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Heptune's Baby Names for October, 2000

Names of the U.S. Presidents, Part IV: Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Johnson

by Brenna Lorenz

    A lot of babies are named after United States presidents, especially today, where we see girls called Madison, McKinley, Kennedy, Taylor and Tyler. So we thought we'd go through the whole list of presidential names, and see how (and if) they are used as baby names. We started in April with Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, continued in May with Presidents Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, and Harrison, and in June with Tyler, Polk, Taylor, and Fillmore.

    As hostilities were gearing up towards the Civil War, Democrat Franklin Pierce was elected to the Presidency in 1852. Alcoholism, depression, and chronically bad decisions made him one of our weakest presidents. His surname, Pierce, comes from a Medieval form of Peter. I have found a boy named Pierce born in North Carolina in 1801, three years before Franklin Pierce was born, and obviously not named after him. An Alabama boy born in 1850 was named Pierce, but at that time, Franklin Pierce was practicing as a lawyer in Concord, New Hampshire. He rose from obscurity to be nominated as a compromise candidate on the 49th ballot at the Democratic convention in 1852. The boy from Alabama was almost certainly not named after Franklin Pierce. The name doesn't show up again in my collection until 1918, and it is safe to say that 20th Century usage would be based almost entirely on family surnames or on the transfer of the surname back into general usage as a given name.

Pierce did such a bad job as President that he did not receive the Democratic nomination for a second term, the only elected incumbent ever so denied. Instead, the Democrats nominated James Buchanan, the Great Compromiser. Buchanan defeated the first Republican candidate, John Frémont in 1856. His compromising pleased no one, and by the end of four years in the White House, he was glad to leave. Buchanan is a Scots Gaelic surname meaning "from the house of the canon." I have found no examples of Buchanan used as a given name, but a boy with the variant form Buckcannon was born in Arkansas in 1859. This child was almost certainly named after the President.

In 1860, Buchanan was defeated for reelection by Republican Abraham Lincoln. The election of Lincoln precipitated the beginning of the Civil War in the last few months of Buchanan's presidency. Abraham Lincoln is considered by most Americans to be our greatest president, for freeing the slaves and pulling the United States back together during the terrible Civil War. His surname is an Old English name meaning "from the lake colony." The earliest example I have found of the use of this name as a given name is a boy born in Massachusetts in 1835, too early to have been named for President Lincoln. As beloved as Lincoln was and is, his surname has been used only sporadically throughout the 20th C. Parents using this name almost certainly have the great President in mind.

Following Lincoln's assassination in April, 1865, the presidency was inherited by tough, scrappy, courageous Andrew Johnson. This unfortunate man was hated by his fellow Southerners, who considered him a traitor for steadfastly opposing secession and remaining loyal to the Union. He was also despised by Northerners, who considered him overly sympathetic with the South. A Democrat, he had been selected by Lincoln as his second-term vice-president to make his candidacy more attractive to Democrats. He was the first president to be impeached, and was acquitted by one vote. His surname, Johnson, is the second most common surname in the United States, and means "son of John." As such, it has been used steadily since the 1700s as a given name for boys, especially in the Southern United States. It is difficult to ascribe any usage of this name as commemorative to the unpopular President Andrew Johnson. A second Johnson, Democrat Lyndon Johnson, became president when John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Again, because the name already enjoyed a steady but unremarkable usage, it would be hard to determine if any of our modern Johnsons are named after LBJ.


Variations: Pearc, Pearce, Piers, Pieerce


Variation: Buckcannon

Go to June's names: Tyler, Polk, Taylor, and Fillmore.
Go to November's names: Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur.
Return to Heptune's Journal of Lore and Levity!
Return to Heptune's Baby Names Central.
Check out Names from the Ocean!
Read about A Tragedy Told in Names.
Check out Names in Early Jazz and Blues.

Published 9/30/00.
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