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The Life of Franklin Pierce, 1852

By Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864




We have done far less than justice to Franklin Pierce's college standing, in our statement on page 16. Some circumstances connected with this matter are too characteristic not to be recorded.

During the first two years, Pierce was extremely inattentive to his college duties, bestowing only such modicum of time upon them as was requisite to supply the merest superficial acquaintance with the course of study, for the recitation room. The consequence was, that when the relative standing of the members of the class was first authoritatively ascertained, in the junior year, he found himself occupying precisely the lowest position in point of scholarship. In the first mortification of wounded pride, he resolved never to attend another recitation, and accordingly absented himself from college exercises of all kinds for several days, expecting and desiring that some form of punishment, such as suspension or expulsion, would be the result. The faculty of the college, however, with a wise lenity, took no notice of this behavior; and at last, having had time to grow cool, and moved by the grief of his friend Little and another classmate, Pierce determined to resume the routine of college duties. "But," said he to his friends, "if I do so, you shall see a change!"

Accordingly, from that time forward, he devoted himself to study. His mind, having run wild for so long a period, could be reclaimed only by the severest efforts of an iron resolution; and for three months afterwards, be rose at four in the morning, toiled all day over his books, and retired only at midnight, allowing himself but four hours for sleep. With habit and exercise, he acquired command over his intellectual powers, and was no longer under the necessity of application so intense. But from the moment when he made his resolve until the close of his college life, he never incurred a censure, never was absent (and then unavoidably) but from two college exercises, never went into the recitation room without a thorough acquaintance with the subject to be recited, and finally graduated as the third scholar of his class. Nothing save the low standard of his previous scholarship prevented his taking a yet higher rank.

The moral of this little story lies in the stern and continued exercise of self-controlling will, which redeemed him from indolence, completely changed the aspect of his character, and made this the turning point of his life.


In the dearth of other matter with which to carry on the war, the whig journals lay great stress on the responsibility which they allege against General Pierce and his political friends for the continued existence of the religious test in the constitution of New Hampshire. Since our own remarks on this subject were in type, we have examined a pamphlet, from the press of the Boston Post, in which the question is thoroughly discussed, and facts adduced which irrefragably prove the following positions, viz.:--

"That the exclusion clauses in the New Hampshire constitution were put into it in 1784, before parties had formed, and were retained in it in 1792, when the federal or whig party was in power; and that to expunge them, it requires that a convention be called, and that a vote of two thirds of the people should accept the amendments it proposes, while it is made a duty of the people to vote on the question of calling a convention every seven years:

"That the democratic journals have denounced these exclusion clauses as contrary to every principle of reason, justice, and common sense, and constantly advocated a revision of the constitution:

"That the leading democratic politicians have taken the same course in their political speeches; and instances are specified where they have, in political meetings, gone from town to town advocating a convention:

"That democratic county and state conventions have, in formal resolutions, unqualifiedly repudiated these clauses, and declared in favor of a revision of the constitution; and these resolutions are quoted:

"That so united was thought to be democratic public opinion against them, and so thoroughly was it in favor of a revision of the constitution, that its leading organ, the N. H. Patriot, October 17, 1844, declared that the universal sense of the democratic party was against them, and asserted, October 31, 1844, that it could say, with truth, there was not one intelligent member of the democratic party who was not in favor of a revision of the constitution:

"That in the convention of 1850, called to revise the constitution, Judge Woodbury and General Pierce made speeches against this test; and in a second session, after the amendments had been rejected, that they succeeded in getting the question submitted, together with another question, to the people:

"That in all these movements General Pierce actively participated: that in the canvass of 1844, he went from town to town urging a revision of the constitution, and that year was denounced by the whigs because he advised all the democratic votes to be printed in favor of a call for a convention: that in 1845, he, with others, in a democratic convention, reported a resolution, which passed, repudiating the tests: that in 1850, he labored in the convention, in both sessions, to repeal it: that in the caucus of the democrats at Concord, and in town meeting in Concord, he made speeches in favor of blotting out the test that he has uniformly, by pen and speech, denounced it as a stigma on the state:

"That the whig assertion, that the democratic party could every seven years have repealed this test 'for the last sixty years' or 'at any time the last quarter of a century,' is a enormous falsehood; for facts show that it was not until the sixth septennial period, or 1829, that the democrats obtained even a majority ascendancy: that within twenty-five years there have been two whig governors, that in 1838 their majority was but 2800, in 1843 but 1600, and in 1846 they were in a minority, and that, in a contest, they never have had the two thirds vote required to alter the constitution: and that, at the only period when amendments to the constitution have been voted on since 1792, that is, on the amendments of 1850, the democratic party lacked ten thousand votes of having two thirds:

"That whig editorials, during the canvass of 1844, previous to the convention of 1850, during the sittings of the first session of that convention, and at its second session,--all which are quoted, and the dates of which are given,--either were in opposition to the call of a convention, or threatened that, if amendments approved by them were not adopted, opposition would be made to all amendment, or endeavored to array the prejudice of the people against the convention and its amendments, on the ground that of its forty thousand dollars expense, and, forsooth, because the convention chose to pass a series of compromise resolutions introduced by General Pierce. There is the language of the whig editorials, and it speaks for itself. All this shows conclusively that while the democratic party, in a the various ways it could, was denouncing the tests and urging a convention, the whig party ats endeavoring to turn democratic action to party account. There is the record, and its force cannot be avoided. The inference is a just and a fair one--had the whig organs forgot party, the tests would have been abolished!

"Such is the conclusiveness with which the democratic party and General Pierce can be vindicated from this charge of intolerance, and such is the position of the party that makes this charge! But, setting all this aside, is it too much to invoke the candid and the patriotic, of all parties, to brand this business as disgraceful to those who engage in it; and to denounce this special appeal to a sect in religion, in order to get its members to vote a certain way in politics, as a gross violation of the spirit of our institutions, and a wanton insult alike to the intelligence and patriotism of American citizens? This desperate and unparalleled electioneering experiment, for many reasons deserves a disgraceful defeat.

"Again we ask, As truth makes its way in the track of falsehood, will not the base charge, instead of injuring General Pierce or the democratic party, recoil with fearful effect on those who utter it?"

At the town meeting in Concord, while the votes were being cast on the amendments proposed by the constitutional convention, General Pierce addressed his fellow-citizens with reference to the test. His speech is described as one which, for impassioned eloquence and power, could scarcely be surpassed; and it is difficult to imagine a stronger expression of abhorrence for the obnoxious law than is contained in the following imperfectly-reported passage:--

"Can it be possible," said he, "that the people of New Hampshire will vote to retain a feature in its fundamental law, ingrafted there under peculiar circumstances, repugnant to the plainest ideas of justice and equality, repugnant to the whole scope and tenor of the constitution, upon which it stands as a fungus--dead, to be sure, but still there, a blot and deformity, obnoxious in the last degree to the spirit of the age in which we live? How can we say that our land is the asylum of th oppressed of other countries, when we fail to extend over them the shield of equal rights, and say to them, There is the panoply under which, so far as the dearest and most sacred of all rights is concerned, you may shelter yourselves? I love and revere the faith of my Protestant fathers; but do not Martin Lawler and his countrymen, now near me, and who have this day exercised the rights of freemen, revere and cling to the faith of their fathers? Are you to tell them that they can vote for you, but are to be excluded from the privilege of being voted for? that while you tax them to maintain your government, they shall not be eligible to positions that control taxation ? Shame upon such a provision, while we boast of equal rights! I hope this provision of our constitution receives the deliberate reprobation of every man now in this hall. But if I am mistaken in this, it is due to the honor of the state, it is due to the plainest dictates of justice, that whoever may favor this test should state the reasons upon which he relies. For one, I never think of it without a deep sense of regret, and, I may add, of humiliation for my native state."


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