Did history miss a 19th Century US President? Off-Ramp for October 20, 2012

For President's Day: historian discovers unknown 19th Century Prez

They exist in a netherworld of history: the obscure 19th Century US Presidents. Men who may have been well-known in their time -- although not necessarily -- but who now couldn't scare up a biographer, let alone a Ken Burns documentary. Who today can quote a speech from Van Buren or either of the Harrisons, name the Polk or Taylor Doctrine -- if there was one -- or think of a scandal or success from the Fillmore, Pierce, Hayes, or Arthur administrations? And who would care to?

But these men are Roosevelt's and Reagan's compared to President Franklin Marshall, possibly the most-obscure of them all, and for whom the historical record is so scant, you might even question whether he existed at all. But Franklin Marshall has found his Boswell at last in Barry Cutler, an actor and amateur historian who lives in Palm Desert.

I asked him, "Why are you involved in President Franklin Marshall?" He laughed and answered, "I keep asking myself the same question!" Then he reminded me that he plays Abe Lincoln for school kids across the country. "I go to classrooms and dress like Lincoln and take the kids' questions. And since I like to research all my parts, I started reading up on the Presidents of the 19th century. And you're right that there are a bunch of them nobody's heard of. Fillmore and Hayes and those guys."

As part of that research, he was in Lexington, Kentucky last summer looking into Martin Van Buren's Free Soil Party and the Panic of 1837. In the reading room of Transylvania University, "I found a newspaper article that mentioned President Franklin Marshall. I was really puzzled because I didn't remember a President Marshall." What paper, I ask? "I don't know," Cutler responds. "The top and bottom were torn off."

I tell Cutler I'm dubious. I've combed the record books and the Internet. There's a liberal arts college in Lancaster PA named Franklin & Marshall, but nothing on any President Franklin Marshall. "I can't find anything," I say. "And you're not going to," he responds. "Today, we feed on fame and notoriety and poor President Marshall was barely notable in his own time. He was, as I like to say, a footnote to a footnote. He was exceedingly dull. His own family had trouble even remembering his name. I found a letter from his cousin, George Schultz, a well- known greenhouse owner in Kentucky, in which he refers to 'my dear Franklin' in his salutation and then 'Cousin Frederick' not two paragraphs in. Poor man."

Okay, next question. When did he serve as President?

"You're going to laugh," Cutler says, "But we don't even know that for certain. We have a scrap from what was meant to be his inauguration address, and he mentions 'Poor William.' That might be a reference to William Henry Harrison, who served for only a month in 1841, meaning he served some time after Harrison. But it might also be a reference to Poor William, a character in one of Charles Brockden Brown's lost novels. (William) was a guy who showed off too many times and was shunned by his neighbors. That kind of sums up Marshall's philosophy. He was a dullard and proud of it."

Presidents have elections and victory parties. Not Marshall, says Cutler. Not even an inauguration. "It seems like he wrote the speech, but he was so averse to putting himself forward, he decided not to hold an inauguration ceremony." Cutler says he found a letter President Marshall wrote to the soon-to-be First Lady: "Sophie, the Presidency is a solemn charge, not worthy of false cannons and frippery, and I'll be damned if I'll turn it into a circus sideshow. I'm sorry, my dear; I know you were looking forward to wearing that new bonnet."

So much argues against Cutler's case, but he did find two much more convincing pieces of evidence. The first is the very Presidential photo, above. "There used to be a German-language newspaper in Cincinnati called the Cincinnati Volksfreund, and I bought a box of their archives on e-Bay, including some photos. And in the box was a photo that has penciled on the back, 'President F. Marsh...' but it looks like someone spilled tea or whiskey on it and it's all blurred. My guess is Marshall was coming through town and they covered him ... but I couldn't find an article to go along with the photo.

The second is a song called "The Ballad of Franklin Marshall," which Cutler says he found on a wax cylinder, recorded c. 1900. "Near as I can make out," Cutler says, "There was an ethnographer who was recording figures from history. He met a man named Cobhim Twain who said he wrote Marshall's campaign song years ago. The song includes the lyrics:

The railroad is a belching beast.
So said Franklin Marshall.
The West is barren, let's stay East.
So said Franklin Marshall.
He knows his place, you know his face, so make the right selection.
It's Franklin Marshall, bland but fair, in the next election.

The line "The railroad is a belching beast," Cutler says, "might explain (Marshall's) being erased from the history books. Maybe the railroad millionaires were afraid the sentiment would catch on. He didn't like the railroads, he didn't want to expand West, he didn't want to do anything remotely disruptive."

But for all his truly conservative ways, Cutler warms to his subject's single-mindedness. "But you can say this about Marshall: He also never courted public opinion and was definitely not afraid to speak his mind. If he was around now, he'd probably get in trouble saying something about the Internet and the gullible masses ... that was one if his taglines, 'the gullible masses need a guiding hand, not some phantom of freedom.'

Cutler agrees with me that Franklin Marshall would never get elected today in a million years.

Barry Cutler will be presenting his findings about President Franklin Marshall to the Southwestern Division of the Amateur Historians of America next month.

Meantime, further research has uncovered that at Lake Superior State College, now Lake Superior State University, in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, there apparently existed "The Franklin L. Marshall Study Club," chaired by a William Dickinson. The club's letterhead calls Marshall "the foremost jurist west of the Wabash River," and claims his wife was named Rebecca, not Sophie, as Cutler maintains. It also includes a sketch of Marshall from contemporary accounts. He is in spectacles and beard, which would be consistent with his retirement years in Lima, Ohio.

Stunningly, the club's letterhead also refers to a Franklin Marshall biography called simply "Biography of a mid-19th Century President," and reveals other tantalizing details:

"Because of his lack of popularity, the biography had to be privately printed and only 1,500 copies were produced. Of these, only 43 are known to have been sold. The balance were burned several years later during a severe winter in the president's home town, Findlay, Ohio, or Kokomo, Indiana. Two copies were in the Versailles, Ky. Public Library but were stolen during the 1902 Book Feud. ... There are no photographs, paintings, or sketches made during his lifetime. The famous "Findlay Ohio Hoax," a spurious portfolio of sketches surfaced at the turn of the century but disappeared shortly thereafter. The 28 volumes of handwritten diaries ... were later held to be 'too well-written and un-dull to have been written by Marshall.' ... Says Dickinson, 'His history is whispy, his character unfathomable, and his visage dim.'"

Viewing all the evidence, we have to agree with Professor Dickinson. Certainly, if he existed, Marshall should be included in the lists of US Presidents, but it's no great tragedy if his obscurity persists.

Complete lyrics of "The Ballad of Franklin Marshall," by Cobhim Twain:

The railroad is a belching beast.
So said Franklin Marshall.
The West is barren, let's stay East.
So said Franklin Marshall.
He knows his place, you know his face, so make the right selection.
It's Franklin Marshall, bland but fair, in the next election.

Excitement brings calamity.
So said Franklin Marshall.
Banks bank on banality
So said Franklin Marshall.
We've had enough of Jackson's bluff and Quincy Adams' bluster.
Stay the course! Don't change the horse ... in the voting muster.

 


blog comments powered by Disqus