Busting the myths of Franklin Pierce’s legacy
I would like to raise up for appreciation and admiration our only president from New Hampshire.
President Franklin Pierce had many vitriolic enemies who have left a seemingly indelible smear on his reputation that grieves me. I cannot thank the benevolent and persevering scholar Peter Wallner enough for providing a more balanced view.
Wallner, the author of a two-volume biography of Pierce, has been a boon to those of us who knew in our hearts that this wonderful man was being maligned. He has destroyed many myths about Pierce.
For instance, not only did Pierce write his own inaugural address, but he delivered all of the points from memory – more than 3,300 words taking 30 minutes.
He has been accused of not having an agenda. Good gravy. All of the points of his plans were contained in the inaugural address. The only point he was not successful in securing was peace on the slavery issue.
Pierce was considered a Southern sympathizer because of his friendship with Jefferson Davis, who became president of the Confederacy. Pierce did not believe in slavery and never owned one, but he believed that the Constitution provided for slavery. It did!
During his term as our 14th president from 1853 to 1857, Pierce balanced the budget each of the four years and reduced the national deficit by 60 percent. He modernized the Navy with 12 new steamships. With Davis, Pierce’s secretary of war, he provided housing for wounded veterans and provided funding for widows and orphans of veterans. He expanded the boundaries of the continental United States and secured trade with Japan.
Pierce’s Cabinet is not only recognized as one of the finest of our history, but it is also the only Cabinet to remain solid throughout the term. Pierce chose each secretary carefully to perform solidly in his office but also to represent many of the various factions in the country. His strong, magnanimous character bound each of his people despite their many different political beliefs.
There was no scandal during his presidential term. Although he did fight alcoholism in his later life, his wine glass remained upside-down at the White House dinner table.
He was able to cleanse the civil service of nepotism and instituted exams to make candidates prove their qualifications.
Pierce and Davis remained friends for life. We have a copy of a letter from Davis to Pierce after the presidency before the Civil War in which they both knew the war was coming and nothing could be done to stop it.
Today, Pierce is blamed for the Civil War, which is ridiculous. No one could have stopped it.
The Pierce Manse in Concord is blessed with memorabilia of the Pierces, not the least of which is the little desk where he was up long into the night with his personal correspondence. Not only did Pierce provide sinecure positions for his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne to allow his writing and support of the family, but he sent Hawthorne’s wife the money for a winter coat for her son after her husband died in 1865. He also helped put that same son through Harvard.
As a proud member of the Pierce Brigade, I heartily encourage you to visit the Pierce Manse in the Concord Historic District during our open season from Memorial Day to after Labor Day, or set up a private tour for your classes or groups. We have a website (piercemanse.org) and you can find us on Facebook.
(Kathleen Braden lives in Concord.)