PIERCE, FRANKLIN. (1804‑1869). Fourteenth president of the United States. ALS. (“Franklin Pierce”). 11pp. 8vo. Langen Schwalbach, June 2, 1859. To SIDNEY WEBSTER (1829-1910), his personal secretary when president.
Former U.S. President Franklin Pierce in an eleven-page autograph letter describes his impressions of Europe, war between France and Austria, and U. S. local and national politics: “I am not surprised that Mr. [James] Guthrie should be thought of & spoken of as our next candidate for the presidency”
Signed by Franklin Pierce
“Your letter of April 19th after visiting Rome and various other places came back to Paris and was forwarded thence yesterday. Your argument to which you refer I received in Rome on the day that your letter bears date and expressed in the last letter which I wrote in that city and the last which I have written to you at all, the great satisfaction which its perusal afforded me. I hope Genl. Cushing rec[eive]d a letter which I wrote to him about the same time – On leaving Rome we took a vitturino (that is a carriage exclusively for our party well equipped with four good horses) and proceeded thru eastern Italy by a route not much frequented but exceedingly attractive. I was determined if possible to visit Venice in spite of the war like demonstrations, which threatened to interrupt travel and fortunately arrived at … on the Adriatic in season to take passage in one of the last Steamers, which made the trip between that place and Trieste – From this purely commercial city, we passed over to the city of the Doges, a little run of five hours by Steamer – The scene as we steamed up the Grand Canal was striking and very peculiar. Entirely unlike anything we had seen before – As I stood in St. Mark’s Place that evening every building, turret, and colum [sic] standing out in a dim full moonlight – my anticipations were fully realized – You know the city is singular in many respects but it seemed very odd to me not to see anywhere within the circumference of a large busy city a single horse or carriage of any description – A week was occupied chiefly in sight seeing very pleasantly and we could have remained longer with a hearty good will. It was hardly safe, however, to take, by remaining longer, the hazard of having our communication with Trieste cut off by the arrival of a French squadron – The result proved that we judged wisely in this relation. We visited at Adelsburg a few hours ride from Trieste, the most extensive and most remarkable cave in Europe – and I suppose more wonderful than anything of the kind except the Mammoth Cave of KY. Few natural objects visited in our travels have been more remunerative and yet I have often wished we had allowed our curiosity to remain unsatisfied, because Mrs. Pierce suffered from over exertion and has not recovered from it yet. The railroad over the Semmering Alps between Gratz and Vienna represents the boldest exhibition of engineering I have ever seen. The scenery at many points is not unlike that which we saw in crossing the Blue Ridge. On the morning of the only fine day we had during our week in Vienna I saw a review of 20,000 troops of different arms by the Emperor – The men were of fine size and bearing, the drill seemed to me to be excellent and the equipment admirable in all respects – And the same remarks apply to 30,000 Austrian troops which I suppose I had seen before at various places and in transitu – And yet if we may believe the French telegraph they are “not hard to beat.” The truth is prestige is a tower of strength when a battle field and this the French have & the Austrians want – Still the latter will I have no doubt prove themselves to be an obstinate and by no means contemptable foe. Even should the war be confined to the nations now engaged I do not see how a speedy termination can be reasonably anticipated. Besides the cities, we pass many places of historic interest on our way here. The gallery of pictures at Dresden was more pleasing to me as a whole than either of the galleries of Florence or Rome. On our arrival at Frankfurt A/M I found Mrs. Pierce suffering so much from the maladies, which prostrated her before we left the states that I turned aside to this quiet valley for rest and with the hope that the special waters of Schwalbach, which are thought to be especially efficacious in cases like that of Mrs. Pierce might prove useful. She has been improving every day since we came and as she has tried the waters faithfully, I have confidence in this and yet more in this delightful atmosphere and attractive rural scenery. I hope to be in Paris by the 13th of the month and think we shall take passage for the States in one of the Steamers the last of July or early in August – The year and a half elapsed since we sailed from Norfolk has glided pleasantly by, leaving many memories I shall be glad to retain and some which I shall truly cherish. Still nothing in my absence has afforded me such true satisfaction as my return will. I have enjoyed firm health uninterruptedly and am perhaps somewhat more robust than at any period during our acquaintance. You do not mention our friend Clement … tho’ you must have seen him at Washington. I hope Richard continues to maintain his rank at the military academy. I think the failure to invite you to dinner after you called was under the circumstances absolute rudeness. That is not however the word to express what I mean. That man seems to have succeeded in inspiring a general feeling made up in about equal parts of hatred and contempt – The frequent exhibitions of peevishness and filthy malignity has undoubtedly had much influence in producing this result, but the cringing cowardly manner in which he sought & received adulation from a certain quarter has in my opinion added a great deal to the depth and force of the popular current of dislike for him personally. You say nothing in your last of our friend Colo. George. I suppose you see him often & find him always the same brave true man – heart warm and spirit unsubdued not even chafed, I trust, by the result of the late canvass in N.H. I cannot say how glad I shall be to see you all. You will probably address but two or three letters to me in Europe after receiving this – Those had better be directed to the care of the American Legation in London. I detest cities as much as ever and shall not, I am sure, remain long in Paris. Present my kindest regards to Colo. Greene & Genl. Cushing. I shall make it a point to see the Colo.’s son in Paris. I am glad you saw Mr. Snow & so many of the servants at Washington. I often think of them and it always seems strange that poor Peter, strong and robust as he was, should have been the first of that large household to be taken away. I am not surprised that Mr. [James] Guthrie should be thought of & spoken of as our next candidate for the presidency. He acquired a good deal of reputation while secretary and I think deserved it all. I am decidedly of the opinion that the next candidate of our party should be taken from the South or Southwest. There are many and strong reasons of justice as well as expediency in favor of it and not one of right against it. Conceding this, who w[oul]d. be a safer or on the whole a more available man than Mr. G. especially if he is the choice of his own state. He is a sound patriotic and honest man and at the same time eminently represents broad national and thoroughly conservative opinions and feelings. No man perhaps would be so thoroughly distasteful to Mr. Slidell, Mr. Bright, Mr. Corcoran, and other individual members of the party of more or less prominence but a great party looking to a great result cannot pause to consider and less to be turned aside by individual animosities and prejudices. I think Mr. Guthrie would carry every Southern & Southwestern state and that, all things considered, no candidate can be named who would be stronger in the Northwest, the Middle and Eastern states. He received while secretary (doubtless much on the ground that he was not a man to be feared in future How and where it was consequently safe to be just) so many compliments from the opposition that they could be quoted in a canvass with a great deal of effect. If this expressed a prefference [sic] of which I was not conscious myself it is only between you and myself and not likely to be repeated until we meet when we can compare conclusions and the reasons for them more satisfactorily. It really does me good to hear of Genl. Penslee’s luck. It is pleasant to see the smile of fortune resting upon so true a man. But it ought not to be called luck after all. He has a quick keen and far seeing intuition. Do you remember the tenacity of grasp with which he held onto that $20,000 against my pretty earnest remonstrance? I shall write to you from Paris if I meet certain friends there from whom I think you would be particularly glad to hear. If they have gone to England I shall go over it once to arrange for our passage and see them there. I wish you w[oul]d. call on Mr. Early & present my kindest regards to him. Do you ever see Mr. Aiken. Why not run up & see dear Mary after you view this…”
The son of New Hampshire’s governor, Pierce studied law before enjoying a varied career in state and national politics. In 1832, he was elected to Congress, and four years later, Pierce won a Senate seat that he held until 1837. In 1846, President Polk offered Pierce the office of Attorney General, but Pierce declined, observing that when he had resigned from the Senate, he had done so with the express purpose never to be separated from his family again except to serve his country during war, which, in fact, he did the following year when he was commissioned as a colonel during the Mexican‑American War. Despite his promise to his wife, Jane, he accepted the Democratic nomination for president, and served from 1853-1857.
Pierce’s efforts to lead the nation were hindered by divisions within his party. Nonetheless, he reformed the Civil Service, the Departments of the Interior and Treasury; and oversaw the territorial expansion of the United States, most notably in completing the Gadsden Purchase, through which the U.S. obtained modern-day Arizona and southern New Mexico from Mexico, and which was strongly advocated by his Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. However, it was also territorial expansion and its relation to the issue of slavery that undermined Pierce’s presidency, specifically the Kansas-Nebraska Act whose passage on May 30, 1854, contributed to the rise of the Republican Party. The legislation, drafted by Pierce and Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas, opened Kansas to settlement while allowing popular sovereignty to determine whether Kansas would allow slavery. This led both pro- and anti-slavery advocates to settle in Kansas for the sole purpose of casting their ballots on the matter. The resulting violence, such as that famously perpetrated by John Brown, was dubbed “Bleeding Kansas” and helped further divide both the Democratic Party and the entire nation, propelling it toward civil war.
Because of the political discord that marked Pierce’s presidency, the Democratic Party failed to nominate him for reelection. After leaving Washington, he briefly returned to his native New Hampshire before setting off on a three-year tour of Europe and the Bahamas. From afar he managed to stay abreast of American affairs and maintained an extensive correspondence with Webster, a New Hampshire native who, after graduating from Yale University and Harvard Law School, became President Pierce’s private secretary. The pair formed a close relationship that would persist long after Pierce left Washington. In 1860, Webster married Sarah Morris Fish, the eldest daughter of Senator Hamilton Fish of New York, future secretary of state under Ulysses S. Grant. In 1892, Webster published Franklin Pierce and His Administration.
Our letter was written during Pierce’s lengthy post-White House sojourn on the Continent and discusses his first-hand observations of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (1830-1916), the longest-reigning Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, and the state of his military at the outset of the Franco-Austrian War. The conflict lasted from April to July 1859 and pitted the Kingdom of Sardinia and its ally the French Empire against the Austrian Empire. Napoleon III agreed to assist Lombardy-Venetia gain independence from the Austrian Empire in return for Nice and Savoy being made part of France. The conflict was the first in which troops were moved on a large scale via railway and was a significant step toward Italian unification or Risorgimento.
Pierce discusses his impressions of a number of sites in Germany, Austria and Italy including the Semmering railway, considered the first mountain railway, and mentions that his sickly and melancholy wife Jane M.A. Pierce (1806-1863) was taking the waters at Bad Schwalbach. Mildly tubercular, she spent a good deal of time away from her husband, preferring the cold north to the more hot and humid climate of Washington. Her years in the White House were largely unhappy ones. The horrific death of her third child, Benjamin, just two months prior to her husband’s inauguration, plus the loss of her two other sons in infancy, cast a shadow over the remainder of her public and private life.
Our letter additionally mentions Pierce’s Treasury Secretary James Guthrie (1792-1869), a Kentucky Democrat and 1860 presidential hopeful; Indiana Senator Jesse David Bright (1812-1875), the only Northern senator to be expelled from the Senate for his Confederate sympathies; and Louisiana Senator and Pierce supporter John Slidell (1793-1871). Massachusetts attorney Caleb Cushing (1800-1879) was a congressman, Mexican-American War veteran and brigadier general. He served as Pierce’s attorney general for four years before becoming president of the National Democratic Convention. On behalf of President Buchanan, Cushing attempted to prevent South Carolina’s secession and, after the outbreak of war, he acted as President Lincoln’s secret envoy. He later held several post-war diplomatic positions.
Pierce’s opinions regarding the 1860 Democratic presidential nominee is especially interesting as the Democratic national convention resulted in a schism that led to two separate Democratic slates. Cushing chaired the convention held in Charleston on April 23, 1860, during which neither Stephen Douglas nor Guthrie won the necessary number of delegates required to capture the nomination. Several weeks later, another convention was held in Baltimore during which Douglas emerged as the nominee. However, Southern Democrats held a rival convention, adopted a pro-slavery platform and nominated Kentucky Democrat John C. Breckinridge. The division amongst the Democratic Party undoubtedly contributed to Lincoln’s victory. Even though Lincoln won only 40% of the popular vote he carried 60% of the electoral votes.
This unpublished letter remained in the Fish family until just recently. With the original envelope addressed in Pierce’s hand and written on the rectos and versos of three folded sheets; in very good condition. An unusually long letter written from a period in President Pierce’s life that is largely unknown to scholars.