Nathaniel Hawthorne was on a remarkable run in the summer of 1852. A succession of novels that included “The Scarlet Letter” in 1850, “The House of the Seven Gables” in 1851, and “The Blithedale Romance” early in 1852 had launched him into the pantheon of great American writers. He had dug deep in the soil of his native Massachusetts to produce stories rich in historical meaning, contemporary relevance and psychological intrigue.

Given the success of his fiction, it is surprising that his next move was to cross the border into New Hampshire and begin plowing up the rocky dirt of the Granite State to produce a political biography of Franklin Pierce, the eventual 14th president of the United States.

Though Pierce is often spoken of as one of the more handsome commanders in chief, he is also regarded as one of the worst. What was one of America’s greatest writers doing shilling for a candidate who was counted a mediocrity even in his own day? Then, as now, “The Life of Franklin Pierce” (which one review called a “venal homage to ambitious mediocrity”) seemed beneath the talents of Hawthorne.

The easy explanation is that Hawthorne and Pierce were old mates from their student days at Bowdoin College in the 1820s.

When Pierce won the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1852, Hawthorne volunteered to write “the necessary biography,” seemingly as a gesture of friendship.

Yet the actual content of “The Life of Franklin Pierce,” and the spoils of victory that Hawthorne received for writing it, suggest other layers to the story. The book is a political biography as adept at aligning Pierce’s life story with the needs of the party as anything that could have come from the pen of a committed Democratic operative.

When Pierce won, he gave his old friend a plush diplomatic post in England, but in the end, neither man proved better off for having taken their new job.

Writing a sympathetic life of Franklin Pierce was a tall order that would take every last bit of Hawthorne’s literary talent. Members of the opposition Whig Party raised a fair question when they chanted jubilantly, “Who is Frank Pierce?” Though Pierce had served in the U.S. House and Senate, he had hardly distinguished himself and had little reputation beyond his native New Hampshire. Pierce had served in the recent Mexican-American War (1846-1848), but he had certainly not earned the glories of his opponent in the election, Gen. Winfield Scott.

Indeed, the uncertainty surrounding Pierce’s Mexican War record was a significant cause for concern. He had volunteered in 1846, and was soon promoted to the rank of brigadier general on the strength of his political stature and connections. To date, his military qualifications consisted of nothing more than a stint as the organizer and captain of the “Bowdoin Cadets,” a college group he led in marching exercises across the quadrangle (and of which Hawthorne had briefly been a member).

Pierce’s lack of experience in battle quickly became apparent. In his brigade’s first engagement, his horse spooked at the sound of artillery fire and began bucking and rearing wildly. A strong kick of the back legs sent Pierce lurching forward into an awkward and blindingly painful pelvic encounter with the pommel of his saddle.

The hero fainted and fell to the ground, only to have his horse fall on his knee and a subordinate allegedly call him a “damned coward” when he didn’t get up.

Unable to walk or ride, Pierce was ordered by his superiors to withdraw from action. He gallantly insisted on staying in the field, which he did until the next day, when he fainted again after wrenching his bad knee marching across marshy terrain.

Even leaving aside the undistinguished years in Congress and rumors of a weakness for the bottle, Pierce’s war record was enough to make a swiftboat — or, less anachronistically — saddle-pommel campaign an easy and perhaps even truthful enterprise. Given the circumstances, Hawthorne’s brother-in-law, the education reformer Horace Mann, made what was to be a common mockery of the biography, claiming that “if he makes Pierce out to be either a great or brave man, then it will be the greatest work of fiction he ever wrote.”

“The Life of Franklin Pierce” is not fiction, but it is a kind of literary invention.

“The gist of the matter,” Hawthorne said, lay in explaining how Pierce remained “so obscure” in spite of “such extraordinary opportunities for eminent distinction, civil and military.”

Hawthorne’s answer was to emphasize Pierce’s growth and development, which he claimed in a tortured turn of phrase “has always been the opposite of premature.”

Pierce’s lack of distinction was the result of his tendency toward slow, measured progress. Detailing Pierce’s generally quiet tenure in Congress during the 1830s and early 1840s, Hawthorne notes that Pierce “rendered unobtrusive, though not unimportant, services to the public.”

If Hawthorne’s Brig. Gen. Pierce is somewhat hapless with horses and poorly timed illnesses, he emerges through some delicate narration and clunky dialogue as a dutiful and determined leader.

Yet Hawthorne also needed to produce a document that would reveal Pierce to be a Democrat who could hold both the party and the country together, no easy task in the wake of the Mexican-American War that had not quite made him famous. Victory in that war had brought enormous swaths of western territory under American control while raising politically explosive questions about the future status of slavery there. Rancorous debate over how or whether to restrict the westward spread of the peculiar institution had created bitter divisions within the two major political parties and spawned a third, the Free Soil Party. The Compromise of 1850 had established a rough truce, but the election of 1852 threatened to break tenuous political alignments.

Hawthorne needed to show that Pierce was the perfect man for the moment. Though hardly the Democrats’ first choice (he won the nomination on the 49th ballot at the convention), he made sense as a selection first and foremost as a “doughface” — a Northerner with Southern sympathies and conservative views on slavery.

Hawthorne deftly played up Pierce’s longstanding support for the South while shaming Northerners who’d place their opposition to slavery above the preservation of the party and the Union. Pierce had given his support to the Compromise of 1850 and its controversial Fugitive Slaw Law, which granted the government broad powers to return escaped slaves to Southern masters.

That support, Hawthorne claimed, was the result of a deeper wisdom than that possessed by the “least scrupulous” of anti-slavery agitators. The wise view “looks upon slavery as one of those evils which divine Providence does not leave to be remedied by human contrivance,” one that would eventually “vanish like a dream.” Better, he said, to stick with Pierce and the Union and let a higher power take care of the rest.

When Pierce carried all but four states in the election, Hawthorne himself landed precisely the position he wanted — the consul of Liverpool, a post that his wife claimed was “second in dignity to the Embassy to London.”

Meanwhile, at home, Pierce did not rise to the office of the presidency. Shattered by the tragedy of his son’s death just months before taking office, Pierce seemed out of his depth in the face of escalating sectional conflict.

By the time Hawthorne returned to the United States in 1860, the country was well on its way to war. As the war became a merciless struggle against slavery that hardly fit with Hawthorne’s image of the institution vanishing like a dream, he remained hostile to the cant of abolitionism. Troubled by the events unfolding around him and hobbled by failing health, Hawthorne lost his literary voice and struggled to bring any of his work to completion.

Pierce, for his part, opposed what he called a “cruel, heartless, aimless, unnecessary war.” With Hawthorne by his side, he bitterly denounced Lincoln, emancipation, and the course of the conflict in a poorly timed speech on July 4, 1863 — just a day after the Union triumph at Gettysburg. Both men seemed increasingly estranged from the world being wrought by the Civil War, so it was fitting that the two should have embarked on a carriage tour of Pierce’s New Hampshire the following May in hopes of restoring Hawthorne’s health. His health, however, was too far gone; he died in his sleep on May 19, 1864, discovered early that morning by his old friend Franklin Pierce.

 

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