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Over Easy: Visiting the Franklin Pierce homestead

  • Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 7/16/2021 9:47:41 PM
Modified: 7/16/2021 9:47:48 PM

When I read recently that historians had updated their ranking of American presidents, it wasn’t Donald Trump I was curious about.

I mean, really. You knew his rating was going to be low. Historians see him as Bluto Blutarsky from Animal House, whose memorable lines included, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” and, “Food fight!”

Still, 30% or 40% of Americans think Trump was the best thing since sliced bread; as many or more think Trump Bread would be just another scam, every loaf stuffed with sawdust. There is no settling this divide.

Who kept Trump out of last place? Just three men: New Hampshire’s own Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and the man Politico called “the perpetually last-ranked James Buchanan.”

I wondered about Pierce, of whom I knew little. In her commentary on the rankings, Gail Collins of The New York Times did not cover him in glory: “Franklin Pierce spent most of his administration trying to stave off political turmoil by being wishy-washy on slavery. He died an alcoholic, a project he was already working on long before he hit the White House.

“On the plus side,” she continued, “one of Pierce’s great political advantages was that he was extremely attractive — his nickname was ‘Handsome Frank’ ... even in 1852, the electorate was perfectly capable of picking a leader who was terrible but cute.”

So, not great.

A short time later I saw the Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough, N.H., on a list of New Hampshire parks and historic sites that are free for seniors. Free? People my age are drawn to that like a coffee giveaway at Denny’s.

We hit the road. It’s about an hour drive, more or less, depending on how fluent you are with GPS.

My wife, Dede, and I confirmed he was a good-looking guy. A flattering portrait was prominent. Compared with Chester A. “Muttonchops” Arthur, he was practically dreamy.

The homestead, built by his father, is also handsome. An official state webpage calls it “a fine example of New Hampshire village architecture. ... Built by Pierce’s father in 1804, it reflects the gracious and affluent living of the nineteenth century.”

During a tour we saw remarkable wallpaper from France, fine stenciling, surprisingly bright painted walls. And we heard much about the extended Pierce family: a semester’s course squeezed into an hour.

We learned that Pierce had friends like Daniel Webster and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote his campaign biography. Apparently in those days you couldn’t swing a dead Whig without hitting someone who would go down in history.

Pierce’s father was a Jacksonian Democrat (populists, partiers) who at some point operated a tavern in a front room. Pierce’s wife was from a dour religious clan. She and Franklin had three sons, all of whom died young, the last shortly before they entered the White House.

Jane Pierce was enormously unhappy as first lady. According to an online article from the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, she “declined to attend her husband’s inaugural, refused to appear at large public events for two years, and ordered permanent mourning bunting for the White House state rooms. She abdicated her duties as hostess and spent her time writing to her dead son asking his forgiveness, participating in seances in order to contact Bennie, and seeking solace in religion.” Her life would make a very sad movie. Kate Winslet would be great in it.

Pierce’s vice president, William R. King, died of tuberculosis six weeks into the administration. He wasn’t replaced. The compilation of grief reminds you that Pierce and his family were people, too.

Well, the times make the man, as they say, and Pierce’s time as president (1853-1857) wasn’t good. Now that the New Hampshire Legislature has banned “divisive topics” in schools, I’m not sure it’s politically correct to mention contentious things like “Civil War” or “slavery,” but in any case Pierce wasn’t willing or able to change the tide. His party didn’t renominate him.

At the very least, and this isn’t much, Pierce should be a hero to home remodelers. According to the White House Historical Association, he vastly improved the heating system of the executive mansion, and “also made significant improvements to the plumbing and toilet facilities.” Allow me a dad joke: Granite Staters should be flushed with pride.

For the record, our tour guide, Sara, who knows much more about the Pierce family home than I do about the Red Sox — a fair amount — was skeptical about the cirrhosis report. Based on what she knows, I’d give her the benefit of the doubt.

And even if historians think Pierce wasn’t a great president, it was a great tour. I would recommend it to Democrats or Republicans — and undecideds everywhere.

We drove part of the way home on Route 31, a country highway that passes by 10 billion trees and through the sleepy but pretty town of Washington, N.H., with little white houses all about. We’d never been there. A plaque said it was the first town to be named for our first president. You never know when or where you’ll run into history.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.




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