So far as I can tell, there are three things worth noting about Wednesday, November 25, 1914. Each of those things appeals to a different kind of person:
For big turkey eaters, note that it was the day before Thanksgiving.
For big fans of baseball and/or spokespersons for “Mr. Coffee,” it was the day that Guiseppe and Rosalia DiMaggio of Martinez, California brought their eighth child into the world, Guiseppe Paolo DiMaggio.
And for people embarking on projects chronicling presidential gravesites and memorials, it was the day New Hampshire dedicated its statue to local man-made-good Franklin Pierce, the nation’s fourteenth president.
Again, the date here is November 25, 1914. Franklin Pierce died on October 8, 1869 – 45 years, 1 month and 17 days before the statue dedication. I live in New Hampshire – in fact, I live less than a mile from where Pierce’s last house once stood – and this 45-year Pierce-less interregnum should not be mistaken for a byproduct of some laid-back vibe, cause we don’t have one (even the surfers here are kind of intense). No, the delay was on purpose. For nearly a half century, New Hampshire thought about putting up some/any kind of memorial to its only president and said, “nah.”
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the 1850’s Franklin Pierce was quite literally New Hampshire’s favorite son: his father, Benjamin Pierce, was a Revolutionary War hero who later twice served as governor. Franklin did pretty well himself, for that matter – State House speaker, US Senator, Mexican War veteran… sure, he was a lawyer, people said, but nobody’s perfect. So when Pierce ended up as the Democratic nominee for president, his New Hampshire supporters didn’t spare the hyperbole: “The Statesman. The Soldier. The Estimable Citizen,” read one campaign poster. “We Honor New Hampshire in Honoring Franklin Pierce,” said another. And then – I am not making this up – there was this one, the dirtiest, and therefore best, slogan in American political history: “We Polked you in ’44, We shall Pierce you in ’52.” (This line may be why the 1852 election is called one of the more “ludicrous, ridiculous, and uninteresting” elections in American history.) Pierce’s Whig opponent, Winfield Scott, had no saucy wordplay to back his campaign – though “we’ll Fillmore seats in Congress this year” would have been better than nothing – and Pierce won an electoral landslide that November.
If he’d known what was coming, he probably would’ve Pierced his own campaign and voted for Scott.
No president has had a suckier transition to the office than Franklin Pierce. Shortly after the New Year, the president-elect and his family – wife Jane, and 11 year old Benjamin, aka “Bennie” – were returning to Concord after a funeral when the train’s axle broke and it went off the tracks. The parents were unhurt; Bennie was crushed to death. Jane Pierce, who had already become something of a helicopter parent to Bennie after losing her first two boys at young ages, was completely (and understandably) inconsolable. As people often do in these situations, she desperately looked for a way to explain why Bennie had been taken, and concluded God needed to clear Franklin’s worry list so he could steer the ship of state without distraction. After all, the country had called him to service; he hadn’t sought the job. Except she soon learned that he had sought the job, even after having promised her years before to get out of politics. Quickly altering the “God’s mercy on America” theory to something akin to “God’s wrath on her husband,” Jane spent the bulk of Franklin’s presidency not speaking to him and trying to speak to Bennie, through letters and, depending on whether you trust the sources or not, seances.
I am unable to confirm or deny the “God’s wrath” theory, but I have to say, it’s as good an explanation as any. Pierce came to Washington mourning his son. On March 4, 1853 he gave his inaugural address (from memory, no less) but spoke so long that outgoing First Lady Abigail Fillmore caught a bad cold and fever, and died before the end of the month. And Pierce’s own Vice President, William Rufus King of Alabama, was so sick with tuberculosis that he left the country to recuperate in Cuba; Congress had to pass a special law to allow him to take his oath of office on foreign soil. Not that it made any difference – a few weeks later he was gone too.
(King’s early death brings up an interesting historical what-if: imagine if Franklin Pierce, and not Bennie, had died in the train accident. Upon King’s death, the succession laws of the time would have left the president pro tempore of the Senate in the White House. In 1853 that post was filled by a pro-slavery Missourian called David Rice Atchison, who, during the fight over “Bleeding Kansas” would implore his supporters to “kill every God-damned abolitionist” in the area. Would President Atchison have led to the Civil War eight years earlier? Hard to say, but Pierce’s greatest accomplishment may have been simply living through his term.)
And that was just the start of Pierce’s presidency, which sadly included more deaths thanks to the “Bleeding Kansas” debacle. Pro- and anti-slavery forces poured into the Kansas territory, hoping to outnumber and/or out-murder the other. Pierce handled the crisis with such skill, such aplomb, that – ah, no, actually he didn’t do so well, so much so that his own party decided he couldn’t and shouldn’t be nominated up for a second term. In his place the party nominated James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, whose spectacular ineptness in office made the Pierce and pretty much any other president look like George Washington by comparison. Pierce took the news of his repudiation well. “There’s nothing left to do but to get drunk,” he said. And that he did, for many of his remaining days, dying of stomach inflammation brought on by “many a well-fought bottle.” The New York Times didn’t exactly pour on the love in Pierce’s obituary, saying “his place will not be missed by those actively engaged in political affairs” and “his record as a statesman cannot command the approbation of the nation.”
I’m pretty sure after all that I would’ve started drinking too.
photo courtesy DennisSylvesterHurd
It’s worth noting that during the 45 years New Hampshire actively refused to honor Franklin Pierce, they did honor two other native sons. The high honor went to Daniel Webster, who, in truth, made his name representing Massachusetts, but got his start in the Granite State; his statue went up in front of the State House in 1886. A few years later, in 1892, the state put up a statue of former senator John P. Hale. Two former senators – one who even moved out of state – get statues, and not Pierce. What gives?
The Civil War, that’s what. Webster’s last and greatest stand on the public stage was during the Compromise of 1850, in which he implored northern and southern people alike to stick it out. “I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union. ‘Hear me for my cause.'” And Hale was one of the first, if not the first, member of Congress to explicitly run on a platform of ending slavery. In the days after the bloody war between the states, New Hampshire was more than a little touchy about the fact that its only president was a “Northern man with Southern sympathies,” who very publicly criticized the Lincoln Administration during the war and, after the war was over, visited Confederate president Jefferson Davis while he was in military prison facing charges of treason. So to rebuild some karma they honored one man who fought to preserve the Union and immortalized another who fought against slavery. As for the guy who hung out with the president of the Confederacy? He never existed, and if he did, he didn’t live here. Franklin who?
To be fair, Pierce was for preserving the Union, too, he was just really bad at it – at least while he was president. There’s a great Civil War story about an angry mob gathering outside Pierce’s home in Concord, demanding to know why he didn’t have a flag out. His response was a more eloquent version of “Excuse me? While you clowns were out on a scavenger hunt for flags, I was, oh, I don’t know, fighting in the freaking Mexican War and being president?!?” The mob collectively went “oh yeah, never mind” and hit the road.
The anger against Franklin Pierce didn’t disperse – there was still opposition to a statue in his honor as late as 1913, but that was the year in which America marked 50 years since the battle of Gettysburg, and at a time when old Union men were embracing old Rebels on the battlefields on which they had once shot at each other, people in New Hampshire figured, life’s too short to hold a grudge against Frank Pierce any longer, and so they voted in May 1913 “with near unanimity” to put up a statue. Artist Augustus Lukeman of New York City whipped up a fine bronze statue with a granite base. The work was finished the following year, with ceremonies set for November 25th, 1914.
The trick was, then, to explain why they were honoring somebody whose presidency didn’t deserve too many honors.
The New Hampshire Historical Society chronicled the statue dedication ceremonies, so we have a full record of each speaker’s remarks. Each man is trying hard, but one isn’t left with a rousing reevaluation of the Pierce Administration. The speeches are full of qualifying statements, like how Pierce fought for the truth “as he saw it” and how he “should be judged in the light of the conditions as they existed in his time.” Frank Carpenter, chair of the Pierce statue commission, said “we honor him to whom was given the task of guiding the destinies of the nation when vast forces were working for the ultimate good, but which, during his leadership, had failed to take form and direction.” In short: dude was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Judge Edgar Aldrich had an even less convincing appraisal: “England puts into her library of the House of Lords a bust of Cromwell, not because he was politically right according to English standards, but because he was a great Englishman and a man of notable achievements.” Now that’s a hell of a comparison – if Cromwell can get a statue, why not Franklin Pierce?
Some speakers brought up Pierce’s reputation as a legitimately skilled trial lawyer, and others told of small and large kindnesses he had paid to them and to others. My favorite speech, though, is by then-governor Samuel Felker; he’s clearly trying to give Pierce some props, but without much success. For example: “President Pierce appointed one of the strongest cabinets of any President in the history of the United States.” “His messages to Congress, considered from a literary view, were able state papers, clearly and strongly expressed.” And best of all:“Everyone admits that aside from the slavery question President Pierce met the expectations of the country.” Remember that episode of “The Simpsons” where Homer thinks he’s dying and he can’t think of anything profound to tell Bart before he dies, so all he says is “I like your sheets”? Samuel Felker could’ve written that line.
Thus far, the men honoring President Franklin Pierce have summed up his life and career this way: nice guy, pretty good lawyer, friends with a famous author, a decent technical writer himself, worked with some good Cabinet members, kind of flubbed the slavery thing.
But several speakers pick up on the real takeaway of the day, the premise that’s behind the ceremony, and the statue, and New Hampshire’s collective decision to pull Franklin Pierce out of the doghouse.
Here’s Judge Aldrich again: “Franklin Pierce was a New Hampshire man, and he achieved the presidency.” He’s essentially making the same argument here that underlies the “buy local” movement today. Anybody who’s ever been to a farmers market or a craft fair knows some local products are truly great and some are painfully, desperately, obviously not. Franklin Pierce was not a great president. But he was a neighborhood guy who managed to win the highest office in the land, and there’s something to be said for celebrating the achievements of your neighbors.
One of the speakers, William Whitcher, summed it up perfectly with allusion, perhaps unintentional, to Pierce’s campaign posters of 1852: “In honoring him, she [New Hampshire] honors herself.”
There was a band on hand for the festivities; after the speeches, they played “America” (not the Neil Diamond song) and several other selections, and the people went on their way, having squared their relationship with their “buy local” president. Later, they began naming stuff after him, and even got him a new tombstone, which you can see at the Old North Cemetery in Concord. As you can see, they have flags in place to ward off any angry mobs.