Pierce At Any Cost

A meditation on failure.

by David Holzel

What do you have to do to become one of the worst presidents ever? How do you manage to be largely forgotten, but when you are remembered, it is as the "fifth of six below-average presidents"? That's how a 1962 poll of historians ranked Franklin Pierce. It placed him "above Buchanan, and below Coolidge."

After "Your mama," "below Coolidge" is probably the meanest thing you can hurl at a man. Coolidge pursued a presidential style of constructive somnambulance. At least Franklin Pierce made an effort. He had a vision thing—expand U.S. territory anywhere, anytime; and maintain the Union at any cost. Since he succeeded at both (although Pierce's accomplishments remind me of the man who gets his hand car onto the side track just as the locomotive rushes by), shouldn't he get a couple extra points for his bother? Couldn't his legacy at least read "above Buchanan and Coolidge"?

` You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me by your strength.` --inaugural address, 1853 
Pierce still watches over the partiers in his parlor. (mouseover the image)

That Pierce's hot-button issues are irrelevant to us today makes me wonder what history will make of our most recent sheaf of presidents. Will the chief executives of the last quarter of the 20th century be remembered as hazily as those who served during the two decades before the Civil War—or the last quarter of the 19th century? The fact that Millard Fillmore is considered the most obscure president just shows how little people know about Franklin Pierce.

These thoughts were on my mind as my family and I toured the Pierce Manse with our guide, Chips Holden.

The manse, in Concord, New Hampshire, is a comfortable, although not impressive, wood house with Greek Revival aspirations.The Pierce family lived there for six years during the 1840s. In those heady days Pierce either was a highly successful lawyer, a dashing Army officer, or an up-and-coming politician who became the youngest in practically whatever office he held. Including, at 48, president.

Chips was not our guide's real name. But she answers to that nickname, even as she stood before the C-SPAN cameras in Pierce's bedroom, displaying his stovepipe hat, walking stick and shaving kit during the Franklin Pierce installment of the network's series on the presidents.

And now I was standing in that very manse. With that very Chips. The house was to be torn down in the 1960s to make way for urban renewal. A group of citizens formed the Pierce Brigade, and moved the manse from Concord's main street to a quiet lane on the north end of town, where it was lovingly restored and cared for.

In the master bedroom, Chips pulled from a dresser drawer one of Pierce's everyday shirts. It had so many pleats that no one would stand for ironing it today. Downstairs in the parlor stood Pierce's desk, where he kept up his voluminous correspondence. Over the fireplace was a portrait of his father in uniform. The Pierces were convivial folk, Chips said, well educated but not intellectual. By contrast, the Appletons—the family of Franklin Pierce's wife, Jane—were a family of dour New England ministers.

"The last round was too weak, so we fixed it this time," Pierce says,  elbowing me conspiratorially.  

"If each family threw a party, I'm sure I'd enjoy myself more at the Pierces'," Chips said. I imagined myself over at the Appletons', holding my half-cup of watery punch, staring at my feet and listening to the shuffle of the other guests, the only

other sound an occasional cough. O, to be back in the Pierces' parlor—the singing round the piano, the good cheer and jolly talk, the jovial Franklin Pierce himself refilling my glass until it overflows. "The last round was too weak, so we fixed it this time," he says, elbowing me conspiratorially.

Here was a man who succeeded in all his endeavors until, ironically, he attained the ultimate success for a public man—the presidency. Swept into office by a landslide, he left Washington four years later, universally despised. How long after that did it take him to sink into obscurity?

And what will be the final word on President William Jefferson Clinton, a man who, even though he served two elected terms, already seems like a minor president? Above Ford, below Nixon? Ouch.

This brings me back to my original question—What do you have to do to become one of the worst presidents ever? In the next century, will the roll call of Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton elicit confused responses like, "Were those the presidents who were born in houses without air conditioning?"

Are presidents doomed to obscurity unless, like Washington, Lincoln and FDR, there are issues at stake that transcend ordinary politics, and that lead to a grand reordering of the national identity? Is it a matter of having the right man at the right moment, or does the moment make the man?

Imagine Bill Clinton as the father of his country. Envision George Bush prosecuting the Civil War instead of the Gulf War. Or Franklin Pierce building a bridge to the 21st century.

Text and photos (c) 1999 by David Holzel

David Holzel is a writer and editor and instigated this whole Franklin Pierce thing. He's at work on a nursery rhyme using the names of all the First Ladies.



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