Monday, July 8, 2013

The Bush and Pierce Connection

I still hear people refer to the George W. Bush presidency as the worst in American history. While I am no fan of our 42nd president, now I have the distance of a few years, the worst is a bit harsh. I say this not because I don't think he was horrible, for the country and the planet, but because I have more perspective now. We have had a lot of really awful president. We had a stretch of very weak presidents from Van Buren (#8) to Buchanan (#15) that may have lead to our country's Civil War. If we had a Lincoln, one of the Roosevelts or Washington in that stretch, perhaps our bloodiest war wouldn't have happened. The ramifications of that war are still felt today.

One of those really weak bad presidents was Franklin Pierce (#14). Pierce was the son of a Revolutionary War hero and Governor, Benjamin Pierce.  He was well-known and well-liked in his native New Hampshire. He had an unimpressive college career, military career and an equally unimpressive political career before being president with two terms in US Congress and one term in the Senate. Then how did he become president? While he attended Bowdoin College, he made one very good friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne. They were such good friend that when Pierce died, years later, Hawthorne was the person who found him. As you may recall, Hawthorne was one of the big stars of the time. Great and popular novelist in the 19th century were like the rock stars of their time. Hawthorne was already extremely famous for writing the classics The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables, when he wrote The Life of Franklin Pierce. It was not exactly fiction but not what you would consider a good non-fiction book either. It was more the type of biography a politician publishes from their campaign office than from a curious journalist. It was extremely biased toward Pierce portraying him not as the mediocre person that he was. One point was clear, he did not support the abolitionists. He thought that if slavery were outlawed, it needed to come from the South, until then, the Federal Government needed to stay out of it. The book was popular enough to give him national attention.

Presidential Primaries in 1852 were still decided at the convention. In the first round of voting, Pierce received zero votes.  It wasn't until the 35th round that he received his first votes at the Convention with 15. Even his home state wasn't giving up their delegates for him. It wasn't until the 49th round that Pierce had the majority of the votes. He was considered a moderate with few strong opinions so it was easy for the other candidates to throw their support from the left and the right. Pierce's Whig opponent (the party's last), Winfield Scott's, anti-slavery reputation made it an easy win for Pierce. The only states that Scott took were Massachusetts, Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee. The most interesting fact about this election was that Daniel Webster was still on the ballot as the Union Party candidate, even though he had died earlier that year. He still received .2 % of the vote.

A few months after Pierce was elected, his son Benjamin, 11, died in a train accident. He and his wife, Jane, both were on the train with him and when the train tumbled down an embankment in Andover, MA, they watch as the boy was crushed. They both suffered from deep depression that badly affected his presidency. Jane was referred to as the "shadow in the White House" for she never came out of her state of melancholia while Franklin turned to drinking. As president he supported the expansion of slavery into the West, his administration vigorously pursued fugitive slaves in the North to return them to their "owners," and supported the annexation of Cuba. This was a bad President in a time we needed a good one. We were headed toward war. While Bush was bad and divisive, we won't be midst a civil war anytime soon (but I could be wrong). He is also the only President ever to not be renominated by his own party for another term. One other thing about Pierce, he is the only ex-President to support the Confederacy during the Civil War.

George W. Bush was certainly one of the worst presidents in history, but his father wasn't so bad. George Herbert Bush (#40) was not a great president, but not one of the worst either. So it isn't genetic ... but wait. Barbara Bush, W's mother, was born Barbara Pierce. She and President Pierce are fourth cousins four times removed. President Pierce's parents were Benjamin Pierce and Ann Kendrick. Their son, James was Franklin's brother. James and his wife Chloe Holbrook had a son named James. That James married Kate Pritzel and had a son Scott. Scott married Mabel and had Marvin. Marvin Pierce and Pauline Robinson are Barbara's parents. So perhaps there is a bad president gene. Something to think about if Jeb Bush ever runs.

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