Franklin Pierce was the 14th President of the United States. Being a well-spoken intellectual, his priority was a united nation. However, his unsuccessful attempts to stem the partisan conflict, and the fact that, as a Northern Democrat, he signed the Kansas–Nebraska Act, set the stage for the Southern secession. Those choices have made him widely regarded as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history.
Born November 23, 1804, in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, Franklin Pierce was the son of Benjamin Pierce, a hero of the American Revolution who was twice elected governor of New Hampshire. The young Pierce graduated from Bowdoin College in 1824 and began studying law; he was admitted to the bar in 1827. At the age of 24, he won election to the New Hampshire state legislature, and became the speaker after two years.
As a member of the Democratic Party and a steadfast supporter of Andrew Jackson, Pierce was elected to serve Congress in 1833. In 1834, he married Jane Appleton, the daughter of a former Bowdoin president.
While serving two terms in the House of Representatives and one term in the Senate, Franklin Pierce became a popular figure in Washington, even though he wasn’t as influential as some of his fellow Democrats. Friendly with many southerners, Pierce was impatient with the more radical abolitionists from New England. In 1842, Pierce gave up his Senate seat and returned to Concord, where he became a leader in the legal community because his wife frequently ill and unhappy with the political life of Washington.
Road to the White House
Franklin Pierce served as an officer in the Mexican War, but stayed largely out of public life for the next decade. He earned the respect of many in his party for keeping New Hampshire Democrats together behind Lewis Cass in the 1848 presidential election (despite a threat by the Free Soil Party) and for holding state Democrats to the terms of the controversial Compromise of 1850 against challenges to its tough fugitive slave law.
Backed by New Englanders and southern delegates, the lesser-known Pierce emerged as the “dark horse” presidential candidate at the 1852 Democratic national convention, after the three leading candidates–Cass, Stephen A. Douglas and James Buchanan–deadlocked.
The issue of slavery was a major issue that year, and the Democratic platform required a pledge of complete support for the Compromise of 1850. The opposing Whigs were more divided around the Compromise, and southerners hated the Whig candidate, General Winfield Scott, which helped Pierce win a narrow victory. Scott’s defeat signaled the end of the Whig Party.
Franklin Pierce’s Presidency
When Franklin Pierce took office as the American President, the nation was enjoying a period of great wealth and relative peace. The Compromise of 1850 seemed to have resolved the various sectional conflicts–primarily over slavery–that had divided the country. “I fervently hope that the [slavery] question is at rest,” Pierce said in his inaugural address. His proposal that the nation should expand its borders further immediately aroused the anger of many northerners, who felt the president was trying to please those seeking to expand slavery.
These suspicions increased after Pierce pressured Great Britain to give up interests in Central America and tried to persuade Spain to sell Cuba to the United States. In late 1853, at the urging of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, Franklin Pierce authorized the U.S. minister to Mexico, James Gadsden, to negotiate the purchase of territory seen as vital for a proposed railroad line that would link the South with the Pacific Coast.
After the Spanish in Havana captured the U.S. vessel Black Warrior in February 1854, the Pierce administration along with ministers from Spain, France and Britain concluded the secret Ostend Manifesto. This document declared that if America determined that Spanish possession of Cuba was a security threat, it was justified in taking the island by force. The manifesto became public that fall, inspiring protest from the emerging Republicans.
Franklin Pierce also supported Commodore Matthew C. Perry to lead the treaty negotiation that opened trade with Japan after years of Dutch monopoly.
The greatest struggles during Franklin Pierce’s presidency–and, ultimately, his downfall–can be attributed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, proposed by Senator Stephen Douglas in early 1854. The bill formally organized Kansas and Nebraska into territories, opening them to settlement and railroad building.
It also repealed the ban on slavery in Kansas mandated by the Missouri Compromise in 1820, declaring that the citizens of each territory–not Congress–had the right to choose whether the territory would allow slavery (a concept Douglas called “popular sovereignty”). Pierce’s support helped push the Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress, while shared opposition to the bill led a coalition including anti-slavery Democrats, Free Soilers, and former Whigs to form the new Republican Party.
Kansas soon became a battleground for sectional tensions, as thousands of so-called “border ruffians” streamed in from Missouri to elect a pro-slavery legislature in March 1855, making a mockery of popular sovereignty. When anti-slavery settlers in Kansas formed a rival government and sought admission to the Union as a free state, violence broke out.
Pierce resisted sending federal troops to Kansas, and tensions reached new heights in Washington. South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks assaulted Senator Charles Sumner, an abolitionist, on the Senate floor in May 1856. For his ineptitude in handling the “Bleeding Kansas” situation, Pierce was denied the Democratic presidential nomination in 1856 in favor of James Buchanan.
Franklin Pierce’s Retirement
In the end, Franklin Pierce’s belief in a limited role for the federal government, combined with his political support of the pro-slavery interests within the Democratic Party, had made him largely ineffective as a leader. By the time he left office, the nation had moved closer toward civil war, and the situation would only grow worse under Buchanan, who was another northerner with southern sympathies.
During the Civil War, Pierce accused Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans of reckless conduct and denounced Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. At a Democratic rally on July 4, 1863, he condemned the war as “fearful, fruitless, [and] fatal,” immediately losing face when news came of the historic Union victory at Gettysburg. His wife died later in 1863, and Pierce stayed largely out of the public eye from then on.
He died in Concord in 1869: