The People’s Sexiest Man Alive…in 1853
Sudbury Massachusetts’ own movie star Chris Evans was recently named People’s 2022 Sexiest Man Alive. The 41-year-old Captain America star accepted his new title with humility and grins, stating that his mom would be proud and empowered by her new bragging rights. Now, consider this: If People Magazine had been around a hundred and seventy years ago, who might that year’s top pick be? A possible honoree might surprise many, especially us New Hampshirites. The Sexiest Man of 1853 could have very well been Hillsboro born President Franklin Pierce.
Many of you are thinking, “Wait. Wasn’t Franklin Pierce named one of the worst presidents ever?” You would be right. According to historians, Andrew Johnson holds the lowest ranking of them all. Taking up the reins after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson was anti-emancipation. His gross mishandling of his duties as president made him the first in history to face impeachment. Johnson dodged his fate by one vote—a singular ‘not guilty’ that holds a shroud of mystery even to this day. But that’s a discussion for another time.
A few more rungs down the presidential ladder of shame, we find Franklin Pierce. In the years before the Civil War, he was called a ‘doughface’. While this doesn’t sound like the hashtag of a handsome man, it really meant that Pierce was a northerner easily molded by the southern states’ concerns. His endorsement of the Kansas Nebraska Act pretty much paved the way to war. Even folks in Pierce’s adult hometown of Concord New Hampshire proved their lack of support by burning his effigy to a crisp. On his last day in office, Pierce was asked what he intended to do next. His response was, “There’s nothing left [to do] but get drunk.”
Franklin Pierce did leave behind one surprising legacy. President Harry Truman declared Franklin the most handsome president in the White House up until his time. It could easily be questioned why Truman made such an odd observation. My guess is that he’d spent four solid years strolling by the White House portraits, and the notion simply hit him. We’ll never know.
So, now we have a potential ‘Sexiest Man Long Dead’ who was also nearly a suspect in a famous author’s death. “Wait,” you utter once again. “What?” Suddenly, New Hampshire’s sorriest politician becomes interesting…
Franklin Pierce and future author Nathaniel Hawthorne met when both attended Bowdoin College. As a boy, Pierce wasn’t keen on education. He once walked fourteen miles home from boarding school. His father gave him dinner and then ordered Franklin to walk part of the way back in a raging thunderstorm. Pierce was next sent to Phillips Exeter Academy, where he majored in being charming. Two years into Bowdoin, and Pierce was last in his class. But with hard work, and possibly the help of his literate friend Nathaniel, Pierce graduated fifth in his class.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life at Bowdoin rings true with many of today’s college students. His letters home typically included the well-worn phrase, “send money.” Hawthorne led such a wild social life, he was a close candidate for what was then known as ‘rustication.’ Today, we call it getting suspended. Hawthorne made it through and graduated in 1825.
Pierce and Hawthorne remained close. Hawthorne would go on to write Pierce’s ‘necessary’ biography as a candidate for the presidency in 1852. “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” Spoiler alert: this was said in ‘The Scarlet Letter’, and not in ‘Life of Franklin Pierce’. Hawthorne’s biographical treatment of Pierce read more like hero worship. Pierce served in the Mexican American War. Wisely, Hawthorne brushed over the fact that Pierce blacked out and fell off his horse, earning him the nickname “Fainting Frank.”
All this gossipy trivia aside, Franklin Pierce was a charismatic, well-liked man who suffered unbearable loss and pain. His first son died in infancy, his second at the age of four, and his third killed instantly in a horrific train accident just two months before Pierce’s inauguration. Pierce’s now estranged wife remained secluded in the living quarters of the White House, writing letters of apology to her dead son. Varina Davis would serve as Pierce’s official hostess. Her husband, Jefferson Davis, was Pierce’s friend and the nation’s Secretary of War at that time. Davis, as we all know, would go on to pilot the southern cause in the Civil War.
Hawthorne would come to regret writing Pierce’s biography, claiming it cost him hundreds of friends. “For the trouble, Pierce owes me something,” Hawthorne surmised. Their camaraderie managed to survive. In the spring of 1864, when Hawthorne was ill and frail from stomach cancer, he suggested that the two travel about New England. On the nineteenth of May, Nathaniel Hawthorne would die at the Pemigewasset Hotel in Plymouth, NH. Franklin checked on him throughout the night, eventually finding him, at 4am, “passed from natural sleep to that sleep that knows no waking.” The authorities were called in. Pierce gave his testimony. If Pierce was a suspect, it was only for the briefest time. Lost, alone, and leaning heavily on the numbing effects of alcohol, Franklin Pierce would spend his final years rereading the works of his dearest friend and living in a land of ghosts. Franklin Pierce left this world at 4:35am on Friday, October 8th in 1869. His ample will provided for his landlady, his brother’s family, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s three children.