True Stories of Our Presidents - Charles Morris

Franklin Pierce



The New Hampshire Man

I do not think there are many of my readers who have not read the story of the famous ride of Paul Revere, on that historic night of April 18, 1775, when the British were marching from Boston to Lexington and Concord. As he rode along he gave warning to the people that the British troops w e r e coming, and many a patriot began to put his gun in order for the coming fight.

Other messengers than Paul Revere were sent out by the patriots of Boston, and rode to the north, the west and the south, stopping before every farm house and in every hamlet to shout out the news they brought. They told the story of the shots at Lexington and the fight at Concord, and on every side farmers and farmers' boys seized their muskets and with stern faces took the road to Boston.

Among these was a strong and hardy young fellow of seventeen, a boy in years but a man in spirit. With his father's old gun over his shoulder and his powder horn by his side, he trudged resolutely onward to Boston, and here he soon distinguished himself by the brave way in which he fought at Bunker Hill. He fought as well in other fields, and when the war ended and the old Continentals were disbanded, Benjamin Pierce—for that was his name—was mustered out with the full rank of captain and with two hundred dollars in his pocket, which was all the Government had to pay him.

The boy of seventeen was now a man, and a strong and vigorous one. He had been brought up a farmer and decided that he must have a farm. So he set out north, looking for good and cheap land, and one day found a place to his liking, with plenty of water and good soil. It was in the State of New Hampshire, near the present town of Hillsborough.

After some hunting he found the owner in a log hut with a small clearing around it.

"Would you like to sell this land?" he asked.

"Don't keer much if I do," said the backwoodsman. "How much is there of it?''

"A good hundred and fifty acres and this patch of it cleared."

"Well, I'll give you a hundred and fifty dollars for it."

The frontiersman, who wanted to go deeper into the wilderness, as all frontiersmen did, took the offer, and for one dollar an acre, with log-house and clearing thrown in, Benjamin Pierce got his farm.

He soon cleared and added to it; other settlers came; farms were opened around him; villages grew up; it became quite a settlement, and in this Captain Pierce was the leading man. He was a bluff, hearty, kind-hearted man, liberal and hospitable, and won wide esteem in New Hampshire. He was made a general in the militia, was sent to the Legislature, was elected sheriff of his county, and in 1827 and again in 1829, was made governor of the State.

He married early and had eight children, five sons and three daughters. It is with one of these sons that we have to do, Franklin Pierce, born at Hillsborough, November 22, 1804. He was a boy after his father's heart, full of spirit, fond of fun and of outdoor sport, and a favorite with all who knew him. He had plenty of schooling, ending his education in Bowdoin College. Here he grew very popular in his class, but likely not with his teachers, for he wasted two years of his time in idleness and dissipation. The college boys formed a military company and made him the captain, and he cut up such lawless pranks with his company that he came near being sent home in disgrace.

But he made a good friend of Zenas Caldwell, a studious and religious boy, who gained such influence over wild Franklin Pierce, that the young rebel began to study hard to make up for lost time, and he graduated with fair honor. Among his schoolmates were John P. Hale, who became well known as a United States Senator, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the famous novelist, who was a private in his military company.

With all his wildness, Franklin Pierce was a lovable boy, a favorite with everybody. He had a natural courtesy and a grace of speech and manner which won him friends on all sides. These qualities clung to him through life.

When he left college he studied law, as did so many who were to become Presidents. He became a good lawyer, though he lost his first case. But he showed his spirit by saying, "I will try nine hundred and ninety-nine cases, if clients trust me; and if I fail, as I have to-day, I will try the thousandth." Men like that do not fail.

Young Pierce soon became an active politician. In those days New England was a centre of political excitement. His father was an ardent believer in Thomas Jefferson and his party, and the boy followed in his footsteps. He became a Democrat in grain. He was elected or appointed to many offices of trust and honor, serving in the Legislature of his own State and in both Houses of Congress.

Franklin Pierce married in 1834, his wife being Jane Means Appleton, the daughter of a President of Bowdoin College. She was a young lady of fine intelligence and estimable character, but highly sensitive in organization, which was due to her delicate health. They made a happy and harmonious pair, for he was deeply devoted to her, and he seemed to prefer to live at home and attend to his law business, to holding any office.

But now came an event that took him from home. When Texas asked to be admitted to the Union, and the country was divided on that question, Pierce, like a good Democrat, and a strong opponent of the Anti-slavery party, was warm in its favor. He even declared that if it should bring on war with Mexico he was ready to enlist as a private in a Concord company. That was a very modest start, but soon after the President appointed him colonel of a regiment, and before he got to Mexico he was made Brigadier-General. Don't you think that was going up pretty rapidly, from private to general before he had seen a shot fired?

At the battle of Contreras his horse got frightened and threw him heavily among some rocks. He was severely hurt, but stayed with his men. The next day, when he attempted to march as usual, he fainted from his hurt. This was brought up against him when he ran for the Presidency, and some ugly things were said, but General Grant, who was there, says that he showed himself a brave man and a gentleman.

Soon after that the war ended and he came home. The people of Concord gave him a hearty reception and the Legislature voted him a sword of honor. He went back to his practice, but he kept up his interest in politics. And he was so strong a Democrat and an upholder of slavery that the people of the South looked on him as one of their special friends, a Northern man with Southern principles.

Time went on. General Taylor was elected President. He died and Fillmore took his place. Then came 1852 and a new election was at hand. The Whigs had won in 1848, but they were very weak now, and the Democrats were in the lead. When the Democratic National Convention met, the names of many statesmen were brought before it. There were Lewis Cass, James Buchanan, William L. Marcy, Stephen A. Douglas, Samuel Houston, and a dozen others. For four days the balloting went on, but no one got enough votes.

Then, on the fourth day, some one cast a vote for General Franklin Pierce, of New Hampshire. That took well, especially with the delegates from the South, and soon he had the States of New Hampshire and Virginia in his favor. After a dozen more ballots all opposition went down, and he was unanimously nominated for President.

No man in the country was more surprised than himself He did not dream of such a thing. A friend met him when he was out driving in his carriage, and shouted out to him:

"General, have you heard the news from Baltimore?"

"No," said Pierce in a quiet tone. "Who is nominated?"

"General Franklin Pierce, of New Hampshire. Let me congratulate you."

"I nominated? Well, you could not congratulate a more astonished man."

The nomination was sure to be an election, for the Whigs had grown very weak. They carried only four States. Twenty-seven went for the Democrats, and Franklin Pierce was President of the United States.

He had a stormy time before him. The Missouri Compromise was repealed and the territories left open for slavery. Then the fight in Kansas came on and blood was shed in the slavery contest. The President's sympathy was with the pro-slavery party, but the anti-slavery feeling in the North gradually got together in the new Republican party, which was soon to gain a great victory. The country was very prosperous during his four years in office, and all looked well for the Democracy in 1856, when James Buchanan was elected to succeed Franklin Pierce.

When Pierce left Washington in 1857, he went to a childless home. The last of his children, a bright boy of thirteen, had been killed in a railroad accident in 1852. His wife, too, was growing more feeble. He traveled in Europe for her health, but she gradually sank, and died in 1863.

Once more Franklin Pierce's voice was heard strongly and earnestly before the people. In 1861, when volunteers were gathering in Concord, Pierce, the Democratic ex-President, made a ringing war speech at a great mass-meeting, calling on the people to rally for the Union. He lived to see its end, dying quietly and peacefully, on October 8, 1869.