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October 8th, 2019

Remembering Franklin Pierce

150 years ago today, on October 8, 1869, Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, died at his home in Concord, New Hampshire, at the age of 64. He died from cirrhosis of the liver, the result of what was almost certainly Pierce's alcoholism. Pierce is quoted, truthfully or otherwise, as saying, when he lost his party's bid for renomination, "there's nothing left, but to get drunk." Whether or not the quote is accurate, the sentiment is one which is unfortunately present in much of Pierce's later life.



Pierce was the only President to come from New Hampshire. He was a Democrat and was pejoratively called a "doughface" (a Northerner with Southern sympathies). He served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate and he also fought in the Mexican-American War where he became a brigadier general. He was also very successful in his private law practice in his home state, to the extent that he turned down a number of important positions that he was offered, including Attorney-General in the cabinet of James K. Polk. He was nominated as the Democratic party's candidate for president on the 49th ballot at the 1852 Democratic National Convention. In the presidential election, Pierce and his running mate William Rufus King won soundly defeated the Whig Party ticket of Winfield Scott and William A. Graham by a margin of 50 percent to 44 percent in the popular vote and 254 to 42 in the electoral vote. Pierce's party won the day using the slogan "We Polked You in 1844 and We Shall Pierce You in 1852!" (Spin doctors of that day left a lot to be desired.)

Nicknamed "Handsome Frank" for his good looks, Pierce was considered to be a likable and affable man, but he suffered tragedy in his personal life. All of his three sons died young. When his last son, eleven year old Benny, was killed in a horrible train accident while traveling with his parents for his father's inauguration in early 1853, Pierce's wife Jane viewed it as a punishment from God for her husband's vanity. She lapsed into a very severe depression.

As president, Pierce made many divisive decisions which seemed to make him unpopular with everyone. Pierce's popularity in the northern states declined sharply after he supported the Kansas–Nebraska Act, legislation that replaced the Missouri Compromise and renewed debate over the expansion of slavery in the American West. The Kansas-Nebraska Act caused considerable political animosity and polarization and Pierce's backing of the pro-slavery side in the dispute hurt him politically. Rather that unifying the country, Pierce provided motivation and inspiration for the abolition movement and as a result created a climate for the rise of the Republican Party. This in turn made the south feel more persecuted. After losing the Democratic nomination for reelection in 1856, Pierce retired and traveled with his wife overseas. Although he had curtailed his drinking while in office, he made up for lost time after leaving the presidency.

Pierce and his wife returned home from their travels in Europe in 1859 just as the growing sectional crisis between the South and the North was coming to a boil. Pierce was a critic of northern abolitionists, who he blamed for encouraging ugly feelings between the two sections. In 1860 many Democrats believed that Pierce would be a solid compromise choice for the presidential nomination, uniting both Northern and Southern wings of the party, but Pierce declined to run.

During the Civil War, Pierce criticized President Abraham Lincoln for his order suspending habeas corpus. Pierce argued that even in a time of war, the country should not abandon its protection of civil liberties. His stand won him admirers with the emerging Northern Peace Democrats, but enraged members of the Lincoln administration. Secretary of State William Seward accused Pierce of being a member of the seditious Knights of the Golden Circle. Outraged, Pierce responded and demanded that Seward put his response in the official files of the State Department. Seward refused to do that, so a Pierce supporter in the US Senate, Milton Latham of California, had the entire Seward-Pierce correspondence read into the Congressional Globe, which had the effect of making Seward look like someone who had falsely maligned the reputation of a former President.

On December 2, 1863, Pierce's wife Jane died of tuberculosis. It is believed that their marriage was not a happy one ever since Bennie's tragic death. After the death of the last of her three sons, Jane Pierce was overcome with depression and distanced herself during her husband's presidency. She never recovered from the tragedy. For nearly two years, she remained in the upstairs living quarters of the White House, spending her days writing maudlin letters to her dead son.



In 1864, friends once again put the name of Franklin Pierce in play for the Democratic nomination, but again Pierce refused to run. Pierce's reputation was greatly damaged in the North during the aftermath of the Siege of Vicksburg when Union soldiers captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis' Fleetwood Plantation, correspondence was found between the two men, who had been close friends for a long time. (Davis served in Pierce's cabinet and the two men's wives were very close friends. Mrs. Varina Davis often filled in for Jane Pierce in her duties as first lady.) Pierce had written to Davis about "the madness of northern abolitionism" and he had also said that he would "never justify, sustain, or in any way or to any extent uphold this cruel, heartless, aimless unnecessary war," adding that "the true purpose of the war was to wipe out the states and destroy property."

On April 16, 1865, when news had spread of the murder of President Lincoln, an angry mob of young teenagers gathered outside Pierce's home in Concord. Earlier that day a different mob had thrown black paint on the front porch of former President Millard Fillmore, who, like Pierce, was also regarded as a Lincoln detractor. The crowd in Concord wanted to know why Pierce's house was not dressed with black bunting and American flags, a respectful display of grief being used that day by millions of people across the country. Pierce came outside to confront the crowd and said he, too, was saddened by Lincoln's passing. When a voice in the crowd yelled out "Where is your flag?" Pierce became angry and recalled his family's long devotion to the country, including both his and his father's service in the military. He said he needed to display no flag to prove that he was a loyal American. The crowd soon quieted down and even cheered and applauded the former president as he went back into his home.

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Franklin Pierce died in Concord, New Hampshire, at 4:49 am on October 8, 1869, at 64 years or age from cirrhosis of the liver. President Ulysses S. Grant, who later defended Pierce's service in the Mexican War in his autobiography, declared a day of national mourning. Franklin Pierce was interred next to his wife and two of his sons, all of whom had predeceased him, in Old North Cemetery in Concord, New Hampshire.

Ranking the Presidents: Gerald Ford

On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best), how would you grade Gerald Ford, based on the performance of his duties as President? You can go to this link to vote. Gerald Ford is the only person to hold the offices of Vice-President and President of the United States without ever having been elected to either position. He was appointed to the Vice-Presidency and approved by the Senate because he was considered to be squeaky clean when it came to scandals. Congress was controlled by the Democrats, and they also believed that the wooden-mannered Ford wouldn't be much of a threat in an election campaign. They were almost wrong about this. Ford succeeded Richard Nixon as President following Nixon's resignation in August of 1974 and completed the remainder of Nixon's term. He might have won election in his own right, were in not for the most controversial decision of his presidency, the pardon of Richard Nixon.

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Ford was born with the name Leslie Lynch King Jr. on July 14, 1913, but he would later formally change his name from that of his abusive biological father, to that of his stepfather, a much kinder man and a better father. Ford was born in Omaha, Nebraska, but was raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan and played center on the school's football team. He was offered a tryout with the Green Bay Packers, but wisely chose to attend Yale Law School instead. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve, serving from 1942 to 1946. He left the service with the rank of lieutenant commander. Ford began his political career in 1949 as the U.S. representative from Michigan's 5th congressional district. He served in this capacity for 25 years, the final nine of them as the House Minority Leader. While in Congress, he was picked by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson to serve as a member of the Warren Commission, the group that looked into the assassination of John F. Kennedy and produced its controversial report.

When Vice-President Spiro Agnew resigned, Ford became the first person to be appointed to the vice presidency under the terms of the 25th Amendment. After the resignation of Richard Nixon, Ford immediately assumed the presidency. His 895 day-long presidency is the shortest in U.S. history for any president who did not die in office.

During is time in office as president, Ford signed the Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union, moving toward détente in the Cold War. With the collapse of South Vietnam nine months into his presidency, U.S. involvement in Vietnam came to an end. Domestically, Ford inherited the worst economy in the four decades since the Great Depression, with growing inflation and a recession during his tenure. But by far, his most controversial act was the presidential pardon that he granted to President Richard Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal. His approval ratings dropped sharply following this act. Ford has promised an open and accountable government when he took his oath of office, and may people saw this as a betrayal of that promise.

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In the Republican presidential primary campaign of 1976, Ford faced a formidable challenge from former California Governor Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination. He won that contest, but narrowly lost the presidential election to his Democratic challenger, former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. The race was much closer than many had predicted however.

After leaving the presidency, Ford remained active in the Republican Party. In the conservative era that followed his departure, his moderate views on various social issues increasingly put him at odds with a large portion of his party. He lived out his lengthy retirement as an elder statesman. Ford Passed away on December 26, 2006, at his home in Rancho Mirage, California. He was 93 years and 165 days old. On December 30, 2006, Ford became the 11th President to lie in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. His state funeral and memorial services were held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on January 2, 2007. After the service, Ford was interred at his Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. About 400 Eagle Scouts were part of the funeral procession as an honor guard. The University of Michigan Marching Band played the school's fight song for his last ride from the Gerald R. Ford Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The State of Michigan commissioned and submitted a statue of Ford to the National Statuary Hall Collection, replacing Zachariah Chandler. It was unveiled on May 3, 2011 in the Capitol Rotunda. Inscribed on the stand to the statue is a quotation from Tip O'Neill, Speaker of the House at the end of Ford's presidency: "God has been good to America, especially during difficult times. At the time of the Civil War, he gave us Abraham Lincoln. And at the time of Watergate, he gave us Gerald Ford—the right man at the right time who was able to put our nation back together again."

In spite of his having been a college athlete and an accomplished skier, Ford acquired a reputation as a clumsy, accident prone klutz. This originated with a 1975 incident in which he tripped while exiting Air Force One in Austria. This clip spawned the imitation of Ford by Saturday Night Live cast member Chevy Chase, and this impression of Ford grew.

But Ford will always be remembered for the pardon. On October 17, 1974, Ford testified before Congress about the pardon, making him the first sitting president since Abraham Lincoln to testify before the House of Representatives. In the months following the pardon, Ford would never mention President Nixon by name, referring to him in public as "my predecessor" or "the former president." When White House correspondent Fred Barnes asked Ford why this was, a candid Ford replied, "I just can’t bring myself to do it." After Ford left the White House in January 1977, he carried a portion of the reasons for judgement in the 1915 US Supreme Court decision of Burdick v. United States, in which the court said that a pardon indicated a presumption of guilt, and that acceptance of a pardon was tantamount to a confession of that guilt.

In 2001, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award to Ford for his pardon of Nixon. In presenting the award to Ford, Senator Edward Kennedy said that he had initially been opposed to the pardon, but later concluded that history had proved Ford to have made the correct decision.

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Polls of historians and political scientists have generally ranked Ford as a below-average to average president. A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association's Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Ford as the 25th best president. A 2017 C-Span poll of historians also ranked Ford as the 25th best president. One historian, John Robert Greene, sums up Ford's presidency as follows: "Ford had difficulty navigating a demanding political environment. Americans, by and large, believed that Gerald Ford was an innately decent and good man and that he would (and did) bring honor to the White House. Although this sentiment proved too little to bring Ford to victory in 1976, it is an assessment that most Americans and scholars still find valid in the years after his presidency."

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