Whispering Pines: ‘Live Free or Die’ – The Presidential Election of 1852

 

In his latest column, John Cross ’76 writes about the presidential election of 1852, in which two of the three candidates were Bowdoin alumni.

“Live Free or Die: Death Is Not the Worst of Evils”
—Toast from General John Stark in 1809 to the survivors of the Battle of Bennington

In this political season, if you were to ask Americans to name the U.S. presidential elections that had the greatest impact on the country’s future, it is a safe bet that the 1852 contest would not rank high on anyone’s list. It pitted Whig candidate General Winfield Scott (of Mexican War fame) against former Democratic senator Franklin Pierce of the Bowdoin Class of 1824 and Free Soil standard bearer John Parker Hale of the Bowdoin Class of 1827. Pierce’s campaign may have had one of the worst political slogans of all time: “We Polked you in ’44, we shall Pierce you in ’52.”

To the best of my knowledge, there have been four instances in which opponents in a presidential election had been trained at the same college or university. In 1789 George Washington received more electoral votes than 11 other candidates, including Harvard alumni John Adams and Samuel Adams. In 1796 John Adams garnered more electoral votes than a dozen candidates, including his fellow Harvard alumnus, Sam Adams, three men who had attended the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), and the two Pinckney brothers (Thomas and Charles) who both had been educated at Oxford. Then there is the 1852 election, with Bowdoin-educated New Hampshire natives Pierce and Hale, and the 2004 election between two Yale graduates, George W. Bush and John Kerry.

According to Pierce biographer Peter Wallner, Franklin Pierce and John Hale were friends at Bowdoin, even though their undergraduate careers only overlapped for a single year. Wallner’s 2005 essay in the journal Historical New Hampshire weaves a complex picture of the intersections of the lives of Pierce, Hale, and Nathaniel Hawthorne (Bowdoin Class of 1824) during and after college. As president of the Democratic-leaning Athenæan Society at Bowdoin, Pierce recruited Hale for membership, despite the Hale family’s long involvement with Federalist political views.

Following Pierce’s graduation he studied law and was elected as Hillsborough’s representative to the New Hampshire legislature in 1829. As Speaker of the House he was a mentor to Hale, who was elected as Dover’s representative in 1832. Pierce’s career brought him to the national stage as a U.S. Congressman and Senator, back to New Hampshire as chair of the state’s Democratic Party, and to a brigadier general’s post in the Mexican War of 1847-48, where he served as a brigadier general. Hale was a federal district attorney in New Hampshire, was elected as a Representative to Congress for a term, and in 1847 to the U.S. Senate.

The 1840s saw a divergence of political opinion between Pierce and Hale over a number of issues, chief among them was slavery. Pierce took the position that the Constitution guaranteed southern states the right to continue the practice, while Hale became the first U.S. Senator to adopt an explicitly abolitionist stance. The final straw came when Hale opposed the annexation of Texas (against the explicit instructions of the New Hampshire Democratic Party), believing that it would expand the power of slaveholding states.  Hale did not consult with Democratic Party chair Franklin Pierce before his vote in Congress nor before he sent a letter explaining his position to thousands of Democrats in New Hampshire. For Pierce it was an act of betrayal that could not be forgiven; a friendship forged in college and in the early years of respective political careers had hardened into enmity. Pierce and Hale squared off for a much-anticipated debate at the Old North meeting house in Concord on June 5, 1845. In the conclusion to a fiery speech, Hale expressed the desire that his epitaph read, “He who lies beneath surrendered office, place, and power, rather than bow down and worship slavery.” Eyewitnesses claimed that Pierce gave as good as he got, although his arguments didn’t have the “sound-bite” staying power of Hale’s one-liner (which, incidentally, is preserved on his gravestone in Pine Hill Cemetery in Dover). The last hope for reconciliation evaporated when Hale cast the single vote in the Senate in opposition to a resolution expressing the nation’s gratitude to Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott for the prosecution of the war with Mexico. Pierce personally read Hale out of the Democratic Party, yet in the splintering and reformation of political parties over issue of annexation, slavery, and the rights of states, Hale was elected as the candidate of the Independent Democratic Party.  Over the course of his career Hale was a member of the Democratic Party, the Independent Democratic Party, the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party, and the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln.

At the 1852 Democratic Convention in Baltimore, Franklin Pierce’s name came up on the 36th ballot, and on the 49th ballot he was chosen as the party’s presidential candidate. Pierce had to be persuaded to accept a nomination that he had not sought. He enlisted his lifelong friend Nathaniel Hawthorne to write his campaign biography. Meanwhile, Hale accepted the nomination of the Free Soil Party (“Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men”), which drew its support from the anti-slavery wings of the Whig, Democratic, and the Liberty parties in the northern states. In the end, Pierce won 27 of 31 states, Winfield Scott won four states, and Hale received no electoral votes and about 5% of the popular vote. Hale returned to the Senate and continued to be a thorn in Pierce’s side.

In a footnote to history, Hale’s younger daughter, Lucy Lambert Hale, was a belle of Washington society, having attracted the attention of the President’s son, Robert, a young Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and John Hay, President Lincoln’s private secretary. It also appears that she was romantically linked to Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth – some have argued that they were secretly engaged to be married. It was from Lucy that Booth received a ticket to attend Lincoln’s second inaugural, and he took Lucy to a show at Ford’s Theater shortly before the fateful night. When Booth was killed by Federal troops on April 26, 1865, he had a carte-de-visite photo of Lucy in his pocket. Perhaps because of Hale’s political influence, Lucy was never questioned or implicated in the murder plot.

Ambition and profound differences on the direction of the country had driven a wedge between Pierce and Hale, although their careers had become linked to the point where ground could be gained by one only at the expense of the other’s political fortune. Pierce died in 1869 and Hale in 1873. Their respective statues adorn the grounds of the State Capitol grounds in Concord; I don’t know how the statues of the two old adversaries stand in relation to each other, but they clearly stand apart.

 

 

With Best Wishes,

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations

5 comments to Whispering Pines: ‘Live Free or Die’ – The Presidential Election of 1852

  • Barbara Kaster

    John Cross, you’ve done it again! Fascinating information, great insight and your very special ability to tell a story well!!

  • Dave Larsson

    Outstanding, as always, John. I’ve been trying to figure out what fraternities they were in, but all I’ve found is that they were both Phi Beta Kappa.

  • Nancy Bellhouse May

    Yet more Bowdoin history that I had never heard. Thanks, John.

  • Al DeMoya, '72

    Thanks, John, for yet another insightful, informative and entertaining entry from the annals of Bowdoin history and lore. I would really love to see you gather these items in a book.

  • Conrad Spens '77

    Thanks, John- I always look forward to your columns and the surprises they hold. At times it almost seems as though the universe could revolve around our beloved alma mater. If not central to past events it more often than not at least hung on the periphery.

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