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The Two Presidents of New Hampshire

Tuesday May 30, and a significant portion of Wednesday the 31st, we spent in New Hampshire, home state to two American Presidents.  Franklin Pierce, our fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, is widely thought to have been one of the worst presidents in American history.  Josiah “Jed” Bartlet was the President New Hampshire would like to have given us.  The name Franklin Pierce may seem familiar to you in a non-Presidential context.  It did to me. Benjamin Franklin Pierce was the “real” name of the fictional character “Hawkeye” Pierce in the book M*A*S*H, by Richard Hooker.  The book led to a successful Robert Altman film and an even more successful TV series with a very different tone from the book or the movie. It was the Korean War as seen from the post-Vietnam 1970’s, and it starred the man whose name became synonymous with SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy): Alan Alda.  And what was Alan Alda’s most recent role? Arnold Vinick.  And who was he trying to succeed as President? Jed Bartlet. Coincidence?  I think not.

Brought in as a dark horse candidate (as was Jed Bartlet), Franklin Pierce won during the contentious years before secession primarily because he had expressed no strong opinions – though he was a “doughface” –  that is, a Northerner with Southern sympathies. (Recently I saw the phrase reinvented to refer to Democrats who cave when the Bush administration assaults the U.S. Constitution.) He was a charming, convivial man, who struggled with alcohol most of his life, in a profession whose wheels were lubricated by it. Pierce’s great- great- grandnephew, our current President, seems to have conquered that demon before he entered politics: now he’s just driving the rest of us to drink.

Pierce had wooed and eventually married the daughter of the president of Bowdoin College, Jane Appleton – painfully shy, deeply religious, pro-temperance and tubercular – partly to straighten himself out. The approach was not entirely successful. Neither she nor her family saw politics as a gentleman’s profession.  She detested Washington and often refused to live there. On several occasions Pierce swore off politics and alcohol for her sake, but the lure of both overcame his best intentions.  Pierce resigned his seat in the Senate in 1841 and returned to his law practice in New Hampshire, only to be nominated for President, with four other candidates, by the Democratic party. He assured Jane nothing would come of it; when she heard he had not only won the nomination, but had accepted it, she fainted. Later it came out that he had in fact actively courted the nomination, and he and Jed Bartlet had another thing in common: a wife who felt personally betrayed.  
Two months before Pierce’s inauguration, on a train between Andover and Lawrence, the Pierces and their eleven year old son Benjamin were  traveling together when their car derailed and toppled over an embankment. Benjamin, 11, was crushed to death before his parents’ eyes.  Jane's first child had died in infancy, and the second of epidemic typhus at age four.  She saw this final blow as divine retribution for her husband’s ambition. In a haze of guilt and grief, Franklin Pierce was not sworn in as President; he affirmed the Oath of Office on a law book, and left the Bible out of it. His wife did not attend the inauguration. There was no inaugural ball. That night, and for many nights thereafter, Jane Pierce spent her time writing to her dead son asking his forgiveness, trying to contact him in séances (something the wife of the sixteenth president, Mary Todd Lincoln, did as well), and seeking comfort in religion. The White House state rooms were decked in permanent mourning bunting.  
Pierce was a politician, not a leader, and politics is a fickle mistress. His unsuccessful attempts to acquire Cuba, where slavery and a plantation economy also reigned, were seen in terms of their impact upon domestic tensions.  That and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which reopened the question of slavery in the West, made Pierce so unpopular in the North that his party refused to nominate him for a second term. "After the White House what is there to do but drink?" he reportedly quipped, and proceeded to make good on the observation. A letter he wrote expressing sympathies for his former cabinet member Jefferson Davis made him anathema in Washington, and when Jane Pierce died in 1863, the only person who came to mourn with him was his Bowdoin college friend and biographer, Nathaniel Hawthorne.    When Abraham Lincoln was shot, Pierce’s house was mobbed. He died in 1869, of cirrhosis of the liver. New Hampshire named a college after him; the school’s web site gives the years of the term Pierce “proudly served” and leaves it at that.  If Jed Bartlet did not exist, New Hampshire must be glad Hollywood chose to invent him.
Looking both presidents up on Wikipedia, you would be hard pressed to tell fiction from reality.  Pierce’s entry is about a thousand words longer than Bartlet’s, but the format is so similar as to be indistinguishable.  There is one telltale giveaway, besides the (very) occasional reference to the word “fictional.” The table listing Pierce’s cabinet members doesn’t have the actors playing each in parentheses.  When you compare Bartlet and his real-life namesake, Josiah Bartlett, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the historical personage only beats out the fictional character by 76 words.  Take out the links to the former governors of new Hampshire, and Jed's entry is 121 words longer.  Some things about the brave new world of user-generated content make me a little squeamish.  You can find out anything on the Internet: whether it’s true or not.

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