Walk through the biography or history section of any book store and you will soon be inundated with works on the beloved Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He is generally portrayed as the savior of American democracy, as well as capitalism, the president who reached out a helping hand to his fellow man, particularly those in the lower classes, even though he was from the upper ranks of society, as a new biography by H. W. Brands asserts.
Yet the truth is far different, as the nationalist FDR expanded government far beyond its constitutional limits and brought the nation to the brink of pure socialism, producing a “New Deal” that did nothing to end the depression, only worsening it. He believed the federal government could do anything it desired, by not relying on a “horse and buggy” interpretation of the Constitution. The legacy of the New Deal is still with us today, and now we are about to embark on Barack Obama’s “new” New Deal.
But a forgotten president named Franklin had a much different take on the Union and the role of the federal government in American society. Franklin Pierce served as president from 1853 to 1857, the only chief executive from the state of New Hampshire.
Pierce was an American hero, serving as a brigadier general during the Mexican War. Before that conflict he served in the United States House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, as well as the New Hampshire state legislature, including a term as its speaker.
Like FDR’s battle with polio, Pierce had his own personal tragedies to overcome. His private life was very sad, as he lost all three of his children at early ages. One died after three days, another at four years, and the youngest son, Benjamin, called “Bennie,” was killed in a disastrous train derailment at age eleven. The loss of Bennie came just six weeks before Pierce’s inauguration as president. These calamities, coupled with his experiences in war, caused him to drink heavily. His political enemies often joked that Pierce was the “victor of many a well-fought bottle.” Yet he overcame his personal anguish to serve as the nation’s 14th president, at a time when America was a house dividing.
Democrats were coming off a presidential loss in 1848 to General Zachary Taylor, who had died in office in 1850. The Whigs declined to re-nominate President Fillmore, after he finished out the term, and instead nominated the other commanding general during the Mexican War, Winfield Scott. Pierce, a dark horse like President James K. Polk before him, received the Democratic nomination after the 49th ballot. The party campaign slogan was: “We Polked you in 1844; we shall Pierce you in 1852!”
And that they did, as Pierce easily defeated General Scott with an electoral vote majority of 254 to 42, becoming chief executive at the age of 48, the youngest president up to that time.
Pierce was known as a “doughface,” a Northerner with Southern sympathies. For this and other reasons, he has never ranked high in any survey of presidents. The most recent Wall Street Journal poll had him listed 38 out of 43. One reason is his signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that repealed the old Missouri Compromise line and opened up the vast Kansas and Nebraska territories to the possibility of slavery with the imposition of popular sovereignty. But according to Marshall DeRosa in his book Redeeming American Democracy, Pierce did so at the behest of Westerners, not Southerners, for in his mind “popular sovereignty was in effect practical abolition.” Pierce believed those who resided in the Kansas and Nebraska territories would never vote to legalize slavery.
Another knock against Pierce is that he upheld the legality of the South’s institution of slavery, but so had every American president before him, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and Northerners Van Buren and Fillmore. Later, Lincoln would also pledge to uphold slavery where it already existed. Pierce also vigorously enforced the Fugitive Slave Law, returning runaway slaves to their masters. Yet this was in keeping with his duties of office, to see that “all laws be faithfully executed.” The Fugitive Slave Law was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850 and President Pierce had to uphold it as he did every other law of the Union. He was a passionate believer in the rule of law.
But perhaps the main reason for Pierce’s denigration is that most Northerners later despised him because he was a supporter of the Southern Confederacy and opposed Lincoln’s war of “subjugation,” where, according to Pierce, “the hand of military usurpation strikes down the liberties of the people and its foot tramples a desecrated Constitution.” To criticize Lincoln is to risk vilification, whether a former president or not. But Pierce was right. Lincoln did wage a war to subjugate the South, crushing the liberties of the people and shredding the Constitution. For those, like Pierce, who believed in the sanctity of the Constitution and upholding the rule of law, the war was a disaster and he would not support it.
The truth about President Franklin Pierce, however, is far different than portrayed by the pointy-headed intellectuals of professional academia. His record, according to Professor DeRosa, is one of “strict adherence to the American rule of law, States’ rights, and decentralization” and he had an “unwillingness to exceed the constitutional limits placed on the executive branch.” By contrast, Lincoln cared little for such limits.
Pierce was a rock solid Democrat, steadfastly maintaining and upholding traditional party values that dated back to Thomas Jefferson. As a party activist, he had many loyal friends and chose wisely in his selection of a cabinet. In fact, Pierce is the only president to maintain his entire cabinet for the full four year term, a source of pride to him. Among his most trusted advisors was his good friend and secretary of war, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.
One Democratic principle that Pierce held in high regard was a strict adherence to the Constitution. He, as a good Jeffersonian, was a great foe of centralization. “The dangers of a concentration of all power in the general government of a confederacy so vast as ours are too obvious to be disregarded,” he stated in his Inaugural Address on March 4, 1853. “You have a right, therefore, to expect your agents in every department to regard strictly the limits imposed upon them by the Constitution of the United States.”
This was not simply high-minded rhetoric. In 1854 Pierce vetoed a bill that would have provided government funds for the mentally insane. “I can not find any authority in the Constitution for…public charity,” he told Congress. “To do so would, in my judgment, be contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution and subversive of the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded.”
Pierce had a profound understanding of the true nature of the Union. He held the Jeffersonian view that it was a union of sovereign states that had voluntarily joined a confederation called the United States of America. The states had not given up their sovereign and independent character. In 1855 Congress passed a bill that funded internal improvements within the individual states full of pork, what we today call “earmarks.” In his veto message President Pierce reminded Congress that the “federal government is the creature of the individual States, and of the people of the States severally; that the sovereign power was in them alone; that all the powers of the federal government are derivative ones, the enumeration and limitations of which are contained in the instrument which organized it, and by express terms. The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively or to the people.” How refreshing it would be to have a president who quoted the Tenth Amendment.
This conservative viewpoint, however, was not expounded by nationalists like Alexander Hamilton, Joseph Story, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln, who concocted the notion that the federal government created the states and could therefore rule them as mere provinces. It was this outlandish view that allowed Lincoln to deny that secession was a legitimate right reserved to the states, thereby crushing Southern secession and the principle of states’ rights. But Pierce believed in American liberty and freedom, the same rights that allowed colonists to secede from the British Empire.
Pierce’s strict adherence to the Constitution was unbending and he believed that it was the key to keeping the Union together. “It is evident that a confederation so vast and so varied, both in numbers and in territorial extent, in habits and in interests, could only be kept in national cohesion by the strictest fidelity to the principles of the Constitution as understood by those who have adhered to the most restricted construction of the powers granted by the people and the States.”
Franklin Pierce should be a man after a conservatives’ own heart yet he is denounced as inept by historians and his reputation has been smeared, all because he believed in the American tradition of the rule of law and strictly adhering to the plain meaning of the Constitution.
But sadly America has chosen to side with Franklin Roosevelt and not Franklin Pierce; with socialism and not constitutionalism; with an ever-expanding federal government and not one with limited powers. In Barack Obama, we have found the new Franklin D. Roosevelt. But where is the new Franklin Pierce?