Sunday, May 04, 2008

Franklin Pierce, Wimp

It is remarkable how irrelevant Franklin Pierce seems to be to the momentous events that shook the country during his presidency. In connection with the Kansas-Nebraska bill and the acrimonious debates and violence that ensued, Pierce typically gets only a line or two.

The little notice that Pierce does draw usually focuses on a visit he received from Jefferson Davis, Stephen Douglas, David Atchison, John Breckenridge and others on Sunday January 22, 1854. The circumstances surrounding that meeting only emphasize what a cipher Pierce seems to have been, and how little the legislators thought of him.

Douglas and his allies had decided the evening before to report the Kansas bill on Monday. Almost as an afterthought, they decided that they should get Pierce and his administration on board. They recruited Jefferson Davis, Pierce’s Secretary of War, and descended on the hapless president at the White House. Although Pierce and his cabinet had previously expressed disapproval of Douglas’s bill, Pierce was unable to resist the pressure and agreed that the administration would support the plan. Not content with his oral commitment, the conferees even bullied the president into writing out a statement that the Missouri Compromise “was superseded by the [Compromise of 1850] and is hereby declared inoperative and void.”

Pathetically, Pierce tried to maintain a little wiggle room by asking his visitors to consult Secretary of State William Marcy as well. They thought so little of Pierce that they never did so, later claiming that Marcy was not at home when they called.

William Gienapp provides a superb sketch of Pierce that explains why he was and remains virtually invisible – and why Douglas insisted on getting the president’s commitment in writing on that fateful day in January 1854:
A handsome, slightly built man with a generous head of hair and more than a touch of vanity, he carried himself with a graceful manner that imparted an imposing presence. Preeminently a social person, he was blessed with great personal charm and easily assumed a familiar air with callers, often throwing an arm around their shoulders. Such behavior betrayed the shallowness of his character. Wanting intensely to be liked and uncomfortable with confrontation, Pierce appeared to agree affably with whomever he was conversing, even when he had no intention of accepting the proffered advice; later, when he adopted a different policy, men naturally felt deceived. Politicians in Washington came to see how little his protestations of friendship really meant, how completely undependable he actually was. . . . Forceful politicians quickly realized that this unsteady and irresolute president could be intimidated.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this insight into the character of this obscure president.


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