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Franklin Pierce: Defining Democracy in America


From a Frontier Town to the White House:
Exhibition Offered New Insight into President Franklin Pierce


Of his close friend Franklin Pierce (1804-1869), author Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "He comes before the people of the United States at a remarkable era in the history of this country and of the world."

Pierce's presidency was the culmination of an unexpected rise to power from a small town on the New Hampshire frontier, to leader of a young Republic. How Pierce arrived at the office of president, and what that said about the nation he led, was the focus of an exhibition entitled Franklin Pierce: Defining Democracy in America. Never before had Pierce artifacts, paintings, letters, and personal accounts been brought together on such a large scale. The exhibition was on view from June 3, 2004, through May 8, 2005, at the Society's 30 Park Street library.

Defining Democracy in America showcased more than 100 objects, paintings, photographs and documents drawn primarily from the Society's museum and library collections. The exhibition helped mark the Bicentennial year of Pierce's birth, and placed his life in the context of American culture, past and present. His life and career, like that of many famous Americans, are understood through a mixture of scholarly interpretation and popular myth. The overall goal of the exhibition was to use the Society's extensive collection of Pierce-related materials to move the man out of the realm of myth and legend, and to explore how he influenced -- and was influenced by -- ideas and events of his time.

Pierce grew up in the remote town of Hillsborough, and went on to become the political leader of New Hampshire, growing up with the country in the first half of the 19th century. Yet, only one complete biography of Pierce has been published in the last century, and little has been said or researched on the only person for New Hampshire to serve as U.S. President.

Franklin Pierce: Defining Democracy in America focused on seven aspects of Pierce's life, world, and career. They included: Inheriting the Revolution (influence of Revolutionary ideals on American thought and culture); New Hampshire Democracy (democratization of 19th-century American economy and politics); Family and Friends (influence of ante-bellum social and cultural networks on Pierce's life); Citizen Soldier (Mexican War and the role of the militia in advancing national expansion); The Great Debate (antislavery and reform impulses threatening to restructure American society); Young Hickory of the Granite Hills (campaign and presidency of Franklin Pierce); and In the Public Memory (each generation judges public figures by its own beliefs, values, and needs). The exhibition content was developed in consultation with scholar Peter A. Wallner, author of a new book on the life of Pierce called " Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire's Favorite Son." Pierce was also the focus of a special issue of the Society's magazine Historical New Hampshire.

Thanks to Our Sponsors

Major funding for Franklin Pierce: Defining Democracy in America was provided by Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrell, P.A., with additional support from the Lane and Elizabeth C. Dwinell Charitable Trust; New Hampshire Humanities Council; New Hampshire Political Library; Banknorth Wealth Management Group, Trustee of Benjamin Cohen Trust u/w; Franklin Pierce College; Louis Karno & Company Communications; Norwin S. and Elizabeth N. Bean Foundation; Theresa's Catering; and the Duncan S. McGowan Fund for Eagle Square.

An Opportunity to Learn More

Learn more about Franklin Pierce and the people and ideas that defined American democracy in the politically tumultuous years between the Revolution and the Civil War in a document developed by the Society's education and museum staff.

Facts About Franklin Pierce
  • Franklin Pierce served his country during one of the most tumultuous periods of American history. Born in Hillsborough in 1804, he was the son of Governor Benjamin Pierce and Anna Kendrick.
  • During Franklin Pierce's formative years the Pierce Homestead served as a gathering place for statesmen and politicians of the era. Pierce studied at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he established a lifelong friendship with writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.
  • Pierce followed his father Benjamin into public service. Pierce was first elected to the New Hampshire State Legislature in 1828, and soon became the youngest speaker of the house in state history.
  • In 1832 Pierce was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served two terms before being elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of 32.
  • In 1834 Pierce married Jane Means Appleton, the daughter of a minister who had served at Bowdoin. Soon, the Pierces retired from politics to Concord to practice law.
  • Finally, the Mexican War would stir Pierce to leave his private life. After enlisting in the army as a private, he was promoted to Colonel, and then to General. He was again called to serve his country in 1852 by the Democratic Party Convention, where he was nominated to run for President.
  • At age 48, Franklin Pierce was the youngest President yet elected, and he would leave the nation divided. In the South fears were high that the western territories would enter the Union as "free" states, giving the North a political advantage. In the North, hatred against European immigrants flared as Pierce defended their rights under the Constitution. But, it was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed settlers to choose whether to allow slavery that would shatter the nation's stability. Pierce stood by his party's extreme pro-slavery line and supported the bill. Armed conflict quickly erupted. He was denied his party's nomination for a second term. The Pierces left for Europe shortly after his term ended.
  • Franklin and Jane Pierce's son Benny died tragically in a train accident shortly before Pierce's inauguration. Read a heart-wrenching letter, dated January 23, 1853, from Jane to her dead son Benny.
  • Franklin Pierce died in Concord on October 8, 1869, five years after his wife, Jane.
Who Are We?

The New Hampshire Historical Society is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and sharing New Hampshire history through the Museum of New Hampshire History and the Tuck Library. The Society presents exhibitions and workshops to thousands of visitors each year.

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New Hampshire Historical Society - Founded 1823