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Five Amazing Facts About Franklin Pierce (in honor of his 203rd birthday)

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

by David Holzel

Here are five fun and possibly amazing facts about the man they called "Young Hickory of the Granite Hills."

1. He is America's most obscure president.

One in a series of forgettable mid-19th-century presidents, Pierce, who served from 1853-1857, is arguably the most forgettable. Thirteenth president Millard Fillmore is generally regarded as America's least-known president. That is a distinction Franklin Pierce lacks, making him even more obscure than Fillmore.

2. He may not have hit that woman with his carriage.

Pierce was denied renomination by the Democratic Party in 1856 (the only elected president to have been rejected so out of hand). After being given the heave-ho, he has widely been quoted as telling a friend, "There is nothing left to do but get drunk."

While many of us in the same position would stop at the nearest tavern for a session of Beer Pong, the story sounds apocryphal. Presidential historian Paul Boller repeats the quotation in his book, Presidential Diversions (Harcourt, 2007). When I asked him about it, he said Pierce must have been joking.

Pierce unquestionably drank heavily during certain periods of his life, and alcoholism contributed to or caused his death. But he didn't make a habit of announcing it.

Another story—that Pierce ran over an elderly woman with his carriage—is almost certainly false, according to historian Peter Wallner, author of Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union.

"The fact that there are no newspaper stories about the accident and it wasn't mentioned in any correspondence convinced me that it probably didn't happen," Wallner told me.

3. He took on the mob. Or at least a mob.

As a staunch Democrat and believer in following the strict meaning of the Constitution, Pierce was an outspoken critic of the Civil War as prosecuted by Republican Abraham Lincoln, whose approach to constitutional freedoms was more free-form. After Lincoln was assassinated, a group of citizens in Pierce's hometown of Concord, N.H., gathered on the street to express their grief and to confront neighbors who were not displaying the flag in that moment of national tragedy.

Eventually some 200-400 Concordians reached Pierce's house and, as Wallner recounts in Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union, demanded to know where the former president was keeping his flag.

"It is not necessary for me to show my devotion for the stars and stripes," Pierce replied testily, and then reiterated his patriotic bona fides by recalling his ancestors' participation in the Revolution and the War of 1812, and his own 35-year service to New Hampshire and the nation.

Whether he swayed the crowd with his oratory, or just wore them down, the mob gave Pierce three cheers and dispersed without burning his house down.

4. He was a better ex-president.

Like Jimmy Carter, Pierce was a better ex-president than president, if for no other reason than he no longer was in office. He spent much of his time tending to his wife, Jane, who was dying slowly of tuberculosis. The couple spent the winter of 1857-58 in the Portuguese islands of Madeira, where they studied French in anticipation of a tour of the continent.

Their European travels during 1858-59 took them to Switzerland and Italy, Paris, and London. Once back in the USA, Pierce busied himself by purchasing various pieces of property in his home state of New Hampshire.

He also kept up a steady stream of political correspondence and, before he and Jane left to spend the winter of 1859-60 in the Bahamas, Pierce wrote to his former secretary of war, Jefferson Davis, urging him to be the Democratic Party's "standard bearer in 1860," according to Wallner. Jane Pierce died on Dec. 2, 1863, at age 57.

5. He perfected the comb-over.

Pierce had some of the finest hair of any U.S. president. One witness described it approvingly as a "mass of curly black hair combed on a deep slant over his wide forehead." And that was after viewing Pierce's body in state after his death in 1869.

Yet that mass of curls may have been an act of misdirection away from the truth that deep slant hinted at. In an 1862 photograph, Pierce's hair in profile appears to exist on two levels "above, the hair combed on a deep slant, and below, a small patch at the front and center of his wide forehead."

Pierce's hair unquestionably is a subject for future historians to wrestle with.

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10 Facts About Dwight D. Eisenhower
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Fox Photos/Getty Images

One of the most popular U.S. presidents in history, Dwight David Eisenhower won the presidency twice on the back of national adoration for his leadership in WWII as General of the Army. Eisenhower served as president from 1953 to 1961, during which time he significantly expanded the highway system, created NASA, and put five justices on the Supreme Court. Here are 10 facts about the Ike we like.

1. HIS BIRTH NAME WAS SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT, AND MIGHT HAVE BEEN CONFUSING.

We all recognize him as Dwight D. Eisenhower, but his birth name was David Dwight. The future president shared his father’s first name, but wasn't called a "junior" because he had a different middle name. Instead, his mother inverted the two monikers to avoid the confusion of having two Davids in one house and of having people mistakenly calling him "junior." His high school yearbook (and their family’s Bible) has his name written as David Dwight.

2. “IKE” IS THE ENTIRE FAMILY’S NICKNAME.

Speaking of names, it’s easy to assume that his nickname (as in “I like Ike”) came from his first name. But the nickname stems from Eisenhower, and it’s the nickname the whole family went by. All seven Eisenhower boys used it (Edgar was “Big Ike” while Dwight was actually “Little Ike”). Dwight was the only one still using the nickname by WWII.

3. HE NAMED CAMP DAVID AFTER HIS GRANDSON.

The Presidential getaway in Maryland was called “Shangri-La” by President Franklin Roosevelt after it was converted from a WPA-built government employee camp to a working retreat for the commander-in-chief. In 1953, Eisenhower renamed it Camp David, honoring both his father, David Jacob, and his 5-year-old grandson, Dwight David. It would later be the location of Eisenhower's meeting with Soviet Union head Nikita Khrushchev to discuss the Cold War in 1959.

4. HE QUIT SMOKING BY SURROUNDING HIMSELF WITH CIGARETTES.

Eisenhower smoked three or four packs of cigarettes a day, picking up the habit while he was a student at West Point and quitting only a few years before he became President. His initial attempt involved excising tobacco and the related accoutrements from his daily life, but it didn’t work, so he went in the other direction. “I decided to make a game of the whole business and try to achieve a feeling of some superiority when I saw others smoking while I no longer did,” he said. The politician crammed cigarettes and lighters into every nook of his office. “I made it a practice to offer a cigarette to anyone who came in and I lighted each while mentally reminding myself as I sat down, ‘I don’t have to do what that poor fellow is doing.’"

5. BOTH PARTIES WANTED HIM TO RUN FOR PRESIDENT.

In 1945, President Truman began nudging Eisenhower toward running for president, and two years later, promised to be his running mate on the Democratic ticket in the 1948 election. Eisenhower refused, claiming he had no ambition for the job, but by the 1952 election, both parties were begging him to be their candidate. The public didn’t know Eisenhower’s party affiliation until he declared himself a Republican in 1951, at which time the “Draft Eisenhower” efforts resumed and intensified on the GOP side. In January 1952, Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. submitted Eisenhower’s name to the New Hampshire Republican primary without Eisenhower’s permission, which forced the general to make a public statement. He declared that he wasn’t actively seeking the nomination, but that he’d serve if asked. After 25,000 showed up for a rally at Madison Square Garden and Eisenhower bested far right Senator Robert Taft in the New Hampshire primary, Eisenhower announced an official candidacy, saying, “Any American who would have that many other Americans pay him that compliment would be proud or he would not be an American.”

It turns out the Democrats were doomed as soon as Eisenhower said he was a Republican. He won against Adlai Stevenson in a 442 to 89 landslide. Not bad, considering he beat Stevenson again in 1956, 457 electoral votes to 73.

6. HE PRESIDED OVER DESEGREGATING THE MILITARY AND THE SCHOOLS.

President Truman started the process of desegregating the military in 1948, but President Eisenhower completed it by actively campaigning, using budgets as leverage, and declaring racial discrimination a national security issue. In a bold move, Eisenhower also briefly federalized the Arkansas National Guard and committed the 101st Airborne Division to protect nine black students as they attended, for the first time since Reconstruction, an all-white school in Little Rock after Governor Orval Faubus refused to comply with the desegregating court order handed down in Brown v. Board of Education.

7. ALASKA AND HAWAII BECAME STATES UNDER HIS WATCH.

After Arizona was admitted to the Union in 1912, the United States went 47 years with 48 stars on the flag. The United States had purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867 and annexed Hawaii in 1898, but it took Eisenhower campaigning on the issue of statehood and the right Congressional environment for both to make the leap from territory to state. Congress thought Alaska, with its oil riches, should come first, but Eisenhower was worried the new state would disrupt his plans to set up military installations close to Soviet Russia. Congress won out. Alaska was admitted January 3, 1959, and Hawaii eight months later on August 21.

8. HE WAS THE FIRST PRESIDENT CONSTITUTIONALLY PREVENTED FROM SEEKING A THIRD TERM.

Until Franklin Roosevelt, no President served more than two terms, but the man who dragged the United States out of the Depression and on to victory in WWII was elected to serve four. The Twenty-second Amendment was congressionally approved on March 24, 1947, in direct response to his electoral success. The states didn’t complete the ratification process until February 27, 1951. Since it passed while he was in office, President Harry Truman was grandfathered in (although it didn’t matter because he was profoundly unpopular by the end of his second term), so President Eisenhower became the first to be affected by the amendment. He was also the first to be affected by the Former Presidents Act, which gave him a lifetime pension, paid staff, and security detail.

9. HE LEFT ACTIVE DUTY TO BECOME PRESIDENT AND RETURNED TO ACTIVE DUTY WHEN HIS TERM WAS OVER.

Though he never saw active combat, Eisenhower’s military career spanned WWI and WWII. After graduating from West Point he served in logistics and, later, infantry units located stateside, and after the United States entered WWI, he trained tank crews in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He languished after the war, spending 12 years as a major, but he also served as chief military aide to then-Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur, and acted as commanding officer for the 15th Infantry at Fort Lewis and chief of staff to then-Commander of the Third Army General Walter Krueger during his climb up the promotion ladder to Colonel. By the attack on Pearl Harbor, Eisenhower was already a Brigadier General (one star) in a command role that would have kept him far from the battlefield.

Still, Eisenhower was one of only nine Americans to reach the five-star rank as General of the Army, the second-highest possible Army rank. As a rule, Generals of the Army never retire but remain on active duty status until they die. That's why President John F. Kennedy signed a Public Law on March 22, 1961 returning Eisenhower to active duty at his five-star rank following Ike’s presidential service. You may have seen the insignia of the General of the Army (five stars in the shape of the star) posted on highway signs commemorating Eisenhower’s military service and infrastructure expansion.

10. HE MADE OVER 200 PAINTINGS.

After showing interest in the craft when his wife Mamie sat for a portrait, then-president of Columbia University Eisenhower received a paint kit from the artist Thomas E. Stephens. Still, it wasn’t until he was 58 (and when Winston Churchill encouraged him) that Eisenhower took up painting seriously as a hobby. The former President made at least 250 paintings, but had a self-deprecating sense about his art. At an exhibition of his work at the Huntington Hartford Museum in 1967, a reporter asked Eisenhower about the symbolism of one of the works. Eisenhower replied, “They would have burned this sh*t a long time ago if I weren’t the President of the United States.”

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Big Questions
Can a Person Refuse a Presidential Pardon?
Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Presidential pardons have been in the news lately, which has led to an onslaught of questions about just how far a president's pardoning powers extend—and what would happen if the person being offered the pardon declined it altogether? Is such a thing even possible, or does the pardoned individual in question have no choice in the matter? Believe it or not, it's an issue that has come up a few times over the past two centuries—and the answer isn't exactly a clear-cut one.

To fully answer the question, first an important distinction has to be made between commutation and pardoning. Both are part of the pardoning powers given to the president, but differ in levels. Speaking to ABC News, Randy Barnett, a professor at Georgetown University, explained that "Pardon is an 'executive forgiveness of crime'; commutation is an ‘executive lowering of the penalty.'" And the answer to the question depends on that distinction.

UNITED STATES V. WILSON

In 1833 the Supreme Court heard the case of the United States v. George Wilson. On May 27, 1830, Wilson and co-conspirator James Porter were both sentenced to death after being convicted of robbing a U.S. postal worker and putting the carrier’s life in jeopardy. While Porter was executed just over a month later, on July 2, 1830, Wilson managed to escape the sentence. President Andrew Jackson decided to pardon Wilson for the death penalty charge on the understanding that he had yet to be sentenced for other crimes (for which he was looking at a minimum of 20 years). For some reason Wilson waived the pardon, possibly because of confusion about what case he was being tried for at the time and what cases the pardon was for.

In 1833, the Supreme Court ultimately weighed in on the issue, ruling “A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered, and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.” (Strangely, the details of whether or not Wilson was ever executed are lost to time.)

BURDICK V. UNITED STATES

This right of refusal was affirmed in 1915. George Burdick, city editor of the New York Tribune, refused to testify regarding sources for articles on alleged custom fraud by invoking his Fifth Amendment rights [PDF]. President Woodrow Wilson then gave a pardon to Burdick, protecting him from any charge he may incriminate himself of during his testimony. The idea behind the pardon was to force Burdick to testify, under the theory that he could no longer be convicted for any acts he may reveal. But Burdick rejected the pardon, continued to invoke his rights, and was found guilty of contempt.

The Supreme Court ruled that Burdick was within his rights to refuse the pardon and as such he did not lose his Fifth Amendment rights.

BIDDLE V. PEROVICH

A 1927 ruling added a new wrinkle to the pardoning issue. In 1905, Vuco Perovich was sentenced to hang for murder, which President Taft commuted to life imprisonment a few years later. Perovich was then transferred from Alaska to Washington, and later to Leavenworth. Perovich eventually filed an application for writ of habeas corpus, claiming that his commutation was done without his consent. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that "the convict’s consent is not required."

This ruling has led decades of legal scholars to wonder if the Perovich ruling overturned these earlier cases, with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. arguing “Whether these words sound the death knell of the acceptance doctrine is perhaps doubtful. They seem clearly to indicate that by substantiating a commutation order for a deed of pardon, a President can always have his way in such matters, provided the substituted penalty is authorized by law and does not in common understanding exceed the original penalty" [PDF].

In other words: You may be able to refuse a pardon, but you would not be able to refuse a commutation.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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