William W. Freehling
AN intriguing paradox characterizes Franklin Pierce's administration: on the one hand, few administrations exerted such a powerful impact on the social and political life of the American nation, but on the other hand, few presidents exercised such little influence on their administration's policies. Pierce was an inconsequential charmer who staked his claim for presidential greatness on other people's not very charming initiatives. His failure was not just his own but also that of a political culture so fragmented that its factions could agree only on a pleasant nonentity as president yet so convulsed that it demanded a president who would act forcefully. A split culture thus bred a non-actor clinging to more forceful statesmen's actions as if they were his own but who was sure to be destroyed when his adopted initiatives enraged half his civilization.
The convivial New Hampshire politician who was caught in this cosmopolitan historical trap had been born and bred to be a delightful provincial. He came into the world in a backwoods log cabin in Hillsbo-rough County on 23 November 1804. His father, Benjamin Pierce, was a rough-hewn local quasi squire who had been something of a Revolutionary War hero. For himself, the elder Pierce aspired to be a leader of the Granite Hills, but for his son, he wished an education a little better than New Hampshire could provide.
Franklin Pierce was accordingly sent to Bowdoin College in Maine. There he studied enough to graduate fifth in his class. More important, he was so attractive a personality as to gain the lifelong friendship of the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne's least impressive literary effort would someday be the campaign biography of his college chum turned presidential candidate. Franklin Pierce's affability was even in college pointing the way ahead.
After graduation, Pierce wandered through several law offices in search of training. At this time, his swashbuckling father was reaching the top of New Hampshire politics. Frank Pierce plunged into his father's partisan political campaigns with great zest. The two Pierces rose together, both carried upward in the Jacksonian ascendancy. In 1827, the father was elected governor, and two years later the son was elected to the state legislature. In March 1833, the younger Pierce, not yet thirty, was elected to Congress.
Through it all, Pierce's family, fraternity, faith, and fortune rested in his partisan god, the Democratic party. "A Republic without parties," ran the future president's very first political pronouncement, "is a complete anomaly." For an undereducated young frontiersman without much taste for book learning but with great relish for political combat and camaraderie, the received wisdom of a rough-and-ready father, as embodied in the Democratic party, provided the best preparation for the political life. Or so it seemed to those in the Granite Hills who were charmed by the governor's heir apparent.
In Washington, affability was not enough, even to those who spent months drinking and chatting as residents of Washington's boardinghouses. Frank Pierce spent ten years in Congress, the first four in the House and the last six as a very young senator. In all that time, he made not one noteworthy speech, sponsored not one important bill, emerged not once from the shadows of the congressional hanger-on. He was known chiefly for being the congressman least able to hold his liquor. The reputation came naturally to this man of friendly manner, relaxed joshing, and relish for gossiping and partying. The New Englander, so often so tight-lipped and full of righteous learning, was here as genially openhearted as the stereotypical southerner.
The similarity of manner may explain part of Pierce's one congressional political passion, a wholehearted adoption of the southerners' hatred for New England abolitionists. Because the Democratic party was so strong in the South and the abolitionists so drawn to northern Whiggery, the northerner with southern principles was most often a Democrat. Nowhere in New England were southern sympathizers so common as in New Hampshire. Frank Pierce was the perfect example of the New Hampshire Democrat as friend of the slaveholder.
Pierce made his feelings clear in the "gag rule" controversy of the 1830s, the beginning of the great contest over slavery for his generation of politicians. He was a passionate advocate of the Democratic party's policy of gagging antislavery proposals without debate. He ridiculed abolitionists as consisting of "children who knew not what they did," ladies who were outside "their proper sphere," and feminized men who outrageously interfered in other people's homes. Congressman Pierce found nothing such fun as having a couple of toddies with southern friends, quickly becoming boisterously tipsy, and then pouring drunken hatred on the fanatics who would break up the Union to abolish bondage.
In the early 1840s, Pierce came to realize such adventures were getting him nowhere. Strident support of the South and automatic acceptance of everything Jacksonian were making for a career of mere competence. Meanwhile, the Washington boardinghouse scene was altogether too tempting for one of his propensity for hard drinking. Residence in Washington was even worse for Mrs. Pierce, who was exactly the kind of righteous, unbending New Englander her husband so little resembled. In 1842, the failed senator and his scoffing wife returned to New Hampshire in search of better fortune.
Back home, Pierce found that his talent for social intercourse could indeed lead to a fortune. He became one of New Hampshire's richest and most successful trial lawyers. His genius was not in legal learning, for he rarely bothered searching the books for precedents. He was, rather, inordinately adept at sizing up a jury and appealing to their most intimate feelings. No opposing lawyer was as likable as Pierce. Few juries could resist his easy manner.
When the Mexican War came in the mid-1840s, Pierce was once again called away from his successes in the Granite Hills, summoned to a duty beyond his talents. A brigadier general, he was to lead his men in the assault on Mexico City but arrived too late for the final battle. He was wounded grievously and ingloriously: when his horse badly stumbled, he fainted and fell. His aching frame had to be hoisted into the saddle to ride out too late for the climactic Battle of Chapultepec.
When the war ended, he was once again glad to return to his smiling New Hampshire homeland. He once again became the most ingratiating of trial lawyers and the most pleasant of backwoods talkers. This was the man who one last time was called out of New Hampshire, this time to be president of the United States at a time of grave national peril.
Ascent to the Presidency
The incredible happened because, in the year 1852, only a man of Pierce's soothing mediocrity could satisfy a terribly divided Democratic party. In 1848, Free-Soil Democrats had seceded from the party to support Martin Van Buren's anti-southern third-party effort. After the Compromise of 1850 somewhat settled angry political turmoil, these so-called Barn-burners returned to their scorched party. Southerners were not happy about having the fugitives back. Northerners who had stayed were even less happy with the returned "traitors." Everyone was prepared to hate everyone else's candidate, and any candidate with any firm position was bound to excite ire. The result was that none of the Democrats' leading men—especially Lewis Cass of Michigan, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, and young Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois—could garner the necessary two-thirds majority of the Democratic convention.
The formula for breaking the deadlock was to find a southern man whom the North could trust; a northern man whom the South could trust; or, best of all, a northern man with southern principles whom not even anti-southern northerners could much dislike. It first occurred to a Virginian, on the convention's thirty-fifth ballot, that no one disliked Franklin Pierce. He was that rarity, a New Englander liked even by slaveholders. If the Barn-burners distrusted so southernized a northerner, they knew how pleasant he was and how he, with his easygoing nature, might respect differences. On the forty-ninth ballot, the convention nominated "Young Hickory from the Granite Hills."
In the election, the latest Young Hickory scored an electoral college triumph, 254–42, rivaling Old Hickory's. But his popular vote margin was dangerously thin. Pierce won the presidency despite receiving 14,000 fewer votes than his five opponents in the North. His national popular-vote majority of 44,000 came heavily from the Democratic party's southern power base. (Pierce's popular vote was 1.6 million, and that of his chief rival, the Whig Winfield Scott, was 1.4 million.) His was a mandate to lean a little precariously South, without quite losing a balance wavering in the North. It was the perfect posture for a northern southerner who loved everyone except abolitionists. The man and the hour had met.
Conciliation and Expansion
Providence quickly delivered another message to the Pierces. On the way to Concord from Boston on 6 January 1853, the president-elect's train car derailed and rolled down an embankment. Pierce and his wife escaped injury, but their beloved eleven-year-old son, Benjamin, the only one of their three children to survive infancy, was fatally mangled before their eyes. Mrs. Pierce, always a dour hater of the political life, pronounced the death God's way of leaving an inadequately prepared man free of domestic distraction. Pierce, who knew his credentials, thought she might be right. "No heart but my own," he told the nation in his inaugural, "can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others." Meanwhile, Mrs. Pierce was in her bedroom, penciling little notes to Bennie apologizing for not loving him enough.
The self-doubting president in the big gloomy house was mercifully presented with initial tasks he had been trained to handle. Pierce, an effective party boss in New Hampshire, knew how to use patronage to build a coalition. Democrats had selected him in part because a man so blandly conciliatory would invite all party factions to share the victory. His assigned task was to fuse both northerners who had bolted the party in 1848 and southerners who had considered breaking up the Union in 1850 with the middling sorts who had championed the Compromise of 1850 as a party-restoring, Union-saving measure. The task required critical patronage plums for Democratic extremists of North and South.
The conciliatory party boss from New Hampshire, predictably, conciliated. He awarded one of the leading southern radicals, Jefferson Davis, the post of secretary of war. He gave one of the leading New York Barnburners, John A. Dix, the assignment of assistant secretary of the treasury. True both to the southern-dominated coalition that had elected him and to his own southern leanings, appointments went more often to slaveholders. The southern tilt was the more pronounced because some of Pierce's important northern appointments, such as that of Caleb Cushing of Massachusetts to be attorney general, predictably went to northerners like himself, who considered abolitionists to be irresponsible Yankees. Cushing and Davis were ultimately the most important cabinet members precisely because Pierce was what he had been selected to be—a northern man with sympathy for slaveholders. But with appointments such as the sensitive Dix selection, the new boss had also been true to the party's need for healing. The politician had fulfilled his mandate.
The great middle of the Democratic party proceeded to wail that this appeaser of extremes had ignored the centrists. The whine echoes in the historical literature. Pierce, the patronage distributor, is often condemned for failing to steer in the middle of the road. The truth is that in the manner of the forgiving diplomat, he was trying to broaden the middle to include both extremes. If the party was to save the Union, he could do no less; if the coalition had needed an unforgiving centrist, he would never have been the politico selected. His patronage gestures to all left few in revolt. The question was whether his policies could equally well keep merely half-loyal extremists in uneasy alliance with the scoffing middle.
Pierce's announced policies combined the party's old unenergetic domestic program with its new energetic foreign policy. This youngest Hickory yet was a champion of the "Young America" program, which sought to extend American energies throughout the hemisphere. "My administration will not be controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion," bragged the new president. Any domestic troubles from hemispheric expansionism would be settled by the soothing principles of the Compromise of 1850. For the rest, his administration would prevent government intervention in the private sector and thus cause no irritations. As with the patronage, he would be a peacemaker, unless perchance expansionism required some new Mexican war.
His first—alas, also his last—triumph was a peaceful extension of American territories. In the Gadsden Treaty of early 1854, so called after its negotiator, James Gadsden of South Carolina, the Pierce administration bought some forty-five thousand square miles of territory from Mexico at a cost of $10 million. The United States received less acreage than Pierce desired and a great deal less than most ardent southern expansionists would like to have possessed on the slaveholders' flank. But limits on the territorial gain of the South had the unintended effect of limiting the political damage in the North. The more extreme northern antiexpansionists could not stir up a Mexican War-style revulsion against so slight a concession to Young America's appetites. The conciliating character in the White House had brought forth a conciliatory result, largely because the Mexicans had to some degree fulfilled yet blunted his administration's thrust.
Other people were not so kind to Pierce in his pursuance of the larger and more devoutly desired of his Young America policies. Cuba was truly the apple of this president's eye. His southern cronies wished it as an extension of their slaveholding empire. His democratic sympathies went out to Cuban victims of Spanish tyranny. He wanted to extend freedom for whites by buying up a territory enslaving blacks. If the Whig antislavery crowd found that formula grotesquely inhumane, the handsome president here again exuded that style of American humaneness, with a southern accent, that he was elected to serve. He only needed to secure this southern extension as genially as he had secured the Gadsden Purchase.
The president adopted a seductive strategy for bringing a Cuban purchase attractively to the American Congress. August Belmont, the American banker, believed that because the Spanish king was badly in debt, Spain's creditors could discreetly induce the monarch to ease the pressures on him by selling the far-off island. The American public could then be informed that the tyrant had willingly sold a neighboring people into American freedom.
Pierce put some subtle men into the right spots to bring off this delicate public relations coup. Belmont was given a diplomatic post at The Hague, where he would be in close proximity to the financial and political powers whose aid he would need to enlist. This move was suggested by future president James Buchanan, the ambassador to Great Britain and a prime advocate of Belmont's scheme. Pierce waited for the apple to fall deliciously into his lap.
Unfortunately, his Cuban initiative came to national attention with all the delicacy of a herd of buffalo. The chief buffalo was one Pierre Soulé, a swashbuckling Louisiana extremist whom Pierce had appointed ambassador to Spain. He pursued high-handed ways of intimidating the Spanish authorities into selling Cuba. With Spain stiffening against Soulé's public posturing, the Pierce administration decided on a private conference of its foreign ministers at Ostend, Belgium, in October 1854. From that meeting of Buchanan, Soulé, and Minister to France John Y. Mason of Virginia came the notorious Ostend Manifesto.
The manifesto, chiefly composed by Buchanan, largely urged the Belmont-Buchanan plan of quiet negotiations toward purchase. But Soulé insisted on some louder additional phrases concerning the forcible coercion of a monarch who would not voluntarily sell. Should Spanish possession endanger American power and security, declared the ministers, "by every law human and divine, we shall be justified in wresting it from Spain, if we possess the power." This jarring language, so different from Pierce's usually conciliatory approach, doomed Pierce's policy. The Ostend Manifesto, when made public, inspired an outcry in the North. Since the ministers were Pierce's, his administration was undermined.
The responsibility was in fact the president's. He had allowed the notoriously boorish Soulé to attend the European conference, against Buchanan's discreet advice. Pierce had permitted Soulé's presence because his southern friends wanted what they had achieved with the patronage—at least an extremist's input. But this time, indiscreet slave-holders had pushed too hard, and the likable balancer in the White House had been shoved way too far to the South to protect his precarious hold on the North.
The Territorial Question
The same phenomenon transpired in the central drama of the Pierce years. Franklin Pierce started without a policy on the Kansas issue. The vast area to the west of Iowa, soon to be called Nebraska, and the sprawling plains to the west of Missouri, soon to be called Kansas, were without territorial government. The land was ripe for settlement, and squatters were eager to get at the virgin land. Railroad speculators, desiring a central route to the Pacific, also wanted the area organized and populated. Few, least of all Pierce, wanted the resident Indians to remain a hindrance to white settlement. The problem was that the land had been part of the Louisiana Purchase. All of it, being north of the 36°30' line, was declared free territory by the Missouri Compromise. Southerners wanted the ban on slavery removed.
The hardest fighters for removal were Missouri slaveholders. They feared that if their state, already bordered by the free states of Iowa and Illinois, were surrounded on a third side by free territory, slavery in Missouri was doomed. Senator David R. Atchison, the Missouri slaveholders' champion, especially insisted on repeal of the Missouri Compromise before organizing the territory for settlement. Northerners deplored Atchison's insistence.
It had been easy for many years to deal with the problem simply by not legalizing settlement, but the option of doing nothing was no longer available in 1854, because pressures for organizing territorial government were too intense. With the Pierce administration still pursuing the time-honored expedient, the burden of resolving the problem was placed on the shoulders of the Senate Committee on the Territories, chaired by Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.
Douglas, another Young America northern Democrat, was all for organizing a government to oversee territorial expansion, especially as he had some personal interest in a railroad route to the Pacific through these lands. More important, his Americanism assumed the necessity of establishing local governments in these areas so that white men could decide on their own institutions for themselves. He had no use for big government imposing policy on remote areas. He deplored congressional decisions, such as the Missouri Compromise, negating slavery in far-off places whose inhabitants might desire it. He wished to institutionalize local popular control, which he called popular sovereignty, by providing a territorial government for Kansas and Nebraska and allowing territorial residents to decide on slavery and everything else.
At first, Douglas sought to duck the politically dangerous step of actually repealing the Missouri Compromise and thereby repelling the North. He would say nothing about the old ban. He would merely report out a bill giving settlers in Kansas and Nebraska the right to vote for or against slavery at the time of statehood.
Atchison and other southerners would not permit that evasion. If the Missouri Compromise outlawed slavery in these areas during the territorial phase, no slaveholder would be around to vote for slavery in the statehood phase. According to Douglas' own popular-sovereignty principles, citizens on the spot had the right to decide on their own institutions as soon as they elected any government. If Douglas would not honor his personal creed, the South would block his bill. Douglas finally relented. He added language permitting local inhabitants to vote on slavery during the territorial years.
Southern Whigs, always eager to show that southern Democrats only pretended to be friends of slavery, pointed out Douglas' remaining loophole. Until inhabitants voted, the Missouri Compromise would abolish slavery. Thus, no slaveholding territorial residents would be present to legalize slavery in the territorial phase. Whigs, led by Archibald Dixon of Kentucky, accordingly demanded that the slavery restriction of the Missouri Compromise be repealed.
With pressure on Douglas mounting, Pierce and his cabinet belatedly realized that critical policy was being made outside the administration. The panicky cabinet hurriedly conducted its own discussion of the explosive problem. The debate yielded a solution the president thought just right. Territorial government should be organized with no mention of the Missouri Compromise and the question of slavery in the territories should be left to the Supreme Court. Pierce and the majority of his cabinet thought the Missouri ban was unconstitutional on just the grounds the Supreme Court would use in the Dred Scott decision three years later. Congress, reasoned Pierce, could not outlaw slave property without violating the constitutional ban on seizing property without due process of law. The Court would therefore have to decide to throw out the Missouri Compromise. The Court, not the administration, would take the blame for removing a sacred law, and the sacred Court could withstand criticism more than could an administration already vulnerable in the North.
The cabinet's program, so like the Buchanan-Belmont plan for annexing Cuba, was perfect stuff for a northern man with southern principles. Pierce was sure the Court would give the South everything a southerner could desire in a conciliatory way no northerner would find offensive. But Douglas had gone too far and knew too well that southerners would reject dodges such as Pierce's. On the very day the cabinet decided on an evasive way past the Missouri Compromise, the senator from Illinois caved into Archibald Dixon's demand to stop evading. Having decided that repeal of the Missouri Compromise was necessary to keep southerners behind the bill to provide government for Kansas and Nebraska, Douglas asked Jefferson Davis to arrange a conference at the White House the very next day, a Sunday. Pierce said he could not work on the Sabbath. Douglas insisted. Davis pleaded. The obliging Pierce reluctantly agreed to chat.
What transpired at that historic White House meeting will always remain a mystery. The atmosphere appears to have been tense. Pierce probably gently urged his plan. Douglas certainly insisted that political reality demanded his. At any rate, the world quickly knew that Pierce was making Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska bill the centerpiece of administration policy.
Why did Pierce accept the burdens of a pro-southern policy on Kansas, as on Cuba, far more offensive than his own? Because he again had no choice. Just as the Ostend Manifesto was proclaimed before Pierce could disavow it, so the Douglas policy had assumed a momentum of its own before the president could move to stop it. Moreover, in the light of the political realities that Douglas confronted in the Senate, Pierce must have been brought to see that evasion would not work. Pierce's proposal to let the Supreme Court decide on slavery was even more likely to be unacceptable to Atchison than was Douglas' proposal to let state-makers decide, and for the same reasons. Until the Court decided to let slavery into the territories, the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery would prevail; and even if the Court agreed with Pierce, the North would gain a toehold in Kansas before judges removed the restriction. Atchison wanted slavery in Kansas immediately and with no weighty provisos about entrance being legal. Given Atchison's power among southern Democrats, the Missouri Compromise had to be repealed or no Democratic administration could make policy. Douglas meant to make law. The president could choose whether to make war.
Pierce could only choose to make peace. Douglas' popular-sovereignty policy, after all, was Pierce's policy too. Local control was indeed the essence of what the Democratic party stood for. Pierce had not been elected to fight an intraparty battle to retain a big-government ban on slavery in the territories. He was elected to administer Democratic party policy in an amiable southern way. Now Missourians would not permit amiability to interfere with what they saw as a proslavery death struggle. The harsh conflict a southern-leaning coalition had elected Pierce to soothe was producing southern demands too harsh for the soother to handle.
With the two most important northern Democrats joining hands with the South on a proslavery bill, the national majority party proceeded to enact the minority's wishes. A coalition of almost all southerners and over half the northern Democrats controlled the Senate easily and barely secured the House. The Senate passed the Kansas-Nebraska bill by a lopsided 37–14; the House concurred, 113–100. Northern House Democrats were horridly split, 44–42 for the bill. With Northern Whig congressmen, 45 strong, unanimously against Douglas' creation, the North voted against the South's wishes by an overwhelming two-thirds majority.
Thus was enacted perhaps the most important legislation any administration ever sponsored. Perhaps not even the Federal Reserve Act or the Social Security Act had such an enormous immediate impact on the American people. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which the Pierce administration had finally made its own, led directly to the rise of the Republican party, Bleeding Kansas, the collapse of the National Democratic party, and Abraham Lincoln's election. The inconsequential Mr. Pierce, by joining Stephen A. Douglas in bowing to the South's pressure, had finally become monumentally consequential.
The first price of enacting the South's wishes over the North's protests was the destruction of any possible benefit from Pierce's conciliation of the northern Barnburners. The irrelevance of the earlier uproar about patronage was now apparent. On the one hand, John Dix's appointment was scarcely sufficient to stop another, and this time irretrievable, bolt from the Democratic party by northern Free-Soilers, who were appalled that areas where slavery had been banned were now open to it. On the other hand, the lack of patronage for moderate Democrats in both North and South was scarcely sufficient to provoke men in the middle toward extremist parties. Southern Democrats were delighted with the Kansas-Nebraska Act; northern moderates were frightened by the storm of Yankee Free-Soil fanaticism.
In the midterm elections of 1854, Free-Soil, anti-Nebraska agitation yielded the utter destruction of that fragile northern plurality Pierce had received in 1852. In the congressional election, Democrats lost every Free-Soil state except California and Pierce's own New Hampshire. The president was mystified by all those northern voters beyond his state. Why worry about repealing the Missouri Compromise? The Court would have soon declared it unconstitutional anyway. Why worry about slavery in Kansas? The place was too far north for bondage. Why not appease the South? The law would give the North every opportunity to push its superior numbers into the West. Young Hickory from the Granite Hills, for all his attempts to do things indirectly, simply could not understand why the direct policies stuffed down his reluctant throat seemed so morally atrocious to other Yankees. The provincial was out of contact with his section.
The Pierce administration's last two years were anti-climactic and predictable. With the North on fire over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the president at a loss to understand why, the administration was in no position to keep ahead of an ever-worsening crisis. Moreover, even with all the advantage of hindsight, one cannot see how anyone could have prevented the disaster that came to be known as Bleeding Kansas. The same passion for protecting slavery in Missouri that had led Atchison to insist on repealing the Missouri Compromise inevitably led Missouri ruffians to pour into Kansas, seeking to legalize slavery. The same revulsion for repealing emancipation that had led northerners to turn against the Democratic party led New England settlers to race west, seeking to re-install freedom. Against all this, the bland president again had but the same blunt weapon—he could appoint conciliatory administrators.
Conciliation again could not be enough. Pierce's compromise choice for territorial governor of Kansas was Andrew Reeder of Pennsylvania, still another northern man with southern principles. Reeder, like Douglas' first Kansas-Nebraska draft, adopted too conciliatory a stance to suit proslavery Missourians. Atchison and other Missouri roughnecks believed that northern "fanatics," organized in the New England Emigrant Aid Company, were invading Kansas to prevent the adoption of slavery. The Missourians accordingly developed what they considered a counterinsurgency policy of pushing more proslavery settlers into Kansas and, failing that, of propelling Missourians over the border at the last moment to vote proslavery on election day, 30 March 1855. They demanded that the governor recognize their elected government, wherever they wished to establish it. With the aid of Missourians in Kansas for the day, proslavery settlers selected a proslavery legislature to meet near Missouri's border.
Northerners, on the other hand, called these transient voters illegitimate. Free-Soilers believed aggressive Missourians were first to cause all Kansas' troubles. Northern settlers accordingly urged Reeder to nullify the election of the first, proslavery Kansas legislature.
Reeder tried to satisfy both sides. On the critical matter of certifying the election of proslavery legislators, the governor accepted most of the southern selections and called the legislature into session. But his call edged toward "fairness" by declaring that the legislature should meet one hundred miles distant from the Missouri border. Atchison protested that the location was too northern to be fair. The Missouri senator also undercut Reeder's pose of fairness by noting that the governor owned the land where he had called the legislature to meet. Atchison brusquely demanded Reeder's ouster. The Missouri titan urged the appointment of a governor more sympathetic with southern attempts to repress northerners' "invasion" of a "southern" homeland.
Pierce, with his lifelong hatred of abolitionists, accepted Atchison's premises. The president thought the Kansas governor remiss for not blaming the origins of the trouble on the "invading" New England Emigrant Aid Company. Pierce also deplored Reeder's inability to demonstrate that local control by the settlers themselves worked fairly and peacefully. In July 1855, after some wavering, the president dismissed Reeder. Pierce then appointed as Kansas governor yet another conciliatory northern man with southern principles, Wilson Shannon, former governor of Ohio.
The territory Shannon was sent out to administer was now simply not administrable. Northern settlers had organized their own government under the so-called Topeka Constitution. With two governments claiming legitimacy and responsibility for law and order, violence could not be avoided. Shannon spent the better part of a year asking Pierce for troops to deter bloodshed.
Not even soldiers could prevent war. In May 1856 the nation's newspapers blazed with the news of a total breakdown of civil peace in Kansas. First came tidings of the southern sack of the Free-Soil town of Lawrence. Then came news of the so-called Pottawatomie Massacre, in which John Brown and seven others murdered five proslavery settlers near Pottawatomie Creek on 24–25 May 1856.
Pierce's bad fortune was to have the Democratic National Convention of 1856 meet in Cincinnati at the very moment the most bloody news was coming east. Whoever was to blame for the breakdown of government in Kansas (and Pierce always blamed the New England Emigrant Aid Company), the president's administration was not providing law and order. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, itself a political horror in the North, was doubling the horror by ushering in a stream of events indicating that the Democratic party's master formula, local control of slavery-related matters, produced not fairness but disaster in the territories.
Pierce dearly wished for another term, for another chance to prove that his administration could yet rescue the principle of popular sovereignty. But his moment had long since passed. In 1852 the party had needed a Yankee who leaned South with a smile. In 1856, Pierce's coalition needed a northern man with southern principles disassociated from policies Pierce had frowned upon but swallowed. James Buchanan, Pierce's man in England, had luckily been out of the country throughout the events that had made the last of the Young Hickories very old very quickly. In June 1856, Buchanan easily wrested the party nomination from the sitting president. That had never happened before in American politics.
Pierce never recovered from this unprecedented repudiation. His presidential term having ended as dismally as his congressional years, he was reduced to wandering over the globe until 1860, wondering what had gone wrong. Thereafter he sank even more deeply into an alcoholic haze, his lifelong battle with the demon drink dismally lost. He died in 1869, almost unnoticed, once again almost unknown. His reputation in the history books is about as bleak. So it had to be for an easygoing New Hampshire back-woodsman who was called forth to keep a party happy but savaged in a conflict fast yielding blood and bullets and old men trying to find laughter at the bottom of a bottle.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Life of Franklin Pierce (Boston, 1852), the first biography of Pierce, was written by his college friend. Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union, 2 vols. (New York, 1947), is a massive, wonderfully readable narrative of national history during the Pierce years. Roy Nichols, Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills (Philadelphia, 1931), the best biography of Pierce and one of the best of any president, is still very reliable. Larry Gara, The Presidency of Franklin Pierce (Lawrence, Kans., 1991), is especially informative on foreign policy matters. See also Wilfred J. Bisson, comp., Franklin Pierce: A Bibliography (Westport, Conn., 1993).
14th president, 1853–1857
Born: November 23, 1804
Died: October 8, 1869
Vice President: William R. D. King
First Lady: Jane Means Appleton Pierce
Children: Franklin, Frank, Benjamin
When he took office, Franklin Pierce was the youngest man yet to become president. His political career began when he was elected to the U.S. Senate at age 32.
Pierce was one of eight children of Benjamin and Anna Kendrick Pierce. He was born in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, on November 23, 1804. His father had served in the American Revolution and later became the governor of New Hampshire.
Pierce attended Hancock Academy and Bowdoin College, where he moved from last place to third in his class. He went on to study law and was admitted to the New Hampshire bar in 1827.
After he held a series of state offices, he was elected to Congress, and became the youngest senator in Washington.
- Pierce attended Bowdoin College in Maine with classmates Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
- Pierce recited his Inaugural Address from memory.
- Pierce felt that "swearing" in as president compromised his religious beliefs—as an alternative, he "affirmed" his oath.
- The White House had central heat and a bathroom with running water installed during Pierce's term.
While Pierce was in office the issue of slavery began to tear the Union apart. Pierce enraged abolitionists when he signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed those territories to decide by vote whether to allow slavery. The ensuing battle over whether or not to permit slavery in Kansas Territory led to violence that was a preview of the Civil War. Pierce's handling of the crisis was largely seen as ineffective.
When Pierce Was in Office
- In the Gadsden Purchase, Mexico sold the United States the territory that is today Arizona and New Mexico.
Matthew Calbraith Perry arrived in Japan to establish trade between the United States and the East.
- The Republican Party was formed in opposition to slavery.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed.
- Violence over slavery broke out in what came to be known as "Bleeding Kansas."
- The first kindergarten in the United States was established in Watertown, Wisconsin.
At the same time the slavery issue was dividing America, however, some of our nation's greatest writers were publishing works that have become American classics. While Pierce was in office, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman published a number of works now considered to be masterpieces.
On Pierce's Inauguration Day
Franklin Pierce took office with a broken heart. His only child, Benjamin, had been killed in a railroad accident only a few weeks earlier. The beginning of his speech, which he delivered from memory, refers to his sadness.
Franklin Pierce's Inaugural Address
In Washington, D.C., Friday, March 4, 1853
IT is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.
The circumstances under which I have been called for a limited period to preside over the destinies of the Republic fill me with a profound sense of responsibility, but with nothing like shrinking apprehension. I repair to the post assigned me not as to one sought, but in obedience to the unsolicited expression of your will, answerable only for a fearless, faithful, and diligent exercise of my best powers. I ought to be, and am, truly grateful for the rare manifestation of the nation's confidence; but this, so far from lightening my obligations, only adds to their weight. You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me by your strength. When looking for the fulfillment of reasonable requirements, you will not be unmindful of the great changes which have occurred, even within the last quarter of a century, and the consequent augmentation and complexity of duties imposed in the administration both of your home and foreign affairs.
Whether the elements of inherent force in the Republic have kept pace with its unparalleled progression in territory, population, and wealth has been the subject of earnest thought and discussion on both sides of the ocean. Less than sixty-four years ago the Father of his Country made "the" then "recent accession of the important State of North Carolina to the Constitution of the United States" one of the subjects of his special congratulation. At that moment, however, when the agitation consequent upon the Revolutionary struggle had hardly subsided, when we were just emerging from the weakness and embarrassments of the Confederation, there was an evident consciousness of vigor equal to the great mission so wisely and bravely fulfilled by our fathers. It was not a presumptuous assurance, but a calm faith, springing from a clear view of the sources of power in a government constituted like ours. It is no paradox to say that although comparatively weak the new-born nation was intrinsically strong. Inconsiderable in population and apparent resources, it was upheld by a broad and intelligent comprehension of rights and an all-pervading purpose to maintain them, stronger than armaments. It came from the furnace of the Revolution, tempered to the necessities of the times. The thoughts of the men of that day were as practical as their sentiments were patriotic. They wasted no portion of their energies upon idle and delusive speculations, but with a firm and fearless step advanced beyond the governmental landmarks which had hitherto circumscribed the limits of human freedom and planted their standard, where it has stood against dangers which have threatened from abroad, and internal agitation, which has at times fearfully menaced at home. They proved themselves equal to the solution of the great problem, to understand which their minds had been illuminated by the dawning lights of the Revolution. The object sought was not a thing dreamed of; it was a thing realized. They had exhibited only the power to achieve, but, what all history affirms to be so much more unusual, the capacity to maintain. The oppressed throughout the world from that day to the present have turned their eyes hitherward, not to find those lights extinguished or to fear lest they should wane, but to be constantly cheered by their steady and increasing radiance.
In this our country has, in my judgment, thus far fulfilled its highest duty to suffering humanity. It has spoken and will continue to speak, not only by its words, but by its acts, the language of sympathy, encouragement, and hope to those who earnestly listen to tones which pronounce for the largest rational liberty. But after all, the most animating encouragement and potent appeal for freedom will be its own history—its trials and its triumphs. Preeminently, the power of our advocacy reposes in our example; but no example, be it remembered, can be powerful for lasting good, whatever apparent advantages may be gained, which is not based upon eternal principles of right and justice. Our fathers decided for themselves, both upon the hour to declare and the hour to strike. They were their own judges of the circumstances under which it became them to pledge to each other "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor" for the acquisition of the priceless inheritance transmitted to us. The energy with which that great conflict was opened and, under the guidance of a manifest and beneficent Providence the uncomplaining endurance with which it was prosecuted to its consummation were only surpassed by the wisdom and patriotic spirit of concession which characterized all the counsels of the early fathers. One of the most impressive evidences of that wisdom is to be found in the fact that the actual working of our system has dispelled a degree of solicitude which at the outset disturbed bold hearts and far-reaching intellects. The apprehension of dangers from extended territory, multiplied States, accumulated wealth, and augmented population has proved to be unfounded. The stars upon your banner have become nearly threefold their original number; your densely populated possessions skirt the shores of the two great oceans; and yet this vast increase of people and territory has not only shown itself compatible with the harmonious action of the States and Federal Government in their respective constitutional spheres, but has afforded an additional guaranty of the strength and integrity of both.
With an experience thus suggestive and cheering, the policy of my Administration will not be controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion. Indeed, it is not to be disguised that our attitude as a nation and our position on the globe render the acquisition of certain possessions not within our jurisdiction eminently important for our protection, if not in the future essential for the preservation of the rights of commerce and the peace of the world. Should they be obtained, it will be through no grasping spirit, but with a view to obvious national interest and security, and in a manner entirely consistent with the strictest observance of national faith. We have nothing in our history or position to invite aggression; we have everything to beckon us to the cultivation of relations of peace and amity with all nations. Purposes, therefore, at once just and pacific will be significantly marked in the conduct of our foreign affairs. I intend that my Administration shall leave no blot upon our fair record, and trust I may safely give the assurance that no act within the legitimate scope of my constitutional control will be tolerated on the part of any portion of our citizens which can not challenge a ready justification before the tribunal of the civilized world. An Administration would be unworthy of confidence at home or respect abroad should it cease to be influenced by the conviction that no apparent advantage can be purchased at a price so dear as that of national wrong or dishonor. It is not your privilege as a nation to speak of a distant past. The striking incidents of your history, replete with instruction and furnishing abundant grounds for hopeful confidence, are comprised in a period comparatively brief. But if your past is limited, your future is boundless. Its obligations throng the unexplored pathway of advancement, and will be limitless as duration. Hence a sound and comprehensive policy should embrace not less the distant future than the urgent present.
The great objects of our pursuit as a people are best to be attained by peace, and are entirely consistent with the tranquillity and interests of the rest of mankind. With the neighboring nations upon our continent we should cultivate kindly and fraternal relations. We can desire nothing in regard to them so much as to see them consolidate their strength and pursue the paths of prosperity and happiness. If in the course of their growth we should open new channels of trade and create additional facilities for friendly intercourse, the benefits realized will be equal and mutual. Of the complicated European systems of national polity we have heretofore been independent. From their wars, their tumults, and anxieties we have been, happily, almost entirely exempt. Whilst these are confined to the nations which gave them existence, and within their legitimate jurisdiction, they can not affect us except as they appeal to our sympathies in the cause of human freedom and universal advancement. But the vast interests of commerce are common to all mankind, and the advantages of trade and international intercourse must always present a noble field for the moral influence of a great people.
With these views firmly and honestly carried out, we have a right to expect, and shall under all circumstances require, prompt reciprocity. The rights which belong to us as a nation are not alone to be regarded, but those which pertain to every citizen in his individual capacity, at home and abroad, must be sacredly maintained. So long as he can discern every star in its place upon that ensign, without wealth to purchase for him preferment or title to secure for him place, it will be his privilege, and must be his acknowledged right, to stand unabashed even in the presence of princes, with a proud consciousness that he is himself one of a nation of sovereigns and that he can not in legitimate pursuit wander so far from home that the agent whom he shall leave behind in the place which I now occupy will not see that no rude hand of power or tyrannical passion is laid upon him with impunity. He must realize that upon every sea and on every soil where our enterprise may rightfully seek the protection of our flag American citizenship is an inviolable panoply for the security of American rights. And in this connection it can hardly be necessary to reaffirm a principle which should now be regarded as fundamental. The rights, security, and repose of this Confederacy reject the idea of interference or colonization on this side of the ocean by any foreign power beyond present jurisdiction as utterly inadmissible.
The opportunities of observation furnished by my brief experience as a soldier confirmed in my own mind the opinion, entertained and acted upon by others from the formation of the Government, that the maintenance of large standing armies in our country would be not only dangerous, but unnecessary. They also illustrated the importance—I might well say the absolute necessity—of the military science and practical skill furnished in such an eminent degree by the institution which has made your Army what it is, under the discipline and instruction of officers not more distinguished for their solid attainments, gallantry, and devotion to the public service than for unobtrusive bearing and high moral tone. The Army as organized must be the nucleus around which in every time of need the strength of your military power, the sure bulwark of your defense—a national militia—may be readily formed into a well-disciplined and efficient organization. And the skill and self-devotion of the Navy assure you that you may take the performance of the past as a pledge for the future, and may confidently expect that the flag which has waved its untarnished folds over every sea will still float in undiminished honor. But these, like many other subjects, will be appropriately brought at a future time to the attention of the coordinate branches of the Government, to which I shall always look with profound respect and with trustful confidence that they will accord to me the aid and support which I shall so much need and which their experience and wisdom will readily suggest.
In the administration of domestic affairs you expect a devoted integrity in the public service and an observance of rigid economy in all departments, so marked as never justly to be questioned. If this reasonable expectation be not realized, I frankly confess that one of your leading hopes is doomed to disappointment, and that my efforts in a very important particular must result in a humiliating failure. Offices can be properly regarded only in the light of aids for the accomplishment of these objects, and as occupancy can confer no prerogative nor importunate desire for preferment any claim, the public interest imperatively demands that they be considered with sole reference to the duties to be performed. Good citizens may well claim the protection of good laws and the benign influence of good government, but a claim for office is what the people of a republic should never recognize. No reasonable man of any party will expect the Administration to be so regardless of its responsibility and of the obvious elements of success as to retain persons known to be under the influence of political hostility and partisan prejudice in positions which will require not only severe labor, but cordial cooperation. Having no implied engagements to ratify, no rewards to bestow, no resentments to remember, and no personal wishes to consult in selections for official station, I shall fulfill this difficult and delicate trust, admitting no motive as worthy either of my character or position which does not contemplate an efficient discharge of duty and the best interests of my country. I acknowledge my obligations to the masses of my countrymen, and to them alone. Higher objects than personal aggrandizement gave direction and energy to their exertions in the late canvass, and they shall not be disappointed. They require at my hands diligence, integrity, and capacity wherever there are duties to be performed. Without these qualities in their public servants, more stringent laws for the prevention or punishment of fraud, negligence, and peculation will be vain. With them they will be unnecessary.
But these are not the only points to which you look for vigilant watchfulness. The dangers of a concentration of all power in the general government of a confederacy so vast as ours are too obvious to be disregarded. You have a right, therefore, to expect your agents in every department to regard strictly the limits imposed upon them by the Constitution of the United States. The great scheme of our constitutional liberty rests upon a proper distribution of power between the State and Federal authorities, and experience has shown that the harmony and happiness of our people must depend upon a just discrimination between the separate rights and responsibilities of the States and your common rights and obligations under the General Government; and here, in my opinion, are the considerations which should form the true basis of future concord in regard to the questions which have most seriously disturbed public tranquillity. If the Federal Government will confine itself to the exercise of powers clearly granted by the Constitution, it can hardly happen that its action upon any question should endanger the institutions of the States or interfere with their right to manage matters strictly domestic according to the will of their own people.
In expressing briefly my views upon an important subject which has recently agitated the nation to almost a fearful degree, I am moved by no other impulse than a most earnest desire for the perpetuation of that Union which has made us what we are, showering upon us blessings and conferring a power and influence which our fathers could hardly have anticipated, even with their most sanguine hopes directed to a far-off future. The sentiments I now announce were not unknown before the expression of the voice which called me here. My own position upon this subject was clear and unequivocal, upon the record of my words and my acts, and it is only recurred to at this time because silence might perhaps be misconstrued. With the Union my best and dearest earthly hopes are entwined. 1 Without it what are we individually or collectively? What becomes of the noblest field ever opened for the advancement of our race in religion, in government, in the arts, and in all that dignifies and adorns mankind? From that radiant constellation which both illumines our own way and points out to struggling nations their course, let but a single star be lost, and, if there be not utter darkness, the luster of the whole is dimmed. Do my countrymen need any assurance that such a catastrophe is not to overtake them while I possess the power to stay it? It is with me an earnest and vital belief that as the Union has been the source, under Providence, of our prosperity to this time, so it is the surest pledge of a continuance of the blessings we have enjoyed, and which we are sacredly bound to transmit undiminished to our children. The field of calm and free discussion in our country is open, and will always be so, but never has been and never can be traversed for good in a spirit of sectionalism and uncharitableness. The founders of the Republic dealt with things as they were presented to them, in a spirit of self-sacrificing patriotism, and, as time has proved, with a comprehensive wisdom which it will always be safe for us to consult. Every measure tending to strengthen the fraternal feelings of all the members of our Union has had my heartfelt approbation. To every theory of society or government, whether the offspring of feverish ambition or of morbid enthusiasm, calculated to dissolve the bonds of law and affection which unite us, I shall interpose a ready and stern resistance. I believe that involuntary servitude, as it exists in different States of this Confederacy, is recognized by the Constitution. 2 I believe that it stands like any other admitted right, and that the States where it exists are entitled to efficient remedies to enforce the constitutional provisions. I hold that the laws of 1850, commonly called the "compromise measures," are strictly constitutional and to be unhesitatingly carried into effect. 3 I believe that the constituted authorities of this Republic are bound to regard the rights of the South in this respect as they would view any other legal and constitutional right, and that the laws to enforce them should be respected and obeyed, not with a reluctance encouraged by abstract opinions as to their propriety in a different state of society, but cheerfully and according to the decisions of the tribunal to which their exposition belongs. Such have been, and are, my convictions, and upon them I shall act. I fervently hope that the question is at rest, and that no sectional or ambitious or fanatical excitement may again threaten the durability of our institutions or obscure the light of our prosperity.
But let not the foundation of our hope rest upon man's wisdom. It will not be sufficient that sectional prejudices find no place in the public deliberations. It will not be sufficient that the rash counsels of human passion are rejected. It must be felt that there is no national security but in the nation's humble, acknowledged dependence upon God and His overruling providence.
We have been carried in safety through a perilous crisis. Wise counsels, like those which gave us the Constitution, prevailed to uphold it. Let the period be remembered as an admonition, and not as an encouragement, in any section of the Union, to make experiments where experiments are fraught with such fearful hazard. Let it be impressed upon all hearts that, beautiful as our fabric is, no earthly power or wisdom could ever reunite its broken fragments. Standing, as I do, almost within view of the green slopes of Monticello, and, as it were, within reach of the tomb of Washington, with all the cherished memories of the past gathering around me like so many eloquent voices of exhortation from heaven, I can express no better hope for my country than that the kind Providence which smiled upon our fathers may enable their children to preserve the blessings they have inherited.
Quotes to Note
- "With the Union..." Like many Americans at the time, Pierce supported slavery but also believed that holding the nation together was more important than allowing regional or philosophical differences to divide it.
- "I believe that involuntary servitude..." Pierce became the first president to state his views of slavery in an inaugural address. Although he was a Northerner, Pierce felt that the Constitution allowed slavery.
- "I hold that the laws of 1850..." Pierce is referring mainly to the Fugitive Slave Laws, which were thoroughly hated by abolitionists. In Kansas, people who aided runaway slaves could be imprisoned or, in certain instances, executed.
Franklin Pierce served as president during the turbulent years leading up to the American Civil War (1861–65). A loyal member of the Democratic Party , Pierce supported slavery and believed it was sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution . He was the rare New Englander whom Southerners trusted.
Pierce was born on November 23, 1804. He grew up in a distinguished New Hampshire family. His father was a veteran of the American Revolution (1775–83) and a two-term state governor. Pierce graduated fifth in his class at Bowdoin College and then studied law. He was admitted to the bar in 1827 and gained a seat in the New Hampshire legislature in 1829.
In March 1833, though not yet thirty years old, Pierce was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; four years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. He owed his success mainly to his father, but also to the Democratic Party. From the start, he remained steadfastly loyal to the party. His service was undistinguished, but he was well-liked and made good political contacts while in Congress. Moreover, he strongly supported the Southern view on slavery; he even formed a close friendship with Jefferson Davis (1808–89), the future president of the Confederate States of America .
Making an uncontroversial name
When the Mexican-American War (1846–48) broke out, Pierce volunteered as a private but, due to his connections, he gained the rank of brigadier general before he had donned his uniform. His combat record was undistinguished. After the war, Pierce became involved in New Hampshire politics. He helped rid the state party of an antislavery candidate for governor and thereby improved his reputation in the South. In 1851, his name was raised as a possible presidential candidate.
At that time, the Whigs and the Democrats were the two major political parties in the United States. Whigs favored a strong federal government that actively supported internal improvement through the use of a national bank. Democrats generally opposed federally funded improvements and supported states’ rights. Both parties had pro- and antislavery constituents, and many politicians feared this division might one day split the Union. The federal government sought to patch up the most troublesome aspects of the slavery question with legislation called the Compromise of 1850 , a series of laws that regulated how new territories came to be slave states or free states.
A temporary and very delicate spirit of national unity followed the Compromise of 1850. The political parties sought presidential candidates for the 1852 election who were not known for holding strong positions and would support the Compromise. Late in the process, the Democrats nominated Pierce. Few issues were raised during the presidential campaign. Pierce made no formal speeches. According to the custom of the time, he allowed his supporters to campaign for him. They also had to work to overcome the accusations that Pierce was a drunkard, a coward, and anti-Catholic.Pierce narrowly won the general election.
Pierce was in the process of organizing his administration when his eleven-year-old son Benjamin was killed in a train accident. Pierce entered office in a state of deep mourning. His wife, Jane Pierce, locked herself in her bedroom, seldom even appearing for public functions. Her inconsolable grief added to his burdens.
Pierce entered the presidency determined to adhere to old-line Democratic policy and to promote expansionism—adding new territory to the nation. The issue of slavery in the new territories was contentious, but he believed he could ignore the North's increasingly strong opposition to the institution.
In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act destroyed any remaining spirit of national compromise. The act created two new territories, Kansas and Nebraska , with the condition that each territory could decide whether to allow slavery within its borders. Nebraska's population primarily consisted of people opposed to slavery, but Kansas, with settlers on both sides of the issue, became the scene of a showdown between “free state” (antislavery) advocates and the proslavery contingent. Violent confrontations between the two sides led to lawlessness and chaos.
Pierce seemed incapable of providing effective direction. Even as blood was being spilled in Kansas over a conflict that was a national issue, he left the question of slavery up to the warring settlers. His lack of leadership at a crucial time heightened the bitter tensions. His inaction pleased no one; when the Democratic National Convention met in 1856, it chose James Buchanan (1791–1868), then the minister to Great Britain and former secretary of state, as its candidate.
When the Civil War erupted, Pierce first supported the Union effort, but he quickly reverted to his pro-Southern position. In a July 4, 1863, speech, he blasted the civil rights and emancipation policies of President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65), proclaiming that the attempt to preserve the Union by force was futile. While he spoke, word filtered through the crowd of the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg . Pierce lived another six years, but played no further public role.
Franklin Pierce served as the fourteenth president of the United States from 1853 to 1857. He was the youngest person to be elected president up to that time. A northern Democrat who sought to preserve southern slavery, Pierce's administration proved a failure because he antagonized the growing abolitionist movement by signing the kansas-nebraska act of 1854, which gave the two new territories the option of whether to permit slavery. Pierce was unable to win renomination for a second term.
Pierce was born on November 23, 1804, in Hillsboro, New Hampshire. His parents were Benjamin and Anna Kendrick Pierce. Pierce graduated from Bowdoin College in 1824 and returned home to take over his father's duties as postmaster, after his father entered politics. Pierce studied law with a local attorney and was admitted to the New Hampshire bar in 1827. In that same year his father was elected governor of New Hampshire, which proved helpful to Pierce's own nascent political ambitions.
Pierce was elected as a Democrat to the New Hampshire legislature in 1829 and in 1832 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. A strong supporter of President andrew jackson, Pierce also became associated with the cause of slavery. In 1835 he attacked the flood of abolitionist petitions addressed to the House, which contained the signatures of more than two million people. He joined southern Democrats in imposing a "gag rule" that prevented the House from receiving or debating these petitions.
In 1837 Pierce was elected to the U.S. Senate. He resigned in 1842 for personal reasons and returned to Concord, New Hampshire, to become the federal district attorney. Except for a brief tour of duty as an Army officer during the Mexican War (1846–48), Pierce remained out of the political arena until the democratic party national convention in 1852. The three leading candidates for the presidential nomination, Lewis Cass, stephen a. douglas, and james buchanan, failed to win the necessary votes after forty-eight ballots. The convention turned to Pierce on the forty-ninth ballot as a compromise candidate who, though virtually unknown nationally, enjoyed support from northern and southern Democrats. He easily defeated General Winfield Scott, the whig party candidate, in November 1852.
"A republic without parties is a complete anomaly. The history of all popular governments show how absurd is the idea of their attempting to exist without parties."
Pierce took office in March 1853, at a time when the issue of slavery threatened to divide both the Democratic and Whig parties, as well as the nation itself. Pierce sought to ease tensions by appointing a cabinet that contained a mix of southern and northern officials. Still critical of abolitionism, he enraged the antislavery movement with his signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The act repealed the missouri
compromise of 1820, which restricted the boundaries of slavery to the same latitude as the southern boundary of Missouri—36° 30′ north latitude. The new territories of Kansas and Nebraska were organized according to the principle of popular sovereignty, which permitted voters to determine for themselves whether slavery would be a legalized institution at the time of the territories' admission as states.
Abolitionists saw the popular sovereignty principle as a means of extending slavery northward and westward. Pierce proved weak and indecisive as violence erupted in Kansas and Nebraska. On May 25, 1856, the militant abolitionist john brown led a raid against supporters of slavery at Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, killing five persons. Though appalled at the raid, Pierce said nothing and did little to address the growing violence between abolitionists and supporters of slavery that soon gave the territory the name "Bleeding Kansas." His support of slavery led to defections from the Democratic party and ultimately contributed to the establishment of the antislavery republican party.
Pierce did achieve some success in foreign affairs. In 1854 Pierce received the report of Commodore Matthew C. Perry's expedition to Japan and the news that U.S. ships would have limited access to Japanese ports. His administration acquired a strip of land near the Mexican border for $10 million in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, negotiated a fishing rights treaty with Canada in 1854, and in 1856 signed a treaty with Great Britain resolving disputes in Central America.
However, Pierce's popularity was damaged by his secret attempt to buy Cuba from Spain. The public disclosure of the October 1854 diplomatic statement called the Ostend Manifesto shocked Congress and the public. The manifesto discussed ways in which the United States might acquire or annex Cuba with or without the will-ingness of Spain to sell it. Pierce was forced to disclaim responsibility for the plan, but his integrity was placed in doubt.
Pierce was not renominated by the Democratic party in 1856, largely because of his difficulties with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and his ineffective leadership. The party turned to James Buchanan, who was elected but did little to resolve the political and sectional differences over slavery.
Pierce retired from public life in 1857 and returned to Concord, New Hampshire, to practice
law. He became a vocal critic of President abraham lincoln during the Civil War, however, attacking the emancipation proclamation of 1863. When, in April 1865, he failed to hang a flag in mourning for the assassinated Lincoln, a mob attacked his home.
Pierce died in Concord on October 8, 1869.
Gara, Larry. 1991. The Presidency of Franklin Pierce. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.
Nichols, Roy F. 1988. Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills. 2d ed. Norwalk, Conn.: Easton Press.
Franklin Pierce was born in Hillsborough County, N.H., on Nov. 23, 1804, the son of a Revolutionary general and governor of New Hampshire. Pierce graduated from Bowdoin College and studied law under Levi Woodbury, who was secretary of the Treasury under Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Following his father, Pierce joined the Democratic party, supporting Jackson for election in 1828. Pierce served in the New Hampshire Legislature (1828-1832) and in the U.S. House of Representatives (1832-1842). Pierce declined President James Polk's offer of the position of attorney general, instead accepting appointment as U.S. attorney for New Hampshire. During the Mexican War, Pierce served as a brigadier general under Winfield Scott.
Because he was relatively unknown and had not antagonized voters, Pierce received the Democratic nomination for president in 1852. Though he was elected over Scott, the Whig candidate, his overall majority was only 50,000 out of over 3 million votes cast.
As president, Pierce was mainly concerned with promoting national unity by including all Democratic factions in the Cabinet and by strictly adhering to the Compromise of 1850. Pierce hated change and relied on tradition to steer the government. However, his hopes for unity were destroyed by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Enactment of this law led to a revolt by antislavery Democrats and to the creation of the Republican party, replacing the Whig party in the North. Pierce's vigorous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act alienated the same elements.
Kansas created other major problems. Pierce's inept gubernatorial appointee in Kansas was unable to prevent either the election frauds committed by the Missourians who crossed the border or the violence that erupted between pro-and antislavery settlers. By 1856 complete chaos existed in Kansas; two governments were established, and Pierce was helpless to control the situation.
In foreign policy, Pierce and his secretary of state, William L. Marcy, generally followed expansionistic policies. They tried to purchase Cuba and officially recognized the regime set up by the American adventurer William Walker in Nicaragua. Pierce also tried to increase American prestige by mediating the Crimean War between England and Russia.
Because of Northern opposition to Pierce, James Buchanan defeated him at the Democratic convention in 1856. He retired to New Hampshire and was accused of being a Southern sympathizer during the Civil War. He died in Concord on Oct. 8, 1869.
The only biography of Pierce is Roy Nichols, Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills (1931; 2d rev. ed. 1958), a sympathetic portrait. Material on his administration and the politics of the era is in Ivor D. Spencer, The Victor and the Spoils: A Life of William Marcy (1958), and Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan: A Biography (1962). □