How do you throw a birthday party for one of America’s least charismatic presidents?
In our water-cooler discussions here at American Heritage, when we get tired of dissecting Longstreet’s tactical errors at Seven Pines and debating whether George Templeton Strong or Philip Hone was the superior diarist, the conversation often turns to picking the least-known President. Some, like Garfield and Fillmore, are disqualified by being famous for their obscurity (both have cartoon characters named after them). Others, like Hayes and Andrew Johnson, achieved modest notoriety as bit players in grand historical dramas. Strong cases can be made for Tyler and Arthur, both understudies who failed to capitalize on their chances at stardom. But if the choice is restricted to elected Presidents, the winner has to be Franklin Pierce.
While in office from 1853 to 1857, Pierce did little to solve the unsolvable problems of a nation headed toward civil war. On his departure, he burned nearly all his papers. He left no memoirs, and to this day there is no satisfactory biography. The result of all this is that while planning for Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, in 2009, began nearly a decade in advance, Pierce will be lucky to get a line of agate type next to the crossword puzzle on his bicentennial this November 23.
Defying these handicaps, a group of institutions in New Hampshire, his home state, has banded together to promote remembrance of Pierce and commemoration of his 200th birthday. Its Web site, franklinpierce.ws, contains a brief biography; a listing of Fierce-related sites along the Franklin Pierce Highway (state route 9), ranging from Pierce’s homes and law offices to his father’s barbecue pit; as well as links, contacts, and opportunities for volunteers to help keep alive America’s long-fading awareness of the life and times of its fourteenth President.