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.

A Brief History of Presidential Funeral Trains

Funeral Train of President Abraham Lincoln
Funeral Train of President Abraham Lincoln
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

The body of President George H. W. Bush will be transported by train along a 70-mile route to College Station, Texas, where it will be taken to its final resting place at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Texas A&M University. The train—Union Pacific 4141, named for the 41st president—is painted robin's egg blue (just like Air Force One) and will tow a special transparent viewing car, allowing the public one last chance to pay their respects to the former head of state.

It's the first time a president's body has been moved by funeral train in almost 50 years.

Funeral trains, however, used to be something of a tradition for departed politicians: Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were all transported to their final resting places by a ceremonial train. (As were other government figures, including Robert F. Kennedy, Douglas MacArthur, and Frank Lautenberg.)

Lincoln's funeral train, the first, was arguably the most memorable. Traveling 1654 miles from Washington D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, the train chugged at a steady speed of 20 mph and stopped at 180 cities over the course of 13 days. The steam engine featured a portrait of Lincoln at the front and carried nine cars covered in elaborate mourning bunting. According to Olivia B. Waxman at TIME, "When it was in transit, a train traveling 30 minutes ahead of the Lincoln Special sounded a bell to alert those in the area that the funeral train was approaching. Those who could only see it at night camped out at bonfires along the route." Millions of people turned out to show their respects.

The next presidential funeral train was for another head of state who sadly also succumbed to gunshot wounds—James A. Garfield. According to the James A. Garfield National Historic Site blog:

"All along the route mourners stood at trackside, heads bowed as the train went by and church bells tolled. Bridges and buildings were draped in black. At Princeton, New Jersey, students scattered flowers on the track and then retrieved the crushed petals after the train had passed to keep for souvenirs. The train was met in Washington by the Chief Justice, Garfield's entire cabinet, and Presidents Grant and Arthur."

In many cases, the funeral trains traveled through places beloved by the presidents. Ulysses S. Grant's train was saluted as it passed through West Point. McKinley's train made haste to reach his beloved home in Canton, Ohio. (Many onlookers, not content to just bring flowers, made mementos by placing coins on the tracks and watched as the train flattened them.)

Meanwhile, FDR's funeral train—which embarked on a nine-state, three-day ride—carried much more than the president's remains: It also carried some of the most important people in government, including Roosevelt's family, the vice president and his family, every Supreme Court Justice, and most of the administrative cabinet. According to the MacMillan synopsis of Robert Kara's book FDR's Funeral Train, "Many who would recall the journey later would agree it was a foolhardy idea to start with—putting every important elected figure in Washington on a single train during the biggest war in history."

In some cases, the deceased had a special connection to the train itself. Eisenhower's body was transported in a car named "The Old Santa Fe." It was a familiar place: Ike had ridden the same car when he made his first campaign speech in 1952. Similarly, Bush—a train lover—had been acquainted with his funeral train for more than a decade, having given the 4300-horsepower locomotive his seal of approval back in 2005. At the time, he even gave the train a two-mile test drive and called it, "The Air Force One of railroads."

George H.W. Bush's Service Dog, Sully, Will Fly to D.C. With the Former President's Casket

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Former president George H.W. Bush died Friday, November 30, leaving behind five children, 17 grandchildren, and one loyal service dog. Sully H.W. Bush, the yellow lab who served as Bush's companion for the last several months of his life, will accompany his late owner's casket to Washington D.C., CNN reports.

George H.W. Bush brought Sully (named after the pilot who famously landed a damaged plane on the Hudson River) into his home following the death of his wife Barbara in April. Trained by America's VetDogs, a charity that connects service dogs to veterans with disabilities, Sully can respond to a list of commands, including answering the phone. On Sunday, December 2, George H.W. Bush spokesman Jim McGrath shared a photo on Twitter of the dog lying in front of the president's casket with the caption "Mission Complete."

In addition to serving as the 41st president from 1989 to 1993, George H.W. Bush was a World War II veteran, businessman, and congressman. He passed away at his home at age 94, following struggles with numerous health conditions, including a type of Parkinson's disease.

Sully will be accompanying his owner's casket when it makes its way to Washington, D.C., where the former president will lie in state under the Capitol Rotunda before he's brought to his final resting place at his presidential library in College Station, Texas. The service dog's next job will be helping military veterans in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

[h/t CNN]

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