Historians loving ranking presidents by their performance. You’ve seen the lists. There are the Greats (Messrs. Washington, Lincoln, et al). There are the Near Greats, and the Average or Mediocre ones. Scholars have a field day pigeonholing a particular president in this category or that.
Then there is the bottom of the barrel. The washouts. The Failures. There’s little arguing over the Worst of the Worst. Grant, Harding, and my personal pick for All-Time Worst President, James Buchanan. (When it comes to being lousy at the job, you can’t beat standing by helplessly as your country splits in two and slides into civil war.)
Another name always makes the Failure list. And maybe he deserves to be there. But after you’ve heard the story of the secret pain that haunted him during his time in the White House, you’ll probably look at him in a new light and, at the very least, pity him.
Franklin Pierce had a lot going for him as America reached the middle of the 19th Century. He was born into a prosperous family in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. While their impressive home (which still stands) was being built, the Pierces lived in a plain log cabin, where Franklin entered the world on November 23, 1804.
Pierce was sent to school in nearby Hancock. He grew homesick, and one Sunday walked 12 miles to see his family. His father, a tough Revolutionary War veteran who later served as governor, drove him back to school in his buggy. Stopping outside the town, he made Pierce get out and walk the final miles in a driving thunderstorm. (The Pierces apparently pioneered the Tough Love approach to parenting.) Young Pierce called the episode the turning point of his life, and it helped him get serious about his studies.
He went to college in Maine and law school in Massachusetts, was admitted to the bar and promptly lost his first case. But that wasn’t a serious setback, because Pierce was clearly on the fast track. Strikingly handsome with wavy hair and deep dark eyes, this Granite Stater was going places.
Success followed success. Hillsborough town moderator at age 23, state legislator at 24, Congressman at 28, U.S. Senator at 32. He served in the state militia all that time, too, rising to colonel. His future was so bright, Franklin Pierce had to wear shades.
What he didn’t have, and what he wanted more than anything, was a wife, a family, a home.
Cupid can be careless when shooting his arrows. They sometimes produce love that, while genuine and affectionate, is also doomed to fail. So it was with Benjamin Pierce and Jane Appleton.
No one could remember just how the rising Congressman and the devout, pious minister’s daughter met. But they should have recognized the many red flags that were waving from the start. He was outgoing, the life of the party; she was shy, a quiet homebody. He was robust; she was almost gaunt from frequent illness, suffering from tuberculosis some of the time and depression and emotional illness the rest. He was a Democrat and thoroughly loved politics; she was a Whig, despised politics and loathed Washington, DC. (Despite her shyness, she never suffered in silence when she didn’t like something, and they frequently fought.)
One red flag especially stood out. She was strictly anti-alcohol temperance. He liked to drink. A lot. I’m not talking about taking a libation from time to time. Franklin Pierce could really tie one on. But love is blind, they say, and in this case it was deaf, dumb and ignorant, too. The couple wed in 1834. He was four days shy of turning 30; she was (for that time) a spinsterly 28.
A pattern of painful loss soon began emerging in his life. Pierce was elated when he became a father for the first time in 1836. But the boy, Franklin, Jr, died three days later. A second son, Frank Robert, followed in 1839 – only to die of typhus at age four.
Then there was Bennie. Bright, bubbly Benjamin, or Bennie as he was called, was the apple of his parents’ eye. After losing Frank, he became the center of their world. They showered all their love on their sole surviving child.
The Mexican-American War erupted in 1846, and Pierce eagerly volunteered. He became a brigadier general; was badly hurt in a horse accident in one battle, and when Winfield Scott ordered him to the rear as the next was about to begin, cried, “For God’s sake, General, this is the last great battle, and I must lead my brigade!” Scott relented, Pierce rode into Mexico City in triumph and returned home to New Hampshire a hero.
When the 1852 presidential election rolled around, Democrats were divided over slavery. They held a knockdown, drag out brawl of a convention in Baltimore. None of the seven leading presidential candidates pleased everyone. After squabbling through 49 ballots, they finally selected Pierce as a dark horse compromise. Although he hadn’t served in Congress for 10 years, that worked in his favor because he hadn’t participated in the increasingly divisive slavery debate. Plus, his war hero status made him the ideal challenger to face his old commander General Scott, the dying Whig Party’s nominee.
And so on Tuesday, November 2, 1852, Franklin Pierce was elected the 14th president in a landslide, carrying 27 states to four for Scott. Three weeks shy of age 47, he was the youngest person elected president up to that time. His presidential future glittered with golden promise.
And then Fate stepped in.
Jane had never been crazy about the presidential thing from the start. She fainted when she learned her husband had won his party’s nomination. She was perfectly content in their Concord home and had no desire to be First Lady. Pierce tried to distract her with a brief post-convention getaway. Perhaps influenced by his mother’s reaction, Bennie wrote to her saying, “I hope he won’t be elected for I should not like to be at Washington and I know you would not either.”
Pierce played on Jane’s maternal instincts, persuading her that the presidency would help make Bennie successful in life. He won her over, but she was a sullen, reluctant convert and her heart was never in it.
Early in the new year, the Pierce family travelled to Boston. Jane had people in Massachusetts, and there was shopping to do, too. On January 16, 1853, two months before the inauguration, the Boston & Maine Railroad’s noon express train was traveling at 40 miles per hour. An axle broke. Only one passenger car, the one the Pierces were riding in, tumbled down an embankment and split in half.
People were thrown from seats. It was mayhem inside the rolling car. Pieces of broken metal and wood smashed a young boy’s skull, almost decapitating him. When the car finally stopped, the Pierces called out for their son. He didn’t answer. Franklin tried to turn Jane away, but it was too late: she saw Bennie’s mangled, lifeless form before Franklin forcibly led her away. But that single glimpse would remain with her the rest of her life.
Bennie Pierce, age 11, was the accident’s only fatality.
How do parents recover from a tragedy so overwhelming? Does anybody ever really get over something so awful?
For Pierce, there was work to do forming his new presidential administration. When the time came to go to Washington, Jane refused to go with him. In her eyes, the meaning of the accident was obvious. God was clearly displeased with Pierce’s political ambition, and He took their last child from them as divine punishment.
So on March 4, Pierce stood on the east front of the U.S. Capitol and became president. But there was an important difference from previous inaugurations. Pierce refused to swear the oath of office with his hand on the Bible; instead, he simply “affirmed” it using a law book. Some speculated the guilt he felt over Bennie’s death made him feel unworthy of using a Bible. (Pierce did make one bit of presidential history during the ceremony; he became the only president to ever deliver his inaugural address from memory.)
The new administration began with high hopes. Pierce appointed one of the best cabinets in history; in fact, it remains the only cabinet whose entire original members served all four years of a presidential term.
But Bennie’s tragic death hung over both Pierces like a dark cloud. No wind was ever strong enough to blow it away.
Jane wrote maudlin letters to Bennie, pouring out her undying love for him. Consider this excerpt: “I know not how to go on without you – you were my comfort dear – far more than you thought.” Over and over, she begged him on paper to return so she could apologize in person for her failings as a mother.
Jane eventually moved into the White House, but she was little more than an upstairs ghost. Pierce talked her into attending a handful of social functions; but they were brief appearances, and she always seemed distracted. Servants heard her voice through her closed bedroom door, sometimes calling Bennie’s name over and over, other times laughing as she “played” with her three dead children.
Eventually, her desire to contact Bennie led her to the paranormal. Spiritualism was fashionable in those days, the belief that is was possible to physically communicate with the dead. Jane invited the nation’s two leading spiritualists, the Fox Sisters, Maggie and Kate from Upstate New York, to the White House, where it is widely believed they held a séance to reach Bennie.
Maybe it was the séance, maybe it was the letters, but something briefly eased her pain. Jane told her sister that Bennie came to her two nights in a row in dreams. Still, she remained entombed in her misery.
And Franklin Pierce, unable to rescue Jane from her despair, retreated into his own separate White House bedroom. And drank. And drank. And drank some more. However, no distillery produced a drink strong enough to fully numb his pain.
He tended to the daily duties of his office, but that was all. His exceptionally talented cabinet kept the government running. But as the nation was being pulled ever further apart over slavery, it was deprived of the leadership only a strong, determined president could provide. Pierce couldn’t pull himself out of his alcohol-soaked sorrow to save himself and his wife, much less his country. When he left office in 1857, the nation was entering the final stretch of the road leading to its bloodiest war.
Franklin Pierce took Jane on a tour of Europe after the presidency in an unsuccessful attempt to improve her health, then returned to New Hampshire. His alcoholism worsened, and his health worsened as a result. He was unpopular outside his home state, and his loyalty to the Union was questioned several times during the Civil War.
Jane dressed in nothing but black for the rest of her days. Tuberculosis finally claimed her in 1863.
Historians rate Franklin Pierce a failure for doing nothing to avert the coming of the Civil War. And maybe he was a presidential failure. But could anyone, under the burden he struggled to carry, have done any better?
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