The Bizarre Story Behind How Franklin Pierce Was Accused of Treason

An anonymous letter supposedly from a member of a secret society claimed that Pierce was involved in treasonous activities against the American government. The accusation, which infuriated the former president, turned out to be a bizarre piece of fake news created by a member of his own political party.
In the winter of 1861, former president Franklin Pierce found himself accused of treason.
In the winter of 1861, former president Franklin Pierce found himself accused of treason. / duncan1890/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (Pierce), Tolga_TEZCAN/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (background)

In the fall of 1861, former President Franklin Pierce headed to the Midwest, where he intended to visit with friends, family, and some of his fellow politicians. His trip would end up setting off a political firestorm involving accusations of treason, a bizarre hoax, and a war of words with Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state.

“A Prowling Traitor Spy”

The Civil War had started a few months prior, and even places far from the fighting, like Michigan, were on edge. But Pierce—who had a reputation for being sympathetic to the southern cause, and whose secretary of war had been none other than Jefferson Davis—had been mostly mum on the topic. He swung into Michigan, where, among confidants, he supposedly expressed the opinion that he didn’t like Abraham Lincoln very much, and would rather see someone else as president (namely, Joseph Holt, who had served in various positions under President James Buchanan).

What Pierce was purported to have said made its way to the news, leading the Detroit Tribune to declare:

“There is little doubt but that ex-President Pierce’s tour through the North and into the Southern States, is to foster division among the people, excite sedition, and to get up an organized treasonable opposition to the efforts of the Government to crush out rebellion in the Northern States. He goes through State after State, the avant courier of the rebellion, to stir up sympathy for rebel traitors in arms. While in this city, he was closeted with a select circle who are known to be doubtful in their loyalty; he made a speech to them; and since he left Detroit, more than one of that secret circle have said to others, who were invited but would not be contaminated by the foul conspiracy: ‘You ought to have heard ex-President Pierce last night; he would have cured you of the idea of supporting this Government in this d———nable war.’ Our opinion is that Franklin Pierce is a prowling traitor spy.”

Discourse like this greatly irritated Pierce’s fellow Democratic party member, Dr. Guy S. Hopkins, who decided to take action that feels more apt for the modern era than 1861: He faked a letter seemingly from a secret society called “The Knights of the Golden Circle,” which said that a “Presdt. P”—which everyone knew was a reference to Pierce—was involved in a number of treasonous activities. It was signed with what appeared to be a name in code.

Hopkins’s plan was to “leak” the letter to prominent Republican newspapers, which would publish it, after which he would reveal it had been a hoax. “It would be sent to one of the treason-shrieking presses and when exploded would produce much ‘fun’,” he said.

But the papers didn’t publish Hopkins’s letter. Instead, they gave it to officials, and it eventually ended up in the hands of Secretary of State William Seward.

Shots Fired

Seward believed the letter to be the real deal, and he started rounding up suspected traitors, including Hopkins. In December 1861, Seward sent a letter to Pierce about the affair: “Any explanation upon the subject which you may offer would be acceptable,” he wrote, attaching part of Hopkins’s letter. 

William Henry Seward
William Henry Seward. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

Pierce was incensed that Seward would dare ask him to comment on the accusations. “It is not easy to conceive how any person could give credence to, or entertain for a moment, the idea that I am now, or have ever been, connected with a ‘secret league,’” he wrote to the secretary of state, adding that he wondered how the letter was “a sufficient basis for an official communication” that would “hold a place upon the files of the Department of State long beyond the duration of your life and mine.”

Pierce noted that he had “never belonged to any secret league, society, or association. My name does not appear in the ‘extract,’ and as there is not the slightest ground for any reference to me in the connexion indicated, I take it for granted that your inference is wholly erroneous, and that neither I nor anything which I ever said or did was in the mind of the writer.”

Hopkins, sitting in jail, had confessed to the hoax (“My only guilt, sir, lies in attempting to play off a practical joke upon the Detroit press,” he wrote to Seward), and Seward—who did not want to look like a fool—sent a sorry-not-sorry letter to Pierce. “I desired that you might know how your name was made use of by a traitor to increase the treason he was encouraging,” Seward wrote. “I place your answer on the files of the Department of State as an act of justice to yourself. And I beg you to be assured that all the unkindness of that answer does not in the least diminish the satisfaction with which I have performed, in the best way I was able, a public duty, with a desire to render you a service.” He noted that “the writer [of the letter] was detected and subsequently avowed the authorship.”

And with that, Seward officially filed the matter away—but it was far from over.

Going Public

In the spring of 1862, the Michigan papers returned to attacking the Democrats. According to historian Frank L. Klement, “The editor of the Detroit Advertiser showed his more timid Republican colleagues how to take the offensive. In an editorial entitled ‘A Traitor Amongst Us’ he impugned the loyalty of both the ex-president and his host of the previous September, accused prominent Detroit Democrats of belonging to the Knights of the Golden Circle and of practicing perfidy, and contended that infallible evidence substantiated the treason charges.”

When the Advertiser and Tribune were pressed to back up their claims, they published Hopkins’s hoax letter, which was soon picked up by prominent East Coast Republican newspapers. Pierce—who since December had been complaining to friends about the accusations—was again irate. He had a friend, Senator Milton S. Latham of California, force all the letters sent between himself and Seward the previous winter to be made public on the Senate floor.

This embarrassed Seward, who had neglected to send one of Pierce’s letters to the Senate. Following Seward’s sorry-not-sorry letter, Pierce wrote back, saying, “The writer of the anonymous letter, it seems, ‘was detected, and subsequently avowed the authorship,’ and yet I am not advised whether he disavows reference to me, or whether there was an attempt to inculpate me in his disclosure.”

Latham, however, knew of Pierce’s response and read it out in the Senate, saying of its omission from the official documentation, “It is not my purpose to say that the honorable Secretary of State would do an act of this kind intentionally. This letter and the printed correspondence will show the country how great a calumny has been uttered against one of our most distinguished citizens.”

“Instrument for All the Evil”

Pierce was, of course, cleared of wrongdoing, but that didn’t stop questions about the former president’s loyalty. He never really forgave anyone for the accusations of treason, and became more staunchly anti-Lincoln as the years went on. He even once declared that Lincoln, in pushing forward the Emancipation Proclamation, was a “willing instrument for all the evil which has thus far been brought upon the country.”

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln. / Alexander Gardner/GettyImages

But in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination, Pierce’s attitude seemed to soften somewhat; he told the large group of people who had gathered at his home to hear him speak after the president’s death that “The magnitude of the calamity, in all aspects, is overwhelming.” And when someone shouted, “Where is your Flag?,” Pierce responded

“It is not necessary for me to show my devotion for the stars and stripes by any special exhibition, or upon the demand of any man or body of men. My ancestors followed it through the revolution—one of them, at least, never having seen his mother's roof from the beginning to the close of that protracted struggle. My brothers followed it in the war of 1812; and I left my family, in the Spring of 1847, among you, to follow its fortunes and maintain it upon a foreign soil. But this you all know. If the period during which I have served our State and country in various situations, commencing more than thirty-five years ago, have left the question of my devotion to the flag, the Constitution and the Union in doubt, it is too late now to remove it, by any such exhibition as the enquiry suggests.”

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