The History Thread Hearts Franklin Pierce

This week’s History Thread will be a little different. We talked about Edgar Allan Poe’s political beliefs in last week’s discussion, so I wanted to do a slightly deeper dive into one of his contemporaries: Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Hawthorne was a Democrat at a time when being a Democrat, unfortunately, meant either supporting slavery outright or not thinking it worth upsetting the Republic over. His admiration for Andrew Jackson as an advocate of herrenvolk democracy was secondary only for his contempt for the baying of abolitionists. “I have not, as you suggest, the slightest sympathy for the slaves,” he wrote to a friend in 1851, “or, at least, not half as much as for the laboring whites, who, I believe, are ten times worse off than the Southern negroes.”

Perhaps Hawthorne was simply being contrarian in his usual fashion: after all, most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, ruthlessly skewered the hypocrisies of New England Puritanism, and he viewed the abolitionism fashionable in his native Massachusetts as an extension of the same attitudes. There was some measure of self-interest, too; like many writers of his era, he sought patronage positions during lacunae in his writing career, and for most of his career that meant cozying up to Democrats. Perhaps Hawthorne was simply a racist very typical of his time. Yet his most overt political statement was, in hindsight, his most ridiculous: his starstruck admiration of Franklin Pierce.

Admittedly, Hawthorne had good reason to boost Pierce’s fortunes. The two attended Bowdoin College together in the 1820s and remained lifelong friends: as Hawthorne went into writing, Pierce entered politics in New Hampshire. After service in the state legislature, he won election to Congress and the Senate, then served in the Mexican War as a Brigadier General. Not particularly powerful in Washington, Pierce nonetheless commanded attention as “the Young Hickory of the Granite Hills,” whose youth and rakish handsomeness set him apart from the aging eminences of antebellum Washington. Certainly, Nathaniel Hawthorne shared this admiration for his friend.

In 1852, Hawthorne wrote a fulsome campaign biography, The Life of Franklin Pierce. Hawthorne, at the height of his creative powers (he had published The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables soon before), tried desperately to burnish Pierce into the modern George Washington. His lack of legislative accomplishment became a paean to his modesty and quiet influence; he tried to turn Pierce’s record in Mexico (he lost consciousness after an injury at Churubusco, leading to accusations of cowardice or drunkenness) into an epic worthy of Caesar. And Hawthorne turned Pierce’s worst trait into his best: regarding slavery, Hawthorne wrote, Pierce “dared to love …. his whole, united, native country” over “the mistiness of a philanthropic theory.”

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Franklin Pierce

Pierce exemplified a very 19th Century phenomenon: the modestly accomplished small-state politician who, through inscrutable electoral maneuverings (a 49-ballot convention deadlock assured his nomination, while general-politician Winfield Scott proved an inept Whig opponent), became President. He was badly out of his depth dealing with an America increasingly split along sectional lines. He packed his cabinet with Southerners like Jefferson Davis who pressed a pro-slavery line while encouraging further expansion into Mexico and the Caribbean. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, though not Pierce’s doing, doomed Kansas to internecine bloodshed over “popular sovereignty.”

Pierce’s own flaws, namely alcoholism triggered by the death of his son Bennie soon before taking office, weakened his stature further. He gained particular ridicule for an incident where he drunkenly ran down a man with a carriage, escaping arrest when the police recognized him as the President. In light of Pierce’s political and personal failures, Horace Mann mocked Hawthorne’s portrait: “if he makes Pierce out to be either a great or brave man, then it will be the greatest work of fiction he ever wrote.”

Hawthorne, at least, was satisfied by Pierce’s presidency: his old friend rewarded him by appointing him consul in London, earning him a $30,000 annual sinecure, a tidy sum for in those days, especially a writer with no guarantee of future success. “No man’s loyalty is more steadfast,” Hawthorne insisted, “no man’s hopes or apprehensions on behalf of our national existence more deeply heartfelt, or more closely intertwined with his possibilities of personal happiness, than those of FRANKLIN PIERCE.”

Even after Pierce left office in disgrace, Hawthorne maintained his friendship with the President. Nor did Hawthorne grow more enlightened on slavery: he proclaimed of John Brown, “no man was more justly hanged” and wrote Chiefly About War Matters, a scabrous attack on the Lincoln Administration published in 1862. In this he was no more indiscreet than Pierce, who attacked Lincoln as a “demagogue” and a tyrant in speech after speech, earning him scorn and accusations of treason amidst the Civil War. Still, the two men remained close; so close, in fact, that in May 1864, it was Pierce who found Hawthorne dead at his home in Plymouth, New Hampshire.