Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the U. S., came to office during a period of growing tension between the North and South. A politician of limited ability, Pierce was behind one of the most crucial pieces of legislation in American history. Although he did not author the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he did encourage its passage by Congress. And that piece of legislation set the nation on its path to civil war.
Family roots stretched back in America to the 1630s.
He grew up in a modest family of moderate wealth but spent his childhood with an ascribed status of respect from the residents of their community in Hillsborough. His father, Benjamin, was formerly a farmer but became a state militia general and brought victories during the American Revolution. This became the stepping stones for him to enter local politics. Anna Kendrick, his mother, also came from the old and early Puritan settlers in Massachusetts, this also garnering respect from people in their vicinity.
Franklin Pierce went to a local school at Hillsborough Center and later, at the age of 12, to the town school at Hancock.
Pierce was not fond of schooling. Later 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. There he joined the Athenian Society, a progressive literary society. Last in his class after two years, he worked hard to improve his grades and in 1824 graduated in fifth place in a graduating class of fourteen.
Later he 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.
Pierce was elected to the New Hampshire legislature in 1829. He became Speaker the House. He was elected to Congress in 1833, at the age of twenty-nine.
Pierce's popularity as a politician led to his election, at thirty-three, to the U.S. Senate. As a Democrat, he always been willing to support the party's policies. It had been organized to support states' rights during Andrew Jackson's presidency, and Pierce was enthusiastically in favor of the rights of states to operate with limited interference by the federal government.
Pierce's career seemed poised for greatness, but then he abruptly quit the Senate because his wife found life in Washington intolerable. Jane Pierce was adamantly opposed to alcohol, but she was well aware that the lifestyle of politicians in the capital often included drinking and lively parties. Out of respect to his wife Pierce resigned and went home to New Hampshire with Jane and their two sons. The family settled in Concord, where Pierce opened what quickly became a highly successful law firm. He continued to have enormous political clout in the state.
When war broke out between the United States and Mexico in 1846, Pierce raised two companies of volunteers from New Hampshire and marched south with them. He made himself a private, but the following year he was appointed a brigadier general. After they arrived in Mexico, they marched through 150 miles of hostile country to join General Winfield Scott's army. During the Battle of Contreras in August, Pierce fell from his horse and was injured in the leg and groin, leaving his men leaderless and panic-stricken to the point of widespread desertion. His injuries were serious enough to call for discharge, but Pierce rejected the order, and continued to travel with the army.
He returned to New Hampshire after the war and quickly immersed himself in state politics and turned his attention to the national Democratic Party. The issue of slavery had so divided Democrats by that time that some abolitionists among them had left to form the Free-Soil Party.
Pierce was greatly disturbed by these defections and believed that slavery was officially approved by the U.S. Constitution. Pierce felt that threats of federal interference by Northern abolitionists were dangerous to the Union.
Pierce didn't have any presidential ambitions going into the 1852 election. However, when the nominating convention began the delegates were hopelessly deadlocked and they couldn't agree on a candidate after forty-eight rounds of balloting. Pierce was chosen as a compromise candidate on the forty-ninth ballot. William Rufus King of Alabama was named the vice presidential candidate.
Tragedy struck as Pierce and his family traveled by train from New Hampshire to Washington and the train derailed. Pierce's eleven-year-old son, Benjamin, was crushed to death before parents' eyes. The blow was stunning to Jane Pierce, who never recovered enough to be able to take on most of her duties as first lady.
Franklin Pierce delivered his inaugural address completely from memory in a March snowstorm. He advocated territorial expansion, a bold foreign policy, and strict adherence to the Constitutional rights of individual states. His vice president, William Rufus King, was sworn into office in a hospital bed in Havana, Cuba, where he was being treated for tuberculosis. King died one month into his term, and Pierce served the rest of his presidency without a vice president.
The Compromise of 1850 had achieved some positive results. It allowed California to be admitted into the Union as a free state. However, the bundle of legislation also included the Fugitive Slave Law, which empowered Southern slaveholders to pursue runaway slaves across state lines into the North. By the 1850s, white abolitionists and free African Americans as well as former slaves had formed the Underground Railroad, a series of routes that made it easier for runaway slaves to make their escape to the North, with help and safe havens along the way. They weren't safe until they reached Canada, and the way stations along the Underground Railroad were established to keep them hidden and safe until they could cross the border.
Pierce carefully enforced the Fugitive Slave Law. Among the Northern abolitionists who showed contempt for the law with open hostility was Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin highlighted the plight of runaway slaves trying to save their children from a life of forced labor. The book inspired its many readers to join a growing movement for repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law. But Pierce's administration made several fateful decisions that widened the rift between North and South.
Pro-slavery forces believed that the Spanish colony of Cuba was about to free its slaves or be overrun by a slave revolt, and to prevent either such fearsome thing from happening, they encouraged Pierce to purchase the island for the United States. He authorized Pierre Soule, his representative in Spain, to begin negotiations, and Soule, along with James Buchanan, then minister to England, and John Y. Mason, minister to France, drafted a document called the Ostend Manifesto. It offered to pay as much as $120,000 for Cuba, but it also threatened that the United States would seize Cuba by force if Spain freed the slaves there or allowed a slave revolution. When details of the plan were leaked to the public, it caused an international uproar. Pierce disclaimed it. Spain refused to even talk about selling Cuba.
Another muddled outcome for Pierce occurred during discussions of plans for a transcontinental railroad. A route through the southern portion of the United States to California was chosen, and then Pierce authorized the Gadsden Purchase, a plan to buy land in southern Arizona and southern New Mexico where the railroad would be built. But the influential senator Stephen A. Douglas had different plans. As a senator from Illinois, he was in favor of starting the railway in Chicago and running it across the Great Plains. By supporting an opposing plan that favored the South, Pierce allowed the issue to become overwhelmed by debate within his own party. In the meantime, Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which would create two territories between the Missouri River and the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains. Concerned that his bill wouldn't get Southern support, he added the condition that the status of any new territories could be settled by vote of their inhabitants. That provision opened land that had been closed to slavery by the Missouri Compromise of 1820.When the bill came up for a vote, Southern politicians demanded an outright repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Pierce agreed with them, and when the Kansas-Nebraska bill became law, the Missouri Compromise was repealed. Hoping to ensure that Kansas would be a slave state, proslavery people from Missouri flooded into the territory and organized a proslavery legislature at Lecompton. Abolitionists moved in, too, and after organizing their own government in Topeka, began to fight for free-state status. Pierce formally recognized the Lecompton government. The difference of opinion had turned to violence by then. Known historically as "Bleeding Kansas".
Pierce administration was successful in opening up trade with Japan. The ceremonial visit to Japan in 1854 by Commodore Matthew C. Perry was the first great highlight in relations between the two nations.
Unpopular though he may have been, Pierce still hoped to be renominated for a second term in 1856. As it happened, he was replaced instead by James Buchanan. After he left office, Pierce and his wife embarked on a long tour of Europe. They went home to settle in Concord, New Hampshire. After Jane Pierce's death in 1863, Franklin Pierce lived in near-seclusion until his own death on October 8, 1869. He was buried in a family plot in the Old North Cemetery at Concord, New Hampshire.
When Franklin Pierce began his duties as president of the United States, he firmly believed that the Compromise had settled all of the differences between North and the South, but he was wrong. As the country grew more divided and frustrsted over slavery, government became less and less affective. On the personal side, Pierce went to Washington a heartbroken man. His eleven-year-old son, Bennie, had died in a tragic accident just weeks before inauguration, and although Pierce tended to his official duties with determination. On the political side, Pierce wasn't a good leader. He had always been more comfortable folowing others rather than inspiring them. Only forty-eight at the time of his election - the youngest man to serve as president up until that time - he seemed to be too eager to compromise for the good of his party.
"You have summoned me in my weakness. You must sustain me in your strength."
Charismatic and affable, Franklin Pierce formed many relationships throughout his life. Growing up in rural Hillsborough, Pierce was part of a community and family web connected by economic networks, political affiliation and marriage. People from all walks of life passed through his father’s tavern in Hillsborough, an important center of the social, economic and political life of the community. As Pierce grew to adulthood, his world continued to grow. Attending Bowdoin College broadened his education as he formed lasting friendships with young men from across New England. Participation in politics and the legal profession opened new worlds in Concord and Washington, D.C. Service in the state militia and the U.S. Army introduced him to officers and enlisted men from across the United States. Beyond his parents and siblings, marriage to Jane Means Appleton in 1834 connected him to a family of conservative reform-minded industrialists who were changing the economic landscape of New England.
“"He was a small politician, of low capacity and mean surroundings, proud to act as the servile tool of men worse than himself but also stronger and abler. He was ever ready to do any work the slavery leaders set him." - Theodore Roosevelt, 1886”