The Death of President Franklin Pierce

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | October 8, 2012

October 8, 2012
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To Franklin Pierce, whose ill-fated and inept presidency is universally considered among the worst, comes this added ignominy: he is the only president to be investigated for treason. This letter, recalled on the anniversary of his death on October 8th one hundred and forty-two years ago, recounts that sorry episode…

Unpopular in the White House – mostly, for supporting the 1854 repeal of the Missouri Compromise which prohibited slavery in the territories and backing, instead, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed territories to decide the issue for themselves –  Pierce was even more unpopular out of it. A Southern sympathizer, a Lincoln detractor, and distraught over the outbreak of war between North and South, Pierce – a Northern Democrat – was not reticent in criticizing the Union. One by one, as the various policies of the Lincoln administration were promulgated, Pierce unrestrainedly criticized them. By the end of 1861, he had fallen under suspicion of being a secret Southern sympathizer – a sentiment turned fact when, on Christmas Eve, Pierce received an official letter from Secretary of State Seward, enclosing an anonymous communication naming him as having taken a trip in aid of an anti-war organization known as the Knights of the Golden Circle, “a secret league,” Seward said, “the object of which [is] to overthrow the Government.” The outrage of having his patriotism questioned, on the basis of the flimsiest kind of evidence, by the highest authorities, drove Pierce into a fury; he replied at once, and although Seward apologized straightaway, Pierce complained privately, and at length, to his Democratic friends about the incident. By March, however, the scurrilous charge had found its way into the press – trumpeted, in fact, by the Republican Boston Journal and the New York Evening Post. This was too much for the ex-president to take, and here, with this letter, he arranges for his old friend, Senator Latham of California, to introduce a resolution demanding that all the correspondence in the matter be submitted to Congress for inquiry.

“It occurs to me that it may be well to let you know something more of the correspondence… The following… is the entire official note from Mr. Seward dated Dec 20th, “I enclose an extract from a letter received at this Department from which it would appear, that you are a member of a secret league, the object of which is to over throw this Government. Any  explanations upon the subject, which you may offer, would be acceptable.”  I need not, of course, tell you, that I never heard of a league of the character indicated, until I received the curt and insolent note quoted above. My name does not appear in the “extract” enclosed to me (which, by the way, was from an anonymous letter) nor do I believe that the writer had the slightest reference to me… You will see at once that I cannot permit articles like that, which I sent to you this morning, to be floating about, unnoticed by me – Having answered the charge officially … the publication of that answer by… one of the Houses, is clearly the right and, it seems to me, the only graceful and dignified way of muting these malignant assaults. I am perfectly willing of course, that it should be understood, that you introduce the resolution at my request, only the reason of the request must also appear.  Indeed, I rather hope, that an occasion may arise for my having my note of this morning and the article from the Boston Journal attached to it, read. Their publication would place me right at once…”

Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce. 1853. By George Peter Alexander Healy. National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

The House and Senate concluded the charges were a hoax – but that did nothing to assuage the public’s suspicion of Pierce’s loyalty. It did not help that he, in turn, became more and more outspoken in his denunciations of Lincoln and the Union prosecution of the War; the situation became so bitter and so bad that he was branded, in a broadside circulated in his home state of New Hampshire, as a Copperhead: a Northern Democrat so virulently anti-War – and anti-Lincoln – as to be branded traitors by their neighbors. Unlike other ex-presidents, however, who opposed the North (Tyler), the conduct of the War (Fillmore), and Lincoln (Buchanan), Pierce was hated for his views.  Why this was so may well have had to do with his role, as President and after, in promoting the careers of the traitorous Jefferson Davis and the feckless James Buchanan:  Davis, having been his Secretary of War, becoming in 1861 the President of the rebellious Confederate States of America; and Buchanan, brought back by Pierce from the political wilderness in 1853 to be his Minister to Great Britain, having then gone on to a presidency so incompetent as to all but assure bloody disunion. It was no surprise, then, when Lincoln was assassinated, the reviled Pierce – thought well by almost no one – had to defend his house against an angry mob.


When Pierce died on October 8, 1869, his death was but slightly noted – though, as befits a President of the United States, a day of official mourning was observed by the government for his funeral. Then, the salute fired, the black bunting rolled up, Franklin Pierce sank from view, ignominious and unmourned.

FRANKLIN PIERCE. 1804-1869. 14th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed, marked “Private”, 4 pages, quarto, Concord, New Hampshire, March 24, 1862. To Senator Milton S. Latham.

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