaching 25 years ago.

“He was the most honest president we had until then,” Davis told me. “He was committed to what he believed.”

She continued: “He’s called the forgotten president. He never wrote an autobiography, and the only material known was rehashed from newspapers, and it wasn’t always accurate. You’ve heard of fake news? Even when I was a guide, we were not sure what the facts were.”

The facts, according to Davis and Wallner, say that Pierce cut the federal deficit, made citizens earn civil service positions, opened trade routes with Japan and Canada and expanded our country west.

His accomplishments came after all three of his children had died before any had reached their teens. His 11-year-old son Benjamin was killed in a train wreck in January of 1853, just days before Pierce’s inauguration. He and his wife, Jane, were on board and found their son.

“He was in mourning that whole time,” Davis said. “But he did a lot we can be proud of.”

So why the tarnished reputation?

Pierce tried to please too many people too often, rather than showing strong leadership and vision.

But his support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 during the buildup to the Civil war was what ruined him in the eyes of history.

Although he was a New Englander who did not necessarily support slavery, Pierce championed states’ rights, preferring to allow each state decide for itself whether slavery should continue. His own party and home region turned against him, viewing him as sympathetic to southern causes.

Kansas became a battlefield through the 1850s, as pro- and anti-slavery groups invaded the new state, leading to fraudulent elections, murder and destruction.

The war began in 1861, four years after Pierce left office, but many blamed him for the bloodshed, and his friendship with Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, only added to his unpopularity in the north.

“He was blamed for the Civil War, and to my mind, there were many people who bear some responsibility for the Civil War,” Davis said. “There was nothing in the Constitution that prevented (slavery). He was misunderstood.”

This is a dark story, unknown to many, despite the fascinating drama involved. The loss of Benjamin, after having already lost two sons, left Pierce and Jane deeply depressed.

Jane died in 1863. By that time, Pierce was a recluse and a heavy drinker. He died in 1869.

They’re both buried in the Old North Cemetery in Concord, long forgotten, barely visible.

I asked Wallner where he’d rank Pierce as president.

“Seventh from the bottom,” he told me. “It’s not black and white, and that’s the problem with Pierce. He was not a good politician, but I don’t know if there was much he could have done differently.”

Maybe it’s fitting that Pierce’s statue stands by itself, outside the State House grounds, easy to see, yet connected to no one beyond that giant arch.

He was the most important figure in our history.

And he was very much alone.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)