Franklin Pierce

Annie Lee | Dec 12, 2023

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Franklin Pierce, born November 23, 1804, in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, and died October 8, 1869, in Concord, New Hampshire, was an American lawyer and statesman, the 14th president of the United States. He was elected to both houses of Congress by his home state and became president in 1852 at a time when the issue of slavery was tearing the country apart. Viewing the abolitionist movement as a threat to the unity of the country, Pierce pursued a policy favorable to slavery interests by defending the Kansas-Nebraska Act and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act. He is now considered one of the worst American presidents for his inability to control the crisis that led to the Civil War a few years after his presidency.

Pierce began his political career in 1833 in the U.S. House of Representatives; he was elected to the Senate in 1837. He was appointed to the New Hampshire District Court in 1845 and fought in the Mexican-American War with the rank of brigadier general two years later. Considered a compromise candidate by the Democratic Party, he was nominated to run for president alongside William R. King and easily won the 1852 election against the Whig candidate, Winfield Scott.

While Pierce was popular and affable, his family life was fraught with tragedy. His wife Jane was in poor health and suffered from depression for much of her life, a point that was compounded by the fact that their three children died young; their third son was killed in a train accident that nearly killed the couple shortly before the inauguration. As president, Pierce and his cabinet worked to improve efficiency and reduce corruption in the administration, but these successes did not prevent many political tensions. Internationally, he embraced the expansionist ideals of the Young America movement and negotiated the Gadsden Purchase with Mexico and trade agreements with Canada and Japan.

His popularity in the northern abolitionist states collapsed after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the violence that brought a slave government to power in Kansas in violation of the Compromise of 1820. Abandoned by his party, Pierce failed to secure his party's nomination for a second term in 1856. His criticism of President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War did nothing to improve his reputation in the North, and he died of cirrhosis in 1869.


Franklin Pierce was born in a cabin in Hillsborough, New Hampshire on November 23, 1804. He was the fifth child of Benjamin Pierce (his first wife, Elizabeth Andrews, had died in childbirth in 1787 giving birth to his first daughter. Benjamin Pierce had fought as a lieutenant in the American Revolutionary War and had left Chelmsford, Massachusetts, after purchasing 50 acres of land in Hillsborough. The family's American history dates back to the 1630s with the arrival in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of Thomas Pierce from Shropshire, England. Benjamin Pierce was an influential member of the Republican-Democratic Party who served in the New Hampshire House of Representatives from 1789 to 1802 before joining the state executive and becoming sheriff of Hillsborough County, so young Franklin Pierce grew up in a political environment.

His father, who wanted his children to receive a college education, sent 12-year-old Pierce to the private college in Hancock. But the boy did not like school and, unhappy, decided to return home. He walked the 20 kilometers between the two cities and arrived at his family's home on Sunday evening. The next day, his father decided to take him back to school by carriage, but after a few miles, he had his son get out of the carriage and walk to his destination in the pouring rain; Pierce later said that this was "the turning point. Later that year, he was sent to Phillips Exeter Academy to prepare for college. There he developed a reputation as a charming but sometimes disruptive student.

In the fall of 1820, Pierce entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. There he formed lasting friendships with Jonathan Cilley (en), who was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who became a well-known author. A mediocre student, Pierce worked hard in his third year and finished fifth in his class of fourteen. In addition to his studies, he taught for several months at a rural school in Hebron.

After studying law briefly in Portsmouth with former governor and family friend Levi Woodbury, he spent a semester at Northampton Law School and accompanied Judge Edmund Parker to Amherst. He was admitted to the bar in late 1827 and became a lawyer in Hillsborough. Although he lost his first case and his theoretical knowledge of the law was incomplete, his memory for names and faces as well as his personal charm and deep voice soon made him a household name.

National policies

In 1824, the disintegration of the Republican-Democratic Party led to a reconfiguration of the American political landscape. In New Hampshire, figures such as Woodbury and Isaac Hill advocated the creation of a party of "Democrats" supporting General Andrew Jackson. They opposed the Federalists and their National Democratic successors led by President John Quincy Adams. The efforts of the New Hampshire Democratic Party bore fruit in March 1827 when their pro-Jackson candidate, Benjamin Pierce, won the support of the pro-Adams faction and was elected governor of the state without opposition. It was at this point that Franklin Pierce entered politics as the 1828 presidential election between Jackson and Adams approached. In the national election of March 1828, the pro-Adams faction withdrew its support for Benjamin Pierce, who lost his governorship, but Franklin Pierce won his first election as moderator of the town of Hillsborough, an office to which he was re-elected six years in a row.

Pierce actively campaigned in his district for Jackson, who won the election by a wide margin nationally but lost in New Hampshire. This success strengthened the Democratic Party and Pierce was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives that same year. His father was again elected governor, but he stepped down after one year. Franklin Pierce was appointed chairman of the Committee on Education in 1829 and of the Committee on Cities the following year. In 1831, the Democrats won a majority and Pierce was elected Speaker of the House. At only 27, he had become the rising star of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, but despite his professional and political successes, Pierce lamented his bachelorhood and longed for a better life beyond Hillsborough.

Like all white men in the state between the ages of 18 and 45, Pierce belonged to the New Hampshire militia and was appointed aide-de-camp to Governor Samuel Dinsmoor in 1831. He remained in the militia until 1847, when he was a colonel. Eager to revitalize and reform the militia, which had declined after the War of 1812, Pierce worked with Alden Partridge (en), the president of Norwich University, a military academy in Vermont to increase recruitment and improve training and preparation of the forces. Pierce served on the university's board of trustees from 1841 to 1859 and received an honorary doctorate of laws in 1853.

In late 1832, the Democratic convention nominated Pierce to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The election was a formality because the National-Republican Party had lost all its political influence and the Whigs did not yet have a strong electoral base. Pierce's success in New Hampshire was accompanied nationally by a tidal wave of support for the incumbent president, Andrew Jackson. From 1832 until the mid-1850s, New Hampshire was a Democratic stronghold and this helped Pierce's political rise.


On November 19, 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton (March 12, 1806 - December 2, 1863), the daughter of Jesse Appleton, a minister and former president of Bowdoin College, and Elizabeth Means. In contrast to the Pierce family's Democratic affiliations, the Appletons were an influential Whig family. In many ways, the partners had little in common. Jane was a shy, deeply devout, temperance-minded woman who encouraged her heavy-drinking husband to abstain from alcohol. She was in poor health and frequently suffered from tuberculosis and psychological problems. Jane also disliked politics and especially hated Washington, which caused tension in her marriage because of Pierce's political rise.

Jane disliked Hillsborough just as much and in 1838 the couple moved to the state capital, Concord. They had three children, all of whom died in infancy: Franklin, Jr. (February 2, 1836 - February 5, 1836), who died three days after his birth; Frank Robert (August 27, 1839 - November 14, 1843), who died at age four of typhus; and Benjamin (April 13, 1841 - January 6, 1853), who died in a train accident.

House of Representatives

Pierce left Concord for Washington in November 1833 to attend the opening of the legislative session on December 2. Jackson's second term had begun and the main objective of the large Democratic majority in the House was to prevent the renewal of the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. With his colleagues, Pierce rejected the proposals championed by the Whig Party and the charter expired. He nevertheless opposed his party on several occasions, notably on the question of federal financing of public works. Pierce argued that these laws were unconstitutional because they were the responsibility of the states. Other than that, his first term in office was uneventful and he was able to continue his law practice when he was not in Washington. He was easily re-elected in March 1835 and returned to the capital in December.

As the abolitionist movement grew more powerful, Congress was flooded with petitions asking it to take action to limit or ban slavery in the United States. Pierce was personally opposed to the practice and said, "I regard slavery as a social and political evil and sincerely wish it had never existed on this earth. On the other hand, he regarded abolitionist "agitation" as an embarrassment and felt that federal action against slavery would violate the rights of the Southern states. He was also irritated by the "religious bigotry" of the abolitionists who called their opponents sinners. He wrote in December 1835: "One thing must be perfectly obvious to every intelligent man. This abolitionist movement must be crushed or it will be the end of the Union.

When his colleague James Henry Hammond of South Carolina sought to prevent abolitionist petitions from being received by the House, Pierce spoke out in favor of the right of abolitionists to write petitions. However, he voted for what became known as the "gag rule" that prevented such petitions from being read or considered, which was passed in 1836. He was described by the New Hampshire anti-slavery Herald of Freedom as a doughface, a pejorative term for both a man of no conviction and a northerner with southern sympathies. In the same article, the association contradicted its claim that fewer than one in 500 New Hampshiris was an abolitionist by listing all the people who had signed its petition. The document was read before the Senate by John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, which infuriated Pierce. He replied that most of the signers were women and children who did not have the right to vote and Calhoun apologized.


In May 1836, Senator Isaac Hill resigned to become governor of New Hampshire, forcing the state legislature to find a successor. Pierce's bid for the position was supported by John P. Hale, a Bowdoin College alumnus. After much debate, John Page (en) was chosen to complete Hill's term ending in March 1837, but Pierce was elected in December 1836 for a six-year term. At 32, he became the youngest senator in American history, but it was a difficult time as his father and several of his siblings were seriously ill while Jane continued to suffer from poor health. As a senator, he helped his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne secure a sinecure as coal and salt officer at the Boston Custom House, a position that allowed him to devote himself fully to writing.

Pierce followed his party's line on most issues. A competent senator, he was in the shadow of the Grand Triumvirate of Calhoun, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster who dominated the assembly. The beginning of his term was marked by the economic crisis caused by the Panic of 1837. Pierce believed that the slump was the result of the rapid growth of the banking system amidst "the extravagance of trade and the folly of speculation. He refused to allow federal resources to be used to support speculative bank lending and supported the new Democratic president, Martin Van Buren, and his proposal to create a Treasury independent of financial interests, an issue that divided the Democratic Party. At the same time, debates over slavery continued, and abolitionists proposed banning it in the federally regulated District of Columbia. Pierce opposed this measure, which he saw as the first step toward general emancipation.

Military matters were of particular interest to Pierce. He opposed legislation that would have increased the staff in Washington without increasing the number of officers serving in the rest of the country. Outraged by corruption in the payment of veterans' pensions, he was elected chairman of the Senate committee on this issue from 1839 to 1841. He took advantage of this position to call for a modernization of the army to strengthen the role of the militia and to emphasize mobility rather than the construction of coastal fortifications, which he considered obsolete.

Pierce campaigned hard in New Hampshire for Van Buren's re-election. Van Buren won the state but was defeated by General William Henry Harrison, while the Whigs won a majority in Congress. Harrison died of pneumonia a month after his inauguration and was succeeded by Vice President John Tyler. Pierce and the Democrats were quick to oppose the new administration, criticizing its desire to create a national bank and the removal of Democratic officials. Knowing that New Hampshire Democrats believed that no one should serve more than one term in the Senate, Pierce decided not to seek re-election. This was not the only reason for his departure, as in addition to being frustrated with being in opposition, he wanted to spend more time with his family and his law practice. Before leaving office, he opposed a bill allocating federal funds to the states, arguing that the money should be used to modernize the military. He also challenged the Whigs to release the results of an investigation they had launched into a possible Democratic bribery ring in New York Harbor a year earlier.

Lawyer and politician

Despite his departure from the Senate, Pierce had no intention of retiring from public life. His move to Concord gave him access to more court cases and allowed Jane to have a more interesting social life. Jane had remained in Concord with Frank and Benjamin during the end of her husband's term as a senator, and the couple was affected by this separation. At the same time, Pierce had started a firm with Asa Fowler, with whom he worked when he was not in the Senate. Business was booming; known for his affable personality, eloquence and excellent memory, he often attracted large audiences for his trials. His popularity was further enhanced by the fact that he regularly took on the defense of the poorest of the poor without receiving a stipend.

Pierce remained involved in the affairs of the state's Democratic Party, which was divided on several issues. Governor Hill, representing the urban and commercial wing of the party, supported corporate welfare and railroad expropriations. In contrast, the radical wing known as the "locofocos" defended the interests of farmers and rural people and called for social programs, labour legislation and restrictions on corporate benefits. The political culture became less tolerant of banks and corporations in the wake of the Panic of 1837 and Hill was not re-elected. Pierce was philosophically on the side of the locofocos and reluctantly agreed to be a lawyer in a case against Hill over the ownership of a newspaper. Hill lost the case and started his own periodical, which he used to attack Pierce frequently.

In June 1842, Pierce was appointed chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Committee, and in the following year's legislative election he helped the radical wing of the party to victory. To ease tensions within the party over issues such as railroad funding and temperance, he declared his priorities to be "order, moderation, compromise and party unity. As he did later in his presidency, Pierce saw the unity of the Democratic Party as greater than any other issue, and he saw opposition to slavery as a divisive issue that threatened that cohesion.

The surprise victory of Democratic outsider James K. Polk's surprise victory in the 1844 presidential election delighted Pierce, who had befriended the former Speaker of the House of Representatives during his time in Congress and had campaigned for him in New Hampshire. In return, the new president appointed him to the New Hampshire district court. The main objective of the Polk administration was to achieve the annexation of Texas, which had seceded from Mexico in 1836. This issue caused a rift between Pierce and his former ally Hale, who now sat in the House of Representatives. Hale wrote a letter to more than 1,400 New Hampshire Democrats stating his opposition to the accession of a new slave state. In response, Pierce organized a New Hampshire Democratic Party convention to withdraw his support for a possible second term for Hale. This caused a political scandal and Pierce severed his ties with his old friend and his partner Fowler who supported Hale. Hale refused to withdraw his candidacy, and with no candidate able to secure a majority, the situation was deadlocked and the seat vacant. The Whigs and Hale's Democratic supporters finally came to an agreement and took control of the legislature; Whig Anthony Colby (en) was elected governor and Hale's return to the Senate angered Pierce.

U.S.-Mexican War

Active service in the military was a dream for Pierce, whose father and brothers had fought in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 respectively. As a legislator, he had been a passionate advocate of volunteer militias and was himself an officer in the New Hampshire militia. When Congress declared war on Mexico in May 1846, Pierce immediately volunteered even though there were no regiments from New England. His desire to fight was one of the reasons he declined the position of general counsel offered to him by Polk. General Zachary Taylor's progress in northern Mexico was slow, and General Winfield Scott proposed taking the port of Veracruz in order to attack Mexico City directly. Congress approved the creation of ten regiments and Pierce, now a colonel, was appointed to command the 9th Infantry Regiment in February 1847.

On March 3, Pierce was promoted to brigadier general and assigned to reinforce Scott's army. Needing time to assemble his brigade, he arrived at Veracruz in late June after the capture of the city and prepared a supply column of 2,500 men to support Scott's advance. The three-week advance into the interior was difficult and several Mexican attacks were repulsed before the unit rejoined Scott in early August just before the Battle of Contreras. During this battle, Pierce's horse was spooked during a charge and stumbled. Struck in the groin by the saddle and crushed by the horse during the fall, Pierce suffered a severe knee injury. Believing his officer had fainted, one soldier demanded that he be replaced, stating that "General Pierce is a damned coward. Despite his wounded knee, he wanted to participate in the next day's fighting but was unable to keep up with his men.

As the battle of Churubusco approached, Scott ordered Pierce to stay behind, to which he replied, "For God's sake, General, this is the last great battle and I must lead my brigade. Scott relented and Pierce joined the fight strapped to his saddle, but the pain in his leg was so severe that he passed out on the battlefield. The Americans were victorious and he participated in the capture of Mexico City in mid-September even though his brigade was essentially held in reserve and he was bedridden for much of the battle due to dysentery. Pierce remained in command of his brigade during the three-month occupation of the city but was frustrated by the slow pace of peace negotiations and tried to stay out of the frequent conflicts between Scott and his subordinates.

Pierce was finally allowed to return to Concord in late December 1847. He received a hero's welcome and submitted his resignation from the army, which was approved on March 20, 1848. His military successes increased his popularity in New Hampshire, but his leg injury and the problems it had caused him during the fighting led to accusations of cowardice. General Ulysses S. Grant, who had personal contact with Pierce during the war, dismissed the accusations of cowardice in his memoirs written several years after his death. He noted: "Whatever Pierce's qualifications for the presidency, he was a gentleman and a man of courage. I was not one of his political supporters but I knew him more intimately than any other volunteer general. Pierce had demonstrated that he was a competent officer, especially during the advance from Veracruz, but his short service and the effects of his injury make it difficult for historians to accurately assess his military skills.

Back to New Hampshire

Returning to Concord, Pierce resumed his law practice and, among other things, defended the religious freedom of the Shakers. His role as party leader continued to occupy most of his time, however, and he again confronted Senator Hale, who had opposed the war with Mexico and demanded the abolition of slavery.

The large Mexican cession of the territories lost by Mexico after the war with the United States caused intense political debate. Many Northerners wanted to ban slavery in these territories and unsuccessfully introduced the Wilmot Amendment to ensure this. Others wanted slavery prohibited north of the 36°30′ parallel defined by the Compromise of 1820; both proposals were immediately rejected by the Southerners. The controversy split the Democratic Party, and at the 1848 convention, the nomination of former Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan was rejected by the anti-slavery supporters of former President Van Buren, who defected to form the Free Soil Party. For their part, the Whigs nominated General Taylor, whose opinion on most of the burning issues of the period was unknown. Despite his earlier support for Van Buren, Pierce joined the Cass camp and refused to run for vice-president on the Free Soil Party ticket. Perhaps as a result of Pierce's efforts, Taylor who was elected president scored his worst in New Hampshire.

Whig Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky hoped to settle the slavery issue with what became known as the Compromise of 1850. When the proposal failed to gain a majority in the Senate, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois suggested that the text be divided into separate bills so that each legislator could vote against the clauses rejected by his or her state without the overall bill being rejected. This worked, and the compromise was signed into law by President Millard Fillmore, who had succeeded Taylor in July 1850. Pierce fully supported the bill, and when in December 1850 the Democratic candidate for governor of New Hampshire, John Atwood, issued a letter opposing the compromise, he had the party's support withdrawn. This incident affected the success of the Democrats, who lost several seats in the state legislature, but the party retained its majority and was well positioned for the next presidential election.

As the 1852 presidential election approached, the Democratic Party remained deeply divided on the issue of slavery, even though most of the anti-slavery supporters who had formed the Free Soil Party had rejoined it. As a result, many expected that no candidate for the Democratic nomination would achieve a two-thirds majority at the national convention. Pierce, like the other New Hampshire delegates, had endorsed his former mentor Levi Woodbury, who had become an associate justice of the Supreme Court. His death in September 1851 allowed Pierce to emerge as an outsider in the manner of Polk eight years earlier, especially since the New Hampshire delegates argued that they should provide the presidential candidate since their state had been the strongest Democratic stronghold. His opponents included Douglas, Cass, William L. Marcy of New York, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, Sam Houston of Texas and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri.

Despite his state's support, Pierce's chances seemed slim because he had not held executive office for more than a decade and lacked the national prominence of his rivals. He publicly stated that a nomination would "deeply revile tastes and wishes," but given the desire of New Hampshire Democrats to see one of their own elected, he knew that his position as party leader would be threatened if he refused to run. So he allowed his supporters to campaign for him, and to broaden his base in the South, he wrote letters reaffirming his support for the Compromise of 1850, including the controversial Fugitive Slave Act, which compelled officials, especially Northerners, to arrest runaway slaves.

The convention began on June 1, 1852, in Baltimore, Maryland, and as expected, no candidate was able to gain a quick lead. In the first vote of the 288 delegates, Cass received 116 votes to Buchanan's 93; the rest of the votes were divided among the other contenders, but Pierce received none. The next 34 rounds of voting did not change the lines, and Buchanan's supporters decided to have their delegates vote for minor candidates like Pierce to show that no one but Buchanan could win. This tactic failed completely as delegations from Virginia, New Hampshire and Maine rallied around Pierce, who was seen as a compromise candidate, and support for Buchanan disintegrated. After the 48th ballot, Representative James C. Dobbin of North Carolina gave a speech enthusiastically endorsing Pierce, which led to a groundswell of support for the outsider. In the next round, 282 delegates voted for him, giving him the Democratic nomination for president. The convention then nominated Senator William R. King of Alabama, a Buchanan supporter, to be his running mate.

When news of the nomination reached New Hampshire, Pierce could hardly believe it and his wife fainted. Their son Benjamin wrote his mother that he hoped his father's bid would fail because he knew she would not like living in Washington.

The Whigs nominated General Winfield Scott, under whom Pierce had served in Mexico, for the presidency and Secretary of the Navy William A. Graham for the vice presidency. The Whig convention failed to unify all factions of the party, however, and the platform adopted was virtually identical to that of the Democrats, including support for the Compromise of 1850. This prompted the abolitionist wing to re-nominate Senator Hale as a Free Soil Party candidate. In the absence of policy differences, the campaign turned into a bitter personality clash that contributed to the lowest turnout since 1836; Pierce biographer Peter A. Wallner called it "one of the least exciting campaigns in presidential history.

Pierce made no statements during the campaign so as not to undermine party unity and let his supporters campaign for him in a typical "stoop campaign" of the time. Pierce's opponents portrayed him as a coward and a drunk ("the hero of many a hard-fought bottle"). For his part, Scott suffered from poor oratorical skills and a deeply divided party on the issue of slavery; New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley summed up the opinion of many Northern abolitionists when he said of the Whig program, "We reject it, hate it, and spit on it. The Democrats were therefore confident of their chances and their campaign slogan indicated that they would pierce their 1852 opponents just as they had poked (a play on the word Polk and "hit") their 1844 opponents. This proved to be the case as Scott won only 42 votes in the Electoral College to Pierce's 254. The popular vote was closer, but Pierce came out on top comfortably with 50.9 percent of the vote to Scott's 44.1 and Hale's 4.9. In addition to their presidential success, the Democrats won large majorities in both houses of Congress.

Investiture and personal tragedy

The beginning of Pierce's term was marked by a personal tragedy. On January 6, 1853, the president-elect and his family left Boston by train, but their car derailed and rolled down a median near Andover. Franklin and Jane survived, but their 11-year-old son Benjamin was found crushed and nearly decapitated under the carcass of the train, an excruciating sight that Pierce could not keep from his wife. Both developed severe depression and this no doubt affected the actions of the new president. Jane wondered if the accident was divine retribution for her husband's rise to high office and wrote a long letter of apology to her late son, asking forgiveness for her mistakes as a mother. She avoided the social obligations of her role as first lady for the first two years of her stay in the White House.

Jane stayed in New Hampshire and did not attend her husband's inauguration. At 48, Pierce was the youngest president in American history, and he chose to take his oath of office on a law book rather than a Bible, as had all his predecessors except John Quincy Adams. In his speech, he celebrated an era of peace and prosperity and advocated an ambitious foreign policy that included the "eminently important" acquisition of new territories. Avoiding the word slavery, he emphasized his commitment to resolving the "important subject" and maintaining peace in the Union. Referring to the death of his son, he told the crowd, "You have summoned me in my weakness, you must support me with your strength.


The formation of the cabinet was an opportunity for Pierce to bring his party together, as many Democrats had not joined him until after his appointment and some had joined forces with the abolitionists of the Free Soil Party to win local elections. The new president therefore decided to give positions to all sides of the party, even those who had not supported the Compromise of 1850.

All cabinet appointments were confirmed unanimously by the Senate, but Pierce then had to spend the first few weeks of his term appointing hundreds of senior officials. This was a chore because he wanted all factions to be represented. In doing so, none of them were completely satisfied and this fuelled tensions and rivalries within the party. Northern newspapers were quick to accuse Pierce of favoring slaveholding secessionists, while Southern newspapers called him an abolitionist.

Buchanan had urged Pierce to consult with the vice-president-elect on the formation of the cabinet, but the president did not; indeed, the two men had never spoken since the appointment of the ticket in June 1852. In early 1853 King, who was suffering from tuberculosis, went to Cuba to recuperate. His condition worsened, and Congress passed a special law to allow him to take the vice presidential oath on March 24 with the U.S. consul in Havana and not with the chief justice of the United States as was customary. Wanting to die at home, King returned to his Alabama plantation on April 17 and died the next day. Because the U.S. Constitution made no provision for a new vice president, Pierce had none for the remainder of his term, so Senate President Pro Tempore David Atchison was the next in line.

Pierce sought to create a more efficient and less corrupt administration than that of his predecessors. Members of his Cabinet established a competitive civil service system that foreshadowed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which was passed three decades later. The Department of the Interior was reformed by Secretary Robert McClelland, who formalized its operations and increased the fight against fraud. Another reform was the expansion of the role of the attorney general, who could now appoint federal judges and lawyers, an important step in the process of creating what became the Department of Justice. Pierce appointed only one justice to the Supreme Court following the death in July 1852 of John McKinley. Fillmore had proposed several candidates to replace him, but the Senate did not accept any of them before he left the White House. As president, Pierce offered the position to Senator Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana, who had already declined the offer of his predecessor. Benjamin declined again, and the choice fell to John Archibald Campbell (en), a states' rights advocate.


Pierce charged Secretary James Guthrie with reforming the poorly managed Treasury, which was unable to obtain payment from its debtors. Despite laws requiring that funds be held by the Treasury, large deposits remained in private banks. Guthrie claimed these funds and sought to prosecute corrupt officials with mixed results. The influx of gold from California, however, enabled him to pay off a significant portion of the national debt.

At the request of the president, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis commissioned the Corps of Surveyors to study the route of possible transcontinental railroads. The Democratic Party had long opposed such federal spending on public works, but Davis believed that such a project was a matter of national security. The secretary also deployed the Army Corps of Engineers to oversee construction projects in Washington such as the expansion of the Capitol and the erection of the Washington Monument.


He supported the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery in the territories soon to be colonized north of the 36th parallel. He was supported in this by Jefferson Davis, his Secretary of War (and future President of the Confederate States), and Stephen A. Douglas, leader of the Democratic Party and candidate of this party to the presidential election of 1860.

Foreign and military policy

The Pierce administration was in tune with the expansionist Young America movement, with William L. Marcy leading the charge as Secretary of State. Marcy sought to present a distinctly American and Republican image to the world. He asked his diplomats to wear the "simple clothes of an American citizen" rather than the elaborate uniforms used in European chanceries and to hire only American citizens to work in the consulates. Marcy received international acclaim for his 73-page letter defending Martin Koszta, an Austrian refugee who had been kidnapped by his government after applying for U.S. citizenship.

Davis, a proponent of a transcontinental railroad in the South, persuaded Pierce to instruct the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, James Gadsden, to acquire land for the railroad. Gadsden was also charged with renegotiating the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which obliged the United States to prevent cross-border raids by Native Americans from the New Mexico territory. In December 1853, Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna agreed to the sale of a large territory, although negotiations nearly collapsed following William Walker's expedition to the Baja California Peninsula. Opposition from local people and anti-slavery senators led Congress to reduce the Gadsden Purchase to about 50,000 square miles in what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico for the sum of ten million dollars (about $50 billion in 2013 dollars. This acquisition was the last of the contiguous United States, whose borders did not change except for minor adjustments.

The issue of fishing rights in the Atlantic deteriorated relations between the United States and the United Kingdom as the Royal Navy increasingly turned away American fishermen who came to Canadian territorial waters. Marcy negotiated a trade agreement with the British ambassador in Washington, John Crampton, and Buchanan was sent to London to press the British government to approve the text. A reciprocity treaty was finally ratified in August 1854, an agreement that Pierce considered to be the first step in the eventual annexation of Canada. As the administration negotiated with the United Kingdom over the delineation of the border with Canada, American interests in Central America were threatened by the growing influence of the United Kingdom, which the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 had failed to curb. Gaining the upper hand over Britain in this region was a key element of Pierce's expansionist policy.

At the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854, British representatives in the United States sought to recruit American citizens in violation of American neutrality laws, and Pierce expelled Crampton and three consuls. In his speech to Congress in December 1855, he declared that the British had violated the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. The latter were, according to Buchanan, impressed and began to rethink their strategy. Buchanan, however, was unable to get the United Kingdom to give up its possessions in Central America.

In 1854, three U.S. diplomats in Europe drafted a proposal for the president to purchase the island of Cuba from Spain for $120 million (about $540 billion in 2013 dollars) and justified taking control by force if Spain refused. The publication of the Ostend Manifesto, which was written at Marcy's urging, angered Northerners who saw it as an attempt to annex a slave territory to strengthen Southern interests. The document helped discredit the manifest destiny that the Democratic Party had often supported.

In 1856, he recognized a dictatorship in Nicaragua established by William Walker, an American buccaneer who conquered the country and began to introduce slavery. Walker hoped to bring Nicaragua into the Union as a slave state. Walker's control quickly angered railroad entrepreneur Cornelius Vanderbilt, who planned to build railroads and a canal in the country. Vanderbilt pressured Pierce to use the U.S. Navy to force Walker to "surrender" the country. Walker then took his forces to Honduras, where the British Navy captured him. He was executed by a Honduran firing squad.

Pierce advocated a thorough expansion and reorganization of the armed forces. Secretary of War Davis and Secretary of the Navy James C. Dobbin felt that the Army and Navy were understaffed, poorly managed and unable to adopt new technology. In 1852, President Fillmore had sent Commodore Matthew Perry to Asia to lead a fleet of four ships to develop trade with that region. Perry wanted to impose himself by force, but Pierce and Dobbin urged him to remain diplomatic. He signed a modest trade treaty with the Tokugawa shogunate, but the agreement ended two centuries of Japanese isolation.

Bleeding Kansas

The main challenge for the Pierce administration was to maintain the balance of the country when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, creating the territories of Nebraska and Kansas stretching from Missouri to the Rocky Mountains and from Texas to the present Canadian border. The act was of crucial importance to its drafter Stephen A. Douglas and his plan for a transcontinental railroad from Chicago to California. The organization of this largely uninhabited territory was indeed necessary to allow its colonization because no sale of land or topographical study could be conducted before the creation of a territorial government. This westward expansion, however, raised the question of the status of slavery in these regions. Douglas and his allies proposed to let the settlers answer this question, but this might have challenged the 36°30' north parallel defined by the Compromise of 1820 as the northern limit of slavery. For Southerners, the Compromise of 1820 had already been abrogated by the Compromise of 1850, which saw the accession of California as an abolitionist state even though a significant portion of its territory lay south of 36°30' north.

Pierce had wanted to organize the territory of Kansas without explicitly resolving the issue of slavery, but Douglas had not been able to get the southerners to accept it, and they wanted it to be allowed immediately. The president had doubts about the bill because he knew it would face strong Northern opposition, but Douglas and Davis convinced him to defend it. Northern public opinion, harangued by Senators Salmon P. Chase of Ohio and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, was indeed very hostile to the law. For the latter, scalded by the attempted annexation of Cuba, suspicious of the Gadsen Purchase, and concerned about the influence of slave owners in the Cabinet such as Davis, the Nebraska-Kansas Act was seen as Southern aggression.

The administration put great pressure on the Democratic party to support the act, while the Whig party exploded on the issue and disappeared in the following years. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in May 1854, but the great political unrest that followed greatly affected Pierce's presidency. The nativist and anti-Catholic Know Nothing movement was at its height during this period, and Northern anger led to the formation of the Republican Party, which was resolutely opposed to any concession on slavery.

Even as the bill was being debated, abolitionist and slaveholding settlers moved into the new territory to secure a victory for their side in the vote on the constitution. The passage of the act and the election preparations led to serious violence between the two sides, which resulted in about 50 deaths and gave the territory the nickname Bleeding Kansas. Thousands of slaveholding Missouri residents called Border Ruffians participated in the vote even though they were not Kansas residents, and their participation gave their side a victory. Despite these irregularities, Pierce accepted the result of the vote and recognized the state's slave legislature. When supporters of an abolitionist state formed their own government and drafted a constitution banning slavery, he considered it an act of sedition and sent the army to break up one of their rallies in Topeka.

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act coincided with the arrest of fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston. Northern opinion was sympathetic to Burns, but Pierce was determined to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act firmly and sent federal troops to secure his transfer to Virginia despite the protests.

The congressional elections of 1854 and 1855 were a disaster for the Democrats, who lost almost all their seats outside the South. Even in New Hampshire, until then a Democratic stronghold, the Know Nothings won all three representative seats and the governorship, while Hale returned to the Senate.

As an incumbent, Pierce expected to easily secure the Democratic nomination for a second term. In reality, his chances of success at the convention and then during the election were more than uncertain. His administration was universally opposed in the north because of its position on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and Democratic leaders were well aware of the president's unpopularity. Despite this, Pierce's supporters considered joining forces with Stephen A. Douglas to prevent the nomination of James Buchanan. Buchanan had strong political support and his tenure as ambassador to the United Kingdom had protected him from the Kansas controversy.

At the start of the Democratic convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 5, Pierce expected to come out on top or even be nominated on the first ballot. However, Buchanan won a plurality of the votes cast, with 135 of the 296 votes cast for the president and 38 for Cass and Douglas, mostly from Southern delegates. Neither candidate was able to gain the upper hand, and with his support dwindling from vote to vote, Pierce withdrew his candidacy after the fourteenth ballot and asked his supporters to back Douglas to prevent Buchanan's victory. Douglas, then only 43, believed that he would win the nomination in 1860 if he let Buchanan, who was 65, win, and Buchanan's supporters suggested that he would. After two more rounds, Douglas withdrew from the race. To appease Pierce's anger, the convention issued a resolution of "unequivocal approval" of his administration and nominated his ally, Representative John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, to run for the vice presidency.

Pierce supported Buchanan even though the two men remained distant; he hoped to resolve the Kansas question before the November election to improve the Democrats' chances. He appointed John White Geary as governor of Kansas, but his policy of compromise angered slave legislators. Nevertheless, he succeeded in bringing order to the territory, but the damage was done, and the Republicans used the slogans Bleeding Kansas and Bleeding Sumner in their campaign, referring to the incident in which abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was nearly caned to death by his colleague Preston Brooks (en) of South Carolina on the Senate floor. The Democrats won the election, but received only 41.4 per cent of the vote in the north, compared to 49.8 per cent in 1852. In doing so, they led in only five of the sixteen abolitionist states, whereas Pierce had won fourteen, and their success in three of them was largely due to a split in the opposing camp between Republican candidate John C. Frémont and former president Millard Fillmore, who represented the Know Nothing.

Pierce did not moderate his position after failing to secure the Democratic nomination, and in his final address to Congress in December 1856, he fiercely attacked Republicans and abolitionists and defended his economic record and the maintenance of peaceful international relations. In the last days of his term, Congress passed laws to increase officers' pay and build new warships, and voted to reduce tariffs, a measure long championed by the president. Pierce and his cabinet left office on March 4, 1857, the only time in American history that all of the original cabinet members remained in office during the president's four-year term.


After leaving the White House, the Pierces stayed in Washington, D.C., for more than two months, living in the home of William L. Marcy. They then moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where Pierce had begun speculating in real estate. Seeking a milder climate, he and Jane traveled for the next three years. They resided for a time on the island of Madeira before visiting the Bahamas and Europe; in Rome, Pierce met up with his old friend Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Pierce kept abreast of American politics during his travels and commented regularly on the growing division of the country. He urged northern abolitionists to moderate their position to avoid southern secession and wrote that the bloodshed of a civil war "will not be confined to the Mason-Dixon line but will be fought within our borders and in our streets. He also criticized the Protestant pastors of New England for their support of the abolitionists and Republicans. The growth of the latter party forced the Democrats to defend the former president; in a debate between Lincoln and Douglas for control of the Illinois legislature in 1858, the Democratic candidate introduced Pierce as a "man of honor and integrity.

As the 1860 Democratic convention approached, Pierce was asked by some to run to unite the party, but he refused. Divisions over slavery caused a further split in the Democratic Party between a northern wing supporting Stephen A. Douglas and a southern wing supporting John C. Breckinridge. Douglas and a southern wing supporting John C. Breckinridge. Divided, the Democrats were badly defeated nationally by Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln but won all the Southern states. In the months between the November election and the March 1861 inauguration, several Southern legislatures announced their desire to secede. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Archibald Campbell asked Pierce to address the Alabama secession convention. Ill, he declined the offer but sent a letter imploring the delegates to remain in the Union, to give the North time to repeal laws contrary to Southern interests and to reach a compromise.

Civil War

Despite all attempts to avoid it, the Civil War finally broke out in April 1861 with the bombardment of the federal fortress of Fort Sumter by the Confederate army. Northern Democrats, including Douglas, rallied behind Lincoln and his plan to bring the southern states back into the Union by force. Pierce, on the other hand, wanted to avoid a full-scale conflagration at all costs and proposed to Van Buren that a conference of former presidents be convened to restore calm. Nothing concrete came of it, and he wrote to his wife that "I would never justify, support, or in any way defend this unnecessary, cruel, ruthless, and purposeless war. Pierce publicly criticized Lincoln's decision to suspend habeas corpus, arguing that even in times of war, the country should not give up its protection of civil liberties. This stance won him support from Copperheads demanding immediate peace with the Confederate states, but others saw it as a further demonstration of the former president's Southern affinities

In September 1861, Pierce traveled to Michigan and met with Robert McClelland and Lewis Cass, among others. A Detroit bookseller named J. A. Roys wrote a letter to Secretary of State William H. Seward, accusing the former president of meeting with disloyal people and plotting a coup d'etat to return him to power. That same month, the pro-Lincoln Detroit Tribune published an article calling Pierce a "traitor and marauding spy" and insinuating that he belonged to the Knights of the Golden Circle, a pro-slavery secret society. This had no basis in fact, but it did not stop a Pierce supporter named Guy S. Hopkins from sending a letter indicating that "President P." was part of a plot against the Union. Seward ordered Hopkins' arrest and Hopkins admitted that it was a hoax. Despite this confession, the Secretary of State asked Pierce if the charges were true, but Pierce denied them. When Republican newspapers knowingly published Hopkins' letter, Pierce decided to publicly defend his honor. Seward refused to make their correspondence public, and the former president retaliated by asking Senator Milton Latham of California to read their exchange on the Senate floor, an act that embarrassed the administration

The introduction of conscription and the arrest of Clement Vallandigham, an anti-administration official, angered Pierce, who attacked Lincoln head-on in a speech to New Hampshire Democrats. These statements were not well received in the North, especially since they coincided with the double Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. His reputation was further damaged the following month when Northern troops seized the plantation of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Pre-war correspondence between the two men revealing the friendship between Davis and Pierce was published by Northern newspapers and reinforced the hostility of the abolitionist movement against the former leader.

Jane Pierce died of tuberculosis in Andover in December 1863 and was buried in Concord Cemetery; Pierce's grief was compounded by the death of his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne in May 1864. Some Democrats again sought to put his name forward for the 1864 convention, but he refused. Lincoln easily won the election but was assassinated in April 1865. Soon after, a crowd gathered around Pierce's home in Concord to ask why he had not hung a flag to show his grief. The former president became upset and said that while he was saddened by Lincoln's death, he saw no need to publicly demonstrate it. He added that his military and political record was proof enough of his patriotism and this convinced the crowd to disperse.

Pierce's alcoholism worsened in the last years of his life and he had a brief relationship with an unknown woman in mid-1865. At the same time, he used his influence to improve conditions for Davis at Fort Monroe in Virginia. He also provided financial assistance to his friend Hawthorne's son Julian and to his own nephews. On the second anniversary of his wife's death, he rejoined his Episcopal church in Concord; he considered it less politicized than his former Congregational church, which had alienated many Democrats with its abolitionist rhetoric. A widower, he referred to himself as an "old farmer" who personally farmed his land in North Hampton and occasionally visited relatives in Massachusetts. Always interested in politics, he expressed support for the Reconstruction policy of Andrew Johnson who had succeeded Lincoln and defended his acquittal at his impeachment trial; he later expressed optimism after the election of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868.

Pierce's health declined in the summer of 1869, but he continued to drink. Suffering from severe cirrhosis, he returned to Concord in September and an aide was hired to help him; no family members attended his last days. He died at 4:35 a.m. on the morning of October 8. President Grant, who later defended his predecessor's service in the Mexican-American War, ordered a national day of mourning, while newspapers ran lengthy articles on his controversial and colorful career. He was buried alongside his wife and two children in a Concord cemetery.

Two places in New Hampshire have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of their association with Pierce. The Franklin Pierce Homestead where he grew up in Hillsborough became a state park as well as a National Historic Landmark. His Concord home where he died in 1869 was destroyed in a fire in 1981 but is nonetheless listed on the National Register. The Pierce Manse in Concord where he lived from 1842 to 1848 has been converted into a museum and is open to the public.

Pierce has given his name to several institutions and places, mostly in New Hampshire. Franklin Pierce University in Rindge was founded in 1962. The University of New Hampshire has a Franklin Pierce Center for Intellectual Property. In 1913, the 1,300 meter high Clinton Mountain in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains was renamed Mount Pierce.

The small town of Pierceton (en) in Indiana founded in the 1850s was named in his honor. Pierce counties in North Dakota, Georgia, Nebraska (and its county seat Pierce), Washington and Wisconsin were also named after him.

After his death, Pierce disappeared from the American collective memory and is now often known only as one of a series of presidents whose disastrous terms led to the Civil War. His presidency is generally considered a failure and he is often presented as one of the worst American presidents. One of the causes of his failure was that he allowed Congress to take the initiative, especially with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and he paid the political price. His inability to compromise helped end the period of Democratic Party dominance that began with Andrew Jackson and allowed the Republican Party to dominate national politics for over 70 years.

Despite a reputation as a competent and sympathetic politician, during his presidency Pierce was little more than a mediator between the increasingly opposing factions that were leading the country toward civil war. For Pierce, who saw slavery as a property issue, not a moral one, the Union was sacred, and he saw the actions of abolitionists as divisive and a threat to the rights of Southerners guaranteed by the Constitution. While he criticized those who called for a limitation or end to slavery, he rarely opposed the more radical southern politicians.

Historian David Potter concludes that the Ostend Manifesto and the Kansas-Nebraska Act were "the two great calamities of Franklin Pierce's administration...Both brought him a flood of criticism. He adds that they completely discredited the ideas of Manifest Destiny and popular sovereignty. In 2010, the historian presented a positive view of his foreign policy, noting that its expansionist nature foreshadowed those of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, who presided over an era when America had the military power to impose its will: "The foreign and trade policy that developed in the 1890s and supplanted European colonialism in the mid-twentieth century owes much to the paternalism of Jacksonian democracy cultivated in the international arena during Franklin Pierce's presidency.

Historian Larry Gara, who wrote a book on Pierce's presidency, wrote in his American National Biography article:

"He was president at a time that demanded almost superhuman talents, but he lacked such qualities and never rose to the level of the office to which he had been elected. His vision of the Constitution and the Union belonged to the Jacksonian past. He never fully understood the nature and extent of abolitionist sentiment in the North. He managed to negotiate a reciprocity treaty with Canada, to begin opening Japan to Western trade, to add land in the Southwest, and to sign legislation paving the way for an overseas empire. His policies regarding Cuba and Kansas only increased tensions. His support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act and his determination to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act deepened the divisions. Pierce was hardworking and his administration largely free of corruption, but the legacy of those four turbulent years contributed to the tragedy of secession and the Civil War."


  1. Franklin Pierce
  2. Franklin Pierce
  3. Certains documents locaux suggèrent qu'il serait né dans la résidence existant encore aujourd'hui. Le Registre national des lieux historiques indique cependant qu'il est plus probablement né dans une cabane utilisée par sa famille alors que la résidence était en construction[2] tandis que l'historien Peter A. Wallner affirme sans hésitation qu'il est né dans cette cabane[3].
  4. Le gouverneur du New Hampshire était alors élu chaque année.
  5. Avant l'adoption du 17e amendement en 1913, les sénateurs étaient élus par les législatures des États.
  6. Algunas cuentas locales sugieren que nació en Homestead. El Registro Nacional de Lugares Históricos cita la cabaña de troncos como el lugar de nacimiento más probable,[4]​ mientras que el historiador Peter A. Wallner afirma sin reservas que nació en la cabaña de troncos.[5]​
  7. Listing of National Historic Landmarks by State: New Hampshire. National Park Service, abgerufen am 12. August 2023.
  8. Julie Nelson: American Presidents: Year by Year. Volumes 1–3: 1732–2000. Routledge, Oxon 2015, ISBN 0-7656-8046-7, S. 97.
  9. Michael F. Holt: Franklin Pierce. 2010, S. 5 f.Julie Nelson: American Presidents: Year by Year. Volumes 1–3: 1732–2000. 2015, S. 98.
  10. Julie Nelson: American Presidents: Year by Year. Volumes 1–3: 1732–2000. 2015, S. 97.
  11. Michael F. Holt: Franklin Pierce. 2010, S. 5.
  12. Пирс, Франклин // Энциклопедический словарь Брокгауза и Ефрона : в 86 т. (82 т. и 4 доп.). — СПб., 1890—1907.
  13. Пирс // Малый энциклопедический словарь Брокгауза и Ефрона. — 2-е изд., вновь перераб. и значит. доп. — Т. 1—2. — СПб., 1907—1909.

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