Michael F. Holt; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz, General Editors
Henry Holt and Co.
A Precocious Start
Franklin Pierce was born on November 23, 1804, in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. He was the sixth child of Anna Kendrick Pierce and General Benjamin Pierce, who also had a daughter from a previous marriage. Pierce later described his mother as affectionate and endlessly forgiving of his youthful hijinks, but it was his far sterner father, the most influential man in Hillsborough County, who had the greater impact on him. A native of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, Benjamin Pierce had enlisted in the Continental army as a teenager as soon as he heard about the fighting at Lexington and Concord. He fought in the battles of Breed's Hill and Ticonderoga, among others, and spent the winter with George Washington at Valley Forge. He was mustered out of the army with a medal from Washington, and at the rank of lieutenant, in 1784. In short, he had the credentials of a Revolutionary War hero, and his war stories inspired young Franklin with a desire to emulate his father's military service. That two of his older brothers as well as his half sister's husband fought in the War of 1812 intensified this yen.
His reputation as a war hero served Benjamin Pierce well when he moved to the frontier town of Hillsborough in western New Hampshire in 1786. Not only would he quickly become the commanding general of the state's militia, but he was also elected to several terms as the county's sheriff, where he became famous for his generosity toward jailed debtors. He also sat on the governor's council. In the late 1820s, he served two one-year terms as governor of the state. Benjamin Pierce was a Jeffersonian Republican who loathed Federalists as elitist snobs, and that hatred deepened when a Federalist majority in the state legislature purged him from the office of sheriff after he had defied an order from a Federalist judge.
Frank Pierce was hardly a bookish youth. He loved the outdoors and enjoyed roughhousing, swimming, fishing, and ice skating far more than lessons in school. Even as a boy he evinced the personal charm that would smooth his political rise. He was his playmates' ringleader, and adults, especially adult women, found him an altogether winning lad—honest, polite, and poised. To put it differently—and perhaps more ominously—from boyhood on Pierce was eager to please other people. Pierce did not like school, but his father, who lacked a formal education of his own, was determined that his sons attend college. Thus Pierce was dispatched to a series of academies outside Hillsborough to learn Latin and Greek in preparation for the required college entrance exams. One of Pierce's older brothers had attended West Point and another Dartmouth College. When the time came to send Frank off to college, however, Federalists controlled Dartmouth, and Benjamin Pierce would not consider it. He determined instead to send Frank to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.
Pierce and his parents arrived in Brunswick for the beginning of the 1820 fall term several months before Frank's sixteenth birthday. Bowdoin was then a very small college, but it attracted an astonishing number of young men destined for national eminence. William Pitt Fessenden, the future Whig and Republican U.S. senator from Maine, was in the class ahead of Pierce's, and James Bradbury, a future Democratic senator from Maine, was in the student body at the same time. John P. Hale, who would later run against Pierce for president, was a freshman when Pierce was a senior. Calvin Stowe, the future husband of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was valedictorian of Pierce's class. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was in the class of 1825, and two other members of that class would play important roles in Pierce's future life. One was Jonathan Cilley of New Hampshire, later a Democratic congressman who lived in the same boardinghouse with Pierce in Washington during one of his congressional terms. The other was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who remained Pierce's lifelong friend and who would write a campaign biography for him in 1852.
While he struggled with mathematics, Pierce's training in classical languages served him well—indeed too well—during his first years at Bowdoin. The cold fact is that during his first two years, Pierce played far more than he studied. He frequently skipped mandatory recitation periods in order to hike in the nearby woods or fish in nearby streams. In the dormitory at night, when solitary study was the prescribed regimen, Pierce was famous for bursting into other students' rooms to start furniture-smashing wrestling matches. He usually won those contests. Ten years later, a fellow Democratic state legislator with whom Pierce tussled described him as “the most powerful man of his size I know of.” Wrestling was not Pierce's only nighttime activity in those first years at Bowdoin. In violation of the school's rules, Pierce and his closest pals snuck out of the dorm to frequent a Brunswick tavern.
Heavy drinking and Pierce's name go together like a horse and carriage, and years later his political opponents would label him a drunkard. In the 1820s, young men were as likely as those today to seek amusement and drink heavily in bars, and there seems little doubt that the gregarious and fun-loving Pierce enjoyed socializing with his friends. From his perspective, not to do so would be an insult to those friends. It appears that his tolerance for alcoholic intake was low and that he often became riotously giddy much sooner than his drinking partners. But there is no evidence that Pierce's drinking sprees impaired his mental faculties once he had sobered up. Some of Pierce's behavior then and especially after he left the White House suggests that he suffered from alcoholism, but at this distance in time it is impossible to render a definitive diagnosis.
As a result of Pierce's carefree behavior, he ranked dead last academically in his class by the end of his sophomore year at Bowdoin. When he learned of his embarrassing status, he determined to reform. Gone were the hikes in the woods and the evenings in the tavern. Instead of copying other students' work to turn in as his own as he had done for two years, he arose at 4 a.m. every morning to hit the books. Overseeing this transformation to academic self-discipline was a new member of his class, a devout Methodist from Maine named Zenas Caldwell, who brought Pierce home with him during the midwinter break. In his senior year, Pierce roomed with the sober-minded Caldwell, and with the help of his strict supervision the onetime dunce graduated fifth in his class, now reduced to fourteen students, and had the honor of delivering a seven-minute disquisition in Latin at graduation in August 1824.
Pierce was far too fun-loving and far too addicted to outdoor exercise, however, to become a total bookworm. In the spring of his junior year he organized a military company called the Bowdoin Cadets, which “Captain” Pierce led in marching drills around the campus. Like most colleges in that day, Bowdoin boasted rival debating societies, and during Pierce's senior year, the impending presidential election of 1824 became the focus of their competition. One of these societies proclaimed the merits of John Quincy Adams, while, tellingly, Pierce's club touted those of Andrew Jackson.
After graduation Pierce returned to his parents' house in Hillsborough and began to read law with a local attorney. He moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the spring of 1825 to study in the office of Levi Woodbury and, after Woodbury left to serve in the U.S. Senate, to another lawyer in Northampton, Massachusetts. He completed his legal studies in Amherst, New Hampshire, the Hillsborough county seat, and was admitted to the bar there in September 1827, two months shy of his twenty-third birthday. He then returned to Hillsborough to start his practice.
The interest Pierce developed in national politics at Bowdoin quickened during his months in Portsmouth, a former Federalist and now pro-Adams bastion. Like other supporters of Andrew Jackson, Pierce was infuriated by the so-called Corrupt Bargain that had placed Adams in the White House. He sympathized with the efforts of Woodbury and Isaac Hill, a Concord editor, to organize a pro-Jackson opposition party. “A Republic without parties is a complete anomaly,” he wrote a friend. “The citizens are convinced that Jeffersonian principles are the principles for a free people, and I trust they have no notion of renouncing their faith.”
Pierce put these beliefs into practice when he returned to Hillsborough. In 1827 his father was elected governor for the first time with no organized opposition, but in 1828, the presidential election year, pro-Adams men rallied to stop his reelection. Frank Pierce campaigned aggressively for his father. He helped organize a pro-Jackson demonstration on the anniversary of Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans in January. Two months later, Frank made his formal political debut at the annual Hillsborough town meeting. Town meetings in New Hampshire did more than discuss local affairs. They also cast votes each year for state officials and, in odd years, for U.S. congressmen. Hillsborough, like many other New Hampshire towns, was divided between Adams and Jackson men. To the surprise of many, Jacksonians elected young Frank Pierce moderator of the meeting, as they would during the next five successive years. That, however, was the only Pierce victory that March. Benjamin's bid for reelection failed, an accurate portent of Jackson's defeat in New Hampshire in the presidential election the following November. Yet Benjamin, now openly aligned with the Jacksonians, would win the governorship again in March 1829, and at the Hillsborough town meeting that year Franklin Pierce, barely twenty-four years old, was unanimously elected to the state legislature. The town meeting repeated that choice over the next three years, and in the final two of them Pierce's admiring colleagues in the state house of representatives elected him their Speaker.
Pierce's interest in politics, devotion to Jeffersonian principles, and deep commitment to the new Jacksonian Democratic Party endured for the remainder of his life. Nonetheless, he had studied law to earn a living, not to run for office. Initially his practice was confined primarily to the semiannual sessions of the county court of common pleas in Amherst. He lost his first case there in the spring of 1828, but gradually he developed into a very successful advocate. Pierce lacked an incisive legal mind, but he had other attributes that served him well in the civil and criminal cases he argued before juries. He displayed a prodigious memory for names and faces, a trait that obviously benefited him in his political career as well. He could address individual jurors by name when pleading cases, and he would remember those names for years thereafter. He had a deep, rich voice, again a trait that helped his political career because his audience could actually hear his unamplified voice at political rallies. Most important, he exuded a personal charm, an amiable temperament, and an instinctive human empathy. Pierce directed his arguments to the emotions of jurors, not to their collective logic, and he usually won.
The state legislature met in Concord each June, between the semiannual sessions of the court of common pleas, and occasionally in November and December, after the fall session. Much of the legislature's business was so humdrum that no one even bothered to demand roll-call votes. The public policy issues that evoked partisan conflict between the Adams men, who referred to themselves as National Republicans after Adams's defeat by Jackson in 1828, and the fledgling Jacksonians were primarily economic: the role of government in constructing internal improvements such as turnpikes, canals, and railroads; the incorporation of, and the privileges awarded to shareholders in, corporations, especially those that absolved them from any responsibility for companies' debts; and banking and paper money. Indeed, most partisan conflict between 1834 and 1856, what historians call the Second American Party System, was fueled by these issues.
In New Hampshire, these questions, especially those surrounding the chartering of banks and railroad companies, had a regional dimension. The coastal towns of southeastern New Hampshire were the first settled in the state, had once been Federalist strongholds, and were closely aligned with business interests in Boston. They had financial stakes in locating banks in and pushing railroad tracks to the more recently settled western and northern regions of the state. Many residents of those western and northern areas, in turn, viewed Boston-owned banks and especially Boston-owned railroads as outside imperial monopolists that would gut farming folk for their own distant profit. The legislative tussles over these issues catalyzed Franklin Pierce's commitment to what would soon develop into Jacksonian orthodoxy: opposition to any government subsidization of economic development, to corporate privilege, and to paper-money banking.
Beyond the reinforcement of these rigid policy stances, however, something more important was happening in New Hampshire between 1829 and 1832. Benjamin Pierce's reelection as governor as an avowed Jackson man in 1829 heralded New Hampshire's transition from a competitive state to a granite-ribbed Democratic one. In 1832, when his primary opponent was the Kentuckian Henry Clay, rather than the New Englander Adams, Andrew Jackson would carry New Hampshire, and from that date until the mid-1850s New Hampshire would remain the most reliably Democratic state in the North. During Pierce's four brief terms in the state legislature, New Hampshire became the political anomaly of New England, certainly an anomaly compared to its neighbors to the south and west. Not only would Massachusetts and Vermont become veritable fortresses of Whiggery, but both, especially Vermont, were swept by the Antimasonic tornado in the late 1820s and early 1830s. From 1831 to 1837, indeed, Antimasons won every annual gubernatorial election in Vermont, and it was the only state carried by the Antimasonic candidate for president in 1832. By contrast, Antimasons had negligible sway in New Hampshire, although they did manage to run a separate congressional ticket in 1833 that helped divide those who opposed the dominant Democrats.
One of the most important—if also most mystifying—political phenomena of the 1820s and 1830s, the Antimasonic Party represented a populistic grassroots protest movement against the purported legal, economic, social, and political privileges of members of Masonic lodges vis-à-vis nonmembers or outsiders. Its political goals were to purge Masons from elective and appointive public offices and then to eradicate Masonry altogether by stripping Masonic lodges of their state charters and making membership in the fraternity a criminal offense. Confined primarily to northeastern states, it attracted those who harbored grievances against the dominant party or faction of each particular state, whether it was the friends of Adams in Vermont and Massachusetts or those of Andrew Jackson in New York and Pennsylvania.
Because the economies, topography, and mix of religious denominations were so similar in Vermont and neighboring New Hampshire, historians have long been puzzled about why Antimasons were so strong in the former and so weak in the latter. One answer may be the stark difference in the competitive balance between Adams men (i.e., National Republicans) and Jacksonians in the two states. In 1828 Adams won 75 percent of Vermont's popular vote compared to Jackson's meager 25 percent. In New Hampshire, in contrast, Adams edged Jackson 52 percent to 48 percent. For those opposed to National Republicans who controlled both states, a new party may have seemed far more necessary in lopsided Vermont than in closely contested New Hampshire.
Franklin Pierce benefited markedly from New Hampshire's unique political trajectory. Because the 250 members of the state legislature assembled in Concord in June, rival state parties held their state conventions there that month so that members of the legislature could represent their home districts. Until the mid-1840s, New Hampshire chose its congressmen on statewide general tickets, rather than by individual districts. And in June 1832, the Democratic state convention put Pierce, then only twenty-seven years old, on the Democratic slate of five congressional candidates to be chosen by town meetings the following March. By 1832 that nomination virtually guaranteed his election; he went on to receive almost 76 percent of the statewide vote. His political horizons had widened.
A New Hampshire newspaper editorial at the time of his nomination merits quotation, for it identifies this fun-loving, friendly, and politically talented young man as the state's emerging favorite son. “Frank Pierce is the most popular man of his age that I know of in N.H.—praises in every one's mouth. Every circumstance connected with him seems to contribute to his popularity. In the first place, he has the advantage of his father's well earned reputation to bring him forward, and there is aristocracy enough, even in a community democratic as our own, to make this of no trifling importance to a young man just starting his life. In the next place he has a handsome person, bland and agreeable manners, a prompt and off-hand manner of saying and doing things, and talents competent to sustain himself in any station.” As would become clear later in Pierce's political career, that last encomium was mistaken.
Between his election in March and the meeting of the Twenty-third Congress in December, Pierce had the thrill of meeting his hero Jackson as well as Vice President Martin Van Buren when they came to Concord during a summer tour of New England. The experience made Pierce an even firmer supporter of the administration when he reached Washington. Once there, he found lodging with a group of senators: Isaac Hill, whom the New Hampshire legislature had sent to the Senate, and his wife; both of Maine's senators; Senator William Wilkins of Pennsylvania; and Senator Hugh Lawson White of Tennessee. Pierce's closest friend in this Capitol Hill “mess,” however, was Benjamin B. French, a former colleague in the New Hampshire legislature who had come to Washington to take a clerkship in the House of Representatives and who had brought his vivacious wife with him. Throughout Pierce's nine years in Congress, French would remain his closest confidant in the capital city.
Jackson's removal of federal deposits from the Bank of the United States by executive fiat in the fall of 1833 set the main agenda for this congressional session. Among other things, Jackson's alleged executive usurpation caused various opponents of that action in the Senate—National Republicans, South Carolina Nullifiers, who still maintained that a single state could void a federal law within its borders, and southerners who dubbed themselves Independent States Rights men—to coalesce as the new Whig Party. During the summer and fall of 1834, Antimasons in most of the northern states would join this new anti-Jackson party, and the coalition would take control of the Senate. The Whig Senate passed bills and resolutions commanding Jackson to restore the deposits to the Bank of the United States, but each time such bills reached the House, Jacksonians, including Pierce, easily defeated them. Pierce became a staunch Democrat, voting against every internal improvements bill that came up and against a measure giving preemption rights to squatters on federal lands in the West. Most of his time, however, was occupied by off-stage and often routine work for the judiciary committee, although he did manage to give one speech during the session on Revolutionary War pensions. To his great pleasure, this speech won him congratulations from a number of southern members of the House. For the remainder of his political career, Pierce would seek similar southern approval.
Between the first and second sessions of Congress, Pierce was married to Jane Means Appleton of Amherst, to whom he had become officially engaged in January 1833. Pierce first met Jane when he studied law in Amherst during 1827, but it's not clear how long he courted her before their engagement. They seemed an unlikely pair. For one thing, her family was wealthy and Federalist. One of her aunts, indeed, had married the Federalist senator Jeremiah Mason, while another was married to Amos Lawrence, the fabulously rich Boston textile manufacturer. Jacksonian Democrats they were not. For another, with dark auburn hair, blue eyes, a square jaw, and a slender, muscular physique, Franklin Pierce was a strikingly handsome man. The dark-haired Jane was no beauty. They also had quite different personalities. Pierce was gregarious, a paragon of health who loved out-of-doors physical activity. Jane was painfully shy, relentlessly prim, physically frail and sickly, and given to frequent bouts of melancholy. She loathed any use of tobacco or alcohol, and she soon grew to loathe politics and public life just as deeply. Surrounded by servants, she had no experience keeping house and was thoroughly daunted by the prospect. What they saw in each other is unclear. But opposites can attract, and on November 19, 1834, they married in her grandmother's mansion in Amherst, where she had been living for years. Portentously, within half an hour of exchanging vows, the couple left for Washington and the new session of Congress. Jane's poor health prevented much socializing by the newlyweds, and during these few months Frank abstained from drinking.
At the Democratic state convention in June 1834, Pierce was renominated for Congress, and in March 1835 he led the at-large Democratic slate to victory with 63 percent of the vote against the Whig ticket. Jane was pregnant and did not accompany Pierce to Washington for the opening of the Twenty-fourth Congress. She spent most of the winter and spring in Amherst with her mother and grandmother. So once again, Pierce made his quarters in a “mess,” this time headed by the Democratic titan Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, whom Pierce quickly befriended.
The first session of the Twenty-fourth Congress proved more consequential for, and more revealing about, Franklin Pierce than any other term he served in Congress. From December 1835 until the session's close, much of his time was devoted to behind-the-scenes work on the judiciary committee and a special select committee to investigate the rechartering of banks in the District of Columbia. But the issue that preoccupied this legislative session, and especially the House's deliberations, was how to handle the thousands of petitions pouring into Washington demanding that Congress abolish slavery in the district. That issue led to a very public clash between Pierce and Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.
Pierce was hardly proslavery, but he detested the abolitionist movement almost from the moment that it began to organize in the early 1830s. Never a particularly religious or pious man, quite unlike his new wife, he found the holier-than-thou attitude of abolitionists, and their penchant for condemning anyone who did not join their movement as a sinner, deeply offensive, indeed intolerable. Equally important, he feared that abolitionist agitation, if unchecked, could rend the nation his revered father had fought to create. Pierce was committed to the preservation of the Union, and he resented and rejected anything that he believed might threaten its perpetuity. Over time, Pierce's instant hatred of abolitionists evolved into hostility to any northern group that opposed slavery and its expansion westward in any way, even if it did not seek immediate abolition. By the 1850s, moreover, his stance on sectional disputes over slavery and its western expansion was flatly prosouthern, not simply anti-antislavery.
The abolitionist question came to a head early in December 1835, when Representative James H. Hammond of South Carolina demanded that the House summarily reject abolitionist petitions without considering or even officially receiving them. For Pierce and many other congressmen, including some southerners, this was too much, for it violated the people's constitutionally guaranteed right of petition. The proper course, Pierce told the House in a speech on December 18, was to receive but then automatically table such petitions without any further consideration, the solution that the House would ultimately adopt in May 1836 in what became known as the Gag Rule. But in his December 1835 speech, Pierce went further. Abolitionists were a tiny minority of fanatics, he declared; southerners should not identify them as representative of northern public opinion. In New Hampshire, he boasted, there was “not one in a hundred who does not entertain the most sacred regard for the rights of their Southern brethren—nay not one in five hundred who would not have those rights protected at any and every hazard.”
In the first week of February 1836, tragedy struck. Pierce learned that Jane had given birth to a son and had survived the trials of labor, news that thrilled and relieved him. But joy quickly turned to grief when a subsequent letter reported that the boy had died three days later. Meanwhile, the work of Congress went on. On February 8 the House had appointed a select committee, chaired by South Carolinian Henry L. Pinckney, to consider proposals for handling abolitionist petitions. Pierce was named to the committee. When the Senate turned to the petition question on February 12, Calhoun, who was apparently trying to awaken his fellow southerners to the danger posed by abolitionists, charged that New Hampshire's residents sympathized with abolitionist fanatics. As evidence for his accusation, Calhoun sent a newspaper clipping to the clerk's desk to be read. How Calhoun obtained this piece from the recently established Herald of Freedom, an abolitionist organ in Concord, is unclear, but the article said that Pierce had lied when he declared that only one person in five hundred in New Hampshire sympathized with the abolitionists. By adding up the number of signatures on petitions from the state and dividing that sum by the state's population reported in the 1830 census, the Herald of Freedom claimed that the proper ratio was one in thirty-three. If Pierce was so ignorant of his constituency, the article added, he should resign. Significantly, this article also labeled Pierce a doughface, a term that subsequently connoted a northerner with southern sympathies, but in the North at the time it was an allegation of personal cowardice. Isaac Hill, New Hampshire's other senator, and Thomas Hart Benton immediately chastised Calhoun for allowing this slur against Pierce to be read on the Senate floor, and Calhoun later apologized to Pierce for having done so. But that apology was not enough for the furious Pierce, who had been in the Senate when the clipping was read.
On February 15 Pierce asked and received permission in the House “to repel an assault on his personal character, and impugning his veracity.” The vast majority of the signatures on the petitions counted by the Herald of Freedom, he pointed out, came from women and children. His earlier speech had alluded only to white male voters. In recent months, he added, every county in New Hampshire had held conventions to nominate candidates for the impending state election in March, and every convention, regardless of party, had condemned the abolitionist petitioners for jeopardizing the Union. Finally, he angrily rejected the characterization of himself as a doughface. Pierce's indignant speech won plaudits from other congressmen and constituents in New Hampshire. The doughface label, however, was only temporarily shelved, not permanently buried.
In December 1836, after Pierce had returned to Washington for the second session of the Twenty-fourth Congress, the New Hampshire legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate for the six-year term beginning in March 1837. At the age of thirty-two, Pierce was the youngest man yet elected to the Senate but, according to the Boston Post, he had “more experience in legislative business than many of his seniors.” The appointment kept Pierce in Washington for a few weeks after Congress adjourned, for the new Senate was charged with confirming the cabinet selections of the new president, Martin Van Buren, who was sworn into office on March 4, 1837.
Pierce again returned to Washington in September for a special session of Congress called by Van Buren to deal with the recession triggered by a banking panic in May 1837. Van Buren, like Pierce himself, attributed the panic to rampant speculation caused by an overissue of state banknotes, and his solution was to drastically reduce the amount of paper money in circulation. Van Buren proposed withdrawing federal monies from the private economic sector and depositing them in government vaults, known as subtreasuries, where they could no longer serve as backing for banknotes. Whigs and a minority of conservative Democrats opposed this so-called Independent Treasury plan, while orthodox Jacksonians like Pierce staunchly supported it. From September 1837 until July 1840, when Democrats finally managed to enact the Independent Treasury, this would remain the chief public policy question debated in Congress.
During Pierce's years in the Senate, the start of each session also rehashed the appropriate way to handle the continuing onslaught of abolitionist petitions. Indeed, Pierce's maiden Senate speech in December 1837 objected to a southern proposal for flat-out rejection. Abolitionists were dangerous fanatics, he repeated, but he “could give no vote that might be construed into a denial of the right of petition.” Instead, he favored the kind of gag he had helped frame in the House in 1836—reception but then immediate tabling of the petitions without any discussion of their content.
As in the House, most of Pierce's time in the Senate was consumed by the drudgery of committee work. That routine was shattered by an incident outside the halls of Congress in early 1838. During the September special session, Pierce had shared a mess with his old Bowdoin chum Jonathan Cilley, now a freshman Democratic representative from Maine. When he returned to Washington for the regular session in December, this time with Jane in tow, he renewed that arrangement. Cilley was a firebrand, and in February he found himself challenged to a duel by Kentucky Whig congressman William J. Graves. Cilley consulted frequently with Pierce during the lead-up to the duel, which, at Cilley's request, would be fought with rifles at a distance of eighty yards. Some newspapers later charged that Pierce had goaded Cilley into fighting when in fact he unsuccessfully, if indirectly, tried to avert the duel. On February 24, 1838, Graves shot and killed Cilley, outraging the Washington community. Pierce was overwhelmed by guilt and grief, and Jane's hatred of politics and her husband's political career intensified. “Oh, how I wish he was out of political life!” she wrote a relative. “How much better it would be for him on every account.”
That summer, after the close of the long congressional session, the Pierces moved from Hillsborough, where Jane had never been comfortable, to Concord, the state capital, where they rented a house and Pierce formed a new law partnership. Jane agreed to return to Washington for the second session of the Twenty-fifth Congress, but the birth of a healthy son, Frank Robert, in September 1839 gave her an excuse never to return there again during the remainder of his term.
Still, the most important juncture during Pierce's senatorial years was the political earthquake that occurred in 1840 when Whigs won the White House, three-fifths of the House seats, and two-thirds of the state legislatures, guaranteeing them a majority in the Senate as well. When Congress met on May 31, 1841, for the special session called by President William Henry Harrison before he died one month to the day after his inauguration, Pierce found himself in the minority for the first time in his precocious political career. He and other Democrats sat by powerlessly as Whigs, led by Henry Clay, whom many suspected had put Graves up to challenging Cilley, rammed through a package of economic legislation that the Democrat Pierce abhorred. Frustrated by his minority status, aware that he could not be reelected because New Hampshire's Democrats chose to rotate the state's Senate seats, determined to increase the income from his oft-interrupted law practice, and eager to be with Jane and his son, Pierce resigned his seat at the end of February 1842, a full year before his term was due to expire.
One other factor may have influenced Pierce's desire to escape Washington. In the early fall of 1841, while back in Concord after the close of the special congressional session, he had publicly taken the temperance pledge, and in 1842 he became president of the state temperance association. Alone without Jane in Washington's heavy-drinking culture, Pierce may have found the temptation to break that pledge too agonizing to bear. His return to Concord would help him avoid it.
Pierce had resigned from political office, but to Jane's growing dismay he most certainly had not left political life. Pierce served as the de jure and then de facto boss of New Hampshire's Democratic state party from 1842 until his nomination for the presidency in 1852. In that role he tried, usually with success, to resolve squabbles over issues as well as party nominations in order to preserve party unity. For Pierce, the unity of the Democratic Party, both within the state and within the nation as a whole, was a fixation, a shibboleth, virtually a be-all and end-all. His obsession with obtaining that unity would help wreck his presidency. But between 1842 and 1852 it primarily drove Pierce to extirpate any and every inkling of antislavery or antisouthern sentiment from the New Hampshire Democratic Party. He simply would not tolerate any criticism of slavery or slaveholders, and he had the clout to impose his intolerance on the state Democratic organization. On two occasions—in 1845 and then again in 1851—he called special sessions of the Democratic state convention and ordered members to oust previously nominated men from the state ticket because they had the temerity publicly to announce antislavery sentiments.
The first of these occasions was by far the more portentous. In 1843 Pierce's fellow Bowdoin alumnus John P. Hale had been elected to Congress on the Democratic slate. The state convention in June 1844 renominated Hale, but before the March 1845 elections Hale publicly denounced a central plank of the Democrats' 1844 national platform, one that many believed had spurred James K. Polk's ascent to the White House that year—the immediate annexation of the slaveholding Republic of Texas. Hale believed that adding Texas to the Union as a slave state would spread a sinful institution and tighten the grip of the so-called Slave Power on the national government. He was so firm in his stance that he voted against the Democrats when the question came before Congress in the winter of 1844–45. Once stripped of his Democratic nomination by the recalled Democratic state convention, the defiant Hale ran as an independent in 1845. Like most New England states, New Hampshire required an absolute majority rather than a plurality of the popular vote for election to all offices. In 1845 the votes of Hale's supporters combined with the Whigs managed to keep anyone from being elected to the seat, one that Pierce thought rightfully belonged to the Democrats.
Nor did the damage stop there. In 1846 Hale's antislavery supporters, Whigs, and Democrats all ran separate candidates for governor and the state legislature. No one gained a majority in the gubernatorial race, but in the state legislature Hale's supporters plus the Whigs attained a majority over the usually dominant Democrats. So they cut a deal. They elected the Whig candidate Anthony Colby, who had gotten about 37 percent of the popular vote, as governor, the only Whig ever to hold that office in New Hampshire, and they sent John P. Hale to the Senate for a term running from March 1847 to March 1853. Pierce was absolutely livid, and in 1847 he mobilized a huge increase in Democratic turnout that crushed the Whigs and Hale's allies, now running under the Liberty Party label, in the state and congressional elections. That smashing victory probably increased Pierce's confidence that antislavery men were a contemptible minority, but there was little he could do to stop Hale from becoming one of the most prominent antislavery politicians in the country. In 1852, indeed, Hale would be named a candidate for president of the United States on the antislavery Free Soil Party ticket.
Several aspects of Pierce's career until the mid-1840s provide clues to his subsequent behavior as president. One is the striking ease of his political ascent. On Pierce's part this was primarily attributable to his amiable personality and his astonishing memory for people's names and faces. He had, in short, the instincts of a clubhouse pol, and he was likely overconfident about his ability to win over others with his personal charm. Pierce was a good public speaker, in part because his memory allowed him to eschew written texts and notes, but there's no evidence that anything he said was deep or original. Both in the state legislature and in Congress he hewed closely to Democratic orthodoxy, and his only significant action in Congress was helping to frame the controversial Pinckney Gag Rule. Not only did Pierce hold antislavery groups in contempt, but his consistent votes against federal subsidies for internal improvements and lower federal land prices displayed a callous indifference to the needs and interests of the Midwest. His political vision was narrow, even parochial.
Yet more important in explaining Pierce's precocious political career was the lock that the Democratic Party held over New Hampshire. Whig candidates rarely secured as much as two-fifths of the popular vote, and in 1836, 1840, and 1844 New Hampshire gave Democratic presidential candidates larger popular majorities than any other northern state. The atypicality of Democratic strength in New Hampshire probably deepened Pierce's commitment to internal party unity. Since the early 1820s, astute politicians had recognized that any party's internal cohesion varied inversely with the strength of its external rivals. Where that external competition was weak, as in New Hampshire, internal party fragmentation was a constant danger. Democratic dominance in New Hampshire also blinded Pierce to the needs of Democrats in far more competitive states. That Pierce resigned his Senate seat after spending only four months in the minority is telling. He liked to compete only when he held a winning hand. Political defeat was a new and intolerable experience.
Pierce's successful campaign for the presidency in 1852 and his actions while in that office would in many ways eerily echo his experience in the 1830s and 1840s. By 1852 the opposition Whigs had become as weak nationally as they had always been in New Hampshire. As a result, Pierce would waltz into the White House with a landslide in the electoral vote. On becoming president, however, Pierce would immediately face the problem of holding the victorious Democratic coalition together when the temporary lack of a threatening external opposition party made that goal difficult, if not impossible. The upshot would be a piece of legislation that Pierce prominently endorsed and that, along with other things, produced the Democratic defeats that Pierce could not stand. But to understand how this happened, one must first assess the impact of the Mexican-American War of 1846–48 on American politics in general and upon Franklin Pierce in particular.
Michael F. Holt is the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of six books, including the award-winning The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party and By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.