While growing up in the town of Chester in the early part of the 19th century, Benjamin Brown French couldn’t have imagined something as marvelous as the telegraph. This long-distance communications device made its debut in 1844 and, within a few years, telegraphy would spread throughout the United States. French was there at the beginning as an investor in the Magnetic Telegraph Company, co-founded by the telegraph’s inventor, Samuel F. B. Morse. French was president of the company from mid-1848 until he was voted out in mid-1850.
Now finding himself without work, French set up his own private law office in Washington, D.C., where he also contracted as a business agent. The year 1851 began auspiciously for him, his wife Bess, and their 13-year-old son, Frank. On Jan. 4 they attended a grand reception at the White House for President Millard Fillmore. Fillmore had served as vice president to President Zachary Taylor, who had been elected in 1848. When Taylor died on July 9, 1850, Fillmore had assumed the presidency.
French wrote in his journal that evening, “(We) went to the President’s, where, after squeezing through as dense a crowd — no, not squeezing through — but going along with, as dense a crowd as it has been my fortune to get into for many a day, we at length had the pleasure of reaching the presence, and shaking by the hand our excellent Chief Magistrate, Mr. Fillmore, and paying our respects to the Presidentress (Abigail Fillmore) and her daughter (Mary Fillmore).” French was a Democrat, but he greatly admired at least two members of the Whig Party — “Rough and Ready” Zachary Taylor, a former major general in the U.S. Army, and Millard Fillmore, a former Congressman from New York.
At that memorable White House event, French was warmly greeted by another Whig, Secretary of State Daniel Webster, originally of Franklin, N.H., who addressed him with “the familiar and flattering salutation, ‘How are you countryman?’ alluding to our being natives of the same State …”
One of French’s closest friends was Franklin Pierce of Hillsborough. The two had met in the early 1830s when they both served in the N.H. House of Representatives. When French arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1833, Pierce, then a U.S. Congressman, helped him find a job as a clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he would end up working for 14 years. Pierce served two terms as a Congressman, and was a U.S. Senator from 1837 until his resignation in 1842.
From 1842 to 1852 Pierce practiced law in Concord, and during this time he also served as a brigadier general in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The 1852 Democratic National Convention, held in early June in Baltimore, found the delegates bitterly divided into bickering factions. Pierce emerged as the compromise candidate, winning the nomination on the 49th ballot. Running with former Congressman, Senator, and Minister to France William R. King, Pierce easily won the general election.
French had attended the exciting convention, and as he wrote in his journal on Jan. 2, 1853, “As soon as Pierce was nominated, I came home and devoted the entire time — up to the day of election — to his election, and perhaps no one man in all this Union rejoiced more sincerely over his triumphant election than I did.”
On the morning of Jan. 7, 1853, French learned of the tragic death of the President-elect’s son Benjamin, known as Benny. The previous day Pierce and his wife Jane had been traveling with Benny by train from Boston when their rail car derailed near Andover, Mass., and the 11-year-old boy was crushed and nearly decapitated. The couple was left childless, as they had already lost two other sons. One boy, born in 1836, lived for only three days; and the other had died of illness in 1843 at age 4.
French wrote in his journal on Jan. 7, 1853, that the tragic news “…went to my very heart, and I have thought of nothing else all day. How utterly insignificant to that noble, warmhearted, affectionate man, must, at this moment, appear the Presidency, to which he has been elected ... Oh God, be merciful to the bereaved mother…”