Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne met when they were about 17 years old, long before Pierce was President of the United States or Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, at Bowdoin College in Maine. They formed a friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives, and their devotion to each other caused controversy, especially in later years after President Pierce, a Northerner, supported Southern interests and remained close to Jefferson Davis. Many of Pierce’s friends, neighbors, and supporters deserted him, but Hawthorne never did. Hawthorne had written a campaign biography of Pierce in 1852 and Pierce appointed Hawthorne as the U.S. Consul in Liverpool — a position which required few duties from Hawthorne but provided him with a steady income to continue his writing.
In 1863, the Civil War was raging and former President Pierce was as unpopular as any ex-President in American history, with some even accusing him of treason and alleging that his longtime friendship with the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, suggested Pierce’s collusion with Davis’s cause. Despite that storm, Nathaniel Hawthorne had told some friends that he was planning on dedicating his latest book, Our Old Home, to Franklin Pierce. They were outraged. Hawthorne’s friends, neighbors, and publisher strongly urged him to reconsider, with many telling the author that the American people would soon turn against him, too, if he remained so publicly supportive of the unpopular former President who was seen by many as a traitor.
In the face of such backlash, it didn’t take Hawthorne long to decide on what to do. On July 2, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was entering its second day and Nathaniel Hawthorne sat down in his home, The Wayside, in Concord, Massachusetts and wrote:
TO FRANKLIN PIERCE,
AS A SLIGHT MEMORIAL OF A COLLEGE FRIENDSHIP, PROLONGED THROUGH MANHOOD, AND RETAINING ALL ITS VITALITY IN OUR AUTUMNAL YEARS,
THIS VOLUME IS INSCRIBED BY NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE.
TO A FRIEND:
I HAVE not asked your consent, my dear General, to the foregoing inscription, because it would have been no inconsiderable disappointment to me had you withheld it; for I have long desired to connect your name with some book of mine, in commemoration of an early friendship that has grown old between two individuals of widely dissimilar pursuits and fortunes. I only wish that the offering were a worthier one than this volume of sketches, which certainly are not of a kind likely to prove interesting to a statesman in retirement, inasmuch as they meddle with no matters of policy or government, and have very little to say about the deeper traits of national character. In their humble way, they belong entirely to aesthetic literature, and can achieve no higher success than to represent to the American reader a few of the external aspects of English scenery and life, especially those that are touched with the antique charm to which our countrymen are more susceptible than are the people among whom it is of native growth.
And now farewell, my dear friend; and excuse (if you think it needs any excuse) the freedom with which I thus publicly assert a personal friendship between a private individual and a statesman who has filled what was then the most august position in the world. But I dedicate my book to the Friend, and shall defer a colloquy with the Statesman till some calmer and sunnier hour. Only this let me say, that, with the record of your life in my memory, and with a sense of your character in my deeper consciousness as among the few things that times has left as it found them, I need no assurance that you continue faithful forever to that grand idea of an irrevocable Union, which, as you once told me, was the earliest that your brave father taught you. For other men there may be a choice of paths, — for you, but one; and it rests among my certainties that no man’s loyalty is more steadfast, no man’s hopes or apprehensions on behalf of our national existence more deeply heartfelt, or more closely intertwined with his possibilities of personal happiness, than those of FRANKLIN PIERCE
Passing from his room to my own, leaving to door open and so placing the lamp that its direct rays would not fall upon him and yet enable me to see distinctly from my bed, I betook myself to rest too, a little after ten o’clock. But I awoke before twelve, and noticed that he was lying in a perfectly natural position, like a child, with his right hand under his cheek. That noble brow and face struck me as more grand serenely calm then than ever before. With new hope that such undisturbed repose might bring back fresh vigor, I fell asleep again; but he was so very restless the night previous that I was surprised and startled when I noticed, at three o’clock, that his position was identically the same as when I observed him between eleven and twelve. Hastening softly to his bedside, I could not perceive that he breathed, although no change had come over his features. I seized his wrist, but found no pulse; ran my hands down upon his bare side, but the great, generous, brave heart beat no more.
14th President of the United States (1853-1857)
Full Name: Franklin Pierce
Born: November 23, 1804, Hillsborough, New Hampshire
Political Party: Democratic
State Represented: New Hampshire
Term: March 4, 1853-March 4, 1857
Age at Inauguration: 48 years, 101 days
Congresses: 33rd and 34th
Vice President: William Rufus DeVane King (1853; Died in office)
Died: October 8, 1869, Concord, New Hampshire
Age at Death: 64 years, 319 days
Buried: Old North Cemetery, Concord, New Hampshire
2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 40 of 43 [↔]
For some reason, I have always been fascinated by Franklin Pierce — even more of a fascination than my interest in other Presidents. I’ve tracked down just about every book published about Pierce dating back to the hagiographic official campaign biography that was penned by Pierce’s close friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne. I’ve written essays about the 14th President here on Dead Presidents, and I even wrote a short piece in 2004 for the New Hampshire Historical Society’s Franklin Pierce Bicentennial Commission commemorating the 200th anniversary of Pierce’s birth. Despite his relative obscurity, I think Pierce’s life story, which features many of the aspects of a Shakespearean tragedy, could be an epic Hollywood drama. But, I’m ranking the Presidents by what they did (or did not do) instead of who they were; ranking job performances, not stories. “Handsome Frank” was the darkest of Dark Horse candidates when he routed General Winfield Scott in the 1852 Presidential election, and was the youngest President up to that point at the time of his Inauguration. There were even darker shadows looming over his Presidency — personal and political. The country was heading towards Civil War and President Pierce was a Northerner with Southern sympathies. After four years where Pierce’s decisions were usually influenced by whoever the last person was that he spoke to (and that was frequently his close friend and Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, the future Confederate President), the nation wanted a better leader. So did Pierce’s Democratic Party which, in 1856, became the only political party in American history to deny renomination to a President. Unfortunately for the Democrats — and the country — Pierce was succeeded by an even worse President, James Buchanan.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: 27 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 28 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 35 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 36 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 33 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 39 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 39 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 38 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 40 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 40 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 39 of 40
Washington, D.C. was gloomy for a multitude of reasons when Jefferson Davis returned to the nation’s capital in March 1853 to join President Franklin Pierce’s Cabinet as Secretary of War. Sectional crises were flaring up throughout the United States over slavery and state’s rights. The threat of secession was spoken of in boardinghouses, the halls of Congress, and the White House. The Compromise of 1850 was hanging on by a thread and the new President was in deep mourning over the tragic loss of his only surviving child who had been killed in a railroad accident while the Pierce family was en route to Washington for the inauguration.
President Pierce is not remembered for much else besides being terribly forgettable and a poor executive during one of the nation’s most trying eras, but he put together a solid Cabinet that, to this day, is the only Cabinet to remain intact throughout an entire Presidential term. Jefferson Davis was reluctant to accept Pierce’s appointment as Secretary of War because his intention was to make another run for Governor of Mississippi in 1853. Initially, Davis respectfully declined Pierce’s nomination citing commercial pursuits, an urge to contribute to Mississippi state politics, family concerns, and poor health, but the insistence of the President and the need for another advocate for state’s rights in President Pierce’s administration eventually led Davis to relent and accept the position.
There was perhaps no one more eminently qualified to control the War Department in 1853 than Jefferson Davis — a West Point graduate who served many years in uniform, a Mexican War hero, a well-known and well-respected politician with Congressional connections and legislative skills, and a close friend to the new President. Davis’s personal abilities were also ideal for the bureaucracy that the War Department of the 1850’s had become with far-flung military outposts, frequent Indian skirmishes, political generals, supply difficulties, outdated modes of thinking and strategizing, and scores of Mexican War veterans settled throughout the ever-expanding United States.
Davis was somewhat of a visionary and his biggest asset when he was commanding troops as a soldier was his engineering and organizational ability. As Secretary of War, Davis attacked the inefficient War Department and the disorganized U.S. military with zeal and pushed forward ideas that were ahead of his time, brilliantly creative, and sometimes totally bizarre gambles which simply did not work. By bringing a fresh perspective and new school of thought to the Cabinet, Davis was able to modernize and shape the military into a disciplined and efficient machine. Some of Davis’s innovations as War Secretary made a significant impact on the Army and certainly helped prepare the military of the United States for their next conflict. Unfortunately for Davis, he was on the wrong side of that next conflict and had to face the same military that he had very recently turned into a ferocious fighting force as Secretary of War.
Davis’s tenure in the War Department was marked by the energetic efficience and frenetic pace that was a trademark of Jefferson Davis and his work ethic. Immediately upon taking office, Davis set out to relearn everything he knew about the nation’s military and the citizen bureaucracy which administered it. What he found was a tangled chain of distant frontier outposts and decrepit coastal fortifications and a force of less than 10,000 men scattered throughout the now-continental United States. The ultimate management of all commissions, paperwork, supply, maintenance, payroll, and strategic military planning landed on the desk of the Secretary of War and his War Department workforce of less than 100 men. Davis was in a position that begged for the delegation of some responsibilities, but Jefferson Davis was not one to delegate. Today, we would call Davis a micromanager and that’s exactly what he did as War Secretary (and later as the Confederate President).
One impact that Davis immediately made on the War Department was his refusal to play the patronage game long used by politicians who won elections and found themselves in power. Instead of tossing out War Department employees with differing political views and replacing them with loyal Democrats, Davis made it clear that he would retain or hire people based only on merit, not their political ideology. This caused some issues with his fellow Democrats — especially those in Congress who relied on patronage to honor debts and earn votes — and Davis ran into problems throughout his term because of his stubborn personality and constant attempts to keep the War Department as non-political as possible.
Disagreements with Congress is something that most, if not all, high-ranking government officials end up doing at some point during their careers and clashes with other government officials was also to be expected of a man in Davis’s position with Davis’s temperament. For the most part, these quarrels occurred privately and passed quickly, but the public was very aware of the long and vicious battle between Jefferson Davis, the civilian administrator of the War Department and United States Army, and Winfield Scott, the highest-ranking soldier in the nation and commanding General of the United States Army.
The feud between Davis and General Scott was not a new development fueled by President Pierce’s appointment of Davis as Secretary of War. Davis had routinely criticized Scott since the Mexican War and Scott hated Davis because of Davis’s connection to Zachary Taylor. The top two Generals during the Mexican War, Scott and Taylor were professional rivals and strongly disliked one another personally. Taylor felt Scott was heavily favored by Democratic President James K. Polk which allowed Scott to be in a position of command for some of the Mexican War’s most important battles, and that the General received too much credit for things that he wasn’t responsible for. Scott, in turn, was disgusted by Taylor’s relaxed command and tendency to dress sloppily and disregard the military’s uniform code. Although he was a Democrat, Davis was steadfastly loyal to Taylor, his former father-in-law, and openly criticized Scott on numerous occasions.
Taylor was the Whig nominee and elected President in 1848, but died in office less than two years later clearing the path for the anti-slavery Scott to make a run at the White House in 1852. It was that election that Franklin Pierce emerged as a dark-horse candidate and trounced Scott on election day. Jefferson Davis campaigned hard for Pierce, speaking in towns, writing articles, gathering endorsements, and once again criticizing Scott, using his platform to not only promote Pierce but to defend the now-deceased Taylor. In one memorable speech, Davis called Winfield Scott, “proud, petulant, vain and presumptuous”. Scott had detested Davis before the 1852 Presidential campaign and the feeling was mutual. Now, the two men had to work together in the same building and Scott also had to work with the man who had just defeated him for the Presidency, Franklin Pierce.
The Davis-Scott feud exploded almost immediately after President Pierce’s inauguration when Davis refused to approve a request for reimbursement of travel expenses that the General submitted and questioned Scott about fuzzy expenses from the Mexican War that were still unaccounted for. As they argued about money and military matters, Scott packed up his command and relocated his headquarters in New York — a move he had also made when Zachary Taylor was President and which confirmed the petulance which Davis had accused him of.
Throughout Pierce’s term, the Secretary of War and the General-in-chief of the United States Army disagreed, argued, threatened, and accused. Scott implied that he wasn’t accountable to anyone but the President, and Davis gave Scott a civics lesson on the chain of command. The letters between the two men grew longer and longer and were filled with more bitterness and resentment as the years passed. Some letters were over 30 pages long and so vicious that they likely would have forced a duel if Scott was the same age as Davis. Scott, in fact, accused Davis of trying to instigate a duel. In response, Davis taunted Scott, noting that the old General was “unwilling to act upon the sentiment which makes a gentleman responsible to any one whom he assails.” Basically, the Secretary of War was implying that his General-in-chief was a coward.
Because of their hatred for one another and Scott’s decision to set up headquarters in New York, Davis and the General didn’t see one another in person more than once or twice during Pierce’s Presidency. Still, the vitriol grew more-and-more vicious. In one of their later exchanges, Davis wrote that Scott’s “petulance, characteristic egoism and recklessness of accusation have imposed upon me the task of unveiling some of your deformities marked by querulousness, insubordination, greed of lucre and want of truth.” Scott ended his response to that attack with a taunting “what’s next?” and followed up in one of his final letters to Davis by noting “compassion is always due to an enraged imbecile.” Davis ended their long war of words by simply writing that he was “relieved from the necessity of further exposing your malignity and depravity.”
With so much time and energy spent attacking Winfield Scott, it’s difficult to imagine Jefferson Davis being effective at his job, but Davis was perhaps the most active and influential War Secretary in United States history other than Lincoln’s Civil War-era Secretary, Edwin M. Stanton. Davis embedded himself in every bureaucratic and ideological process involving the military and its future. Setting out to eliminate waste and ensure that the officers in place were the best possible choices, Davis hired people, fired people, pushed people into retirement, and was the force behind every promotion or appointment from 1853 to 1857. Much like his opposition to political patronage and reliance on the merit system, Davis disliked the Army’s seemingly corrupt and inefficient seniority system. This tradition, however, was too entrenched for even Davis to circumvent and the seniority system remained (and remains) in place.
What Davis excelled at as Secretary of War was acting upon his imaginative ideas about modernizing and reorganizing the military and the military’s strategic planning. He increased the size of the military, supplied the soldiers with better materials and more technologically advanced weaponry, redesigned uniforms and equipment, and instead of being the bureaucratic brick wall that the Secretary of War normally tended to be, Davis was actually the best advocate in Washington when it came to pushing for pensions for widows and orphans of soldiers who died in service to their country. Davis also beefed up the weapon arsenals of armories throughout the nation, improved coastal fortifications, and championed road-building on the frontier and newly-acquired territories.
In 1853, Congress assigned the War Department the task of scouting possible routes for a transcontinental railroad and Davis savored the opportunity. Four different engineering expeditions set out towards the Pacific surveying the topography and searching for the best possible route for a transcontinental railroad. Davis was excited about the reconnaissance parties because he expected the surveys to reveal a Southern route which would be ideal for railroad construction. Sectional interests surely played a part in this expectation. Davis knew that a Southern route for the transcontinental railroad would give the South a certain amount of economic leverage over Northern interests and trade, and railroad construction would encourage further growth and settlement in the slave states, which would result in more power for those states when it came to Congressional representation. Unfortunately for Davis, the reconnaissances didn’t give him the definitive answer about the transcontinental railroad that he had hoped for. While a Southern route to California through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona was possible, a Northern route appeared to be just as feasible, if not more. Political squabbles about the transcontinental railroad and the sectional crises which led to the Civil War postponed a decision on the best route until Lincoln’s Presidency, and construction on the Northern route began in the 1860’s.
As a reformer, Jefferson Davis often tried to buck tradition and approach running the military from a new direction, so it is no surprise that he was an innovator as Secretary of War. Thinking of the soldiers in the field and his own experiences during the Mexican War, Davis designed uniforms that allowed soldiers to handle weather conditions better and worked hard at trying to provide his men with rifles that were more accurate, lighter to carry, and faster to reload. When war broke out in the Crimea in 1854, Davis sent a trio of officers to Europe to observe the belligerent militaries in battle and studied everything from offensive and defensive maneuvers to supply and transportation in order to provide the United States military with the ability to study new strategic tactics and military sciences from the other side of the world.
One of Secretary Davis’s most famous innovations was the creation of the United States Camel Corps. After the Mexican War and the Gadsen Purchase gave the United States new territories in present-day Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, the military began fighting small skirmishes and wars with Indian tribes in that vast dry and arid climate. Davis lobbied Congress for an appropriation in order to purchase camels to use as an experimental regiment. Camels were better equipped to handle the desert climate, could go longer without water, and had the ability to not only provide transportation for soldiers, but also weaponry such as light infantry and cannon. Some Congressmen openly scoffed at the idea, but it wasn’t a joke. Napoleon had used camels in his Egyptian campaigns, and Arabs and Turks had long used them for military purposes. In 1856 and 1857, several dozen camels were shipped to the United States and delivered to Texas. For the most part, the camels worked extremely well. They handled rough terrain better than horses and soldiers were impressed by their strength and endurance. The problem was that camels were ill-tempered and soldiers were loyal to their horses and mules, who were less moody than the camels. Also, the camels and horses were not able to work closely together as the camels frightened the horses when in close quarters. Although the experimental Camel Corps continued after Davis left the War Department, the idea fell apart as the Civil War and the construction of railroads left the Camel Corps obsolete. With the collapse of the Camel Corps, many of the camels were sold to private owners and some escaped into the desert. As late as the 1940s, there were still reported sightings of wild camels in southern Texas.
As Secretary of War and perhaps the closest confidant of President Pierce, Davis exerted a powerful influence over the Cabinet and the government itself. Some of his fellow Cabinet members felt that Davis and the President were too close and that Davis could do no wrong in Pierce’s eyes. Pierce certainly entrusted Davis with many of the most important projects of his Presidency. When Congress passed bills to expand the Capitol and construct a massive aqueduct to supply Washington, D.C. with water, Pierce ordered all construction to be handled by Davis’s War Department.
Unsurprisingly, Davis was intimately involved with both construction efforts. After helping to design the aqueduct, Davis made a speech at the groundbreaking ceremony where he shoveled the first piece of dirt. With the Capitol expansion, Davis helped make decisions on some of the most intricate of details and even commissioned studies on proper acoustics for the Senate and House chambers. Davis also closely scrutinized the design of the Liberty statue which crowns the dome of the Capitol to this day and objected to the first two proposals for Liberty’s headgear before selecting a crown of eagle feathers shaped like a helmet “without being a helmet (for that symbolizes war) and to serve as a cap without being a cap (for that belongs to manumitted slaves).”
Jefferson Davis was undoubtedly a great Secretary of War and superb manager of his governmental department. He reorganized and modernized the military in many different ways, and helped bring innovations to the weapons the field soldiers carried and the strategies their commanders studied. Davis worked tirelessly to improve the Army and put the best qualified men in the most important positions. However, Davis’s term as Secretary of War also foreshadowed certain leadership deficiencies that crippled him as President of the Confederate States of America. Davis was quick to argue and hold grudges with those that he disagreed with professionally or disliked personally. His tendency to micromanage all aspects of his department and his inability to delegate even menial jobs to subordinates resulted in mistakes and miscalculations. And despite his creativity and ingenuity and innovations, Davis was not progressive enough as a leader to inspire change in any other manner besides pushing his ideas through with his authority and power. This resulted in political clashes and personality conflicts that haunted Davis and President Pierce throughout the entire Pierce Administration.
In 1856, the United States was descending towards Civil War and Franklin Pierce was unpopular even amongst his own party. It became clear that not only would Pierce not be re-elected, but that the Democratic Party might become the first political party in American history to deny renomination to an incumbent President. Davis was suggested by some as a potential Democratic nominee, but his loyalty to his close friend Pierce prevailed over his ambition for the highest office in the land. Plus, it seemed impossible for any Southerner to be elected at that moment in the heavily-divided nation. Pierce was a Northerner with Southern sympathies and he was being abandoned by his own party. A Southerner with Southern sympathies probably had no chance. President Pierce lost his bid at renomination and the Democrats replaced him with James Buchanan who replaced Pierce on March 4, 1857.
That same day, Jefferson Davis resigned as Secretary of War and took the oath to once again become a Senator from Mississippi. The Mississippi State Legislature had elected Davis to the Senate and rejoining that forum gave the South a powerful voice in the sectional crisis which was dividing the nation. The return to the Senate was marked by illness and difficult decisions, and just less than four years later, the United States dissolved into war.
On the morning that their term ended, Jefferson Davis paid a visit to Franklin Pierce in the White House. The men had grown very close in the previous four years. President Pierce suffered from deep depression from his numerous family tragedies and drank heavily, but his mood was almost always brightened by paying a visit to the Davis home. “May your days be many, your happiness great, and your fame be in the minds of posterity as elevated and pure as the motives which have prompted your official action,” Davis told the outgoing President and noted that he was saving copies of his correspondence with Pierce in order to give to his son “in remembrance of your much valued confidence and friendship for his father.” When Davis officially tendered his resignation to the President, Pierce took his hand and warmly told Davis “I can scarcely bear the parting from you, who have been strength and solace to me for four anxious years and never failed me.” Several hours later, James Buchanan was President, Jefferson Davis was once again a Senator from Mississippi, and Franklin Pierce was preparing to return home to New Hampshire. Their next meeting would be nearly ten years later, in Jefferson Davis’s prison cell as Davis — also an ex-President by that time — awaited trial for treason.
In The Federalist No. 72, “Publius” — Alexander Hamilton — worried about the role of retired Presidents after leaving office, asking “Would it promote the peace of the community, or the stability of the government, to have half a dozen men who had had credit enough to be raised in the seat of the supreme magistracy wandering among the people like discontented ghosts and sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess?”
Ever since George Washington set the precedent of returning to civilian life at the end of two terms, the question has remained: What do we do with our ex-Presidents? The Presidents themselves have had to face another question: What can I do with the rest of my life? Since the ratification of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1947 set a two-term limit for the President (right after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unprecedented four terms), some retiring Presidents have found themselves confronting the same problem experienced by Presidents who lost their bids at re-election. They were still relatively young, still healthy, still ready-to-serve, still focused on helping their country become a better place and, yet, Constitutionally barred from the highest office in the land.
For the first question, about what we should do with our former Presidents, Grover Cleveland had a suggestion in a letter he wrote in April 1889, “And still the question, ‘What shall be done with our ex-Presidents?’ is not laid at rest; and I sometimes think Watterson’s solution of it, ‘Take them out and shoot them,’ is worth of attention.” It’s a good thing for Cleveland that nobody took his advice seriously. When he wrote the letter in 1889, he had just turned over the keys to the White House to Benjamin Harrison, but four years later Cleveland was President again after winning the 1892 election. Oddly enough, Cleveland was actually a former President twice.
The second question is probably tougher to answer. Not only was Franklin Pierce not re-elected after the end of his term in 1856, but he was the first incumbent President to be denied renomination by his own political party. Pierce’s post-Presidency plans were not quite as admirable or idealistic as some of his colleagues in the Presidential fraternity. “After the White House what is there to do but drink?” said Pierce, and he didn’t hesitate to get started. When he died in 1869, it was years of heavy drinking which had led his health to deteriorate. Fortunately, Pierce’s retirement was the exception, not the rule.
The men who have become President of the United States are a rare breed. Undeniably ambitious and determined, after being the leader of the free world and the most powerful person on the planet it must be exceptionally difficult to be forced to retire either because of term limits or the will of the electorate. Very few one-term Presidents attempt to run for the office again and only one — Cleveland — was successful. Compounding the difficulty of a forced retirement is the fact that some former Presidents are still relatively young upon leaving office. While Ronald Reagan was a few weeks shy of his 78th birthday and content with retiring home to California, Bill Clinton was just 54 years old after his eight years in office. Theodore Roosevelt was only 50. Some Presidents are satisfied with the change-of-pace and the chance to relax after the chaos of the White House, but most still need an outlet — at the very least, they want to keep busy, but the majority of recent ex-Presidents have needed to continue to feel like they can still make a difference in the lives of people around the world. In the case of William Howard Taft, he made a difference in a different branch of government, serving as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1921-1930.
The establishment of a Presidential Library and Museum has become a tradition for American Presidents upon leaving office and every President since Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States, has built a library that houses the papers, records, and artifacts of their respective administrations. Hoover dedicated his library in West Branch, Iowa on his 88th birthday in 1962, but the first Presidential library was actually built by Harry Truman in Independence, Missouri. Truman’s library opened in 1957 and gave the energetic Missourian something to do in retirement, as he kept an office in the library and would often give tours to schoolchildren or answer the questions of museum-goers as they passed through. From time-to-time, Truman — an early-riser — would get to the library before his staff and answer phones, giving directions and surprising callers when he identified himself as the former President.
More recently, former Presidents have turned to humanitarian work, attempting to use their influence to help people in the United States and around the world. For the most part, former Presidents follow an unwritten code to not criticize or undermine the actual President. This protocol is not done solely out of respect for the office-holder, but out of respect for the office itself. Each former President knows how difficult it is to sit in that seat of power in the Oval Office and they understand how damaging it can be to be second-guessed or criticized by their predecessors. A civil relationship between President and former Presidents is essential, as a former President can be an indispensable source of advice for the current President, one of just 43 people in the history of the world who understand the current President’s position and responsibilities. The incumbent President also can call on former Presidents for their assistance with important initiatives, usually for humanitarian efforts or disaster relief.
The power of the Presidency is tremendous and it resonates around the world. Even former Presidents still have an aura of strength and influence that lasts throughout the remainder of their lives. When they die, our country stops and pays tribute to them, their funerals are national events, and their legacy continues to be debated on cable news television and in the pages of history books. That legacy can be shaped and crafted, enhanced and improved during the years of their retirement. Richard Nixon left office in 1974 after resigning in disgrace. Pardoned by President Ford a month later, it seemed as if Nixon was destined to live the rest of his life in exile at his secluded beach home in San Clemente, California. As years passed and opinions softened, Nixon emerged from San Clemente, began speaking to audiences, and traveled. Nixon’s long career had given him the opportunity to build relationships and establish connections with leaders around the world. By the time Nixon died at the age of 81 in 1994, he had become an elder statesman of sorts, dispensing advice to leading politicians about his area of expertise — foreign policy.
Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have spent their post-Presidency years focused on humanitarian work with their respective non-profit organizations, the Carter Center and the Clinton Foundation. Among the many things he’s accomplished since leaving office in 1981, Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for promoting international peace and human rights, has helped build homes through Habitat For Humanity, and has worked actively to nearly eradicate the guinea worm parasitic disease in Africa. The Clinton Foundation has focused on the global battle against HIV/AIDS, poverty in Africa, and childhood obesity in the United States. In 2004, President George W. Bush asked Clinton and his father, former President George H. W. Bush, to lead disaster relief efforts for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, President Obama asked Clinton and the younger Bush to lead relief efforts following a massive Haitian earthquake.
Still, within every politician is that itch to hit the campaign trail and run in one more campaign. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — barred from running for the Presidency again because of term limits — both said that they would have sought a third term as President if not for the 22nd Amendment. Only James K. Polk, James Buchanan, and Rutherford B. Hayes decided not to seek re-election after only four years in office. Former Presidents are often big fundraisers and much-sought-after for speaking engagements and endorsements by political candidates, particularly those running for Congress. Yet there is no political position that can replicate the Presidency of the United States to the men who have held that office, and in the 221 years since George Washington was inaugurated, only two former Presidents have held another elective office.
In 1828, President John Quincy Adams lost his bid for re-election against the popular Andrew Jackson. The 1828 election was a particularly vicious contest and a bitter Adams refused to attend the inauguration of his successor, deciding instead to return home to Massachusetts after a brief stay outside of Washington. The life of a retired Massachusetts farmer did not suit John Quincy Adams, however. In 1830, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives and headed back to Washington, D.C. Adams spent the rest of his life in Congress, the only former President elected to the House. For 17 years, Adams was a loud voice (often in the Whig minority) in opposition to Jackson, the Democrats, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, and, most of all, slavery. Adams was one of the strongest advocates for slavery’s abolition and famously won freedom from the Supreme Court for the mutinous slaves who took over the Spanish slave ship Amistad. A political animal until the very end, the man nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent” during his post-Presidential Congressional career was at his desk in the House Chamber and had just cast a vote when he suffered a debilitating stroke. When Adams died two days later, it was in the Speaker’s Room of the U.S. Capitol Building and his funeral was, fittingly, held in the House of Representatives.
Forty years after Andrew Jackson’s victory over John Quincy Adams, the beloved House of Representatives that Adams “retired to” impeached President Andrew Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act. In the Senate trial which ensued, Johnson narrowly escaped removal by office when he was acquitted with just one vote to spare. When Johnson handed over the Presidency to Ulysses S. Grant the next year, he did his best John Quincy Adams imitation and refused to attend his successor’s inauguration. Exhausted and disgusted with Washington’s politics, Johnson headed home to Greeneville, Tennessee. Much like Adams, though, Andrew Johnson was a politician through-and-through and he could not remain sidelined for long. Johnson stayed active within the Democratic Party, stumping for local candidates and speaking out in support of President Grant’s opponent in the 1872 election, Horace Greeley. Johnson was not as immediately successful as Adams. After failed attempts at the Senate in 1871 and the House of Representatives in 1872, Johnson was elected to the United States Senate in 1875 by the Tennessee state legislature. In March 1875, Johnson returned to the same legislative body that had nearly removed him from the White House just six years earlier. Johnson’s Senate career was short — he made one floor speech denouncing President Grant’s policy of Reconstruction and died after suffering a stroke during a trip home to Tennessee in July 1875.
Finding something to do in retirement is probably difficult for most people, but it must be especially difficult for former Presidents to transition from being in control of the most powerful nation on the planet to playing golf every day like Dwight Eisenhower or cattle ranching like Lyndon Johnson. LBJ’s friends feared what retirement would do to him, worrying that a man with so much energy and drive would die of boredom. Most historians believe that that is indirectly what happened with LBJ. When he retired to Texas in 1969, he started drinking again, started smoking cigarettes again, grew his hair long, and stopped watching his diet. He died of a heart attack less than four years later. While LBJ’s decision to let loose and Franklin Pierce’s descent into alcoholism weren’t great retirement plans, perhaps no post-Presidential choice was as bad for a President’s legacy as John Tyler’s. In 1861, Tyler urged his home state of Virginia to secede from the Union and served in the Provisional Confederate Congress. Tyler was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives in November 1861 but died before taking his seat, and his funeral in Richmond, Virginia took place after his body had lay in state at the Confederate Congress. For years after his death, Tyler was considered a traitor amongst Northerners and Tyler’s death was the only Presidential passing not acknowledged by the White House. As for his legacy, it wasn’t until 1915 — fifty years after the Civil War ended — that the U.S. Congress erected a monument near Tyler’s grave paying tribute to the fact that he was a former President.
There really is no right or wrong answer to what a President should do in retirement. When Richard Nixon saw Gerald Ford spending his retirement playing golf, skiing, vacationing with friends, and accepting a handful of positions on the board of directors of various companies (requiring little to no responsibility, but coming with a nice paycheck) he grumbled that there was something undignified to Ford’s post-Presidential choices. Of course, judging the dignity of another President’s choices was probably a job better left for Presidents other than Richard Nixon. But is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed or a template that should be followed in order to preserve the respect that the institution of the Presidency deserves?
Fortunately, our former Presidents instinctively tend to protect the institution of the Presidency out of respect for the office that they once held and out of self-interest because once the job actually comes to an end, the job of shaping and defining their own legacy begins. So, we usually see our former Presidents writing books and undertaking humanitarian projects rather than appearing on reality shows and battling the Undertaker at WrestleMania (although I’m not saying that I am opposed to this happening). But each President is an individual and their choices as former Presidents usually reflect the type of person they are and the interests or issues that they may have found difficult to focus on while in office due to political realities or the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week.
Disgraced by scandal and his resignation, the early years of Richard Nixon’s retirement were similar to political exile because he was seen as radioactive, even to members of his own party. Nixon’s fellow Republicans went out of their way to avoid him and downplay any connections to the former President who was considered toxic to voters. Although he would never seek political office again, Nixon worked to redefine himself — almost like the way a troubled business might re-brand itself. Focusing on his strengths (and an area where he never lost his influence), Nixon wrote books and commented on foreign policy issues, particularly on China and the Soviet Union, where his respect amongst foreign leaders never diminished. Eventually, Nixon’s expertise and advice was highly sought after by the same American politicians who wouldn’t come near him in the wake of his resignation without holding their breath for fear of being plagued by his scandalous reputation. Because of the scope of his transgressions and his spectacular downfall, Nixon would never regain the nation’s trust and wouldn’t be able to repair the dignity that was so important to him, but his active and indefatigable efforts in retirement to rehabilitate the perception of him did restore a measure of respect in his talents as an astute thinker in the field of foreign policy.
As for the retirement activities of Gerald Ford that Richard Nixon considered frivolous, it worked well for him and his health — Ford lived longer than any other President in American history, dying at the age of 93 in December 2006. Perhaps Ford wasn’t building houses for Habitat for Humanity like Jimmy Carter or schmoozing with Mao and Deng Xiaoping like Nixon, but sometimes retirement can actually mean retirement, even for former Presidents. After serving as the most powerful person in the world — a punishing job in which the President is always on-call, never on vacation, and constantly in the public eye (and sometimes the public’s bull’s eye, from critics, political opponents, and possibly even assassins) — a former President can be forgiven for seeking a little leisure. In fact, it’s more surprising that ex-Presidents don’t simply retire to Tahiti and spend their last years knocking back rum on a white-sand beach on Moorea.
As hard as they work, as many hours as they devote to their job, and as many sacrifices as they make in the name of public service, it is not undignified to a former President to enjoy themselves in retirement; in fact, it is wholly deserved. It’s also important to remember that Presidents are people and when their life in public service comes to a close, they don’t owe us anything. They’ve already given us enough. If former Presidents want to continue serving their country in retirement, we should be thankful for their devotion and selflessness. If they hope to live relatively privately and quietly in retirement, we should remain thankful of their previous service and honor it by respecting their wishes and allowing them to return to life as civilians. And if they want to play golf or take vacations or explore a leisurely new hobby like painting, we should be happy for their choices because, as Franklin Pierce said, “After the White House what is there to do but drink?”
Ulysses S. Grant, writing about his experience with Franklin Pierce during the Mexican-American War in his autobiography, The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, 1885.
Grant’s defense of Pierce’s courage was in response to rumors that had dogged Pierce following the Mexican-American War and were amplified during Pierce’s successful campaign for the Presidency in 1852. Pierce’s opponent in 1852 was Winfield Scott, who won glory as a military hero due to his service commanding the army in Mexico, and Scott’s supporters claimed that Pierce fainted in combat due to cowardice. In reality, Pierce had suffered a serious knee injury at the Battle of Contreras that was reinjured at Churubusco. To make matters worse, Pierce was also stricken by dysentery in the closing weeks of the war.
While the charges of cowardice (inaccurate) and alcoholism (significantly more accurate) leveled against Pierce by Scott’s supporters were painful and embarrassing, Pierce routed his former commanding general in the Electoral College to win the 1852 Presidential election.
Franklin Pierce, in the opening words of his Inaugural Address, March 4, 1853.
Franklin Pierce, upon learning that he was the 1852 Democratic Presidential nominee. It required 49 ballots at the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore before Pierce was finally nominated as a compromise choice.
Pierce’s wife, Jane, who abhorred politics, was even more surprised. When she learned of her husband’s nomination, she fainted.
Five Presidents have married the daughters of ministers.
The wife of John Adams, Abigail, was John’s third cousin and the daughter of Reverend William Smith, a Congregational minister in Weymouth, Massachusetts.
Millard Fillmore married another Abigail — Abigail Powers — in 1826. Millard’s Abigail was the daughter of a Baptist minister from Moravia, New York.
Fillmore’s immediate successor, Franklin Pierce, was married to Jane Means Appleton, whose father was a Congregational minister in New England, much like Abigail Adams’s father.
Benjamin Harrison and Woodrow Wilson also married the daughters of preachers and in both cases, they were the daughters of Presbyterian ministers. Harrison’s first wife, Caroline Lavinia Scott, was the daughter of an influential and well-educated minister who introduced his daughter to the future President when Harrison was a student at the college he taught at. The Harrison wedding was even officiated by Reverend Scott.
Marrying the daughter of a Presbyterian minister wasn’t tough for Woodrow Wilson. He himself was the child of a minister of that faith and his marriage to Ellen Louise Axson in 1885 was performed by Wilson’s father and Ellen’s grandfather (another Presbyterian minister!) due to her father’s failing health.
I think I mentioned it earlier, but I feel like there’s a really interesting (and tragic) story around Franklin Pierce, and Johnny Depp would be perfect to play him. They even have the same hair.
Unfortunately, I’m almost certainly the only person in human history to suggest a Franklin Pierce biopic.
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.
There is peril to power and danger in ambition. They called him “Young Hickory of the Granite Hills” and “Handsome Frank”. He looked like a poet and lived a Shakespearean tragedy. He was intelligent and eloquent, with top-notch oratorical skills and impressive charisma. Unable to resist the political opportunities that opened up to him, Franklin Pierce’s trajectory from New Hampshire lawyer to 14th President of the United States was so steep that he couldn’t fathom the ramifications of his quick rise. In fact, by the end of his life, it seemed Franklin Pierce had made a Faustian bargain — he gave up his world, ruled the nation, and ended up drinking himself to death and dying alone.
Franklin Pierce was haunted in the White House by personal demons and national difficulties. Stunningly elected over Mexican War hero Winfield Scott, Pierce was just 48 years old when he took the oath of office in 1853, and for four years he barely presided over a divided nation that burst apart into Civil War just four years after he left office. Throughout his term, he was shadowed by the weight of his political aspirations, the menace of alcoholism and depression, his own malleable nature, and the madness of a grieving wife who despised politics and blamed Pierce for the many tragedies which had befallen their young family.
Pierce was strikingly handsome, with dark, pained eyes and trademark, jet-black hair that was long, curly, and swept over his forehead. In photographs of Pierce, he almost exudes sadness, as if he were some pale, gothic specter sprung from the pages of an Edgar Allan Poe story. And that’s without even knowing Pierce’s history.
Born exactly 207 years ago today, November 23, 1804, Pierce was the son of a Revolutionary War veteran and New Hampshire Governor, Benjamin Pierce. The only President born in New Hampshire, Pierce grew up in the Granite State and went to school at Bowdoin College in Maine where his classmates included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the person who would become Pierce’s best friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne. After graduating from Bowdoin, Pierce practiced law in Hillsborough, New Hampshire before being elected to the New Hampshire General Court — the state legislature — in 1829.
Just 25 years old when he entered the statehouse, Pierce skyrocketed from there. At 27, he was elected Speaker of the General Court of New Hampshire. At 29, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives — at the time, Pierce was one of the youngest Congressmen elected in American History. In 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton, the sister-in-law of one of Pierce’s instructors at Bowdoin. Jane hated politics, but loved her husband and believed Pierce when he urged her that politics was a temporary phase in his young life.
She probably should have known better. The Pierces’ honeymoon was a trip to Washington, D.C. so Pierce could return to work representing New Hampshire in Congress. Their first home was a crowded boardinghouse in swampy Washington, D.C., a horse-trading post for politicians, as well as a city full of slaves and slaveowners — anathema to Jane, a New Englander. Jane didn’t last long in Washington; she returned to New Hampshire while Pierce served out his term in Congress. In 1836, Jane gave birth to their first child, but the infant died several days later and the Pierces were devastated by the loss.
Franklin remained in Washington and began drinking heavily. Always a social drinker, Pierce was well-known for being a fun companion. His company was well-regarded and sought out at parties and political events in Washington while Congress was in session. Along with being outgoing, Pierce had an addictive personality and an aversion to saying no. When he later became President, it was said that Pierce’s decision would match the argument of whoever the last person was to speak to him. In the heavy-drinking days of Jacksonian-era Washington, Pierce was not one to hold back. Some people even openly worried about whether Frank Pierce had a drinking problem.
Besides alcohol, Pierce was driven by his ambition. His grief over the child that he and Jane had lost was tempered by news that he had been elected to the United States Senate, taking office in 1837 at the age of just 32 years old. During his five years in the Senate, Pierce showed himself to be a strong Democrat and a “doughface” — a Northerner with Southern sympathies. Pierce voted with Southerners on many issues related to slavery and ignored the abolitionists who made up the majority of his constituency in New Hampshire. Pierce, however, was popular among people in New Hampshire and extremely popular among his colleagues in Congress. The young Senator was a rising star.
While his political career grew, his personal life was troubled. Pierce was blinded by ambition and accomplishments. His wife was frequently ill and her health became worse anytime she visited Pierce in Washington. As Pierce was making a name for himself in the Senate, Jane began wishing that he would leave politics altogether, worrying that if his workaholic manner didn’t kill him, his increasingly alcoholic lifestyle would. The birth of two children — Frank in 1839 and Benjamin in 1841 — helped Jane’s spirits, but also gave her a good platform on which to argue her case. After Bennie’s birth, Franklin Pierce caved in to his wife’s demand and promised to quit politics forever. In 1842, the 37-year-old Pierce resigned from the Senate and moved back to New Hampshire to practice law.
Jane was ecstatic, happy, and her health improved quickly upon Pierce’s return to New Hampshire. Pierce was depressed, but he kept his promise and even refrained from drinking for quite a while. The pull of politics was alluring. Pierce participated in local and state party politics, helping choose Democratic candidates in New Hampshire and even making speeches in support of candidates in districts throughout the state. Still, Pierce impressively turned down an appointment by the Governor to return to the U.S. Senate in 1845. Franklin and Jane’s son, Frank Robert, had died in 1843 and Pierce kept his promise to his wife. When President James K. Polk offered to nominate Pierce to join the Cabinet as Attorney General, Pierce turned Polk down, as well. Pierce continued practicing law and still kept his promise about not leaving to re-enter political life.
Instead, he went to war.
When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, Pierce immediately began working to gain a commission as a military officer. Jane, of course, didn’t know anything about it and would have strongly objected as Pierce the soldier was an even worse idea to her than Pierce the politician. When Pierce was offered to be commissioned as an infantry colonel, the ambitious future President held off on accepting the position — and on notifying his wife. When he was commissioned a brigadier general, he finally accepted — but still didn’t tell Jane, writing to his friend Congressman Edmund Burke, “My purpose is fixed…although I have not yet broached the subject with my wife.”
Pierce’s military record is blurry. His political opponents labeled him a “coward” and claimed that he fainted in battle, which he did. However, Pierce’s soldiers revered him and explained that his fainting came from a severe knee injury that Pierce ignored while leading his men and succumbed to during the battle, yet refused to allow his men to evacuate him to safety until the battle was over. When Pierce finally returned home to New Hampshire, it was with a reputation as a war hero — and war heroes tend to become political icons.
Pierce knew that he could easily be elected Governor of New Hampshire upon his return to the Granite State, but he promised his wife that he was done with politics, and he continued to resist breaking that promise. However, as happy as it was making his wife, it was tearing him apart. Still active in state and local politics, Pierce was jumping at any chance to be involved. He knew that he had promise as a politician, but he had the promise not to be a politician holding him back.
In 1852, Franklin Pierce could no longer resist.
As Democrats prepared to nominate a Presidential candidate in 1852, the New Hampshire Democratic Party put forth Franklin Pierce as a “favorite son” candidate. For the most part, favorite son candidates are not serious candidates. The favorite son is more of a parliamentary procedure, used to hold and shift delegates from one major candidate to another. Pierce wasn’t seen as a legitimate candidate for the Presidency. After all, he had been out of elective office for ten years and had shown no indication that he would re-enter public life due to his promise to his wife.
Along the way to the Democratic National Convention in June in Baltimore, Franklin Pierce worked quietly to break his promise and promote his candidacy. Jane had no idea what was going on, but Franklin Pierce was no longer sitting on the sidelines and he was no longer interested in being a place-holder for delegates. As the convention approached, Pierce was being touted as a potential compromise candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
The favorites in Baltimore were James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, and Stephen Douglas. On the first day of voting at the convention, no candidate was able to clinch the nomination. By the next night, the convention had held thirty-three ballots without agreeing on a nominee. Franklin Pierce sat at a telegraph office in Concord, New Hampshire and followed the deliberations of the convention as news was reported. The convention remained deadlocked for the next several days as Pierce nervously awaited word on whether his name had been introduced as a compromise.
On June 5, 1852, Franklin and Jane went for a carriage drive outside of Boston, where they had traveled the day before. Jane had no idea what was going on in Baltimore and Franklin didn’t let on that he had knowledge of anything unusual happening at the Democratic Convention. As the carriage was winding through the woods of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a messenger on a horse rode towards the Pierces. “Sir,” the rider exclaimed to Pierce, “the Democrats have nominated you for President!”. Pierce excitedly shouted his appreciation and smiled while his wife, who had no idea that her husband was a candidate for anything let alone the Presidency, fainted.
Pierce had become a compromise candidate at the Democratic convention — someone who everyone could unite behind once the major candidates became deadlocked. On the forty-ninth ballot, the exhausted delegates in Baltimore nominated Pierce for the Presidency. Jane openly prayed that he would be defeated, but Pierce faced his old Mexican War commander Winfield Scott, who was hindered by a weakened Whig Party. On election day, Pierce trounced General Scott, 254-42 in the electoral college.
Franklin Pierce’s victory in November 1852 was an astonishing rise for a dark horse compromise candidate who had been retired from national politics for the previous decade. In the Pierce Homestead, the change was stunning and Jane Pierce dreaded the fact that her family was now going to have to return to dreary Washington and become the center of the American political world. During the campaign, 11-year-old Bennie Pierce — the only surviving child of Franklin and Jane — wrote a letter to his mother. Bennie was doted on by his parents. Both Franklin and Jane had been genuinely devastated by the losses of their first two children — the infant Franklin Jr. in 1836 and four-year-old Frank Robert in 1843. In Bennie’s letter to Jane, he worried about the fact that his father might become President. “I hope he won’t be elected,” Bennie wrote, “for I should not like to be at Washington. And I know you would not be either.”
On January 6, 1853, the President-elect and his family were traveling on a train outside of Boston. The train derailed and rolled down a hill, but almost no passengers were injured — except for a young boy. Bennie Pierce was thrown from the car, nearly decapitated and killed when his head was crushed while his horrified parents watched. Jane Pierce took Bennie’s death as a sign that God was removing all distractions from her husband’s path so that he could focus on his duties as President. This did not help her feelings about political life. Franklin took Bennie’s death as a sign that God was punishing him. This did not help his depression or ability to govern.
Jane didn’t know that Franklin Pierce had broken his promise and willingly returned to politics. After his nomination by the Democrats, Franklin insisted that he was simply a compromise candidate and had no choice in the matter. After his election, Franklin claimed that it was his duty as a public servant and a patriot to fulfill the wishes of the American electorate and serve as their President. The week of Pierce’s inauguration, Jane found out that Pierce had broken his promise and outright lied to her. Not only had he re-entered political life, but had actively worked to earn the nomination and be elected President. Jane — already in precarious physical and mental health due to Bennie’s gruesome death — became bitter and angry at Franklin, directly blaming him for the death of their only child.
On March 4, 1853, Pierce was inaugurated as the 14th President of the United States. Pierce was the first President to ever “affirm” his oath of office rather than swear it, and placed his hand on a law book instead of the customary Bible. A strong speaker with a prodigious memory, Pierce was the only President in American History who memorized his Inaugural Address and spoke without notes. Addressing his personal tragedy, Pierce also foreshadowed an insecurity in his own abilities as he began his speech, “It is a relief 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.” In one of the more candid comments ever made in a President’s Inaugural Address, Pierce told his fellow Americans, “You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me by your strength.”
Pierce’s Inaugural Address, though, went on to set the tone for his Administration. Pierce, who was the son of a Revolutionary War veteran who fought for independence and someone who grew up in New England, the cradle of the abolitionist movement, clearly stated his support for the institution of slavery. “I believe,” Pierce said, “that involuntary servitude, as it exists in different States of this Confederacy, is recognized by the Constitution. I believe that it stands like any other admitted right…I fervently hope that the question (of slavery) is at rest.”
President Pierce built a Cabinet which was dominated by one of his closest friends — the Secretary of War, who happened to be future Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Pierce had a reputation for being pliant, and his support for Southern institutions made him deeply unpopular in his native North. As sectarian violence spread throughout the United States due to pro-slavery and free-soil advocates clashing over newly admitted territories, Pierce remained unmoved. A bloody mini-Civil War broke out between the opposing sides in the Kansas and Nebraska Territory, but Pierce did nothing, holding to his definition of federal power which limited government intervention in the matters of individual states.
While his nation was being torn apart, President Pierce’s home was a dark, gloomy place. If other First Ladies made their mark with their style and designs, Jane Pierce decorated the White House with melancholy. Dressing in her black mourning clothing throughout her husband’s term, Jane mainly stayed in an upstairs bedroom of the White House Residence, writing letters to her dead children and burning them in the fireplace. Most White House events were hosted not by Jane, but by Varina Davis, the wife of the Secretary of War and the future First Lady of the Confederacy. Pierce, for his part, barely tried to cheer his wife up. In fact, Pierce spent most of his Presidency depressed and fighting a losing battle against alcoholism.
In 1856, Pierce became the first — and, to this day, only — elected President in American History who was denied renomination by his own party. The Democrats knew that Pierce was deeply unpopular in the North and his support in the South wasn’t strong enough to carry him to victory throughout the rest of the country. Pierce had hoped to be renominated, but there was no chance. When he left office in 1857, the United States was in drastically worse shape than it had been upon his inauguration four years earlier.
When Pierce turned over the White House to his successor, James Buchanan, an observer noted that Pierce left office as “a staid and grave man, on whom the stamp of care and illness was ineradicably impressed.” Pierce put it more simply, saying that “There’s nothing left to do but to get drunk.” For a while, retirement wasn’t too bad. Pierce and Jane traveled to Europe and Jane’s health improved quite a bit from its low point during her time in the White House. Jane, however, died in 1863 and Pierce was lonely and bored.
Two friendships continued throughout his retirement. Pierce’s closest friend was the legendary author Nathaniel Hawthorne — a classmate at Bowdoin who wrote Pierce’s campaign biography in 1852 and was appointed U.S. Consul in Liverpool during his friend’s Presidency. After Pierce left the White House, Hawthorne remained loyal — even as Pierce’s popularity continued to plummet and the former President’s support for the Union was questioned. Pierce was at Hawthorne’s bedside when the author died in 1864 while he and Pierce were on vacation in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Pierce was devastated by his friend’s death and even more deeply hurt when Hawthorne’s family and friends refused to allow the unpopular former President to act as a pallbearer at Hawthorne’s funeral.
By the time of Hawthorne’s funeral, Pierce was practically despised in the North — even in his home state of New Hampshire. The famous abolitionist and author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, called Pierce an “archtraitor”. It wasn’t merely his “doughface” views that caused the hostility towards Pierce. The former President’s other closest friend was Jefferson Davis, the leading voice for Southern secession, Pierce’s Secretary of War, and the President of the Confederate States of America. Pierce and Davis had been friends for decades by the time the Civil War broke out, but the friendship continued throughout the war. In 1860, Pierce had recommended Davis for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
During the war itself, Union soldiers captured Davis’s plantation in Mississippi and found a trove of letters between Pierce and Davis. While Pierce remained loyal to the Union, he also largely blamed Northern abolitionists and agitators for secession and for the outbreak of violence. Pierce also heavily criticized Abraham Lincoln during the war, blasting the suspension of habeas corpus, and denouncing the Emancipation Proclamation as an interference “with states’ rights and the right of private property.” However, when Lincoln’s young son Willie died in the White House in 1862, Pierce wrote a heartfelt, extraordinary letter to Lincoln, commiserating with his fellow President as a father who lost a young child in a difficult time, “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.”
For the most part, Pierce drank. When Lincoln was assassinated, an angry mob gathered outside of Pierce’s home in Concord, New Hampshire. A similar mob had vandalized former President Millard Fillmore’s home in New York, claiming that Fillmore hadn’t shown enough tribute to the fallen President. The crowd outside of Pierce’s home challenged the former President and questioned his patriotism, inquiring where his American flag might be. In one last gasp of oratorical magic, the 60-year-old former President said that he didn’t need a flag to demonstrate loyalty as he had spent his entire life in public service and that was his demonstration. The crowd, impressed by Pierce’s passion, dispersed without further trouble.
In the last few years of his life, Franklin Pierce did nothing to rehabilitate his reputation. Pierce didn’t write a book or defend his record. His most public action after Lincoln’s assassination was a trip to Fortress Monroe in Virginia to visit his imprisoned friend, Jefferson Davis, and call for his release by Andrew Johnson. Largely forgotten and widely reviled, Pierce literally drank himself to death. On October 8, 1869, the 64-year-old former President died alone in his home in Concord, New Hampshire, a victim of chronic stomach inflammation and cirrhosis of the liver. Funeral services were quiet and he was buried next to his wife and three young children in Concord. It took nearly fifty years for his home state to recognize Franklin Pierce with a statue at the New Hampshire State Capitol. It wasn’t until 1946 that a granite memorial was placed at his grave. When he died, Franklin Pierce’s obituary wasn’t printed until the third page of The New York Times.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about his friend that, “He has in him many of the chief elements of a great ruler. His talents are administrative, he has a subtle faculty of making affairs roll onward according to his will, and of influencing their course without showing any trace of his action. There are scores of men in the country that seem brighter than he is, but he has the directing mind, and will move them about like pawns on a chess-board, and turn all their abilities to better purpose than they themselves could do.” Hawthorne, obviously, was too sympathetic. Theodore Roosevelt said that Pierce was “a small politician, of low capacity and mean surroundings, proud to act like a servile tool of men worse than himself but also stronger and abler.” That might be too harsh. Pierce’s obituary in the Times in 1869 may have put it best: “His place will not be missed by those actively engaged in political affairs, and although his record as a statesman cannot command the approbation of the nation, he still should be followed to the grave with that respect which is due to one who has filled the highest office in the gift of the people — a President of the United States.”
Franklin Pierce was a complex figure, consumed by ambition and crippled by personal obstacles, who was overmatched by the times that he was destined to preside over. His story, however, is fascinating and has slipped through the cracks of a history featuring giant personalities that were bigger than he could ever measure up against. Presidents come and go. They are good and bad, effective and incompetent, legends and failures. What’s important to remember, though, is that each of them was a person — an individual with triumphs and tragedies and real feelings that, in the case of Pierce, are almost unfathomable to us, especially in conjunction with the awesome responsibilities that come along with the position that they hold. Franklin Pierce is one of the most obscure Presidents in American History, but he held the same office as George Washington and is a member of the most exclusive fraternity in the history of the world. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that these guys are people — individuals just like you and I — and then you learn about obscure Franklin Pierce and you pull the thread and see all of the stories that are a part of him. And I don’t know about you, but that’s when I am most amazed by the power of history and the magnificence of the people who make history.
Yesterday, Americans across the country marked the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination by remembering that fateful day in Dallas in 1963. Here at Dead Presidents, we featured three feature-length essays related to JFK’s assassination:
•The assassination of President Kennedy took place fifty years ago and will resonate forever in America’s memory, but the violent act that changed the course of history took place in an instant. For a very detailed history of that moment, check out 11.22.1963: One Minute In Dallas.
•What happened to the coffin that President Kennedy’s body was transported in from Dallas to Washington, D.C. on Air Force One? It’s not the coffin that contains his remains today at Arlington National Cemetery. Learn what happened in Burial At Sea: The Odyssey of JFK’s Original Casket.
As tragic as the circumstances were, it was good to see so many Americans taking time to recognize such an important event in our nation’s history. Commemorations of certain milestones or historic moments can be a fantastic opportunity for promoting history literacy, and the more history that our people know, the better we know our people.
Now, as the rest of the country moves on until the next big anniversary, we move forward here on Dead Presidents by doing what we do best — continuing to look back! And, today, we even have ourselves another Presidential anniversary — the 209th birthday of our 14th President, Franklin Pierce.
For some reason, I have doubts that many television networks will be running special programs on the life of President Pierce today. We’ll pick up the slack and, later today, I’ll be posting a couple of features that I have written about Pierce’s tumultuous life which has always struck me as something that you might find in a Shakespearean tragedy. Check back later for more!