The Two Presidents from New Hampshire


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.  

Daguerrotype of Franklin Pierce in uniform - he was a general during the Mexican -American War - by  William H. Kimball, 1852

Daguerrotype of Franklin Pierce in as a general in the Mexican-American War by 
William H. Kimball, 1852. Courtesy New Hampshire Historical Society

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.

Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet -- NBC Photo: David Rose. Courtesy The

Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet — NBC Photo: David Rose. Courtesy The

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.

Jane Pearce with Benjamin

Jane Pearce with her youngest son Benjamin – “Bennie.”

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.

Reynolds's_Political_Map_of_the_United_States_1856 (1)

By Reynolds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.



14 thoughts on “The Two Presidents from New Hampshire

  1. jan says:

    Sounds like Pierce’s life was very tragic – politics is not for everyone, that’s for sure. Interesting post! Jan


  2. Natasha says:

    This is a book waiting to be written. With a twist, of course. In the fantasy life, Pierce would have risen to the challenge of being President despite his tragic home life.


    • Natasha: Thanks for taking an interest in our 160+ year old past. The Kansas-Nebraska Act essentially led to the birth of the Republican Party – the party of Lincoln. Who stood up to Stephen Douglas. So in some ways he was the “real” alternate history. Oh, for Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” now.


  3. Interesting post, I learn something new every time I pop over to yours :o) x


  4. Norah says:

    You’re right, Paula. It’s not always easy to tell truth from fiction.


  5. Annecdotist says:

    I wonder whether, and how much, his personal tragedy impacted on his performance in the role. Any safety legislation on the railways, for example?
    Our current Prime Minister had the tragic experience of seeing his disabled child die. Sadly, he has tried to use this to convince the electorate that the health care system is safe in his hands.


    • Dunno, Anne. Though I do think the reason he would not take the oath on a Bible is that his wife believed their son’s death was God’s punishment for his presumption in wanting to be President at all. We’ve had two Quaker Presidents, neither of whom exercised the “affirming” option. I find that interesting.

      I see all sorts of things coming and going on Twitter about your PM, but don’t know this story. A link or two?


  6. Paula, this was fascinating! Thanks for doing the research and sharing. So much we don’t know about our leaders and the influences on them.


    • You’re welcome. I actually did the initial research almost a decade ago, after a birthday trip to New England – the trip that first got me blogging. At the time George W. Bush – Pierce’s great-great grandnephew – was President. They used to call Pierce a “doughface” – that is, a Northerner with Southern sympathies. Interestingly, that phrase got itself reinvented at the time, to refer to Democrats who caved when the Bush administration assaulted the U.S. Constitution.

      At any rate, it’s only taken eight years, but I think a Pierce biography needs to go on my reading list. I find I still want to know more.


  7. What a bedraggled, unknown President, but he is quite dapper in his photo. What a reluctant First Lady!

    I find it interesting how she tended to personalize the entire world construct around his and her own actions; such a cause and effect. (Although, I think it’s something that comes naturally to all of us to this day.)

    In fact, infant / child mortality was quite high in those days. People often had 11 or 13 babies and were lucky if 3 of them reached adulthood. Looking around at others, she could have made that observation, but I’m guessing guilt and grief overrode clear sight. Perhaps she might be diagnosed with severe depression today.

    From your description, I find it hard to imagine her ever smiling. I wonder if she ever found a sense of peace or comfort?


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