Despite the fact that the Presidency of William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) lasted for only a month, the Harrison family left its mark on history before and after the 9th President’s 31-day stint in the White House in 1841. In fact, the Harrisons were one of the first American political dynasties.
John Scott Harrison (1804-1878), who served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1850s, is the only person in American history to be the son of one President and the father of another. His son (and William Henry Harrison’s grandson), Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901), was the nation’s 23rd President from 1889-1893.
However, the family’s most accomplished member was William Henry Harrison’s father and the man whom the 23rd President was named after — Benjamin Harrison V (1726-1791).
One of the nation’s Founding Fathers, the elder Benjamin Harrison never served as President himself, but he had direct or indirect links to several Presidents, not counting his son and great-grandson.
Benjamin Harrison V served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses for nearly 30 years (1748-1775) and became an early, vocal opponent of British policies towards the colonies. As Revolution approached, Harrison was a leading member of the Virginia delegation to the first and second Continental Congresses and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
During the second Continental Congress, Harrison shared a home in Philadelphia with a fellow Virginian — his roommate was George Washington. During the Revolutionary War, Harrison was often entrusted with drafting orders and dispatches to General Washington on behalf of Congress.
As war raged on, Harrison returned to the Virginia state legislature, newly christened as the House of Delegates, where he crossed paths with another future President — Thomas Jefferson. In 1778, Harrison defeated Jefferson in a race to become the speaker of Virginia’s House. Three years later, Harrison succeeded Jefferson as Governor of Virginia.
Following his term as Governor, Benjamin Harrison V sought to regain a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates. While he eventually won re-election to the House and remained in Virginia’s legislature until his death in 1791, he initially came up short. Harrison lost a race in 1784 to John Tyler, Sr.
It wouldn’t be the last campaign featuring a Harrison and Tyler.
In 1840 — 56 years after Benjamin Harrison V and John Tyler, Sr. faced off for a seat in Virginia’s legislature — their sons, William Henry and John Jr., teamed up and were elected President and Vice President of the United States.
I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.
President Warren G. Harding, to Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler, 1922
When James Monroe served as the 5th President of the United States (1817-1825) partisan rancor was so diminished that it was known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” In 1820, things were going smoothly enough for President Monroe that he was unopposed in his bid for re-election and was just one vote short of a unanimous Electoral College victory.
But all good things must come to an end. The “Era of Good Feelings” collapsed and fell right back into regular American politically partisan bitterness with the 1824 Presidential campaign. In fact, during that time, the popular President Monroe found some bad feelings within his own Cabinet, resulting in a bizarre confrontation in the White House that winter — the President of the United States vs. the Secretary of the Treasury, no-holds-barred.
Treasury Secretary William H. Crawford had been a front-runner to replace Monroe, but a stroke in 1823 ruined those chances. Crawford had been serving as Secretary of the Treasury since 1816 when he was appointed by President James Madison and continued on throughout Monroe’s Administration. Tired, frustrated, and ready to retire home to Georgia, Crawford called on Monroe at the White House to suggest a list of appointments he wished the President to approve for customs officers at ports in the Northeastern United States, some of the choicest political patronage positions available in the federal government. However, Monroe objected to Crawford’s list and stated that he intended to name his own picks. Crawford lost his temper and told the President, “Well, if you will not appoint persons well-qualified for the places, tell me whom you will appoint that I may get rid of their importunities!”
The President — a Revolutionary War veteran of George Washington’s Army who carried a bullet in his body that had nearly killed him in 1776 — was not intimidated by Crawford’s language or temperament, coldly telling his Treasury Secretary, “Sir, that is none of your damn business.”
Crawford was not easily intimidated, either. The Treasury Secretary had killed a man in a duel years earlier, and Monroe’s comment led Crawford to charge at the 67-year-old President with his cane, shaking it at Monroe while calling him a “damned, infernal old scoundrel.” Monroe quickly grabbed two red-hot tongs from a nearby fireplace for self-defense and threatened to personally throw Crawford — who was 15 years younger than the President — out of the White House.
Both men calmed down as President Monroe prepared to summon his servants to show the Treasury Secretary out. Crawford apologized for his actions and stated that he did not intend to insult or threaten the President. Before Monroe could ask him to leave, Crawford left the White House on his own. The two men never spoke to each other again.
The “Era of Good Feelings” was over.
It doesn’t really matter whether he slept with her or not. He could have. After all, he owned her. She was subject to his exploitations in every conceivable way. It was he who brought her to Paris. It was he who sent her home from Paris. He had complete control of her destiny and he might have fathered the several children…Many people who deny that Jefferson fathered any mulatto children say that it was done by his nephews or by some other relatives. They seem to have scientific proof for that, without having any scientific proof for his not having slept with Sally Hemings or some other slaves. The important point to make is that throughout the land in the 18th and 19th centuries, blacks were the victims, the subjects, the exploited people of their owners and of those whites who didn’t own them. And that we lived in such immorality, such irregularity…that these things were part of the natural landscape in Virginia, and Mr. Jefferson was as likely as any others to have done this because it’s in character with the times — and, indeed, with him, who believed in exploiting these people that he controlled completely.
John Hope Franklin, on whether Thomas Jefferson fathered children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings
[Monroe] is one of the Most improper & incompetent that could have been selected — Naturally dull & stupid — extremely illiterate — indecisive to a degree that would be incredible to one who did not know him — pusillanimous & of course hypocritical — has no opinion on any subject (and) will be always under the Govt. of the worst Men — pretends as I am told, to some Knowledge of Military Matters, but never commanded a platoon nor was ever fit to command one.
Aaron Burr, on James Monroe, in a letter to Joseph Alston, November 15, 1815
[Senator Fulbright] is a revolving son of a bitch. You know what a revolving son of a bitch is, don’t you? That’s a son of a bitch any way you look at him.
Lyndon B. Johnson, on Senator William Fulbright, according to George Christian
He has one of the most magnetic personalities that I have ever confronted. When you are close to Nixon he almost disarms you with his apparent sincerity. You never get the impression that he is the same man…who made a tear-jerking speech in the 1952 campaign…And so I would conclude by saying that if Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., after meeting then-Vice President Richard Nixon, 1957
Sycophants will stand in the rain a week to see you and will treat you like a King. They’ll come sliding in and tell you you’re the greatest man alive — but you know you ain’t and I know you ain’t.
House Speaker Sam Rayburn to his good friend Harry Truman after Truman became President
You would be hard-pressed to find many comparisons between Franklin Pierce, 14th President of the United States, and Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. Most historians agree that Lincoln is probably the greatest President in American History; a similar amount of historians usually rank Pierce as one of the worst. Lincoln guided the country through Civil War and to victory; the policies of Pierce’s Administration helped divide the nation and make Civil War a reality. Despite being born in the South, Lincoln fought during every minute of his Presidency to keep the Union together; Pierce, born and raised in New Hampshire, was a “doughface” (a Northerner with Southern sympathies), and close friends with Confederate President Jefferson Davis who served as Secretary of War in Pierce’s Administration. Lincoln died just days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and was immediately considered a martyr by the American public after his death. After dispersing a crowd that angrily gathered in front of his home following Lincoln’s assassination, Franklin Pierce went back to doing what he had done since leaving the White House in 1857 — drinking himself to death.
There is one thing that links these two men beyond the fact that they were both Presidents during the most divisive period in American History — tragedy. In the exclusive fraternity of American Presidents, it’s impossible to find two more melancholy individuals than Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln battled deep depression throughout his life and, as a young man in Illinois, Lincoln admitted that he contemplated suicide at times. During his career as a lawyer riding the Illinois court circuit, Lincoln’s friend Joshua Speed recalls the future President remarking “If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode that I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”
What troubled Lincoln is difficult to pinpoint. Before he married Mary Todd, Lincoln was romantically interested in Ann Rutledge, the daughter of a New Salem, Illinois tavern owner. Lincoln was a frequent visitor to the Rutledge home and was devastated when Ann died of typhoid fever in 1835. William H. Herndon — Lincoln’s longtime law partner and one of the first biographers of Lincoln — acknowledged that the future President loved Ann Rutledge and that the grieving Lincoln was suicidal in the days and weeks following Ann’s funeral. Five years after Ann Rutledge’s death, Lincoln and Mary Todd were engaged, and the couple married in 1842. Mary had a terrible temper and her mental condition was so tenuous that her son, Robert, finally had her committed to an asylum after President Lincoln’s death. Mary was a lot of things that Lincoln was not — short, overweight, confrontational, insecure, and temperamental. The marriage was rocky at times, but Lincoln was passionately defensive about charges against his wife. When Mary lost control and screamed at Lincoln or charged the President with jealous accusations, Lincoln walked away from the fights and always returned to check on Mary’s condition once she cooled down. For a President trying to save his country from destruction, these personal domestic crises had to be taxing on Lincoln.
To find a bright spot somewhere, Lincoln turned to his children for solace. Lincoln’s four sons were all born in Springfield, Illinois with Robert Todd Lincoln leading the way in 1843. By the time of Lincoln’s Presidency, Robert was an adult attending Harvard and he spent the last months of the Civil War on the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant. The second son, Edward Baker Lincoln, was another source of sadness for the Lincolns. Edward died at the age of four; an event that left Mary on the brink of breakdown and pushed Lincoln to cherish the next two children, Willie (born in 1850), and Tad (born in 1853). As President, Lincoln was horrified by dispatches describing the ongoing Civil War, tried to shut out the distractions caused by his unstable wife, and discovered happiness only in those moments where he could play with Willie and Tad.
Willie Lincoln was dedicated to his love for books, much like his father, and it was no secret to anyone that Willie was the President’s favorite child. Tad was more rambunctious, always into joking and playing around, and Lincoln took great satisfaction from Tad’s affinity for dressing up like the soldiers who protected Washington and the White House from the rebel forces. Like the Biblical Job, however, Lincoln had to face adversity while persevering relentlessly towards his goal. In February 1862, Willie Lincoln took ill after riding his beloved pony in chilly weather. Doctors ordered bed rest and Willie rallied at first, but on February 20th, he died from what is thought to be typhoid fever. The Lincolns were devastated, Mary was inconsolable and shut herself off from the world for three weeks. Lincoln worried about Mary while also nursing his youngest son, Tad, who came down with the same illness that killed Willie and was in critical condition himself. Tad recovered, but Lincoln was at times overcome by sadness. Every Thursday for several weeks, Lincoln locked himself in the Green Room of the White House, the room where Willie’s body had been laid out and embalmed after he died, and cried for his lost son.
Throughout his life, Lincoln had loved few things more than reading Shakespeare out loud to family and friends. After Willie died, the President’s voice would break with emotion and his eyes would be flooded by tears when he recited these lines from King John:
And, father cardinal, I have heard you say
That we shall see and know our friends in heaven
If that be true, I shall see my boy again
Though he never shrank from his responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief in the midst of a brutal Civil War, Lincoln confided to others that Willie’s death “showed me my weakness as I had never felt it before.” Only once more did he feel a pinch of unrestrained happiness and that was on the day that he truly considered the Civil War to finally be over — April 14, 1865. That night, John Wilkes Booth ended Abraham Lincoln’s suffering.
It was Willie Lincoln’s death in the White House in 1862 that brought Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln the closest that they would ever be. Men of different political parties, different backgrounds, and different viewpoints on the biggest issue of the day; they were as far apart politically as they were in physical appearance. Lincoln was described by even his closest friends as “ugly” and his opponents likened him to a “baboon”. Lincoln wore the same old suit constantly, he rarely took the time to comb his hair, and he didn’t care what people thought of his “style”. Franklin Pierce looked like a Roman statue come to life. Pierce had long, curly, jet-black hair that he combed over the side of his forehead, he dressed impeccably, and one historian calls him “perhaps the most handsome President”. Even President Harry Truman — a vicious detractor of Pierce’s Presidency — called Pierce “the best-looking President the White House ever had” and suggested that he “looked the way people who make movies think a President should look”.
Behind those looks, however, was a man who was as unsuccessful at fighting depression as he was at fighting alcoholism. Franklin Pierce was ambitious and rose to the Presidency at a younger age than any of his predecessors. His ambition, however, strained his marriage with Jane Means Appleton, who hated politics and hated Washington, D.C. Pierce didn’t help the marriage by not consulting with Jane before undertaking a life-changing experience such as accepting the Democratic nomination for President in 1852. Jane had heard that Franklin was being considered as a compromise choice by the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, but believed that he had no chance against better-known names such as James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, and Stephen A. Douglas. While out for a carriage ride in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a rider galloped up to the wagon carrying the Pierces with the news that Franklin had won the Democratic nomination. Franklin smiled excitedly, but Jane nearly passed out. Pierce had promised that he was done with politics, that they were done with Washington forever, and now it was a near-certainty that he would be elected President of the United States.
Like the Lincolns, the Pierce family had lost two sons at young age. The first born, Frank Jr., died as an infant, and their second son, Franklin Robert Pierce, died at the age of four. Their son Benjamin was their only surviving offspring, and they devoted all of their parental love to Bennie. In times of the deep depression that both Franklin and Jane suffered from, both parents could turn to Bennie for some joy and to remind themselves that not all was lost. Like his mother, Bennie was shy and unhappy about a potential move to Washington. Shortly after Pierce won the Democratic nomination, Bennie wrote his mother: “I hope he won’t be elected for I should not like to be at Washington. And I know you would not be either.” The hopes and prayers of his wife and his son were in complete opposition to those of Franklin Pierce. He wanted, more than anything, to be President. On Election Day, he was granted his wish as he trounced General Winfield Scott on won the Presidential election.
While Franklin prepared to take the reins of the country, Jane and Bennie prepared for the dreaded move into the White House in Washington. Jane tried her best to project some happiness for Franklin’s sake, and she found some assistance from her religious devotion. As 1853 began, the Pierces prepared for the move to Washington, D.C. and left New Hampshire in January, deciding to stop in Massachusetts for visits with family and friends before arriving in Washington for the inauguration scheduled on March 4th.
On January 6, 1853, a train carrying the young President-elect, his wife, and their only surviving son left Andover, Massachusetts. Just a few minutes after departing Andover, the passenger car detached from the train and rolled down an embankment. None of the passengers including Franklin Pierce and his wife were injured except for one person. In front of his horrified parents, 11-year-old Benjamin Pierce was thrown from the train and was nearly decapitated as his head was gruesomely crushed. Bennie Pierce was killed instantly, and his parents would never be the same.
Less than two months later, Pierce was sworn in as President. The only President who memorized his inaugural address and recited the speech without notes, Pierce started by telling the crowd in front of the U.S. Capitol, “It is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.” Traumatized by Bennie’s death, Jane refused to continue any further towards Washington than Baltimore. Pierce had to face the Presidency and the mourning period for their son without his wife. As he told the American public in his inaugural address, “You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me with your strength.”
When Jane finally arrived at the White House, she still didn’t make much of an impact. People referred to her as “the shadow of the White House” and she frequently closed herself off in an upstairs bedroom where she wrote letters to her dead children and stuffed them in a fireplace. Jefferson Davis’s wife, Varina, often substituted as White House hostess. In a way, Jane indirectly blamed her husband for Bennie’s death, claiming that God took Bennie from them so that Franklin would have nothing distracting him from his goals and accomplishments. When Jane died in 1863, Pierce’s closest friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, said that she was never interested in “things present”.
Franklin’s “accomplishments” were not much. He had a difficult time saying “no”, and often agreed to go along with the last person he talked to before making a decision. Pierce was indeed absent of distractions, but he needed some. The country was being torn apart by the slavery question and the Kansas-Nebraska Act inflamed tensions; it was no longer a matter of debate — in some places, open warfare was breaking out. The President found his distraction came in the form of a bottle. President Pierce was an alcoholic and in 1856, his own party refused to consider him for re-election. As his term ended at the beginning of 1857, Pierce said, “There’s nothing left to do but to get drunk.” He lived by that motto until his drinking finally killed him in 1869.
During Franklin Pierce’s retirement, he spoke out against Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War itself. Some called him a traitor, and even his close friends snubbed him. When Pierce’s friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, died, he wasn’t even allowed to be a pall bearer as Hawthorne requested. But despite their many differences, Lincoln found himself in a place that only Franklin Pierce knew — mourning a lost child and worrying about an unstable wife while running a divided country. A few weeks following Willie’s death, President Lincoln received this letter:
Concord N. H.
March 4 1862
My dear Sir,
The impulse to write you, the moment I heard of your great domestic affliction was very strong, but it brought back the crushing sorrow which befel me just before I went to Washington in 1853, with such power that I felt your grief, to be too sacred for intrusion.
Even in this hour, so full of danger to our Country, and of trial and anxiety to all good men, your thoughts, will be, of your cherished boy, who will nestle at your heart, until you meet him in that new life, when tears and toils and conflict will be unknown.
I realize fully how vain it would be, to suggest sources of consolation.
There can be but one refuge in such an hour, — but one remedy for smitten hearts, which, is to trust in Him “who doeth all things well”, and leave the rest to —
“Time, comforter & only healer
When the heart hath broke”
With Mrs Pierce’s and my own best wishes — and truest sympathy for Mrs Lincoln and yourself
I am, very truly,
The melancholy Presidents — so far apart in each and every other aspect of their lives — could at the very least find companionship, if not comfort, in the other’s strength through painful weakness.
There is peril to power and danger in ambition. They called him “Young Hickory of the Granite Hills” and “Handsome Frank”. He looked like a poet and lived a Shakespearean tragedy. He was intelligent and eloquent, with top-notch oratorical skills and impressive charisma. Unable to resist the political opportunities that opened up to him, Franklin Pierce’s trajectory from New Hampshire lawyer to 14th President of the United States was so steep that he couldn’t fathom the ramifications of his quick rise. In fact, by the end of his life, it seemed Franklin Pierce had made a Faustian bargain — he gave up his world, ruled the nation, and ended up drinking himself to death and dying alone.
Franklin Pierce was haunted in the White House by personal demons and national difficulties. Stunningly elected over Mexican War hero Winfield Scott, Pierce was just 48 years old when he took the oath of office in 1853, and for four years he barely presided over a divided nation that burst apart into Civil War just four years after he left office. Throughout his term, he was shadowed by the weight of his political aspirations, the menace of alcoholism and depression, his own malleable nature, and the madness of a grieving wife who despised politics and blamed Pierce for the many tragedies which had befallen their young family.
Pierce was strikingly handsome, with dark, pained eyes and trademark, jet-black hair that was long, curly, and swept over his forehead. In photographs of Pierce, he almost exudes sadness, as if he were some pale, gothic specter sprung from the pages of an Edgar Allan Poe story. And that’s without even knowing Pierce’s history.
Born exactly 207 years ago today, November 23, 1804, Pierce was the son of a Revolutionary War veteran and New Hampshire Governor, Benjamin Pierce. The only President born in New Hampshire, Pierce grew up in the Granite State and went to school at Bowdoin College in Maine where his classmates included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the person who would become Pierce’s best friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne. After graduating from Bowdoin, Pierce practiced law in Hillsborough, New Hampshire before being elected to the New Hampshire General Court — the state legislature — in 1829.
Just 25 years old when he entered the statehouse, Pierce skyrocketed from there. At 27, he was elected Speaker of the General Court of New Hampshire. At 29, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives — at the time, Pierce was one of the youngest Congressmen elected in American History. In 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton, the sister-in-law of one of Pierce’s instructors at Bowdoin. Jane hated politics, but loved her husband and believed Pierce when he urged her that politics was a temporary phase in his young life.
She probably should have known better. The Pierces’ honeymoon was a trip to Washington, D.C. so Pierce could return to work representing New Hampshire in Congress. Their first home was a crowded boardinghouse in swampy Washington, D.C., a horse-trading post for politicians, as well as a city full of slaves and slaveowners — anathema to Jane, a New Englander. Jane didn’t last long in Washington; she returned to New Hampshire while Pierce served out his term in Congress. In 1836, Jane gave birth to their first child, but the infant died several days later and the Pierces were devastated by the loss.
Franklin remained in Washington and began drinking heavily. Always a social drinker, Pierce was well-known for being a fun companion. His company was well-regarded and sought out at parties and political events in Washington while Congress was in session. Along with being outgoing, Pierce had an addictive personality and an aversion to saying no. When he later became President, it was said that Pierce’s decision would match the argument of whoever the last person was to speak to him. In the heavy-drinking days of Jacksonian-era Washington, Pierce was not one to hold back. Some people even openly worried about whether Frank Pierce had a drinking problem.
Besides alcohol, Pierce was driven by his ambition. His grief over the child that he and Jane had lost was tempered by news that he had been elected to the United States Senate, taking office in 1837 at the age of just 32 years old. During his five years in the Senate, Pierce showed himself to be a strong Democrat and a “doughface” — a Northerner with Southern sympathies. Pierce voted with Southerners on many issues related to slavery and ignored the abolitionists who made up the majority of his constituency in New Hampshire. Pierce, however, was popular among people in New Hampshire and extremely popular among his colleagues in Congress. The young Senator was a rising star.
While his political career grew, his personal life was troubled. Pierce was blinded by ambition and accomplishments. His wife was frequently ill and her health became worse anytime she visited Pierce in Washington. As Pierce was making a name for himself in the Senate, Jane began wishing that he would leave politics altogether, worrying that if his workaholic manner didn’t kill him, his increasingly alcoholic lifestyle would. The birth of two children — Frank in 1839 and Benjamin in 1841 — helped Jane’s spirits, but also gave her a good platform on which to argue her case. After Bennie’s birth, Franklin Pierce caved in to his wife’s demand and promised to quit politics forever. In 1842, the 37-year-old Pierce resigned from the Senate and moved back to New Hampshire to practice law.
Jane was ecstatic, happy, and her health improved quickly upon Pierce’s return to New Hampshire. Pierce was depressed, but he kept his promise and even refrained from drinking for quite a while. The pull of politics was alluring. Pierce participated in local and state party politics, helping choose Democratic candidates in New Hampshire and even making speeches in support of candidates in districts throughout the state. Still, Pierce impressively turned down an appointment by the Governor to return to the U.S. Senate in 1845. Franklin and Jane’s son, Frank Robert, had died in 1843 and Pierce kept his promise to his wife. When President James K. Polk offered to nominate Pierce to join the Cabinet as Attorney General, Pierce turned Polk down, as well. Pierce continued practicing law and still kept his promise about not leaving to re-enter political life.
Instead, he went to war.
When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, Pierce immediately began working to gain a commission as a military officer. Jane, of course, didn’t know anything about it and would have strongly objected as Pierce the soldier was an even worse idea to her than Pierce the politician. When Pierce was offered to be commissioned as an infantry colonel, the ambitious future President held off on accepting the position — and on notifying his wife. When he was commissioned a brigadier general, he finally accepted — but still didn’t tell Jane, writing to his friend Congressman Edmund Burke, “My purpose is fixed…although I have not yet broached the subject with my wife.”
Pierce’s military record is blurry. His political opponents labeled him a “coward” and claimed that he fainted in battle, which he did. However, Pierce’s soldiers revered him and explained that his fainting came from a severe knee injury that Pierce ignored while leading his men and succumbed to during the battle, yet refused to allow his men to evacuate him to safety until the battle was over. When Pierce finally returned home to New Hampshire, it was with a reputation as a war hero — and war heroes tend to become political icons.
Pierce knew that he could easily be elected Governor of New Hampshire upon his return to the Granite State, but he promised his wife that he was done with politics, and he continued to resist breaking that promise. However, as happy as it was making his wife, it was tearing him apart. Still active in state and local politics, Pierce was jumping at any chance to be involved. He knew that he had promise as a politician, but he had the promise not to be a politician holding him back.
In 1852, Franklin Pierce could no longer resist.
As Democrats prepared to nominate a Presidential candidate in 1852, the New Hampshire Democratic Party put forth Franklin Pierce as a “favorite son” candidate. For the most part, favorite son candidates are not serious candidates. The favorite son is more of a parliamentary procedure, used to hold and shift delegates from one major candidate to another. Pierce wasn’t seen as a legitimate candidate for the Presidency. After all, he had been out of elective office for ten years and had shown no indication that he would re-enter public life due to his promise to his wife.
Along the way to the Democratic National Convention in June in Baltimore, Franklin Pierce worked quietly to break his promise and promote his candidacy. Jane had no idea what was going on, but Franklin Pierce was no longer sitting on the sidelines and he was no longer interested in being a place-holder for delegates. As the convention approached, Pierce was being touted as a potential compromise candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
The favorites in Baltimore were James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, and Stephen Douglas. On the first day of voting at the convention, no candidate was able to clinch the nomination. By the next night, the convention had held thirty-three ballots without agreeing on a nominee. Franklin Pierce sat at a telegraph office in Concord, New Hampshire and followed the deliberations of the convention as news was reported. The convention remained deadlocked for the next several days as Pierce nervously awaited word on whether his name had been introduced as a compromise.
On June 5, 1852, Franklin and Jane went for a carriage drive outside of Boston, where they had traveled the day before. Jane had no idea what was going on in Baltimore and Franklin didn’t let on that he had knowledge of anything unusual happening at the Democratic Convention. As the carriage was winding through the woods of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a messenger on a horse rode towards the Pierces. “Sir,” the rider exclaimed to Pierce, “the Democrats have nominated you for President!”. Pierce excitedly shouted his appreciation and smiled while his wife, who had no idea that her husband was a candidate for anything let alone the Presidency, fainted.
Pierce had become a compromise candidate at the Democratic convention — someone who everyone could unite behind once the major candidates became deadlocked. On the forty-ninth ballot, the exhausted delegates in Baltimore nominated Pierce for the Presidency. Jane openly prayed that he would be defeated, but Pierce faced his old Mexican War commander Winfield Scott, who was hindered by a weakened Whig Party. On election day, Pierce trounced General Scott, 254-42 in the electoral college.
Franklin Pierce’s victory in November 1852 was an astonishing rise for a dark horse compromise candidate who had been retired from national politics for the previous decade. In the Pierce Homestead, the change was stunning and Jane Pierce dreaded the fact that her family was now going to have to return to dreary Washington and become the center of the American political world. During the campaign, 11-year-old Bennie Pierce — the only surviving child of Franklin and Jane — wrote a letter to his mother. Bennie was doted on by his parents. Both Franklin and Jane had been genuinely devastated by the losses of their first two children — the infant Franklin Jr. in 1836 and four-year-old Frank Robert in 1843. In Bennie’s letter to Jane, he worried about the fact that his father might become President. “I hope he won’t be elected,” Bennie wrote, “for I should not like to be at Washington. And I know you would not be either.”
On January 6, 1853, the President-elect and his family were traveling on a train outside of Boston. The train derailed and rolled down a hill, but almost no passengers were injured — except for a young boy. Bennie Pierce was thrown from the car, nearly decapitated and killed when his head was crushed while his horrified parents watched. Jane Pierce took Bennie’s death as a sign that God was removing all distractions from her husband’s path so that he could focus on his duties as President. This did not help her feelings about political life. Franklin took Bennie’s death as a sign that God was punishing him. This did not help his depression or ability to govern.
Jane didn’t know that Franklin Pierce had broken his promise and willingly returned to politics. After his nomination by the Democrats, Franklin insisted that he was simply a compromise candidate and had no choice in the matter. After his election, Franklin claimed that it was his duty as a public servant and a patriot to fulfill the wishes of the American electorate and serve as their President. The week of Pierce’s inauguration, Jane found out that Pierce had broken his promise and outright lied to her. Not only had he re-entered political life, but had actively worked to earn the nomination and be elected President. Jane — already in precarious physical and mental health due to Bennie’s gruesome death — became bitter and angry at Franklin, directly blaming him for the death of their only child.
On March 4, 1853, Pierce was inaugurated as the 14th President of the United States. Pierce was the first President to ever “affirm” his oath of office rather than swear it, and placed his hand on a law book instead of the customary Bible. A strong speaker with a prodigious memory, Pierce was the only President in American History who memorized his Inaugural Address and spoke without notes. Addressing his personal tragedy, Pierce also foreshadowed an insecurity in his own abilities as he began his speech, “It is a relief that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.” In one of the more candid comments ever made in a President’s Inaugural Address, Pierce told his fellow Americans, “You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me by your strength.”
Pierce’s Inaugural Address, though, went on to set the tone for his Administration. Pierce, who was the son of a Revolutionary War veteran who fought for independence and someone who grew up in New England, the cradle of the abolitionist movement, clearly stated his support for the institution of slavery. “I believe,” Pierce said, “that involuntary servitude, as it exists in different States of this Confederacy, is recognized by the Constitution. I believe that it stands like any other admitted right…I fervently hope that the question (of slavery) is at rest.”
President Pierce built a Cabinet which was dominated by one of his closest friends — the Secretary of War, who happened to be future Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Pierce had a reputation for being pliant, and his support for Southern institutions made him deeply unpopular in his native North. As sectarian violence spread throughout the United States due to pro-slavery and free-soil advocates clashing over newly admitted territories, Pierce remained unmoved. A bloody mini-Civil War broke out between the opposing sides in the Kansas and Nebraska Territory, but Pierce did nothing, holding to his definition of federal power which limited government intervention in the matters of individual states.
While his nation was being torn apart, President Pierce’s home was a dark, gloomy place. If other First Ladies made their mark with their style and designs, Jane Pierce decorated the White House with melancholy. Dressing in her black mourning clothing throughout her husband’s term, Jane mainly stayed in an upstairs bedroom of the White House Residence, writing letters to her dead children and burning them in the fireplace. Most White House events were hosted not by Jane, but by Varina Davis, the wife of the Secretary of War and the future First Lady of the Confederacy. Pierce, for his part, barely tried to cheer his wife up. In fact, Pierce spent most of his Presidency depressed and fighting a losing battle against alcoholism.
In 1856, Pierce became the first — and, to this day, only — elected President in American History who was denied renomination by his own party. The Democrats knew that Pierce was deeply unpopular in the North and his support in the South wasn’t strong enough to carry him to victory throughout the rest of the country. Pierce had hoped to be renominated, but there was no chance. When he left office in 1857, the United States was in drastically worse shape than it had been upon his inauguration four years earlier.
When Pierce turned over the White House to his successor, James Buchanan, an observer noted that Pierce left office as “a staid and grave man, on whom the stamp of care and illness was ineradicably impressed.” Pierce put it more simply, saying that “There’s nothing left to do but to get drunk.” For a while, retirement wasn’t too bad. Pierce and Jane traveled to Europe and Jane’s health improved quite a bit from its low point during her time in the White House. Jane, however, died in 1863 and Pierce was lonely and bored.
Two friendships continued throughout his retirement. Pierce’s closest friend was the legendary author Nathaniel Hawthorne — a classmate at Bowdoin who wrote Pierce’s campaign biography in 1852 and was appointed U.S. Consul in Liverpool during his friend’s Presidency. After Pierce left the White House, Hawthorne remained loyal — even as Pierce’s popularity continued to plummet and the former President’s support for the Union was questioned. Pierce was at Hawthorne’s bedside when the author died in 1864 while he and Pierce were on vacation in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Pierce was devastated by his friend’s death and even more deeply hurt when Hawthorne’s family and friends refused to allow the unpopular former President to act as a pallbearer at Hawthorne’s funeral.
By the time of Hawthorne’s funeral, Pierce was practically despised in the North — even in his home state of New Hampshire. The famous abolitionist and author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, called Pierce an “archtraitor”. It wasn’t merely his “doughface” views that caused the hostility towards Pierce. The former President’s other closest friend was Jefferson Davis, the leading voice for Southern secession, Pierce’s Secretary of War, and the President of the Confederate States of America. Pierce and Davis had been friends for decades by the time the Civil War broke out, but the friendship continued throughout the war. In 1860, Pierce had recommended Davis for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
During the war itself, Union soldiers captured Davis’s plantation in Mississippi and found a trove of letters between Pierce and Davis. While Pierce remained loyal to the Union, he also largely blamed Northern abolitionists and agitators for secession and for the outbreak of violence. Pierce also heavily criticized Abraham Lincoln during the war, blasting the suspension of habeas corpus, and denouncing the Emancipation Proclamation as an interference “with states’ rights and the right of private property.” However, when Lincoln’s young son Willie died in the White House in 1862, Pierce wrote a heartfelt, extraordinary letter to Lincoln, commiserating with his fellow President as a father who lost a young child in a difficult time, “Even in this hour, so full of danger to our Country, and of trial and anxiety to all good men, your thoughts, will be, of your cherished boy, who will nestle at your heart, until you meet him in that new life, when tears and toils and conflict will be unknown.”
For the most part, Pierce drank. When Lincoln was assassinated, an angry mob gathered outside of Pierce’s home in Concord, New Hampshire. A similar mob had vandalized former President Millard Fillmore’s home in New York, claiming that Fillmore hadn’t shown enough tribute to the fallen President. The crowd outside of Pierce’s home challenged the former President and questioned his patriotism, inquiring where his American flag might be. In one last gasp of oratorical magic, the 60-year-old former President said that he didn’t need a flag to demonstrate loyalty as he had spent his entire life in public service and that was his demonstration. The crowd, impressed by Pierce’s passion, dispersed without further trouble.
In the last few years of his life, Franklin Pierce did nothing to rehabilitate his reputation. Pierce didn’t write a book or defend his record. His most public action after Lincoln’s assassination was a trip to Fortress Monroe in Virginia to visit his imprisoned friend, Jefferson Davis, and call for his release by Andrew Johnson. Largely forgotten and widely reviled, Pierce literally drank himself to death. On October 8, 1869, the 64-year-old former President died alone in his home in Concord, New Hampshire, a victim of chronic stomach inflammation and cirrhosis of the liver. Funeral services were quiet and he was buried next to his wife and three young children in Concord. It took nearly fifty years for his home state to recognize Franklin Pierce with a statue at the New Hampshire State Capitol. It wasn’t until 1946 that a granite memorial was placed at his grave. When he died, Franklin Pierce’s obituary wasn’t printed until the third page of The New York Times.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about his friend that, “He has in him many of the chief elements of a great ruler. His talents are administrative, he has a subtle faculty of making affairs roll onward according to his will, and of influencing their course without showing any trace of his action. There are scores of men in the country that seem brighter than he is, but he has the directing mind, and will move them about like pawns on a chess-board, and turn all their abilities to better purpose than they themselves could do.” Hawthorne, obviously, was too sympathetic. Theodore Roosevelt said that Pierce was “a small politician, of low capacity and mean surroundings, proud to act like a servile tool of men worse than himself but also stronger and abler.” That might be too harsh. Pierce’s obituary in the Times in 1869 may have put it best: “His place will not be missed by those actively engaged in political affairs, and although his record as a statesman cannot command the approbation of the nation, he still should be followed to the grave with that respect which is due to one who has filled the highest office in the gift of the people — a President of the United States.”
Franklin Pierce was a complex figure, consumed by ambition and crippled by personal obstacles, who was overmatched by the times that he was destined to preside over. His story, however, is fascinating and has slipped through the cracks of a history featuring giant personalities that were bigger than he could ever measure up against. Presidents come and go. They are good and bad, effective and incompetent, legends and failures. What’s important to remember, though, is that each of them was a person — an individual with triumphs and tragedies and real feelings that, in the case of Pierce, are almost unfathomable to us, especially in conjunction with the awesome responsibilities that come along with the position that they hold. Franklin Pierce is one of the most obscure Presidents in American History, but he held the same office as George Washington and is a member of the most exclusive fraternity in the history of the world. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that these guys are people — individuals just like you and I — and then you learn about obscure Franklin Pierce and you pull the thread and see all of the stories that are a part of him. And I don’t know about you, but that’s when I am most amazed by the power of history and the magnificence of the people who make history.
Two American Presidents woke up in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. Neither of them were the two men who actually served as President on that tragic day — John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson.
The 37th President of the United States, 50-year-old Richard Nixon, had arrived in Dallas on November 20th for a conference of the American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages on behalf of Pepsi-Cola, a company that his New York law firm was representing. On November 21st, Nixon sat down with reporters in his room at the Baker Hotel, where he criticized many of the policies of President Kennedy, his 1960 opponent, who would be arriving in Dallas the next day. That night, Nixon and Pepsi executives including actress Joan Crawford, who had been married to Pepsi’s chairman, Alfred Steele, until his death in 1959, were entertained at the Statler Hilton.
In the early morning of November 22nd, a car dropped Nixon off, alone, at Love Field, the Dallas airport that would host President and Mrs. Kennedy, Vice President Johnson and Mrs. Johnson, and Texas Governor John Connally and his wife in just a few hours. Nixon later remembered the flags and signs displayed along the motorcade route that Kennedy would soon follow. Nixon approached the American Airlines ticket counter to check-in for his flight to New York City and told the attendant, “It looks like you’re going to have a big day today.”
Nixon landed several hours later in New York at an airport that would be renamed after John F. Kennedy a month later. He described what happened next in his 1978 autobiography, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon:
Arriving in New York, I hailed a cab home. We drove through Queens toward the 59th Street Bridge, and as we stopped at a traffic light, a man rushed over from the curb and started talking to the driver. I heard him say, “Do you have a radio in your cab? I just heard that Kennedy was shot.” We had no radio, and as we continued into Manhattan a hundred thoughts rushed through my mind. The man could have been crazy or a macabre prankster. He could have been mistaken about what he had heard; or perhaps a gunman might have shot at Kennedy but missed or only wounded him. I refused to believe that he could have been killed.
As the cab drew up in front of my building, the doorman ran out. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. “Oh, Mr. Nixon, have you heard, sir?” he asked. “It’s just terrible. They’ve killed President Kennedy.”
The close 1960 Presidential election changed the relationship between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, but they had once been very close. When they first entered Congress together in 1947, they considered each other personal friends, and when Nixon ran for the Senate from California in 1950, JFK stopped into Nixon’s office and dropped off a financial contribution to Nixon’s campaign from Kennedy’s father. Nixon would later write that he felt as bad on the night of Kennedy’s assassination as he had when he lost two brothers to tuberculosis when he was very young. That night, he wrote an emotional letter to Jacqueline Kennedy:
In this tragic hour Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you.
While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947. That friendship evidenced itself in many ways including the invitation we received to attend your wedding.
Nothing I could say now could add to the splendid tributes which have come from throughout the world to him.
But I want you to know that the nation will also be forever grateful for your service as First Lady. You brought to the White House charm, beauty and elegance as the official hostess of America, and the mystique of the young in heart which was uniquely yours made an indelible impression on the American consciousness.
If in the days ahead we could be helpful in any way we shall be honored to be at your command.
On the morning of November 22, 1963, the 41st President of the United States also woke up in Dallas, Texas. George Herbert Walker Bush was the 39-year-old president of the Zapata Off-Shore Drilling Company and chairman of the Harris County, Texas Republican Party, and had stayed the night of November 21st at the Dallas Sheraton alongside his wife, Barbara. Bush was planning a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and making the rounds to line up support amongst many Texans who considered him far too moderate. One of the groups that was strongest in opposition to Bush was the ultra-right wing John Birch Society, which had recently been lodging vehement protests against President Kennedy’s upcoming visit to Dallas.
Conspiracy theorists claim that there were far more sinister motives for George Bush being in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Some claim that Bush was a secret CIA operative involved in planning or even carrying out the assassination of President Kennedy. Some even argue that a grainy photograph of a man resembling Bush taken shortly after the assassination proves that Bush was actually in Dealey Plaza at the time of Kennedy’s shooting.
He wasn’t. He wasn’t even in Dallas. We know where George Herbert Walker Bush was at the time of JFK’s assassination — we have plenty of eyewitnesses who can confirm it. While Lee Harvey Oswald was shooting President Kennedy, George Bush was about 100 miles away from Dallas, in Tyler, Texas, speaking at a Kiwanis Club luncheon. Like Nixon, Bush and his wife, Barbara, had also boarded a plane that morning in Dallas — a private plane that transported them to Tyler for the Kiwanis Club event. While Bush was speaking, word of the President’s assassination reached the luncheon and the local club president, Wendell Cherry, leaned over and gave the news to Bush. Bush quickly notified the crowd, and said, “In view of the President’s death, I consider it inappropriate to continue with a political speech at this time.” He ended his speech and sat down while the luncheon broke up in stunned silence.
Bush’s wife, Barbara, wasn’t at the Kiwanis Club luncheon. While her husband was speaking, Barbara Bush went to a beauty parlor in Tyler to get her hair styled. As her hair was being done, Barbara began writing a letter to family and heard the news over the radio that JFK had been shot and then that the President had died. In her 1994 memoir, Barbara included the letter, part of which said:
I am writing this at the Beauty Parlor, and the radio says that the President has been shot. Oh Texas — my Texas — my God — let’s hope it’s not true. I am sick at heart as we all are. Yes, the story is true and the Governor also. How hateful some people are.
Since, the beauty parlor, the President has died. We are once again on a plane. This time a commercial plane. Poppy (George H.W. Bush’s family nickname) picked me up at the beauty parlor — we went right to the airport, flew to Ft. Worth and dropped Mr. Zeppo off (we were on his plane) and flew back to Dallas. We had to circle the field while the second Presidential plane took off. Immediately, Pop got tickets back to Houston, and here we are flying home. We are sick at heart. The tales the radio reporters tell of Jackie Kennedy are the bravest. We are hoping that it is not some far-right nut, but a “commie” nut. You understand that we know they are both nuts, but just hope that it is not a Texan and not an American at all.
I am amazed by the rapid-fire thinking and planning that has already been done. LBJ has been the President for some time now — two hours at least and it is only 4:30.
My dearest love to you all,
As Barbara Bush noted in her letter, the Bushes did not stay another night at the Dallas Sheraton on November 22nd, as they had originally planned. They returned to Dallas on the private jet that had transported them to Tyler earlier in the day, and caught a commercial flight home to Houston. The “second Presidential plane” that took off while Bush’s plane circled Love Field was the plane that had transported Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to Dallas earlier that day, Air Force Two. Johnson was already heading back to Washington, now on Air Force One, with the casket of John F. Kennedy.
The 37th President of the United States and the 41st President of the United States woke up in Dallas, Texas on the morning of November 22, 1963. The 31st President, 89-year-old Herbert Hoover, was in failing health in the elegant suite he called home at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. Within the next few weeks, he would be visited by the new President, Lyndon Johnson, and President Kennedy’s grieving widow, Jackie, and the President’s brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. The 33rd President, 79-year-old Harry Truman, learned of JFK’s death in Missouri, while the 34th President, 73-year-old Dwight D. Eisenhower, heard of the assassination while attending a meeting at the United Nations in New York. Truman and Eisenhower would squash a long, bitter personal feud that weekend while attending Kennedy’s funeral in Washington. The 38th President, 50-year-old Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford, was driving home with his wife Betty after attending a parent conference with their son Jack’s teacher when they heard the news on the radio in their car. Two days later, President Johnson would call on Ford to serve on the Warren Commission investigating the assassination.
The 39th President, Jimmy Carter was 39 years old and had just gotten off a tractor near the warehouse of his Plains, Georgia peanut farm when a group of farmers informed him of the news of the shooting. Carter found a quiet area, kneeled down in prayer, and when he heard that Kennedy had died, cried for the first time since his father had died ten years earlier. Ronald Reagan, the 40th President, was 52 years old and preparing for a run as Governor of California. A little more than 17 years later, the now-President Reagan would also be shot by a lone gunman in the middle of the day. While Reagan would survive the attempt on his life, it was very nearly fatal and reminded his wife, Nancy, of November 22, 1963. As she was transported to George Washington Hospital following Reagan’s shooting, Nancy would later note, “As my mind raced, I flashed to scenes of Parkland Memorial Hospital in Texas, and the day President Kennedy was shot. I had been driving down San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles when a bulletin came over the car radio. Now, more than seventeen years later, I prayed that history would not be repeated, that Washington would not become another Dallas. That my husband would live.”
The 41st President, Bill Clinton, and the 43rd President, George W. Bush, were both 17 years old and in school — Bush at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and Clinton at Hot Springs High School in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Clinton was in his fourth period calculus class when his teacher was called out of the room and returned to announce that President Kennedy had been killed. Four months earlier, Clinton had traveled to Washington with the Boys Nation program and, during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House, pushed his way to the front of the line and shook President Kennedy’s hand. The 44th President, Barack Obama, was a 2-year-old living in Hawaii.
The 35th President, 46-year-old John F. Kennedy, would die in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Lyndon B. Johnson, 55, would become the 36th President in Dallas that day. But they woke up that morning in Fort Worth at the Texas Hotel. Kennedy had slept the last night of his life in suite 850 on the eighth floor, now the Presidential suite. LBJ had slept the last night of his Vice Presidency in the much more expensive and elegant Will Rogers Suite on the thirteenth floor. The Secret Service had vetoed the Will Rogers Suite for the President because it was more difficult to secure. It was raining in Fort Worth as they woke up, but the skies had cleared by the time they landed in Dallas. Before breakfast, President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and Texas Governor John Connally headed outside and briefly addressed a crowd that had gathered long before the sun had come up in hopes of seeing JFK. Jacqueline Kennedy didn’t accompany them outside and President Kennedy joked to the crowd, “Mrs. Kennedy is organizing herself. It takes her a little longer but, of course, she looks better than we do when she does it.”
Afterward, they headed inside for breakfast in the Texas Hotel’s Grand Ballroom with several hundred guests. The President sent for Mrs. Kennedy to join them, and her late arrival to the breakfast excited the guests in the ballroom. When the President spoke to the group, he joked again, “Two years ago I introduced myself in Paris as the man who had accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris. I’m getting somewhat that same sensation as I travel around Texas.” Then he noted, “Nobody wonders what Lyndon and I wear.”
When the breakfast ended, the Kennedys headed upstairs and had an hour or so to wait before heading to the airport for the short flight to Dallas. It was during this time that Jackie Kennedy saw a hateful ad placed in that morning’s Dallas Morning News accusing President Kennedy of collusion with Communists and treasnous activity. Trying to calm Jackie down, the President joked, “Oh, we’re heading into nut country today.” But a few minutes later, Jackie overheard Kennedy telling his aide, Ken O’Donnell, “It would not be a very difficult job to shoot the President of the United States. All you’d have to do is get up in a high building with a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight, and there’s nothing anybody can do.”
Even though the trip from Fort Worth’s Carswell Air Force Base to Dallas’s Love Field would only take thirteen minutes by air, the trip to Texas was first-and-foremost a political trip — a kickoff of sorts to JFK’s 1964 re-election campaign — and a grand entrance was needed. So, JFK and Jackie boarded the plane usually used as Air Force One, LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson boarded the plane usually used by the Vice President, Air Force Two, and the huge Presidential party took to the skies, covering thirty miles in thirteen minutes, in order to get the big Dallas welcome that they were hoping for. They landed in Dallas at 11:40 AM, and President Kennedy looked out the window of his plane, saw a big, happy crowd, and told Ken O’Donnell, “This trip is turning out to be terrific. Here we are in Dallas, and it looks like everything in Texas is going to be fine for us.”
At 2:47 PM — just three hours and seven minutes later — everyone was back on Air Force One as the plane climbed off of the Love Field runway and into the Dallas sky. John F. Kennedy, the 35th President, was in a casket wedged into a space in the rear of Air Force One where two rows of seats had been removed so that it would be fit. Lyndon B. Johnson had officially been sworn in as the 36th President about ten minutes earlier on the plane by federal judge Sarah T. Hughes. On one side of Johnson while he took the oath was his wife, Lady Bird, and on the other side, the widowed former First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, still wearing a pink dress splattered with her husband’s blood and brain matter.
Two American Presidents woke up in Dallas on November 22, 1963 — Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush — but they weren’t in town when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, no matter how many ways conspiracy theorists try to twist the story. The President who died in Dallas that day, John F. Kennedy, and the man who became President in Dallas that day, Lyndon B. Johnson, woke up in Fort Worth on the morning of November 22, 1963. But they’ll be forever linked with Dallas — and the world that woke up the next morning would never be the same again.
Thank you very much, I appreciate it.
I’ve also been into Presidential history since the days of flipping through picture books and for as long as I’ve been able to read. In fact, I’ve mentioned it before, but one of the books that really solidified my interest in the Presidents was a book about the JFK assassination that I got when I was in 2nd grade and that I still have in my personal library today:
As for your question, yes, I have written about the remarkable trip to Cairo by former Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter to attend the funeral of assassinated Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat. However, I haven’t published that piece, so you won’t find it anywhere online.
Over the past few years, I’ve written and published a lot of essays — some of which are lengthy, feature-length articles and some of which are shorter stories — and many of those pieces can be found via the Original Essays index page on the Dead Presidents homepage. But the main goal for a while has been to publish a book featuring a collection of my very best essays on the Presidents and Presidency. Publishers don’t tend to like putting out books consisting solely of work that’s already been given away for free, so I’ve written a significant number of essays that will remain unreleased until my book is published so that the book contains exclusive material along with the most popular pieces of my work that have already been seen here on Dead Presidents. My essay on the Nixon/Ford/Carter trip to Sadat’s funeral is one of those unreleased pieces that will see the light of day once my book is published.
It is definitely a fascinating story, though! The trip to the Sadat funeral and the security risks that worried the Secret Service are alone enough to make it an interesting read. But there’s also the fact that it was really Nixon’s first “official” duties since his resignation and exile; the fact that Ford and Carter still had some animosity over the 1976 campaign but struck up their long-lasting friendship on the trip home; the fact that Nixon didn’t return home with Ford and Carter but instead continued on his own international tour which irked the Reagan White House; and the really surprising fact that, on the tense flight to Egypt, as the American delegation eyed each other warily, it was the notoriously aloof Nixon who broke the ice and basically relaxed everybody.
The whole deal is definitely a captivating story for many different reasons. Hopefully, my book will be published sooner rather than later so that I can share my account of it!
If no candidate receives the required majority in the Electoral College to become President and the election is sent to the House of Representatives, the first thing to understand is that the votes are not cast individually. Instead, the vote is decided by state delegations (whose individual members of Congress vote as a block), and resolving the undecided election would require an absolute majority of states (at least 26) in order for a candidate to be elected.
So, to break it down more: there are 435 individual members of the House of Representatives, but in the case of an undecided election of the President that is thrown into the House for a resolution, the members don’t cast individual votes. Instead, they gather in their respective state delegations and cast their votes within their state’s caucus — the candidate who wins the majority of votes within the state delegation, “wins” that state. Once a candidate wins an absolute majority of state delegations that candidate is elected President.
Now, there are, of course, 50 states, so what happens if the votes of the state delegations are split 25-25 and we still have no winner? We simply take another ballot. And, if necessary, another and another and another… The voting in the House of Representatives continues on-and-on until a candidate finally wins a majority of state delegations. It’s like a Papal Conclave — we must have a winner! — without the world’s most low-tech method of excitement: the fumata bianca.
A few more important particulars to note if a Presidential election is thrown into the House of Representatives because nobody won a majority of Electoral votes:
•The House must choose between the leading Presidential candidates who received Electoral votes, they can’t just plug anyone that they want in there. Of course, this is usually just two candidates. However, the last time the election was decided by the House (1824), there were four candidates who split the Electoral vote: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay. In such a case, the House is limited to deciding between the top three vote-getters in the original Electoral College tally.
•Advances in technology and transportation has all but eliminated the possibility of state delegations being absent from the proceedings, but it is mandatory for at least 2/3 of the state delegations to be present in order for the House to decide the election.
•All other Congressional business takes a backseat to an undecided Presidential election thrown into the House. The House begins voting as quickly as possible and continues until there is a winner who qualifies.
•If we reach Inauguration Day and still don’t have a President-elect, the person who won an Electoral College majority as Vice President becomes President. If there is also no Vice President-elect, the House how and who to choose the person who will become Acting President until somebody qualifies as President. (An undecided Vice Presidential election is resolved by the U.S. Senate.)
The House of Representatives has decided two Presidential election — most famously the aforementioned 1824 election in which Andrew Jackson won a plurality of Electoral votes against John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay, but lacked the required majority necessary to clinch the Presidency. The House ended up electing John Quincy Adams, a result that Jackson and his supporters chalked up to a “Corrupt Bargain” between JQA and Henry Clay, who became Secretary of State under President Adams.
The first election decided by the House was the 1800 campaign. At the time, the top vote-getter in the Electoral College was elected President and the person who finished second was elected Vice President. While there was no official designation between the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, going into the 1800 campaign, Democratic-Republicans unofficially saw Thomas Jefferson as the Presidential candidate and Aaron Burr as the Vice Presidential candidate. When Jefferson and Burr ended up tied in the Electoral College, Burr saw an opportunity to snatch the Presidency up for himself, decided not to step aside for Jefferson, and the election was thrown into the House. Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist leader, had issues with both Jefferson and Burr, but he hated Jefferson just a little bit less than Burr. Hamilton influenced the Federalist support in Congress that Jefferson needed to clinch the Presidency and Burr ended up as Vice President. As we all know, Burr never forgot Hamilton’s role in costing him the Presidency and he ended up killing Hamilton in a duel while still Vice President of the United States.
Incidentally, just in case anybody was wondering, a Vice Presidential election has only been thrown into the Senate for a decision on one occasion — 1836. Richard Mentor Johnson had been a staunch supporter of Andrew Jackson and the outgoing President Jackson wanted to reward him. While Jackson had almost seemingly handpicked Martin Van Buren as his chosen successor in 1836, Old Hickory definitely chose Johnson as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate that year, insisting that the Democratic National Convention nominate Johnson as VP. The Democrats nominated Johnson as Van Buren’s running mate, but Johnson was extremely unpopular in the South. Despite being from Kentucky, Johnson openly kept a former slave as his common-law wife and raised their mixed-race children as white, free, and legitimate. Many Southerners of his own party steadfastly refused to support Johnson’s candidacy for Vice President even as they supported Van Buren for President. This led to four candidates splitting the vote for Vice President in the Electoral College — Richard M. Johnson, John Tyler, Francis Granger, and William Smith. While Johnson had a solid plurality of Electoral votes for VP, he lacked the majority required for election that Van Buren had won as President.
In the case of a Presidential election deadlocked in the Electoral College, the House settles the dispute by a vote between the top three vote-getters, at most. When a deadlocked Vice Presidential election is decided by the U.S. Senate, only the top two contenders in the Electoral College are considered. So, the undecided election for Vice President in 1836 came down to Johnson and Granger, and Andrew Jackson was happy to see the Senate elect his choice for VP, Richard Mentor Johnson, to join his chosen successor as President, Martin Van Buren.
(Four years later, neither President Van Buren or Vice President Johnson were as lucky. The Democrats renominated Van Buren, but Southerners were no longer the only opposition to the scandalous Richard Mentor Johnson. At the Democratic Convention in 1840, Democrats refused to renominate Johnson, Van Buren refused to nominate another VP, and Van Buren headed into the general election season without a running mate. Still hoping to continue in the job, Johnson simply campaigned for VP on his own and ended up as President Van Buren’s de facto running mate. Johnson’s presence or absence had no discernible impact on the campaign — no matter who his running mate was, the incumbent President Van Buren was trounced on Election Day by Whig candidate William Henry Harrison.)