White Publishing Company

Presidents: Franklin Pierce

Concord and Hillsborough, New Hampshire

Visited in 2009 and 2019.

Things were looking up for Franklin Pierce in January 1853. He was a veteran of war, a veteran of Congress, and the nation had just elected him to become the youngest president in U.S. history. Sure, there were tough issues facing the country, and maybe his wife wasn't thrilled about the new job. But who wouldn't be excited?

Then his son was decapitated. The family was heading home from a funeral in Boston, and apparently they hadn't suffered enough that week, so their train car rolled down an embankment. Franklin was fine. His wife, Jane, was fine. Eleven-year-old Benjamin was tragically shorter. At the Pierce Manse in Concord they say he was crushed, but if you get the good costumed docents at the Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough, they'll level with you: the kid was headless, and supposedly Franklin discovered this upon picking up his body. Benjamin was the third Pierce child to die (the others were 3 days and 3 years), and the parents were understandably devastated.

That story is the big grain of salt that flavors everything thing you hear about Franklin Pierce, a reputed drunk and contender for Worst President Ever. Two months after that unfathomable mess he was running the country. Good luck with your first 100 days, Frank.

I first got the Franklin Pierce Experience in 2009 when I visited New Hampshire with Superfriend Don (you get superfriend status by visiting a presidential site). We saw (almost) EVERYTHING there is to see about Franklin Pierce. It's the kind of trip that beer commercials are made of, at least in my mind. And Franklin Pierce would appreciate those commercials, because he was raised in a bar.

Today that bar is known as the Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough. Today it's not far from Franklin Pierce Lake, a man-made reservoir that is supposedly covering the site of Franklin's birth. (There's nothing to see there, but you can spot the water from the side fo the road.) The homestead was a fine tavern operated by Benjamin Pierce, a Revolutionary War hero, governor of New Hampshire, and backwoods hick. He was a proud hick, and he instilled in his many progeny that great pride. Franklin and his siblings were raised on the upper floor of the tavern. The boys were in one room, the girls in another, and random passed-out strangers were in the hall. The Homestead has a neat little tour. In 2009 there were costumed guides; in 2019 (when I returned on my own) it was just one super-enthusiastic caretaker. Both times got the deluxe treatment -- in 2009, since we missed the first few minutes of the tour, we convinced a great docent to chat with us afterwards and give us all the horrific details. Talk to your docents. They know the fun stuff, like decapitations and boozing and which souvenirs to buy. (In this case the Franklin Pierce bobblehead, which is the pride of my collection. Jealous? You know you are).

The interior of the Homestead isn't too elaborate -- it was a bar and a boardinghouse, not a TGI Fridays. But it has lots of neat reproduction stenciling, a fancy parlor with some swank wallpaper (a la Martin Van Buren's house -- one of the other presidents raised in a tavern) and a "ballroom" a bit bigger than what you'd expect for a clapboard tavern built in New England in 1804.

From Hillsborough, young Franklin was off to Bowdoin College, where he would meet the lovely Jane. She was a daughter of the school president, creating a perfect "Animal House" scenario for Franklin. But unlike "Animal House," there were only 13 students in his class, and Jane was a Calvinist, so there was very little illicit sex on the football field. How bizarre was Jane? Supposedly, her father used to obscure his face from his family during meals, because he didn't want his children to witness somebody enjoying their food. WHEEEEEEE!

But as the saying goes, "opposites attract, and then get married for convenience and stay together even though the wife might drag her husband constantly down." At Bowdoin, Franklin also met his lifelong running buddy: Nathaniel Hawthorne, the eventual author of "The Scarlet Letter." Oh, the good times! It was like "Van Wilder" with more wool clothes. Franklin became an excellent lawyer, and that career was his springboard to politics. He was the New Hampshire Speaker of the House in his early 20s, even as his dad was serving as governor; he made it to Washington as a representative; then the state legislature selected him to serve as a U.S. senator. (There's a statue of Frank on the grounds of the New Hampshire capitol.)Jane hated D.C., and she seldom accompanied her husband on his trips to the capital. (Franklin stayed in boarding houses.) He actually quit the senate after four years, because she wanted him home more. So right around that time, it behooved them to find a nicer home of their own.

That home is now known as the Pierce Manse of Concord. It's the only residence ever owned by our 14th president. Today, the structure sits a few blocks from its original location, and a lot of the furniture has been replaced. But the walls are still dripping with ... uh, upper-middle-class New Englandicity. Don and I got another private tour, as there was no line at the Manse on a Friday. (Go figure!) The tour included a walkthrough of an average-looking residence and a few stories about Jane and Franklin. They endured some tragedy there -- their 3-year-old died of illness in an upstairs bedroom -- and they did a little light entertaining. But mostly, their life there seemed pretty humdrum.

It was so boring, in fact, that Frank sprang into action when the Mexican-American war erupted. Defending New Hampshire from the hordes of Santa Ana was important business, so he got together a few hundred of his closest buddies and joined the Army. Back then, if you brought enough guys to the fight, they made you a general. After distinguished service (he was injured falling off his horse), he came back home to the quiet of Concord.

That would have been the end of the story, but in 1852 the Democrats couldn't settle on a presidential candidate. Someone floated Pierce's name, and why not? He was a veteran, a legislator and apparently smokin' hot by the standards of the day. The rest is sad, sad history. Pierce started his term on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and his wife went into hard-core religious mourning for more than a year. She sometimes called the train accident God's punishment for Franklin's political ambitions. That probably made for some light dinner conversation.

Beyond that, Frankly probaby wasn't cut out for the job. Our guide in Hillsborough called him a "great mind, but not an introspective mind," and that seems to fit. Facing civil war, he crawled into the "state's rights" hole, pushing for states to set their own slavery policies. He spun his wheels, and after four years the party didn't bother renominating him. As of 2019, Pierce is the only president with that distinction.

It got uglier. Jane was in failing health, so Pierce toured Europe with her and Hawthorne for a few years. (You know the best way to cheer up your wife? Bring your best friend on vacation!). When they got back to New Hamphshire, he was no longer popular -- they take "Live Free or Die" seriously, and as he hadn't helped slaves live free, so they were hoping he might die. Jane died in 1863, and Pierce's loyalty to old political colleagues bit him in the ass. He kept up correspondence with Jefferson Davis, his former Secretary of War and then president of the Confederacy. Once word of the letters broke out, Pierce had to go on "vacation to Michigan" for a few weeks. Pierce also made public criticisms of Lincoln's curtailing of civil liberties.

All this came to a head when Lincoln was shot. At the time, the widower was renting a home in the middle of Concord. An angry mob turned up at his doorstep on the off chance that he was in on the assassination plot. The mob showed up angry, but apparently Franklin gave an impromptu speech in his defense, and they left cheering. We sadly don't have the text of this speech. It must have been awesome. Our guide from the Manse clued us in on the location of that house, which in 2009 was ... an abandoned lot. The house (where Pierce died) burned to the groudn in the early '90s, and nothing had happened to the lot by the time we visited. It was a doorstep and a bunch of weeds.

If there's a happy side to Pierce's later years, it's that Franklin could get back to his roots by drinking alot. That's the other sticky thing about Pierce: he had a reputation as a drunk. Some of that was undoubtedly ginned up by his political opponents, but there is kernel of truth. They pussyfoot around the issue in Concord, but Hillsborough guides confirmed that he did enjoy the booze. He probably kept it in check when he was around Jane. But in Mexico, or Washington, or after she died, he partook of many adult beverages. There aren't any confirmed reports of him being a falling-down drunk, but he died of cirrhosis. You do the math.

He's buried in Concord at the Old North Cemetery, next to Jane and two of their kids. It's a simple marker, and if you have a tennis ball, you could stand at his grave and easily throw it into the in-ground pool of the private home abutting the cemetery. Quaint. He seems like an OK guy with some awful luck; in his case he just happened to be the president, too. The brass ring wasn't worth grabbing.

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