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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

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On This Day in 1933, FDR Gave His First Fireside Chat
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Getty Images

On March 12, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his first "fireside chat" on the radio. It was just eight days after his inauguration. He began: "I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking." Citizens across the nation tuned in to listen.

During the depths of the Great Depression, FDR took to the airwaves to explain to Americans why there had been a recent, ahem, "bank holiday." After a series of bank failures, FDR closed all U.S. banks on March 6, to prevent them from failing as panicked citizens tried to withdraw their holdings. While the banks were closed, a program of federal deposit insurance was created in order to insure the stability of the banks when they reopened.

So imagine, if you will, that your bank has been closed for six days, banks are failing left and right, and the newly-inaugurated president gets on the radio to talk about the situation. You would likely listen, and you'd want a really solid answer. That's just what Americans got.

It was a stunning moment, a roughly 13-minute speech in which the American president spoke directly to the people and asked them to understand how banks work. As an extension of that understanding, he asked people to trust what he and Congress were doing to resolve the problem. While the chat didn't solve the country's financial problems overnight, it did create a remarkable sense of connection between FDR and the citizenry, and it helped prevent a complete collapse of the banking system.

FDR's "fireside chats" (the phrase was coined by press secretary Stephen Early, conveying the intimacy of communication) were among the best examples of a president using mass media to bring a time-sensitive message to the American people. He would go on to do 29 more chats over the course of his long presidency.

So if you've never heard that first "fireside chat," take a few minutes and listen. Here it is with slightly cleaned-up audio:

If you're not into audio, just read the transcript. The text is a model of clear communication.

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The Only 4 Private Citizens to Lie in Honor at the U.S. Capitol
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Billy Graham, the most famous Christian preacher of the past century, died in his home on February 21 at age 99. As a noted spiritual advisor of U.S. presidents, he held a special position of influence in American history. Now, he's being granted another privilege extended to very few Americans: This week, his body will lay in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

From February 28 to March 1, members of the public will be invited to visit the Capitol and pay their respects to the late reverend. It's an honor that has been bestowed upon only 33 Americans since the tradition began with Henry Clay in 1852. Of the distinguished citizens who have "lain in state," 11 were U.S. presidents. Several elected officials and military officials have also been commemorated under the rotunda, but only three private citizens—and with Graham, four—have their names among their ranks.

The first two private citizens to lie in honor were Capitol Police officers Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson. Both were killed in the line of duty during the Capitol shooting incident in 1998.

The third private citizen to receive the distinction was Rosa Parks. She died in 2005, 50 years after refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger, thus helping set the civil rights movement in motion. So far, she's the only woman whose body has lain in honor at the U.S. Capitol.

Congress chooses which individuals get to receive the honor, either by passing a resolution or having congressional leadership obtain permission from the surviving family. When Graham's body arrives at the Capitol this week, it will be displayed on the same platform used to support Lincoln's body and that of every person (except the two police officers) who has lain in the rotunda since 1865.



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