A Man for All Time

Through the sheer force of his mediocrity,
Franklin Pierce would change America forever.

by Todd Leopold

To paraphrase the words of one British commentator, speaking about an entirely different subject, the influence of Franklin Pierce on American history is so immeasurable that nobody has ever bothered to measure it.

After all, what can we say about this man? That he was the 14th president of the United States? That he remains the only president born in New Hampshire? That he sort-of inspired the name for beloved M*A*S*H character Benjamin Franklin Pierce? That, despite his handsome looks and
impeccable Yankee grooming, as a president he was as poorly prepared and incontrovertibly stupid as those other presidential heartthrobs, Warren G. Harding and Ronald Reagan?

Oh, sure, we could say all that, but such words don't even come close to scratching the surface of a man that one contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, referred to as "the Young Nincompoop." (The "Old Nincompoop," for those not as well-versed in history, was British poet William Wordsworth.) Pierce, after all, reigned over a period in American history that fostered such groups as the Know-Nothing Party and the Hey Diddle Biddles, the latter named in honor of Nicholas Biddle, head of the Second Bank of the United States and a man consistently ranking near the top of historians' lists of "Most Interesting Names in American History." In such cantankerous times, how could one man stand out -- especially if that one man was Franklin Pierce?

The answer is, of course, that he couldn't. He could only struggle to aspire to such mediocrity.

But he did strive, and see how the country was changed: before Pierce, there had never been a handsome president. (Some historians think of Thomas Jefferson as handsome, but that was only because portraits painted after Jefferson's liaisons with Sally Hemings show him with a rosy, post-orgasmic glow; certainly, other pre-Pierce presidents, such as Andrew Jackson, appear not only homely, but constipated.) After Pierce, the country was made safe for good-looking empty suits such as the aforementioned Harding and Reagan.

Before Pierce, the Whig Party -- the opposition to Pierce's Democrats -- was a meaningful force in American politics; after Pierce, the Whigs ceased to exist, having exhausted their energies with position papers for value-added taxes, Mexican bailouts, and perpetual motion machines.

Finally, in the 40 years prior to the four-year period -- 1853 to 1857 -- Pierce served as president, the country had barely gotten its feet wet militarily. The Mexican War, the Aroostook War, the Black Hawk War -- all were merely minor scrapes on the knee of American history. But within five years after Pierce stepped down, the way was clear for the conflagration to end all conflagrations: the Civil War.

Think about it: Without Pierce, there would have been no Fort Sumter, no siege of Vicksburg, no copperheads, scalawags or carpetbaggers, no tales of Northern industrial might or Southern romantic distress. There would have been no Mathew Brady photographs, no Emancipation Proclamation, no Gettysburg Address. In short, without Franklin Pierce -- mocking the retort of Sen. Stephen Douglas, who said, "Hereafter, no private citizen is safe" after Pierce's surprising nomination -- there would have been no Abraham Lincoln.

Franklin Pierce died in 1869, victim of the intense alcoholism that plagued him throughout his life. He had been unhappily married to a high-strung religious fanatic; he had lost all three of his sons. His years as president merely warmed the chair for the great man to come. (No, not James Buchanan; he's another story.) But he is not forgotten. Wherever poor choices are made, wherever dandies are hatched, wherever triviality is thrust upon the world, he is remembered.

As B.B. French, Pierce's secretary, said shortly before Pierce left office, "Whoever may be elected, we cannot get a poorer cuss than now disgraces the Presidential Chair!" Mr. French, you could not have been more wrong. But without Franklin Pierce, we could not have known how wrong you could be.

(c)1999 by Todd Leopold

Todd Leopold is an Atlanta-based free-lance writer who has an absurd fascination with our 37th president, Richard Nixon. He also writes trivia questions and hosts a trivia show, and will even answer to the name of "Mr. Trivia."


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