Wednesday, October 23, 2013

President Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce: Rethinking an unpopular president

Franklin Pierce, our 14th president (1853-1857), often is listed in history books as one of the worst U.S. presidents.

He is considered to have been a weak president. He was pro-slavery and is blamed for the Kansas-Nebraska problems over the right of states to choose slavery that resulted in the clash known as "Bloody Kansas." Some reports also claim he was an alcoholic.

Need an account? Create one now. But at the Pierce Manse in Concord, N.H., the only museum dedicated to his presidency, a major attempt is made to correct these myths. After my visit, I certainly would move him up the list.

Pierce had an ideal background for a president. He had served in both the House and the Senate and went from private to brigadier general in the Mexican War, where he performed heroically.

Although he was a compromise candidate after 49 ballots at the nominating convention, he won the presidential election by a major margin against Whig candidate Winfield Scott, who had been commander of the U.S. forces during the Mexican War.

Pierce experienced much tragedy in his life; two sons died early, and his beloved son Benny was killed at age 11 in a train accident as Pierce watched. His wife went into a depression but still managed to help him entertain when he was president. Only after she died of tuberculosis in 1863 did he develop problems with alcohol.

What about the visit changed my mind as to where he should stand in the rankings? He made the Gadsden Treaty, which established the contiguous 48 states. His support of Commodore Perry established trade with Japan. He set up the Civil Service Department, which required holders to have the necessary skills for the job. He had surveys made for plans for four railroads across the United States. He reduced the national debt. And, he was interested in the welfare of American Indians.

His strict interpretation of the Constitution got him in trouble with the anti-slavery groups because he believed the Constitution gave the states rights to set their own laws about such things as slavery. The alcoholism charge did not hold during the presidency as his wife would not let him drink, even at parties.

The Pierce Manse, where he and his family lived before he became president, is a large, well-preserved home with period furniture.

Concord has another attraction I also enjoyed: New Hampshire's state capitol. It is the oldest capitol building in which the legislature uses its original chambers. The Senate is one of the smallest, with only 24 members, and the House of Representative the largest with 400 members — one for every 3,000 residents of New Hampshire. Constructed in 1819, it was enlarged twice and still is the smallest capitol building in the country. The most noteworthy feature is the Hall of Flags in the entrance, which includes 103 flags of New Hampshire military units from all of our wars and memorabilia of Alan Shepard's moon walk. It is obvious from their condition that many of the flags had seen battle and perhaps other hardships.

 The Franklin Pierce Manse in Concord, N.H., the only museum dedicated to his presidency

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