I suppose Genl. Cushing is at Washington now. He spoke so confidently of meeting me at Baltimore that I am somewhat disappointed. If Douglas concurs with Gov. Walker in his views upon the Lecompton Constitution it is not easy to foresee what the consequences may be to our party and to our Country, but we shall I doubt not in some way go safely through. No course except that indicated in my letter the other day could get any countenance from me. It is no time for gentlemen to indulge in selfish schemes. They had better take winning [?] from the surprizing recent result in the City of New York. Nothing will carry one through in the long run but adherence to principals and firm maintenance of consistent political as well as personal integrity. You must write me a long letter on this tissue paper before the first of January and send it to the State Department under cover to Mr. Dallas who will forward it to me. I must probably depend upon you mainly in this respect.
The demonstration of friendly regard for me on the part of the corporations of New York & Portsmouth and of the citizens individually have been of the most gratifying character. The Herald which I sent you yesterday is the leading opposition paper of this city. The hospitality of our hosts Mr. & Mrs. Sawyer has been unbounded. Mrs. Pierce sends her love to you.
Ever yr. friend…”
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, which he held until 1837. In 1846, President Polk offered Pierce the office of attorney general, but Pierce declined, remarking 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 a colonel during the Mexican‑American War. Despite his promises to his family and his wife, Jane, he accepted the Democratic nomination for president, serving 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 (1813-1861), 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.
In January 1856, Free-Staters called for a convention in Topeka, Kansas in an attempt to reconcile the differences between abolitionist and pro-slavery factions. The resulting Topeka Constitution was short lived. From September to November 1857, a second constitutional convention of pro-slavery delegates was held in Lecompton. The resulting Lecompton Constitution was presented to voters on December 21 with a special article through which they could allow or disallow slavery. However, the “constitution without slavery” allowed Kansans to keep slaves they already owned leading Free-Staters to boycott the vote. Therefore, the “constitution with slavery” won by a large margin and further fueled the national debate. Ultimately, the Lecompton Constitution was supplanted by a third and then a fourth and final constitution, the Wyandotte Constitution, which declared Kansas a free state and allowed its admission to the Union in January 1861.
Pierce’s successor President James Buchanan appointed Robert J. Walker (1801-1869) territorial governor of Kansas on May 27, 1857, but he resigned effective December 15, 1857 over his opposition to the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution.
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 (aboard the Powhatan, mentioned in our letter) 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.
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. Cushing delivered a “vigorous defense of the [Pierce] administration at a speech in Faneuil Hall on October 27 . Cushing had attacked the Republican Party for seeking ‘the equality of Africans and Americans’ despite the fact ‘that the two races are unequal by nature,’” (Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union, Wallner). 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.
Longtime Massachusetts politician John P. Bigelow (1797-1872) served as Boston’s mayor from 1849-1851 and it was during his tenure that the enslaved Shadrach Minkins fled Virginia for Boston. When he was arrested by federal officials in February 1851 under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, violence erupted in Boston and Minkins was freed by vigilantes and smuggled to Canada. Bigelow was rebuked for his handling of the crisis and a proclamation made by President Millard Fillmore specifically demanded that the mayor of Boston obey federal law. Similarly, abolitionists accused Bigelow of not standing up to federal officials. When, three months later, another fugitive slave was captured by federal forces, Bigelow ensured that he was put on a boat in Boston Harbor and returned to his master per the controversial legislation. Bigelow was soundly defeated in his bid for reelection.
George M. Dallas (1792-1864), son of Treasury Secretary Alexander Dallas, served as mayor of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania attorney general, U.S. senator, and vice president under President James K. Polk. He also held several diplomatic positions, including Pierce’s appointment of him as ambassador to Britain, a post he held at the time of our letter until 1861.
Pierce’s letter alludes to the complicated political situation in New York City in the fall of 1857. The city’s corrupt Democratic mayor, Fernando Wood, recently had his term shortened by the New York State legislature which also established a new police force – the Metropolitans – to replace Wood’s corrupt Municipal Police. The conflict between the two police forces culminated in the New York City Police Riot of 1857, the Dead Rabbits Riot and rampant lawlessness. In a further attempt to undermine Democratic control of the city, the Republican state legislature voted to hold city elections in December, “off cycle,” which had the intended result of defeating Wood in favor of Independent Party candidate Daniel F. Tiemann.
First Lady Jane M.A. Pierce (1806-1863) was known for her shyness and melancholy. 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.
This unpublished letter remained in the Fish family until just recently and was written after Pierce left office and was embarking on an extended trip to Europe. On a folded sheet, folded and in excellent condition. A spectacular letter.