190128-news-lookingback

Franklin Pierce c.1850

Benjamin Brown French lived an eventful life that took him from his childhood home of Chester, N.H., to Washington, D.C. He held several prestigious government positions in Washington, and was both a witness to and a participant in many of the most important occurrences of the antebellum, Civil War, and immediate post-war eras.

Benjamin was acquainted with 12 Presidents and was particularly close to Abraham Lincoln and his family. His success in the social and political worlds of the nation’s capital was remarkable in itself, but his enduring legacy would be the journal he kept, in which he recorded more than four decades of his life. Benjamin was a fine writer, and a keen observer of the personalities and goings-on about him. His journal, which is in the collection of the Library of Congress, is a valuable historical resource, as it contains perceptive commentaries and detailed first-person accounts of both ordinary and extraordinary events.

In 1799 Daniel French of Epping, N.H., married Mercy Brown, the daughter of local merchant Benjamin Brown. Daniel practiced law in Chester and would serve as New Hampshire’s Attorney General during the War of 1812. In 1800 Mercy gave birth to a son, Benjamin Brown French, but sadly she would die 18 months later at the age of 23. In 1805 Daniel married Betsey Flagg, and after she passed away in 1812, he married her widowed sister, Sarah Wingate Flagg. Benjamin grew up with 10 younger half siblings — three boys and seven girls.

Benjamin French was educated at schools in Chester and at North Yarmouth Academy in Yarmouth, Maine, where he boarded with his uncle Francis Brown. His family had planned for him to have a career as a lawyer, but in 1819 Benjamin rebelled by running away and joining the U.S. Army. After a few weeks, his relatives found him stationed at Fort Warren on Governor’s Island in Boston Harbor, and they forced him to return home to Chester. There Benjamin began training as a lawyer under his father’s tutelage.

In January 1825, Benjamin, then 24 years old, secretly married 19-year-old Elizabeth “Bess” Smith Richardson, who had recently moved to Chester from Portsmouth with her family. She was the daughter of the esteemed Chief Justice of the state, William Merchant Richardson. As Benjamin had no job or income at the time, the newlyweds kept the news of their marriage from their families for six months until he could set up his own law office in the small town of Sutton.

Practicing law did not seem to suit Benjamin, so in 1827 he and Bess moved to Newport where he was named clerk of courts for Sullivan Country. He also became a major in the New Hampshire militia, and for the remainder of his life would be known as “Major B.B. French.” In 1828 he was appointed as the assistant clerk to the N.H. State Senate and served in this position until 1830. From 1829 to 1833 Benjamin was the owner and editor of the New Hampshire Spectator newspaper, published in Newport.

Benjamin represented Newport in the N.H. House of Representatives from 1831 to 1833. There he became acquainted with another representative, Franklin Pierce of Hillsborough. Pierce (who would become President of the United States in 1853), was elected to the N.H. House in 1829, and was named Speaker in 1831. The two men became good friends, as they had a great deal in common — they were both attorneys who had ambitions for careers beyond the confines of a law office; they both enjoyed jokes and various amusements, including at least once taking each other on in a wrestling match.

On June 21, 1833, Benjamin French was in Boston as part of an official New Hampshire committee sent to witness Andrew Jackson’s grand visit, and to ask if the President would come to Concord. In his journal Benjamin described amazing scenes of pomp and grandeur, with enormous numbers of spectators crowding the Boston streets and parks. He wrote, “I really believed that a person could have walked upon the heads and shoulders of the multitude.”

Next week: President Andrew Jackson visits the state’s capital as part of his tour of the Northeast, and Benjamin French moves to Washington, D.C.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter.