Franklin Pierce: Defining Democracy in America
From a Frontier Town to the White House:
Exhibition Offered New Insight into President Franklin Pierce
Of his close friend Franklin Pierce (1804-1869), author Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "He comes before the people
of the United States at a remarkable era in the history of this country and of the world."
Pierce's presidency was the culmination of an unexpected rise
to power from a small town on the New Hampshire frontier, to leader of a young Republic. How Pierce arrived at
the office of president, and what that said about the nation he led, was the focus of an exhibition entitled Franklin
Pierce: Defining Democracy in America. Never before had Pierce artifacts, paintings, letters, and personal
accounts been brought together on such a large scale. The exhibition was on view from June 3, 2004, through May
8, 2005, at the Society's 30 Park Street library.
Defining Democracy in America showcased more than 100
objects, paintings, photographs and documents drawn primarily from the Society's museum and library collections.
The exhibition helped mark the Bicentennial year of Pierce's birth, and placed his life in the context of American
culture, past and present. His life and career, like that of many famous Americans, are understood through a mixture
of scholarly interpretation and popular myth. The overall goal of the exhibition was to use the Society's extensive
collection of Pierce-related materials to move the man out of the realm of myth and legend, and to explore how
he influenced -- and was influenced by -- ideas and events of his time.
Pierce grew up in the remote town of Hillsborough, and went
on to become the political leader of New Hampshire, growing up with the country in the first half of the 19th century.
Yet, only one complete biography of Pierce has been published in the last century, and little has been said or
researched on the only person for New Hampshire to serve as U.S. President.
Franklin Pierce: Defining Democracy in America focused
on seven aspects of Pierce's life, world, and career. They included: Inheriting the Revolution (influence
of Revolutionary ideals on American thought and culture); New Hampshire Democracy (democratization of 19th-century
American economy and politics); Family and Friends (influence of ante-bellum social and cultural networks
on Pierce's life); Citizen Soldier (Mexican War and the role of the militia in advancing national expansion);
The Great Debate (antislavery and reform impulses threatening to restructure American society); Young
Hickory of the Granite Hills (campaign and presidency of Franklin Pierce); and In the Public Memory (each
generation judges public figures by its own beliefs, values, and needs). The exhibition content was developed in
consultation with scholar Peter A. Wallner, author of a book on the life of Pierce called Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire's
Favorite Son. Pierce was also the focus of a special issue of the Society's magazine Historical
Thanks to Our Sponsors
Major funding for Franklin Pierce: Defining Democracy in
America was provided by Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrell, P.A., with additional support from the Lane and
Elizabeth C. Dwinell Charitable Trust; New Hampshire Humanities Council; New Hampshire Political Library; Banknorth
Wealth Management Group, Trustee of Benjamin Cohen Trust u/w; Franklin Pierce College; Louis Karno & Company
Communications; Norwin S. and Elizabeth N. Bean Foundation; Theresa's Catering; and the Duncan S. McGowan Fund
for Eagle Square.
Facts About Franklin Pierce
- Franklin Pierce served his country during one of the most tumultuous
periods of American history. Born in Hillsborough in 1804, he was the son of Governor Benjamin Pierce and Anna
- During Franklin Pierce's formative years the Pierce Homestead
served as a gathering place for statesmen and politicians of the era. Pierce studied at Bowdoin College in Maine,
where he established a lifelong friendship with writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.
- Pierce followed his father Benjamin into public service. Pierce
was first elected to the New Hampshire State Legislature in 1828, and soon became the youngest speaker of the house
in state history.
- In 1832 Pierce was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives
where he served two terms before being elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of 32.
- In 1834 Pierce married Jane Means Appleton, the daughter of
a minister who had served at Bowdoin. Soon, the Pierces retired from politics to Concord to practice law.
- Finally, the Mexican War would stir Pierce to leave his private
life. After enlisting in the army as a private, he was promoted to Colonel, and then to General. He was again called
to serve his country in 1852 by the Democratic Party Convention, where he was nominated to run for President.
- At age 48, Franklin Pierce was the youngest President yet elected,
and he would leave the nation divided. In the South fears were high that the western territories would enter the
Union as "free" states, giving the North a political advantage. In the North, hatred against European
immigrants flared as Pierce defended their rights under the Constitution. But, it was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of
1854, which allowed settlers to choose whether to allow slavery that would shatter the nation's stability. Pierce
stood by his party's extreme pro-slavery line and supported the bill. Armed conflict quickly erupted. He was denied
his party's nomination for a second term. The Pierces left for Europe shortly after his term ended.
- Franklin and Jane Pierce's son Benny died tragically in a train
accident shortly before Pierce's inauguration. A heart-wrenching letter,
dated January 23, 1853, from Jane to her dead son Benny, is preserved in the New Hampshire Historical Society's collection.
- Franklin Pierce died in Concord on October 8, 1869, five years
after his wife, Jane.