Presidential Review: Franklin Pierce

1 Jun


The three presidents that preceded Abraham Lincoln was a massive game of deja-vu.  Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan were all one-term presidents that came from the north but were pro-slavery.  All three set as the central lynchpin of their respective candidacies as compromise, and that they were the ideal leaders to foster an agreement that will work for all sections of the country.  All three failed, each more miserably than the last.

Pierce was the most tragic of the three–his son died just before he was inaugurated and his wife took it as a sign of judgement that they should not be involved with politics at this high level.  She locked herself in private quarters and wrote letters to her son wearing only black.  Her nickname–the shadow in the whitehouse.  Though I don’t talk about the president’s personal lives very often, in this case, a pall seemed to fall over Pierce’s presidency that got deeper and deeper as things continued to go wrong.

He was elected based on his support of the Compromise of 1850, and when it came to Kansas and Nebraska, he backed a similar compromise that would grant slavery to either state based on popular sovereignty.    What happened in Kansas was chaos–two groups of people ratifying two separate constitutions, one slave and one free, arguments turning into brawls turning into armed conflict, finally escalating into a range war that Pierce could not find a way to stop, both abolitionists and southern extremists sending in groups of people and guns to fight for their respective causes.    The compromise that was supposed to bring the country together ended up pushing them further apart, and also kept the move on both sides to go further extreme.

The fall was so bad that by the end of his term Pierce was refused renomination by the Democratic party–a first in American history for a sitting president to be refused in such a manner, and though the North and the South had some serious problems with each other, both agreed that Pierce was not the man to solve their rift.

Very little happened outside this issue during his term–he had a couple of international snafus that didn’t help him–the Ostend Manifesto being an underhanded attempt to gain Cuba (and if we had somehow gotten control of Cuba, the whole North/South thing would have gotten so much worse), and confusion over William Walker becoming dictator over Nicaragua–a newspaper man backed by the robber-baron magnates (oh we’ll get back to them–after the civil war) to set up a republic similar to Texas that would eventually become a slave state in the United States.  Pierce eventually legitimized this man’s dictatorship.  Both these actions made the U.S. look like greedy landgrabbers that caused suspicion in Europe and Latin America for another half-century at least.

In the end, I want to give “Handsome Frank” as he was known, a little bit of credit–short of allowing war to happen there was very little he could do to bring people together, Bleeding Kansas was not entirely his fault, though his failure to bring things to any kind of peaceful resolution was.   His personal tragedy plus his personality made him an ineffective leader at a time when we needed it most.  I can’t really give him a passing grade, but he’s like the kid at school that is failing but everybody feels bad about it because he tries so hard.

Well, Buchanan’s up for the next round, and unlike Pierce, Buchanan is very hard to feel sorry for–you’ll see.


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