Term: March 4, 1853 – March 4, 1857
Vice President: William R. King
Home State: New Hampshire
Wife: Jane Means Appleton
Children: Franklin, Jr., Frank Robert, & Benjamin
Franklin Pierce served for one term as the 14th President of the United States just prior to the Civil War. It is an accepted fact that Christmas cards were not commonly sold in the United States until 1875 and President Pierce is not known to have sent any Christmas greetings or official White House Christmas Cards. Pierce’s four years in the White House was marked by a great deal of political turbulence and it is assumed that the thought of sending Christmas greetings would be buried under the weight of his responsibilities.
President Pierce may not have sent White House Christmas Cards, but he did have a Christmas tree put up in the White House. He is widely hailed as having the first White House Christmas tree, however, the first official “National Christmas Tree” was lit in 1923 by President Calvin Coolidge on the section of the White House lawn known as the Ellipse. Pierce had the Christmas tree decorated in 1856 for a group of Washington Sunday School children. The practice of putting up a Christmas tree was brought to the United States by German immigrants and was in vogue during the mid 1800s. Prior to this, decorations consisted of holly and pine cones and sprigs of green. The White House was much more festive for this Christmas celebration, and carolers sang Hark the Herald Angels Sing to the children. There isn’t a written description of the festivities, but what would Christmas be without a treat, so they may have served refreshments
In 1997 the White House Historical Society issued its annual Christmas ornament – depicting the White House as it looked during the presidency of Franklin Pierce. This special ornament features the White House lawn as people are strolling on the grounds in a casual fashion. It appears to be a peaceful scene, although President Pierce’s term in office was not at all peaceful.
Franklin Pierce was born in a log cabin on November 23, 1804 just a month before Christmas. During his childhood in Hillsborough, New Hampshire the Pierce family moved to a larger home. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought in the Revolutionary War, which gave him a strong reputation and high standing in local and regional politics. Young Franklin was considered a kind and handsome boy, the sixth of eight children. The Pierces were Christian and therefore would have celebrated Christmas according to the local customs at the time. Christmas trees and Christmas cards were not yet a part of those customs. Perhaps a church service and a special dinner with a treat and maybe some visiting between friends and family would have marked the day. Local greenery and some candles on the hearth were the usual Christmas decorations.
Pierce attended local schools until the age of 12 and then was sent to two different academies. He was considered a good scholar and was popular among his classmates. At the age of 16 Pierce entered Bowdoin College in Maine. It was during this time that Franklin met his lifelong friend, writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Another classmate was the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His first years at college were spent enjoying life more than the pursuit of knowledge. As Pierce was such a popular student, the Christmas season would have brought a few rounds of toasting the holiday with his fellow students. There is no indication whether Christmas Day was spent with family, but traveling in the early 1800s may have made the trip home to New Hampshire a difficult undertaking in December.
After realizing that his grades were the lowest in his class, Pierce buckled down in his studies to graduate in 1824 as third in his class. Franklin went on to study and practice law back home in Hillsborough, where in 1927, Pierce’s father (known as General Pierce) was elected governor of New Hampshire. Franklin was elected to the State Assembly where he served for four years until being elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1933 at the age of 29. During the years father and son were in the state capital, Christmas Day was probably spent with the family at the governor’s house.
Pierce met Jane Means Appleton in 1926. Jane’s family was opposed to the match on many levels. They were staunch Whigs who opposed Andrew Jackson, and Pierce was a loyal supporter of Jackson. She was shy, reserved, and extremely religious. Pierce was a casual Christian and raucous. Jane was reported to be a beauty that turned away many suitors and yet fell for the handsome Pierce. After eight years of courting through letters and visits, they were married in 1834.
Pierce was a representative in Washington at this time and his wife did not always follow him to the nation’s capital, but rather remained home in New Hampshire. Pierce lived, as most representatives did, in a boardinghouse which caused melancholy feelings and loneliness that had him turning to alcohol for solace. Pierce’s wife was committed to the temperance movement and abhorred her husband’s drinking. Jane also did not believe that she should derive pleasure from eating and sleeping and was often sickly as a result of these habits. There is no evidence of how the couple celebrated the Christmas season; however, we can imagine that the Christmas holiday would not include excessive food or drink.
Pierce was elected to the United States Senate in 1837, where his proslavery sentiments made Jefferson Davis one of his strongest allies. He resigned his Senate seat in 1842 when he and his wife became tired of the life in Washington. The family returned to New Hampshire where Pierce again practiced law. Pierce’s skill as a speaker made him a successful trial lawyer at a time when trials were a form of entertainment. Pierce stopped drinking and joined the temperance movement (probably due to his wife’s influence). He aided in passing a law in Concord, New Hampshire that outlawed alcohol. The Christmas season now was spent without the added holiday spirits.
Franklin remained active in political circles and was asked to manage James Polk’s successful bid for the White House in New Hampshire. When the Mexican-American War broke out, Pierce thought enlisting would increase his political popularity as it had increased his father’s. Although he enlisted as a Private, he had enough connections to be appointed a Brigadier General without the benefit of having military experience. There are not many reports on how Pierce did as a commander, but he was wounded by a shot in the leg.
Pierce was able to come home at war’s end with the prestige of being a wounded veteran at the rank of general. His long time friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, would refer to him in his biography as General Pierce. This definitely helped his political aspirations and he immediately became active taking a leading role in the Democratic Party of New Hampshire.
The slavery issue was the hot topic of the day and the nation was on the brink of a division when the Democratic Party nominated Franklin Pierce as their candidate for the presidency in 1852 after the convention had deadlocked for 48 ballots. The Whigs ran Winfield Scott against Pierce; he had been Pierce’s commanding officer in the Mexican-American War. Scott only received the electoral votes of four states resulting in what was considered a landslide for Pierce. Jane Pierce was not enthusiastic to be going to Washington again, and no doubt the Christmas season of 1852 would be a busy time getting ready for the big move to the White House.
Two months before the inauguration, the Pierces decided to take a ride on a new train, which ended up derailing in Andover, Massachusetts. Their 11-year-old son, Benjamin, was fatally wounded in front of them. Jane and Franklin Pierce had three sons. Franklin Pierce, Jr. died three days after his birth in 1836, and Frank Robert Pierce, born in 1839, contracted typhus and died in 1842. Benjamin Pierce was born in 1841, and with his death, his mother became immersed in prayer and grief. President elect Pierce was exhausted from the weight of grief when it was time for the inauguration. Pierce is the only president to say “I promise” instead of “I swear” when taking the oath of office. Still mourning his son, Pierce requested that there be no inauguration ball.
Franklin Pierce was president during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history and his reputation hit rock bottom. The Northerners felt he was too pro-slavery and the Southerners felt he was not doing enough for the slave states. Pierce supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which is viewed by historians as a direct step to the Civil War. Pierce appointed Jefferson Davis, later to become President of the Confederacy, as Secretary of War. During the four years Pierce was in the White House, a fugitive slave was returned to his owner causing a large outcry from the northern states, and Kansas and Washington saw violence over the slave issue. He did initiate the Gadsden Purchase, in which the United States obtained part of Arizona and New Mexico for $10 million. President Pierce also had the first complete central heating system installed in the executive mansion. This would have been welcome for the visitors that came during the Christmas celebrations in the White House.
President Pierce was arrested during his time in office for reckless horse riding in an incident where an older woman was run down. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence. Historians rate only two presidents lower than Pierce: Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan. Franklin Pierce even ranked below William Henry Harrison who was president for only 30 days! Pierce sought but did not receive the nomination from the Democratic Party in 1856 and is the only president whose party would not support him for reelection. When he retired to New Hampshire he reportedly said “the only thing left to do is get drunk.”
With retirement, the Pierces traveled to the Bahamas and Europe on an extended trip in search of better health for Jane. She carried Benjamin’s bible throughout the trip. The quest for improved health was unsuccessful and former President and Mrs. Pierce returned home to New Hampshire. Jane Pierce died in 1863. Franklin Pierce continued to oppose secession and yet still supported the South. He was anti-war and many people in the North considered him a traitor.
Franklin Pierce, the first president born in the 19th Century and the first president from New Hampshire, died on October 8, 1869 of cirrhosis of the liver. Jane and Franklin Pierce are buried in Concord, New Hampshire near the grave of their beloved son, Benjamin.