I hate to write a column with such doom and gloom. But, I was lead to tell a story about a man who has been much misunderstood and maligned by history. Tragedies are a normal, but unfortunate part of life. They happen to varying degrees and people handle them in different ways. World leaders, successful business people, military commanders, and folks who you may think “have it all” are not except. One such man who faced a string of unfortunate events was born in New Hampshire in 1804. He would overcome having a terrible father, health problems, and dangerous combat in a war to become president of the United States. Yet, unbearable disaster and heartache would become soon reduce this man to a shell of his former self. He was the little known and much criticized President Franklin Pierce.
Pierce would have a respectful career as both a politician and a war hero. He married his wife Jane on November 19, 1834. He would serve as a senator and a congressman from New Hampshire, as well as a brigadier general in the Mexican-American War.
Pierce's first success in the world of politics came in 1832 when he won New Hampshire's at large district for Congress, which he held from 1833 to 1837. It was during this that his first disaster struck. On February 2 of 1836 Pierce's first son, Franklin Pierce, Jr., was born. 3 days later Franklin Jr. had passed away. While Infant mortality rates were high at the time, Pierce was devastated. He would vow to father enough children to leave a legacy. However, this death of his first born served as a precursor for things to come in more ways than one.
1836 was the year that Pierce had won a new election and became a senator in New Hampshire. During his one term as senator, the Pierce family introduced a new baby boy into the world, Frank Robert Pierce, on August 27, 1839. Benjamin Pierce was born April 13, 1841. These children, unlike Pierce's first one, would survive the end of Pierce's term as senator. However, a year after Pierce had resigned from the office his son Frank died at the age of four from typhus fever. Pierce would have to pull himself up again and forge ahead.
After a few years, Mexico made the mistake of firing on American soldiers in disputed areas of the American Southwest. An ambitious, ferocious, and courageous Franklin Pierce got commissioned as a colonel to fight in the war in 1847. He faced open warfare without fear or reservation. A few months later Pierce was promoted to brigadier general. The war carried on for a year after this and ended in a resounding US victory. The American victory would change the shape of our nation and shape the careers of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses Grant, and future presidents like Franklin Pierce.
Pierce, now a famous war hero and, according to many historians, the most handsome of all presidential candidates in history, would go on to win the Democrat candidacy for president in the 1852 election. His career, mixed with his southern sympathy, won him the presidential election over his Whig opponent by a landslide, winning 27 of the then 31 states. But, the celebration was short lived. A few short months after the election the Pierce family was involved in a train accident. Everyone except one person survived; Benjamin Pierce, Franklin’s 3rd and last son was instantly killed. For the third time, he lost a son. This time, would prove to be too much as darkness surrounded the new and broken president.
He would serve his presidency only having his wife. Yet, the loss of three boys was too much to bear. Franklin Pierce spiraled into alcoholism and became more difficult for Congress to work with than ever before. He became so unpopular that he didn't even win the Democrat candidacy for the next election. Alcoholism and darkness would soon consume his very being.
When the American Civil War broke out, Pierce and his wife were living alone in New Hampshire. It was during this awful war, which some historians blame him for helping to accelerate, that the fourth and final tragedy struck Franklin Pierce. On December 2, 1863, his wife Jane passed away from tuberculosis. While he would have given his own life for any of his boys or his wife, he would now find himself alone in the dark, cold winter of New Hampshire. From that day, his only friend and comfort was the large supply of single malt scotch whisky in his home. He would suffer for six more years until his tragic life of isolation, darkness, and loss would mercifully end October 8, 1869. Franklin Pierce would be unfairly portrayed as one of the worst presidents in history. Many historians and political scientists point out that his one term only lead to bloodshed in Kansas and further sharpened the bayonets that would soon spill blood in the Shenandoah, Antietam, and eventually throughout the eastern United States during the Civil War. But, a closer look shows a man with everything in life, high expectations during a dangerous time in history, who rose to the highest office in the land. Yet, he doomed the day that he walked into the White House. All of the power, money, and fame could not fix the destroyed man who walked into an all but empty White House. I don’t know that Ronald Reagan, FDR, or any other American hero could have survived the darkness that enveloped this president. This president’s legacy should be reconsidered in light of his personal tragedies.