Thursday, November 20, 2008

Drunk Franklin "Baby" Pierce, Helping Sectional Divides Right Along

Obviously reaching for his flask.
Franklin Pierce was our only U.S. President from New Hampshire. (Besides Bartlet, obvs.) Like his successor James Buchanan, Pierce was known as a "Doughface." This means he had a bread fetish. No, it didn't mean that. It means he was a northerner with southern sympathies. He was born in a log cabin to a man who eventually served as the governor of New Hampshire (and a woman, obviously). He was sent off to boarding school as a kid, but he was homesick and tried to escape by walking home barefoot. But Daddy Benjamin Pierce threw him in a wagon, drove him halfway back, dropped him off and forced him to walk the last several miles back to school, without saying anything. (Anecdote courtesy of Wikipedia.) He went to Bowdoin College and became, like, BFF with Nathaniel Hawthorne (speaking of 19th-century mustaches). He became a lawyer and was successful at, you know, the lawyering business. Supposedly he was attractive and charismatic. I find this somewhat hard to believe. But maybe that's just because photography in the 1800s didn't do most people's looks any favors. He served in the New Hampshire State House of Representatives and as its Speaker. At the age of 27, he was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House. Blahblahblah, then he was in the Senate for a short period of time. Afterwards he went back to practicing law in New Hampshire. At some point he married some uptight-sounding lady named Jane Appleton. She was super-shy, from a conservative Whig family, very religious, and pro-temperance. Pretty much the opposite of him. The had three kids, Franklin, Frank, and Benjamin. The first two died very early in childhood, so they probably figured out that wasn't a very lucky name. During James K. Polk's Grand Mexican Adventure, he decided to join up. He enlisted, got promoted and whatnot, was injured in the leg at some point. Can you say war hero? "We Polked you in 1844; we shall Pierce you in 1852!" After being out of political office for ten years, he somehow came up at the Democratic National Convention in 1852. He was suggested during the 35th ballot, and was finally confirmed unanimously on the 49th. The VP candidate chosen was some guy named King from Alabama. Piercey had always remained publicly ambiguous in his views on slavery, so he could appeal to all the Democratic Party's factions. His war hero opponent Winfield Scott was vocally anti-slavery, and Pierce's "charisma" and "looks" won him the White House in a landslide. A month before inauguration, Jane and Franklin were traveling by train with their eleven year-old son, Benjamin. There was some sort of tragic accident and Benjamin was crushed to death. So, that was pretty traumatic. Pierce's compound personal tragedies helped drive his well-known drinking problem. That didn't jive very well with his wife. Plus, you know, all their kids died. And she hated his political career. So they weren't really close. At all. Jane thought the train accident was divine retribution for her husband taking the presidential position. Pierce did something called "affirming" rather than swearing his oath, and did so with his hand on a law book, not a bible. I can respect that. And at 48 years old, "Baby" Pierce was the youngest man elected to the office of the Presidency at that time. In April of 1853, very shortly after taking office, Pierce's Vice President died. Then he just didn't have one. He and his pals tried to get Spain to sell Cuba to us for $100 million. Then there was talk (Ostend Manifesto) of taking it by force, but we ended up waiting until 1898 to really follow through with that plan. Then there was that whole Kansas-Nebraska Act/Bloody Kansas/western slavery expansion blahblahblah thing. Annnnyway, he ended up not getting renominated by his party. After that, it's said he claimed there was "nothing left to do but get drunk." (A man after my own heart.) Wikipedia told me that at some point he ran over an old lady while driving a carriage (presumably drunk; also, probably not true, but that never stopped me from repeating something before!). He supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, and letters he wrote to his former Secretary of War Jefferson Davis publicly undermined his reputation (as if it wasn't bad enough already). Nathaniel Hawthorne remained one of his only friends up until his death of cirrhosis in 1869. I can has bobble-head!! UPDATE: Our new blog-friend and fellow Pierce enthusiast David has pointed out that Hawthorne died first. I maintain that perhaps the ghost of Nathaniel Hawthorne was Pierce's only friend. I imagine those last few years with Pierce's liver weren't really that pleasant, and I like to think of the former president in his sickbed, crying out to his one friend: "Nathaniel! Please! Why were there SEVEN gables?"


  1. The amount of facial hair going on on this blog right now is ridiculous. Good work. Also, I think Pierce is my new favorite president.

  2. Why don't I ever meet men like those in your banner-thingy? Where do they live, and where can I have a beer with them? Do they even drink beer, or is that too risky to the staches?

  3. You forgot to mention how the very eccentric man who helped me register to vote told me that he called Pierce "The Goth President" because of all the tragedy in his life and because he was also apparently friends with Edgar Allan Poe.

  4. A nice summary with a couple notable exceptions:

    There is no evidence that Pierce ever ran over a woman.

    Pierce and Hawthorne were close friends until Hawthorne's death in 1864.

    For more on Pierce, click on this link.

  5. Thanks for the link. To help you with the conundrum of the seven gables, check out this link.