What was so special about President Franklin Pierce?

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Pierce County, for a variety of peculiar, if specific reasons, is named after our 14th President, Franklin Pierce.

When elected, in 1852, he was the youngest president, at age 42, thus far in US history. His presidential bio (https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/franklin-pierce/) describes his term as being during a time of “apparent tranquility.”

Pierce, a New Englander, and a northern Democrat, believed that the abolitionist movement was a fundamental threat to the unity of the nation, and hoped to ease the divisions that eventually led to Civil War by following the recommendations of southern advisers.

Pierce’s Secretary of War (comparable to today’s Secretary of State) was Jefferson Davis – soon to be the president of the Confederacy.

Thanks to Pierce’s intent to stay “neutral”, if not apologetic, regarding slavery, his administration repealed the Missouri Compromise and reopened the question of the legality of slavery in the new western territories (and soon to be states).

By most accounts, this political move inflamed the already contentious issue of slavery into an issue that framed national divisiveness to a degree rarely if ever seen in US history – until recently of course.

Pierce, again thanks to his southern advisers, believed (or at least stated) that the Constitution upheld the right to own slaves as “property”.

On another front, Pierce’s vice-president, William Rufus King, had “an ongoing relationship” (for over ten years) with America’s only unmarried (and presumably gay) president, James Buchanan, who happened to follow Franklin Pierce as president.

As a side note, former First Lady Barbara Bush was a descendant of Franklin Pierce (Pierce was her maiden name).

Speaking locally

I was born and raised in Pierce County. I graduated from Franklin Pierce High School and later attended (and even taught for a while) at Pierce College.

I started writing this article with a simple question in mind; what was so special about Franklin Pierce that we, here in Washington State, named a county, a high school and a college after him?

Washington became a state in 1889. Pierce died twenty years earlier, in 1869.

Pierce County was created (and named) by the Oregon Territorial Legislature in honor of Franklin Pierce who had just been elected President of the United States.

Other than filling in a name on a map, was there any other reason?

Like the discussion of the naming of the mountain that dominates the landscape of almost the entire state of Washington, the name of our county carries history and cultural baggage few of us know or care to acknowledge.

King County had a similar issue a few years ago, but instead of changing their name, they changed the person that the name referred to.

In one of the many ironies of history, King County was first named in 1852 in honor of William Rufus King, who had won election that year as Vice President on the Democratic ticket with President Franklin Pierce.

In 1986 the King County Council passed Motion No. 6461, which named the county to honor civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.

Perhaps Pierce County could make a similar move.

I can’t think of any historic figure with resonance with our region with a name anywhere near Pierce.

But the word “pierce” is also a verb.

I’m not convinced that “pierce” as a verb suits any place, let alone the lower Puget Sound region I call home.

Fierce County?

But how about a variation on the word “pierce”?

The word “fierce” comes to mind.

“Fierce” certainly does match how many residents around the state, especially in King County, imagine Tacoma and Pierce County.

Who wouldn’t want to graduate from a “Fierce” High School or even better, perhaps a “Fierce” College?

And “Fierce County”?

For better or worse, that certainly does align with our current reputation – and our crime statistics.

As I mentioned, I grew up in Pierce County, in what was then a predominantly rural area, known then, as now, with a not particularly healthy attitude toward government and authority figures in general.

Pierce County, as many local historians also know, has a long history of those in authority, whether in law enforcement or politics, abusing that authority.

If we changed our name to “Fierce County” few in neighboring counties would probably even notice.

How many of us know people in King County literally afraid to enter Pierce County?

I know several.

We could come up with an intriguing mascot or logo.

The mascot for Franklin Pierce High School has, for many years, been a cardinal – which is odd, since though native to North America, they are generally not found in the Pacific Northwest.

Though not seen here, cardinals are the state birds of seven states (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina).

Besides being red (hence the association with the committee that chooses the Pope) cardinals are survivors – they don’t migrate so they are fiercely territorial and have adjusted to season changes and, oddly enough hate mirrors or any reflective surfaces – and, in a perfect metaphor for our own county, have been known to get into fights with their own reflections.

In other words, the word “fierce” seems to fit them. Just as, I would argue, it fits us.

So I suggest a budget-saving editorial change, one few would notice.

On official documents we could change the first letter, or use a dab of correction fluid to change that “P” to an “F.”

Until then, if your first or last name is “Pierce” do something memorable so we can rename our county – and maybe a school or two – in your honor.