Remembering The Unremembered, Part Two: Handsome Frank and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad PresidencyPosted: July 8, 2011
“He wasn’t proslavery. He was anti-abolition. There’s a difference.”
Franklin Pierce is the tragic story of the well-meaning but single-minded president who tried to please everyone and managed to please no one.
What’s up with that?
Pierce, who was born here in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, in 1804, was “arguably the most handsome man ever to serve as president of the United States,” writes historian Michael F. Holt. “He was certainly one of the most amiable and congenial men to hold that office,” Holt continues—all factors that contributed to his massive political success in the New Hampshire and national House of Representatives and propelled him to the presidency as the youngest person yet to serve in the White House at that time.
So what happened? Why is Pierce frequently ranked among the worst presidents of all time? Why do visitors come to this New Hampshire homestead just to call him a slave-holder (false) and Northern sellout (not-so-false) and doughface “lickspittle” (huh?) and to blame him for the Civil War?
And why defend Pierce at all?
Since beginning this trip, I’ve grown fascinated with the ways in which the guides and historians I meet not only admire, but almost sincerely (and certainly irrationally) love the presidents whose birthplaces they help preserve.
I think of Charlotte, the FDR historian who assured me the Hyde Park historic site is far from an endorsement, then spoke passionately on how Roosevelt injected hope into Hoover-era politics. I think of Linda, lead interpreter at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, who so quickly hushed me when I uttered mention of Wilson’s reported admiration of Birth of a Nation. “That is a falsehood!” Linda exclaimed; Wilson had been framed by opponents and liberal historians. And I think of Paul, tour guide at the Martin Van Buren State Historic Site, who spoke of President Van Buren’s humble beginnings while showing us around the totally-swagged-out Lindenwald mansion, and assured me that the Trail of Tears was entirely Andrew Jackson’s doings.
What I’ve realized is simple. Every president—even the most hated, forgettable, or generally undistinguished—has a staunch defender somewhere. Pierce has at various points fit all three categories. Here’s what I learned at the Piece Homestead (which may or may not quite be his birthplace; details below) in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, earlier this week.
Pierce, says Lisa, a tour guide at the Pierce Homestead who wishes not to be identified by her real name, accomplished exactly what he set out to do. He kept the Union together and postponed the Civil War.
Actually, most contemporary historians agree, Pierce simply escalated tensions between the North and the South. He came out in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, thereby repealing the Missouri Compromise and inciting violence in “Bleeding Kansas.” His administration drafted the Ostend Manifesto, which proposed purchasing Cuba from Spain and largely discredited Manifest Destiny in the process. (This was more James Buchanan’s doing, Lisa argues. Pierce’s successor was then Minister to Great Britain.)
And, Micheal Holt asserts, Pierce, in perhaps his greatest political failing, “was consumed by an obsessive drive to unify his own splintering political party rather than attend to the crisis over slavery that was roiling the country.”
But one thing, Lisa insists: “During his administration, we did not go to war!”
She’s right. And she knows an awful lot about the Franklin Pierce Homestead, the fourteenth president’s childhood home in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, built by Franklin’s father, Revolutionary War hero and eventually NH governor Benjamin Pierce, in 1804. “The home is one of Franklin Pierce’s probable places of birth,” Wikipedia reports, “the other now lying beneath the nearby impoundment of Franklin Pierce Lake.” Whatever, yo. I’ve had enough of probable birthplaces and mysteries and disputes.
When Benjamin owned the home, Lisa assures me, it was just “one big party, 24/7″—much to the chagrin of Franklin’s uptight, über-religious bride, Jane Means Appleton Pierce. Here’s that interview in full.
Tell me briefly about the history of the Franklin Pierce Homestead.
Well, there’s nothing brief about it! It was first built in 1804, and that was the same year Franklin was born. When the Pierces decided it was time for an addition, they just found an abandoned house, put it on wheels, and rolled it on over. That was pretty common at the time.
And it went to his oldest daughter Betsy upon Benjamin’s death, and then it passed on to Frances Potter, Betsy’s daughter. And after that it started getting really fuzzy for a while. As I said, there was a gentleman here briefly who made a lot of changes, but he wasn’t here very long, and after that it gets really strange—I’m not sure who all owned it. Some people would purchase it but not really live here. Once you got into the 1900s there were people who purchased it with the purpose of preserving it, but they weren’t really sure what-all to do. Today, this is what the house looked like in 1824, when Franklin was returning from Bowdoin College.
How long did Franklin live here?
Franklin used this as his primary residence until he married a couple of weeks before his thirtieth birthday. I should mention, though, that the first state-hired tour guides here were Franklin’s grand-nieces. His younger brother Henry’s granddaughters, who were a couple of maiden ladies, who lived in the house that Franklin lived in briefly after he married. And they did very much what I do now: they took people through, although they did serve people tea apparently, and then they’d try to sell them weird junk, the way I do.
Do you think Franklin Pierce was born in this homestead?
I’m not 100% sure of that, and no, I’m thinking it’s probably not terribly likely. I’m more inclined to believe the stories that have been passed down in town. I think it might be considered a little more romantic and better for the homestead to say he was born here . . .
Where do you think he was born?
I think he was born in the family’s original home, the site of which is now underwater in Pierce Lake, about a mile from here. But no one can tell for certain.
There are no birth records from 1804?
Well, nothing that would definitively say exactly where he was born. Only that he was born in Hillsborough. And he was number seven out of nine children.
How would you characterize the atmosphere at the Pierce Homestead?
When Benjamin Pierce owned it, as I said to you before: Party Central. It was one big party here all the time. I cannot stress that enough.
Benjamin loved people. He was not a formal person, he loved having a house full of people and parties, and it was just always a happy, kind of a rowdy place.
How did Franklin Pierce’s wife react to that?
She was not too comfortable here. She had come from a very religious—strictly religious—and staid and repressed upbringing, and this was just not the sort of thing that she was accustomed to, and it did make her feel uncomfortable at times. She hated Hillsborough, thought it was a terribly uncouth and wild town. Jane was kind of the beginning of those Victorian Era-women . . .
How did Franklin Pierce’s upbringing at this homestead influence his political career and presidency?
Having grown up here and listening to the war stories that his father and his father’s old Revolutionary War buddies would tell—I mean, he was constantly surrounded by these important people and great political figures and all who had either been a part of the Revolutionary War or were somehow affiliated with it—and they all kept pounding into his head the importance of upholding that Constitution. That so much was sacrificed in order to create this country that preserving it as it was and following those rules that were set down by the founding fathers was of the utmost importance.
What do you think are the most notable accomplishments of Franklin Pierce’s presidency?
The one that I think he would have been the most proud of and that he actually put as his goal was to maintain the Union and keep the Civil War from starting, because I think many people foresaw it and it was his goal to try to prevent it as long as he possible. And he did accomplish that. he just kept stalling it, same with Buchanan. During his administration we did not go to war! Franklin thought slavery would die a natural death. He wasn’t proslavery—he was anti-abolition. There’s a difference.
One of the personal things that I like about Franklin is that he was a good friend. When he was your friend, he was your friend for life.
How would you respond to various criticisms of Pierce’s presidency?
Well, some of the criticisms were probably . . . well, probably accurate, and he wasn’t always the best decision-maker. I think he was trying too hard to make everybody happy, and in the end, nobody was happy. He came across as probably being a little weak in that regard, and sometimes overly influenced by some of the southern politicians he was working with. But a lot of the things he did for them were in order to appease them. Because there was this constant threat of the South seceding.
Do you think people remember his presidency fairly?
No, no, I don’t think so. Many people have vilified him. And some of the stories that have been passed down about him were obviously things that were made up by his political enemies.
Well, I don’t like to say, because then they keep getting spread! [laughs]
I won’t spread them!
Well, for one thing, there is a story that has perpetuated for some reason about him having killed somebody in Washington driving a carriage drunk. And Peter Wallner, one of his latest and best biographers, went to great lengths to research that. Not only did he check all of the police reports of that general period, but he also went through people’s personal diaries. So even if it was something that was covered up, it would have shown up in somebody’s private diary! If they’d heard some juice news like that . . . And yet there is nothing from the time about it.
What about Franklin Pierce’s good looks?
Well, I think that the portraits and photographs speak for themselves. He was a good-looking guy. It certainly didn’t hurt him any in politics. But he definitely got those good looks from his parents, and, uh, yeah, I prefer Ben myself, but that’s a personal preference. [laughs]
What brings you to the Franklin Pierce Homestead?
My father. He came here when he retired from the army, about twenty-five or so years ago. He started volunteering here. And he ended up overseeing much of the restoration work inside of the house. And when my husband retired from the military we just sort of followed him here. And it’s sort of become a family tradition now. You get sucked in and you can’t get out.
How long have you been working here?
This is my sixth season being a paid guide for the state.
What sort of people visit the Franklin Pierce Homestead?
Oh, it’s a wide variety of people. Some people stumble across it completely by accident and know nothing about it, and sometimes even by the time they leave they still don’t particularly care. Some people come in because they heard it was Franklin Pierce’s home, the fourteenth president, and they say to themselves, “I don’t recall ever hearing of him!” So they come in out of curiosity. And every so often you get a real fanatic who comes in with an “I Like Frank” t-shirt, and yeah, they’re fun, because they want to know all the little details, and it’s fun to tell them what I can.
What are some of the challenges in presenting this site?
Well, some of the challenges are especially the people who come in who already have this negative attitude towards him, so I feel it’s my duty to try to balance that out. And it’s a little uncomfortable sometimes. You’ll get somebody shouting out in the middle of a tour that he was a slaveholder, and I’m like, “Noooo, I don’t think so!” and having to try to be reasonably polite while doing so.
Did you know much about Franklin Pierce previously?
No—in fact, I knew very, very little about him. And I remember before I was hired here trying to look him up in my old college textbooks and my old encyclopedias, and they both had a paragraph just a few lines long that said exactly the same thing. They said he was handsome and affable, which is exactly the same thing as in the C-Span video. That’s not helpful!
What’s the value in preserving Franklin Pierce’s Homestead?
Ithink remembering history is of the utmost importance! Because you’re going to repeat mistakes if you don’t. And I see that all the time. If people don’t study it in detail, they just sort of skim over the surface, and sometimes it can be very warped. And I also try to make the house very interesting. I try to really give you the feel of what it was like with a family living here, because dry facts don’t appeal to many people. But people do tend to remember the family that I’ve described and what their life was like here. And that makes it pertain more to what their own is like and what sort of political things are happening even now. You can sometimes find that there are equivalencies, and you need to be aware, and say, “There’s nothing new about this, it’s happened before, what can we do this time to make it come out a little differently?”
How does the town of Hillsborough remember Franklin Pierce?
Of course, they do periodically have anniversary- type events here. At one point they had a big celebration in honor of the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth, I think. They had a big ball where everybody dressed up as the period from when he was president, and it was quite the thing. He’s often memorialized in our parades here. I know at one point they put the sleigh up on a flatbed trailer and they dressed up my father as Franklin and hauled him through time, and things like that are often done.
Are people here proud of Franklin Pierce?
I believe they are!