Pierce Administration and it's follow-up the Buchanan Administration are in my personal belief the nadir of American political leadership in our history. While Fillmore showed clear hostility to the African-Americans (free or slave) he actually was a vigorous President when he needed to be, and his willingness (for better or ill) to push the "Fugitive Slave Act " portion of the "Compromise of 1850" staved off our worst war by a decade - in some respect no small feat. Neither of the two jokers who followed him were as strong in leadership qualities as he had proven. And so, when a great President finally was inaugurated in 1861, we were in a Civil War. But it is actually slightly forgivable regarding Franklin Pierce because of a personal tragedy. Less so (far less) regarding James Buchanan.
In 1844, James Knox Polk was the accidental choice or "Dark Horse" Candidate for the Presidency by the Democrats because the convention was stalled by three leading candidates (Martin Van Buren, Lewis Cass, James Buchanan) who each stymied the other two regarding getting the necessary two thirds (then required) at the convention, and Andrew Jackson dropped supporting ex-President Van Buren and pushed ex-Speaker of the House Polk instead. Polk had served superbly, but died shortly after leaving office. In 1852 the Democrats faced the same situation. This time however the choice was really between perennial candidates Lewis Cass of Michigan, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, and the rising star Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois. Cass lost in a lopsided mess in 1848 due to Martin Van Buren's running on the abolitionist "Free Soil Party" ticket that took votes from Cass in New York and elsewhere, so that General Zachary Taylor was elected instead. Buchanan had been Secretary of State under Polk, but Polk really ran the State Department's policies in the Oregon Territory dispute with Britain, and the situation leading to the war with Mexico and the conquest/"purchase" of the Southwest. Buchanan was left with setting up rules of proper deportment by our diplomatic corps. Both men were back in the U.S. Senate, but neither was very effective in 1852. Douglas, actually the best candidate imaginable, had problems with the delegates from the Southern States on a favorite policy of his. To break the stalemate, the party leaders decided to find another "Dark Horse". They looked for a safe New England Democrat for this role. It has been suggested that the leaders of the party had been planning to nominate United States Supreme Court Associated Justice Levi Woodbury for the Presidency all along. Woodbury had executive background as Governor of New Hampshire. Unfortunately he died suddenly in 1851. So looking about the leaders stumbled on another Democrat from New Hampshire: former Congressman and Senator Franklin Pierce of Concord, New Hampshire. As a result the second "Dark Horse" Candidate, "Handsome Frank" or "the Young Hickory" (after Andrew Jackson's nickname of "Old Hickory") got nominated. Boy was it an error!
Franklin Pierce might have developed into a better President than he did. He was a patriotic man, proud of being the son of former General and Governor Benjamin Pierce. Throughout his life Franklin had a great respect for our men in uniform, and would actually serve (as a general no less) in the "Mexican-American War". Being the son of a prominent New Hampshire resident, Pierce actually had something of a silver spoon in his upbringing, suggesting he could be in for great things. His education was not quite Harvard or Yale or Brown or Columbia or William and Mary or Dartmouth "ivy league", but it was close - he went to Bowdoin College (later University) in what was then Massachusetts, but which became Maine after the "Compromise of 1820" got Massachusetts to disgorge Maine to enter the Union with Missouri as equal free and slave states. At Maine Pierce made two friends, both famous in their own right, one of whom would be his closest friend until the latter died, while the other would become one of his biggest critics. They were future American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, and future American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Pierce also met the daughter of the President of Bowdoin, Jane Appleton, whom he eventually married. This too would prove a sad error.
Alcoholism in the U.S. has been around since the earliest settlers, and in the 1820s one need only look toward Washington, D.C. to see the pre-eminent two drinkers: Vice President Tompkins and Senator Daniel Webster. Webster would learn how to control it better (and would live longer as a result). Pierce was always a friendly man, and was what they called "convivial" In the later 1820s he was elected to the New Hampshire state legislature. Soon he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and when he and Jane moved to Washington, D.C., Frank made many friends in Congress - some drinking buddies. Jane was less impressed by them. She disliked Washington and openly said so. But Franklin became a U.S. Senator from New Hampshire, and looked like he had a future career in the nation's capital. I have mentioned that he was given that Senate Committee head post dealing with War Pensions. It was because of his family background. He did well in it, but it was not the hardest or most important post one could get. Only once did it crop up at all in a way to suggest a major problem inside Pierce was developing. In a debate in the U.S. Senate John C. Calhoun attacked the failure of the Northern leadership in silencing the abolitionists whose propaganda was tearing at the foundations of national unity, and in particular, Calhoun pointed at the center of this abolitionist movement: New England. Of course, Calhoun was referring to Boston and people like William Lloyd Garrison. But Pierce got up when Calhoun was finished, and nearly in tears he assured the astonished Senator from South Carolina that New Hampshire's people were not to be blamed for abolitionism, but were friends of the South. Calhoun honestly could not understand why Pierce thought he was directing the critique towards New Hampshire, which barely mattered.
He wanted to be liked so much that Pierce never stopped to consider the proper limits of friendly feelings in politics. He was head of a committee, and (had it been someone who was more actively ambitious or smart) he could have used even granting pensions as a way of trading voting influence for bills he wished passed. The problem was Pierce never really had any such agendas, and he just gave the pensions away on the merits. Technically that is correct but politically it is stupid. In 1841, after the election put the Whigs in charge of Congress, Pierce gave what later was called his major address in the Senate, on the subject of the evil of executive necessity. Basically, Pierce was upset that the Whigs were taking advantage of their power to remove Democrats from government posts and replacing them with Whigs. Among others who were so affected was Pierce's brother-in-law, who lost his job in the Boston Custom's House, and his friend Hawthorne, who lost his birth in the Salem, Massachusetts Customs House. By 1841 Nathaniel Hawthorne had written several volumes of well received short stories, and the unsuccessful early novella, "Fanshawe". He really did not need to worry about his income collapsing due to his losing his job with the government. Pierce's brother-in-law was another matter. "Executive Necessity" was basically the "spoil system" which had existed since the start of the U.S. (or even in the colonial period here), but was perfected by Pierce's old chief, President Andrew Jackson. The speech (a two hour speech, one is sorry to say) compares this "horror" to the "St. Bartholemew's Day Massacre" and other similar actions of the past. One has to read it to believe a man who subsequently was ELECTED President of the United States delivered it to a Senate chamber where the likes (in 1841) of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Thomas Benton were listening. One could imagine their thoughts.
He still had one or two years left to his term, but Jane had enough, and demanded they return to the purer atmosphere of Concord. Pierce, reluctantly, resigned from the United States Senate and he and his wife returned to New Hampshire. There they would remain. Interestingly, in 1845 James Knox Polk offered the post of Attorney General to Pierce, but Jane was adamant that she would not return with Frank to that cesspool in Washington. Pierce thanked the eleventh President for the offer, and stayed home...for awhile.
Jane was a Whig in her political background, and she was also a prohibitionist. She was constantly trying to get Frank to give up his drinking, which added to the problems in the marriage. They had three sons, but the first two had died as infants. the third was Benjamin or "Benjy", who was born in 1843. He actually would grown to some extent, and was a source of pride and joy for both parents. But the marriage still had it's strains, as Jane was opposed to her husband's potential career in politics. Then came the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Pierce saw an opportunity to show his patriotism and show he was the son of his father the Revolutionary War hero. Franklin raised up a volunteer state brigade and left for the war front as it's brigadier general. It is also possible that Frank was aware that this would given him an opportunity to get away from Jane for awhile. It later transpired that Pierce kept a diary of his war experiences, and in 1852 his friend Hawthorne would edit part of it in the official campaign biography that came out. Other U.S. Presidents have left us war memoirs that are truly good reading, most notably Ulysses Grant's Memoirs, and Dwight Eisenhower (who wrote "Crusade in Europe" and three other books). Other great generals (William Sherman, John J. Pershing) also wrote interesting memoirs. Pierce's diary is not in this group. Unless one looks for the drab and typical events of any military camp (like "Sam fell down a gopher hole and sprained his leg" or "Tom had to run from a hornet's nest") Pierce's diary is a total waste of time. Hawthorne tried to do something with it, but found it beyond his powers as a fiction writer. It also is suggestive that he avoids mentioning (in detail) the actual events of Pierce's services in active combat.
Pierce would get wounded during a battle, but not in a heroic manner. He was riding his horse to lead a charge, when the horse buckled, and flung Pierce into the pommel of the saddle. However, the pommel hit Pierce in the groin. He fell off his horse, and needed assistance to stand up. Unfortunately for Pierce, only part of the incident was witnessed by another officer - his commanding officer Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. Scott just saw Pierce staggering around and being assisted by his aides. Scott knew Pierce from Washington, and knew of his drinking habits. He accused Pierce of being drunk (which was unfair). Later Scott admitted he was wrong, but the image of a drunken Pierce lingered just as his being assisted off the field lingered. If Zachary Taylor got the nickname "Old Rough and Ready" and William Henry Harrison was "Old Tippicanoe", and Andrew Jackson was "Old Hickory", Pierce suddenly was "General Gas". Later, when he recovered, Pierce was actively involved on the battlefield, and would be promoted to Major General of the volunteers, but the image of the boastful soldier who failed in a pinch followed Pierce for the rest of the war. There were even political cartoons of the incident.
Pierce returned home, at least a hero to Jane and Benjy and the neighbors. Had fate been kinder, he would have remained a practicing attorney in Concord, involved in local and state politics. Maybe he could have convinced Jane to allow him to run for state office, such as Governor. Had that happened and had he won, he might have gotten (as had Fillmore) the necessary executive training he would have needed to be an effective President. But he did not seek any offices. Then came the 1852 nomination, and the fact that Woodbury was no longer alive to save the day, the leaders of the Democratic Party turned to General Pierce. Pierce was amazed when approached, as he felt he had been out of public sight for too long to make a return to national office at all, let alone the Presidency. Jane's opinion was muffled here. It was not what she wanted, but it was something being offered to Frank. I suspect that had Frank been more mature he would have thanked the leaders but declined out of respect for Jane's wishes. Instead he accepted the honor.
In the 1840s and 1850s the United States found a new bumptious atmosphere. There were settlers entering the western territories, and our merchant sea fleets were giving a serious trade problems to the British, especially after the earlier creation of the clipper ships. We created a new political image called "Young America" that sent many citizens into rapture, even as it ignored the political difficulties of the slavery issue. Pierce with his youth (in 1852 he would be 48 years old, the youngest man to run for the Presidency) and his attractive appearance (he was called "Handsome Frank"), fit the bill well, except for being a political non-entity. But he lacked any of the heavy burden of defeat Cass still had from the 1848 election, and the perennial idiocy of Buchanan. So he got the nomination. As a sop to the Democrats from the Southern states, his running mate would be the Senator from Alabama, William Rufus King. Unlike Pierce, King was a bachelor. Also unlike Pierce (unless one considered the latter's drinking problem), King's health was problematic. King had tuberculosis, always a dangerous disease, but now a particularly fatal one. Called "The White Death" or "The White Plague" it killed more people in the 1850s and the 19th century as a whole than today. Basically, in nominating King for the second slot, the Democrats were playing with potentially loaded, lethal dice.
A long standing Congressman and then Senator from Alabama (and Lewis Cass's successor as Minster to France in 1842) King was well regarded by his fellow senators, and was head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (which means that he actually had a better committee assignment as a Senator than the man who was running for the Presidency with him, Pierce). In 1850 he was elected President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate, so (at that time) he was next in line to the Presidency if anything had happened to President Fillmore. He was also a lifelong bachelor, and his marital and sexual conduct has become a subject of major conjecture in recent years. He was rooming together, for many years, with his close colleague James Buchanan. Buchanan, like King, was a bachelor. In the 1820s, when Buchanan was a young lawyer, he had courted a woman for several years, but one day their engagement got broken. Shortly afterward the young woman died. The cause of the death appeared to be illness, but it's suddenness after the end of the engagement (and the distinct hostility of the young woman's family towards Buchanan) led many to wonder if his fiancée actually committed suicide, and if he was responsible. Buchanan never discussed the matter again. But he remained a bachelor for the rest of his life, and when he did become President in 1857-61 his niece Harriet Lane acted (as she had when he was Minister to Great Britain) as his hostess. Buchanan and his pal King lived together from the early 1830s up to the 1840s, except when King was in France. The letters of Buchanan mention his deep loneliness while his roommate is away. But nothing really concrete, except for a pair of nicknames. King was called "Miss Nancy" and Buchanan called "Aunt Fancy" (because Buchanan was something of a clothes horse). Many have considered this odd relationship. In 1844 Buchanan and King thought seriously that if Buchanan became the Democratic Presidential Candidate, King might run with him as Vice President. If (and remember that there is no absolute proof of any homosexual relationship) they were lovers, the thought of a pair of gay lovers as President and Vice President is really unique.
The Whigs, having twice won the Presidency with military heroes William Harrison and Zachary Taylor, decided not to give the competent Fillmore a chance to run for his own term as a Whig candidate, and by-passed the dying Webster. They chose Brevet-Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the most accomplished military figure of the early 19th Century, as President. Scott had a hankering for the job since the 1830s, when he frequently found himself colliding with Andrew Jackson on military matters (regarding the war with the Seminole Indians and the 1832-33 "Nullification Crisis" with Calhoun and South Carolina, over the 1832 Tariff. Scott (like Jackson) was a southerner, but as passionate a patriot as Old Hickory, Old Tippicanoe, and Old Rough and Ready were. He was a tall, good looking man, but something of a pompous ass at times, especially regarding military protocol and uniforms (somewhat reminiscent of Calhoun in that incident with Sam Houston). Ulysses Grant really admired Scott's military preparation and planning. His amphibious landing at Vera Cruz in 1847 is still studied today at West Point as to how to make such a landing, and it was a model used by Eisenhower in June 1944 for the D-Day landing. But Grant gradually found he liked General Zack Taylor more because Taylor was a quiet, unpretentious type - only made angry when he thought he sensed something abysmally wrong (such as in the situation in 1850 with the Compromise). Grant was not the only one who felt this way. Unlike the other three war heroes/Presidents, Scott's nickname was not as loveable or memorable for the right reason. He was known, due to his love of uniforms and military punctilio, as "Old Fuss and Feathers". It is just possible that this man, probably a better military mind than the three luckier warrior politicians, just lacked what we call "the common touch" which makes the bearer a popular type for elective office.
Scott's running mate was Senator William Alexander Marshall of North Carolina. The Senator was as well regarded in the U.S. Senate as King was, and his selection was of some interest because (although Scott came from Virginia) Marshall was more of a supporter of slavery. Indeed, in 1861, while Scott remained loyal to the Union, Marshall (like John Tyler) was elected to the Confederate Congress. Again an interesting attempt at ticket balancing. Scott was the man who had seen the after-effect of Pierce's accident on a Mexican battlefield, and felt the New Hampshire warrior was drunk and disgraceful. He only learned of his error later on. But it certainly did not make the campaign between the two men an easier one. Neither did the fact that another man who disliked Scott was the new Senator from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis. Davis had held a military command in the war, but he served with his former father-in-law Taylor (Davis married Taylor's daughter in the 1830s, when he was Taylor's aide-de-camp, but Sarah Davis died of an illness only three months after they got married - Davis would marry Varina Howell later on, who would be his first lady in the Confederacy, but he always remained a close friend and associate of Taylor (despite their political differences) and his ex-brother-in-law Richard Taylor, who would serve the Confederacy as a general up to May 1865, when he surrendered one of the last Confederate armies AFTER Lee surrendered to Grant).
How Pierce managed to keep his home life intact during the 1852 election is a mystery. Possibly Jane felt that Frank wouldn't win over General Scott. As it was Scott only won four states in the election that year (Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Tennessee) and Pierce won by a remarkably large (by 1850 standards) popular vote and electoral college triumph. Scott's outspoken dislike for slavery and support of abolition did him no good in the end, even though the ticket did support the "Fugitive Slave Act". Davis would help organize the anti-Scott vote throughout the South. Oddly enough, one elector in Georgia was not happy at voting for a nonentity like Pierce. This was Alexander Stephens of Georgia, a Whig Congressman who happened to be an elector in the college. He just could not stand Scott either. Stevens (who would later be the Vice President of the Confederacy, and a bete noir for Jefferson Davis) cast his one electoral vote for Daniel Webster. Unfortunately Daniel Webster died in October 1852.
It happened that Davis and Pierce were buddies. They met in the early 1850s while vacationing at some Southern spa, and the two men found they liked each other. So when Pierce was to form his cabinet he was to appoint Davis to it as his Secretary of War (which would lead Davis to being a further pain in the neck to Scott, still the General in Chief of the Army). Pierce was in some respects ahead of the curve in cabinet appointments. His Secretary of State was Senator William Marcy of New York. He considered one daring idea - he approached Senator Judah Benjamin of Louisiana to enter the cabinet as Attorney General. Benjamin, who was Jewish, would (had he accepted the offer, and been confirmed) have become the first Jewish American member of a United States Cabinet in our history, but he didn't feel he'd get confirmation and politely rejected this, as well as a later offer for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, in 1861, having resigned from the Senate and joined the Confederacy, Benjamin decided to accept the offer from Confederate President Jefferson Davis for the same job of Attorney General in his government. Eventually Benjamin would also be Confederate Secretary of War and Secretary of State, and gain the name of "the Brains of the Confederacy". It was not until 1906 that Theodore Roosevelt appointed Nathan Straus of New York as Secretary of Commerce that a Jewish American became a cabinet member in the United States Government, and not until 1916 that a Jewish American (Louis Brandeis) became an Associate Member of the United States Supreme Court.
Pierce and his family started getting ready for the move back to Washington. In late December they went to visit relatives in Massachusetts for the Christmas holidays. In early January 1853 the Pierces boarded a train for the trip south to Washington. Within an hour the train was in a collision. Frank and Jane were not physically hurt by this, but emotionally they were permanently scarred. Benjy was crushed to death in the crash in front of them. For at least the next two years Jane was a social wreck, heavily into religion, and failing to take care of her social duties as First Lady. She may also have blamed the death of her beloved son on her husband's "evil" political ambitions. Frank (although he had been fighting heavily against his convivial drinking habit) was soon to be going full throttle again. Worse followed the now "haunted" administration. Although the telegraph had been in operation in the East since Fillmore helped finance Morse's successful demonstration of it in 1844, the news still got easily garbled. Word got to Washington, D.C. about the train wreck, but Congress adjourned out of respect for the death of President-elect Pierce, as the early news confused Frank and Benjy. It was the first of a series of deaths that accompanied the new administration.
The fact that momentarily Congress felt that the new 14th President to be sworn in in March would be William Rufus King sent up a signal about the Democratic Party's blunder of running a seriously ill candidate for Vice President. King was in Havana, Cuba, trying to regain his health in that warm, tropical climate. In February Congress voted to allow King to be sworn into office in Havana, not Washington. To this day William Rufus King is the only member of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government to be sworn into office in a foreign country. But they were still swearing in a dying man. Had King actually been sworn in as President on March 4th, 1853 (that is, if it had been Pierce who had died, not his son), then he would have been the third President to die in office between 1841 and 1857. As it was, William Rufus King is the only Vice President who never served a single day presiding over the U.S. Senate. He would return to his plantation in Alabama in April 1853, and would die there on April 18, 1853. He was to have held his office for nine weeks only. and would have the third shortest term as Vice President in our history, given the one month that John Tyler had before succeeding William Henry Harrison in 1841, and the one month and eleven days that Andrew Johnson would have in Lincoln's second term, succeeding that gentleman into the Presidency in April 1865. Also except for those nine weeks of frustration with a weak and dying Vice President, the "Golden Age of the Vice Presidents" continued as now there were four living ex-Vice Presidents (Van Buren, Tyler, Dallas, Fillmore), of whom three (Van Buren, Tyler, and Fillmore) had served as President. Dallas was still the odd man out. This "Golden Age" would only last until 1857, when 36 year old John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky became Vice President, and would remain in that office until he and President Buchanan left in March 1861.
Pierce was to demonstrate another innovation at his inauguration. He would be the first President to deliver his speech from memory. Given that Harrison's 1841 speech was the longest on record (two hours) and deadly (Harrison spoke in a snow storm and caught the bug that led to his death by pneumonia), one would think that Pierce's shorter speech would have been easier on that score. It wasn't. Ironically, although her health as First Lady had been good, Abigail Fillmore had to sit in a sudden downpour during the inauguration speech. SHE caught cold, and died of pneumonia three weeks later, thus making Fillmore a widower as well as ex-President. Her three weeks as ex-First Lady was the shortest one of any First Lady's post-White House career we have had (even Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. William Harrison, and Florence Harding had longer post-First Lady periods). It was like a special curse was on the new administration, first with Benjy Pierce, then Abigail Fillmore, and finally William Rufus King.
At this point another curious feature crops up in discussing the Vice Presidency. Earlier I had taken some trouble debunking the "20 year" cycle of Presidential deaths that are passed around on that list of Presidents who died in office, supposedly from the curse Tecumseh had placed on his old foe William Harrison. In fact one thing that is rarely discussed is the death curse of the Vice Presidents! Since 1789 seven Vice Presidents have died in the office, but not at so-called 20 year cycles. Instead they have been in off years, though some are close to 20 years apart, and the first two were of men serving the same President. These are the men:
1812 - George Clinton (second term as Vice President - first under Thomas Jefferson from 1805 to 1809; second under James Madison from 1809 to 1812)
1814 - Elbridge Gerry (first term as the 2nd Vice President under James Madison - served 1813 - 1814)
1853 - William Rufus King (first term under Franklin Pierce - nine weeks in March to April 1853)
1875 - Henry Wilson of Massachusetts (his first term as the 2nd Vice President to Ulysses Grant - served 1873 - 1875)
1885 - Thomas Hendricks of Indiana (his first term as an elected Vice President in the first administration of President Grover Cleveland - served only less than a year; Hendricks, by the way, actually ran for Vice President in 1876 with Samuel Tilden , but the Republicans Rutherford Hayes and William Wheeler were awarded disputed electoral votes by a Congressional Commission, and they were sworn into the offices, not Tilden and Hendricks).
1899 - Garrett Hobart of New Jersey (won the Vice Presidency as running mate with William McKinley in 1896. He would be McKinley's first Vice President, and he and McKinley formed a good team, Hobart being a rarity in the office of Vice President of being useful as an advisor and aide to the President. Unfortunately, the stout Hobart died of a heart attack in 1899. There is a very good possibility that had he lived, he would have run again with McKinley and been that President's successor in 1901 after McKinley was assassinated. There would probably not have been a legend of President Theodore Roosevelt. Strange to think that though).
1912 - James Schoolcraft Sherman of New York (Sherman was a conservative Republican Congressman from Utica, New York, and he had been working closely with Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon. He was put on the 1908 ticket with Progressive Republican William Howard Taft. Taft actually got on well with Sherman (at least at first) and they even played golf together. Only later on did Taft question his closeness to the chubby ex-Congressman, when certain actions of his while Vice President did not help Taft's growing rift with Theodore Roosevelt over policy questions. Yet in 1912 Sherman became the first sitting Vice President to be re-nominated for the post with the same running mate since James Monroe and Daniel Tompkins in 1820. He was also the first to be re-nominated at all since the days of John C. Calhoun, who had first been Vice President under John Quincy Adams, and then switched to Andrew Jackson. But Taft and Sherman's re-election bid was doomed by a four way race of first rate candidates: Theodore Roosevelt and Hiram Johnson of California as Progressive/"Bull Moose" candidates; Taft and Sherman as the Republican Candidates; Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Marshall of Indiana as Democratic Candidates; and Eugene V. Debs and Emile Seidel as Socialist Candidates. It was one election where all the parties did well (save one). Roosevelt is the only third party candidate who beat a major party candidate (Taft) in our history; Taft knew he'd lose but was glad he kept Roosevelt from winning (allowing Wilson to win); Wilson became the first candidate who was a Democrat to win since Grover Cleveland in 1892. Debs won over 900,000 votes, a mark he would only reach again in 1920. The only loser really was poor Sherman. He hid from the convention that he had Bright's disease, the same fatal kidney ailment that killed President Chester Arthur in 1886 (and prevented him from really seeking his own term, which he deserved) and Secretary of State James G. Blaine in 1893. His victory was the re-nomination. However, the disease killed him in late October 1912. The Republicans scurried looking for a replacement. They finally contacted the President of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler, and asked if he would not mind becoming the candidate. Butler agreed only when reassured that there was no chance he'd become Vice President (so, in a sense he won too). Ironically, the ballots used by the electors in Utah and Vermont, which both went for Taft and the Republicans, had Sherman's name listed with Taft. Sherman is one of the few dead men who ever received any electoral votes in a Presidential election!).
Since 1912 there has only been two "vacancies among the Vice Presidents, one by the resignation of Spiro Agnew in 1973 (when he resigned in the wake of a political scandal that was as bad in it's way as the "Watergate" Scandal was for his Presidential partner Richard Nixon. A new Constitutional amendment allowed for Nixon to recommend a replacement Vice President, and his recommendation of the popular Republican Congressman Gerald Ford was acceptable. But Ford had to become President when Nixon (in his turn) resigned due to the "Watergate" Scandal in August 1974, and shortly after assuming the Presidency Ford recommended former New York Governor (and Presidential hopeful) Nelson Rockefeller for the empty Vice Presidential slot. Again this was acceptable, and "Rocky" finally became part of the executive branch of the Federal Government. Since 1974 the situation has not reoccurred of a gap among the Vice Presidents due to death or resignation.
With such a complete list of nine vacancies, why has no "Curse of the Vice Presidents" popped up? That twenty year fudged calculation has something to do with it, as well as the frequencies (at least until Nixon's resignation) of deaths in the White House seemed more of a lure. It also was a kind of slap in the face to the men who were saddled as Vice President in each administration. Even those who achieved the office (one might include even halfway satisfactory Presidents directly elected into the office, such as John Adams and Martin Van Buren) rarely got admiration from the public. The ones who did were probably Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and (except for Vietnam) Lyndon Johnson. Each of them had also gotten elected for a term in their own right. For most of the latter part of the 20th Century, Calvin Coolidge was belittled due to his failure of adequate vision (given his so-called pro-business views) and being a total mediocrity responsible for the Wall Street Crash and the Depression. It has only been since the 1980s that a re-evaluation of Coolidge became possible when it was suddenly realized that far from being a nothing in the White House who just happened to win a term of his own, he helped re-establish respect for the executive branch in the wake of the scandals of Harding's Administration, and he managed a feat no other 20th Century President did - he figured how to reduce the Federal budget in a careful trimming schedule that did not affect the actuals workings of the Departments or Agencies (in short he trimmed the fat off). It actually worked. It's questionable if it still would, in the wake of the heavy expenditures of the Federal branch since FDR was elected during the Depression and in the wake of the Second World War, and our international leadership position since 1945, but even so Coolidge should have been congratulated for his achievement.*
[*I recognize that this pro-Coolidge view is still slowly refuting the negative one, but it is coming. Ronald Reagan was the first President to recognize it in the 1980s. Studies on "Silent Cal" have recently brought it to the fore, and it is about time. But to make one properly see the unfairness of ignoring what Coolidge carefully did (during a period of prosperity, mind you), compare it to two economic achievements trumpeted about two Presidents considered great ones: 1) Thomas Jefferson actually, with the aid of his excellent Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, managed to cut down the national debt for most of his Presidency - but he spoiled this achievement by stopping the proper expansion and development of the Navy begun by his predecessor John Adams, and in the wake of that Navy's excellent work in the 1804-1805 War with the Tripoli Pirates, plus he compounded his error by his idiotic attempt to use economic coercion on Britain and France by his 1807 Embargo Act, which almost wiped out our New England and New York based merchant marine; 2) Andrew Jackson was the last President of the United States to present a balanced budget in 1833, in the wake of his fighting the war against Nicholas Biddle's Second Bank of the United States - but in his somewhat deranged hatred of Biddle and his bank (which had, for most of it's lifetime, been of great use in keeping our currency stable) Jackson's policies putting gold deposits into questionably run "pet banks" of so-called Democratic Party supporters, which led to massive speculations in real estate, helped cause the "Panic of 1837" which would plague Jackson's successor Martin Van Buren. The fact is no President we have had actually was trained in economics, and some of those associated with good economic times (Coolidge is one, but so are McKinley and Eisenhower) really had little to do with the success of these booms (gold in Alaska in 1897 probably did more to end the Depression in the U.S. that began in Cleveland's Second Administration in 1893, and began to ebb in McKinley's first term - not McKinley's sacred "protectionism" tariffs).]
The three deaths that ushered in the Pierce Administration certainly suggested that there was a sense of ill-luck and doom that was being brought into the U.S. Yet, ironically enough, after the death of Vice President King, there were no further deaths involving the administration. In fact the Pierce Administration holds a record to this day that all the men appointed to the cabinet when Pierce came to office, stayed in their jobs until the day the administration ended. This is actually the reverse of the musical cabinet seat problems that perplexed Tyler in his less than complete term and Grant in his two complete terms. Yet, except for Marcy and Davis it was not a first rate selection of cabinet officers (compare it to Lincoln's main cabinet from 1862 to 1864, for example). Also the Pierce administration really lacked any significant accomplishments (certainly not like Fillmore's embracing - perhaps overly embracing - the "Fugitive Slave Act", and managing to create a center of stability in the Union regarding the South being satisfied). The major accomplishment was the "Gadsden Purchase" of land from Mexico in 1853, pushed by Davis for that never-to-be-built southern continental railroad. Until 1867 it was the last major land purchase by the U.S. (and the last major one for the so-called "lower forty-eight states"). Another accomplishment was a treaty with the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1854 which enabled the United States to lease Pearl Harbor for it's Pacific Fleet. One other interesting accomplishment was an experiment in 1854 involving the purchase by the War Department (again note how Davis is pushing this) for a camel corps in the U.S. Cavalry stationed in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. The idea was that camels were better as transport in desert regions than horses were, and that was true. However the scheme was not well attended too after Pierce's administration ended, and the camel corps was disbanded. For decades wild camels were seen from time to time throughout the southwest. There was an interesting incident involving our involvement on the periphery of the on-going Crimean War half-a-world away, in 1855-56. The "Crampton Enlistment" Scandal led to the end of a popular diplomat's career in Washington.
By 1855 the series of military disasters (such as the charge of the Light Brigade, and the filthy condition of wounded or ill British and French soldiers at Scuderi, being nursed by Florence Nightingale - who reported how she found these troops) caused a reasonably to be expected falling off of enlistments in the British armed forces. The British government tried to figure out how to replenish the depleted ranks. Finally, they got an idea from the government of the colony of Nova Scotia, where the sitting Premier there suggested setting up enlistment centers in New York City, Philadelphia, and Cincinnatti, Ohio. This may strike us as being extremely nervy on the part of the British, but their back was up against a wall to get recruitments back to normal level. The fact that they were treating a neutral country like a colonial possession did not particularly cause them to stop. As a result, they actually put the plan into affect. It was a big mistake. The British Government tended to overlook a time-bomb they had set up themselves in the United States. Due to their idiotic handling of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 - 1847 nearly a million Irish men, women, and children had perished of hunger, and another million had fled Ireland to the United States (as well as the British Empire) to be able to work and get food. Naturally these emigrants from Ireland were not fond of the British government, and in the United States they would eventually form a strong center of anti-British feelings for the next century. In normal times they were watching what the British were up to regarding the United States. The decision by the British government to ignore American borders and neutrality was sufficient for the Irish to start reporting the activity to the Federal authorities. Secretary of State Marcy had earlier had to clean-up a diplomatic fiasco regarding Cuba called "the Ostend Manifesto", and this business gave him a chance to actually look far more statesmanlike and in the right than that earlier event. The chief person in charge of the recruitments was Sir John Crampton, the British Minister to the United States. Crampton was a very popular social figure in the United States capital, and been useful in the 1850s to the Taylor, Fillmore, and Pierce Administrations (he had a significant hand in the visit to the White House of the author William Thackeray in 1852, which I mentioned earlier). But this action was a violation of our policy of neutrality in the Crimean War, and quite insulting to our sense of nationality and independence from our old mother country. Crampton was given back his official papers by Marcy's government, as were three British consuls involved in the cities where the recruitments occurred. Until the two World Wars in the 20th Century there were no similar cleaning of shops (so to speak) of foreign diplomatic personnel in Washington and the country at large. In a sense, the "Crampton Enlistment" Scandal was a high watermark for the Pierce Administration. Unfortunately, like the "camel experiment", the leasing of Pearl Harbor, and the "Gadsden Purchase", it was minor window dressing to the botched actions of Pierce's programs and attempts at national policy regarding the slavery issue.
Pierce's administration would be remembered for it's massive failures regarding the Kansas Territory and the aforementioned "Ostend Manifesto", a diplomatic fiasco of the first order. We'll take the fiasco first. To try to placate his rival for the Democratic nomination, former Secretary of State and Senator from Pennsylvania James Buchanan, Pierce appointed him our Minister to Britain. To be finally a little fair to Buchanan, he did well in that post for the most part. In fact, had he spent the rest of his career as our Minister to various major countries, it's possible his historical reputation would be higher. Accompanied by his niece and hostess, the attractive Harriet Lane, he did well enough in the post as to make many friends in the upper British classes. In this work he was assisted by his co-worker at the embassy, a New York City Tammany Democrat named Daniel Sickles, and the new United States Consul in Liverpool, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne had assisted in the election of his pal Frank by writing the official campaign biography, and included (goodness knows why) the aforementioned drab military diary and excerps from the 1841 "Executive Necessity" speech, so he would get awarded with his diplomatic post (one of several literary talents, beginning with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, but including Washington Irving, William Dean Howells, Henry Adams, and Francis Bret Harte among others who also got such a post for the sake of friendship with the right Presidents or for assisting by writing campaign material). At the time Pierce had appointed the former Senator from Louisiana, Pierre Soule, Minister to Spain, and John Y. Mason, Minister to France. Soule was firmly committed to "Manifest Destiny" for the entire North American Continent and the Caribbean Islands, if it would assist in the survival of Southern Slavery and it's expansion around the globe. Soule had latched on the old United States goal of annexing Cuba, then an island ruled by the Kingdom of Spain. He had discussed his idea of seeking annexation with Secretary of State Marcy. Marcy favored it, but said that if Spain would reject offers by the United States to purchase Cuba (here Marcy became a bit hazy) Soule should consider firmer steps that came after such a rejection. Marcy may have meant recognition of Cuba as an independent nation, but the comment was (and remains) so fuzzy that Soule may have been convinced that Marcy was authorizing our declaring war on Spain to take over Cuba. He contacted Mason and Buchanan and they set up a meeting at Ostend in Belgium, at a nearby spa. They tacked together the "Manifesto" to recommend the purchase of the island or it's seizure by force. Then they sent it to Marcy. Somehow word of the document leaked out, and Marcy, to protect our image (one wonders how) published the entire correspondence involved and the document, and a repudiation of it. Mason was a Virginian (and would later be a Confederate diplomat, also to France), and favored the expansion of new states that were slave states. Buchanan was willing to go along with the plan, as he hoped to finally get the Presidential nomination from the Democratic Party in 1856. The entire incident was both annoying to abolitionist sentiments in the North, and rather ridiculous in it's resulting revelation. It certainly diminished the Pierce Administration in the eyes of both sections of the country, and the contemporary success regarding the "Gadsden Purchase" and the leasing of Pearl Harbor really did not reassure the public.
The "Manifesto" had a comic opera atmosphere to it, with Soule, Mason, and Buchanan coming across like they were stage conspirators with all the theatrical paraphernalia associated with those roles. Unfortunately, the problem of what became known as "Bleeding Kansas" or "Lecompton Constitution Crisis" was not with comic overtones. Instead it would be full of violence and death, and would bring several figures from Missouri and Kansas to national prominence or notoriety - James Lane and his "Jayhawkers", William Quantrill (though not quite on the top level of trouble here yet), and John 'Ossawatomie" Brown. The situation would lead to the final attempt at legislative compromise in the years before the American Civil War, seriously damaging the career of the one Democrat who might have actually figured out how to derail the road to Civil War, and would lead to a mounting series of crises that made the war inevitable in the end. One can certainly say that the tombstone for Pierce's administration was Kansas.
After the California statehood issue was settled by the Compromise, the Fillmore Administration did reassure the South of it's commitment to protecting the South's commitment to slavery. It worked, as Fillmore demonstrated he'd take the heat and make it work. But Southern leaders realized that the key to this was a man like Fillmore as President, a Northern Whig who was committed to preserving the balance of the two sections. In 1852 the Whigs had not nominated Fillmore, but nominated Scott, a Southerner who supported the Union and hated slavery. The Democrats had three leading candidates for the nomination: the perennial windbag Buchanan, the loser of 1848 Lewis Cass, and the "Little Giant" from Illinois, Senator Stephen Douglas. Douglas had shown his abilities saving the "Compromise of 1850" at the last moment. Whatever one thinks of that Fugitive Slave Act, the whole package did work, and with Clay and Webster Douglas was most responsible. But Douglas was as committed to "Squatter Sovereignty/Popular Sovereignty" as Lewis Cass, and this made him suspect to Southerners. The commitment to this policy was to be the reason that for everything that Douglas tried to do as a Senator kept him from ever fully getting Southern approval or the Presidency. Pity, for he was far abler than Cass, Buchanan, or Pierce - possibly the best figure in the Democratic Party in the 1850s. Pierce did what he could to placate Buchanan for stealing the nomination in 1852, making him our Minister to Great Britain (the biggest diplomatic post). Likewise he rewarded his friend Davis with the War Secretary post in his cabinet, and his pal Hawthorne with the Liverpool Consulship. Cass was becoming more and more slow and senile so Pierce could ignore him to some extent. But he had no use for Douglas, who was a Northern Democrat with a following whom Pierce felt was a dangerous rival. As a result he rarely conferred on policy matters with Douglas, and frankly tended to snub him. It was a major error. Nobody underestimated Stephen Douglas, except for Franklin Pierce.
Southern leaders felt unsafe if California ended up electing two abolitionist Senators, as the state would be fully voting against slavery issues before Congress. They sought some additional territory with a population for a balancing slave state (or hopefully two so the North could be "kept under control". This is what led to the hunger for the island of Cuba (see above), which still had a slavery based plantation system. It also led to them looking hungrily to the new territories in the west. Unfortunately for the Southern slave interests, the only territory that had a growing and strong population ready for statehood was "Deseret", which we now call "Utah". The Mormon settlements gave it the largest population by far (and most influential one) outside of California and Texas in the western United States. It actually did not have (at that time) a friendly disposition towards African-Americans, and did not dislike the concept of slavery, but it did have qualms about the temper of the citizens of the states. The reason it had gotten settled and organized so quickly was that it's leadership (under Brigham Young) was brilliant and stable. It considered most other religious groups to be suspect, and they were all roped together as "gentiles" (including Jews, Islamics, Hindus, etc.). Further, the Mormons had been persecuted viciously in the 1830s - 1844, culminating in the murders of the founder of the religion, Joseph Smith, in Carthage, Illinois, with his brother Hyrum, by a lynch mob. That event was the last of a series of attacks by non-Mormon neighbors who drove the group out of states like Missouri. With this sort of background the trek of the Mormons west was thoroughly understandable. Less likely was the brandishments of assistance at gaining statehood from Southerners. Indeed, during the Pierce Administration, the murder of Mormon preacher Parley Pratt in Arkansas did not sit well in Salt Lake City and the other Mormon settlements. In fact, it may have led to a worse tragedy in the Buchanan Administration. The hostility towards the Mormons was a national matter in the 1850s, basically due (supposedly) to the custom of polygamy, and the question about the revelations of the Angel Moroni to Joseph Smith. In reality, Mormonism taught sobriety and hard work, and frequently the Mormons were better farmers and businessmen than their non-Mormon neighbors, which increased jealousy and acts of violence.*
[*It is interesting to see how remarkable the Mormon miracle in "Deseret" was in terms of attracting population and substantial wealth and stability, without a major gold strike like California's. Had things been fairer, "Deseret" might have achieved statehood before California (it might also have kept the name "Deseret"). Interestingly enough, while Pierce would get into a political mess with Young regarding the appointment of a Federal overseer to the territory, and Buchanan would have a mini-war with Young that backfired in 1857, Fillmore again displayed his superiority to the other two regarding the newly settled Mormon state. Instead of ranting about infidels running United States territory, Fillmore noted how well Young was taking care of things, and made sure Young realized he could continue doing so. The Mormons were happy with Fillmore. They named a town for him (but none for Pierce and Buchanan).]