It’s Presidents’ Day: Learn something about NH’s own Franklin Pierce

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Franklin Pierce rose to leadership in NH, but a string of personal tragedy affected his years in the White House.
Franklin PIerce
President Franklin PIerce of New Hampshire.

MANCHESTER, NH — Feb. 16 is Presidents’ Day, which means hopefully some of you will get a well-deserved day off with pay.

Remember that means the banks are closed and there’s no mail delivery — giving you an extra day to shovel out your mailbox (or do something inventive, like this.)

It also means there is plenty of presidential trivia floating around out there, like these 7 Interesting Facts about US Presidents from Ziload.com.

And now, for your reading pleasure, a little FYI moment about Presidents’ Day, via history.com, and a bonus: Some New Hampshire pride as we remember our own “resident President,” Franklin Pierce:


Presidents’ Day is an American holiday celebrated on the third Monday in February. Originally established in 1885 in recognition of President George Washington, it is still officially called “Washington’s Birthday” by the federal government. Traditionally celebrated on February 22 — Washington’s actual day of birth — the holiday became popularly known as Presidents’ Day after it was moved as part of the 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers.

While several states still have individual holidays honoring the birthdays of Washington, Abraham Lincoln and other figures, Presidents’ Day is now popularly viewed as a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents past and present. You can go deeper into the history of the February holiday here.

New Hampshire’s only President, Franklin Pierce, was the 14th president and served our country from 1853-1857. Below is his official biography from whitehouse.gov. At the end is a brief biography of Pierce’s wife, Jane, wherein we learn that the Pierce’s three sons all died young and tragically, and by all accounts, the final blow — the loss of their 11-year-old son Benny in a train accident left the Pierces both in a state of depression that, according to historians, certainly affected his presidency.


Official portrait of Franklin Pierce.
Official portrait of Franklin Pierce.

Born in Hillsborough, NH, Nov. 23, 1804, Franklin Pierce attended Bowdoin College. After graduation he studied law, then entered politics. At 24 he was elected to the New Hampshire legislature; two years later he became its Speaker. During the 1830s he went to Washington, first as a Representative, then as a Senator.

Pierce, after serving in the Mexican War, was proposed by New Hampshire friends for the Presidential nomination in 1852. At the Democratic Convention, the delegates agreed easily enough upon a platform pledging undeviating support of the Compromise of 1850 and hostility to any efforts to agitate the slavery question. But they balloted 48 times and eliminated all the well-known candidates before nominating Pierce, a true “dark horse.”

Probably because the Democrats stood more firmly for the Compromise than the Whigs, and because Whig candidate Gen. Winfield Scott was suspect in the South, Pierce won with a narrow margin of popular votes.

Two months before he took office, he and his wife saw their eleven-year-old son killed when their train was wrecked. Grief-stricken, Pierce entered the Presidency nervously exhausted.

In his Inaugural he proclaimed an era of peace and prosperity at home, and vigor in relations with other nations. The United States might have to acquire additional possessions for the sake of its own security, he pointed out, and would not be deterred by “any timid forebodings of evil.”

Pierce had only to make gestures toward expansion to excite the wrath of northerners, who accused him of acting as a cat’s-paw of Southerners eager to extend slavery into other areas. Therefore he aroused apprehension when he pressured Great Britain to relinquish its special interests along part of the Central American coast, and even more when he tried to persuade Spain to sell Cuba.

But the most violent renewal of the storm stemmed from the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and reopened the question of slavery in the West. This measure, the handiwork of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, grew in part out of his desire to promote a railroad from Chicago to California through Nebraska. Already Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, advocate of a southern transcontinental route, had persuaded Pierce to send James Gadsden to Mexico to buy land for a southern railroad. He purchased the area now comprising southern Arizona and part of southern New Mexico for $10,000,000.

Douglas’s proposal, to organize western territories through which a railroad might run, caused extreme trouble. Douglas provided in his bills that the residents of the new territories could decide the slavery question for themselves. The result was a rush into Kansas, as southerners and northerners vied for control of the territory. Shooting broke out, and “bleeding Kansas” became a prelude to the Civil War.

By the end of his administration, Pierce could claim “a peaceful condition of things in Kansas.” But, to his disappointment, the Democrats refused to renominate him, turning to the less controversial Buchanan. Pierce returned to New Hampshire, leaving his successor to face the rising fury of the sectional whirlwind. He died in 1869.

The Presidential biographies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The Presidents of the United States of America,” by Frank Freidel  and Hugh Sidey. Copyright 2006 by the White House Historical Association.

 

Screenshot 2015-02-15 at 6.51.52 PM
Jane Pierce and son Benny Pierce.

Pierce’s wife,  Jane Means Appleton Pierce, was born in Hampton but spent much of her life in Amherst, at the home of her grandparents. She was not  a fan of her husband’s involvement in politics and had already suffered through the loss of their first two sons — firstborn Franklin Pierce Jr. died at the age of 3 days old and Franklin Robert Pierce died at the age of 4 from typhus. A third son, Benjamin, was killed at age 11, just two months before Pierce’s inauguration, in a freak train accident. He was the only casualty.


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About Carol Robidoux 5451 Articles
Journalist and editor of ManchesterInkLink.com, a hyperlocal news and information site for Manchester, NH.