Presidency as Curse

A good video bio of Franklin Pierce, called Young Hickory be Democrats when they ran him for President in 1852, hoping to latch on to the Mexican War hero Pierce some of the mystique of Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory.  Pierce in the White House was a cautionary tale of the possible impact of winning that ultimate brass ring of American politics on the historical reputation of a man.  Prior to the Presidency Pierce was a popular politician from New Hampshire, having served in both the House and Senate.  He was also something of a hero for his service as a general of volunteers during the Mexican War.  However, after he became president he said farewell to his popular reputation.

Deferring to the slave holding South through vigorous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, and attempting to have Kansas admitted as a slave state, Pierce outraged the North, including most Northern Democrats.  Failing of renomination by his own party in 1856, Pierce spent the rest of his life fighting a losing battle with the alcoholism that had plagued him his entire adult life.  Correspondence between him and Jefferson Davis, found by Union troops when they occupied his plantation in Mississippi in 1863, destroyed what little remained of his reputation among most Northerners, particularly one passage in which he proclaimed that he would never support the Union war effort, and that the true purpose of the war was to blot out the States.

Widely regarded thereafter in the North as a traitor, Pierce did have one final honor paid to him after his death on October 8, 1869, when President Grant, who respected Pierce for his service in the Mexican War, ordered flags to be flown at half mast.  Better for Pierce if he had never been president.

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Published in: on February 23, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. The Presidency was also a curse to him in his personal life. His 11 year old son was killed in a train wreck in January 1853 — after his election but before his inauguration. The boy’s parents were both aboard the train and Pierce tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent his wife from seeing their son’s decapitated body. His wife, who never did care for his involvement in politics, blamed him for their son’s death (she reportedly regarded the tragedy as God’s judgment upon her husband’s pursuit of political office) and withdrew completely from her duties as First Lady, becoming known as “the shadow of the White House.” Perhaps he is among the most truly tragic of presidents, since he combined personal weakness (alcoholism) and grief with failure and cowardice in office.

  2. For a parent Elaine, almost no tragedy could be greater than what Pierce and his wife went through. It reminds me that both Lincoln and Davis lost a small son during the war. We forget too frequently that politicians are only humans, and that if they hold positions of leadership they have to carry on, even in the midst of great personal tragedy.


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