If experience counts, then the two Presidents right before the Civil War should have been great leaders, and the President during the Civil War should have been a poor one. But it was just the opposite.
Franklin Pierce was a boy wonder in politics. He graduated college at 20, and had his own law practice three years later. Two years later, in 1829, he was elected to the state legislature, and was the youngest member. In 1832, he was elected Speaker of the state legislature, the youngest ever. Later that year, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, again the youngest member at the time. He served in the 23rd and 24th Congresses (1833-1837). In 1836, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, again the youngest member at the time. He served in the Senate from March 4, 1837 until his resignation on February 28, 1842. Before his resignation, he was the chairman of the Committee on Pensions, an important committee for gaining political favor with the voters.
Pierce had married Jane Means Appleton, who suffered from “melancholy” as it was termed in those days. She was given to periods of depression that sometimes became acute. She hated living in Washington, and finally got Franklin to resign and move back to New Hampshire. She also secured his promise to never again run for office, so that she would never have to leave New Hampshire again. He resumed his law practice and declined an appointment to become Attorney-General under President Polk. He did volunteer and serve in the Mexican War, becoming a brigadier general. He later served as President of the New Hampshire Constitutional Convention, and was active in state politics.
In 1850, he accomplished a feat of political leadership and maneuvering unheard of before then. He opposed his own party’s nominee for Governor that year because the man kept raising the slavery issue, which Democrats wanted to ignore. Pierce led the move to get his own party’s candidate removed from the ticket and replaced with a man of Pierce’s choosing. He then managed the campaign, and his candidate won even though he had been nominated only weeks before the election. This gained him national attention, especially in the South, and he was nominated for President the next year.
In spite of all his experience, Pierce proved a weak and indecisive leader. During his term, the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened the slavery issue and led to a minor civil war known as “Bleeding Kansas.” He was such a poor leader in a time when strong leadership was needed, that his own party refused to re-nominate him. To this day, he is the only elected President to be denied re-nomination by his party.
Pierce lost the nomination to his Minister to the Court of St. James (Great Britain), James Buchanan. After serving in the state legislature, Buchanan had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served from March 4, 1821 until March 3, 1831. During that time, he served as chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, a very important assignment. He then served as the U.S. Minister to Russia from 1832-1834. He returned, and was elected to the U.S. Senate to fill a vacancy caused by the death of James Peck. He was re-elected to full terms in 1837 and 1843. He served in the Senate from December 6, 1834 until he resigned on March 5, 1845 to join the cabinet. In the Senate, he was the chairman of the important and prestigious Foreign Relations Committee. He resigned from the Senate to take the post of Secretary of State under President James K. Polk. After that, he served as Minister to the Court of St. James (Great Britain) under President Franklin Pierce.
As President, James Buchanan felt that no state had the right to leave the Union, but that the federal government had no right to use force to prevent a state from leaving. This resulted in a paralysed government that took no action to prevent the coming conflict. Buchanan, for all his experience, did little more than watch helplessly as the Union broke apart.
Abraham Lincoln had almost no experience prior to his inauguration as President. He had served in his state legislature, and just one two-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Elected as a Whig to the 30th Congress, he served in the House of Representatives from March 4, 1847 until March 3, 1849. He was mainly known for opposing the Mexican War, and left little mark on Washington during his term. Lincoln did make one memorable speech during his term. On July 27, 1848, Lincoln made a speech about the Democratic Presidential nominee, Lewis Cass. The Democrats had been trying to build up Cass as a military hero in the War of 1812. Lincoln’s speech examined Cass’ military record in a humorous and unflattering light.
Lincoln started making a point from far up one of the aisles, moving down the aisle until he finished in the well in front of the clerk’s desk. He then mounted to the top of another aisle, and did the same thing. He kept the House in such laughter, that no record of the speech was made, and so is lost to history. The Baltimore American said that Lincoln was “a very able, acute, uncouth, honest, upright man, and a tremendous wag withal” and described the result of his speech (since they could not reprint the actual speech itself) saying that he “kept the House in a continuous uproar of merriment for the last half hour of his capital speech.”
In spite of his almost complete lack of experience in national politics, Lincoln turned out to be a strong leader and a great President. He had political abilities of the highest order, which he used to keep the nation together during the dark days of the Civil War. These three men prove that Congressional experience is not necessarily a predictor of Presidential success.