Love and death are subjects not entirely unseen in the field of presidential correspondence, though they are less rare singly, than together. This letter, however, testifies to a unique friendship in presidential history and its tragic dénouement, in death. Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne were profoundly attached to each other for almost all their lives – and here, a broken-hearted Pierce, writing 150 years ago this day, tells how he literally, hours before, but an arm-span apart, discovered Hawthorne’s dead body.
Strange, that one of America’s worst presidents, Franklin Pierce, and one of America’s greatest novelists, Nathaniel Hawthorne, were best friends. Stranger, that Hawthorne died while sleeping just a few feet away from Pierce – who, in fact, discovered him dead. And strangest, perhaps, is that Hawthorne choose Pierce, and Pierce alone, to be with him when he died, by proposing, though sick and weak, that they take a trip together, knocking about New England. In this, life – and its cessation – followed art. “Happy the man that has such a friend when he comes to die!” Hawthorne wrote in The Blithdale Romance. “How many men, I wonder, does one meet with, in a lifetime, whom he would choose for his death-bed companions!” Hawthorne, clearly, had met just one.
Pierce was a sophomore at Bowdoin College, outgoing and popular, when he first encountered the freshman Hawthorne – shy, and with a far-away air. Perhaps it was the attraction of opposites, for they became fast, and lifelong, friends. When Pierce was nominated for President, then, he asked Hawthorne to write his campaign biography – and Hawthorne dropped everything to oblige. The Life of Franklin Pierce (1852) helped Pierce infinitely more than Hawthorne, however, and Pierce, when elected, returned the favor: he appointed Hawthorne to the most lucrative post in the American foreign service, Consul at Liverpool. But what was between them was more than tit-for-tat; Hawthorne, it seemed, loved Pierce more than Pierce’s own wife did – and Pierce, certainly, considering to whom he was married, was a man in need of affection. “Princlie Frank”, in fact, was Hawthorne’s anagram for Pierce; a title earned, seemingly, by his many acts of kindness. The funeral of the lugubrious Mrs. Pierce, for instance, took place on a fiercely cold day; Hawthorne, though frail, attended, and Pierce, though mourning, leaned over to Hawthorne and drew up the collar of his coat, that he might protect him from the biting wind. Pierce’s solicitude, goes unsaid here but is present nonetheless in every line; here, in this letter written the very day of Hawthorne’s death, Pierce tells the story of his friend’s demise, detailing their last trip and the epic moment of Pierce’s discovery of his death… Hawthorne, he relates, had just nursed a dying friend himself and, worse for wear, came home exhausted.
“I sent a letter to you, dearest Sister, from South Harbor yesterday in which my apprehensions for dear Hawthorne were partially expressed.
“What I said would perhaps prepare you to some extent for the intelligence which may reach you by telegraph before you receive this. We came here yesterday afternoon. At about 9 o’clock Hawthorne retired, & soon fell into a quiet slumber. He changed his position in about half an hour, but continued to sleep. I retired before 11 thinking that he would have a quiet night, I awoke between 1 & 2 o[‘]clock and went to his bed side. (There was a light in my room & a door between it and that of H, which was left open[,] our beds were near each other) He had again changed his position but was lying naturally upon his side with his face toward me and I supposed was in quiet repose. I returned to my bed, but waking between 3 & 4 o’clock I was surprised to observe that his position was unchanged[,] and placing my hand upon his temple found that life was extinct. I sent immediately for a Physician & called […] B[…], Thom. Hillard who are here at a […] of the Court and occupying rooms near our’s. When […] the disposition of the limbs so perfectly natural, the repose of that noble face with the eyes closed, it was evident that he had passed away without the slightest movement and without suffering – One could hardly realize that he had passed from natural sleep to that sleep which knows no waking.
“Mr. Hillard[,] who knows dear Hawthorne[,] had gone to Boston this morning. Poor Mrs. Hawthorne & the children. I am full of sorrow of course, but my heart literally aches for them.”
Pierce was devastated. In the handful of years left to him – lonely, sad, and increasingly alcoholic – he reread all of Hawthorne’s books.
FRANKLIN PIERCE. 1804 – 1869. The 14th President of the United States.
Autograph Letter Signed, 4 pages, recto and verso, QUARTO, Plymouth [New Hampshire], May 19, 1864. To Pierce’s sister, Mrs. Mary M. Aikens.