Mountain View


Franklin Pierce (November 23, 1804 – October 8, 1869) was the 14th president of the United States (1853-1857), a northern Democrat who saw the abolitionist movement as a fundamental threat to the unity of the nation. He alienated anti-slavery groups by championing and signing the Kansas-Nebraska Act and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, yet he failed to stem conflict between North and South, setting the stage for Southern secession and the American Civil War.

Pierce was born in New Hampshire, and served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate until he resigned from the Senate in 1842. His private law practice was a success, and he was appointed New Hampshire’s U.S. Attorney in 1845. He took part in the Mexican-American War as a brigadier general in the Army. He was seen by Democrats as a compromise candidate uniting northern and southern interests and was nominated as the party’s candidate for president on the 49th ballot at the 1852 Democratic National Convention. He and running mate William R. King easily defeated the Whig Party ticket of Winfield Scott and William A. Graham in the 1852 presidential election.

As president, Pierce simultaneously attempted to enforce neutral standards for civil service while also satisfying the diverse elements of the Democratic Party with patronage, an effort which largely failed and turned many in his party against him. He was a Young America expansionist who signed the Gadsden Purchase of land from Mexico and led a failed attempt to acquire Cuba from Spain. He signed trade treaties with Britain and Japan, while his Cabinet reformed their departments and improved accountability, but these successes were overshadowed by political strife during his presidency. His popularity declined sharply in the Northern states after he supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which nullified the Missouri Compromise, while many whites in the South continued to support him. Passage of the act led to violent conflict over the expansion of slavery in the American West. Pierce’s administration was further damaged when several of his diplomats issued the Ostend Manifesto calling for the annexation of Cuba, a document which was roundly criticized. He fully expected to be renominated by the Democrats in the 1856 presidential election, but was abandoned by his party and his bid failed. His reputation in the North suffered further during the American Civil War as he became a vocal critic of President Abraham Lincoln.

Pierce was popular and outgoing, but his family life was a grim affair, with his wife Jane suffering from illness and depression for much of her life. All of their children died young, their last son being gruesomely killed in a train accident while the family was traveling shortly before Pierce’s inauguration. He was a heavy drinker for much of his life, and he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1869. Historians and scholars generally rank Pierce as one of the worst and least memorable U.S. Presidents.

Early Life and Family

Childhood and education

Franklin Pierce was born on November 23, 1804 in a log cabin in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. He was a sixth-generation descendant of Thomas Pierce, who had moved to the Massachusetts Bay Colony from Norwich, Norfolk, England in about 1634. His father Benjamin was a lieutenant in the American Revolutionary War who moved from Chelmsford, Massachusetts to Hillsborough after the war, purchasing 50 acres (20 ha) of land. Pierce was the fifth of eight children born to Benjamin and his second wife Anna Kendrick; his first wife Elizabeth Andrews died in childbirth, leaving a daughter. Benjamin was a prominent Democratic-Republican state legislator, farmer, and tavern-keeper. During Pierce’s childhood, his father was deeply involved in state politics, while two of his older brothers fought in the War of 1812; public affairs and the military were thus a major influence in his early life.

Pierce’s father ensured that his sons were educated, and he placed Pierce in a school at Hillsborough Center in childhood and sent him to the town school at Hancock at age 12.[note 4] The boy, not fond of schooling, grew homesick at Hancock and walked 12 miles (19 km) back to his home one Sunday. His father fed him dinner and drove him part of the distance back to school before kicking him out of the carriage and ordering him to walk the rest of the way in a thunderstorm. Pierce later cited this moment as “the turning-point in my life”. Later that year, he transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy to prepare for college. By this time, he had built a reputation as a charming student, sometimes prone to misbehavior.

In fall 1820, Pierce entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, one of 19 freshmen. He joined the Athenian Society, a progressive literary society, alongside Jonathan Cilley (later elected to Congress) and Nathaniel Hawthorne, with whom he formed lasting friendships. He was the last in his class after two years, but he worked hard to improve his grades and graduated in fifth place in 1824 in a graduating class of 14.John P. Hale enrolled at Bowdoin in Pierce’s junior year; he became a political ally of Pierce’s and then his rival. Pierce organized and led an unofficial militia company called the Bowdoin Cadets during his junior year, which included Cilley and Hawthorne. The unit performed drill on campus near the president’s house, until the noise caused him to demand that it halt. The students rebelled and went on strike, an event that Pierce was suspected of leading. During his final year at Bowdoin, he spent several months teaching at a school in rural Hebron, Maine, where he earned his first salary and his students included future Congressman John J. Perry.

Pierce read law briefly with former New Hampshire Governor Levi Woodbury, a family friend in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He then spent a semester at Northampton Law School in Northampton, Massachusetts, followed by a period of study in 1826 and 1827 under Judge Edmund Parker in Amherst, New Hampshire. He was admitted to the New Hampshire bar in late 1827 and began to practice in Hillsborough. He lost his first case, but soon proved capable as a lawyer. Despite never being a legal scholar, his memory for names and faces served him well, as did his personal charm and deep voice. In Hillsborough, his law partner was Albert Baker, who had studied law under Pierce and was the brother of Mary Baker Eddy.

State Politics

By 1824, New Hampshire was a hotbed of partisanship, with figures such as Woodbury and Isaac Hill laying the groundwork for a party of Democrats in support of General Andrew Jackson. They opposed the established Federalists (and their successors, the National Republicans), who were led by sitting President John Quincy Adams. The work of the New Hampshire Democratic Party came to fruition in March 1827, when their pro-Jackson nominee, Benjamin Pierce, won the support of the pro-Adams faction and was elected governor of New Hampshire essentially unopposed. While the younger Pierce had set out to build a career as an attorney, he was fully drawn into the realm of politics as the 1828 presidential election between Adams and Jackson approached. In the state elections held in March 1828, the Adams faction withdrew their support of Benjamin Pierce, voting him out of office,[note 5] but Franklin Pierce won his first election, as Hillsborough town moderator, a position to which he would be elected for six consecutive years.

Pierce actively campaigned in his district on behalf of Jackson, who carried both the district and the nation by large margins in the November 1828 election, even though he lost New Hampshire. The outcome further strengthened the Democratic Party, and Pierce won his first legislative seat the following year, representing Hillsborough in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Pierce’s father, meanwhile, was elected again as governor, retiring after that term. The younger Pierce was appointed as chairman of the House Education Committee in 1829 and the Committee on Towns the following year. By 1831 the Democrats held a legislative majority, and Pierce was elected Speaker of the House. The young Speaker used his platform to oppose the expansion of banking, protect the state militia, and offer support to the national Democrats and Jackson’s re-election effort. At the age of 27, he was a star of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. Though attaining early political and professional success, in his personal letters he continued to lament his bachelorhood and yearned for a life beyond Hillsborough.

Like all white males in New Hampshire between the ages of 18 and 45, Pierce was a member of the state militia, and was appointed aide de camp to Governor Samuel Dinsmoor in 1831. He remained in the militia until 1847, and attained the rank of colonel before becoming a brigadier general in the Army during the Mexican-American War. Interested in revitalizing and reforming the state militias, which had become increasingly dormant during the years of peace following the War of 1812, Pierce worked with Alden Partridge, president of Norwich University, a military college in Vermont, and Truman B. Ransom and Alonzo Jackman, Norwich faculty members and militia officers, to increase recruiting efforts and improve training and readiness. Pierce served as a Norwich University trustee from 1841 to 1859, and received the honorary degree of LL.D. from Norwich in 1853.

In late 1832, the Democratic Party convention nominated Pierce for one of New Hampshire’s five seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. This was tantamount to election for the young Democrat, as the National Republicans had faded as a political force, while the Whigs had not yet begun to attract a large following. Democratic strength in New Hampshire was also bolstered by Jackson’s landslide re-election that year. New Hampshire had been a marginal state politically, but from 1832 through the mid-1850s became the most reliably Democratic state in the North, boosting Pierce’s political career. Pierce’s term began in March 1833, but he would not be sworn in until Congress met in December, and his attention was elsewhere. He had recently become engaged and bought his first house in Hillsborough. Franklin and Benjamin Pierce were among the prominent citizens who welcomed President Jackson to the state on his visit in mid-1833.

Marriage and Children

Pious and reserved, Jane Pierce was her husband’s opposite in many ways.

On November 19, 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton (March 12, 1806 – December 2, 1863), a daughter of Congregational minister Jesse Appleton and Elizabeth Means. The Appletons were prominent Whigs, in contrast with the Pierces’ Democratic affiliation. Jane Pierce was shy, devoutly religious, and pro-temperance, encouraging Pierce to abstain from alcohol. She was somewhat gaunt, and constantly ill from tuberculosis and psychological ailments. She abhorred politics and especially disliked Washington, DC, creating a tension that would continue throughout Pierce’s political ascent.

Jane Pierce disliked Hillsborough as well, and in 1838, the Pierces relocated to the state capital, Concord, New Hampshire. They had three sons, all of whom died in childhood. Franklin Jr. (February 2-5, 1836) died in infancy, while Frank Robert (August 27, 1839 – November 14, 1843) died at the age of four from epidemic typhus. Benjamin (April 13, 1841 – January 6, 1853) died at the age of 11 in a train accident.

Congressional Career

U.S. House of Representatives

Pierce departed in November 1833 for Washington, D.C., where the Twenty-third United States Congress convened its regular session on December 2. Jackson’s second term was under way, and the House had a strong Democratic majority, whose primary focus was to prevent the Second Bank of the United States from being rechartered. The Democrats, including Pierce, defeated proposals supported by the newly formed Whig Party, and the bank’s charter expired. Pierce broke from his party on occasion, opposing Democratic bills to fund internal improvements with federal money. He saw both the bank and infrastructure spending as unconstitutional, with internal improvements the responsibility of the states. Pierce’s first term was fairly uneventful from a legislative standpoint, and he was easily re-elected in March 1835. When not in Washington, he attended to his law practice, and in December 1835 returned to the capital for the Twenty-fourth Congress.

As abolitionism grew more vocal in the mid-1830s, Congress was inundated with petitions from anti-slavery groups seeking legislation to restrict slavery in the United States. From the beginning, Pierce found the abolitionists’ “agitation” to be an annoyance, and saw federal action against slavery as an infringement on southern states’ rights, even though he was morally opposed to slavery itself. He was also frustrated with the “religious bigotry” of abolitionists, who cast their political opponents as sinners. “I consider slavery a social and political evil,” Pierce said, “and most sincerely wish that it had no existence upon the face of the earth.” Still, he wrote in December 1835, “One thing must be perfectly apparent to every intelligent man. This abolition movement must be crushed or there is an end to the Union.”

When Rep. James Henry Hammond of South Carolina looked to prevent anti-slavery petitions from reaching the House floor, however, Pierce sided with the abolitionists’ right to petition. Nevertheless, Pierce supported what came to be known as the gag rule, which allowed for petitions to be received, but not read or considered. This passed the House in 1836. He was attacked by the New Hampshire anti-slavery Herald of Freedom as a “doughface”, which had the dual meaning of “craven-spirited man” and “northerner with southern sympathies”. Pierce had stated that not one in 500 New Hampshirites were abolitionists; the Herald of Freedom article added up the number of signatures on petitions from that state, divided by the number of residents according to the 1830 census, and suggested the actual number was one-in-33. Pierce was outraged when South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun read the article on the Senate floor as “proof” that New Hampshire was a hotbed of abolitionism. Calhoun apologized after Pierce replied to him in a speech which stated that most signatories were women and children, who could not vote, which therefore cast doubt on the one-in-33 figure.

U.S. Senate

The resignation in May 1836 of Senator Isaac Hill, who had been elected governor of New Hampshire, left a short-term opening to be filled by the state legislature, and with Hill’s term as senator due to expire in March 1837, the legislature also had to fill the six-year term to follow. Pierce’s candidacy for the Senate was championed by state Representative John P. Hale, a fellow Athenian at Bowdoin. After much debate, the legislature chose John Page to fill the rest of Hill’s term. In December 1836, Pierce was elected to the full term, to commence in March 1837, and at age 32, was at the time one of the youngest members in Senate history. The election came at a difficult time for Pierce, as his father, sister, and brother were all seriously ill, while his wife also continued to suffer from chronic poor health. As senator, he was able to help his old friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, who often struggled financially, procuring for him a sinecure as measurer of coal and salt at the Boston Customs House that allowed the author time to continue writing.

Pierce voted the party line on most issues and was an able senator, but not an eminent one; he was overshadowed by the Great Triumvirate of Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster, who dominated the Senate. Pierce entered the Senate at a time of economic crisis, as the Panic of 1837 had begun. He considered the depression a result of the banking system’s rapid growth, amidst “the extravagance of overtrading and the wilderness of speculation”. So that federal money would not support speculative bank loans, he supported newly elected Democratic president Martin Van Buren and his plan to create an independent treasury, a proposal which split the Democratic Party. Debate over slavery continued in Congress, and abolitionists proposed its end in the District of Columbia, where Congress had jurisdiction. Pierce supported a resolution by Calhoun against this proposal, which Pierce considered a dangerous stepping stone to nationwide emancipation. Meanwhile, the Whigs were growing in congressional strength, which would leave Pierce’s party with only a small majority by the end of the decade.

One topic of particular importance to Pierce was the military. He challenged a bill which would expand the ranks of the Army’s staff officers in Washington without any apparent benefit to line officers at posts in the rest of the country. He took an interest in military pensions, seeing abundant fraud within the system, and was named chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Pensions in the Twenty-sixth Congress (1839-1841). In that capacity, he urged the modernization and expansion of the Army, with a focus on militias and mobility rather than on coastal fortifications, which he considered outdated.

Pierce campaigned vigorously throughout his home state for Van Buren’s re-election in the 1840 presidential election. The incumbent carried New Hampshire but lost the national vote to William Henry Harrison, the military hero, whose Whigs took a majority of seats in the Twenty-seventh Congress. Harrison died after a month in office, and Vice President John Tyler succeeded him. Pierce and the Democrats were quick to challenge the new administration, questioning the removal of federal officeholders, and opposing Whig plans for a national bank. In December 1841 Pierce decided to resign from Congress, something he had been planning for some time. New Hampshire Democrats insisted that their state’s U. S. senators be limited to one six-year term, so he had little likelihood of re-election. Also, he was frustrated at being a member of the legislative minority and wished to devote his time to his family and law practice. His last actions in the Senate in February 1842 were to oppose a bill distributing federal funds to the states – believing that the money should go to the military instead – and to challenge the Whigs to reveal the results of their investigation of the New York Customs House, where the Whigs had probed for Democratic corruption for nearly a year but had issued no findings.

Party Leader

Lawyer and politician

Despite his resignation from the Senate, Pierce had no intention of leaving public life. The move to Concord had given him more opportunities for cases, and allowed Jane Pierce a more robust community life. Jane had remained in Concord with her young son Frank and her newborn Benjamin for the latter part of Pierce’s senate term, and this separation had taken a toll on the family. Pierce, meanwhile, had begun a demanding but lucrative law partnership with Asa Fowler during congressional recesses. Pierce returned to Concord in early 1842, and his reputation as a lawyer continued to flourish. Known for his gracious personality, eloquence, and excellent memory, Pierce attracted large audiences in court. He would often represent poor people for little or no compensation.

Pierce remained involved in the state Democratic Party, which was split by several issues. Governor Hill, who represented the commercial, urban wing of the party, advocated the use of government charters to support corporations, granting them privileges such as limited liability and eminent domain for building railroads. The radical “locofoco” wing of his party represented farmers and other rural voters, who sought an expansion of social programs and labor regulations and a restriction on corporate privilege. The state’s political culture grew less tolerant of banks and corporations after the Panic of 1837, and Hill was voted out of office. Pierce was closer to the radicals philosophically, and reluctantly agreed to represent Hill’s adversary in a legal dispute regarding ownership of a newspaper Hill lost, and founded his own paper, of which Pierce was a frequent target.

In June 1842 Pierce was named chairman of the State Democratic Committee, and in the following year’s state election he helped the radical wing take over the state legislature. The party remained divided on several issues, including railroad development and the temperance movement, and Pierce took a leading role in helping the state legislature settle their differences. His priorities were “order, moderation, compromise, and party unity”, which he tried to place ahead of his personal views on political issues. As he would as president, Pierce valued Democratic Party unity highly, and saw the opposition to slavery as a threat to that.

Democratic James K. Polk’s dark horse victory in the 1844 presidential election was welcome news to Pierce, who had befriended the former Speaker of the House while both served in Congress. Pierce had campaigned heavily for Polk during the election, and in turn Polk appointed him as United States Attorney for New Hampshire. Polk’s most prominent cause was the annexation of Texas, an issue which caused a dramatic split between Pierce and his former ally Hale, now a U.S. Representative. Hale was so impassioned against adding a new slave state that he wrote a public letter to his constituents outlining his opposition to the measure. Pierce responded by re-assembling the state Democratic convention to revoke Hale’s nomination for another term in Congress. The political firestorm led to Pierce severing ties with his longtime friend, and with his law partner Fowler, who was a Hale supporter. Hale refused to withdraw, and as a majority vote was needed for election in New Hampshire, the party split led to deadlock and a vacant House seat. Eventually, the Whigs and Hale’s Independent Democrats took control of the legislature, elected Whig Anthony Colby as governor and sent Hale to the Senate, much to Pierce’s anger.

Mexican-American War

Active military service was a long-held dream for Pierce, who had admired his father’s and brothers’ service in his youth, particularly his older brother Benjamin’s, as well as that of John McNeil Jr., husband of Pierce’s older half-sister Elizabeth. As a legislator, he was a passionate advocate for volunteer militias. As a militia officer himself, he had experience mustering and drilling bodies of troops. When Congress declared war against Mexico in May 1846, Pierce immediately volunteered to join, although no New England regiment yet existed. His hope to fight in the Mexican-American War was one reason he refused an offer to become Polk’s Attorney General. General Zachary Taylor’s advance slowed in northern Mexico, and General Winfield Scott proposed capturing the port of Vera Cruz and driving overland to Mexico City. Congress passed a bill authorizing the creation of ten regiments, and Pierce was appointed commander and colonel of the 9th Infantry Regiment in February 1847, with Truman B. Ransom as lieutenant colonel and second-in-command.

On March 3, 1847, Pierce was promoted to brigadier general, and took command of a brigade of reinforcements for General Scott’s army, with Ransom succeeding to command of the regiment. Needing time to assemble his brigade, Pierce reached the already-seized port of Vera Cruz in late June, where he prepared a march of 2,500 men accompanying supplies for Scott. The three-week journey inland was perilous, and the men fought off several attacks before joining with Scott’s army in early August, in time for the Battle of Contreras. The battle was disastrous for Pierce: his horse was suddenly startled during a charge, knocking him groin-first against his saddle. The horse then tripped into a crevice and fell, pinning Pierce underneath and debilitating his knee. The incident made it look like he had fainted, causing one soldier to call for someone else to take command, “General Pierce is a damned coward.” Pierce returned for the following day’s action, but re-injured his knee, forcing him to hobble after his men; by the time he caught up, the battle was mostly won.

As the Battle of Churubusco approached, Scott ordered Pierce to the rear to convalesce. He responded, “For God’s sake, General, this is the last great battle, and I must lead my brigade.” Scott yielded, and Pierce entered the fight tied to his saddle, but the pain in his leg became so great that he passed out on the field. The Americans won the battle and Pierce helped negotiate an armistice. He then returned to command and led his brigade throughout the rest of the campaign, eventually taking part in the capture of Mexico City in mid-September, although his brigade was held in reserve for much of the battle. For much of the Mexico City battle, he was in the sick tent, plagued with acute diarrhea. Pierce remained in command of his brigade during the three-month occupation of the city; while frustrated with the stalling of peace negotiations, he also tried to distance himself from the constant conflict between Scott and the other generals.

Pierce was finally allowed to return to Concord in late December 1847. He was given a hero’s welcome in his home state, and submitted his resignation from the Army, which was approved on March 20, 1848. His military exploits elevated his popularity in New Hampshire, but his injuries and subsequent troubles in battle led to accusations of cowardice which would long shadow him. He had demonstrated competence as a general, especially in the initial march from Vera Cruz, but his short tenure and his injury left little for historians to judge his ability as a military commander.

Ulysses S. Grant, who had the opportunity to observe Pierce firsthand during the war, countered the allegations of cowardice in his memoirs, written several years after Pierce’s death: “Whatever General Pierce’s qualifications may have been for the Presidency, he was a gentleman and a man of courage. I was not a supporter of him politically, but I knew him more intimately than I did any other of the volunteer generals.”

Return to New Hampshire

Returning to Concord, Pierce resumed his law practice; in one notable case he defended the religious liberty of the Shakers, the insular sect threatened with legal action over accusations of abuse. His role as a party leader, however, continued to take up most of his attention. He continued to wrangle with Senator Hale, who was anti-slavery and had opposed the war, stances that Pierce regarded as needless agitation.

The large Mexican Cession of land divided the United States politically, with many in the North insisting that slavery not be allowed there (and offering the Wilmot Proviso to ensure it), while others wanted slavery barred north of the Missouri Compromise line of 3630 N. Both proposals were anathema to many Southerners, and the controversy split the Democrats. At the 1848 Democratic National Convention, the majority nominated former Michigan senator Lewis Cass for president, while a minority broke off to become the Free Soil Party, backing former president Van Buren. The Whigs chose General Zachary Taylor, a Louisianan, whose views on most political issues were unknown. Despite his past support for Van Buren, Pierce supported Cass, turning down the quiet offer of second place on the Free Soil ticket, and was so effective that Taylor, who was elected president, was held in New Hampshire to his lowest percentage in any state.

Senator Henry Clay, a Whig, hoped to put the slavery question to rest with a set of proposals that became known as the Compromise of 1850. These would give victories to North and South, and gained the support of his fellow Whig, Webster. With the bill stalled in the Senate, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas led a successful effort to split it into separate measures so that each legislator could vote against the parts his state opposed without endangering the overall package. The bills passed, and were signed by President Millard Fillmore (who had succeeded Taylor after the president’s death earlier in 1850). Pierce strongly supported the compromise, giving a well-received speech in December 1850 pledging himself to “The Union! Eternal Union!” The same month, the Democratic candidate for governor, John Atwood, issued a letter opposing the Compromise, and Pierce helped to recall the state convention and remove Atwood from the ticket. The fiasco compromised the election for the Democrats, who lost several races; still, Pierce’s party retained its control over the state, and was well positioned for the upcoming presidential election.

Election of 1852

As the 1852 presidential election approached, the Democrats were divided by the slavery issue, though most of the “Barnburners” who had left the party with Van Buren to form the Free Soil Party had returned. It was widely expected that the 1852 Democratic National Convention would result in deadlock, with no major candidate able to win the necessary two-thirds majority. New Hampshire Democrats, including Pierce, supported his old teacher, Levi Woodbury, by then an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, as a compromise candidate, but Woodbury’s death in September 1851 opened up an opportunity for Pierce’s allies to present him as a potential dark horse in the mold of Polk. New Hampshire Democrats felt that, as the state in which their party had most consistently gained Democratic majorities, they should supply the presidential candidate. Other possible standard-bearers included Douglas, Cass, William Marcy of New York, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, Sam Houston of Texas, and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri.

Despite home state support, Pierce faced obstacles to his nomination, since he had been out of office for a decade, and also lacked the front-runners’ national reputation. He publicly declared that such a nomination would be “utterly repugnant to my tastes and wishes”, but given the desire of New Hampshire Democrats to see one of their own elected, he knew his future influence depended on his availability to run. Thus, he quietly allowed his supporters to lobby for him, with the understanding that his name would not be entered at the convention unless it was clear none of the front-runners could win. To broaden his potential base of southern support as the convention approached, he wrote letters reiterating his support for the Compromise of 1850, including the controversial Fugitive Slave Act.

The convention assembled on June 1 in Baltimore, Maryland, and the deadlock occurred as expected. On the first ballot of the 288 delegates, held on June 3, Cass claimed 116, Buchanan 93, and the rest were scattered, without a single vote for Pierce. The next 34 ballots passed with no winner even close, and still no votes for Pierce. The Buchanan team then had their delegates vote for minor candidates, including Pierce, to demonstrate Buchanan’s inevitability, and unite the convention behind him. This novel tactic backfired after several ballots as Virginia, New Hampshire, and Maine switched to Pierce; the remaining Buchanan forces began to break for Marcy, and Pierce was soon in third place. After the 48th ballot, North Carolina Congressman James C. Dobbin delivered an unexpected and passionate endorsement of Pierce, sparking a wave of support for the dark horse candidate. On the 49th ballot, Pierce received all but six of the votes, and thus gained the Democratic nomination for president. Delegates selected Alabama Senator William R. King, a Buchanan supporter, as Pierce’s running mate, and adopted a party platform that rejected further “agitation” over the slavery issue and supported the Compromise of 1850.

When word reached New Hampshire of the result, Pierce found it difficult to believe, and his wife fainted. Their son Benjamin wrote to his mother hoping that Franklin’s candidacy would not be successful, as he knew she would not like to live in Washington.

This anti-Pierce political cartoon depicts him as weak and cowardly

The Whig candidate was General Scott, Pierce’s commander in Mexico; his running mate was Secretary of the Navy William A. Graham. The Whigs could not unify their factions as the Democrats had, and the convention adopted a platform almost indistinguishable from that of the Democrats, including support of the Compromise of 1850. This incited the Free Soilers to field their own candidate, Senator Hale of New Hampshire, at the expense of the Whigs. The lack of political differences reduced the campaign to a bitter personality contest and helped to dampen voter turnout to its lowest level since 1836; according to biographer Peter A. Wallner, it was “one of the least exciting campaigns in presidential history”. Scott was harmed by the lack of enthusiasm of anti-slavery northern Whigs for him and the platform; New-York Tribune editor Horace Greeley summed up the attitude of many when he said of the Whig platform, “we defy it, execrate it, spit upon it”.

Pierce kept quiet so as not to upset his party’s delicate unity, and allowed his allies to run the campaign. It was the custom at the time for candidates to not appear to seek the office, and he did no personal campaigning. Pierce’s opponents caricatured him as an anti-Catholic coward and alcoholic (“the hero of many a well-fought bottle”). Scott, meanwhile, drew weak support from the Whigs, who were torn by their pro-Compromise platform and found him to be an abysmal, gaffe-prone public speaker. The Democrats were confident: a popular slogan was that the Democrats “will pierce their enemies in 1852 as they poked them in 1844.” This proved to be true, as Scott won only Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts and Vermont, finishing with 42 electoral votes to Pierce’s 254. With 3.2 million votes cast, Pierce won the popular vote with 50.9 to 44.1 percent. A sizable block of Free Soilers broke for Pierce’s in-state rival, Hale, who won 4.9 percent of the popular vote. The Democrats took large majorities in Congress.


Train crash and transition

Pierce began his presidency in mourning. Weeks after his election, on January 6, 1853, the President-elect’s family had been in Boston for a funeral and were traveling back to Concord on a two-car locomotive, when one of the trains axles suddenly fractured, causing their train car to tumble off the tracks and derail, rolling down a 20-foot embankment at speed, on the outskirts of Andover, Massachusetts. The President Elects train car, according to a New York Times account of the wreck, broke in pieces like a cigar box.

Both Franklin and Jane Pierce survived, but in the wreckage found their only remaining son, 11-year-old Benjamin (Benny), crushed to death, his body nearly decapitated. Pierce was not able to hide the gruesome sight from his wife. They both suffered severe depression afterward, which likely affected Pierce’s performance as president. Pierce also became a heavy whiskey drinker. Jane Pierce wondered if the train accident was divine punishment for her husband’s pursuit and acceptance of high office. She wrote a lengthy letter of apology to “Benny” for her failings as a mother.. Further evidence of the Lords apparent wrath came with the sudden death of Pierces very close friend, New Hampshire Senator Charles G. Atherton. Pierce had expected Atherton to be his spokesman in the Senate.

Jane Pierce avoided social functions for much of her first two years as First Lady, making her public debut in that role to great sympathy at the annual public reception held at the White House on New Year’s Day, 1855.

When Franklin Pierce departed New Hampshire for the inauguration, Jane Pierce chose to remain. Pierce, then the youngest man to be elected president, chose to affirm his oath of office on a law book rather than swear it on a Bible, as all his predecessors except John Quincy Adams had done. He was the first president to deliver his inaugural address from memory. In the address he hailed an era of peace and prosperity at home and urged a vigorous assertion of U.S. interests in its foreign relations, including the “eminently important” acquisition of new territories. “The policy of my Administration”, said the new president, “will not be deterred by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion.” Avoiding the word “slavery”, he emphasized his desire to put the “important subject” to rest and maintain a peaceful union. He alluded to his own personal tragedy, telling the crowd, “You have summoned me in my weakness, you must sustain me by your strength.”

Administration and political strife

In his Cabinet appointments, Pierce sought to unite a party that was squabbling over the fruits of victory. Most in the party had not originally supported him for the nomination, and some had allied with the Free Soil party to gain victory in local elections. Pierce decided to allow each of the party’s factions some appointments, even those that had not supported the Compromise of 1850.

All of Pierce’s cabinet nominations were unanimously and immediately confirmed by the Senate. Pierce spent the first few weeks of his term sorting through hundreds of lower-level federal positions to be filled. This was a chore, as he sought to represent all factions of the party, and could fully satisfy none of them. Partisans found themselves unable to secure positions for their friends, which put the Democratic Party on edge and fueled bitterness between factions. Before long, northern newspapers accused Pierce of filling his government with pro-slavery secessionists, while southern newspapers accused him of abolitionism.

Factionalism between the pro- and anti-administration Democrats ramped up quickly, especially within the New York Democratic Party. The more conservative Hardshell Democrats or “Hards” of New York were deeply skeptical of the Pierce administration, which was associated with Marcy (who became Secretary of State) and the more moderate New York faction, the Softshell Democrats or “Softs”.

Buchanan had urged Pierce to consult Vice President-elect King in selecting the Cabinet, but Pierce did not do soPierce and King had not communicated since they had been selected as candidates in June 1852. By the start of 1853, King was severely ill with tuberculosis, and went to Cuba to recuperate. His condition deteriorated, and Congress passed a special law, allowing him to be sworn in before the American consul in Havana on March 24. Wanting to die at home, he returned to his plantation in Alabama on April 17 and died the next day. The office of vice president remained vacant for the remainder of Pierce’s term, as the Constitution then had no provision for filling the vacancy. This extended vacancy meant that for nearly the entirety of Pierce’s presidency the Senate President pro tempore, initially David Atchison of Missouri, was next in line to the presidency.

Pierce sought to run a more efficient and accountable government than his predecessors. His Cabinet members implemented an early system of civil service examinations which was a forerunner to the Pendleton Act passed three decades later, which mandated that most positions in the U.S. government should be awarded on the basis of merit, not patronage. The Interior Department was reformed by Secretary Robert McClelland, who systematized its operations, expanded the use of paper records, and pursued fraud. Another of Pierce’s reforms was to expand the role of the U.S. attorney general in appointing federal judges and attorneys, which was an important step in the eventual development of the Justice Department. There was a vacancy on the Supreme CourtFillmore, having failed to get Senate confirmation for his nominees, had offered it to newly elected Louisiana Senator Judah P. Benjamin, who had declined. Pierce also offered the seat to Benjamin, and when the Louisianan persisted in his refusal, nominated instead John Archibald Campbell, an advocate of states’ rights; this would be Pierce’s only Supreme Court appointment.

Economic policy and internal improvements

Indian Peace Medal depicting Pierce

Pierce charged Treasury Secretary James Guthrie with reforming the Treasury, which was inefficiently managed and had many unsettled accounts. Guthrie increased oversight of Treasury employees and tariff collectors, many of whom were withholding money from the government. Despite laws requiring funds to be held in the Treasury, large deposits remained in private banks under the Whig administrations. Guthrie reclaimed these funds and sought to prosecute corrupt officials, with mixed success.

Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, at Pierce’s request, led surveys by the Corps of Topographical Engineers of possible transcontinental railroad routes throughout the country. The Democratic Party had long rejected federal appropriations for internal improvements, but Davis felt that such a project could be justified as a Constitutional national security objective. Davis also deployed the Army Corps of Engineers to supervise construction projects in the District of Columbia, including the expansion of the United States Capitol and building of the Washington Monument.

Foreign and military affairs

The Pierce administration aligned with the expansionist Young America movement, with William L. Marcy leading the charge as Secretary of State. Marcy sought to present to the world a distinctively American, republican image. He issued a circular recommending that U.S. diplomats wear “the simple dress of an American citizen” instead of the elaborate diplomatic uniforms worn in the courts of Europe, and that they only hire American citizens to work in consulates. Marcy received international praise for his 73-page letter defending Austrian refugee Martin Koszta, who had been captured abroad in mid-1853 by the Austrian government despite his intention to become a U.S. citizen.

Davis, an advocate of a southern transcontinental route, persuaded Pierce to send rail magnate James Gadsden to Mexico to buy land for a potential railroad. Gadsden was also charged with re-negotiating the provisions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which required the U.S. to prevent Native American raids into Mexico from New Mexico Territory. Gadsden negotiated a treaty with Mexican President Antonio Lpez de Santa Anna in December 1853, purchasing a large swath of land to America’s southwest. Negotiations were nearly derailed by William Walker’s unauthorized expedition into Mexico, and so a clause was included charging the U.S. with combating future such attempts. Congress reduced the Gadsden Purchase to the region now comprising southern Arizona and part of southern New Mexico; the price was cut from $15 million to $10 million. Congress also included a protection clause for a private citizen, Albert G. Sloo, whose interests were threatened by the purchase. Pierce opposed the use of the federal government to prop up private industry and did not endorse the final version of the treaty, which was ratified nonetheless. The acquisition brought the contiguous United States to its present-day boundaries, excepting later minor adjustments.

The Pierce Cabinet Office Name Term President Franklin Pierce 1853–1857 Vice President William R. King 1853 None 1853–1857 Secretary of State William L. Marcy 1853–1857 Secretary of Treasury James Guthrie 1853–1857 Secretary of War Jefferson Davis 1853–1857 Attorney General Caleb Cushing 1853–1857 Postmaster General James Campbell 1853–1857 Secretary of the Navy James C. Dobbin 1853–1857 Secretary of the Interior Robert McClelland 1853–1857

Relations with the United Kingdom were tense, as American fishermen felt menaced by the British navy’s increasing enforcement of Canadian waters. Marcy completed a trade reciprocity agreement with British minister to Washington, John Crampton, which reduced the need for aggressive coastline enforcement. Buchanan was sent as minister to London to pressure the British government, which was slow to support a new treaty. A favorable reciprocity treaty was ratified in August 1854, which Pierce saw as a first step towards the American annexation of Canada. While the administration negotiated with Britain over the Canada-US border, U.S. interests were also threatened in Central America, where the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 had failed to keep Great Britain from expanding its influence. Gaining the advantage over Britain in the region was a key part of Pierce’s expansionist goals.

British consuls in the United States sought to enlist Americans for the Crimean War in 1854, in violation of neutrality laws, and Pierce eventually expelled minister Crampton and three consuls. To the President’s surprise, the British did not expel Buchanan in retaliation. In his December 1855 message to Congress Pierce had set forth the American case that Britain had violated the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. The British, according to Buchanan, were impressed by the message and were rethinking their policy. Nevertheless, Buchanan was not successful in getting the British to renounce their Central American possessions. The Canadian treaty was ratified by Congress, the British Parliament, and by the colonial legislatures in Canada.

Pierce’s administration aroused sectional apprehensions when three U.S. diplomats in Europe drafted a proposal to the president to purchase Cuba from Spain for $120 million (USD), and justify the “wresting” of it from Spain if the offer were refused. The publication of the Ostend Manifesto, which had been drawn up at the insistence of Secretary of State Marcy, provoked the scorn of northerners who viewed it as an attempt to annex a slave-holding possession to bolster Southern interests. It helped discredit the expansionist policy of Manifest Destiny the Democratic Party had often supported.

Pierce favored expansion and a substantial reorganization of the military. Secretary of War Davis and Navy Secretary James C. Dobbin found the Army and Navy in poor condition, with insufficient forces, a reluctance to adopt new technology, and inefficient management. Under the Pierce administration, Commodore Matthew C. Perry visited Japan (a venture originally planned under Fillmore) in an effort to expand trade to the East. Perry wanted to encroach on Asia by force, but Pierce and Dobbin pushed him to remain diplomatic. Perry signed a modest trade treaty with the Japanese shogunate which was successfully ratified. The 1856 launch of the USS Merrimac, one of six newly commissioned steam frigates, was one of Pierce’s “most personally satisfying” days in office.

Bleeding Kansas

The Kansas-Nebraska Act organized Kansas (in pink) and Nebraska Territory (yellow).

The greatest challenge to the country’s equilibrium during the Pierce administration was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Organizing the largely unsettled Nebraska Territory, which stretched from Missouri to the Rocky Mountains, and from Texas north to what is now the Canada-US border, was a crucial part of Douglas’s plans for western expansion. He wanted a transcontinental railroad with a link from Chicago to California, through the vast western territory. Organizing the territory was necessary for settlement as the land would not be surveyed nor put up for sale until a territorial government was authorized. Those from slave states had never been content with western limits on slavery, and felt it should be able to expand into territories procured with blood and treasure that had come, in part, from the South. Douglas and his allies planned to organize the territory and let local settlers decide whether to allow slavery. This would repeal the Missouri Compromise of 1820, as most of it was north of the 3630 N line the Missouri Compromise deemed “free”. The territory would be split into a northern part, Nebraska, and a southern part, Kansas, and the expectation was that Kansas would allow slavery and Nebraska would not. In the view of pro-slavery Southern politicians, the Compromise of 1850 had already annulled the Missouri Compromise by admitting the state of California, including territory south of the compromise line, as a free state.

Pierce had wanted to organize the Nebraska Territory without explicitly addressing the matter of slavery, but Douglas could not get enough southern support to accomplish this. Pierce was skeptical of the bill, knowing it would result in bitter opposition from the North. Douglas and Davis convinced him to support the bill regardless. It was tenaciously opposed by northerners such as Ohio Senator Salmon P. Chase and Massachusetts’s Charles Sumner, who rallied public sentiment in the North against the bill. Northerners had been suspicious of the Gadsden Purchase, moves towards Cuba annexation, and the influence of slaveholding Cabinet members such as Davis, and saw the Nebraska bill as part of a pattern of southern aggression. The result was a political firestorm that did great damage to Pierce’s presidency.

Pierce and his administration used threats and promises to keep most Democrats on board in favor of the bill. The Whigs split along sectional lines; the conflict destroyed them as a national party. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in May 1854 and ultimately defined the Pierce presidency. The political turmoil that followed the passage saw the short-term rise of the nativist and anti-Catholic American Party, often called the Know Nothings, and the founding of the Republican Party.

Northerners resented Pierce’s attempted expansion of slavery through Kansas-Nebraska and Cuba. In this 1856 cartoon, a Free Soiler is held down by Pierce, Buchanan, and Cass while Douglas shoves “Slavery” (depicted as a black man) down his throat.

Even as the act was being debated, settlers on both sides of the slavery issue poured into the territories so as to secure the outcome they wanted in the voting. The passage of the act resulted in so much violence between groups that the territory became known as Bleeding Kansas. Thousands of pro-slavery Border Ruffians came across from Missouri to vote in the territorial elections although they were not resident in Kansas, giving that element the victory. Pierce supported the outcome despite the irregularities. When Free-Staters set up a shadow government, and drafted the Topeka Constitution, Pierce called their work an act of rebellion. The president continued to recognize the pro-slavery legislature, which was dominated by Democrats, even after a Congressional investigative committee found its election to have been illegitimate. He dispatched federal troops to break up a meeting of the Topeka government.

Passage of the act coincided with the seizure of escaped slave Anthony Burns in Boston. Northerners rallied in support of Burns, but Pierce was determined to follow the Fugitive Slave Act to the letter, and dispatched federal troops to enforce Burns’s return to his Virginia owner despite furious crowds.

The midterm congressional elections of 1854 and 1855 were devastating to the Democrats (as well as to the Whig Party, which was on its last legs). The Democrats lost almost every state outside the South. The administration’s opponents in the North worked together to return opposition members to Congress, though only a few northern Whigs gained election. In Pierce’s New Hampshire, hitherto loyal to the Democratic Party, the Know-Nothings elected the governor, all three representatives, dominated the legislature, and returned John P. Hale to the Senate. Anti-immigrant fervor brought the Know-Nothings their highest numbers to that point, and some northerners were elected under the auspices of the new Republican Party.

1856 election

Partisan violence spilled into Congress in May 1856 when Free Soil Senator Charles Sumner was assaulted with a walking cane by Democratic Rep. Preston Brooks in the Senate chamber.

Pierce fully expected to be renominated by the Democrats. In reality his chances of winning the nomination were slim, let alone re-election. The administration was widely disliked in the North for its position on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and Democratic leaders were aware of Pierce’s electoral vulnerability. Nevertheless, his supporters began to plan for an alliance with Douglas to deny James Buchanan the nomination. Buchanan had solid political connections and had been safely overseas through most of Pierce’s term, leaving him untainted by the Kansas debacle.

When balloting began on June 5 at the convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, Pierce expected a plurality, if not the required two-thirds majority. On the first ballot, he received only 122 votes, many of them from the South, to Buchanan’s 135, with Douglas and Cass receiving the rest. By the following morning fourteen ballots had been completed, but none of the three main candidates were able to get two-thirds of the vote. Pierce, whose support had been slowly declining as the ballots passed, directed his supporters to break for Douglas, withdrawing his name in a last-ditch effort to defeat Buchanan. Douglas, only 43 years of age, believed that he could be nominated in 1860 if he let the older Buchanan win this time, and received assurances from Buchanan’s managers that this would be the case. After two more deadlocked ballots, Douglas’s managers withdrew his name, leaving Buchanan as the clear winner. To soften the blow to Pierce, the convention issued a resolution of “unqualified approbation” in praise of his administration and selected his ally, former Kentucky Representative John C. Breckinridge, as the vice-presidential nominee. This loss marked the only time in U.S. history that an elected president who was an active candidate for reelection was not nominated for a second term.[note 6]

Pierce endorsed Buchanan, though the two remained distant; he hoped to resolve the Kansas situation by November to improve the Democrats’ chances in the general election. He installed John W. Geary as territorial governor, who drew the ire of pro-slavery legislators. Geary was able to restore order in Kansas, though the electoral damage had already been doneRepublicans used “Bleeding Kansas” and “Bleeding Sumner” (the brutal caning of Charles Sumner by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks in the Senate chamber) as election slogans. The Buchanan/Breckinridge ticket was elected, but the Democratic percentage of the popular vote in the North fell from 49.8 percent in 1852 to 41.4 in 1856 as Buchanan won only five of sixteen free states (Pierce had won fourteen), and in three of those, Buchanan won because of a split between the Republican candidate, former California senator John C. Frmont and the Know Nothing, former president Fillmore.

Pierce did not temper his rhetoric after losing the nomination. In his final message to Congress, delivered in December 1856, he vigorously attacked Republicans and abolitionists. He took the opportunity to defend his record on fiscal policy, and on achieving peaceful relations with other nations. In the final days of the Pierce administration, Congress passed bills to increase the pay of army officers and to build new naval vessels, also expanding the number of seamen enlisted. It also passed a tariff reduction bill he had long sought. Pierce and his cabinet left office on March 4, 1857, the only time in U.S. history that the original cabinet members all remained for a full four-year term.