Thursday, July 31, 2008

Franklin Pierce Misses the Hit Parade Again

In a new book, The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t), Alvin S. Felzenberg enters the Presidential rating game. Not surprisingly, Franklin Pierce once again ranks among the worst Presidents. Felzenberg scored the Presidents on five qualities: character, vision, competence, economic policy, human rights, and foreign policy. Unfortunately, he didn't grade the Presidents' hair. Perhaps then Pierce would have fared better. Being the thorough and conscientious social critic that I am, I have no intention of actually reading the book, so I don't know exactly what Pierce's score is. However, when asked "Who didn't we deserve?" in an interview with the National Review Online, Felzenberg had this to say:

We could have done without Andrew Johnson, Pierce, Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and quite a few others.

When asked about his least favorite President, Felzenberg named James Buchanan, because the nation drifted further toward Civil War during his watch. So I guess Franklin Pierce wasn't at the absolute bottom of the list.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Guano Diplomacy

Millard Fillmore

Whenever one nation possesses a commodity coveted by another nation, conflict ensues. Thus it was with guano during the nineteenth century. In his 1852 State of the Union address, Millard Fillmore said:

The correspondence of the late Secretary of State with the Peruvian charge d'affaires relative to the Lobos Islands was communicated to Congress toward the close of the last session. Since that time, on further investigation of the subject, the doubts which had been entertained of the title of Peru to those islands have been removed, and I have deemed it just that the temporary wrong which had been unintentionally done her from want of information should be repaired by an unreserved acknowledgment of her sovereignty.

I have the satisfaction to inform you that the course pursued by Peru has been creditable to the liberality of her Government. Before it was known by her that her title would be acknowledged at Washington, her minister of foreign affairs had authorized our chargé d'affaires at Lima to announce to the American vessels which had gone to the Lobos for guano that the Peruvian Government was willing to freight them on its own account. This intention has been carried into effect by the Peruvian minister here by an arrangement which is believed to be advantageous to the parties in interest.
Daniel Webster

The "late Secretary of State" was none other than Daniel Webster. On June 2, 1852, a Captain John C. Jewett sent a letter to Webster asking whether American citizens could take guano from the Lobos Islands in the Pacific. Webster replied in a letter dated June 5, 1852, that it was the position of the Department of State that neither Peru nor any other country had legal claim to the Lobos Islands and the guano thereon, and on the same day, Webster sent a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, suggesting the Navy protect anyone obtaining guano from the Lobos. As events unfolded, much hue and cry arose over Webster's first letter to Jewett, authorizing Americans to harvest guano from the Lobos Islands, and whether President Fillmore had approved the letter. A draft of the letter initialled by Fillmore was subsequently found, although he denied any recollection of approving it. The controversy was taken up by the press in the U.S., as well as in Peru, as shown in this excerpt from a letter from the American Chargéd'Affaires in Lima.
Text not available
Reports of Committees 30th Congress, 1st Session - 48th Congress, 2nd Session By United States Congress. Senate

Extensive correspondence between Peru and the U.S. convinced the U.S. government that Peru in fact owned the Lobos, and Webster reneged on his promise of Naval protection for Jewett, much to the chagrin of Capt. Jewett and his partner Mr. A.G. Bensen, who chartered several vessels to go to the Lobos under the protection implied by Webster's promise to Jewett. When Bensen's ships arrived at Peru, they were not allowed to take guano from the Lobos Islands, but a deal was struck whereby they could load guano at the Cinchas Islands, and Bensen was to be paid 20 dollars a ton by the Peruvians for hauling the guano. The deal did not go smoothly, and Bensen evetually filed claims against the U.S. government and Peru. The claims were considered by the Committee of Claims of the Senate in 1856 and 1857, but I haven't yet been able to find the ultimate outcome.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Marx and Pierce

Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) were contemporaries, but to my knowledge, they never met. The title of this post instead refers to Louis Marx, the toy magnate, whose company produced the semi-educational Presidents of the United States series of plastic figures beginning in the 1950's. Those interested can find more information at The series was produced in various sizes, some in white plastic that the owner could paint if so desired, and some pre-painted. I bought a painted version on eBay. It doesn't look all that much like Franklin Pierce, except for the wayward lock of hair on his forehead, and the Napoleanesque pose he affected in some of his portraits.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Franklin Pierce and the Golden Age of Guano

Among historians, Franklin Pierce consistently ranks among the worst Presidents of the United States. Part of his infamy arises from a crucial piece of legislation he signed--the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The act established the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, and allowed each territory to decide whether to allow slavery, effectively negating the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which outlawed slavery north of latitude 36 degress, 30 minutes. Violence erupted between advocates of slavery and freesoilers in the Kansas territory, leading Horace Greeley to coin the phrase "Bleeding Kansas." The violence in Kansas was a prelude to the Civil War.

Politicians forcing slavery on a freesoiler (L to R): Steven A. Douglas, Franklin Pierce (pulling the beard), James Buchanan, Lewis Cass

The historical impact of the Kansas-Nebraska Act overshadows another significant law enacted during the administration of Pierce--The Guano Islands Act of 1856. Yes, this is a law that deals with bird droppings, but which also had a lot to do with American expansion.

As a fertilizer, guano was essential to the agricultural economy of the U.S. during the period from 1840-1880, sometimes called, with a completely straight face, The Golden Age of Guano. Pierce's predecessor, Millard Fillmore, had this to say on the topic in his State of the Union Speech in 1850:

Peruvian guano has become so desirable an article to the agricultural interest of the United States that it is the duty of the Government to employ all the means properly in its power for the purpose of causing that article to be imported into the country at a reasonable price. Nothing will be omitted on my part toward accomplishing this desirable end. I am persuaded that in removing any restraints on this traffic the Peruvian Government will promote its own best interests, while it will afford a proof of a friendly disposition toward this country, which will be duly appreciated.

Franklin Pierce also brought up the topic in his 1853 State of the Union speech:

A new branch of commerce, important to the agricultural interests of the United States, has within a few years past been opened with Peru. Notwithstanding the inexhaustible deposits of guano upon the islands of that country, considerable difficulties are experienced in obtaining the requisite supply. Measures have been taken to remove these difficulties and to secure a more abundant importation of the article. Unfortunately, there has been a serious collision between our citizens who have resorted to the Chincha Islands for it and the Peruvian authorities stationed there. Redress for the outrages committed by the latter was promptly demanded by our minister at Lima. This subject is now under consideration, and there is reason to believe that Peru is disposed to offer adequate indemnity to the aggrieved parties.

Peruvian guano was desirable because the seafood diets of seabirds such as the Peruvian booby and the Guanay cormorant are rich in plant nutrients, and the dry climate along the coast of Peru results in the guano drying quickly, making it relatively odorless, and preventing nitrates from evaporating away.

While the finest kind of guano came from Peru's Chincha Islands, other small islands were potential sources. I grew up on a duck farm, and I can testify to the prodigious amounts of manure produced by large numbers of birds confined to a small area. Several small islands frequented by seabirds in the Pacific and Caribbean were collectively known as the Guano Islands.

Peruvian Booby

So, in 1856, to promote the agriculture necessary for westward expansion, Congress passed, and Franklin Pierce signed, the Guano Island Act, which allowed U.S. citizens to mine guano (deposits which had been accumulating for thousands of years could be up to 150 feet deep) from any island, rock, or key not under the jurisdiction of another government. The U.S. would annex the island and protect the rights of the discoverer to occupy the island and mine the guano. The Act also stated the U.S. could give up possession of a guano island it at any time. Although not explicitly stated, Congress was making sure that the U.S. could dump any guano island when its resources were all used up.

Franklin Pierce was, or course, incorrect when he referred to "inexhaustible deposits of guano," and the disruption of the ecology of guano islands resulted in dwindling supplies. That, plus the industrial production of fertilizer, brought the Golden Age of Guano to an end around 1880.

Peruvian guano is in the news again today, as prices of synthetic fertilizers skyrocket. Peruvians are collecting what little guano is found on offshore islands as fish populations and the populations of seabirds which feed on them have dwindled. See the New York Times article "Peru Guards Its Guano As Demand Soars Again".

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Googling Hair Force One

I chose to use the term Hair Force One in two previous posts about President Franklin Pierce's hair. I chose this phrase because it is a word play on the name of the Presidential airplane. The only time I had heard it previously was on CNBC, in reference to commentator Joe Kernan on the show "Squawkbox." He is endowed with a full head of hair, and host Mark Haines sometimes refers to Kernan's desk as "Hair Force One." Anyway, monitoring hits on this blog via Feedjit, I noticed one reader arrived from a Google search "watch hair force one 3 online." Hmmm, I thought, I wonder what that's about. I ran a search for Hair Force One myself, and found out that there is a heavy metal/hair band by that name. Many of the search results had to do with a video of somebody named Edguy performing a cover of the band's romantic ballad "F***ing with Fire!" I also learned that Hair Force One is an online game at the National Pediculosis Association web site, where the player uses a Lice Meister comb to remove lice from a child's head (see also my previous post "How to Avoid Writing"). Finally, the search yielded a site with a rather disturbing video which "defends hairy women around the planet." A good portion of the video consists of a woman applying some sort of gel to the ample hair on her bare midrift. As if that weren't bad enough, a good portion of the rest focuses on unshaved female armpits. The moral of the story is that shaving of female body hair is the result of a greedy plot launched in 1915 by the Wilkinson Sword Razor Blade Co. and Harpers Bazaar Magazine. Wow! I won't supply a link to the video. If you're that interested, you can google it yourself.

I apologize to anyone who might have landed here looking for a heavy metal rock band, a louse-killing game, or hirsute females.

Updike on "Bad" Presidents

I don't often reread books. I have such a huge backlog of partially read and unread books that I feel I'm just getting further behind by going back to a book I've read before. However, my recently acquired interest in the life of Franklin Pierce has inspired me to reread John Updike's Memories of the Ford Administration. The novel's protagonist, like Updike, writes about James Buchanan. Franklin Pierce beat out James Buchanan, among others, for the Democratic nomination for President in 1852 (on the 49th ballot). Buchanan was the Democratic candidate and went on to win the election when Pierce was not offered the nomination in 1856. Another interesting connection between Pierce and Buchanan is that Buchanan's long-time room mate, William Rufus deVane King, was elected Pierce's vice-President. He and his alleged homosexual relationship with Buchanan will be the subject of another post.

Updike, through his protagonist, Alfred L. Clayton, wrote the following about Buchanan and the other "bad" Presidents leading up to the Civil War:

The challenge is, for the historian, to love the unlovable. . .He (Buchanan) tried to keep peace. That whole decade of Presidents did, Fillmore and Pierce and Buchanan--try, I mean--and they succeeded, they did keep the South placated, and in the Union, which was important, since if war had come in 1850 instead of 1860, the outcome might have been very different; the South had all its assets in place--the military tradition, the great officers, the down-home patriotism, King Cotton--and the North still needed to grow. And precious little thanks they've got from history for it--the doughface Presidents.

The term doughface was applied to northerners sympathizing with the south. Pierce has been accused of being pro-slavery, which is probably unfair. He was a Jacksonian Democrat and strict constructionist who believed the Constitution allowed slavery, but stated he personally was opposed to it.

Perhaps, as Updike's character suggests, we should love the unlovable and thank Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan for delaying war until the North was in a position to win. Interestingly, it was Jefferson Davis, Pierce's Secretary of War, who did much to build up the U.S. military before secession, when he became president of the Confedrate States of America.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Franklin Pierce Runs Over Woman - Not!

One bit of probably false Franklin Pierce trivia promulgated around the internet is the story of him running over an old woman while driving a horse and carriage. One version says this occurred while he was President and that he was arrested.

OK, the guy's the President of the United States. I realize it's the 1850s, but do you think he's going to be driving himself around the streets of Washington? Don't you think it would be pretty big news if he did run over somebody?

David Holzel, in his "Five Amazing Facts About Franklin Pierce (In Honor of His 203rd Birthday)", quotes no less an authority than Peter Wallner, who wrote not one, but two Pierce biographies. Wallner said, "The fact that there are no newspaper stories about the accident and it wasn’t mentioned in any correspondence convinced me that it probably didn’t happen.”

That's good enough for me.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Hair Force One, Part Two

It seems that Presidential hair was a hot topic around February 15, 2008. As I explained in an earlier post, that's when the New Hampshire Historical Society unveiled what they felt was the secret of Franklin Pierce's hair. That very Presidents Day weekend, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia put on an exhibition of Presidential hair--really! The hair samples came from the Peter Browne Collection of Pile--again I say, really! Peter Browne (1762-1860) was a lawyer and amateur naturalist who was interested in sheep (in a nice way, I mean). He started out collecting wool, otherwise known as pile, and studied what types of wool would be suited to different uses. He then branched out into collecting samples of human hair, including the hair of famous people. Included in the collection are the locks of several Presidents, including none other than Franklin Pierce. Thus occurred another opportunity for the media to take potshots at the 14th President. Writing in the article "Presidential Hair on Display" at, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Alfred Lubrano pointed out that the hair samples do not include the follicles, and therefore would not be a source of DNA for "cloning the brilliant redhead Thomas Jefferson or, for sheer laughs, good ol' Franklin Pierce, the very distant relative of President Bush's mother, and a Confederacy-supporting alcoholic with a thick, brown mop."

Bashing of Handsome Frank aside, it's an interesting article with an accompanying video and a slideshow that includes a photo of the page from Browne's scrapbook with Pierce's hair sample. It's much more attractively displayed than the one at the New Hampshire Historical Society web site shown in my previous post, "Hair Force One."

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Franklin Pierce - Whipping Boy of Pundits and Naysayers

Once again, the name of Franklin Pierce comes up in the political blogosphere this election year. In her article, "Wes Clark and the Military Credential," in the TIME/CNN blog Swampland, Karen Tumulty discusses the men who had military experience as generals before being elected U.S. President. General Wes Clark recently said that John McCain's military service didn't necessarily mean he would be a good Commander-in-Chief, which set off a firestorm of chatter in the media. Ms. Tumulty, taking the same exhaustive, thorough approach to journalism that I do, used Google to find out how many U.S. Presidents had been generals, and how those Presidents ranked in a survey of historians, political scientists and legal scholars that the Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society did in 2000. Please note that John McCain was not a general, the world changed quite a bit between the time of George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and I personally believe this whole discussion is irrelevant.

In any event, Ms. Tumulty notes that of the twelve former generals who became President, "...two were flat-out 'failures': Franklin Pierce (Mexican War) and Andrew Johnson (Civil War)." Poor Franklin Pierce--Rodney Dangerfield got more respect than this guy.

Franklin Pierce Bobblehead

I ordered mine yesterday from the New Hampshire Historical Society. Don't miss out! It's a limited edition!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Hair Force One

Currier Print of Franklin Pierce

The hair of Abraham Lincoln is so desirable to collectors that a 1/16-inch-long piece of a single hair, allegedly cut from the Great Emancipator's head on his deathbed, is listed on eBay at $1900. One-sixteenth of an inch!

Consider then, the value of this lock of Franklin Pierce's hair from the New Hampshire Historical Society collection.

To me, it looks like something a cat coughed up. That, plus Pierce's sullied reputation as an ineffective President, tells me that his tresses probably wouldn't fetch a high price in the booming deceased celebrity hair market. But I may be wrong. Maybe there are enough Pierce aficianados out there to bid up the price.

Apparently, Pierce's tonsorial splendor was one reason behind his nickname, Handsome Frank. Today, there is some question among Pierce commentators (don't look for them on CNN or MSNBC) about whether Franklin Pierce's hairdo was a result of careless indifference, or thoughtfully planned coiffure. The experts seem to come down on the side of thoughtful planning. Writing in the blog Mental Floss, David Holzel lists as number five of his "Five Amazing Facts About Franklin Pierce (In Honor of His 203rd Birthday)" the tantalizing possibility that Franklin Pierce perfected the combover. He cites as evidence a photo from 1862 which supposedly shows Pierce's hair on two levels--"above, the hair combed on a deep slant, and below, a small patch at the front and center of his wide forehead." Alas, the photo is not included in the article so that astute readers might judge for themselves. I haven't been able to locate the said photo, even in an extensive gallery of Pierce's hairstyles at the website of the New Hampshire Historical Society. The NHHS e-newsletter of February 15, 2008 focuses on a bit of evidence in the great hair, or should I say big hair, debate. The Society purchased a letter written by Franklin's wife, Jane, at auction. The letter, written to her sister in 1857, contains the passage, “Today, Mr. Pierce has met the citizens of Norfolk and after the fatigue is quietly lying on the sofa by a bright fire with Miriam brushing his hair soporifically.” Miriam was Mrs. Pierce's maid. I'm not sure if the phrase means that Mr. Pierce found the hair-brushing so relaxing he was falling asleep, or the maid found the task so boring that she was nodding off. In any case, one might conclude from this little vignette that Pierce was interested in the appearance of his hair. In the newsletter, Peter Wallner, director of the NHHS library and author of two volumes of Franklin Pierce biograpy, states, “While the evidence is not conclusive, the letter leads one to suspect that the vanity Pierce showed for his appearance extended to his hair as well.”

The other mention of President Pierce's hair I have found in my exhaustive research comes from the newspaper description of his lying in state at the New Hampshire State House in Concord, where mourners commented on “his mass of curly black hair, somewhat tinged by age, but which was still combed on a deep slant over his wide forehead.” [New Hampshire Daily Patriot, October 11, 1869]. Deep slant or combover? You be the judge. As David Holzel says at the conclusion of his Mental Floss article, "Pierce’s hair unquestionably is a subject for future historians to wrestle with." Let's just hope they don't have to wrestle with that hairball at the NHHS Museum.