14. Franklin Pierce

  • Boyhood home: Pierce Homestead, Hillsborough, New Hampshire
  • Home: Pierce Manse, Concord, New Hampshire
  • Grave: Old North Cemetery, Concord, New Hampshire

The Pierce Experience (August 28, 2009)

Things were looking up for Franklin Pierce in January 1853. He was a veteran of war, a veteran of Congress, and the nation had just elected him to become the youngest president in U.S. history. Sure, there were tough issues facing the country, and maybe his wife wasn't thrilled about the new job. But who wouldn't be excited?

Then his son was decapitated! The family was heading home from a funeral in Boston, and apparently they hadn't suffered enough that week, so their train car rolled down an embankment. Franklin was fine, wife Jane was fine, 11-year-old Benjamin was tragically shorter. At the Pierce Manse in Concord they say he was crushed, but if you get the good costumed docents at the Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough, they'll level with you: the kid was headless, and supposedly Franklin discovered this on picking up his body. He was the third Pierce child to die (the others were 3 days and 3 years) and the happy couple was, understandably, devastated. That's the big grain of salt that flavors everything thing you hear about Franklin Pierce, a reputed drunk and contender for Worst President Ever. Two months after that unfathomable mess he was running the country. Good luck with your first 100 days, Frank.

Superfriend Don (you get superfriend status by visiting a presidential site) and I got filled in on the Pierce saga with a day trip to New Hampshire last Friday, to see EVERYTHING there is to see about Franklin Pierce. It's the kind of trip that beer commercials are made of, in my mind, where the beers are all 48 oz., 8 percent alcohol by volume and calorie free. They're the kind of commericals that Franklin Pierce would appreciate, because he was raised in a bar!

That's the Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough, a fine tavern operated by Benjamin Pierce, a Revolutionary War hero, governor of New Hampshire, and, oh yeah, a backwoods hick. But he was a proud hick, and he instilled in his many progeny that great pride. Franklin, his brothers and sisters were raised upstairs, the boys in one room, the girls in another, and random passed-out strangers in the hall. It's a neat little tour, complete with costumed guides, and we got the deluxe treatment -- since we missed the first few minutes, we got a great docent to chat with us afterwards and give us all the horrific details. I've said it before, I'll say it again: Talk to your guides. They know the fun stuff, like decapitations and boozing and which souvenirs to buy (the Franklin Pierce bobblehead, which now sits on my entertainment center. Jealous? You know you are).

The interior isn't too elaborate (it was a bar, not a TGI Fridays) but it has lots of neat reproduction stenciling, a fancy parlor with some swank wallpaper (a la Martin Van Buren's house -- one of the other presidents raised in a tavern) and a "ballroom" a bit bigger than what you'd expect for a clapboard tavern built in New England in 1804. If you have those kinds of expectations. And if you do, seek help.

From there, young Franklin was off to Bowdoin College, where he would meet the lovely Jane. She was a daughter of the school president, much like "Animal House," but unlike "Animal House" there were only 13 students in his class and Jane was a Calvinist, so there was very little illicit sex on the football field. But as the saying goes, "opposites attract, and then get married for convenience and stay together even though the wife might drag her husband constantly down." It's so true! And he picked up a lifelong running buddy in Nathaniel Hawthorne, the eventual author of "The Scarlet Letter." Oh, the good times! It was like "Van Wilder" with more wool clothes.

Franklin became a lawyer (a good one) and from there leapt to politics (he was the New Hampshire Speaker of the House in his early 20s, even as his dad was serving as governor); he made it to Washington as a representative, then was picked as a senator. Jane hated D.C. and didn't go with him (he stayed in boarding houses), and he actually quit the senate after four years because she wanted him home more. So right around then it actually behooved them to have a home:

Behold the "Pierce Manse" of Concord, the only residence ever owned by our 14th president. It's a few blocks from its original location and a lot of the furniture has been replaced, but the walls are still dripping with ... uh, upper-middle class New Englandicity. Don and I got another private tour (no line at the Manse on a Friday! Go figure), which includes a walkthrough of a pretty average-looking residence and a few stories about the happy couple. They had some tragedy there (their 3-year-old died of illness in an upstairs bedroom) and did a little light entertaining, but mostly it seemed to be pretty humdrum. So boring, in fact, that Frank sprung into action as the Mexican-American war erupted. Defending New Hampshire from the hordes of Santa Ana was important business, so he got together a few hundred of his closest buddies and joined the Army. Back then, if you brought enough guys you were a general, and after distinguished service (he was injured falling off his horse) he came back home to the quiet of Concord.

That would have been the end of the story, but in 1852 the Democrats couldn't settle on a candidate, someone threw out Pierce's name (he was a veteran, a legislator and apparently hot) and the rest is sad, sad history. He started out his term on the verge of breakdown, and his wife went into hard-core religious mourning for more than a year; she also might have seen the accident as God's punishment for Franklin's political ambitions. That probably made for some light dinner conversation.

Plus he wasn't really cut out for the job. The guide in Hillsborough called him a "great mind, but not an introspective mind," and that seems to fit. Facing civil war, he crawled into the "state's rights" hole, pushing for states to set their own slavery policies. Mostly he just kind of spun his wheels, and after four years the party didn't bother renominating him (he's the only president with that distinction).

It got uglier. Jane was in failing health (she died in 1863), so he toured Europe with her and Hawthorne for a few years (you know the best way to cheer up your wife? Bring your best friend on vacation!). When they got back to New Hamphshire, he wasn't popular -- they take "Live Free or Die" seriously, and as he hadn't helped slaves live free, they were hoping he might die. His general loyalty to his buddies bit him in the ass: he kept up correspondence with Jefferson Davis, his former Secretary of War and now president of the Confederacy, and once word of the letters broke out he had to go on "vacation to Michigan" for a few weeks. He made public criticism of Lincoln's curtailing of civilliberties. And when Lincoln was shot, an angry mob turned up at Franklin Pierce's doorstep on the chance that he was in on the plot:

That's actually Franklin Pierce's Concord doorstep, believe it or not; the guide at the Manse clued us in. The house Franklin was renting -- the house he died in -- burned to the ground back in the early '90s, and nothing much has happened to the lot since. It's all weeds, next to a matress store. The mob showed up angry, but apparently Franklin gave an impromptu speech and they left cheering. We sadly don't have the text of this speech. It must have been awesome.

If there's a happy side to his later years, it's that Franklin Pierce could get back to his roots, by drinking alot. That's the other sticky thing about Pierce: he had a reputation as a drunk. Some of that was undoubtedly ginned up by his political opponents, but there is kernel of truth. They pussyfoot around the issue in Concord, but Hillsborough guides confirmed that he did enjoy the booze. He probably kept it in check when he was around Jane, but in Mexico, or Washington, or after she died, he partook of many adult beverages. There aren't any confirmed reports of him being a falling-down drunk, but he died of cirrhosis. You do the math.

He's buried in Concord at the Old North Cemetery, next to Jane and two of their kids. It's a simple marker, and if you have a tennis ball, you could stand at his grave and easily throw it into the in-ground pool of the private home abutting the cemetery. Quaint. He seems like an OK guy with some awful luck; in his case he just happened to be the president, too. The brass ring wasn't worth grabbing.

FUN PIERCE FACTS!

  • Pierce was born in a log cabin, but the site is now under a man-made lake. We would have gone, but there aren't many scuba rental places in New Hampshire.
  • His decision to tour the Caribbean with his wife after his presidency reignited his struggles with alcohol, as they signed on for a booze cruise.
  • Franklin was close friends with Daniel Webster, but at Jane's insistence he was never more than a passing acquaintance with the Devil.
  • Campaign slogan for 1852: "We Polked you in 1848, We shall Pierce you in 1852!" And they had campaign machetes -- seriously, we saw two of them. It would be slightly easier to turn out the vote if we still had campaign machetes today.
  • The New Hampshire House is one of the biggest legislative bodies in the world, with more than 400 members -- significantly more than the actual population of New Hampshire. Our tour guide at Concord actually served and let us know that you get $200 a year for your troubles, plus some mileage costs. JACKPOT.
  • Franklin often gave pro bono legal service to the Shakers. He enjoyed hanging out with them, because he found them slightly less religious than his wife.
  • His correspondence with Jefferson Davis was mostly chili recipes.
  • Though he did not get his party's blessing to run again, he did have the satisfaction of watching his replacement be the worst president ever.



One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White