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Unloved President Franklin Pierce Had Seacoast Connections

Big win, big losses to come


Jane Pierce with son BennieThe Democrats managed a brilliant campaign. Pierce ran against his old Mexican War commander Gen. Winfield Scott. Nicknamed "Old Fuss and Feathers," the 300-pound Whig candidate reportedly gave long dull speeches. The more Scott campaigned, the better Franklin looked.

"His portrait is everywhere and in all sorts of styles," Franklin's school friend Nathaniel Hawthorne said with surprise. Franklin's handsome figure, seated and on horseback, appeared etched in wood, on metal plaques, on brass medallions, and even on ladies' handkerchiefs. With great reluctance, Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, agreed to write a quick campaign biography for Pierce. His job, Hawthorne wrote, was simply to balance the "indiscriminate abuse" and "aimless praise" to create a true picture of the true Franklin Pierce. Boston publisher James T. Fields, who grew up in the south end of Portsmouth, quickly released 13,000 copies of the campaign biography.

The candidate made few personal appearances, said little, and stayed out of sight. Between Franklin's nomination and the coming election, the Pierce's got in a little vacation time. They spent much of the summer at Rye Beach, New Hampshire. There Franklin, a rugged specimen of manhood, was seen frolicking in the waves with his son Benny.

It was during this period that Hawthorne spent 10 days at the Isles of Shoals, lodging at the Appledore Hotel with the Laighton family. He played whist with their beautiful teenaged daughter Celia, recently married to another Bowdoin graduate named Levi Thaxter. The future President of the United States made a daytrip out to the Isles of Shoals to visit Hawthorne. 

There would be few such happy days ever again. Jane Pierce was horrified when she learned in November of 1852 that her husband had won the election in a landslide popular vote. She knew she was not fitted for life as the First Lady, or for the constant public attacks against her husband, but she was resigned to do her best. Franklin would not take office until March.

About 1 pm on January 6, 1853, having attended the funeral of a relative in Boston, the Pierce's boarded a train in Andover and headed back to Concord. There was only one passenger car. Jane and Franklin sat together on the front bench with Benny sitting behind them.

About a mile down an icy track an axle snapped. The railroad car spun around and then plunged down a rocky embankment, landing upside down. Benny, who at first appeared to be lying unconscious, was the only passenger killed. The back of his head had been sheared off in the crash. Jane Pierce, with the last of her three sons gone, would disappear into a state of grief that lasted through half of her husband's tumultuous presidency.    

To be continued

SOURCES: Franklin Pierce, NH's Favorite Son (2004) by Peter Wallner; The Expatriation of Franklin Pierce (2006) by Gary Boulard; Franklin Pierce (2010) by Michael F. Holt; The Life of Franklin Pierce (1852) by Nathaniel Hawthorne; Rambles About Portsmouth (1994) by Ray Brighton; and "Revealing Relationships: The Family and Friends of Franklin Pierce," (2005) in Historical New Hampshire.  

 

Copyright © 2014 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS.   

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