A Portrait of Franklin Pierce

The 14th president’s grim life

Much has been written about Franklin Pierce — New Hampshire’s only president — and the claim that he was among the nation’s worst presidents. Here, to mark Presidents’ Day (February 15), we put that assessment aside to take a look at other aspects of his life, ones you may not know, that add texture to his portrait.   

☛ Pierce was born in, yes, a log cabin in Hillsborough.
☛ Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were classmates at Bowdoin College, and Pierce and Hawthorne became close friends. Despite criticism for doing so, Hawthorne used his considerable talents to write a campaign biography of Pierce during his run for the presidency. Pierce was with Hawthorne at a Plymouth, NH, inn when Hawthorne died. Despite their closeness, Pierce was not invited to be a pallbearer by the organizers of the funeral, likely because his reputation had been sullied by his pre-Civil War Southern sympathies as president.
☛ During his election campaign, Pierce’s lifelong alcoholism became an issue, with the Whigs mocking Pierce, a Democrat, as the “hero of many a well-fought bottle.”
☛ Pierce, who was nicknamed “Handsome Frank,” had won all but four states in the election and became, at age 48, the youngest president in US history. At his inauguration, he was sworn in on a law book, not a Bible.
☛ Pierce’s wife Jane was a virtual hermit during his time at the White House. She had lost all three of her children, the last in a terrible train accident shortly before Pierce was elected president. She didn’t make her first official appearance until halfway through his term. By the time she died, she was living apart from Pierce, with her sister in Andover.
☛ After one term, Pierce was so unpopular he was denied nomination for a second term. Apparently because of the depth of feeling against him, he hired a full-time bodyguard, the first president to do so.
☛ Pierce died of liver failure. He’s buried in Concord.
☛ Barbara Bush is distantly related to him. The former First Lady’s maiden name is Pierce. They are fourth cousins, four times removed.

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