In Concord: The Friendship of Pierce and Hawthorne

Franklin Pierce (left) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (right)

Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne met when they were about 17 years old, long before Pierce was President of the United States or Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, at Bowdoin College in Maine. They formed a friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives, and their devotion to each other caused controversy, especially in later years after President Pierce, a Northerner, supported Southern interests and remained close to Jefferson Davis. Many of Pierce’s friends, neighbors, and supporters deserted him, but Hawthorne never did. Hawthorne had written a campaign biography of Pierce in 1852 and Pierce appointed Hawthorne as the U.S. Consul in Liverpool — a position which required few duties from Hawthorne but provided him with a steady income to continue his writing.

In 1863, the Civil War was raging and former President Pierce was as unpopular as any ex-President in American history, with some even accusing him of treason and alleging that his longtime friendship with the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, suggested Pierce’s collusion with Davis’s cause. Despite that storm, Nathaniel Hawthorne had told some friends that he was planning on dedicating his latest book, Our Old Home, to Franklin Pierce. They were outraged. Hawthorne’s friends, neighbors, and publisher strongly urged him to reconsider, with many telling the author that the American people would soon turn against him, too, if he remained so publicly supportive of the unpopular former President who was seen by many as a traitor.

In the face of such backlash, it didn’t take Hawthorne long to decide on what to do. On July 2, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was entering its second day and Nathaniel Hawthorne sat down in his home, The Wayside, in Concord, Massachusetts and wrote:

TO FRANKLIN PIERCE,
AS A SLIGHT MEMORIAL OF A COLLEGE FRIENDSHIP, PROLONGED THROUGH MANHOOD, AND RETAINING ALL ITS VITALITY IN OUR AUTUMNAL YEARS,
THIS VOLUME IS INSCRIBED BY NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE
.

On the next page, the dedication continued with a lengthy inscription beginning:

TO A FRIEND:
I HAVE not asked your consent, my dear General, to the foregoing inscription, because it would have been no inconsiderable disappointment to me had you withheld it; for I have long desired to connect your name with some book of mine, in commemoration of an early friendship that has grown old between two individuals of widely dissimilar pursuits and fortunes. I only wish that the offering were a worthier one than this volume of sketches, which certainly are not of a kind likely to prove interesting to a statesman in retirement, inasmuch as they meddle with no matters of policy or government, and have very little to say about the deeper traits of national character. In their humble way, they belong entirely to aesthetic literature, and can achieve no higher success than to represent to the American reader a few of the external aspects of English scenery and life, especially those that are touched with the antique charm to which our countrymen are more susceptible than are the people among whom it is of native growth.

Hawthorne’s dedication ended with:

And now farewell, my dear friend; and excuse (if you think it needs any excuse) the freedom with which I thus publicly assert a personal friendship between a private individual and a statesman who has filled what was then the most august position in the world. But I dedicate my book to the Friend, and shall defer a colloquy with the Statesman till some calmer and sunnier hour. Only this let me say, that, with the record of your life in my memory, and with a sense of your character in my deeper consciousness as among the few things that times has left as it found them, I need no assurance that you continue faithful forever to that grand idea of an irrevocable Union, which, as you once told me, was the earliest that your brave father taught you. For other men there may be a choice of paths, — for you, but one; and it rests among my certainties that no man’s loyalty is more steadfast, no man’s hopes or apprehensions on behalf of our national existence more deeply heartfelt, or more closely intertwined with his possibilities of personal happiness, than those of FRANKLIN PIERCE

Our Old Home was subtitled A Series of English Sketches and much of the book had been inspired (and written) by Hawthorne’s time as U.S. Consul in Liverpool, which allowed him to not only write, but to travel the English countryside. The Atlantic Monthly had published the manuscript as a serial, and editor James T. Fields was at the front of the queue demanding that Hawthorne drop any connection of the book with Pierce. Rather than scrubbing his idea of dedicating Our Old Home to Pierce, Nathaniel Hawthorne declared his undying friendship and appreciation for his friend with his inscription, in the strongest words possible. Understanding all of the accusations being made about Pierce, Hawthorne even offered a defense of his friend’s loyalty, reminding his readers that Franklin Pierce had spent nearly his entire adult life in public service and that the 14th President inherited his patriotism from his father, Benjamin Pierce, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and early Governor of New Hampshire.

To Fields, Hawthorne responded, “I find that it would be a piece of poltroonery in me to withdraw either the dedication or the dedicatory letter. My long and intimate relations with Pierce render the dedication altogether proper, especially as regards this book, which would have had no existence without his kindness; and if he is so exceedingly unpopular that his name is enough to sink the volume, there is so much the more need that an old friend should stand by him. I cannot, merely on account of pecuniary profit or literary reputation, go back from what I have deliberately thought and felt it right to do; and if I were to tear out the dedication, I should never look at the volume again without remorse and shame.” Hawthorne stood his ground and the dedication remained once Our Old Home was published. Many others, however, did tear out the pages referencing Pierce, including Ralph Waldo Emerson who tore the dedication out of the copy he received directly from Hawthorne before allowing the book to join his personal library. It wasn’t just Our Old Home which was unpopular; Hawthorne wrote, “My friends have dropped off from me like autumn leaves,” to one of those who remained by his side.

Another who remained at his side was Franklin Pierce. In December 1863, Pierce’s long-suffering wife, Jane, died after years of lingering illnesses. Pierce was lonely when he was married — when a friend once asked him how the gregarious, fun-loving politician could marry someone with as such an opposite personality as Jane, Pierce answered, “I could take better care of her than anyone else was the reply.”. Life as a widower added to that loneliness, as well as the fact that his neighbors in Concord, New Hampshire shunned him, his political career allies had deserted him years ago, and one of his closest friends happened to be the Commander-in-Chief of the rebellious states then engaged with the Union in a bloody Civil War — Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It didn’t help that Pierce’s alcoholism was taking a severe toll on his health. But, as the dedication in Our Old Home had proven, Pierce still had Hawthorne at his side, too.

Hawthorne was at Pierce’s side in Concord, New Hampshire in December 1863 as Jane was laid to rest. Pierce was devastated by his wife’s death, and Hawthorne was disturbed by seeing Jane in her open casket — he recognized that he, too, was nearing death. Hawthorne’s health had been failing for years and he had less than six months to live. As Jane’s casket was being lowered into her grave at Old North Cemetery, the grieving former President was thankful for his friend’s presence, but clearly worried about Hawthorne’s physical condition. At Jane’s graveside, Pierce took the time to adjust Hawthorne’s collar for him to keep him warm in the cold December wind of New Hampshire.

•••
“Happy the man that has such a friend beside him, when he comes to die!” — Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852)

In the spring of 1864, Hawthorne continued to decline. Stomach pain plagued him chronically, but he hoped that a trip to the White Mountains would be good for his health and asked Pierce to accompany him. Hawthorne’s friends worried that he was making a mistake by traveling in his physical condition and remained bitterly opposed to Hawthorne’s continuing connection with Pierce. But Hawthorne dismissed any concerns and his wife, Sophia, was supportive of the trip. Sophia, however, warned Pierce of how ill his friend really was and wrote, “He really needs to be aided in getting in and out of carriages, because his eyes are so affected by this weakness, and his steps are so uncertain.” In her letter of May 6, 1864, Sophia continued, “I would not trust him in any hands now excepting just such gentle and tender hands as yours,” and, “God bless you fear General Pierce for your aid in this strait.”

After meeting Hawthorne in Boston, the two friends traveled to Pierce’s home in Concord to wait for the weather to improve before beginning their journey into New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Hawthorne was gaunt, weak, and clearly dying, but in good spirits as they traveled from PIerce’s home to Dixville Notch in northern New Hampshire. On May 18, 1864, Pierce and Hawthorne arrived at the first-class Pemigewasset House hotel in Plymouth, New Hampshire, about 100 miles from Dixville Notch. In the evening, Hawthorne had a bit of food and a cup of tea, fell asleep for an hour on a couch and then woke up and retired to his room. Pierce described the next few hours in a letter to Sidney Webster in 1868:

Passing from his room to my own, leaving to door open and so placing the lamp that its direct rays would not fall upon him and yet enable me to see distinctly from my bed, I betook myself to rest too, a little after ten o’clock. But I awoke before twelve, and noticed that he was lying in a perfectly natural position, like a child, with his right hand under his cheek. That noble brow and face struck me as more grand serenely calm then than ever before. With new hope that such undisturbed repose might bring back fresh vigor, I fell asleep again; but he was so very restless the night previous that I was surprised and startled when I noticed, at three o’clock, that his position was identically the same as when I observed him between eleven and twelve. Hastening softly to his bedside, I could not perceive that he breathed, although no change had come over his features. I seized his wrist, but found no pulse; ran my hands down upon his bare side, but the great, generous, brave heart beat no more.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was dead. To Webster, Pierce noted that as they were traveling by carriage to the Pemagewasset House earlier that day, Hawthorne asked him if he had read William Makepeace Thackeray’s account of death and “remarked in a low, soliloquizing tone, what a boon it would be if, when life draws to its close, one could pass away without a struggle.” Closing his letter to Webster describing Hawthorne’s final hours, he wrote, “The boon of which he spoke in the afternoon had, before morning’s dawn, been graciously granted to him. He had passed from natural sleep to that from which there is no earthly waking, without the slightest struggle, evidently without moving a muscle.”

Pierce notified Sophia Hawthorne by telegram and made arrangements for Hawthorne’s return to Massachusetts, accompanying the body of the legendary author in a solemn conclusion to their final journey together. As he was packing up their belongings, he found a pocketbook that felt empty, opened it up and found that Hawthorne carried a photograph of Franklin Pierce with him everywhere he went.

At Hawthorne’s funeral, Pierce’s friendship with Hawthorne and care of the author in his final days was overlooked by Hawthorne’s other friends, who still shunned the former President due to political differences. Pierce was heartbroken that he was passed over and not included as a pallbearer. Instead, he was pushed aside in favor of less controversial names like Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louis Agassiz, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Pierce’s was treated with respect as a former President of the United States, but nothing beyond what was required for proper society. To most of the people at the funeral, Pierce wasn’t the man who Hawthorne chose to spend his final days with; to them, he was a Northern President whose Southern sympathies had led them to Civil War. To them, Franklin Pierce wasn’t Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best friend; to them, he was a close friend of Jefferson Davis at a gathering of some of the country’s most passionate abolitionists. Franklin Pierce’s closest ally at Hawthorne’s funeral was the man lying in the casket, and all he could do was sprinkle apple blossoms into the grave.

“I need not tell you how lonely I am, and how full of sorrow,” Pierce wrote to his friend, Horatio Bridge, shortly after Hawthorne’s death. Still devastated by Jane’s passing and now without Hawthorne, Pierce increasingly turned to the bottle. Drinking was punishing his body, and he began to decline. By the end, on October 8, 1868, Pierce was suffering from liver failure and reportedly weighed less than 100 pounds. Hawthorne stood by Pierce until the end, Pierce accompanied Hawthorne in the author’s final hours, but in the former President’s remaining years, he was increasingly lonely. He had been able to visit his other famous friend, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, shortly before Davis was released from prison, but that was the last time they saw each other. The war, politics, and time had taken a toll on Pierce’s health and reputation, no matter his years of public service as a State Legislator, U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, Brigadier General in the Mexican-American War, or President of the United States. His dear friend Hawthorne had once written, “A hero cannot be a hero unless in a heroic world,” and Franklin Pierce could not overcome his political failures or personal demons. In the end he died alone, but linked (or remaining in “concord”), in a way, to Hawthorne by their hometowns and final resting places — Pierce is buried in Concord, New Hampshire and Hawthorne is buried in Concord, Massachusetts.


Originally published at deadpresidents.tumblr.com.