Franklin Pierce: 14th President of the United States
Franklin Pierce’s charm, family connections, and his desire to please made him a leading figure in New Hampshire politics in the early 19th century, but on the national stage he was more content to follow than to lead. Before becoming president, he had a successful career as an attorney and served as a brigadier general in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War. His political career began at the young age of 26 when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite his average talent as a politician, Pierce won the nomination for the presidential slot at the 1852 Democratic National Convention as a “dark horse” outsider candidate.
A loyal Democrat, Pierce began his presidency under the presumption that he would bring more unity to the Democratic Party and the nation. His decisions as a president were deeply affected by his pro-slavery stance. For him, the abolitionist movement was a tremendous danger for the unity of the nation, but his attempts to curb the inevitable conflict between the North and South only seemed to stoke an already hot fire. By the time the 1856 Democratic Party held its convention for president, Pierce had fallen out of favor and became the first sitting president to be denied the nomination by his own party.
Early Life and Education
One of a family of nine children, Franklin Pierce was born on November 23, 1804, in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, to Benjamin Pierce and Anna Kendrick. At the time of Franklin’s birth, his father was busy working on the family farm and serving as a local sheriff. Over the years, Benjamin Pierce became an influential state legislator deeply involved in state politics, eventually rising to the office of governor of the state. Politics was an integral part of the life of the family, and Pierce grew up in this climate, developing an interest in both politics and military life.
As an active and charismatic boy, Pierce enjoyed roaming the land, swimming, fishing, and hunting. His father ensured that all the children benefited from a good education. In 1820, Pierce enrolled at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. While in college, he joined the Athenian Society, a literary club where he formed a lasting friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, the future famous novelist. Hawthorne would go on to write a biography of Pierce that was used in his presidential campaign.
In his first years of study, Pierce was among the last in his class, but he gradually improved his grades and graduated with honors in 1824. Upon graduation, he began studying law with various local attorneys. In 1827, he was admitted to the New Hampshire bar and began to practice as a lawyer in Hillsborough. Although he wasn’t exactly inclined to scholarly study, Pierce was a capable and charismatic lawyer who inspired trust, so he slowly carved a path for himself in the legal field.
Early Political Career
In 1827, Benjamin Pierce was elected governor of New Hampshire. Although busy building his law career, Franklin became fully invested in politics, first as a supporter of his father and then as a committed Democrat. Only a year later, he won his first election, becoming Hillsborough town moderator. The following year he won a legislative seat in the New Hampshire House of Representatives while his father was once again elected as governor. Gradually, Pierce moved to more important roles. In 1831, at the young age of twenty-seven, he was elected Speaker of the House and became one of the most influential Democrats in New Hampshire. He and his father continued to support each other, and the party became a central aspect of their lives. They both identified as Jacksonian Democrats due to their high regard for President Andrew Jackson and his platform.
In 1833, at the age of twenty-nine, Pierce was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. His rise to national politics coincided with the growth of New Hampshire as one of the most important Democratic states in the North, which provided Pierce with a great career boost. Even though he was a charming and likable man, many considered him unremarkable as a politician, arguing that his family connections stood behind his success and influence.
In November 1834, Franklin Pierce married Jane Appleton, the shy daughter of a congressional minister and prominent Whig. The Pierces had very different personalities; he was comfortable around people, finding it easy to put aside differences, but his wife was withdrawn and held staunchly to her beliefs. As Jane Pierce didn’t feel at home in Hillsborough, the young couple moved in 1838 to the state capital, Concord. Unfortunately, their family life was plagued by tragedy as all their children died in childhood. Their first son died in infancy, the second son contracted the lethal epidemic typhus at age four, and their third son died tragically at the age of eleven.
U.S. Senator From New Hampshire
In December 1836, Franklin Pierce was elected to the U.S. Senate. He became one of the youngest senators in the history of the United States. As a loyal Democrat, he was always willing to support the policies of the party which was organized around the policies of Andrew Jackson. The Democrats believed that the states had the right to operate with minimal interference from the federal government. As his detractors predicted, Pierce did not distinguish himself in the Senate. However, this was partly due to personal issues as his wife and father suffered from poor health during this period. He was also overshadowed by more popular figures like Henry Clay and John Calhoun, who were highly competent and prominent politicians.
When Pierce took his seat in the Senate, slavery was a heated issue that sparked a lot of dissension among Congressmen, with various groups pushing petitions to restrict slavery in the Union. Pierce often criticized the vocal abolitionists for disrupting the peace in the country. Although he personally believed that slavery was a social and political evil, he realized that any federal action against slavery would deny the rights of the Southern states to govern themselves. He developed an intense dislike for abolitionists and regularly expressed sympathy for the South, never retreating from these feelings over the years.
Pierce’s views over slavery affected his reputation among Northern Democrats. During his time in Congress, he also acquired a reputation for being a heavy drinker. As news of his alcoholism spread among colleagues, Pierce found it hard to regain his confidence as a politician. For a politician in Washington, there were many reunions, parties, and social functions, which made it easy for him to fall into the temptation of drinking. After a long period of doubt and urging from his wife, Pierce decided to resign from the Senate and return home. In 1842, he and his wife, who hated Washington, returned home to New Hampshire, settling in Concord. Since the Democrats lacked a majority in Congress, Pierce had also been frustrated by an inability to carry out his legislative ideas and thus preferred to dedicate his time to his family and law practice. He did not intend, however, to renounce public life.
For the next couple of years, life was peaceful for the Pierce family. Jane found a community and Franklin found new opportunities for law practice. His career as a lawyer flourished after his stint in the Senate. With his eloquence and charisma, he easily found affluent clients. He also remained very involved in the Democratic Party. Since the party was divided over many crucial issues, this prompted him to assume a leadership position and mediate between different factions. He continued to have considerable political clout in his own state and kept in touch with his political friends in Washington.
The Mexican-American War
Coming from a family with a history in the military, his father having served in the Revolutionary War, Pierce had always been interested in the military and was involved throughout his life with the local militias. When the U.S. declared war against Mexico in May 1846, Pierce felt it was his moral duty to join the war efforts. He refused the appointment for U.S. Attorney General proposed by President James K. Polk and instead took command of an infantry regiment. Pierce raised two companies of New Hampshire volunteers to join the army of General Winfield Scott in Mexico. In March 1847, Pierce’s commission was elevated to the rank of brigadier general. The troops under Pierce set off to join Scott’s army at Vera Cruz, Mexico, and be part of the assault on Mexico City. By the time the volunteers from New England reached Vera Cruz, Scott’s army was on the move to Mexico City. Pierce’s next responsibility was to transport supplies for Scott’s army and march the 2,500 solders under his command, along with dozens of wagons of supplies and heavy artillery, 150 miles through hostile territory to rendezvous with Scott.
During the journey inland, Pierce’s men came under attack six times, though they suffered few casualties. After three weeks Pierce’s men and supplies reached General Scott’s army. In Pierce’s first serious battle at Contreras outside Mexico City, his horse was frightened by artillery and bucked him violently, thrusting his groin forcefully against the saddle pommel. Peirce briefly lost consciousness, fell from the horse, and his knee was seriously injured by his horse landing on him. Shaken and injured, Peirce ordered one of the regimental commanders to lead the attack. Pierce fainted during the ensuing melee, which inspired one of his men to shout, “Take command of the brigade. General Pierce is a dammed coward.”
During the next battle, this time on foot, he twisted the same knee that had been injured and collapse in acute pain. Pierce managed to hobble after his men but missed the main thrust of the action. Once Mexico City was captured the fighting was over, and all that remained was to broker the peace treaty. Pierce grew bored with army life and formed a social club with fellow officers. Here Pierce would develop some lifelong friends and political allies. General Scott granted Pierce’s leave of absence request and he left Mexico in December 1847, bound for home. When he returned to Concord, he received a hero’s welcome. His military exploits elevated his status in New Hampshire, but did not bring him the military glory he had hoped for. On a personal level, his military service proved disastrous as he was left with severe wounds that troubled him for the rest of his life. Upon his return from the battlefield, Pierce resumed his law practice.
The Presidential Election of 1852
Going into the election of 1852, Pierce didn’t have any open presidential aspirations. The Democratic Party had several well qualified candidates, including Stephen A. Douglas, James Buchanan, and Lewis Cass. During the Democratic Convention, after several ballots with not a single vote for Pierce, the party members unexpectedly turned in his favor and he won the Democratic nomination for president on the 49th ballot. Pierce, who had been out of the political limelight for nearly a decade, was considered a political outsider or “dark horse” candidate that was acceptable to both the northern and southern delegates. When he found out the news, Pierce reacted in disbelief and his wife was so shocked that she fainted. Adding fuel to the flames of family discord over the nomination, their eleven-year-old son Benjamin wrote to his mother: “I hope he won’t be elected for I should not like to be at Washington and I know you would not either.” The Democratic U.S. Senator from Alabama William Rufus King was named the vice presidential running mate.
Publicly, Pierce expressed his disinterest towards the presidential seat, but privately, he allowed his supporters to carry on with the campaign. His opponent was General Winfield Scott, his former commander in the Mexican-American war, who came from the Whig Party. At that time, it was not common for candidates to be openly involved in their campaigns so Pierce and Scott both remained out of the public eye during this period.
Pierce ran as “Young Hickory form the Granite State,” a reference to the popular former Democratic president Andrew Jackson. The central issue in the election was the Compromise of 1850, in which California was admitted as a free state, New Mexico and Arizona were established as territories open to slavery, the border dispute between Texas and New Mexico was settled, the District of Columbia was closed to the slave trade, and what would turn out to be the most controversial law, the Fugitive Slave Act was toughened.
The Whigs attacked Pierce for his apparent “fainting fit” during a battle in Mexico. Ignoring the fact that Pierce was in severe pain from his knee injury, the Whigs called Pierce the “Fainting General” and asked voters if they wanted a coward for president. The Democrats fired back, assailing Scott, known as “Old Fuss and Feathers,” as a pompous ass. Scott also waffled on the issue of the Compromise of 1850, which cost him votes. With thirty-one states voting, Franklin Peirce took all but four–the election was his.
I believe that involuntary servitude [slavery], as it exists in different states of the Confederacy, is recognized by the Constitution. 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.— Franklin Pierce
14th President of the United States
In January 1853, as president elect, Pierce and his family suffered a terrible tragedy. Pierce had been traveling with his wife and only remaining son, Benjamin, from Boston to Concord by train when suddenly the train car in which they were riding toppled off the tracks. Franklin and his wife were only slightly injured, but their eleven-year-old son was killed before their eyes. Seeing their child gruesomely killed had a devastating effect on Franklin and Jane; both were affected by severe depression for many years afterward. The sense of tragedy haunted Pierce and ended up affecting his ability to perform as president to the level he wanted. His wife became a recluse, avoiding public life and social functions. Although she had supported her husband’s career in the past, the successive deaths of her sons led Jane to severe depression, and she couldn’t find the power to fulfill her duties as First Lady.
In his inauguration speech, President Franklin Pierce talked about the tragedy in his family, asking people to have patience with him and give him strength, telling the crowd, “You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me by your strength.” He also talked about his desire to maintain peace in the Union, saying, “I fervently hope that the question [of slavery] is at rest, and that no sectional or ambitious fanatical excitement may again threaten the durability of our institutions.”
Since he hadn’t had full support for the nomination, Pierce discovered once he took office that Democrats had already split into factions, with some supporting him and others showing a deep skepticism for his administration. To avoid conflict, he focused on improving government and administration by implementing a system of civil service examinations where positions would be awarded on true merit. He also focused on the reorganization of the military and allocated more resources to the Army and Navy, pushing for newer technologies and better management. The vice president, William Rufus King, was sworn into office in a hospital bed in Havana, Cuba, where he was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. King died one month after the inauguration, leaving Pierce to serve out the rest of his term without a vice president.
The Fugitive Slave Act
The Fugitive Slave Act was one of the bills that made up the Compromise of 1850. The Act authorized newly appointed fugitive slave commissioners for the arrest of runaway slaves even in Northern states. But by the 1850s, white abolitionists and free African Americans as well as former slaves such as Frederick Douglass had formed the Underground Railroad. This secretive organization helped runaway slaves escape to Canada through a series of safe houses along the way. Following the example of his predecessor, Millard Fillmore, Pierce enforced the Fugitive Slave Act, which enraged the Northern abolitionists. The 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stove, told the story of the plight of runaway slaves trying to save their children from a life of slavery. The novel became the bestselling book of the period and helped a growing movement to repeal the Fugitive Slave law. Pierce was unmoved, making several fateful decisions that widened the gap between the North and the South.
President Pierce made it clear in his inaugural speech that he was an expansionist, stating “…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 with 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.” Pursuing his plan of expansion, he offered $50 million to Mexico for much of the northern area of that country and for lower California. Out of the negotiations came the Gadsden Purchase of 1854. The U.S. paid Mexico $10 million for a strip of land across southern Arizona and New Mexico to be used for a new railroad to the Pacific Coast.
The U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War annexed California and the Southwest to the nation; however, little of this new land held prospects for the expansion of slavery. Wanting to add new slave states and increase their representation in Congress, Southerners lobbied to acquire the Spanish-held Cuba. The secretary of state under Pierce, William Marcy, bowed to Southern pressure and convened a secret meeting in Ostend, Belgium, to develop a plan to acquire Cuba. Out of the meeting came the Ostend Manifesto, which stated that Cuba was vital to U.S. domestic interests and if Spain would not sell Cuba to the United States it had no other choice but to take it by force. When the manifesto became public it caused a political firestorm at home and abroad, bolstering foreign fears of aggressive American expansionist plans. Pierce and Marcy tried to distance the administration from the manifesto, but the damage had been done domestically and with the European community. This incident would become a black mark on Pierce’s presidency, caused him to curtail his expansionist plans, and it became a rallying cry for anti-slavery Northerners
The Kansas-Nebraska Act
One of the most difficult challenges of the Pierce administration was posed by the slavery issue. While Pierce naively thought that the Compromise of 1850 had settled all disagreements in this regard, things got heated again when the need to organize the unsettled Kansas and Nebraska Territories brought up a new conflict. While Southern states wanted to expand slavery into territories that were procured mostly through their efforts, the Northern states wanted to let the settlers decide whether they wanted slavery or not. This led to the formulation of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which mandated that the unsettled territories would be split into two, Nebraska in the north and Kansas in the south. The issue of slavery would be settled by “popular sovereignty”--the policy of letting the voters of a territory decide if slavery would be allowed.
Although Pierce was not convinced of the efficacy of the bill and wanted to organize the territory without consideration for slavery at all, he was persuaded to sign it. He knew this would result in fierce opposition from Northern Democrats, who saw it as a sign of aggression on the part of the Southerners. Unable to reach a compromise with any of the parts, Pierce decided to support the bill and convince other Democrats to vote in favor. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was signed into law in May 1854, but the result was an unexpected rise in violence and anarchy in the unsettled territories. The law triggered a violent struggle in Kansas, known as “Bleeding Kansas,” between pro and anti-slavery forces. The fierce abolitionist John Brown was one of the leading anti-slavery leaders who gained notoriety for lynching five pro-slavery men.
For Pierce’s political career, the decision to sign the bill proved disastrous as he lost all meager support he had left. Neither Southerners nor Northerners were satisfied with the outcome of his decision. The Kansas-Nebraska issue became one of the most defining moments of his career, with a negative long-term impact for Democrats as well. In the following Congressional election, the Democratic Party lost almost all Northern States. The popularity of the party dropped dramatically, giving rise to the Republican Party.
After the unfolding of the Kansas-Nebraska debacle, it became obvious to everyone that Pierce had been overwhelmed by his responsibility and that his ability to make decisions was lacking. Many believed he would have fared better as a loyal follower than a leader. In trying to please everyone, he pleased no one. Within the Democratic Party, many expressed deep regret for having given him the nomination.
The Election of 1856
Despite all the negativity surrounding his administration, Franklin Pierce expected to win the Democratic nomination for the presidential election again. However, due to the intense dislike of Northern Democrats for his administration, his chances of winning either the nomination or the election were dim. At the convention held in Cincinnati, the delegates refused to consider his nomination and he was forced to withdraw his candidacy. He became the only sitting president to be denied nomination of his own party for reelection. Although this was a low moment in his career, Pierce remained firm in his position, attacking the abolitionists and defending his choices in the final address to Congress.
Franklin Pierce left office on March 4, 1857. After ending their affairs in Washington, D.C., the Pierce family moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Here Pierce became involved in real estate and farming. He and Jane spent the next two years traveling the world, going to places like Madeira and the Bahamas. Even from afar, Pierce stayed informed on the news in the U.S., commenting on political affairs as the threat of civil war grew. The rise of the Republican Party changed the Democratic perception about Pierce’s achievements, and he was proposed for the 1860 Democratic nomination, but he refused. When the Civil War became imminent, Pierce spoke vehemently against the war, calling it cruel and aimless. His vocal opposition to the war put him at the center of many controversies.
In December 1863, Jane Pierce died of tuberculosis, leaving her husband in a state of desolation and loneliness. Pierce spent his last years in obscurity, working the land as a farmer and visiting family. He took up drinking again, which affected his health. Around 1869, his health began to decline severely due to heavy drinking.
Franklin Pierce died of cirrhosis of the liver on October 8, 1869. Newspapers and politicians paid him tribute, talking about his controversial political career. Many agreed that he had been overwhelmed by historic events that he was not competent enough to handle. His limited leadership skills and bad decision-making skills led to his failure in the political turmoil of the 1850s. Years later President Theodore Roosevelt wrote an apt description of Franklin Pierce: “[He was] a small politician of low capacity and mean surroundings, proud to act as a servile fool of men worse that himself but also stronger and abler. He was ever ready to do any work the slavery leaders set him.” Feelings remined so bitter toward him in his native state of New Hampshire that it would be over fifty years after his death before a statue would be erected in his honor.
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© 2019 Doug West