Tuesday, June 12

The Repugnant Office

“I would rather be right than President,” Henry Clay once said. He got his wish. He was often right but never President, though he ran for the office four times. Franklin Pierce (1804-1869), on the other hand was a genial New Hampshire lawyer who said that the Presidency would be “utterly repugnant” to him. Pierce became President in spite of himself--without ever making a single campaign speech.

Like his predecessor James K. Polk, Pierce had not even been considered a candidate before the Democratic convention, but he was reluctantly pushed into the role of compromise candidate when the convention reached a stalemate at the forty-eighth ballot on this day in 1852. Although he had served honorably in his state legislature and in the House and Senate, Pierce gradually developed a marked distaste for politics--in 1842 he resigned from the Senate to return to private practice, and later he refused several opportunities to return to office. Handsome, friendly Pierce remained in committed retirement from all political involvement for a decade until he was caught up in the swirl of events that suddenly put him in the White House. The nation saw his ambivalence to party pandering, refreshing. He won over a divided field after his friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote a flattering campaign biography.

In 1852 slavery was still a dominating issue. Pierce took office with the belief that he should support the Compromise of 1850, and like Fillmore, he alienated the North by enforcing the law then on the books: Fugitive Slave Act. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which created new territories in 1854, simply provided a new arena for the great struggle. In these new territories nothing was settled as abolitionists and pro-slavery groups resorted to force and bloodshed: “Bleeding Kansas” became an open wound.

On other fronts Pierce fared little better. Part of his expansionist policy was a plan to purchase Cuba, but he was forced to denounce three of his ministers--one of them was his successor, James Buchanan--when they declared in the Ostend Manifesto that America should take Cuba, if Spain refused to sell it. However, Pierce was able to purchase land from Mexico which gave us our present southwest border, completing our expansion in the West. Pierce was probably grateful when his party neglected to nominate him for another term. At last he could have his privacy.

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