When unexpected tragedy occurs during what begins as a routine day, those affected are often likely to find that the course of their life is changed as a consequence. It happens to people from all walks of life.
When it happens to a President of the United States, however, it can often be millions of citizens who find their lives also changed, whether they know of it at the time or not.
The recent Amtrak train accident which killed eight people and injured two-hundred calls to mind one that occurred one-hundred sixty-three years ago, when only one victim lost his life.
That one life proved to be a personal loss to the President of the United States. One can’t help but further ponder the ultimately unanswerable question of whether it might also have distracted his thinking to a degree which affected his concentration on matters of public concern, and thus affected the nation.
The first telegraphed reports about that Boston & Maine railroad line accident, in fact, claimed that the President-Elect had been killed in it.
Franklin Pierce had been elected President of the United States just two months earlier, and was two months away from being inaugurated. At 48 year old, he was the youngest man who would assume the highest office of the land, up to that time. He’d been elected to the U.S. Congress at 28 years old and chosen to fill a term as a U.S. Senator at age 32.
On January 6, 1853, he was making a short trip from Andover, Massachusetts to his home in Concord, New Hampshire when the axle of the rail car he was riding in broke, and the train overturned and crashed in an embankment.
The President-Elect emerged physically unharmed but emotionally, he would never be the same.
Nor would his wife Jane Means Appleton Pierce and their eleven-year old son Benjamin “Bennie” Pierce.
They were all returning from the funeral of Mrs. Pierce’s uncle.
Within a few seconds, fate would have Franklin and Jane Pierce attending another funeral days later. In fact, it would be the funeral of Bennie.
Within seconds of realizing the train was about to fall, the President-Elect was able to grasp his wife and son, but as the motion jarred them, Bennie tumbled from his father’s protective arms.
The boy fell against the side wall of the car just as it was overturning. Most accounts describe the side wall separating briefly from the flooring of the train car. Bennie Pierce tumbled in between that crevice.
The back of his head was instantly crushed, the skull bone and brains dashed out and splattered.
(A graphic newspaper story of several eyewitness accounts is reproduced at the end of this article.)
It was just a matter of seconds, but Jane Pierce’s eyes were wide open as her son was horrifically killed, the President-Elect unable to shield her view in that brief, momentary turning of life.
It was the single trauma which forever altered her view of life and, consequently, this damaged her husband’s ability to concentrate and, some believe further, his ability to consider the wisest course of action on policies which would dictate the rising antipathy between the northern and southern states.
A woman with very real chronic health problems like tuberculosis and an eating disorder, Jane Pierce also suffered from periods of severe depression, unable to function or even manage a home of her own. Her psychological problems stemmed from two causes.
Mrs. Pierce’s entire perception of what happened in the world was determined by the harsh tenets of a Calvinist religion in which she was inculcated by her parents. It was a type of thinking that convinced her that everything in her life was a matter of predetermined fate and could not be changed. Only intense prayer could reveal the reason for that fate.
The other factor was an avowed hatred of her husband’s compelling passion for a political career. Twice, he dropped from public office in deference to her, but it was what drove him. She recognized it as the primary reason Franklin Pierce would be a largely absent husband and father, living in Washington boardinghouses while she remained alone, isolated in New England.
Strictly adhering to the societal expectations of duty first to parents and then to husband, Jane Pierce existed with inherent conflicts, forcing herself to repress the natural human response of anger. As a dutiful daughter she was forbidden to question the religious belief of her parents. As a dutiful wife, she was expected to simply accept the career choice of her husband. The one sphere which Jane Pierce was permitted to exercise autonomous control, as a mother, was also destroyed by religion and politics.
Congressman Pierce was in Washington when Jane gave birth to their first child in New England, in 1836. She named the son Franklin, Jr. for him. Pierce would never see him. The infant only lived for three days. By making his political career his priority, her husband denied Jane the chance to share with him the joy upon giving birth to their first child and then the sudden grief when he quickly died. She experienced it alone. It so devastated her that she didn’t become pregnant again until three years later.
Her second son, Robert, was born in 1839. By then, Jane Pierce had convinced Franklin to resign his U.S. Senate seat. As an attorney in demand throughout the state and region and as a powerful Democratic Party boss, he may have been able to get home to Concord more quickly than before, but he still proved to be equally absent.
When four-year old Robert died of typhus in 1843, Jane’s stern mother, Nancy Means Appleton, scolded her for grieving, suggesting it meant she didn’t truly accept God’s will. She urged her to instead celebrate with relief over the fact that little Robert would instead be spared from the greater sins of the world as he matured. The Creator had also deemed her worthy enough of having a third son, two-year old Benny, to focus on, Mrs. Means reminded her adult daughter.
As the presidential election year of 1852 began, Jane Pierce was living as happy a life as she could, content in the close relationship she’d formed with Bennie, pleased that her husband home often enough to also indulge his son. Chastised by the death of Robert, Franklin more consciously cherished the company of Benny, showering affection openly on him.
Highly educated and well-read, it wasn’t long before Mrs. Pierce saw accounts suggesting her husband was an ideal Democratic party candidate, a northerner who didn’t support outright abolition of southern slavery, but instead urged limiting its spread into territories and new states.
With rather lawyerly justification, Pierce insisted to Jane that was not actively seeking the nomination. Only after he won the Democratic presidential candidate did Jane Pierce learn that he’d permitted others to technically mount his candidacy.
During the campaign, Benny Pierce even wrote his mother, saying, “I hope he won’t be elected for I should not like to be in Washington and I know you would not either.”
He was elected. As fate would have it.
Jane Pierce had to reconcile Franklin’s election to the presidency with Benny’s death two months later. She came to believe that her son had been taken by God so that her husband would have no personal distractions as President.
She nevertheless positioned this as a dutiful wife by crediting her husband as having been a devoted father and claiming to believe that his serving as President was the highest of callings and also ordained by Heaven.
Apart from his own intense grief, Franklin Pierce was immediately haunted by his wife’s belief, being equally fervent in his conviction that all fate was ordained.
Embracing this explanation however, at the very moment he was to assume the pinnacle of all political ambitions, Franklin Pierce came to now experience some of that internal conflict Jane had endured for decades.
Only on one known occasion, just after Benny’s burial, did the President-Elect permit himself to openly share with Jane their grief, an account telling of how they both fell onto a bed together in mournful sobbing. After that, however, he began attempting to systematically repress his own grief.
It was all the more intense because it was further burdened with an acute guilt he felt he could not widely express. To suggest his ambitions came at the cost of his son’s life would indicate that he believed he was personally responsible rather than it being God’s decision.
Pierce was to be inaugurated on March 4, 1853. Jane Pierce would not proceed directly to Washington with him, stopping first in New York. There she commissioned a jeweler to craft a locket with a snippet of Benny’s hair as an Inaugural gift for her husband, her way of reminding him of the boy and ensuring that his presence be somehow felt by his father on the momentous occasion.
She proceeded to Baltimore and then stopped. She would not join him in Washington for the ceremony. She made him come to her.
Two days before he was to take the oath of office, Pierce rushed up to Baltimore, intent on having his wife return to Washington with him for his inauguration.
An argument ensured. The President-Elect left, alone.
Jane Pierce never found the right moment to give him her inaugural gift.
Contrary to more dramatic myths, new evidence proves that Jane Pierce did assume the public role of First Lady more extensively and far earlier than current accounts claim. Still, her passive submission to sadness which all who met her immediately felt was palpable drowned the Administration in a sense of futility. And her marriage existed in a state of fluctuating estrangement, the First Lady never entirely trusting the President and certainly offering him no practical advice or moral support. They traveled and appeared together publicly, but were emotionally dissociative.
The effect on Pierce was corrosive.
As if somehow seeking to escape his own belief in God’s fate, he refused to take his oath of office by swearing on a Bible. In his Inaugural Address, he introduced what he believed his most important role was to be, that of keeping peace between North and South. His conviction that nothing was more important than preserving national unity was singular, as if a metaphor for his own marriage. He was so caught up in this ideal, however, that he was never able to grasp the humanity of the leading problem threatening to pull it apart.
Claiming that his own personal disapproval of slavery must essentially be repressed for the larger good of approving pro-slavery policies, President Pierce justified his course of action as reasonable compromises that would placate southerners and keep them from seceding. He named several pro-slavery southerners to his Cabinet, most notably War Secretary Jefferson Davis, who would go on to become the President of the Confederacy. He supported the seizure in Boston of an escaped slave as a legal action, by the rules of the recently-passed Fugitive Slave Bill.
Pierce would refuse to challenge the validity of southerners who flooded into Kansas territory in order to vote as residents there and make it a slave state, resulting in sprees of violence and murder which came to be dubbed “Bloody Kansas.”
His most assiduous biographers suggest that Pierce had bouts of cognitive dissonance at a time when he had to make decisions affecting slavery, that his reasoning was ambivalent and his thinking was distracted. He finally named a northern as territorial governor of Kansas to restore order, for example, but it was too little, too late. Further, it contradicted his guiding principal of national unity, for it alienated pro-slavery southerners.
As his most detailed biographer Roy Nichols admitted of Pierce
“[H]e made up his mind with difficulty and often reversed himself before making a final decision, he gave a general impression of instability….His inability to cope with the difficult problems that arose early in his administration caused him to lose the respect of great numbers, especially in the North, and his few successes failed to restore public confidence.“
Before his presidency, Pierce had employed a discplined intention to successfully achieve whatever he wished, particularly in the years immediately preceding the Andover train accident, when he was a Democratic Party leader in New England.
As an attorney, his mind was focused and rapid, the courtroom often crowded with spectators eager just to witness his ability to brilliantly think and speak in defense of his clients.
A “directing mind” had been the most outstanding attribute of Franklin Pierce, as his longtime friend Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his campaign biography of the presidential candidate.
After the trauma of Benny’s gruesome death, the President seemed incapable of sustaining an intense consideration on any one matter. Anyone who had seen their son’s head crushed and brains expelled from it would, understandably, be unable to entirely shake the numbing effect of it on the mind.
In fact, in his Inaugural Address Pierce bluntly admitted that the trauma had changed him, and he not only regretted that he’d been elected President but felt himself unworthy of assuming the responsibilities of the job:
“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.”
In an era before traumatic stress was considered a syndrome, its victims were expected to simply accept the experience of witnessing a human horror as being part of God’s will and to then thrust from it from their visual memory.
Thus, it was expected that President Pierce would be able to simply accept the fact that his family life had been decimated yet be capable of keeping his nation unified and functioning.
The lives of millions can be changed by one decision of a President. It is reason enough to require those elected to the office to vigilantly employ logic and rationality in every decision they make.
All the while, of course, is the obvious recognition that regardless of how much power they symbolize, each one is still, first and foremost, a mere mortal human being. The implicit recognition of that fact is actually behind all the media coverage and public fascination with how Presidents and their families live as real people. As such, they too are vulnerable to the effect of trauma and altered by tragic loss. It is unrealistic to expect they won’t react and respond accordingly, overtly or covertly.
In the case of Pierce, he soon enough succumbed to silent periods of melancholia.
While it’s established that he drank alcohol to the point of intoxication at the end of his life, as a widower, new findings suggest he resumed doing so during his presidency, it being a habit that had tainted his reputation as a young Congressman.
However, the President was not irresponsibly attempting to blot out his sorrows nor, like his earlier bouts, to convivially carouse. His use of alcohol in the White House was as a 19th century sedative, to dull his memory of the trauma he witnessed. Of course, it would have also compromised the clarity of his judgement.
Even to suggest that the 1853 Andover train accident was the domino which led to the Civil War, or was even a contributing factor for it, is a gross overstatement. Pierce already had his set views on slavery.
What he might have grasped, had he been thinking clearly, is that slavery could not long be justified on political expediency. Nor could it be blithely accepted within the constructs of even Calvinist precepts.
His wife could have told him that, if he’d listen.
In all her many letters, in which Jane Pierce endlessly explored questions and offered theories about how God determined everything from the death of cousins to the the fate of mankind, she never once suggested that the Redeemer had deemed Africans destined to be slaves.
She was not so perpetually awash in sorrow that she was incapable of pointing out how human fallibility, fueled by greed and ignorance, was frequently excused as being the will of God. A prominent presence in the visitor’s gallery during Senate debates she was also acutely aware of the ensuing conflicts over slavery.
In fact, this First Lady may not have undermined the Presidency, but she certainly undermined the President, leaving clues which suggest her own presumably unwitting subversion of the man whose position she considered responsible for the loss of her son.
Jane Pierce was part of a wealthy and well-educated New England clan that counted some of the nation’s most powerful abolitionists among them.
Well-known is her interceding on behalf of a “Bloody Kansas” abolitionist charged with agitation and sentenced to hang for it, but she was also committed to various individuals and efforts that advocated abolition, and protected and educated slaves both free and held.
Some endeavors she supported not only especially agitated southern slaveowners, but defied presidential policy.
The Pierces left the White House in 1857. Four years later, just after Lincoln’s election and the firing by southerners on the federal arsenal at Fort Sumter, the former First Lady sent her husband abolitionist literature, urging him to support Lincoln’s call for troops to fight the rebellion.
It was two years before her death and they were now largely living apart, she with her sister in Andover, he back in Concord.
The former President retorted that he could never support “unnecessary war.” It had been the most important principal of his presidency and he’d willingly supported slavery just to keep the South from seceding.
“I have no opinions to retract, no line of action to change,” he ended, after pointedly reminding her just how humbling a recent fire-and-brimstone sermon he’d heard had left him feeling.
Eight years after the 1853 Andover train accident, however, Jane Pierce did have a line of action to change.
Having been forced to accept the loss of what was the most important aspect of her life as the ordained cost of her husband obtaining the presidency, she’d learned to give as good as she got. Challenging a system that legally controlled the fate of human beings based on the skin color with which they happened to be born was a far greater principal for her than the one he insisted was the most important of his presidency.
It’s not hard to imagine this First Lady of enormously sensitive empathy seeing the link between slavery and her own life.
None would argue that the 1853 Andover Train Accident changed the course of Jane Pierce’s existence for the better.
In the larger arc of her overall life story, however, it may well be that it was the incident which led to this otherwise forgotten First Lady being able to to finally enjoy the freedom to express her true self, despite it coming in the eleventh hour of her life.
Newspaper Account of the 1853 Andover Train Accident