“In reviewing our blessings we must pay heed to our leadership. It is said of us that we demand second-rate candidates and first-rate Presidents. Not all our Presidents have been great, but when the need has been great we have found men of greatness. We have not always appreciated them; usually we have denounced and belabored them living, and only honored them dead. Strangely, it is our mediocre Presidents we honor during their lives.
The relationship of Americans to their President is a matter of amazement to foreigners. Of course we respect the office and admire the man who can fill it, but at the same time we inherently fear and suspect power. We are proud of the President, and we blame him for things he did not do. We are related to the President in a close and almost family sense; we inspect his every move and mood with suspicion. We insist that the President be cautious in speech, guarded in action, immaculate in his public and private life; and in spite of these imposed pressures we are avidly curious about the man hidden behind the formal public image we have created. We have made a tough but unwritten code of conduct for him, and the slightest deviation brings forth a torrent of accusation and abuse.
The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. We subject him and his family to close and constant scrutiny and denounce them for things that we ourselves do every day. A Presidential slip of the tongue, a slight error in judgment — social, political, or ethical — can raise a storm of protest. We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him.
To all the other rewards of this greatest office in the gift of the people, we add that of assassination. Attempts have been made on the lives of many of our Presidents; four have been murdered. It would be comparatively easy to protect the lives of our Presidents against attacks by foreigners; it is next to impossible to shield them from the Americans. And then the sadness — the terrible sense of family loss. It is said that when Lincoln died African drums carried the news to the center of the Dark Continent that a savior had been murdered. In our lifetime two events on being mentioned will bring out the vivid memory of what everyone present was doing when he or she heard the news; those two events are Pearl Harbor and the death of John F. Kennedy. I do not know anyone who does not feel a little guilty that out of our soil the warped thing grew that could kill him.
It is said that the Presidency of the United States is the most powerful office in the world. What is not said or even generally understood is that the power of the chief executive is hard to achieve, balky to manage, and incredibly difficult to exercise. It is not raw, corrosive power, nor can it be used willfully. Many new Presidents, attempting to exert executive power, have felt it slip from their fingers and have faced a rebellious Congress and an adamant civil service, a respectfully half-obedient military, a suspicious Supreme Court, a derisive press, and a sullen electorate. It is apparent that the President must have exact and sensitive knowledge not only of his own office but of all the other branches of government if his program is to progress at all. The power of the President is great if he can use it, but it is a moral power, a power achieved by persuasion and discussion, by the manipulation of the alignments of many small but aggressive groups, each one weak in itself but protected in combination against usurpation of its rights by the executive; and even if the national government should swing into line behind Presidential exercise of power, there remain the rights, prejudices, and customs of states, counties, and townships, management of private production, labor unions, churches, professional organizations of doctors, lawyers, the guilds and leagues and organizations. All these can give a President trouble; and if, reacting even to the suspicion of overuse or misuse of power, they stand together, a President finds himself hamstrung, straitjacketed, and helpless.”
That’s right, boys and girls — we are just 48 hours away from Independence Day where, for the very first time on Dead Presidents, I will finally answer one of the most frequently-asked questions that I receive: “How would you rank the Presidents from best-to-worst?”.
As many of you know, I’ve never been a big fan of Presidential Rankings because of the difficulty in comparing vastly different eras, the varied lengths of Presidential terms, and the impact that Presidents had in relation to their time. Plus, the power of the Presidency itself has always had an ebb and flow throughout American History.
With all that said, you can thank Robert W. Merry’s new book, Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians (BOOK•KINDLE) into motivating me to FINALLY list my Presidential Rankings for fans of Dead Presidents.
So, set your alarms, mark your calendars, call your mom, quit your job, order pizza, renounce your citizenship, end your relationship (no matter how serious it is), put your children up for adoption, pull up a chair, and eliminate any other potential distractions from your life so that you can spend your Fourth of July following the countdown as I rank all 43 men who have served as President, including William Henry Harrison (served 1 month), James Garfield (served 2 ½ months), and President Obama (still in the midst of serving) for the first time ever here on Dead Presidents!
Ever since I started Dead Presidents, there is one question that I am asked more than any other and that is — well, actually, the question I get asked most often is “Which President would win if they all got in a fight with each other?” (I’ve answered it many times, Google it yourself). But, after that, I’m most frequently asked to rank the Presidents from best-to-worst.
I have never done it because I think it’s almost impossible to compare the Presidents of one time period with Presidents of another time period, or to compare the Presidencies of someone like Franklin D. Roosevelt who served 12 years, with William Henry Harrison, who served one month. When average Americans are asked to rank the Presidents, they usually do it by their political preferences or their personality preferences. So, another drawback to ranking them is that readers might look at the list and claim that I’m being politically biased.
There have been efforts throughout history to find useful ways to rate the Presidents, and there have been numerous attempts at asking a collection of historians to rank them and then publishing the results. I, however, have never done it. Not publicly, not privately. If asked, I could give my opinion on the five best or the five worst, but I’ve always resisted ranking all of them. When asked to rank all 43 Presidents (even though Cleveland served non-consecutive terms, most historians rank him just once instead of ranking his terms separately), I’ve always declined.
Tomorrow, Simon & Schuster will release Robert W. Merry’s Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians (BOOK•KINDLE). I received an advanced copy and have read the book and it is a fresh and unique way of approaching the rankings of all of our Presidents. A full review of Where They Stand will be coming in the next week, and I’ll also be interviewing Robert Merry and publishing that interview here on Dead Presidents as well as in AND Magazine.
In addition, to celebrate this country’s Independence Day, to (hopefully) give my readers something to look forward to, and to answer one of the most frequently-asked questions that I receive, on July 4th, 2012, I will — for the first-time ever — rank every single President of the United States from best-to-worst. While I still find it difficult to make certain comparisons between Presidents of very different eras, I am going to do my best. There may be those who accuse me of political bias, but I genuinely feel that I have shown, on many different occasions that I am fair and partial when it comes to Presidents who I might not have voted for. Most importantly, I feel that it’s time to do these rankings, especially since so many of you have requested them over the past four years. This will be the first of what I intend to be an annual Fourth of July tradition of a complete ranking of all of the Presidents.
So, mark your calendar, and, if you don’t have a calendar, don’t worry because I’ll be hyping the Presidential Rankings every day until July 4th. Also, check out Where They Stand by Robert Merry when it is released tomorrow and look forward to my review of the book and interview with Mr. Merry.
“He has so much martial dignity in his deportment that there is not a king in Europe but would look like a valet de chambre by his side.” — Benjamin Rush on George Washington
One of the disappointments of technological advancement is that it often advances too slowly to give us everything we might have hoped for. Photography was a 19th century innovation, and the first real images of American Presidents didn’t come until the 1840’s. Every President since John Quincy Adams has been captured by either daguerreotype or photograph, but unfortunately, the exact images of the first five Presidents went to the grave with the eyes of the last people who actually saw them. We have a fairly good idea of what George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe looked like, but we must rely on the skill and whim of the artists who they sat for while having portraits painted in their lifetime.
There are, of course, no photographs of George Washington, but there are scores of famous, iconic paintings and artistic renderings created during Washington’s lifetime, often with his assistance. The first portrait that Washington ever sat for was with Charles Wilson Peale in 1772, three years before Washington was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Washington sat for Peale seven times before his death in 1799 and from these sittings Peale was able to paint over 50 portraits of the Founding Father.
The most famous depiction of George Washington, however, is probably The Athenaeum, painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796. The Athenaeum, showing a grim, serious-looking President Washington is the image seen on the one dollar bill and is probably the image you see in your mind when you think of George Washington. Stuart actually never finished The Athenaeum; he kept the unfinished original copy with him in order to make reproductions to sell and never finished the original portrait before his death. Today, the original, unfinished Athenaeum alternates every three years between being exhibited at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Another famous portrait by Stuart is the Landsdowne Portrait, which was also commissioned in 1796. This full-length painting portrays Washington at the age of 64 and was the painting that Dolley Madison smuggled to safety as she fled the White House before British troops burned Washington, D.C. in 1814. The Landsdowne Portrait can also be seen in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
In 1786, Benjamin Franklin invited French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon to visit the United States specifically so Washington could model for a sculpture. Washington sat for Houdon at his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia and the plaster life mask from that sitting was used to make a wide variety of busts portraying Washington including the full-length marble statue in the rotunda of Virginia’s State Capitol in Richmond. Works created from Houdon’s life mask of Washington are probably the closest representation of what George Washington actually looked like during his lifetime.
Still, there are no photographs of George Washington.
Fortunately, words can also paint portraits, and we have years and years of biographical information and descriptions of his appearance from his contemporaries to draw from in order to help us form our own photograph of sorts — a literary or written photograph that helps us see how George Washington looked to the people who actually had the chance to see him.
The truth is that Washington didn’t always look the way that the paintings depict him. When you look at George Washington’s face on the one dollar bill or Mount Rushmore, you often see a man who looked like he was a statue before someone actually made him into a statue. He looks pissed off — perhaps even constipated — and while Washington was very reserved and dignified, he wasn’t as expressionless as he seems to be in the paintings that history has given us of him. Washington comes across in many of his portraits as if he was in great pain while sitting for the artist and that is because he WAS in great pain. Washington had several sets of false teeth — none of which were wooden, as many mythbusters are quick to point out — but which were made out of such wonderful things as hippopotamus or seahorse ivory, lead, gold, and the teeth of cows, humans, elk, and other animals.
Some of Washington’s dentures were functional and used for eating or speaking or normal, everyday activities, but some of the dentures were decorative. Washington knew the importance of symbolism for a new nation such as the United States, and he knew how important his appearance was as the nation’s first President, biggest celebrity, most revered hero and primary symbol. When it came time to sit for a painting or be seen at a public event, Washington would wear his decorative dentures, but they hurt like hell and sometimes altered his physical appearance along with affecting his voice. He was always in constant pain from his teeth (or lack of teeth, as it was), but the decorative dentures caused him great anguish. Not only that, but they didn’t fit in his mouth as well as his regular false teeth. When he wore his decorative set, they created a bulge around his lips and made his jaw appear to be swollen. The iconic image of George Washington on the one dollar bill makes our first President look like he just ate something sour, but you’d probably look uncomfortable, too, if you had to wear these in your mouth:
One consistent thread found in the descriptions of George Washington by contemporaries who actually came in contact with him is that he was a great man because of his actions, but also because he looked the part. Washington had a presence about him that made it clear that he was the leader of whatever he group he was involved in. This natural charisma certainly helped him motivate a seemingly hopeless collection of starving, freezing troops against the most powerful empire in the world. Washington also commanded respect, if not reverence, in every situation and amongst any company. He constantly exuded grace and dignity and left a deep impression of importance upon everyone who met him. Gilbert Stuart — the artist who gave us the most familiar image we have of Washington — said that “All his features were indicative of the strongest and most ungovernable passions, yet, like Socrates, his judgment and self-command made him appear of a different cast in the eyes of the world…Had he been born in the forests, he would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes.”
Nearly every description of Washington from the 18th Century details him in a similar vein. In his eulogy following Washington’s death, Gouverneur Morris said, “His form was noble — his port majestic. On his front were enthroned the virtues which exalt, and those which adorn the human character. So dignified his deportment, no man could approach him but with respect — none was great in his presence. You have all seen him, and you all have felt the reverence he inspired.” By all accounts, it almost seemed impossible for people to not respect Washington. Even in the first half of the 19th Century, Washington was already a statuesque, iconic figure as evident by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s amusing rhetorical question, “Did anybody ever see Washington nude? It is inconceivable. He had no nakedness, but I imagine he was born with his clothes on, and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world.”
Some of Washington’s physical gifts were natural, but he worked very hard at others. Among the average-sized man of the 18th Century, George Washington was a giant. He stood over 6’3” tall and 210 years after his death, he is still one of the three tallest Presidents in American history. In his prime, Washington weighed about 200 pounds and was solid and muscular until his early 60’s when he began to soften a bit with age and gain weight around his already wide hips. Washington wore size 13 shoes and had large hands and long arms, but was strikingly graceful and well-known for being one of the best dancers in America — a skill that he was always quick to show off when in the company of ladies. Washington’s height and robust physical appearance not only made him a natural military leader, but also inspired confidence among the politicians who appointed him Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and elected him President of the Constitutional Convention. Author Joseph Ellis writes that Washington’s physique was one of his “most priceless assets” and points out that John Adams claimed Washington was invariably selected to lead every national effort because he was always the tallest man in the room.
Washington had long, dark brown hair that he powdered and tied into a queue and blue eyes that the French diplomat Prince de Broglie called “pensive…more attentive than sparkling, but their expression is benevolent, noble and self-possessed.” Washington’s skin was pale, but his cheeks had a reddish hue from years of exposure to the sun as a farmer and soldier. His face was pockmarked by the scars of a smallpox outbreak he survived as a young man and because of his “defective teeth” Washington made an effort to keep his lips firmly sealed as much as possible. Washington had a prominent nose and the bridge of his nose was unusually large and is noticeable in portraits.
Washington also projected a majestic appearance by dressing in expensive clothing he ordered with detailed instructions. During the Revolutionary War, the General commanded ragged (and sometimes barefoot) troops in mismatched uniforms and civilian clothing, but Washington always dressed impeccably in polished uniforms that he designed and paid for himself. Realizing the symbolic need for a dashing leader for his weary troops, Washington said “nothing adds more to the appearance of a man than dress.” His soldiers could not help but be inspired by the presence and respect conveyed by the sight of a confident and groomed General Washington on the saddle of his horse inspecting his Continental Army.
We see George Washington as a symbol of the United States, and when we think of him, we think of that Gilbert Stuart image we see on the one dollar bill. Washington himself realized the importance of symbolism and iconography for the young nation he helped bring into the world during the last years of the 18th Century. Humble and hoping to retire to the private life of a Virginia planter in Mount Vernon, Washington knew that America’s most important image following the Revolution had to be him. He commissioned paintings of himself and allowed public celebrations of his birthday while he was President, but it wasn’t because he was trying to establish a cult of personality. In the nation’s infancy, it was imperative for Americans to have a rallying point and Washington allowed his image to be that rallying point.
Washington allowed Americans to see him as he wished to be seen and that helped the United States grow as it entered the 19th Century. Washington, however, didn’t enter the new century with his fledgling nation. When he died on December 14, 1799, the image of Washington was frozen in time. A man of the 18th Century, he was the only President in American history who didn’t live after the year 1800 and the only President in American history who didn’t live in the White House. These are among the many reasons why George Washington seems so distant, so unreal to Americans of all eras and ages. It makes sense that in the present we have a hard time picturing what George Washington looked like and how he acted, but Washington was both literally and figuratively head-and-shoulders above the people of his day, too. We can describe him and debate him and contemplate him today but, just like his contemporaries did 200-225 years ago, George Washington is just different.
Washington was uniquely American and was, fittingly, the first celebrity we had here in this celebrity-obsessed country, but he also might have been our first superhero. He was real but impossible; human yet unearthly; ordinary and extraordinary. American history is full of paradoxes and mysteries, so it is altogether appropriate that George Washington happens to be both. Therefore, it just seems completely perfect that the First American happens to be so foreign to us.
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.
I’m glad that I could help with your summer assignments. It’s nice to feel like a high-tech version of Presidential CliffsNotes.
I can’t say that I know any good websites about the United States Constitution. I’m sure that the U.S. government actually has a pretty good website about it (maybe the National Archives or Library of Congress websites?).
As for books, Akhil Reed Amar’s America’s Constitution: A Biography is a really good book and a biography is fitting for the Constitution because it truly is a living, evolving, organic document.
To tie it into the Presidency, Richard Labunski wrote an interesting book published in 2006 called James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights which focuses on Madison’s reversal from opposing the first ten amendments to wholeheartedly supporting it.