On this day in 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant announces the death of former President Franklin Pierce. Pierce, whose presidency was remembered mostly for his failure to end the debate over slavery, had died the day before at his home in Concord, New Hamsphire.
Pierce was, and remains, the only president to hail from New Hampshire. He studied law in college and was elected to the New Hamsphire state legislature in 1828. In 1832, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate.
The Mexican War of 1848, in which Pierce served with distinction with the U.S. Army, briefly interrupted his political career. In 1852, he returned to politics and was chosen from relative obscurity as the Democratic nominee for the presidency. Upon winning the job in 1853, he promised to maintain the status quo of the Compromise of 1850—a bill that put off the decision on slavery in four new western territories and admitted California as a free state, but instituted the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring citizens to assist in the capture of slaves attempting to escape bondage. This was seen as appeasing southern pro-slavery elements and his willingness to do so gradually earned him the wrath of his former support base of northern abolitionists. The Democrats’ own campaign slogan in the next presidential race became “anyone but Pierce.”
Pierce and his wife Jane had three boys. Their first child died in infancy; a second, Franky, died at age four from typhus; and their third son, Benny, was killed in a train wreck from which Pierce and his wife escaped alive. This string of tragedies drove Pierce to binge drink. He also suffered from chronic nervous exhaustion. By the end of his single term in the White House a Philadelphia Enquirer reporter described Pierce as “a wreck of his former self…his face wears a hue so ghastly and cadaverous that one could almost fancy he was gazing on a corpse.”
Upon leaving office in 1857, Pierce was asked what he would do next; he allegedly replied “there’s nothing left [to do] but get drunk.” Although the Democrats urged him to run for president again in 1856 and 1860, he refused. The effects of alcoholism led to his death in 1869 at the age of 65. Upon his death, Grant arranged for “suitable military and naval honors” for Pierce’s funeral and, in keeping with tradition, ordered flags flown at half-staff on all federal buildings.