Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861 set many precedents.
Abraham Lincoln was a President of many firsts: The first POTUS born west of the Appalachian Mountains (KY); the elected first from Illinois; the first elected by popular plurality in a field of four (Douglas, Breckenridge and Bell), and the first Republican President – a new party, fielding only its second national ticket in 1860.
It was also precedent setting, inasmuch as seven states had already seceded from the Union by March 4, 1861.
But one of the lesser known “precedents” that Lincoln inherited was unique: five former presidents were still living.
Martin Van Buren (1782-62)
Martin Van Buren, D-NY was Andrew Jackson’s chosen successor as President (1837-41), when Lincoln was a young Illinois state legislator. The “Little Magician” as he was called, was a crafty politician and competent enough, but lacked charisma. He inherited the fallout from Jackson’s banking policies that resulted in a financial depression. Not his fault, but nobody cared to split hairs.
He served one term, but remained active in party politics for another decade. In the mid-40s, he helped found the Free Soil Party ticket – against the spread of slavery in US territories. It was a concept that Lincoln espoused, but he was a devotee of Henry Clay, a Whig.
Van Buren died at his home in Kinderhook, NY a little more than a year after Lincoln was inaugurated. He was 80.
John Tyler (1790-1862)
John Tyler, of Virginia became President only a month after his predecessor William Henry Harrison died. A lifelong Democrat, Tyler was elected VP on the Whig ticket as a geopolitical accommodation. Nevertheless, he alienated both Whigs and Democrats. His lack of popularity kept him not only from a term of his own – but he was not even nominated.
As the slavery/sectionalism issues accelerated during the following decades, Tyler had hoped the country would choose him as a compromise candidate. It didn’t. As a former POTUS, he was deeply torn, and even served as President of a Commission to try a last ditch effort to save the Union. It failed.
When Virginia seceded, Tyler chose Virginia, and was elected to the Confederate Congress. Before he could be sworn in, he died suddenly of a stroke. He was 71.
Millard Fillmore (1800-74)
Millard Fillmore, NY Whig, also became an “accidental” POTUS when Zachary Taylor died. Born and raised near Buffalo, he was considered a mediocrity: lawyer-turned politician-turned Congressman, and eventually VP candidate as a geopolitical accommodation.
His two years as President saw the passage of a rigorous Fugitive Slave Law, which excerbated the deteriorating chasms that were tearing the country apart. Overlooked by the Whigs in 1852 for a term of his own, Fillmore nevertheless attracted a narrow, xenophobic party nicknamed “Know-Nothings.” They made enough noise to be heard, but not enough to win.
He married a wealthy widow a few years after his wife died, and lived in comfortable mediocrity. He died in 1874, aged 74.
Franklin Pierce (1802-69)
Franklin Pierce, D-NH, had a respectable background as an attorney, Congressman and Senator. Having declined a cabinet offer from President Polk in 1844, he returned to practice law in Concord.
In 1852, all but forgotten, Pierce became a dark horse candidate: a Northerner sympathetic to Southern “issues,” and thus acceptable.
His was a depressed presidency on many fronts, especially coming on the heels of the tragic death of his 11-year-old son only weeks before his inauguration. Like Fillmore, Tyler and Van Buren, he was not nominated for a second term.
His later years were just as depressed. Strongly anti-Lincoln, he had favored his Secretary of War and close friend Jefferson Davis, now Confederate President. His only personal contact with Lincoln (who he never met) was a graceful and sincere letter of condolence when the Lincoln’s lost their 11-year old son.
Pierce traveled abroad for a while, returned to Concord, drank heavily and lost most of whatever prestige he may have had. He died in 1869, age 67.
James Buchanan (1791-68)
James Buchanan, D-PA, had a fine resume and reputation: lawyer, Congressman, Senator, Secretary of State and diplomat. He was short listed as a Democratic Presidential candidate for a dozen years.
Having served as Ambassador to England during the turbulent Pierce Administration, he avoided the political fray; good relationships with southern counterparts made the Pennsylvanian “available” in 1856.
The times, the troubles and the tired 65-year-old were on a collision course. Buchanan was temperamentally unsuited to the problems and hard decisions necessary. His presidency is still considered the worst in history.
The actual meeting between a 70-year old Buchanan and Lincoln is widely quoted, with Buck said to have remarked that if Lincoln was as happy to assume the office as he was to depart, he was a happy man indeed.
Buchanan did one service for Lincoln however. He recommended that Lincoln use a summer cottage at the Soldiers’ Home a few miles outside of town. It was cooler than the miasmal climate of Washington. Lincoln heeded the advice, which in that case, was excellent.
Buchanan returned to his home in Lancaster, and died at age 78.
A POTUS Postscript
It would be 130 years before a another President could count five living ex-Presidents. In 1992, President Bill Clinton “inherited” Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
They all lived a lot longer than their 19th century predecessors.