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Monday, November 23, 2015

Franklin Pierce Portraits

Franklin Pierce, official White House portrait, 1852, G.P.A. Healy
Franklin Pierce, G.P.A. Healy,
National Portrait Gallery
Today in the music business they call them "one-hit wonders." In the American political realm they're referred to as "one term Presidents," and there have been quite a number of them, especially during the 19th-century. There were a total of eleven with an additional five more in the 20th-century. Usually it has to do with a President not winning reelection or, in a few cases, not even being re-nominated by his party he was so unpopular. That was the case with the 14th President of the United States, Franklin Pierce. Born in 1804, today, November 23, would have been his 211th birthday. His official White House portrait was painted by the inveterate presidential portrait painter, George Peter Alexander Healy (above) in 1852. Pierce's single term as President from 1853 to 1857.
Father and son portraits of Franklin Pierce, the father, Adna Tenney painted the President in 1852.  His son, Ulysses D. Tenney's portrait imitates in many ways a long line of presidential paintings dating back to Gilbert Stuart's Lansdowne portrait of Washington.
If the name, Franklin Pierce, doesn't immediately bring to mind a face, it's not surprising. His portrait from the National Portrait Gallery collection (top, right) is also by Healy. Pierce was a relatively insignificant President, whose only major accomplishment in office was the successful postponement of the Civil War by signing the Kansas-Nebraska Act which was intended to placate the North and the South by allowing territories in the West to decide for themselves as to whether of not they would allow slavery. In fact, the law placated neither side, only serving to incite a bloodbath of frontier violence as the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions shot up one another in seeking to settle the matter. Incidentally, the leader of the Abolitionists was the Kansas Senator, Jim Lane (no relation), who later became a Union general. This period of turmoil has been called "Bleeding Kansas," and it made Pierce one of the most unpopular Presidents to ever serve. When his time came to seek reelection, his own party wanted nothing to do with him. Pierce's only consolation was that the man they eventually nominated, his Democratic successor, James Buchanan, is often cited as an even worse President. Having lost the nomination, President Pierce told reporters, "The only thing left to do now is get DRUNK."

The virtually unknown President by two unknown artists.
General Franklin Pierce, this 1847 etching
more political propaganda than art.
Pierce was born and raised in the state of New Hampshire, the only President to ever come from that state. He was the fifth of eight children. His father, a Revolutionary War veteran, was a state legislator, deeply involved in local politics. Pierce was a graduate of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine and later studied law at Northampton Law School in Northampton, Mass-achusetts. He was admitted to the Bar in 1827 whereupon he returned to his hometown of Hillsborough to practice law. He lost his first case. Pierce eventually became a capable lawyer, but it was his deep, oratory voice and amazing ability to remember names and faces which served him well in following his father's footsteps into New Hampshire state politics. He won his first election as Hillsborough town moderator and was reelected six times. From there he went on to the state legislature, eventually to become Speaker of the House about the same time his father retired as governor of the state. Pierce eventually became on of five New Hampshire Congressmen while also serving as a member of the state militia, rising from the rank of Colonel to Brigadier General by the end of the Mexican War.

Franklin and Jane Pierce miniatures, attributed to Moses B. Russell, circa 1835
Jane Means-Appleton Pierce
Following a lackluster term in the U.S. Senate, and his service during the war, in which he was injured or ill during much of the fighting, Pierce resigned his commission and returned home to recuperate with his wife, Jane, and their three sons. Tragically, all three children died in childhood, the oldest, Benny, was killed just a few weeks after his father was elected President when the train carrying the family derailed. He was eleven years old, the only fatality in the accident. His mother never fully recovered from the loss. Chronically ill herself with tuberculosis, Jane Pierce (right) became reclusive, serving as White House hostess only on rare occasions, leaving most of the duties of First Lady to her husband's aunt. The White House staff came to refer to her as "the ghost." To this day, the White House has no official portrait of Jane Means-Appleton Pierce.

Franklin Pierce, by James Van Nuys,
Rapid City, South Dakota, one of 43 life-
size bronze Presidents lining the city streets.

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