Five Amazing Facts About Franklin Pierce (in honor of his 203rd birthday)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

by David Holzel

Here are five fun and possibly amazing facts about the man they called "Young Hickory of the Granite Hills."

1. He is America's most obscure president.

One in a series of forgettable mid-19th-century presidents, Pierce, who served from 1853-1857, is arguably the most forgettable. Thirteenth president Millard Fillmore is generally regarded as America's least-known president. That is a distinction Franklin Pierce lacks, making him even more obscure than Fillmore.

2. He may not have hit that woman with his carriage.

Pierce was denied renomination by the Democratic Party in 1856 (the only elected president to have been rejected so out of hand). After being given the heave-ho, he has widely been quoted as telling a friend, "There is nothing left to do but get drunk."

While many of us in the same position would stop at the nearest tavern for a session of Beer Pong, the story sounds apocryphal. Presidential historian Paul Boller repeats the quotation in his book, Presidential Diversions (Harcourt, 2007). When I asked him about it, he said Pierce must have been joking.

Pierce unquestionably drank heavily during certain periods of his life, and alcoholism contributed to or caused his death. But he didn't make a habit of announcing it.

Another story—that Pierce ran over an elderly woman with his carriage—is almost certainly false, according to historian Peter Wallner, author of Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union.

"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," Wallner told me.

3. He took on the mob. Or at least a mob.

As a staunch Democrat and believer in following the strict meaning of the Constitution, Pierce was an outspoken critic of the Civil War as prosecuted by Republican Abraham Lincoln, whose approach to constitutional freedoms was more free-form. After Lincoln was assassinated, a group of citizens in Pierce's hometown of Concord, N.H., gathered on the street to express their grief and to confront neighbors who were not displaying the flag in that moment of national tragedy.

Eventually some 200-400 Concordians reached Pierce's house and, as Wallner recounts in Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union, demanded to know where the former president was keeping his flag.

"It is not necessary for me to show my devotion for the stars and stripes," Pierce replied testily, and then reiterated his patriotic bona fides by recalling his ancestors' participation in the Revolution and the War of 1812, and his own 35-year service to New Hampshire and the nation.

Whether he swayed the crowd with his oratory, or just wore them down, the mob gave Pierce three cheers and dispersed without burning his house down.

4. He was a better ex-president.

Like Jimmy Carter, Pierce was a better ex-president than president, if for no other reason than he no longer was in office. He spent much of his time tending to his wife, Jane, who was dying slowly of tuberculosis. The couple spent the winter of 1857-58 in the Portuguese islands of Madeira, where they studied French in anticipation of a tour of the continent.

Their European travels during 1858-59 took them to Switzerland and Italy, Paris, and London. Once back in the USA, Pierce busied himself by purchasing various pieces of property in his home state of New Hampshire.

He also kept up a steady stream of political correspondence and, before he and Jane left to spend the winter of 1859-60 in the Bahamas, Pierce wrote to his former secretary of war, Jefferson Davis, urging him to be the Democratic Party's "standard bearer in 1860," according to Wallner. Jane Pierce died on Dec. 2, 1863, at age 57.

5. He perfected the comb-over.

Pierce had some of the finest hair of any U.S. president. One witness described it approvingly as a "mass of curly black hair combed on a deep slant over his wide forehead." And that was after viewing Pierce's body in state after his death in 1869.

Yet that mass of curls may have been an act of misdirection away from the truth that deep slant hinted at. In an 1862 photograph, Pierce's hair in profile appears to exist 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."

Pierce's hair unquestionably is a subject for future historians to wrestle with.

When Abraham Lincoln Turned Down the Chance to Fill America With Elephants

Getty Images
Getty Images

When a new president takes office, it’s normal to get showered with diplomatic greetings, gifts, and political overtures. But when Abraham Lincoln’s administration moved into the White House, they turned down what could have been the greatest gift of all: the chance to populate the United States with wild elephants.

In 1861, Lincoln received a pile of swag from King Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut of the country then known as Siam. You might know him better for his role in the hit musical The King and I, which fictionalized his relationship with English governess Anna Leonowens. What is true is that Mongkut was eager to “get to know” the West better—during his reign, he managed to open up and begin modernizing Siam.

The gesture wasn’t actually meant for Lincoln: In fact, Mongkut had sent the presents to “whomsoever the people have elected anew as chief ruler in place of President Buchanan.” He sent along a pile of lavish gifts, from a precious handmade sword to photos of himself and his daughter to two gigantic elephant tusks. But much more meaningful was the king’s offer to send along a generous stock of elephants that could be bred on American soil.

It’s no wonder Mongkut offered that gift: Pachyderms were not only native to what is now Thailand, but were also prized as important and valuable creatures. “It has occurred to us that, if on the continent of America there should be several pairs of young male and female elephants turned loose in forests,” the king wrote, “after a while they will increase till there be large herds as there are here on the continent of Asia until the inhabitants of America will be able to catch them and tame and use them as beasts of burden making them of benefit to the country.” Mongkut acknowledged that he hadn’t yet figured out how best to ship over some elephants, but that it sounded like a good idea to him.

In a master stroke of diplomacy, Lincoln’s administration disagreed. In Lincoln’s reply, which was penned by Secretary of State William Seward, he deftly informed Mongkut that his gifts belonged by rights to the American people and would be placed in the National Archives (where they remain to this day). As for the elephants, the administration deftly dodged the issue altogether.

"This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States,” wrote Lincoln via Seward. “Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.”

By refusing the elephants, Lincoln’s government managed to honor the far-away king without taking on a complicated burden. It was a move that acknowledged not only the king’s respectful gesture, but gave him a much-needed nod. Mongkut realized that in order to survive, Siam would need to engage in trade with the West—and that kindness would go much further than the fear displayed by some of his closest neighbors.

There’s no telling what would have happened if the Lincoln administration had said yes to Mongkut’s gift. Perhaps to this day, the United States would be a place where herds of wild elephants roamed free.

5 Facts About Larry the Cat, the UK’s Chief Mouser

Chris J Ratcliffe, Getty Images
Chris J Ratcliffe, Getty Images

In February 2011, then-Prime Minster David Cameron adopted a tabby cat from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home to help control 10 Downing Street’s rodent population. The shelter recommended Larry based on his "sociable, bold, and confident nature," and now, besides rat catching, Larry “spends his days greeting guests to the house, inspecting security defenses, and testing antique furniture for napping quality,” according to the 10 Downing Street website.

Since receiving the esteemed title of Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—the first Downing Street cat to carry the title—he has outlasted Cameron and PM Theresa May, has had scuffles with his nemesis Palmerston (more on that later), and may have caused a security issue for Donald Trump.

It’s unclear if new PM Boris Johnson will keep Larry around or possibly replace him with a dog, which will probably not go over well with Palmerston and Gladstone, Chief Mouser of HM Treasury. Here are some things you might not know about the photogenic feline.

1. On his first day on the job, Larry scratched a journalist.

ITV News reporter Lucy Manning paid a visit to 10 Downing Street on Larry’s first day. Media attention was a new thing for Larry at the time, and he didn't immediately take to it. Instead, he lashed out and scratched Manning on the arm four times, then hid under a table and refused to come out.

2. Larry wasn't a natural mouser.

Larry the Cat wearing a collar with a bow on it and sitting on a green table.
James Glossop, WPA Pool/Getty Images

Though Larry supposedly had a "very strong predatory drive and high chase-drive and hunting instinct," according to a spokesperson, it wasn't until two months into his tenure that he started showing Downing Street's mice he meant business. As The Guardian reported in April 2011, Larry "preferred hanging out in the corridors of power to stalking in the grass" and the building's staff was forced to train the cat "by giving him a toy mouse to play with when he failed to catch any prey for two months." Finally, on Good Friday, “Larry appeared through a window from the Downing Street garden with a mouse in his mouth. He is believed to have dropped his swag at the feet of the prime minister's secretaries.” Larry continued his duties between daily cat naps.

3. Larry may or may not have caused problems for Donald Trump.

During Donald Trump’s June 2019 visit to 10 Downing Street, Larry—who is allowed outside—decided to hang out under Trump's limo (nicknamed "the Beast") to take shelter from the rain ... and reportedly wouldn't move. According to The Washington Post, "It wasn’t immediately clear whether Larry’s presence halted Trump’s movement ... Earlier, the cat appeared in a photo of Trump and Prime Minister Theresa May in front of 10 Downing Street." He did eventually mosey off (hopefully in search of mice).

4. Larry has a nemesis.

Palmerston, a black and white cat, sits outside a black and gold gate.
Leon Neal, Getty Images

In 2016, Palmerston—a black-and-white tuxedo cat named after 19th-century Prime Minister Lord Palmerston—was hired as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's Chief Mouser. Like Larry, Palmerston was a rescue who came from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. Soon after Palmerston moved in, the cats had a couple of rows, including a major one in August 2016, during which they "were at each other hammer and tongs," according to a photographer. Larry lost his collar in the fight and messed up Palmerton’s ear as they “literally [ripped] fur off each other.” The turf war was so bad that police had to step in, and Larry needed medical treatment. Thankfully, the two seem to have ceased the cat fighting.

5. Larry has a parody twitter account.

"Larry" has an active Twitter parody account, where he comically posts political articles and photos (and has even begun poking fun at his new Downing Street flatmate, Boris Johnson). Sometimes he provides educational information: “England is part of Great Britain (along with Wales and Scotland), which in turn is part of the United Kingdom (along with Northern Ireland).” Other times he just makes cat jokes (see above).

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