When fellow history buffs ask me “Who’s your favorite president?” they are often puzzled and confused by the answer. When you ask that question no one ever expects to hear “Franklin Pierce” as the response. Don’t get me wrong–by saying he’s my “favorite,” that doesn’t mean I think he was the best president (far from it), or the one whose political views and actions I agree with the most (also far from it). But as a historical figure and a personality in the past who is more personally fascinating to me, Franklin stands out more than any of the other 43.
By virtually any measurement, Pierce was a pretty sad president. There wasn’t much enthusiasm for him at the outset; it took the Democratic Party 49 ballots–yes, 49–to nominate a candidate in 1852, and Pierce was a last minute choice to mollify various factions feuding over (what else?) slavery. He was elected in a landslide, but mainly because the Whig candidate, War of 1812 general Winfield Scott, was totally checked out. Pierce was an affable man, a good public servant and popular politician from New Hampshire. When he got to the White House he found himself totally in over his head. In a nation drifting perilously toward civil war, every single major decision of Pierce’s administration was an unmitigated disaster, with the possible exception of the Gadsden Purchase. Historians remember him as one of the line of feckless blunderers who did nothing to prevent the Civil War.
Most people don’t realize that Pierce’s personal life was also very sad. To say that his wife, Jane Appleton, had some issues is like saying today’s Congress is a little dysfunctional. Franklin loved her very much, but she was dour, pious, fidgety and had severe health problems. She hated politics and continually nagged her husband to quit. When told he’d been nominated in 1852, she fainted. Two of her sons died young: the first one only a few days old, and the second of typhus at age four.
Jane Appleton Pierce is pictured here with her longest-lived son Bennie.
Then there was Bennie. This was the Pierce’s surviving son, age 11 at the time his father was elected President. In January 1853, as the President-Elect and his family were traveling on a train through Andover, Massachusetts, an axle broke on the train and the car slid down the hill. When it crashed to a halt, Bennie Pierce was hideously decapitated. Franklin and Jane watched the whole thing. No one else on the train was injured. It was only six weeks before Franklin’s term of office was to begin.
So, with three dead sons, a grieving and melancholy wife, a country horribly divided over the issue of slavery, and possibly his own case of PTSD as a result of the train crash, Franklin Pierce entered the White House in March 1853. His wife refused to act as First Lady. She rarely left her room in the White House, and stayed up writing letters to Bennie’s spirit. Franklin, never a stranger to the sauce, began to drink even more. Wouldn’t you?
Indeed, while Ulysses S. Grant, who spent most of the Civil War and his failure-ridden terms of office with a cigar in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other, usually gets credit for being our hardest-drinking President, there is considerable evidence that Pierce outdid him in every category. Especially after he was denied re-election (and even re-nomination) in 1856 and the country broke apart in the Civil War, Pierce’s only solace came from the bottle. Upon leaving office in 1857 Pierce is believed to have said, to someone asking what he was going to do now, “There’s nothing left to do but get drunk.”
Pierce’s wife died in 1863. Now a pathetic alcoholic widower, hated and blamed even by his own neighbors (an angry mob congregated around his house in Concord, New Hampshire to jeer him the day after Lincoln was assassinated), Pierce had little left to live for. One hundred and forty-four years ago today, on October 8, 1869, he died of liver failure.
I don’t think a U.S. President has ever had a sadder or more depressing life than Franklin Pierce. Yes, he was incompetent; yes, he was wishy-washy in office and couldn’t provide the leadership we needed in the years before the Civil War. But it’s really hard to hate this guy. Looking at his life, his legacy and his personality, you just can’t help feeling sorry for him.
I’ve always had an affinity for Franklin Pierce. He was the title character for my short story, originally published in 2005, called “President in the Bathroom.” If you’re interested, you can read that story, for free, on Amazon Kindle here.
Poor Franklin. I’m not nearly as drunk as he was, but I raise my glass to him nonetheless.