Peter Lawrence Bryce (April 19 1820 - July 8 1894) was a 19th-century American politician who served as both Senator and Governor of Delaware and as the 14th President of the United States from 1871-1873, following the death of his predecessor, Horatio Seymour. A career Nationalist and owner of the Philadelphia Exchange newspaper company, Bryce was from the business establishment of the National Party. Described as an "uncharismatic, dull and uninteresting specimen," Bryce made few public appearances and influenced little policy in his two years as President, spending the majority of his time in Delaware and living at the White House on seldom occasions. His hands-off approach to the Presidency, an office he detested, is often cited as one of the reasons why the military and abolitionist wings of the "three-tiered party" took an enormous amount of power away from the monied interests that had dominated the National Party since the 1820's. Bryce is often cited as one of the worst Presidents in history in most historian polls.
Early Life and Business Career
Senator of Delaware 1855-1861
Governor of Delaware 1861-1863
Election of 1864 and Vice Presidency
Bryce was inaugurated at his home in Delaware by George Curtis, a federal judge for northern Delaware, shortly after hearing the news of President Seymour's death on February 28, 1871. Somber and weary, he returned to Washington to make funeral arrangements for Seymour, which involved a full military parade in the city on March 5 after he lay in state in the White House and concluded with Bryce once again taking the oath of office, this time publicly on the White House lawn in front of 2,000 spectators.
The death of Seymour came at a time of extreme internal tensions within the Nationalist Party between the hardline abolitionists displeased with what they called the "Abominable Compromise" of 1868 and the pragmatic, monied interests of the party more in-line with the growing influence of the large military headed unofficially by Abraham Lincoln, Francis Blair and Hiram Ulysses Grant. Seymour, who had been adept at balancing the competing interests of the party and who had expended almost all of his energy and political capital in building the Compromise of 1868, was now gone, leaving the uncharismatic and virtually unknown Bryce to pick up the pieces. Bryce immediately showed disdain for the office of Presidency, impatient with Southern Democratic Senators whom he believed were intentionally undermining him and deeply distrustful of the Rockribs within his own party. In 1872, he gave an address to various Nationalist politicians in which he warned of a conspiracy by the Rockribs to torpedo the Compromise of 1868, which had just gone into effect, in order to incite a civil war and destroy the South.
"It is my belief that to destroy the institution of enslavement, the factions of our Party would willingly destroy the Union to achieve their agenda. The Union's integrity is of secondary importance to them to the subjugation and destruction of not only the Slave, but of the Slaveowner."
This uncompromising attitude towards the Rockribs as well as his general political incompetence led to a massive upswing in abolitionist efforts to forcibly end slavery in the South. Bryce, who had not inteded to seek reelection, refused to attend the 1872 Nationalist Convention in New York, allowing the party to nominate former military commander and ardent abolitionist James Arthur Stennis, a woefully lackluster candidate and infamously poor nominee. The 1872 William Harris affair led to a national outcry and doomed Bryce's remaining months in office. The Democrats, both Northern and Southern, swept to victories in the 1872 Presidential and House elections, although the Nationalists held onto control of the Senate. In February of 1872, shortly before the inauguration of Josiah Marks, Bryce pardoned William Martin, the controversial anti-slavery pastor arrested and jailed in 1866 for incitement of a slave revolt in South Carolina, a move that horrified Southern Democrats and created a tense inauguration ceremony on March 4, 1873, when Bryce stepped down.