Franklin Pierce

May 17, 2005

I have spent much of the evening trying to make sense of Franklin Pierce.

I know that I am not alone, and that many of us spend our time trying to figure the guy out. Most of the blogosphere is well aware that Frank was the 14th president of the U.S., that he came from New Hampshire, that he was a dark horse candidate elected on a late ballot as a pro-Southern Democrat from New Hampshire, that he was widely derided during the campaign as being the "hero of many a well fought bottle" because of his disastrous experience as a Brigadier during the Mexican-American War, and that he is widely considered one of the worst American Presidents.

He is confusing to me because of his religious beliefs. A New England Episcopalian, he chose to affirm rather than swear his oath of office. Unusually for Democrats (and political hacks, he qualified as both) his public pronouncements show a complicated sense of civil religion and national providence. Unlike the simple-minded triumphalism of James K. Polk et al, and unlike the civic Providence of Jackson, Harrison, and Taylor (so long as we hold to the Constitution, then the nation will prosper and be blessed), he called forward a sense of national frailty and contingency, a national providence that might not be granted for the future. His term as high priest of American Civil Religion thus looked far more like James Madison and John Quincy Adams than like his contemporaries. The closest similarity is Abraham Lincoln, and yet the two men's Gods, biographies, and backgrounds are mightily different. About the only thing they had in common was a sense of humor.

Then again, humor is tied to an awareness of pain, so perhaps it is not so surprising that the two mid-century advocates of contingent Providence were also much funnier than Buchanan, Fillmore, Polk, or the rest of the crew. For that matter, I have trouble imagining Andrew Jackson teasing his friends the way that Pierce teased Benjamin Brown Finch after the accident with the rum and the lemonade.

Pierce's public pronouncements are more explicitly and conventionally religious than most of his contemporaries. He emphasizes the power of God's Providence. Unlike most of his contemporaries, however, he ties Providential blessings to the proper performance of national duties. The nation is not entitled to good times, but must act properly in order to prosper. He phrases these national duties in one of those sentences that make undergraduates stop reading (see below the break), but he phrases them as a compact grounded in a national obligation to act morally.

Thanks - blogging this helped me make enough sense out of Pierce and the later guys that I should be able to go write up the actual focus of this subsection, James Madison and the Providential meaning of the War of 1812.

EDIT - Dr Curmudgeon helps clear up my confusion about Pierce's religious affiliation. The secondary source with the scanned texts of the annual addresses had him marked as an Episcopalian, so I went with that. I wonder if Carwardine Evangelicals and Politics or Holt Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party mention Pierce's religious affiliation.

Franklin Pierce, 4th2nd Annual Address (State of the Union), December 4, 1854, penultimate paragraph.

We have to maintain inviolate the great doctrine of the inherent right of popular self-government; to reconcile the largest liberty of the individual citizen with complete security of the public order; to render cheerful obedience to the laws of the land, to unite in enforcing their execution, and to frown indignantly on all combinations to resist these; to harmonize a sincere and ardent devotion to the institutions of religious faith with the most universal religious toleration; to preserve the rights of all by causing each to respect those of the other; to carry forward every social improvement to the uttermost limit of human perfectibility, by the free action of mind upon mind, not by the obtrusive intervention of misapplied force; to uphold the integrity and guard the limitations of our organic law; to preserve sacred from all touch of usurpation, as the very palladium of our political salvation, the reserved rights and powers of the several States and of the people; to cherish with loyal fealty and devoted affection this Union, as the only sure foundation on which the hopes of civil liberty rest; to administer government with vigilant integrity and rigid economy; to cultivate peace and friendship with foreign nations, and to demand and exact equal justice from all, but to do wrong to none; to eschew intermeddling with the national policy and the domestic repose of other governments, and to repel it from our own; never to shrink from war when the rights and the honor of :he country call us to arms, but to cultivate in preference the arts of peace, seek enlargement of the rights of neutrality, and elevate and liberalize the intercourse of nations; and by such just and honorable means, and such only! whilst exalting the condition of the Republic, to assure to it the legitimate influence and the benign authority of a great example amongst all the powers of Christendom.
This is, of course, a HUGE difference from Lincoln's sense of contingency, "with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right." Not only was Lincoln a much better writer, his civil religion also emphasized that we all believe that we are right, and all that we can do is hope that we are indeed correct in this belief as we continue to do the best we can, knowing that no prayer will be answered fully.

EDIT - correct the ordinal on the annual address.

Posted by Red Ted at May 17, 2005 10:53 PM | TrackBack