Page images




During the period of the war beween the United States and Great Britain, which was declared in 1812 and terminated in 1815, there were in existence, engaged in various occupations and far distant from each other, ten Americans, who were afterward elevated to the presidency of the republic. It is curious to take a retrospective view of the positions in life then occupied by these individuals, of whom, perhaps, only the first two could, at that time, have entertained any reasonable hopes or expectations of reaching the high station to which they were afterward called. James Monroe was then at the head of the department of state at Washington ; John Quincy Adams was minister-plenipotentiary to the imperial court of Russia at St. Petersburgh ; Jackson a planter of Tennessee, but soon called into the military service of the United States; Van Buren, a resident of Columbia county, New York, had just entered public life as a state senator; Harrison, governor of the territory of Indiana, and a distinguished commander in the army of the northwest : Tyler, a lawyer of Virginia, and member of the legislature of that state; Polk engaged in his studies in Tennessee, and afterward at the university of North Carolina ; Taylor, a young officer in the army, actively engaged in the public service in the western wilderness; Fillmore, a youth, at school in western New York; and lastly, Pierce, still younger in years, commencing an academical education in New Hampshire.

Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth president of the United States whose accession to that high office, only three of his predecessors survived (viz., Van Buren, Tyler, and Fillmore) - was born at Hillsborough, in the county of the same name, and state of New Hampshire, on the 23d of November, 1804. At that time, the county of Hillsborough was a much more extensive territory than subsequently, when parts of other counties were made up from it, and might reckon among its sons many men memorable in the annals of the country, among whom may be named


General Stark, the hero of Bennington ; Daniel Webster, Levi Woodbury; Jeremiah Smith, the eminent jurist and governor; General James Miller, General M'Neil, and Senator Charles G. Atherton.

The family of Pierce is of English origin, and they were among the earliest emigrants to New England. General Benjamin Pierce, the father of Franklin, was one of the early settlers in the town of Hillsborough, and contributed largely to the growth and prosperity of the town and county. He was born in 1757, at Chelmsford, near Lowell, Massachusetts. On the death of his parents, Benjamin Pierce grew up under the care of an uncle, amid such circumstances of simple fare, hard lab and scanty education, as were the common lot of the family of a New England farmer in those times. In his eighteenth year he left the plough for the battle-scenes of Lexington and Concord, in April, 1775. From that time he never saw his native place for more than seven years. He enlisted in the army, was present at the battle of Bunker hill, and after serving through the whole revolutionary war, and fighting his way upward from the lowest grade, returned at last, a thorough soldier and commander of a company. He was retained in the army as long as that body of veterans had a united existence; and being finally disbanded at West Point, in 1784, was left with no other reward, for nine years of toil and danger, than the nominal amount of his pay in the continental currency, then so depreciated as to be almost worthless. In 1785, being employed as agent to explore a tract of wild land in New Hampshire, he purchased a lot of fifty acres in what is now the town of Hillsborough. In the spring of the succeeding year, he built himself a log hut, and began the clearing and cultivation of his tract. In 1877, he married his first wife, Elizabeth Andrews, who died within a year after their union, leaving a daughter, the present widow of General John M'Neil. In 1789, he married Anna Kendrick, with whom he lived about half a century, and who bore him eight children, of whom Franklin was the sixth.*

While gaining his livelihood in the wilderness, Benjamin Pierce was prominent among his fellow-citizens, particularly in military affairs. When the militia of Hillsborough county was first organized, he was appointed brigade-major ; and, during the presidency of John Adams, he was offered a high command in the army raised in anticipation of a war with the French republic. Pierce being a democratic republican, and opposed to the administration of Adams and its measures, declined the office, although he acknowledged that the pay would, under other circumstances, be an object to him in his poverty. The same principles marked every public, as well as private act of his life. In his own neighborhood, among those who knew him best, he early gained an influence that continued to increase during the whole of his long lite. In

* We are indebted to Hawthorne's Authentic Life of Franklin Pierce for part of the facts in this sketch.


1789, he was elected to the state legislature, and retained that position' for twelve successive years, until chosen a member of the council. During the same period, he was active in his military duties as field-officer, and finally general, of the militia of the county ; and Miller, M'Neil, and others, learned of him, in this capacity, the soldier-like discipline which was afterward displayed on the battle-fields of the northern frontier.

After serving as a member of the governor's council six years, Benjamin Pierce was appointed sheriff of Hillsborough county in 1809, and held the office four years. In subsequent years he occasionally served in the same stations. He was a man of the most humane disposition, and was constantly occupied in plans and acts of benevolence. In 1818, when he was sheriff of Hillsborough, there was considerable excitement in reference to the oppressive laws respecting imprisonment for debt. At that time there were in the jail at Amherst, New Hampshire, three aged prisoners confined for debt, one of whom had been then four years in close custody. One of the first acts of Pierce, on his restoration to the office he had formerly held, was to appoint a day for the release of these prisoners. The people thought the occasion worthy of a public mecting; and on the 20th of November, 1818, they assembled in front of the prison, when Sheriff Pierce, after having opened the doors of the dungeon, addressed his “ unfortunate fellow-citizens” in the eloqucnt accents of humanity, and bade them go forth. He said: “The feelings excited by a view of your situation are inexpressible. That those heads, silvered by age and hardship, and those hearts, throbbing with kindly emotions, should be held for this long period of time by their fellow-citizens, without the imputation of a crime, in a captivity unparalleled even in the annals of the French Bastile, or Algerine slavery, always viewed by us with sentiments of inexpressible horror, is more than my nature is able to endure. To be immured in a dungeon, standing on the very soil of liberty, and in the midst of men boasting its high privileges, is, in my mind, with which the ideas and the value of freedom are closely interwoven, infinitely worse than to be enslaved in a foreign land by enemies and barbarians, from whom nothing better could be expected. But, as an officer of the county, I have a duty to perform. I must either be goycrned by the law, and suffer you still to remain, the devoted victims of unavoidable misfortune and honest poverty, shut out from the genial light of heaven and the vital air, God's equal gift to all — to endure, perhaps perish under, the privations incident to your situation, -or I must be directed by the powerful impulse of humanity, pay the debt myself, and bid you leave this dreary and gloomy abode. My unfortunate fellow-citizens, my duty to myself will not suffer longer to remain here an old companion-in-arms, who fought for the liberty of which he is deprived, for no crime but that of being poor. My duty to my country, whose honor is deeply implicated by your sufferings — and it is one of my first wishes that it should be

[ocr errors]

untarnished—and my duty to my God, who has put into my power to relieve, iresistibly urge me to the latter course. This, I am sensible, takes from me a large sum of money, however the liberal and generous people among whom it is my happy lot to reside may participate. If not, none but my children will have any right to reproach me; and I am confident they will do no more than say their father was generous to a fault. In this view, go; receive the uncontaminated air, which is diffused abroad for the comfort of man; go to your families and friends, if

you have any. Be correct in your habits. Be industrious : and if your tottering and emaciated frames are so far exhausted as to prevent your getting a comfortable support, apply to the good people for relief; and may the best of Heaven's blessings accompany you the remainder of your days."

This act was justly regarded as one of the noblest ever performed by a public man, particularly in the state of public opinion existing at that time and for years afterward, which tolerated the inhuman custom of incarcera. tion for debt — a custom transmitted from a barbarous age, and under the operation of which so many innocent persons have suffered, for no other fault than misfortune. In this country, the poor and decayed veteran of the Revolution, whose best years had been spent in the service of his country, was often confined with felons, and years rolled on, leaving him in hopeless imprisonment. But no age, no condition or sex, was exempt from the operation of laws disgraceful to the times in which they were enacted and executed, and to the people who tolerated their existence. The generous act of Benjamin Pierce had the force of a powerful exam. ple, and erected for him an enduring monument in the hearts of the generous and enlightened lovers of humanity.

The history, character, and circumstances of General Benjamin Pierce, though here but briefly sketched, are essential parts of the biography of his son, both as indicating some of the traits which the latter has inherited, and as showing the influences amid which he grew up. Franklin Pierce's birth, and for many years subsequent, his father was the most active and public-spirited man within his sphere; a most decided democratic republican, and of course a supporter of Jefferson and Madison ; a practical farmer, moreover - not rich, but independentexercising a liberal hospitality, and noted for the kindness and generosity of his character; a man of the people, but whose natural qualities inev. itably made him a leader among them. From infancy upward, the boy had before his eyes, as the model on which he might instinctively form himself, one of the best specimens of New England character, developed in a life of simple habits, yet of elevated action ; patriotism, such as it had been in revolutionary days, was taught him by his father, as early as his mother taught him religion. He became early imbued, too, with the military spirit which the old soldier had retained from his long service, and which was kept active by the constant alarms and warlike prepara. tions of the first twelve years of the present century. If any man is found, by birth and youthful training, to show himself a brave, faithful, and able citizen of his native country, it is the son of such a father.*

The services of General Sullivan, who was a resident of the state after the American Revolution, were of great value to the militia of New Hampshire; and under his auspices the brigade of Hillsborough county were organized, Benjamin Pierce at first holding the office of brigade-major, as we have stated, and finally rising to that of brigadiergeneral. At the commencement of the war of 1812, Franklin Pierce was a few months under eight years of age. The old general, his father, sent two of his sons into the army; and, as his eldest daughter was soon afterward married to Major M`Neil, there were few families that had so large a personal stake in the war as that of General Benjamin Pierce. He himself, both in his public capacity as a member of the council, and by his great local influence in his own county, lent a strenuous support to the national administration of Madison. He identified himself with the cause of the country, and not only took a prominent part at all public meetings of the republican or democratic party, but was ever ready for the informal discussion of political affairs at all places of casual resort, where, in accordance with the custom of the time and country, the minds of men were made to operate effectually upon each other. Franklin Pierce was a frequent auditor of these controversies, and listened with interest to the arguments of his father. No mode of education could be conceived better adapted to imbue a youth with the principles and sentiment of democratic institutions ; it brought him into the most familiar contact with the popular mind, and made his own mind a part of it.

In 1827, Benjamin Pierce was elected governor of New Hampshire; in 1828 he was a candidate for re-election, but, having taken part in favor of the election of General Jackson to the presidency of the United States, he was defeated, in consequence of the friends of John Quincy Adains being at that time in a majority in New Hampshire. Governor Pierce was, however, re-elected the following year, on the change of the political majorities in the state. After his second term of office had expired, he lived in retirement. He died April 1, 1839, at the advanced age of eighty-one years. The sons of Benjamin Pierce, in the order of their ages, were, Benjamin U., J. Sullivan, Charles S., Franklin, and Henry D. Pierce. Sullivan and Charles died young; Benjamin U., the eldest, was an officer in the army, and rose to the rank of brevet-colonel ; he was a brave and accomplished officer and gentleman, and died in 1850. The youngest brother of Franklin Pierce is an intelligent agriculturist, and has several times been elected to the legislature of his native state. The second wife of Governor Pierce, whose maiden-name was Anna

• Hawthorne.

« PreviousContinue »