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Train Wreck

January 6, 2009, 12:01 am

In addition to being a thoroughly wretched president, Franklin Pierce delivered the most inarguably depressing opening sentence in the history of American inaugural addresses. On 4 March 1853, the fourteenth President began his unremarkable 3,334-word speech by harshing even the mellowest of mellows. With snow plummeting from the sky, Pierce observed to his audience that

[i]t is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.

Pierce’s audience would have understood immediately that the New Hampshire Democrat was referring to the unimaginable personal horror that befell his family eight weeks earlier, on January 6. Pierce and his wife, Jane, had already known a lifetime’s worth of hardship during their two decades of marriage. Their first son, Franklin Pierce, Jr., had died within days of his birth in 1836, midway through his father’s second term in the House of Representatives. Jane Pierce, a devout congregationalist who loathed the culture of Washington, D.C., became convinced that her husband’s political career had roiled an angry God against his family. Her theory was seemingly disproved in 1843, when Pierce’s retirement from the Senate — a decision Jane herself had urged — was rewarded with more death. Less than a year after resigning early from his only term in the upper house of Congress, Pierce’s second son, Franklin Robert, succumbed to typhus at the age of four. With fate having vanquished his two brothers, little Benjamin Pierce was now the sole heir to his father’s vast misfortune.

When the Democratic Party summoned him from retirement in 1852 and placed him at the top of the presidential ticket, Franklin Pierce knew that neither his wife nor his son wanted to leave Concord and return to the swampland of the Potomac River. This is why he told them — quite duplicitously — that he was an unwilling nominee, the servant to the “unsolicited expression of [the public] will,” as he claimed in his inaugural speech. Jane Pierce prayed daily for her husband’s defeat; Bennie, her precious son, commiserated with her. Two months after their petitions to the Lord were discarded, the unelected members of the Pierce family joined their husband and father on a journey by rail to Boston. During their return trip, a coupler on the train failed and threw several cars — the Pierces’ among them — down a snowy embankment. Benjamin Pierce’s head was crushed and partly severed, and he died instantly.

Jane Pierce initially believed that God had taken their son for the nation’s benefit, so that her worse half might focus on the affairs of state without the distractions that a son might introduce to the White House. When she learned shortly before the inauguration that her husband had not been the reluctant candidate he claimed to have been — that he had in fact encouraged friends to submit his name when the Democrats could not decide between four equally craptacular nominees — Mrs. Pierce withdrew into an impenetrable brume of grief and resentment. She neglected her minimal, ornamental duties as First Lady and refused to appear at the White House for several weeks after the inauguration. When she did, she draped the state rooms in black bunting and retired to her room, where she spent most of her days staring into space or writing letters of apology to her deceased son. (A devastating, pre-inaugural specimen of these letters can be found here).

The President, debilitated by his own grief and sapped of enthusiasm for the office, returned with great avidity to the only hobby that continued to interest him: palsying himself with drink, a purpose to which he could devote himself without hindrance, now that he was no longer living in the wastelands of New England temperance.

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