Nathaniel Hawthorne, Party Hack

Why did the famous novelist agree to write a campaign biography for an infamously bad president?

Nathaniel Hawthorne, between 1860 and 1864.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, between 1860 and 1864.

Photo by Mathew Brady/Library of Congress

Nathaniel Hawthorne was on a remarkable run in the summer of 1852. He had previously won acclaim for his short tales, but 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 the formula, it is something of a surprise 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? Campaign biographies had been a regular feature of presidential politics since Andrew Jackson’s emergence in the 1820s, but as one contemporary reviewer noted, “there are ‘hacks’ enough … in every city, who would be right and well fitted to perform such filthy work.” Then, as now, The Life of Franklin Pierce (which the same review called a “venal homage to ambitious mediocrity”) seemed beneath the talents of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The easy explanation for why Hawthorne chose to “degrade his pen into a party tool” is that he 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 quickly volunteered to write “the necessary biography,” seemingly as a gesture of friendship. In the book’s preface, he explained that he was “so little of a politician” that he could hardly “call himself the member of any party.” As such, he was entirely unaccustomed to this brand of writing “intended to operate on the minds of multitudes during a presidential canvass.” The book was merely the testimonial of a friend who had known the candidate at a formative period of life.

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. And Hawthorne was acutely aware that, within the workings of 19th-century party politics, being serviceable to a victorious cause could come with handsome rewards in the form of a lucrative government office. 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?” Pierce’s supporters had given him the hopeful moniker, “Young Hickory of the Granite Hills,” but his accomplishments in life seemed a far cry from those of Andrew Jackson (“Old Hickory”), whom the name invoked. Though Pierce had served in the Congress and the Senate (being the youngest man yet elected to the latter body), he had hardly distinguished himself and had little reputation beyond his native New Hampshire. There, he had risen quickly in politics, in part through his charm, but mostly by virtue of being the son of Benjamin Pierce, a Revolutionary War hero and former governor of the state. 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’s superiors ordered him 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. Pierce’s brigade was present for the climactic battle of Chapultepec, but Pierce himself was conspicuously absent, suffering terribly from Montezuma’s revenge in the sick ward.   

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 famous 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, at least not the kind that has tormented generations of high-school students trying to get through The Scarlet Letter. But it is a kind of literary invention, one that anyone who has come across a recommendation for a so-so student (which, incidentally, Pierce was) will recognize. As Hawthorne told a friend after finishing the book, “though the story is true, yet it took a romancer to do it.”

“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. Hence, if Pierce wasn’t quite “distinguished for scholarship” in his early years at Bowdoin, Hawthorne assured readers that he worked hard to rise in his class rankings “without losing any of his vivacious qualities as a companion”; if he didn’t initially “give promise for distinguished success” as a lawyer, he had eventually become an able advocate at the New Hampshire bar.

So, too, with Pierce’s congressional and military records. 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.” So unobtrusive was Pierce in Congress that even Hawthorne must admit that had Pierce been a bit more ostentatious of his “genuine ability” while in Congress, “it would greatly have facilitated the task of his biographer.” 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 of men. In one exchange, he convinces his superior officer and opponent in the presidential race, Gen. Scott, to allow him to fight on in spite of his injured knee. When Pierce’s second fainting spell seems to bear out the wisdom of Scott’s original order, Hawthorne notes that the fall came “within full range of enemy fire.” Thus, if he went down “faint and insensible,” he at least did so valiantly.

Yet burnishing Pierce’s political and military background was only part of Hawthorne’s charge in writing the book. In addition to a testimony to Pierce’s character and mettle, Hawthorne also needed to produce a document that would reveal him as 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, however blurry his background, 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. Any indication that Pierce’s sympathies did not lie with the preservation of slavery would cause the party’s Southern wing to bolt and potentially open a path to victory for Scott. At the same time, emphasizing Pierce’s status as a doughface threatened to push anti-slavery Democrats into the splinter Free Soil Party, fracturing the party in the North.

Hawthorne found a solution in deftly playing up Pierce’s longstanding support for the South while shaming any Northerners who would place their opposition to slavery above the preservation of the party and the Union. Noting Pierce’s support as a Congressman for the so-called “gag rule” that automatically tabled any anti-slavery petitions that came before Congress, Hawthorne added that Pierce had “dared to love …. his whole, united, native country” over “the mistiness of a philanthropic theory.” More recently, Pierce had given his undying support to the Compromise of 1850 and its controversial Fugitive Slave 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.

Reviews of the book were mixed, with opinions tending to split along party lines, but Hawthorne found the reaction from his fellow New England writers particularly negative. His politicking was unseemly enough, yet the fact that it included such forceful and sincere condemnation of abolitionism made it far worse. In a year that saw the wild success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and impassioned opposition to the fugitive slave law, Hawthorne was moving against the stream of sentiment within the literary community. The abolitionist minister Theodore Parker noted that Hawthorne’s statements made him one of the two “men of Genius in this age” (the other being the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle) to come out “on the side of slavery” and “the enemies of mankind.” In a letter to a friend Hawthorne admitted that “the biography has cost me hundreds of friends, here at the north … in consequence of what I say on the slavery question.” For the trouble, he added, “Pierce owes me something.”

Hawthorne was no stranger to the political spoils system, having famously been given the post of surveyor at the Salem Custom House by Democratic friends in 1846 only to be turned out by Whig foes in 1849. When Pierce carried all but four states in the election, Hawthorne returned to the right side of the spoils. The book had made him into a regular party functionary, and while Hawthorne contemplated different diplomatic posts he might take, friends and relations crawled out of the woodwork seeking his influence with the new president. Among the supplicants lobbying for Hawthorne’s help in finding their own jobs in the Pierce administration was Herman Melville, still down on his luck after the supreme flop of Moby-Dick the previous year. Unfortunately, there were limits to Hawthorne’s sway; he was able to find an aged uncle work as a repairman at the Salem Custom House, but his efforts yielded nothing for Melville.

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.” Dignity aside, it was a lucrative one that promised to make up for the meager financial rewards of writing. In addition to paying a regular salary, the post also came with a cut of American shipping that went through the port. Hawthorne may have welcomed the income, but it came at a high cost. He struggled to balance his diplomatic work with his writing and seven years passed before his next work, The Marble Faun. Meanwhile, at home, Pierce did not rise to the office of the presidency, as the biography’s theme of development suggested he would. 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. It was a story that Hawthorne hadn’t imagined from his safe distance in England and later Italy, though it was one that his friend Pierce had at least some role in making during his single term in office. 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.

Correction, Sept. 17, 2012: This article originally referred to Franklin Pierce as the 13th president of the United States. Pierce was the 14th president. (Return to the corrected sentence.)