With the exception of Franklin Pierce himself, there was perhaps no one happier about Pierce’s victory in the 1852 presidential election than his friend of nearly 30 years, Benjamin Brown French.
But French became concerned about Pierce’s ability to assume his presidential duties after Pierce and his wife Jane’s 11-year-old son Benny died in a train accident on Jan. 6, 1853. About two weeks after this great misfortune, Pierce traveled from New Hampshire to Washington, D.C., while his fragile and grieving wife remained at their home in Concord.
Pierce’s inauguration took place on March 4, 1853. That day French served as an aide to the Marshal of the District, who had the responsibility of organizing the swearing-in and all the pageantry surrounding it. This enabled French to stay close to his friend throughout the day, and he was pleased to see that the new President handled the pressure of the occasion with dignity.
As French later wrote
in his journal, “He (Pierce) performed his part of the ceremony like a man, and there was unbounded admiration expressed of his bearing and the manner in which he did every part of his inaugural duties. … And so my old friend and companion, Frank Pierce, with whom I have passed many and many a happy and jovial hour, was duly inaugurated into the highest and most honorable office on earth.”
Benjamin described a reception at the White House a couple of weeks later: “… the President did all the duties of receiving the immense crowd in the most urbane and gentlemanly manner possible — the ladies all fell in love with him.”
As would be expected, fellow Democrat French asked Pierce for a job in his administration. French had a great deal to offer the new President as he was an accomplished former government official, and a successful lawyer and businessman.
But Pierce overlooked French for the job he wanted the most, the Marshal of the District position. Instead, in April 1853 French was offered a temporary assignment signing land patents.
He accepted the work, but found it exasperating as it required him to sign 100 or more patents per hour, with the words “Franklin Pierce by B.B. French Asst. Secy.”
French wrote in his journal, “That’s it — day in and day out — I expect my brain will become a sheet of parchment all scribbled over with those words …”
At the end of May 1853 French learned of his appointment to the important post of Commissioner of Public Buildings, which he assumed on July 1.
Through this position, French took on the responsibility for the care of all federal buildings in Washington, D.C. This included the Capitol Building, which was then undergoing a massive expansion project begun in 1851.
The original portion of this white Neoclassical structure had been completed in 1800, and the low dome rising from its center in 1818. The building was now doubling in size with the addition of two massive wings. The south wing would house the U.S. House of Representatives and the north wing, the U.S. Senate, as they still do today. The decision would be made in 1855 to replace the old dome with the 288-foot high cast-iron dome that continues to dominate Capitol Hill.
French continued to record details of his life in his journal. He wrote in March 1854 of buying a “little black mare, saddle and bridle for $75, to ride horseback, in the performance of my duty as Commissioner.”
He also chronicled an interesting episode that had happened a few weeks before when, out of curiosity, he had participated in a séance. Astonishingly, the female medium claimed to channel the spirit of President and former U.S. Army General “Old Hickory” Andrew Jackson, who died in 1845.
French had known Jackson well, and found it too much to accept when the woman, speaking as Jackson, praised him so profusely as to be absurd.
French wrote, “Had he been half as complimentary when President I should have been at least one of the Cabinet!”
He then described that when the medium (as Jackson) failed to answer a question that Jackson in life could easily have answered, “…here ended my interview with the General!”