Home and Heart: Joan Woodhead

Photo by John Hession

He was the only U.S. president to come from New Hampshire and right from the start in 1852 Franklin Pierce had a tough time of it. The country was embroiled in the difficult issue of slavery and Pierce held some controversial (at least in the North) views about it. That and other aspects of his one-term administration have given contemporary critics enough ammunition to label him "one of the worst presidents in U.S. history."

But Joan Woodhead, president of the Concord-based Pierce Brigade, begs to differ. She and the other members of the Brigade - a volunteer organization that since 1966 has been dedicated to preserving the Pierce legacy - believe that he did the best he could in the situation in which he found himself and accomplished more than people realize. The Brigade has also charged itself with the preservation of Pierce's Concord home, called the Manse, where the family lived before his presidency. They saved it from demolition in 1971, moving it to its present location.

What is the mission of the Pierce Brigade? To restore and maintain the home now located at 14 Horseshoe Pond Lane and to honor and preserve the legacy of the 14th U.S. president with appropriate recognition.

Where else did the Pierces live? At the end of his life, after Jane died, he owned a cottage at Little Boar's Head in North Hampton. Other than that they stayed with relatives or lived in boarding houses.

Was Pierce really born in a log cabin? Yes. The cabin is at the bottom of Lake Pierce due to a flood control project. Before he was a year old, the family moved into the Hillsborough homestead.

What's the most interesting item in the Concord house? There are many personal items belonging to Pierce in the collection, among them the beaver felt hat worn during his inauguration.

Is it true that he recited his inaugural address from memory? Yes. He also "affirmed" instead of "swore" the oath of office.

How can his sympathetic views on slavery be explained? Pierce was a strict constitutionalist. There was nothing against slavery in the Constitution. He felt it was up to the states to determine if they would allow slavery or not.

Does Pierce get the credit he deserves? There are a lot of myths about Pierce. I think he did the best he could in the circumstances he found the country in.

What would you say his greatest success was? Pierce opened trade with Japan, extended the borders of the country with the Gadsden Purchase. He signed treaties with Canada and Great Britain on fishing boundaries. The Army and Navy were modernized. He reduced the national debt by 60 percent and his administration was not corrupt!

There were a lot of "firsts" in his presidency. Coinage was changed and is still in use today along with postage stamps with perforations. He wanted to add Alaska and Hawaii as states but couldn't get Congress to go along with the idea.

Is it true that Barbara Bush is a distant cousin of Pierce? Yes, they share a great grandfather.

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