Pierce, described by biographers and contemporaries as a personable and sincere young man, worked as a lawyer before winning a seat in the New Hampshire state legislature in 1828, while his father served as New Hampshire’s governor. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1832 and fought in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), for which he received military honors.
As president, Pierce facilitated the acquisition of the territories that now make up the states of Arizona and New Mexico through the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. He also improved trade relations with Canada in exchange for greater U.S. fishing rights along the continent’s North Atlantic coast. However, he is best remembered for his endorsement of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether they would allow slavery or outlaw the practice. Foreshadowing the brutal Civil War that was soon to come, the territories erupted in sectarian violence after the act’s passing. Pierce’s failure to stem the fighting and his role in the Ostend Manifesto fiasco of 1854 (a secret plan to start a war with Spain in order to annex Cuba) proved to be his political undoing. Members of his own Democratic Party refused to re-nominate him for president in the election of 1856, popularizing the slogan “anybody but Pierce.”
In 1834, Pierce had married Jane Means Appleton and the couple had three sons. The first, Franklin, died in infancy; a second, Frank Robert, died at age four from typhus; and their third son, Benny, was killed in a train wreck from which Pierce and his wife narrowly escaped. The string of tragedies led Pierce to drinking. He also suffered from chronic nervous exhaustion. By the end of his term, a Philadelphia Enquirer reporter described Pierce as “a wreck of his former self…his face wears a hue so ghastly and cadaverous that one could almost fancy he was gazing on a corpse.” Upon leaving office in 1857, Pierce was asked what he would do next; he allegedly replied “there’s nothing left [to do] but get drunk.” The effects of alcoholism led to his death in 1869 at the age of 65.