Campus News

Students Reprint Hawthorne's Biography of President Pierce

Story posted June 29, 2000

A group of eighth graders from New Hampshire has put native son and Bowdoin graduate Franklin Pierce, the country’s little-known fourteenth president, back in the spotlight using a time-tested tool of politics: the campaign biography.

Raising $1,500 on their own and $6,500 from the local school board, students from the Kenneth Brett School in Tamworth have paid to reprint the 1852 biography of Pierce by his Bowdoin College friend, the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.

At its 1852 convention the Democratic party, divided by pro- and anti-slavery sentiment, struggled to elect a presidential nominee. General Franklin Pierce won on the forty-ninth ballot. Within a few days Pierce had written to Hawthorne, his closest literary acquaintance, asking him to write a campaign biography.

Hawthorne responded reluctantly, not because he felt Pierce’s pro-slavery views were out of step with those of his friends in Concord, Massachusetts, (like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson); but because he did not want to appear to be selling his services for political reward. (In fact Hawthorne accepted an appointment to the US consulate in Liverpool after Pierce’s overwhelming victory that November.)

Pierce was the son of a revolutionary war hero, General Benjamin Pierce. He was born in Hillsborough, NH, and came to Bowdoin College in 1820 at the age of 16. Nathaniel Hawthorne entered Bowdoin the next year. He met Pierce on his first stagecoach journey to Bowdoin from his home in Salem, Massachusetts. The two became friends immediately. They joined the same literary club, the Athenaean Society, and Hawthorne took part in college military drills under Pierce’s command.

Hawthorne’s biography describes Pierce as a high-spirited and handsome youth, but declines to dish any dirt on the future chief executive. "
Our college reminiscences, however interesting to the parties concerned, are not exactly the material for a biography."

Pierce’s Bowdoin career had not begun auspiciously, however. In his first two years, he rarely touched a book or prepared for the rote memorization sessions in the "recitation rooms" that comprised the typical college education at the time. At the beginning of his junior year Pierce was shocked to find that he was at the very bottom of his class.

Pierce was so despondent (or outraged) at this news that he locked his door and sulked in his room for days, hoping to get expelled. Friends finally prevailed upon him to stay at Bowdoin, and Pierce declared to them his intention to recreate himself as a scholar.

With enormous diligence and willpower, Pierce dedicated his last two years at school to his studies. Hawthorne describes him working from four in the morning until midnight, subsisting on four hours of sleep, and eventually graduating third in his class.

Pierce went on to study for the bar in New Hampshire, and was elected successively to the state legislature, the US House of Representatives and finally the US Senate in 1837. At the age of 32, he was the body’s youngest member.

In 1846 he enlisted in the army as a private to fight in the Mexican War. He was eventually commissioned a brigadier general and received a medal for his service.

As president Pierce attempted to placate both north and south on the question of slavery, but he had poor political instincts and pleased no one. His own party refused to renominate him. His presidency is generally regarded as a failure.

Pierce’s private life was touched by tragedy. His first two sons died as children. The surviving son was killed in a train accident witnessed by his parents during the journey to Washington for Pierce's inauguration. Jane Appleton Pierce never recovered. She did not attend her husband’s swearing-in and stayed in mourning for his entire term.

Hawthorne’s "The Life of Franklin Pierce" is a slight and mild volume, fulsomely praising the general’s Mexican War exploits and his common touch, and fending off attacks from abolitionists.

The eighth graders at the Brett School believe the first run of 1,000 copies, at $20 apiece, will sell out quickly.

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