Sunday, December 28, 2008

Who Is Shannon Berry, and How Does She Know So Much About Franklin Pierce

I have had way too much time on my hands today, as this record-setting fourth post in one day proves. While looking for new information on Franklin Pierce, I found this History Channel video on YouTube. The speaker, Shannon Berry, is identified as a Franklin Pierce biographer. She knows her subject, but I can find no evidence that she has authored a biography of our obscure 14th President.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Franklin's Fir a First--Fact or Fallacy?

With a great deal of trepidation, I bring up an aspect of the Presidency of Franklin Pierce heretofore not explored on this blog. Lugubrious Drollery (where this post originally appeared) is dedicated to stamping out misinformation wherever it rears its ugly head. With this in mind, the author has tirelessly posted righteously indignant comments at as many as three or four other blogs guilty of repeating the story of President Franklin Pierce running over an old woman (see also LD's previous post "Franklin Pierce Runs Over Woman--Not!").

I know I am risking my reputation as a champion of truth, justice, and the American Way by posting an unsubstantiated bit of Presidential trivia here. In this Christmas season, I feel I must point out that they say (ah, the omniscient, omnipresent they!) that Franklin Pierce was the first President to decorate the White House with a Christmas tree. There! I've said it! Let the Devil take the hindmost and Bob's your uncle!

I have searched high and low for contemporaneous documentation of this momentous event in holiday decorating, but so far this effort has come a cropper. Sometimes they say the tree was erected in 1853, but others say the date was 1856. Some accounts throw in a visit from a Sunday school class from a Washington Presbyterian Church for good measure.

Well, until someone can show me a shred of evidence, I remain skeptical that Handsome Frank decked the halls of the White House.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Merry Christmas, Mr. President

I just got a new macro lens and was playing around with it today. Here are a couple pictures of the official White House Christmas ornament for 1997, commemorating Franklin Pierce.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Great Pierce Barbecue of 1852

The occasion of Franklin Pierce's 204th birthday on November 23, 2008 prompted me to take to the Misinformation Superhighway, otherwise known as the internet, to see what new facts or fallacies I might learn about our obscure yet intriguing fourteenth President. A search on his name led me to the Voir Dire Blog, which regularly features "This Day in Presidential History" articles. The entry for the 23rd included the following about the "Pierce Barbecue Pit" in Hillborough, NH, Pierce's hometown:
Located just beyond the famed Kemps Truck “museums” (open exhibit, and can be found on River Street, the first right). The remains of this stone pit were used for Benjamin Pierce’s annual barbecue, and to stage a huge celebration to send Franklin off to Washington.
Clicking a link to the source of the quote, I found that these words were from a pdf file, "The Franklin Pierce Highway: NH 9," published by the Franklin Pierce Bicentennial Web Site. This brief, ambiguous, poorly-written paragraph left me with more questions than answers. What is the meaning of "open exhibit, and can be found on River Street, the first right?" Did Franklin's father Benjamin really have an annual barbecue? Or did some other Benjamin Pierce have an annual barbecue in the remains of the stone pit? Was there really a huge celebration to send Franklin off to Washington? Which time--when he went to Washington as a Congressman, a Senator, or President? He left New Hampshire for Washington in Febuary 1853 to prepare for his March inauguration, and it seems unlikely that a barbecue would be a popular event in the dead of a New England Winter.

My first task was to find out about the Kemp Truck Museum. I had the great good fortune, via Google, of finding Steve Davidson's blog, Crotchety Old Fan. The main focus of Steve's blog is science fiction, but he happened to write about a collection of antique radios and televisions in his hometown of Hillborough, NH, and at the end of the article he also mentioned a Linn van parked at the Kemp Truck Museum, which, Steve stated, was about two blocks from his house. Incredible!

I promptly emailed Steve to see if he would take a picture of the barbecue site for me. He was very accommodating and agreed to take pictures, although he had never seen the remains of the barbecue. More Googling on my part ensued. I was able to find a panoramic map of Hillsborough in 1884. The final item (circled in red below) in a list of 28 local features on the map was "Old Oven Built for Pierce Barbecue 1852." Bingo!

I was also able to locate, at Google Books, a digital copy of The History of Hillsborough, New Hampshire, 1735-1921, Vol. 1, by George Waldo Browne. There I found not only a description of the barbecue, but a picture of the oven, which at some point between the 1852 event and the publication of the book in 1921 had been restored by the local chapter of the DAR.

Further investigation revealed that the barbecue was not held to celebrate Franklin Pierce's departure for Washington, but was a campaign rally held on August 19, 1852. As many as 25,000 people attended the event, although opposition newspapers estimated the crowd at 10 to 12 thousand. A stage 60 by 120 feet and five feet high was built for the numerous speakers who appeared, a large tent was erected, and arrangements were made to provide the attendees with plenty of food and drink. Three thousand pounds of bread were ordered to feed the crowd. At least one, and possibly more, cattle were slaughtered to be cooked in the oven, which, according to the panoramic map description, was specially constructed for the event, and according to one biography of Pierce, was not used again. I could find no documentation that Benjamin Pierce had anything to do with the construction or use of the oven.

As promised, armed with the map, Steve was able to locate the Old Oven, on the banks of the Contoocook River, right next to the Kemp Truck Museum.

Photo Credit: Steve Davidson

The moral of our story: The internet is an uncontrolled mishmash of misinformation, but also a tool for discovery of the truth. Use it wisely, and you will be rewarded.

Hair Force One, Part 3 or Hair to the Chief

Statue of Franklin Pierce, prior to installation on the statehouse lawn at Concord, NH

In previous posts, I have discussed Franklin Pierce's hair, a topic which has fascinated historians and sparked spirited debate among cosmetologists for decades. I can't take full credit for the title of the current post. An occasional reader of this blog, Daniel P. Cory JD (an abbreviation which once may have stood for juvenile delinquent, but now indicates he is a full-fledged lawyer), suggested the title "Hair to the Chief" when commenting on one of the said previous posts. I was conflicted as to whether to use that as the title of the current missive, or to use "Hair Force One, Part 3," since two previous posts were "Hair Force One" and "Hair Force One, Part 2." I have gotten some hits to the blog via Google from people searching for Hair Force One. I assume most of them are looking for a heavy metal band by that name. Unfortunately, I just made a disturbing discovery by Googling "Hair Force One 3" myself. Topping the list of links is a site selling a series of adult movies entitled "Hair Force One." So maybe some of those people who land here via Google are looking for something other than loud music. Whatever. If it means more page views, I'll continue to use the phrase.

But, as usual, I digress.

I decided to follow the shining example of the writers of the 1960s cartoon, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and use both titles, as they frequently did. Examples include:

Axe Me Another or Heads You Lose!
Avalanche is Better Than None or Snows Your Old Man
The Deep Six or The Old Moose and the Sea

And on and on. Brilliant!

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, the hair of Franklin Pierce, 14th President of the USA. While researching another Pierce topic, soon to be revealed in a separate post, I found an article in the May 19, 1900 Fitchburg (Mass) Daily Sentinel in which F.C. Currier writes about meeting Franklin Pierce during the Presidential campaign of 1852. Currier described Pierce as follows:

He was tall and of slender build, with erect, military bearing, black hair, standing up somewhat in curls.
So there you have it. Another foray into the obscure. Hair today and gone tomorrow! Hey wait a minute! It's another title. . .

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Happy Birthday, Franklin Pierce

Almost let the day get by without mentioning Franklin Pierce was born November 23, 1804 in a log cabin in New Hampshire. The house above is the one in Hillsborough where the family moved shortly after Franklin's birth.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Franklin Pierce in Another Top Ten List!

Franklin Pierce is No. 5 in the Top Ten Heads of Presidential Hair at the blog Receiving Me?.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Franklin Pierce in a Top Ten List!

Franklin Pierce appears in the top ten of a Presidential list! He is the sixth youngest man, at age 48 years, 101 days, to assume the office of U.S. President.

We can thank the mother of NPR's Farai Chideya for this list.

Monday, August 11, 2008

More on Hannah Duston

In yesterday's post, I gave a brief overview of the the new bobbleheads from the New Hampshire Historical Society--Hannah Duston, vengeful mother, and Passaconaway, Penacook Indian chief. I was grateful for the fact that the NHHS chose to model their bobblehead of Hannah after a statue which holds only the hatchet she used to kill her Indian captors (including six or seven children), and not the scalps she took from them. The distillers of Jim Beam whiskey were not so genteel when they turned Hannah into a bottle in 1973. Note that her left hand holds a few scalps, as does the monument to Hannah in Penacook, NH.

For a detailed review of numerous accounts of Hannah Duston's capture and escape, beginning with Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), see Kathryn Whitford's "Hannah Dustin: The Judgement of History." Essex Institute Historical Collections. Vol. CVIII, No. 4 (October 1972), 304-325, reproduced at the Hawthorne in Salem web site. Hawthorne was among the authors who wrote about Hannah and her family. Whitford's article captures the moral, legal, and religious ambiguities of Hannah's actions.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Bobblehead Brouhaha

As I wrote in an earlier post, I am the proud owner of a Franklin Pierce bobblehead purchased from the New Hampshite Historical Society.

Young Hickory of the Granite Hills, as Pierce was known, was New Hampshire's only favorite son to attain the office of President of the United States (1853-1857). Last month, the NHHS added two politically incorrect bobbleheads of 17th century historical characters to its museum store inventory. An assistant administrator of the society has resigned, and another employee refuses to work in the store as a consequence of these new offerings. Either of the new bobbleheads individually would be found objectionable by certain segments of the population, but the simultaneous release of the two seems particularly ill-advised.

The first new bobblehead is Hannah Duston. Here is a brief synopsis of her claim to fame from the blog of Fiona Broome:
One of the most horrific attacks occurred on March 15, 1697, when Indians burned six homes and killed or captured at least 39 people. Many of the victims were buried in Pentucket Burial Ground on Water Street, almost across the street from Buttonwoods. . . . (The Pentucket cemetery was established in 1668, and has many old and unmarked graves.) That was the same attack in which Hannah Dustin (or Duston) was captured, along with her newborn daughter, Martha, and Mary Neff, Hannah’s midwife. For 15 days, they were marched in freezing March weather. After Hannah’s six-day-old baby was brutally killed by Abenaki Indians, Hannah Dustin and Mary Neff were joined by another captive, 14-year-old Samuel Lennardson. Hannah avenged her daughter’s murder by organizing a revolt one night. With a hatchet, Hannah killed and scalped nine of the 10 or 12 Indians they ambushed. Among Hannah’s Native captors, only one woman and a young man escaped the attack. Hannah, Mary and Samuel seized a canoe and reached the nearest colonial settlement where they presented the scalps to the British authorities, for a reward of 50 pounds. Hannah’s story has been the subject of controversy. Some describe her as a hero while others are less flattering. Nevertheless, a Haverhill statue commemorates her history, and —though the story is disputed — she may be buried in an unmarked grave in the Pentucket Burial Ground.
The statue above, upon which the bobblehead is based, stands in Haverhill, Massachusetts,and is said to be the first statue in America memorializing a woman. Hannah holds a hatchet in her right hand.

Fortunately, the NHHS did not choose as a model an even more graphic statue which stands at the site of Hannah's grisly escape at Penacook, NH. Here she holds not just the hatchet in her right hand, but bloody scalps in her left.

The other new bobblehead is Chief Passaconaway, of the Penacook Tribe, a peaceful and powerful leader of his tribe in the 17th century. Some people have pointed out that the style and color of his hat are reminiscent of a smurf.

In defense of the NHHS, the hat looks a lot like the one worn by the chief in this engraving.
The choice of color could be debated, but the director of the NHHS has stated he thinks Indians of that time period may have worn a similar color. Besides, Smurfs' hats are white; their skin is blue.

Although the appearance of the bobblehead is objectionable to some people, even more disturbing is its release at the same time as the bobblehead of a crazed Indian scalper.

One of the interesting things I discovered while researching Passaconaway is that fact that William James Sidis, one of the most intelligent Americans ever, wrote a book about the chief under the pseudonym of Charles Edward Beals, Jr. I hope to devote a separate post to Sidis (1898-1944) in the near future.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Truman on Pierce

I found the following quote from Harry Truman at Manus Hand's interesting web page, Dead Presidents on Dead Presidents:

Pierce was a nincompoop.... It was Pierce's foolish notion that he could cool down the slavery question and make people forget about it by doing two things: filling his cabinet with people of different viewpoints, and concentrating almost entirely on foreign policy and territorial expansion instead of slavery problems. But the net result was that his cabinet members kept bickering with each other and didn't accomplish much, and Pierce's moves in other directions didn't distract people's attention from the slavery problems for a minute.... Pierce was one of the best-looking men ever in the White House. He was also one of the most vain, which I guess was on account of the fact that he was so good-looking. But though he looked the way people who make movies think a president should look, he didn't pay any more attention to business as president of the United States than the man in the moon, and he really made a mess of things.... Pierce was the best looking President the White House ever had -- but as President he ranks with Buchanan and Calvin Coolidge.
Harry sure gave 'im hell.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Franklin Pierce Misses the Hit Parade Again

In a new book, The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t), Alvin S. Felzenberg enters the Presidential rating game. Not surprisingly, Franklin Pierce once again ranks among the worst Presidents. Felzenberg scored the Presidents on five qualities: character, vision, competence, economic policy, human rights, and foreign policy. Unfortunately, he didn't grade the Presidents' hair. Perhaps then Pierce would have fared better. Being the thorough and conscientious social critic that I am, I have no intention of actually reading the book, so I don't know exactly what Pierce's score is. However, when asked "Who didn't we deserve?" in an interview with the National Review Online, Felzenberg had this to say:

We could have done without Andrew Johnson, Pierce, Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and quite a few others.

When asked about his least favorite President, Felzenberg named James Buchanan, because the nation drifted further toward Civil War during his watch. So I guess Franklin Pierce wasn't at the absolute bottom of the list.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Guano Diplomacy, Part II

Guano Diplomacy, Part I looked at the confict between the U.S. and Peru over the Lobos Islands, mentioned in Millard Fillmore's 1852 State of the Union speech. In Part II, we look at the events referenced in Franklin Pierce's State of the Union speech delivered on December 5, 1853:

Unfortunately, there has been a serious collision between our citizens who have resorted to the Chincha Islands for [guano] and the Peruvian authorities stationed there. Redress for the outrages committed by the latter was promptly demanded by our minister at Lima. This subject is now under consideration, and there is reason to believe that Peru is disposed to offer adequate indemnity to the aggrieved parties.

The outrages referred started with the killing of a pelican.

No kidding.

The American ship Defiance, commanded by Captain Robert McCerren, was laden with guano and almost ready to sail from the Cinchas Islands of Peru in 1853, when at least one of the ship's crew was arrested by the Peruvians for shooting a pelican, a crime which carried a fine of one dollar. The book American Clipper Ships by Octavius T. Howe puts the date of the arrest on August 14, 1853. I say at least one sailor was arrested, because Edmund Beatty, a friend of McCerren's who claimed to be an eyewitness to the events, in a letter published in the New York Times published June 23, 1854, stated that four of the ship's crew were held by the Peruvians. In any case, Capt. McCerren went to the Peruvian authorities, offered to pay the one dollar fine, and requested the release of his crewman (or men). This request was denied, and, according to Beatty, Capt. McCerren was escorted back to the Defiance under armed guard.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Guano Diplomacy

Millard Fillmore

Whenever one nation possesses a commodity coveted by another nation, conflict ensues. Thus it was with guano during the nineteenth century. In his 1852 State of the Union address, Millard Fillmore said:

The correspondence of the late Secretary of State with the Peruvian charge d'affaires relative to the Lobos Islands was communicated to Congress toward the close of the last session. Since that time, on further investigation of the subject, the doubts which had been entertained of the title of Peru to those islands have been removed, and I have deemed it just that the temporary wrong which had been unintentionally done her from want of information should be repaired by an unreserved acknowledgment of her sovereignty.

I have the satisfaction to inform you that the course pursued by Peru has been creditable to the liberality of her Government. Before it was known by her that her title would be acknowledged at Washington, her minister of foreign affairs had authorized our chargé d'affaires at Lima to announce to the American vessels which had gone to the Lobos for guano that the Peruvian Government was willing to freight them on its own account. This intention has been carried into effect by the Peruvian minister here by an arrangement which is believed to be advantageous to the parties in interest.
Daniel Webster

The "late Secretary of State" was none other than Daniel Webster. On June 2, 1852, a Captain John C. Jewett sent a letter to Webster asking whether American citizens could take guano from the Lobos Islands in the Pacific. Webster replied in a letter dated June 5, 1852, that it was the position of the Department of State that neither Peru nor any other country had legal claim to the Lobos Islands and the guano thereon, and on the same day, Webster sent a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, suggesting the Navy protect anyone obtaining guano from the Lobos. As events unfolded, much hue and cry arose over Webster's first letter to Jewett, authorizing Americans to harvest guano from the Lobos Islands, and whether President Fillmore had approved the letter. A draft of the letter initialled by Fillmore was subsequently found, although he denied any recollection of approving it. The controversy was taken up by the press in the U.S., as well as in Peru, as shown in this excerpt from a letter from the American Chargéd'Affaires in Lima.
Text not available
Reports of Committees 30th Congress, 1st Session - 48th Congress, 2nd Session By United States Congress. Senate

Extensive correspondence between Peru and the U.S. convinced the U.S. government that Peru in fact owned the Lobos, and Webster reneged on his promise of Naval protection for Jewett, much to the chagrin of Capt. Jewett and his partner Mr. A.G. Bensen, who chartered several vessels to go to the Lobos under the protection implied by Webster's promise to Jewett. When Bensen's ships arrived at Peru, they were not allowed to take guano from the Lobos Islands, but a deal was struck whereby they could load guano at the Cinchas Islands, and Bensen was to be paid 20 dollars a ton by the Peruvians for hauling the guano. The deal did not go smoothly, and Bensen evetually filed claims against the U.S. government and Peru. The claims were considered by the Committee of Claims of the Senate in 1856 and 1857, but I haven't yet been able to find the ultimate outcome.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Marx and Pierce

Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) were contemporaries, but to my knowledge, they never met. The title of this post instead refers to Louis Marx, the toy magnate, whose company produced the semi-educational Presidents of the United States series of plastic figures beginning in the 1950's. Those interested can find more information at The series was produced in various sizes, some in white plastic that the owner could paint if so desired, and some pre-painted. I bought a painted version on eBay. It doesn't look all that much like Franklin Pierce, except for the wayward lock of hair on his forehead, and the Napoleanesque pose he affected in some of his portraits.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Franklin Pierce and the Golden Age of Guano

Among historians, Franklin Pierce consistently ranks among the worst Presidents of the United States. Part of his infamy arises from a crucial piece of legislation he signed--the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The act established the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, and allowed each territory to decide whether to allow slavery, effectively negating the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which outlawed slavery north of latitude 36 degress, 30 minutes. Violence erupted between advocates of slavery and freesoilers in the Kansas territory, leading Horace Greeley to coin the phrase "Bleeding Kansas." The violence in Kansas was a prelude to the Civil War.

Politicians forcing slavery on a freesoiler (L to R): Steven A. Douglas, Franklin Pierce (pulling the beard), James Buchanan, Lewis Cass

The historical impact of the Kansas-Nebraska Act overshadows another significant law enacted during the administration of Pierce--The Guano Islands Act of 1856. Yes, this is a law that deals with bird droppings, but which also had a lot to do with American expansion.

As a fertilizer, guano was essential to the agricultural economy of the U.S. during the period from 1840-1880, sometimes called, with a completely straight face, The Golden Age of Guano. Pierce's predecessor, Millard Fillmore, had this to say on the topic in his State of the Union Speech in 1850:

Peruvian guano has become so desirable an article to the agricultural interest of the United States that it is the duty of the Government to employ all the means properly in its power for the purpose of causing that article to be imported into the country at a reasonable price. Nothing will be omitted on my part toward accomplishing this desirable end. I am persuaded that in removing any restraints on this traffic the Peruvian Government will promote its own best interests, while it will afford a proof of a friendly disposition toward this country, which will be duly appreciated.

Franklin Pierce also brought up the topic in his 1853 State of the Union speech:

A new branch of commerce, important to the agricultural interests of the United States, has within a few years past been opened with Peru. Notwithstanding the inexhaustible deposits of guano upon the islands of that country, considerable difficulties are experienced in obtaining the requisite supply. Measures have been taken to remove these difficulties and to secure a more abundant importation of the article. Unfortunately, there has been a serious collision between our citizens who have resorted to the Chincha Islands for it and the Peruvian authorities stationed there. Redress for the outrages committed by the latter was promptly demanded by our minister at Lima. This subject is now under consideration, and there is reason to believe that Peru is disposed to offer adequate indemnity to the aggrieved parties.

Peruvian guano was desirable because the seafood diets of seabirds such as the Peruvian booby and the Guanay cormorant are rich in plant nutrients, and the dry climate along the coast of Peru results in the guano drying quickly, making it relatively odorless, and preventing nitrates from evaporating away.

While the finest kind of guano came from Peru's Chincha Islands, other small islands were potential sources. I grew up on a duck farm, and I can testify to the prodigious amounts of manure produced by large numbers of birds confined to a small area. Several small islands frequented by seabirds in the Pacific and Caribbean were collectively known as the Guano Islands.

Peruvian Booby

So, in 1856, to promote the agriculture necessary for westward expansion, Congress passed, and Franklin Pierce signed, the Guano Island Act, which allowed U.S. citizens to mine guano (deposits which had been accumulating for thousands of years could be up to 150 feet deep) from any island, rock, or key not under the jurisdiction of another government. The U.S. would annex the island and protect the rights of the discoverer to occupy the island and mine the guano. The Act also stated the U.S. could give up possession of a guano island it at any time. Although not explicitly stated, Congress was making sure that the U.S. could dump any guano island when its resources were all used up.

Franklin Pierce was, or course, incorrect when he referred to "inexhaustible deposits of guano," and the disruption of the ecology of guano islands resulted in dwindling supplies. That, plus the industrial production of fertilizer, brought the Golden Age of Guano to an end around 1880.

Peruvian guano is in the news again today, as prices of synthetic fertilizers skyrocket. Peruvians are collecting what little guano is found on offshore islands as fish populations and the populations of seabirds which feed on them have dwindled. See the New York Times article "Peru Guards Its Guano As Demand Soars Again".

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Googling Hair Force One

I chose to use the term Hair Force One in two previous posts about President Franklin Pierce's hair. I chose this phrase because it is a word play on the name of the Presidential airplane. The only time I had heard it previously was on CNBC, in reference to commentator Joe Kernan on the show "Squawkbox." He is endowed with a full head of hair, and host Mark Haines sometimes refers to Kernan's desk as "Hair Force One." Anyway, monitoring hits on this blog via Feedjit, I noticed one reader arrived from a Google search "watch hair force one 3 online." Hmmm, I thought, I wonder what that's about. I ran a search for Hair Force One myself, and found out that there is a heavy metal/hair band by that name. Many of the search results had to do with a video of somebody named Edguy performing a cover of the band's romantic ballad "F***ing with Fire!" I also learned that Hair Force One is an online game at the National Pediculosis Association web site, where the player uses a Lice Meister comb to remove lice from a child's head (see also my previous post "How to Avoid Writing"). Finally, the search yielded a site with a rather disturbing video which "defends hairy women around the planet." A good portion of the video consists of a woman applying some sort of gel to the ample hair on her bare midrift. As if that weren't bad enough, a good portion of the rest focuses on unshaved female armpits. The moral of the story is that shaving of female body hair is the result of a greedy plot launched in 1915 by the Wilkinson Sword Razor Blade Co. and Harpers Bazaar Magazine. Wow! I won't supply a link to the video. If you're that interested, you can google it yourself.

I apologize to anyone who might have landed here looking for a heavy metal rock band, a louse-killing game, or hirsute females.

Updike on "Bad" Presidents

I don't often reread books. I have such a huge backlog of partially read and unread books that I feel I'm just getting further behind by going back to a book I've read before. However, my recently acquired interest in the life of Franklin Pierce has inspired me to reread John Updike's Memories of the Ford Administration. The novel's protagonist, like Updike, writes about James Buchanan. Franklin Pierce beat out James Buchanan, among others, for the Democratic nomination for President in 1852 (on the 49th ballot). Buchanan was the Democratic candidate and went on to win the election when Pierce was not offered the nomination in 1856. Another interesting connection between Pierce and Buchanan is that Buchanan's long-time room mate, William Rufus deVane King, was elected Pierce's vice-President. He and his alleged homosexual relationship with Buchanan will be the subject of another post.

Updike, through his protagonist, Alfred L. Clayton, wrote the following about Buchanan and the other "bad" Presidents leading up to the Civil War:

The challenge is, for the historian, to love the unlovable. . .He (Buchanan) tried to keep peace. That whole decade of Presidents did, Fillmore and Pierce and Buchanan--try, I mean--and they succeeded, they did keep the South placated, and in the Union, which was important, since if war had come in 1850 instead of 1860, the outcome might have been very different; the South had all its assets in place--the military tradition, the great officers, the down-home patriotism, King Cotton--and the North still needed to grow. And precious little thanks they've got from history for it--the doughface Presidents.

The term doughface was applied to northerners sympathizing with the south. Pierce has been accused of being pro-slavery, which is probably unfair. He was a Jacksonian Democrat and strict constructionist who believed the Constitution allowed slavery, but stated he personally was opposed to it.

Perhaps, as Updike's character suggests, we should love the unlovable and thank Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan for delaying war until the North was in a position to win. Interestingly, it was Jefferson Davis, Pierce's Secretary of War, who did much to build up the U.S. military before secession, when he became president of the Confedrate States of America.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Franklin Pierce Runs Over Woman - Not!

One bit of probably false Franklin Pierce trivia promulgated around the internet is the story of him running over an old woman while driving a horse and carriage. One version says this occurred while he was President and that he was arrested.

OK, the guy's the President of the United States. I realize it's the 1850s, but do you think he's going to be driving himself around the streets of Washington? Don't you think it would be pretty big news if he did run over somebody?

David Holzel, in his "Five Amazing Facts About Franklin Pierce (In Honor of His 203rd Birthday)", quotes no less an authority than Peter Wallner, who wrote not one, but two Pierce biographies. Wallner said, "The fact that there are no newspaper stories about the accident and it wasn’t mentioned in any correspondence convinced me that it probably didn’t happen.”

That's good enough for me.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Hair Force One, Part Two

It seems that Presidential hair was a hot topic around February 15, 2008. As I explained in an earlier post, that's when the New Hampshire Historical Society unveiled what they felt was the secret of Franklin Pierce's hair. That very Presidents Day weekend, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia put on an exhibition of Presidential hair--really! The hair samples came from the Peter Browne Collection of Pile--again I say, really! Peter Browne (1762-1860) was a lawyer and amateur naturalist who was interested in sheep (in a nice way, I mean). He started out collecting wool, otherwise known as pile, and studied what types of wool would be suited to different uses. He then branched out into collecting samples of human hair, including the hair of famous people. Included in the collection are the locks of several Presidents, including none other than Franklin Pierce. Thus occurred another opportunity for the media to take potshots at the 14th President. Writing in the article "Presidential Hair on Display" at, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Alfred Lubrano pointed out that the hair samples do not include the follicles, and therefore would not be a source of DNA for "cloning the brilliant redhead Thomas Jefferson or, for sheer laughs, good ol' Franklin Pierce, the very distant relative of President Bush's mother, and a Confederacy-supporting alcoholic with a thick, brown mop."

Bashing of Handsome Frank aside, it's an interesting article with an accompanying video and a slideshow that includes a photo of the page from Browne's scrapbook with Pierce's hair sample. It's much more attractively displayed than the one at the New Hampshire Historical Society web site shown in my previous post, "Hair Force One."

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Franklin Pierce - Whipping Boy of Pundits and Naysayers

Once again, the name of Franklin Pierce comes up in the political blogosphere this election year. In her article, "Wes Clark and the Military Credential," in the TIME/CNN blog Swampland, Karen Tumulty discusses the men who had military experience as generals before being elected U.S. President. General Wes Clark recently said that John McCain's military service didn't necessarily mean he would be a good Commander-in-Chief, which set off a firestorm of chatter in the media. Ms. Tumulty, taking the same exhaustive, thorough approach to journalism that I do, used Google to find out how many U.S. Presidents had been generals, and how those Presidents ranked in a survey of historians, political scientists and legal scholars that the Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society did in 2000. Please note that John McCain was not a general, the world changed quite a bit between the time of George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and I personally believe this whole discussion is irrelevant.

In any event, Ms. Tumulty notes that of the twelve former generals who became President, "...two were flat-out 'failures': Franklin Pierce (Mexican War) and Andrew Johnson (Civil War)." Poor Franklin Pierce--Rodney Dangerfield got more respect than this guy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Franklin Pierce Bobblehead

I ordered mine yesterday from the New Hampshire Historical Society. Don't miss out! It's a limited edition!

Hair Force One

Currier Print of Franklin Pierce

The hair of Abraham Lincoln is so desirable to collectors that a 1/16-inch-long piece of a single hair, allegedly cut from the Great Emancipator's head on his deathbed, is listed on eBay at $1900. One-sixteenth of an inch!

Consider then, the value of this lock of Franklin Pierce's hair from the New Hampshire Historical Society collection.

To me, it looks like something a cat coughed up. That, plus Pierce's sullied reputation as an ineffective President, tells me that his tresses probably wouldn't fetch a high price in the booming deceased celebrity hair market. But I may be wrong. Maybe there are enough Pierce aficianados out there to bid up the price.

Apparently, Pierce's tonsorial splendor was one reason behind his nickname, Handsome Frank. Today, there is some question among Pierce commentators (don't look for them on CNN or MSNBC) about whether Franklin Pierce's hairdo was a result of careless indifference, or thoughtfully planned coiffure. The experts seem to come down on the side of thoughtful planning. Writing in the blog Mental Floss, David Holzel lists as number five of his "Five Amazing Facts About Franklin Pierce (In Honor of His 203rd Birthday)" the tantalizing possibility that Franklin Pierce perfected the combover. He cites as evidence a photo from 1862 which supposedly shows Pierce's hair on two levels--"above, the hair combed on a deep slant, and below, a small patch at the front and center of his wide forehead." Alas, the photo is not included in the article so that astute readers might judge for themselves. I haven't been able to locate the said photo, even in an extensive gallery of Pierce's hairstyles at the website of the New Hampshire Historical Society. The NHHS e-newsletter of February 15, 2008 focuses on a bit of evidence in the great hair, or should I say big hair, debate. The Society purchased a letter written by Franklin's wife, Jane, at auction. The letter, written to her sister in 1857, contains the passage, “Today, Mr. Pierce has met the citizens of Norfolk and after the fatigue is quietly lying on the sofa by a bright fire with Miriam brushing his hair soporifically.” Miriam was Mrs. Pierce's maid. I'm not sure if the phrase means that Mr. Pierce found the hair-brushing so relaxing he was falling asleep, or the maid found the task so boring that she was nodding off. In any case, one might conclude from this little vignette that Pierce was interested in the appearance of his hair. In the newsletter, Peter Wallner, director of the NHHS library and author of two volumes of Franklin Pierce biograpy, states, “While the evidence is not conclusive, the letter leads one to suspect that the vanity Pierce showed for his appearance extended to his hair as well.”

The other mention of President Pierce's hair I have found in my exhaustive research comes from the newspaper description of his lying in state at the New Hampshire State House in Concord, where mourners commented on “his mass of curly black hair, somewhat tinged by age, but which was still combed on a deep slant over his wide forehead.” [New Hampshire Daily Patriot, October 11, 1869]. Deep slant or combover? You be the judge. As David Holzel says at the conclusion of his Mental Floss article, "Pierce’s hair unquestionably is a subject for future historians to wrestle with." Let's just hope they don't have to wrestle with that hairball at the NHHS Museum.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Peculiar Pierce Memorabilia

Doing a search of blogs at has turned up a few interesting Franklin Pierce related posts. First I learned that sells apparel such as T-shirts, bibs and onesies displaying the handsome visage of our 14th President. Next, I found a (mercifully) short-lived attempt at a Franklin Pierce comic strip. And finally, one blogger owns a piano from the Francestown (NH) Academy, where Franklin Pierce was a student. Whether he actually played the piano is unknown to me, but it makes for a nice Washington-slept-here type story.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Franklin Pierce Praised

New Hampshire man Elting E. Morison wrote a piece entitled "In Praise of Pierce" in the August/Sept. 1985 issue of American Heritage Magazine.

Franklin Pierce Dissed Again

On Feb. 6, 2007, US News and World Report posted an article on the ten worst Presidents in U.S. history. Franklin Pierce came in #4.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Franklin Pierce Rising

Perhaps Franklin Pierce will rise from obscurity this election season. He is getting some publicity now. In the June 13, 2008 edition of the Christian Science Monitor, Ruth Walker writes in an article about the "historic" campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton entitled "Not Quite the End of 'History',"
It is a moment to savor in the life of the nation. But is history the facts, the deeds themselves; or the telling of them? Of course they made history, one wants to say; the US presidency is always "historic." Consider Franklin Pierce, the obscure 14th president. Amazon lists a dozen biographies of him, including a new one due out in August, plus two compilations of his papers.
After checking on, it looks to me like the book being published in August is a recycling of a biography for children written by Steven Ferry in 2001, but at least the publisher is optimistic enough to think that children still read books and that they might be interested in history.

Blogger billysumday in his diary had me going for a minute with his parody of a recent John McCain remark. McCain responded to Barack Obama's comment that McCain was running for George W. Bush's third term by saying that Obama was running for Jimmy Carter's second term. Billysumday changed the response to make it Franklin Pierce's second term. The implication is that McCain is old and making outdated references. It may be the case that many young voters are equally unfamiliar with Carter and Pierce.

Finally, in an article about ex-Presidents, Jeremy Lott wrote of Bill Clinton in the blog Politico on May 20, 2008,
He may also be in the same strata as Franklin Pierce, who, though from New Hampshire, was a slavery enthusiast and denounced the Civil War effort to keep the nation united. Pierce died a reclusive alcoholic, a former president scorned even by local schoolchildren, who often threw pebbles at him on the rare occasions he ventured outside.
Little old lady English teacher note: If there are indeed different levels of bad ex-Presidents, then Clinton would be in the same stratum, not the same strata as Pierce, unless it is possible to be so bad as to occupy multiple levels in the hierarchy of former leaders of the free world.

For a nice concise video about Franklin Pierce, check out

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Franklin Pierce the Obscure

It probably has something to do with the fact that I am in my fourteenth hour of reading X-rays, CTs and ultrasounds on call today. I don't know how else to explain this post. I would do almost anything, read almost anything, Google almost anything to get away from the images of the huddled masses in the ERs and ICUs, yearning to have their brain hemorrhages, belly abscesses, and clotted veins diagnosed by yours truly. Actually, the afflicted have no idea who I am, nor will they ever, until they see my name on their bill, for radiologists labor for the most part in obscurity in front of computer monitors. So, for respite between cases, I have been surfing the web for material on the Marx brothers. They are cited as an area of interest in my Blogger profile, but I have not written about them yet. My search took me to David Holzel's zine The Jewish Angle, where he talks about being inspired by Groucho, and his plaster statue of Groucho, like the one I have.
In fact, I have plaster statues of Harpo and Chico as well. Harpo was a wedding present almost thirty-five years ago, and the other brothers were added soon after. From Holzel's site, I linked to The Franklin Pierce Pages, authored by Holzel, Benjamin Bratman, and Todd Leopold. Here, an unusual convergence of items from my recent posts occurred in Bratman's article "Wrested From the Jaws of Triviality." To wit:
Pierce had the peculiar distinction of having as vice president the only nationally elected American official ever to be sworn in on foreign soil. Pierce also had the peculiar distinction of having as vice president a man who never worked one day in the job. William Rufus de Vane King was terminally ill with tuberculosis when he was nominated and subsequently elected as vice president. (This begs the question, why was he selected?). He was sworn in in Cuba where he was seeking medical treatment. Less than a month later, he died, never having assumed his duties.
Ah ha! An example of the modern usage of "begs the question," which I had condemned in recent posts.

Also from Bratman's article:
Pierce’s salad days were clearly in college at Bowdoin College in Maine. There, he was a classmate of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who later became a writer and author of The Scarlet Letter, as well as one of Pierce’s closest friends and advisors.
Wow! Another of my newfound obsessions--Nathaniel Hawthorne! Bratman doesn't mention that Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography of his friend Franklin Pierce, and was rewarded with the American consulship to Liverpool after Pierce was elected. Hawthorne stayed at the post from 1853-57. Also of note, Hawthorne died on a trip to the White Mountains with Pierce in 1864.

Who knows, I may now become obsessed with Franklin Pierce. After all, writing about an obscure president (James Buchanan) paid off for John Updike in his play Buchanan Dying and his novel Memories of the Ford Administration.