Former President Franklin Pierce Defends Himself Against Treason Charges Brought by William H. Seward

March 24, 1862

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Former President Franklin Pierce Defends Himself Against Treason Charges Brought by William H. Seward
Autograph Letter Signed
4 pages | SMC 422

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      Background

      Unpopular in the White House, 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 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 [was] 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. In part;
       
      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 only graceful and dignified way of muting these malignant assaults...
        
      The House and Senate concluded the charges were a hoax – but that did nothing to assuage the public’s suspicion of Pierce’s loyalty. No doubt many remember that President Pierce had appointed Jefferson Davis - the President of the Confederacy - his Secretary of War. Both men served in the Mexican War together. 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 when Lincoln was assassinated, the 14th President of the United States had to defend his house against an angry mob.


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

      Concord N H,
      March 24, 1862
       
      My dear Sir,
       
      It occurs to me that it may be well to let you know something more of the correspondence referred to in my note of this morning. The following with the exception of the journal parts 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  

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      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. My reply was dated Dec 24th. In reply to that I received an autograph letter from Mr Seward dated Dec 30th to which I replied January 7th and have the correspondence enclosed.

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      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 made, the publication of that answer by [...] from 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 having my 

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      note of this morning and the article from the Boston Journal attached to it, read. Their publication would place me right at once, whatever delay may attend the passage of the Resolution, or the sending of the copies to the Senate. This last object you can secure of course. The circulation of the charge without a prompt indication of readiness to repel it, would be inconvenient. Will you write me upon the reception of this? 

      Yr. friend
      Franklin Pierce
       
      Hon Milton S. Latham
      U.S. Senate,
      Washington D. C.