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.

Presidents Day vs. President's Day vs. Presidents' Day: Which One Is It?

iStock
iStock

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" implies that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

How to See a Dozen Presidential Homes in One Road Trip for Less Than $220

George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate
George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

Do you have a passion for travel, American history, and presidential trivia? If so, you may want to start packing your bags now. Wanderu has mapped out three separate road trips that show history buffs how they can visit more than 20 presidential homes and estates across the country, should they choose to combine all three excursions into one mega-trip.

The travel platform has already done the research and legwork, identifying the buses and trains that connect each city on the itinerary, as well as the cost of each. Fortunately, these trips are friendly on the wallet. Transportation would cost about $218 for the East Coast trip, which has the most jam-packed itinerary of the three. The California trip would cost about $93 (unless you choose to drive, which is doable), and a third itinerary that covers the Midwest—it starts in Ohio, dips into Kentucky, and then ends in Iowa—would set you back some $200.

Some of the presidential pads on the list—like George Washington's Mount Vernon home and Ulysses S. Grant's Illinois home—can be toured. Others are private, and thus best admired from a distance. Check out the itineraries below, and visit Wanderu's website for more details.

The East Coast itinerary:
1. Concord, New Hampshire: The Pierce Manse, home of Franklin Pierce
2. Boston: John F. Kennedy's Brookline birth home
3. Hyannis, Massachusetts: The Kennedy Compound, which served as the headquarters of JFK's 1960 presidential campaign
4. Newport, Rhode Island: The Eisenhower House (Bonus: The Hammersmith Farm where JFK and Jackie got married is just down the road)
5. New York City: The Chester A. Arthur House
6. Princeton, New Jersey: The Westland Mansion, where Grover Cleveland lived
7. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Wheatland, where James Buchanan lived
8. Philadelphia: The Deshler-Morris House, where George Washington camped out when the city was hit with a yellow fever epidemic
9. Washington, D.C.: President Lincoln's Cottage
10. Washington, D.C.: The Woodley Mansion, where both Grover Cleveland and Martin Van Buren lived at different times
11. Alexandria, Virginia: Mt. Vernon, George Washington's estate
12. Charlottesville, Virginia: Monticello, the home Thomas Jefferson designed (and the building on the back of the nickel)

The Midwest itinerary:
1. Canton, Ohio: The William McKinley Library & Museum, where McKinley is entombed in a marble sarcophagus
2. Cincinnati, Ohio: The William Howard Taft Historical Site, which encompasses his former home
3. Louisville, Kentucky: The Zachary Taylor House
4. Indianapolis: The Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, which includes the president's former home
5. Chicago: Barack Obama's Hyde Park Residence
6. Galena, Illinois: The Ulysses S. Grant Home
7. West Branch, Iowa (near Iowa City): The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, which includes the cottage where Hoover was born and the blacksmith shop where his father worked

The California itinerary:
1. Los Angeles: Nixon's former home on Whittier Boulevard
2. Los Angeles: Reagan's Westwood Residence
3. Santa Barbara: Rancho del Cielo, where Reagan often vacationed
4. San Jose: The Lou Henry and Herbert Hoover House

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