Franklin Pierce became President at a time of apparent tranquility.
The United States, by virtue of the Compromise of 1850, seemed to have weathered its sectional storm. By pursuing the recommendations of southern advisers, Pierce - a New Englander - hoped to prevent still another outbreak of that storm. But his policies, far from preserving calm, hastened the disruption of the Union.
Born in Hillsborough, New Hampshire in 1804, Pierce attended Bowdoin College in Maine. After graduation he studied law, and then entered politics. His father, Benjamin, had been a soldier in the Revolution, and later was a Brigadier General of the New Hampshire militia. He was also once Governor of New Hampshire, but left politics and became a farmer and tavern keeper.
Franklin Pierce was one of the most pathetically unhappy of all of our Presidents. A large part of that unhappiness was linked with a neurotic anxiety about religious commitment, of a kind often encountered in Puritan-stamped New England.
Pierce's wrestlings of spirit began at Bowdoin College. The Bowdoin rules were strict - "Students must be in their rooms Saturday and Sunday evenings and abstain from diversions of every kind. They who profane the Sabbath by unnecessary business, visiting or receiving visits, or by walking abroad, or by any amusement, or in other ways, may be admonished or suspended.
Also they might not eat or drink in taverns (though Pierce was the son of a tavern keeper) , attend the theater of "idle shows" or play cards or billiards or any game for money. They were warned against "loud and disorderly singing, shouting or clapping of hands... or Bacchanalian conduct."
More significant than any of his other friends’ impact upon Pierce’s character was an intimate friend and roommate, Zenas Caldwell, whom Pierce described as "one of the most consistent followers of the Blessed Redeemer" that he ever knew.
Caldwell and Pierce prayed together every night on their knees; however. Pierce never made any open or inward confession of faith.
He confessed after graduation that he had not been reborn although he thought of religion a great deal. His failure to do so seemed to haunt him.
At the age of 24 he was elected to the New Hampshire Legislature; two years later he became its Speaker. During the 1830's he went to Washington, D.C., first as a U.S. Representative and then as a Senator.
During his service as a U.S. Congressman in 1839, separated from his family, lonely and in turbulent political waters, he wrote to his law partner: "I have dwelt somewhat more this winter upon the truths of divine revelation than usual and perhaps have struggled somewhat harder to think and act in conformity with the precepts and commands of the New Testament than ever before." He further said that he believed the Christian doctrines, but strain as he would, could attain no comforting conviction of his own salvation.
In 1834 he married Jane Appleton at which time he was twenty-nine and their marriage lasted twenty-nine years until her death. She was the daughter of a Congregational minister, who had once been the President of the Bowdoin College. Her religious fervor interacted with his struggle for belief with unfortunate effects in time to come. They had three sons; Franklin, Jr. died three days after his birth and Frank Robert died at four years, of typhus.
When he was President-elect, fortune played its nastiest trick.
The Pierces and their remaining son, Benjamin, age twelve, were traveling by train near Andover, Massachusetts on January 6, 1853, when there was a bad wreck. The parents were somewhat injured but their son Benjamin was killed. A harrowing morbid suffering set in.
It was a further extension of the cruel, Puritan-bred notion of a God snatching away the children to punish the parents for their sins. Pierce felt that his persistent failure to attain a state of grace was the sin for which he was punished. Mrs. Pierce, as if in a grotesque effort to lift that load, suggested that Benjamin was taken so that her husband Franklin, should have no distraction from his duties as President - an involuntary Isaac sacrificed to the father's public responsibilities.
Mrs. Pierce wore black during her whole tenure in the White House and had one of her in-laws serve as White House hostess in her stead.
In the White House, Pierce adhered to a most strict observance of the Sabbath, not even reading mail. He read family prayers every morning with the servants present. He worshipped at the old 4 h Street Church, where Reverend Byron Sunderland preached, and sometimes he attended the Presbyterian Church on 9th Street.
Pierce, both in and out of office was active in the temperance movement, because alcohol was a besetting temptation to him and probably a source of his persistent conviction of guilt. After his wife's death, his will collapsed and he relied heavily on drink. His health declined swiftly.
The slavery question tormented him in office and when he was out of office, he was a sad spectator as the nation was rent in a war because of it. The slavery question was so greatly the obsession of his wife's Congregational Church that he could not endure its constant hammering on the theme.
When she was gone, he was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church, ‘ Pierce had fled to his home church for comfort. He wrote to a friend, soon afterward: "I can repeat with more or less comfort, Thou art my God. My time is in Thy hand." He died on October 8, 1869. His memory remains - as sad and futile a figure as we shall meet of those who have served as our Presidents.
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