Franklin Pierce (1804-1869), the son of a onetime governor of New Hampshire, entered politics at a young age. He served as speaker of the state legislature before winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1833. After two terms in the House and one in the Senate, Pierce returned to practicing law, only to emerge in 1852 as the Democratic presidential candidate. During Pierce’s administration (1853-1857), settlement was encouraged in the northwest region of the country, even as sectional tensions increased over the issue of slavery and its extension into new territories. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which Pierce signed in 1854, enraged antislavery northerners and brought about the emergence of the new Republican Party. Pierce’s inability to handle the upheaval in Kansas led to repudiation by many Democrats, who denied him the party’s nomination in 1856.
Franklin Pierce’s Early Life and Career
Born on 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 younger 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 two years later he became its speaker. A member of the Democratic Party and a steadfast supporter of Andrew Jackson, Pierce began serving in Congress in 1833. In 1834, he married Jane Appleton, the daughter of a former Bowdoin president.
During his two terms in the House of Representatives (until 1837) and one term in the Senate (1837-1842), the young and handsome Pierce became a popular figure in Washington, though he had little influence compared to other prominent Democrats. Friendly with many southerners, Pierce was impatient with the more radical abolitionists from New England. Often in ill health, Jane was unhappy with life in Washington, and in 1842 Pierce gave up his Senate seat and returned to Concord, where he became a leader in the legal community.
Franklin Pierce’s Road to the White House
Franklin Pierce served as an officer in the Mexican War (1846-1848) but stayed largely out of public life for the next decade. He did earn 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 loomed large that year, and the Democratic platform included a pledge of complete support for the Compromise of 1850. The opposition Whig Party was more divided around the Compromise, and southerners hated the Whig candidate, General Winfield Scott, which helped Pierce win a narrow victory. Scott’s defeat marked the last gasp for the Whigs, and the fractured party would soon dissolve. Two months before he took office, Pierce and his family were in a train wreck on the way from Boston to Concord. Though Pierce and his wife were barely injured, their 11-year-old son, Bennie, was killed. He was the third of their sons to die before reaching adulthood, and Pierce’s wife Jane never fully recovered from the loss. Somber and pious, she had opposed her husband’s candidacy and would serve few of her social duties in the White House.
Franklin Pierce’s Presidency
When Franklin Pierce took office, the nation was enjoying an era of great economic prosperity and relative tranquility. For the time being, at least, 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 pandering to those seeking to expand slavery.
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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, 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 Spanish authorities in Havana seized the U.S. vessel Black Warrior in February 1854, the Pierce administration and ministers from Spain, France and Britain concluded the secret Ostend Manifesto, which stated that if the United States 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. In another foreign policy development that year, Commodore Matthew C. Perry led the negotiation of a treaty that opened trade with Japan after years of Dutch monopoly.
The greatest tensions of 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 antislavery 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 proslavery legislature in March 1855, making a mockery of popular sovereignty. When antislavery settlers in Kansas formed a rival government and sought admission to the Union as a free state, violence broke out between these Free Staters and their proslavery opponents. While Pierce resisted sending federal troops to Kansas, tensions reached new heights in Washington, with South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks assaulting 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 Post-Presidential Years
In the end, Franklin Pierce’s belief in a limited role for the federal government, combined with his accommodation of and submission to powerful proslavery interests within the Democratic Party, had made him largely ineffective as a leader. By the time he left office, the nation had moved closer to civil war, and the situation would only grow worse under Buchanan, another northerner with southern sympathies.
During the Civil War (1861-1865), Pierce accused Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans of reckless conduct and denounced Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1863). 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.