Sandwiched between Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan, Democrat Franklin Pierce exists in a realm of popular obscurity in line with how lackluster his presidency was. That doesn't mean he isn't fascinating. Born November 23, 1804 in a log cabin in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, the 14th President of the United States of America was a member of a storied family that traced its Colonial roots back to Thomas Pierce's immigration to the Massachusetts Bay Colony around 1634. His mother was Anna Kendrick (not that one), and his father was farmer, Revolutionary War hero, and eventual governor Benjamin Pierce.
Franklin Pierce was, by all measures, set up for a life of military and political success, the height of which he achieved when he took the oath of the nation's highest office on March 4, 1853. A complicated figure whose legacy historians still debate today, Pierce became the president in the midst of personal tragedy, made the country bigger through the acquisition of new territory, and led during a time of high tension in the United States, setting the country on the path to civil war—and yet, he's mostly forgotten by history. Here's what you need to know about the president whose opponents referred to him as "Fainting Frank."
1. Franklin Pierce’s father once made him walk for miles in a thunderstorm.
It wasn't uphill both ways, but Pierce's trek to school changed his life. He went to boarding school at Hancock Academy, but decided one Sunday when he was 12 years old to sneak away and race home while his family was in church. When they got home, Pierce was surprised that his father chose not to punish him for playing hooky and, instead, asked him to ride in the carriage back to Hancock with him. It was raining hard when Benjamin Pierce stopped the carriage about halfway to the school and instructed his son to get out and walk the rest of the way. The elder Pierce promptly turned the carriage around and left. According to biographer Roy F. Nichols, Franklin later said the event was “a turning point in his career.”
2. Franklin Pierce was promoted to General not long after joining the Army.
Military structure was a bit different in the early 19th century, with state militias still playing a significant role alongside the regular army. Two of Pierce's older brothers had fought in the War of 1812, and his father was also a Revolutionary War fighter; Pierce admired and appreciated military service for its intrinsic value and for the potential for it to further bolster his political ambitions. When he was 24, Pierce was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives during his father's final term as governor of the state and was named aide-de-camp as a member of the state militia to one of his father's successors, Governor Samuel Dinsmoor, in 1831. Though he had no formal military experience, the position earned him the rank of colonel in the militia. When the United States declared war on Mexico in 1846, Pierce was keen to join up, turning down the opportunity to serve as President James K. Polk's Attorney General in order to see battle. In February 1847, Pierce became a colonel and commander of the 9th Infantry Regiment, soon becoming a brigadier general despite having exactly zero experience with the army.
3. Franklin Pierce was called "Hero of Many a Well-Fought Bottle" and "Fainting Frank."
Pierce's military service during the Mexican-American War came after he'd already served as a member of the House of Representatives and as a United States Senator, and he was right that military service would boost his profile on the national stage, despite the fact that he had resigned from the Senate in 1841. The problem was that people thought he was a coward.
At the Battle of Contreras in August 1847, Pierce suffered an accident while riding his horse: He suffered a groin injury and was thrown from the horse, severely hurting his leg and leaving him looking as though he'd passed out. The following day, at the Battle of Churubusco, Pierce insisted on riding with his men into battle, but this time he genuinely fainted from the pain in his leg.
During the presidential election of 1852, his Whig opponents called Pierce "Fainting Frank" because of the perceived lack of bravery and "Hero of Many a Well-Fought Bottle" in reference to his alcoholism. The mud-slinging led Ulysses S. Grant to come to Pierce's defense in his memoirs (published long after Pierce's death in 1869), writing that, "whatever General Pierce's qualifications may have been for the Presidency, he was a gentleman and a man of courage. I was not a supporter of him politically, but I knew him more intimately than I did any other of the volunteer generals."
4. Franklin Pierce beat his old boss to win the presidency.
Pierce served under General Winfield "Old Fuss and Feathers" Scott during the war and, fulfilling the dream of just about everyone who's ever had a boss, defeated Scott to become president during the election of 1852. With the Whig Party on the verge of collapse and the Republican Party not yet established, the election was a landslide. Pierce scored 254 of the 149 Electoral College votes needed to win, with Scott only winning Kentucky, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Vermont. This was an incredible outcome for Pierce, who hadn’t even been a contender at the Democratic Convention until the 35th ballot, when it became clear that none of the front-runners could seal the deal or win opponents over to their side. Pierce finally scored his party's nomination on the 49th ballot, becoming the consensus compromise candidate.
5. Franklin Pierce started his presidency while grieving the death of his son.
Pierce was one of nine children, and he and wife Jane had three children of their own. Sadly, all of them died young; none even lived long enough to see their father become president. The firstborn, Franklin Jr., died as an infant, and Frank Robert died from typhus when he was 4. Benjamin lived to be 11, but died in a horrific train accident just after his father's presidential election victory.
On January 6, 1853, the family took a train from Andover, Massachusetts, bound for Concord when an axle broke and sent their car rolling down a steep decline where it "broke in pieces like a cigar box," according to The New York Times. Benjamin was killed instantly. Convinced her son's death was divine punishment for her husband's campaign and election, Jane declined to attend his inauguration.
6. Franklin Pierce didn't swear an oath when he became president.
Jane wasn't alone in her belief that Benjamin's death was an act of God's retribution—Pierce himself viewed it as proof that God was angry with him. During his address, he mourned publicly, saying, "You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me by your strength." Pierce chose to affirm his oath rather than swear it, and delivered his entire inaugural speech—more than 3000 words—from memory, becoming the first president to do so.
7. Franklin Pierce added thousands of square miles to the Southwest United States.
Pierce took office intent on expanding westward. Five years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War, Pierce sent the U.S. Minister to Mexico, James Gadsden, to negotiate the border rights and end disputes surrounding the Mesilla Valley region. In 1854, the United States agreed to pay Mexico $10 million for 29,670 square miles of land in what is now New Mexico and Arizona. While the treaty created the modern-day border and created the space necessary for a southern rail line, it also failed to solve the underlying monetary and border disputes between the two countries.
8. Franklin Pierce is said to be the first President to have a Christmas tree at the White House (though he probably didn't).
It's been almost 100 years since President Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree, converting an intimate tradition into a public-facing opportunity. According to lore, Pierce was the first to have a Christmas tree decorated at the White House, either in 1853 or 1856. The story goes that Pierce embraced the tradition when hosting a group of Sunday school children at the White House for carol singing—but Alvin Rosenbaum, author of A White House Christmas, says that this is likely a myth: “According to Iyla Bonnecaze, the curator of the Pierce Manse in Concord, New Hampshire, the Christmas tree tale probably originated with Mary and Susan Pierce, grandnieces of President Pierce, who were fond of repeating the story throughout their lives (they lived into the 1970s)," Rosenbaum writes. "Bonnecaze knew them and claims to have spent the last 30 years unsuccessfully trying to authenticate the story, but ‘no one in New Hampshire that she knew, including the Pierce girls, had a Christmas tree back then.'”
9. Franklin Pierce barely had a Vice President.
Perhaps highlighting the unimportance of the office at the time, Pierce served a full term with effectively no Vice President. After Pierce was selected as the Democratic Party candidate at their nominating convention, the delegates chose William R. King, a senator from Alabama, to be his running mate. They made a consistent pair: Pierce was a Northerner who supported the Fugitive Slave Act and King had been an architect of the Compromise of 1850. King took the oath of office in Cuba, where he was convalescing due to tuberculosis, but died only 45 days into his term.
As was the custom of the time, the position was left vacant (the 25th Amendment, which in part outlines a President's power to nominate a new Vice President with subsequent confirmation from Congress, wouldn't even be proposed until after President Kennedy's assassination). In accordance with the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, if Vice-Presidentless Pierce had died or otherwise been unable to serve, the president pro tempore of the Senate would have become President.
10. Franklin Pierce recognized an American adventurer as the rightful ruler of Nicaragua.
In one of the most bizarre series of events during Pierce's presidency, an American freebooter (also called a filibuster) named William Walker took a private army to Nicaragua, declared himself dictator, and was eventually recognized by Pierce as the rightful government of the Central American country. Illegally invading other countries was something of a hobby for Walker, who had previously failed to take over part of Mexico, but his actions, while violating United States laws of neutrality, were also celebrated by Americans who believed in Manifest Destiny and the expansion by any means of the country. Pierce himself was enthusiastic about buying Cuba from Spain to make it a new slave state, so when Walker took over Nicaragua in order to bring slavery to the country, an initially hesitant Pierce legitimized the action, and Walker spent 10 months as Nicaragua's president. Walker tried to take over Honduras a few years later, but was executed by the Honduran government.
11. Close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote Franklin Pierce's campaign biography.
The author of The Scarlet Letter met Pierce when they attended Bowdoin College in the 1820s, and they became lifelong friends—which is probably why Hawthorne agreed to write the glowing biography of Pierce meant to sell potential voters on the presidential candidate. Hawthorne himself said that "the story is true, yet it took a romancer to do it," recognizing that it was a sales pitch for a rather mediocre man vying to become one of the most powerful in the country. Whether the book made an impact or not (either on the electorate or on Pierce's esteem for his literary friend), Pierce awarded Hawthorne the cushy diplomatic post of consul to Liverpool.