‘Personal Regret, Bitter Sorrow’

Doing a little research on presidential inaugurations, I came across this, the first sentence in the inaugural address delivered by Franklin Pierce on March 4, 1853:

“My Countrymen: It is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.”

I haven’t canvassed all 55 inaugural speeches, but I don’t think you’ll find one more reluctant-sounding than that. There was a reason, however, beyond the assumption of office in a nation that was unraveling toward Civil War (in his 3,000-word speech, delivered from memory, Pierce seemed satisfied that the Union had weathered the controversy over slavery).

Two months before taking the oath of office, Pierce and his wife, Jane, were passengers on a train heading north from Boston with their 11-year-old son Benjamin. It was a short train, consisting of a single passenger car and a baggage car in addition to the locomotive, and the temperature outside was around zero. About 20 miles north of Boston, the car carrying Pierce’s family, and many other passengers, derailed. Here’s how the January 7, 1853, New York Times described the scene in one of several dispatches:

Boston, Thursday, Jan. 6–10 P.M.

By a special train just returned from Andover, we learn that General Pierce was uninjured, except some sprains and bruises. Mrs. Pierce also escaped serious bodily harm, but is almost frantic at the loss of her son. The poor boy’s head was nearly smashed to a jelly.”

Two weeks after her son perished, Jane Pierce wrote a letter to him; it’s one of the manuscripts that appeared in a New Hampshire Historical Society exhibition on Franklin Pierce. She wrote, “I know not how to go on without you.”

In mid-February, President-elect Pierce was obliged to begin his journey from his home in New Hampshire to Washington, D.C., to begin his term. It must have been a somber trip. Before Pierce got to New York City, his personal secretary sent word that the president-elect was not to be disturbed. As the Times reported on February 17, Pierce appeared to be “much fatigued” upon reaching the city and “did not wish any public demonstration in the way of a reception, or being compelled to receive the visits of persons at his rooms [in the Astor House hotel]. He expressed himself in plain terms on this subject, and said if his desire was not complied with he should take the first train South.” A club of New York Democrats nonetheless drafted a resolution of support for the new president in which they noted his “recent melancholy affliction.”

Pierce isn’t one of those figures you learn much about–no: learn anything about–in the ordinary course on American history. Aside from his son’s violent death, a tragedy that he and his wife seem to have endured but never gotten over, his term in office was troubled, too. Among other episodes, he presided over the harrowing events of May 1856, including the attack by pro-slavery guerrillas on Lawrence, Kansas, John Brown’s bloody adventures in the same territory, and the brutal beating of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner by a South Carolina congressman on the Senate floor. Pierce’s performance was such that the Democrats ditched him, their incumbent president, in favor of James Buchanan.

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