You would be hard-pressed to find many comparisons between Franklin Pierce, 14th President of the United States, and Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. Most historians agree that Lincoln is probably the greatest President in American History; a similar amount of historians usually rank Pierce as one of the worst. Lincoln guided the country through Civil War and to victory; the policies of Pierce’s Administration helped divide the nation and make Civil War a reality. Despite being born in the South, Lincoln fought during every minute of his Presidency to keep the Union together; Pierce, born and raised in New Hampshire, was a “doughface” (a Northerner with Southern sympathies), and close friends with Confederate President Jefferson Davis who served as Secretary of War in Pierce’s Administration. Lincoln died just days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and was immediately considered a martyr by the American public after his death. After dispersing a crowd that angrily gathered in front of his home following Lincoln’s assassination, Franklin Pierce went back to doing what he had done since leaving the White House in 1857 — drinking himself to death.
There is one thing that links these two men beyond the fact that they were both Presidents during the most divisive period in American History — tragedy. In the exclusive fraternity of American Presidents, it’s impossible to find two more melancholy individuals than Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln battled deep depression throughout his life and, as a young man in Illinois, Lincoln admitted that he contemplated suicide at times. During his career as a lawyer riding the Illinois court circuit, Lincoln’s friend Joshua Speed recalls the future President remarking “If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode that I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”
What troubled Lincoln is difficult to pinpoint. Before he married Mary Todd, Lincoln was romantically interested in Ann Rutledge, the daughter of a New Salem, Illinois tavern owner. Lincoln was a frequent visitor to the Rutledge home and was devastated when Ann died of typhoid fever in 1835. William H. Herndon — Lincoln’s longtime law partner and one of the first biographers of Lincoln — acknowledged that the future President loved Ann Rutledge and that the grieving Lincoln was suicidal in the days and weeks following Ann’s funeral. Five years after Ann Rutledge’s death, Lincoln and Mary Todd were engaged, and the couple married in 1842. Mary had a terrible temper and her mental condition was so tenuous that her son, Robert, finally had her committed to an asylum after President Lincoln’s death. Mary was a lot of things that Lincoln was not — short, overweight, confrontational, insecure, and temperamental. The marriage was rocky at times, but Lincoln was passionately defensive about charges against his wife. When Mary lost control and screamed at Lincoln or charged the President with jealous accusations, Lincoln walked away from the fights and always returned to check on Mary’s condition once she cooled down. For a President trying to save his country from destruction, these personal domestic crises had to be taxing on Lincoln.
To find a bright spot somewhere, Lincoln turned to his children for solace. Lincoln’s four sons were all born in Springfield, Illinois with Robert Todd Lincoln leading the way in 1843. By the time of Lincoln’s Presidency, Robert was an adult attending Harvard and he spent the last months of the Civil War on the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant. The second son, Edward Baker Lincoln, was another source of sadness for the Lincolns. Edward died at the age of four; an event that left Mary on the brink of breakdown and pushed Lincoln to cherish the next two children, Willie (born in 1850), and Tad (born in 1853). As President, Lincoln was horrified by dispatches describing the ongoing Civil War, tried to shut out the distractions caused by his unstable wife, and discovered happiness only in those moments where he could play with Willie and Tad.
Willie Lincoln was dedicated to his love for books, much like his father, and it was no secret to anyone that Willie was the President’s favorite child. Tad was more rambunctious, always into joking and playing around, and Lincoln took great satisfaction from Tad’s affinity for dressing up like the soldiers who protected Washington and the White House from the rebel forces. Like the Biblical Job, however, Lincoln had to face adversity while persevering relentlessly towards his goal. In February 1862, Willie Lincoln took ill after riding his beloved pony in chilly weather. Doctors ordered bed rest and Willie rallied at first, but on February 20th, he died from what is thought to be typhoid fever. The Lincolns were devastated, Mary was inconsolable and shut herself off from the world for three weeks. Lincoln worried about Mary while also nursing his youngest son, Tad, who came down with the same illness that killed Willie and was in critical condition himself. Tad recovered, but Lincoln was at times overcome by sadness. Every Thursday for several weeks, Lincoln locked himself in the Green Room of the White House, the room where Willie’s body had been laid out and embalmed after he died, and cried for his lost son.
Throughout his life, Lincoln had loved few things more than reading Shakespeare out loud to family and friends. After Willie died, the President’s voice would break with emotion and his eyes would be flooded by tears when he recited these lines from King John:
And, father cardinal, I have heard you say
That we shall see and know our friends in heaven
If that be true, I shall see my boy again
Though he never shrank from his responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief in the midst of a brutal Civil War, Lincoln confided to others that Willie’s death “showed me my weakness as I had never felt it before.” Only once more did he feel a pinch of unrestrained happiness and that was on the day that he truly considered the Civil War to finally be over — April 14, 1865. That night, John Wilkes Booth ended Abraham Lincoln’s suffering.
It was Willie Lincoln’s death in the White House in 1862 that brought Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln the closest that they would ever be. Men of different political parties, different backgrounds, and different viewpoints on the biggest issue of the day; they were as far apart politically as they were in physical appearance. Lincoln was described by even his closest friends as “ugly” and his opponents likened him to a “baboon”. Lincoln wore the same old suit constantly, he rarely took the time to comb his hair, and he didn’t care what people thought of his “style”. Franklin Pierce looked like a Roman statue come to life. Pierce had long, curly, jet-black hair that he combed over the side of his forehead, he dressed impeccably, and one historian calls him “perhaps the most handsome President”. Even President Harry Truman — a vicious detractor of Pierce’s Presidency — called Pierce “the best-looking President the White House ever had” and suggested that he “looked the way people who make movies think a President should look”.
Behind those looks, however, was a man who was as unsuccessful at fighting depression as he was at fighting alcoholism. Franklin Pierce was ambitious and rose to the Presidency at a younger age than any of his predecessors. His ambition, however, strained his marriage with Jane Means Appleton, who hated politics and hated Washington, D.C. Pierce didn’t help the marriage by not consulting with Jane before undertaking a life-changing experience such as accepting the Democratic nomination for President in 1852. Jane had heard that Franklin was being considered as a compromise choice by the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, but believed that he had no chance against better-known names such as James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, and Stephen A. Douglas. While out for a carriage ride in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a rider galloped up to the wagon carrying the Pierces with the news that Franklin had won the Democratic nomination. Franklin smiled excitedly, but Jane nearly passed out. Pierce had promised that he was done with politics, that they were done with Washington forever, and now it was a near-certainty that he would be elected President of the United States.
Like the Lincolns, the Pierce family had lost two sons at young age. The first born, Frank Jr., died as an infant, and their second son, Franklin Robert Pierce, died at the age of four. Their son Benjamin was their only surviving offspring, and they devoted all of their parental love to Bennie. In times of the deep depression that both Franklin and Jane suffered from, both parents could turn to Bennie for some joy and to remind themselves that not all was lost. Like his mother, Bennie was shy and unhappy about a potential move to Washington. Shortly after Pierce won the Democratic nomination, Bennie wrote his mother: “I hope he won’t be elected for I should not like to be at Washington. And I know you would not be either.” The hopes and prayers of his wife and his son were in complete opposition to those of Franklin Pierce. He wanted, more than anything, to be President. On Election Day, he was granted his wish as he trounced General Winfield Scott on won the Presidential election.
While Franklin prepared to take the reins of the country, Jane and Bennie prepared for the dreaded move into the White House in Washington. Jane tried her best to project some happiness for Franklin’s sake, and she found some assistance from her religious devotion. As 1853 began, the Pierces prepared for the move to Washington, D.C. and left New Hampshire in January, deciding to stop in Massachusetts for visits with family and friends before arriving in Washington for the inauguration scheduled on March 4th.
On January 6, 1853, a train carrying the young President-elect, his wife, and their only surviving son left Andover, Massachusetts. Just a few minutes after departing Andover, the passenger car detached from the train and rolled down an embankment. None of the passengers including Franklin Pierce and his wife were injured except for one person. In front of his horrified parents, 11-year-old Benjamin Pierce was thrown from the train and was nearly decapitated as his head was gruesomely crushed. Bennie Pierce was killed instantly, and his parents would never be the same.
Less than two months later, Pierce was sworn in as President. The only President who memorized his inaugural address and recited the speech without notes, Pierce started by telling the crowd in front of the U.S. Capitol, “It is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.” Traumatized by Bennie’s death, Jane refused to continue any further towards Washington than Baltimore. Pierce had to face the Presidency and the mourning period for their son without his wife. As he told the American public in his inaugural address, “You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me with your strength.”
When Jane finally arrived at the White House, she still didn’t make much of an impact. People referred to her as “the shadow of the White House” and she frequently closed herself off in an upstairs bedroom where she wrote letters to her dead children and stuffed them in a fireplace. Jefferson Davis’s wife, Varina, often substituted as White House hostess. In a way, Jane indirectly blamed her husband for Bennie’s death, claiming that God took Bennie from them so that Franklin would have nothing distracting him from his goals and accomplishments. When Jane died in 1863, Pierce’s closest friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, said that she was never interested in “things present”.
Franklin’s “accomplishments” were not much. He had a difficult time saying “no”, and often agreed to go along with the last person he talked to before making a decision. Pierce was indeed absent of distractions, but he needed some. The country was being torn apart by the slavery question and the Kansas-Nebraska Act inflamed tensions; it was no longer a matter of debate — in some places, open warfare was breaking out. The President found his distraction came in the form of a bottle. President Pierce was an alcoholic and in 1856, his own party refused to consider him for re-election. As his term ended at the beginning of 1857, Pierce said, “There’s nothing left to do but to get drunk.” He lived by that motto until his drinking finally killed him in 1869.
During Franklin Pierce’s retirement, he spoke out against Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War itself. Some called him a traitor, and even his close friends snubbed him. When Pierce’s friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, died, he wasn’t even allowed to be a pall bearer as Hawthorne requested. But despite their many differences, Lincoln found himself in a place that only Franklin Pierce knew — mourning a lost child and worrying about an unstable wife while running a divided country. A few weeks following Willie’s death, President Lincoln received this letter:
Concord N. H.
March 4 1862
My dear Sir,
The impulse to write you, the moment I heard of your great domestic affliction was very strong, but it brought back the crushing sorrow which befel me just before I went to Washington in 1853, with such power that I felt your grief, to be too sacred for intrusion.
Even in this hour, so full of danger to our Country, and of trial and anxiety to all good men, your thoughts, will be, of your cherished boy, who will nestle at your heart, until you meet him in that new life, when tears and toils and conflict will be unknown.
I realize fully how vain it would be, to suggest sources of consolation.
There can be but one refuge in such an hour, — but one remedy for smitten hearts, which, is to trust in Him “who doeth all things well”, and leave the rest to —
“Time, comforter & only healer
When the heart hath broke”
With Mrs Pierce’s and my own best wishes — and truest sympathy for Mrs Lincoln and yourself
I am, very truly,
The melancholy Presidents — so far apart in each and every other aspect of their lives — could at the very least find companionship, if not comfort, in the other’s strength through painful weakness.
I am very disappointed.
I know that a President cannot take time to honor every anniversary of everything that has happened throughout our history, but the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address is a perfect opportunity to pause and remember Lincoln, Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, the Battle of Gettysburg itself, and package all of that in a way that honors the other 150th anniversaries of Civil War-era events that take place throughout Obama’s term.
Honestly, I think it’s a a public relations decision rather than a political one. I think that President Obama doesn’t want to go to Gettysburg, make a speech, and then have it compared (likely negatively) to Lincoln’s speech. If that’s not the reason, I don’t understand what is.
(By the way, you mentioned Obama’s gifts as an orator, and he certainly has them. However, can anyone remember a truly great speech from Obama as President? There have been highlights, but when was Barack Obama’s last great speech? Both Inaugurals were disappointing. The 2008 Democratic National Convention? Maybe. Acceptance speeches at nominating conventions tend to be long and overly-clichéd. The “More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia in 2008 after the controversy with Reverend Wright? Again, it was good at times, but not his best work. Honestly, I think the last great speech that Obama gave was in New Hampshire on the night that he lost the New Hampshire primary to Hillary Clinton in January 2008. He hasn’t given a speech like that as President.)
Probably not. And it’s not so much because of Grant’s limitations but due to the fact that almost everybody would have failed in his position at that time.
In his recent biography of Grant, The Man Who Saved the Union, H.W. Brands suggested that Lincoln wouldn’t have been considered as great of a President as he is today if he hadn’t been assassinated the week the Civil War ended:
"Had Lincoln lived, the war’s end would have forced him to answer questions he had avoided amid the fighting. He would have been required to say whether emancipation implied citizenship for the freedmen; whether citizenship entailed suffrage; how far political equality, if it came to that, demanded social equality; and who would enforce the rights of African Americans against the resistance the assertion of such rights must inevitably evoke. In short, he would have been required to specify what reconstruction meant."
Since Lincoln was dead less than a week after General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, those tasks fell to Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant. It’s no surprise that Johnson and Grant are considered by many historians to be among the worst Presidents in American history, but they presided over a period that was no less difficult than the years of Pierce and Buchanan. In a way, it may have been tougher because instead of holding the nation together, Johnson and Grant had to actually put the country back together. They also had to figure out how to handle the newly-emancipated slaves, the defeated Confederates, the conquered Southern leaders, and the utter destruction in the South, which was literally occupied territory.
Johnson was a Democrat instead of a Republican and the only Southern Senator who remained loyal to the Union. He was hated by the former Confederates and he wanted to punish them. But Johnson was also a vicious racist. Obviously, these things did not come together and result in a good President. Johnson’s battles with Congress resulted in his impeachment and he was one vote away from a conviction in the Senate which would have removed him from office. From the moment that Abraham Lincoln’s heart stopped beating at 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865, Andrew Johnson had no chance whatsoever at being successful in Lincoln’s place.
Grant — who also hated Johnson (and the feeling was mutual) — got along much better with Congress and was a better man than Andrew Johnson was. He still had his troubles, but anybody in that spot at that time — including Lincoln, as Brands noted — would have struggled. Quite frankly, I don’t think Grant is as bad of a President as he has traditionally been ranked — in my Presidential Rankings last year, I had Grant ranked 30th out of 43. In fact, Grant’s reputation as President has been improving over the past 20 or so years. In 1948, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. had Grant ranked as the second worst President in history — worse than everybody except Harding, including Buchanan! In 1990, Siena College had Grant ranked 37th out of 40. But in 2010, Siena’s rankings saw Grant jump to 26th out of 43 and the year before, C-SPAN had him at 23rd out of 42. I think C-SPAN has him a bit too high and I can’t see him rising any higher then the mid-20s, but he’s certainly not one of the five worst Presidents in history. Was he a good President? No, probably not. General Grant is on the $50 bill because of his military achievements and he never truly fit in the world of politics. But I don’t think he was a bad President, either.
There are historians and doctors who have studied Lincoln’s medical history that believe that Lincoln was dying of heart disease at the time of his assassination. One doctor in particular from the USC School of Medicine wrote a paper in the 1970’s that claimed Lincoln suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome and that it was leading to fatal heart disease.
It’s impossible to say for sure. There is no conclusive medical evidence that proves anything one way or the other. Lincoln definitely aged noticeably from 1861 to 1865, but most of our Presidents age noticeably during their time in office because of the job’s difficulties. It’s especially noticeable in modern Presidents and they didn’t have to deal with anything close to Lincoln’s burdens — a country torn apart and engulfed in a bloody Civil War. Lincoln didn’t sleep well and the Presidency clearly took a toll on his health as it would have to anybody in his position at that time.
Would he have survived his term if he hadn’t been assassinated? It’s just impossible to say. His second term had just started a month before he was killed, so he had almost a full four years to go. Had he lived, his second term would have ended in 1869. Lincoln wasn’t that old when he died — he was only 56 years old. Only three Presidents in history died at a younger age than Lincoln — Kennedy (46), Garfield (49), and Polk (53) — and two of them were assassinated. Even if Lincoln was suffering from heart disease, we can’t even guess about what stage it was in and how long he could have survived. Although the war was ending when he was shot, there was still a tough road ahead for Lincoln and the country if he had survived. We simply don’t have enough information to make anything more than a guess about Lincoln’s health.
First of all, Lincoln did NOT own slaves. Not ever.
Secondly, people have argued for nearly 150 years about whether Lincoln did or did not free the slaves and whether the Emancipation Proclamation was toothless or actually had some juice behind it. It’s popular to say that Lincoln didn’t free the slaves and it is certainly arguable, but really, he kinda did. A war to preserve the Union eventually became a war to end slavery in the United States and that was a decision largely made and stuck to by Abraham Lincoln. People can and will argue and argue and argue about that point, but let’s look at it in a totally simplistic way: Slavery existed before Lincoln became President and began prosecuting the Civil War, but by the time of Lincoln’s assassination slavery basically ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, 13th Amendment, and surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox. Did Lincoln free the slaves by himself? No, but his idea of victory in the Civil War shifted considerably throughout his Administration from preservation to emancipation.
So, yeah, he kinda did.
Congratulations. I’ve been running Dead Presidents for over five years now and you have beat out a lot of serious competition to “win” the undisputed championship as the stupidest question that I have ever received.
Your question is so stupid the little “anonymous” Tumblr avatar is downright embarrassed to represent you.
(And I might as well answer your incredibly stupid question: No, I don’t think anyone is ever better off in slavery. Slaves weren’t “protected” by their owners; they were OWNED by them. You are an ignorant, paternalistic fuck and if you don’t feel stupid, you should feel ashamed.)
Abraham Lincoln was an inveterate animal-lover throughout his life. He always doted on pets and despised activities such as hunting and fishing. There are many anecdotes passed down through the years which explain his affinity for animals such as the time he helped find homes for stray kittens that he found wandering around the ruins while visiting conquered Richmond, Virginia a few days after the end of the Civil War, or the time he “pardoned” a turkey that was destined for the Thanksgiving dinner table in 1863.
Perhaps no other animal touched Lincoln as deeply as his beloved dog, Fido, though. Lincoln’s name for the golden retriever that he obtained in 1855 was derived from the Latin term “Fidelitas”, which is loosely translated as “faithful”. The Lincoln family gave Fido the run of their house in Springfield, Illinois, allowed him to sleep on couches, fed him from the dinner table, and considered him a part of their family.
When Lincoln was elected President in 1860, he worried about bringing Fido to Washington. Fido didn’t like loud noises such as cannon fire or trains, and the President-elect would be traveling from Illinois to Washington by train and greeted in every town along the way by celebratory cannon fire. With a heavy heart, the distraught Lincoln decided that Fido was better off staying in Springfield as he didn’t feel that his loyal dog could survive the long train ride to the capital. Lincoln entrusted Fido to neighbors but insisted that Fido be allowed to roam around his new home at will, eat from the dinner table, and be given lenience if he were to misbehave or make a mess. The President-elect even gave a horsehair sofa to his neighbors because it was Fido’s favorite place to sleep.
Lincoln was devastated at his separation from Fido and shortly before leaving Springfield for the last time, the President-elect took his dog to a photo studio so that Fido could sit for pictures and Lincoln could have a remembrance of his beloved golden retriever. While working in his White House office during the Civil War, Lincoln’s photo of Fido was never too far away.
When President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 and his body was returned to Springfield for burial, Fido greeted mourners at the home that the Lincolns formerly lived in. Sadly, Fido’s life ended just a year after Abraham Lincoln died and in fairly similar circumstances. In 1866, Fido met the same fate as his master when he was senselessly attacked by a drunken man with knife in Springfield. Like his master, Fido was assassinated.
While I am here, I want to share with you two really great books that I think you would enjoy as I did. I hope to find some time to grind out the full-length reviews that these titles deserve, but here are two quick recommendations.
Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (BOOK•KINDLE)
By Joseph J. Ellis (Available on June 4, 2013)
There are a handful of American authors in the 21st Century who can take some of the most familiar events and figures in our nation’s history and make them feel new and exciting and present. Joseph J. Ellis is one of them. He has already written classic, award-winning books such as Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (BOOK•KINDLE), American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (BOOK•KINDLE), His Excellency: George Washington (BOOK•KINDLE), and First Family: Abigail and John Adams (BOOK•KINDLE), among others. In Revolutionary Summer, Ellis tells the story of the dramatic summer of 1776 and it should be on your reading list for the summer of 2013.
A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War (BOOK•KINDLE)
By Thomas Fleming (Available on May 15, 2013)
Historian Thomas Fleming is so prolific that there isn’t a page in A Disease in the Public Mind listing all of his books — he’s written more than fifty of them. Like Ellis, many of Fleming’s books focus on the American Revolution era, including his best and best-known work, Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America (BOOK•KINDLE), which remains high on the list of my all-time favorites. A Disease in the Public Mind investigates not the cause, but the causes of the Civil War, in both the North and South, with Fleming’s gift for writing serious history at the pace of a novel.
I raced through both of these titles and highly recommend picking them up when they are released. And while there is never a shortage of good books out there to read, right now seems to be a particularly fortunate time for our history buffs as we’ve had some fantastic new releases in 2013 so far and some great titles on the horizon for the remainder of the years.
I sure have been getting a lot of questions lately that could easily be answered via Google or Wikipedia. Since I am a kind, helpful gentleman, I’ll answer it, though.
Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War — elected as provisional President for the first year by the provisional Confederate Congress. In November 1861, the people of the Confederacy elected Davis as their President. He ran unopposed and carried the electoral votes of all 11 Confederate states. The Confederate Presidency, like the Confederate Constitution, was largely modeled after the U.S. version. In the Confederacy, however, the President was limited to one, six-year term, so if the Confederacy had survived, Davis’s Presidency would have ended in February 1868.
As the war came to a close in April 1865, Davis and his family joined other top rebels and fled south, hoping to get out of the country instead of facing arrest and possible treason charges, which could have resulted in his execution. President Lincoln and General Grant actually hoped that Davis would make it out of the country so that the nation could work on healing rather than punishing Southern leaders. Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson had no sympathy for Davis or top Confederate officials.
Some Confederate leaders did escape to Cuba, Mexico, Canada, and Europe, but Davis was captured by federal troops in May 1865 and imprisoned in harsh conditions in Virginia for two years as federal authorities decided what to do with him. He was charged with treason, but many were calling for his release, including Northern leaders and even abolitionists who had violently opposed Davis and the Southern slave states. Many of them helped contribute to a $100,000 bond which secured Davis’s release. Charges were eventually dropped and Davis lived until 1889.
Awesome, I’m glad to hear that! I’m fortunate enough to get a ton of great books to review for AND Magazine, so I love being able to share my thoughts and make recommendations for my fellow history fans.
Everyone is welcome to connect with me on Goodreads, as well. Since I don’t always have the time to write a full-scale review on all of the books that I read, I’m going to try to remember to at least use Goodreads to post a short review (or a star rating at the very least!). I’m training myself to go to Goodreads daily so that I am consistent about it, but you’ll have to be patient with me because, as anyone who follows me on Facebook and (especially) Twitter knows, I tend to go through phases.
You made a solid choice with The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (BOOK•KINDLE). I think it was one of the best books of the year, and that’s no surprise since H.W. Brands always delivers. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it’s the best book written about Grant other than the one that General Grant wrote about himself.