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Pierce presidency gets 2d look in N.H. exhibit

CONCORD, N.H. -- Tomorrow is the 200th birthday of the only US president from New Hampshire, and the state's Historical Society is throwing a party, complete with cake, and history.

In his lifetime, President Franklin Pierce was written off as a failure.

And through the years, scholars dismissed Pierce, who served from 1853 to 1857, as a weak, ineffectual leader who was wrong on the overriding issue of his time: slavery.

"He was often treated by the majority of people in New Hampshire like that crazy uncle you lock in the attic and you don't want to talk about," said Jayme Simoes, president of the Franklin Pierce Bicentennial Commission, which planned events commemorating the bicentennial of Pierce's birth.

The events have included a seven-part exhibit featuring his clothes, furniture, and documents; forums on the issues of his day; concerts; and an 1850s-era ball.

"At a time when so many Americans know so little about their own nation's past, the bicentennial of Pierce's birth is a new opportunity to reopen the book on the enigma of a president and who we are as a nation," Simoes said.

Pierce's big concern was preserving the union, an ideal he had in common with many politicians, including Abraham Lincoln, said Wesley Balla, curator of the Pierce exhibit. So Pierce took a middle-ground stand on many issues.

Balla said he had tended to view the nation's 14th president as "really flat" before he got involved with the exhibit.

Today, he has a greater respect for what was motivating Pierce: that "we were a young nation . . . something that was hard-won and needed to be preserved and nurtured and not torn apart by differences."

According to the Bicentennial Commission, Pierce was the only president to have said "I promise" instead of "I swear" at his inauguration and was the first to have a Christmas tree in the White House.

"Franklin Pierce: Defining Democracy in America" explores his life, times, and legacy through more than 100 objects, paintings, photographs, and documents.

The birthday party will be noon to 1 p.m. at the Historical Society's Tuck Library.

In addition to cake, the society will offer a tour of highlights of the Pierce exhibit.

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