November 9, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
This post, updated from the original on my Ordinary Time blog, as well as a story I’ve told, seemed an appropriate followup to this week’s election.
New Hampshire is home state to two American Presidents.
Franklin Pierce, our fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, is widely thought to have been one of the worst presidents in American history. Josiah “Jed” Bartlet of The West Wing, was the President New Hampshire would like to have given us.
Franklin Pierce was brought in as a dark horse candidate -as was Jed Bartlet.
He won during the contentious years before secession primarily because he had expressed no strong opinions. A charming, convivial man, he struggled with alcohol most of his life, in a profession whose wheels were lubricated by it. Pierce’s great- great- grandnephew, George W. Bush, seems to have conquered that demon before he entered politics.
Pierce had wooed and eventually married the daughter of the president of Bowdoin College, Jane Appleton – painfully shy, deeply religious, pro-temperance and tubercular – partly to straighten himself out. The approach was not entirely successful. Neither she nor her family saw politics as a gentleman’s profession. She detested Washington and often refused to live there.
On several occasions Pierce swore off politics and alcohol for his wife’s sake.
But the lure of both overcame his best intentions. Pierce resigned his seat in the Senate in 1841 and returned to his law practice in New Hampshire, only to be nominated for President, with four other candidates, by the Democratic party. He assured Jane nothing would come of it; when she heard he had not only won the nomination, but had accepted it, she fainted.
Two months before Pierce’s inauguration, tragedy struck.
On a train between Andover and Lawrence, the Pierce family was traveling together when their car derailed and toppled over an embankment. Benjamin, 11, was crushed to death before his parents’ eyes. Jane’s first child had died in infancy, and the second of epidemic typhus at age four. She saw this final blow as divine retribution for her husband’s ambition.
That night, and for many nights thereafter, Jane Pierce spent her time writing to her dead son asking his forgiveness, trying to contact him in séances (something the wife of the sixteenth president, Mary Todd Lincoln, did as well), and seeking comfort in religion.
In a haze of guilt and grief, Franklin Pierce was not sworn in as President.
He affirmed the Oath of Office on a law book, and left the Bible out of it. His wife did not attend the inauguration. There was no inaugural ball. The White House state rooms were decked in permanent mourning bunting.
Pierce was a politician, not a leader, and politics is a fickle mistress.
His unsuccessful attempts to acquire Cuba, where slavery and a plantation economy also reigned, were seen in terms of their impact upon domestic tensions. That and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which reopened the question of slavery in the West, made Pierce so unpopular in the North that his party refused to nominate him for a second term.During reconstruction, a letter he wrote expressing sympathies for his former cabinet member Jefferson Davis made him anathema in Washington. When Jane Pierce died in 1863, the only person who came to mourn with him was his Bowdoin college friend and biographer, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
When Abraham Lincoln was shot, Pierce’s house was mobbed.
“After the White House what is there to do but drink?”
he reportedly quipped, and proceeded to make good on the observation. He died in 1869, of cirrhosis of the liver. It would be almost a century before New Hampshire named a college (now a university) after him, with the “unique mission” of preparing future leaders.
If Jed Bartlet did not exist, New Hampshire must be glad Hollywood chose to invent him.
Looking both presidents up on Wikipedia, you would be hard pressed to tell fiction from reality. Pierce’s entry is about a thousand words longer than Bartlet’s, but the format is so similar as to be indistinguishable. There is one telltale giveaway. The table listing Pierce’s cabinet members doesn’t have the actors playing each in parentheses.
Some things about the brave new world of user-generated content make me a little squeamish. It seems you can find out anything on the Internet – whether it’s true or not.