In his lifetime, President Franklin Pierce was written off as a failure.
And through the years, scholars have dismissed Pierce, who served from 1853 to 1857, as a weak, ineffectual leader who was wrong on the overriding issue of his time: slavery.
But a small group of Pierce enthusiasts in his home state believes the nation’s 14th president deserves a second look.
“He had the terrible task of being president just before the Civil War,” said Florence “Chips” Holden, a member of the Pierce Brigade, founded in the 1960s to save Pierce’s Concord home from being torn down. “He made the big mistake of trying to keep both the North and the South happy, and it backfired.”
Pierce personally did not approve of slavery. But his position was that because the U.S. Constitution allowed slavery, it was wrong to deny people the right to have slaves.
Most damaging to his career was the fallout from passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed settlers in the two territories to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. It resulted in violent clashes between pro- and anti-slavery groups in Kansas, further animosity between the North and the South and more divisions within Pierce’s party, the Democrats.
Pierce fell victim, too: He was the only president to be denied his party’s nomination for a second term. He later spoke out against the war and was accused of treason during the Lincoln administration.
“He was often treated by the majority of people in New Hampshire like that crazy uncle you lock in the attic and you don’t want to talk about,” said Jayme Simoes, president of the Franklin Pierce Bicentennial Commission, which is planning a number of events commemorating the bicentennial of Pierce’s birth in November.
Pierce’s unpopularity lingered in New Hampshire, where it took more than 40 years after his death in 1869 to erect a Pierce statue. It took even longer to move his portrait into a place of prominence in the Statehouse. Nor does he have a presidential library.
Simoes says it’s time to better understand the former president — and the complicated political and economic landscape of the United States before the war.
“We’re not here to defend him or damn him,” Simoes said. “We’re just trying to understand American history and get people talking about a U.S. president.”
To celebrate Pierce, events include a seven-part exhibit featuring his clothes, furniture and documents, forums on the issues of his day, concerts and an 1850s-era ball.
“If you delve in depth in Pierce, you find that he was a very strong-willed person, that he was a very decisive man,” said Peter Wallner, author of an upcoming biography on Pierce.