Somehow Franklin Pierce left office without a single blot on his record.

by David Holzel

Franklin Pierce and his hair

Jefferson Davis and his beard


Not Much About Franklin Pierce
Wrested From the Jaws of Triviality
A Man For All Time
Pierce and the Jews
Pierce At Any Cost
The Great Pierce Debate
Ballad of Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce Quiz

History is getting longer all the time. Despite there being more ground for historians to cover with each passing minute, an increasing interest in minutiae has led scholars and writers to focus on subjects that used to be the purview of websites such as this one. The trivial.

The most trivial book so far on the presidents of the United States is the new “Presidential Doodles: Two Centuries of Scribbles, Scratches, Squiggles & Scrawls from the Oval Office” (Basic Books). Concocted by the folks at Cabinet Magazine with text by Rutgers University historian David Greenberg, the book analyzes and displays – there is no other way to put it – doodles.

It may come as no surprise that Franklin Pierce is not represented. The diligent researchers – who managed to find an envelope on which Andrew Jackson scratched out a horse, and a scrap from Benjamin Harrison, who drew what Greenberg described as “vaguely menacing figures, including one with a jack-o'-lantern face” – could find nothing, not so much as an ink blot, produced by the 14th president.

When there’s a doodle extant by William Henry Harrison, who spent his one month in the White House dying of pneumonia, the depth of Franklin Pierce’s obscurity is reconfirmed with clarity.

“We will never know if Pierce simply didn't doodle, or if he did doodle but the drawings weren't saved,” Greenberg told me. “The papers of many 19th-century presidents have been less than meticulously preserved. Historical record-keeping wasn't considered as important back then.”


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The First Schoolboys

Buchanan's Pyramid


To be sure, even some 20th- and 21st- century presidents evaded the scrutiny of the “Presidential Doodles” microscope. Our living presidents, with the exception of George H.W. Bush, have their doodles under wraps. (Executive privilege.) Richard Nixon apparently did scribble a bit. A vaguely menacing figure himself, I shudder to think what would have emerged from his subconscious if he had indulged wholeheartedly in doodling.

What is clear is that many modern presidents sought to mitigate the tedium of Oval Office meetings by doodling on whatever agendas, memos or the latest draft budget sent over by Congress that were within arm’s reach.

For Pierce, the task of doodling would have been much more complex. There was less paper available than in our supposedly paperless age. Pens had to be inked constantly. Anything just put to paper had to be sprinkled with sand to facilitate drying. Because it’s unlikely that any president would want to be seen as mindlessly doodling, rather than devoting his full attention to the ship of state, a steadily growing pile of sand on the table would be a dead giveaway.

In Pierce’s time, the entire culture of scribbling and note-taking would appear foreign to us, Greenberg said.

“The best presidential doodles from this period tend to be found on documents that were likely done when the president was alone – on a page from Grant's memoirs, for example, or on an envelope in Jackson's case,” said Greenberg, whose next project is a biography of Calvin Coolidge (a doodler, if nothing else).

  “We will never know if Pierce simply didn't doodle, or if he did doodle but the drawings weren't saved.”

–historian David Greenberg

It is instructive that no doodles surfaced from the line of near-obscure, obscure and completely forgotten pre-Civil War presidents – John Tyler (#10), James Polk (#11), Zachary Taylor (#12), Millard Fillmore (#13), Pierce, and James Buchanan (#15).

This sad legacy in the history of presidential trivia and minutia cries to be rectified.  As Edmund Morris demonstrated in his biography of Ronald Reagan, “Dutch,” in the absence of a subject, fiction may offer us the most accurate truth. With our broad knowledge of Franklin Pierce, it’s not difficult to imagine what his doodling might have been.

In that era, presidential candidates did not campaign or engage in debates. It would have been unseemly, as if a man actually wanted to be president. So candidates spent much of their time on their front porch, receiving supporters, strategists, fixers, and not campaigning. Such forced immobility might have lulled Pierce on a sunny afternoon in Concord, New Hampshire, into scribbling a few lines on one of the posters that supporters were plastering around the country.


Once president, he may have allowed his subconscious to emerge during a cabinet meeting in which some of the major legislation of his administration was debated.

And during a few precious moments of repose, Pierce may have taken out pen and ink and doodled away at his favorite Tiki bar.

It’s all conjecture, of course. But who before now could have imagined that Warren G. Harding, when he wasn’t in the closet with his mistress, was producing doodles that “reflect[ed] the energetic Art Deco aesthetic of his time”?

And so a crabbed “Why doesn’t Jeff Davis shave that damn beard!!!” in Pierce’s hand on the foolscap leaf detailing Gadsden Purchase wouldn't be entirely out of the question.

Copyright (c) 2007 by David Holzel