Wrested From The Jaws
of Triviality

It's hard work being obscure. The view from Buffalo.

by Ben Bratman

A short walk from my former home in Buffalo, New York, is the gravesite of our 13th president, Millard Fillmore, who is popularly perceived as America's most obscure president. Many trivia competitions have been named for Fillmore, the last member of the largely forgotten Whig Party to hold our nation's highest office. On President’s Day this year, a rock radio station in Atlanta acknowledged Fillmore’s obscurity during its presidential theme lunch hour by playing Bob Seger’s "Feel Like A Number" in Fillmore’s honor.

Being a devotee of presidential history and trivia, I made what I consider to be a requisite pilgrimage to Fillmore’s grave. I felt a tinge of kinship with Fillmore as I stood before the small, fenced-off plot in Forest Lawn Cemetery where Millard, both of his wives and other Fillmores try their best to rest in peace. I felt Fillmore’s pain at being labeled the most obscure president—the chief executive perhaps best known for installing the first bathroom in the White House.

After careful consideration, I have decided that the best way to ease Fillmore’s pain is to transfer it to someone else. The most logical successor to Fillmore as presidential trivia poster boy is Franklin Pierce. Pierce in fact succeeded Fillmore as our 14th president in 1853, and Pierce is in fact obscure. And he is not from Buffalo. His qualifications are impeccable.

To be trivial is to be superficial; thus, the poster boy for presidential trivia should have superficial qualities. Look no further than Franklin Pierce, who is widely perceived as having been our most handsome president. Even not-so-trivial president Harry Truman once remarked that Pierce was "the best looking president the White House ever had."

Pierce was one of the stream of presidents who helplessly presided over a deteriorating union in the years leading up to the Civil War and Lincoln’s presidency. He was a Democrat who served one term from 1853 to 1857. Very little happened

 'It is a national disgrace that our presidents...should be cast adrift, and perhaps be compelled to keep a corner grocery for subsistence.' --Millard Fillmore

during Pierce’s term that Pierce had anything to do with, though the few things that did happen make for good trivia. During Pierce’s term, the United States purchased from Mexico that little strip of land covering southernmost Arizona and New Mexico (The Gadsen Purchase). That is a fairly trivial part of the United States.

Perhaps the most important thing to happen during Pierce’s administration was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which gave Kansas and Nebraska sovereignty to decide whether to allow slavery. This led to horrible violence among Kansans of differing persuasions on the slavery issue, and caused the Democrats to reject Pierce as their candidate in 1856, thereby further contributing to his trivial and obscure place in history. Because the debacle in Kansas also led to the formation of the anti-slavery Republican Party, Pierce, a Democrat, probably gets credit (blame?) for helping to form the opposition party to his own. Now, that is a good piece of trivia.
Pierce's "Gadsden Purchase" from Mexico added a very trivial piece
of land to
the USA
Pierce’s campaign for president in 1852, and the election of 1852, are both very obscure events in American history. One of Pierce’s campaign slogans was "We Polked you in 1844; we shall Pierce you in 1852." The "Polk" reference is to the election of Democrat James K. Polk in 1844. Pierce’s
opponent was Winfield Scott of the Whig Party. Playing on Pierce’s penchant for drinking and his status as a veteran of the Mexican War, the Whig Party described Pierce as "a hero of many a well-fought bottle." Overall, the 1852 campaign was so uneventful and obscure that author and historian Paul F. Boller, Jr. devoted barely more than two pages to it in his book, Presidential Campaigns.

Pierce had the peculiar distinction of having as vice president the only nationally elected American official ever to be sworn in on foreign soil. Pierce also had the peculiar distinction of having as vice president a man who never worked one day in the job. William Rufus de Vane King was terminally ill with tuberculosis when he was nominated and subsequently elected as vice president. (This begs the question, why was he selected?). He was sworn in in Cuba where he was seeking medical treatment. Less than a month later, he died, never having assumed his duties.

Pierce’s personal life, in its plaintive detail, is great fodder for trivia and tabloid news buffs. He was an alcoholic who suffered from depression. His three sons all died in childhood. The last died in a train wreck two months before Pierce’s inauguration while the family was traveling to the funeral of a family friend. The first lady-elect was emotionally traumatized by the loss of her sons, and fell into a deep depression from which she never recovered.

Pierce’s salad days were clearly in college at Bowdoin College in Maine. There, he was a classmate of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who later became a writer and author of The Scarlet Letter, as well as one of Pierce’s closest friends and advisors. At Bowdoin, Pierce also knew Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Initially, Pierce had too much fun and did too little studying. As a sophomore, his grades were at the bottom of the class. He improved his grades and went on to become a lawyer. Oh, and president, too.

Thankfully, Pierce’s secretary of war was Jefferson Davis, who did a very good job of modernizing and strengthening the Union Army so that it could crush the rebellion Davis himself led ten years later as president of the Confederacy. When the Civil War broke out, Pierce was sympathetic with his former secretary and the Confederacy, expressing his view that the Union was doing a dangerous thing trying to abolish slavery. Being pro-slavery makes one fairly trivial, I think.

Much of the trivia in this piece was drawn from William A. DeGregorio’s The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents and Paul F. Boller, Jr.’s Presidential Campaigns.

(c)1999 by Ben Bratman

Ben Bratman is associate professor of legal writing at University of Pittsburgh School of Law and a former practicing attorney. His blog is Sui Generis. Favorite presidents: Theodore Roosevelt (R); Harry S Truman (D).

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