Franklin Pierce

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Franklin Pierce
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Franklin Pierce

Order: 14th President
Vice President: William R. King
Term of office: March 4, 1853March 4, 1857
Preceded by: Millard Fillmore
Succeeded by: James Buchanan
Date of birth: November 23, 1804
Place of birth: Hillsborough, New Hampshire
Date of death: October 8, 1869
Place of death: Concord, New Hampshire
First Lady: Jane Pierce
Political party: Democrat

Franklin Pierce (November 23, 1804October 8, 1869) was an American politician and the 14th President of the United States, serving from 1853 to 1857. Pierce was a Democrat and the first president to be born in the 19th century. He was a "doughface" (a Northerner with Southern sympathies) who served in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Later, Pierce took part in the Mexican-American War, becoming a brigadier general. Because his private law practice in his home state of New Hampshire was so successful he turned down several important positions. Later, he was nominated for president as a "dark horse" candidate on the 49th ballot at the 1852 Democratic National Convention. In the presidential election, Pierce and his running mate William R. King won in a landslide, beating Winfield Scott by a 50 to 44 percent margin in the popular vote and 254 to 42 in the electoral vote. He became the youngest president up unto that time.

His good looks and inoffensive personality caused him to make many friends, but he did not have the brillance to avoid the impending American Civil War. Pierce's popularity in the North went down sharply after he came out in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, repealing the Missouri Compromise and reopening the question of the expansion of slavery in the West. Pierce's credibility was further damaged when several of his foreign ministers issued the Ostend Manifesto. Abandoned by his own party, he was not renominated at the 1856 presidential election, and was replaced by James Buchanan. After losing the Democratic nomination, Pierce continued his lifelong struggle with alcoholism as his marriage to Jane Means Appleton Pierce fell apart. He destroyed his reputation by declaring support for the Confederacy during the Civil War. He died in 1869 from cirrhosis.

Kunhardt wrote in The American President what many historians believe about Pierce: that he was "a good man who didn't understand his own shortcomings. To his credit, he loved his wife and reshaped himself so that he could put up with her aristocratic, nervous ways and show her true affection. He was one of the most popular men in New Hampshire, polite and thoughtful, easy and good at the political game, charming and fine and handsome. And he was genuinely religious. And yet he was a timid man with a shallow, rigid, old-fashioned mind which could not cope with a changing America. In addition, Pierce was hounded by guilt, temptation, and just plain bad luck."


Early life

Pierce was born in 1804 in a log cabin near Hillsborough, New Hampshire, part of the Transcendental Generation. The site of his birth is now under Lake Franklin Pierce. Pierce's father was Benjamin Pierce, a frontier farmer who became a Revolutionary War soldier, state militia general, and two-time governor of New Hampshire. His mother was Anna Kendrick. Pierce had six older and two younger siblings, four brothers and three sisters.

Pierce attended school at Hillsborough Center and moved to the Hancock Academy in Hancock at the age of 11; he was transferred to Francestown Academy in spring 1820. Later that year he was transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy to prepare for college and later that year entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where he participated in literary, political, and debating clubs. There he met writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, with whom he formed a lasting friendship, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He also met Calvin E. Stowe, Sargent S. Prentiss, and his future political rival John P. Hale.

In his second year of college, his grades were the lowest in his class; he changed his habits and graduated in 1824 third in his class. After graduation he in 1826 entered a law school in Northampton, Massachusetts, studying under Governor Levi Woodbury and later Judges Samuel Howe and Edmund Parker in Amherst, New Hampshire.

He was admitted to the bar and began a law practice in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1827.

Political career

Pierce began his political career in 1828, when he was elected to lower house of the New Hampshire General Court, the New Hampshire House of Representatives. He served in the House from 1829 to 1833, and as Speaker from 1832 to 1833. Pierce was elected as a Democrat to the 23rd and 24th Congresses(March 4, 1833March 3, 1837). At the time he was only 27 years old, the youngest representative at the time.

He was elected by the New Hampshire General Court as a Democrat to the United States Senate, serving from March 4, 1837, to February 28, 1842, when he resigned. He was chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Pensions during the 26th Congress.

After his service in the Senate, Pierce resumed the practice of law in Concord. He was district attorney for New Hampshire, and declined the appointment as Attorney General of the United States tendered by President James Polk. He served in the Mexican-American War as a colonel and brigadier general. He was a member of the New Hampshire State constitutional convention in 1850 and served as its president.

On November 19, 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton, the daughter of a former president of Bowdoin College. Appleton, who was born in 1806 and died on 1863, was Pierce's opposite. She came from a aristocratic Whig family, and was extremely shy, deeply religious, often ill, and pro-temperance. Mrs. Pierce hated life in Washington, D.C., and encouraged Pierce to resign his Senate seat and return to New Hampshire, which he did in 1841. They had three children. Two died in childhood—Franklin Pierce, Jr. (1836) in infancy and Frank Robert Pierce (18391843) at the age of four from epidemic typhus. Benjamin "Bennie" Pierce (18411853) died in a tragic railway accident at the age of 12.

Election of 1852

The electoral map of the 1852 election.
The electoral map of the 1852 election.

Main article: U.S. presidential election, 1852

The Democratic Party nominated Pierce as a "dark horse" candidate during the Democratic National Convention of 1852. The convention assembled on June 12 in Baltimore, Maryland, with four competing contenders—Stephen Douglas, William Marcy, James Buchanan and Lewis Cass—for the nomination. Most of those who had left the party with Martin Van Buren to form the Free Soil Party had returned. Prior to the vote to determine the nominee, a party platform was adopted, opposing any further "agitation" over the slavery issue and supporting the Compromise of 1850 in an effort to unite the various Democratic factions.

When the balloting for president began, the four candidates deadlocked, with no candidate reaching even a simple majority, much less the required supermajority of two-thirds. On the 35th ballot, Pierce was put forth as a compromise candidate. He had never fully articulated his views on slavery, which allowed him to be acceptable to all factions. He also had served in the Mexican-American War, which allowed the party to portray him as a war hero. Pierce was nominated unanimously on the 49th ballot on June 5. Senator William R. King of Alabama was chosen as the nominee for Vice President.

Pierce's opponent was the Whig candidate, General Winfield Scott of Virginia, whom Pierce served under during the Mexican-American War, and his running mate, Senator (and later Governor) William Alexander Graham of North Carolina. Pierce easily prevailed as Scott—nicknamed "Old Fuss and Feathers"—ran a blundering campaign. The Whigs' platform was almost indistinguishable from that of the Democrats, reducing the campaign to a contest between the personalities of the two candidates and helping to drive down the turnout rates in the election to their lowest level since 1836. Pierce's likeable personality, plus his helpful obscurity and lack of strongly held positions, helped him prevail over Scott, whose anti-slavery views hurt him in the South. Scott's advantage was a known war hero was countered by Pierce's service in the same war.

The Democrats' slogan was "We Polked you in 1844; we shall Pierce you in 1852!" (a reference to the victory of James K. Polk in the 1844 election). This proved to be true, as Scott lost every state except Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Vermont. The total popular vote was 1,601,274 to 1,386,580, or 50.9 percent to 44.1 percent. Pierce won 27 of the 31 states, including Scott's home state of Virginia. John P. Hale, who like Pierce was from New Hampshire, was the nominee of the remnants of the Free Soil Party, garnering 155,825 votes (5 percent of the total).

The election of 1852 would be the last presidential contest in which the Whigs would field a candidate. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act divided the Whigs, with the Northern Whigs deeply opposed, resulting in a split between former Whigs, some of whom joined the anti-immigration American Party (Know-Nothings), others the Constitutional Union Party, and still others the newly formed Republicans.


Pierce served as president from March 4, 1853, to March 4, 1857. Two months before he took office, shortly after boarding a train in Boston, president-elect Pierce and his family were trapped in a derailed car rolling down an embankment. Pierce and his wife survived and were merely shaken up, but they watched as their 11-year-old son Benjamin ("Bennie") was crushed to death in the train disaster. Grief-stricken, Pierce entered the presidency nervously exhausted. In his inaugural address, he proclaimed an era of peace and prosperity at home and vigor in relations with other nations, saying that the United States might have to acquire additional possessions for the sake of its own security and would not be deterred by "any timid forebodings of evil." For religous reasons he chose to affirm, rather then swear, the presidential oath of office, becoming the first and only president to do so.

Pierce selected for his Cabinet not men of similar beliefs but a broad cross-section of people he personally knew. Many thought that the diverse group would soon break up, but instead it became the only Cabinet that would remain unchanged through a four-year term.

Pierce aroused sectional apprehension when he pressured Britain to relinquish its special interests along part of the Central American coast, and even more when he tried to persuade Spain to sell Cuba. The release of the Ostend Manifesto, signed by several of Pierce's cabinet members, caused outrage with its suggestion that the U.S. seize Cuba by force, and permanently discredited the Democratic Party's expansionist policies, which it had so famously rode to victory in 1844.

Missing image
Franklin Pierce postage stamp

But the most controversial event of Pierce's presidency was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and reopened the question of slavery in the West. This measure, the handiwork of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, allegedly grew out of his desire to promote a railroad from Chicago to California through Nebraska. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, advocate of a southern transcontinental route, had persuaded Pierce to send James Gadsden to Mexico to buy land for a southern railroad. He purchased the area now comprising southern Arizona and part of southern New Mexico for $10,000,000 commonly known as the Gadsden Purchase.

Douglas, to win Southern support for the organization of Nebraska, placed in his bill a provision declaring the Missouri Compromise null and void. Douglas provided in his bills that the residents of the new territories could decide the slavery question for themselves. Pierce, who had acquired a reputation as untrustworthy and easily manipulable, was persuaded to support Douglas' plan in a closed meeting between Pierce, Douglas, and several southern Senators, with Pierce consulting only Jefferson Davis of his cabinet. The passage of Kansas-Nebraska caused widespread outrage in the North and spurred the creation of the Republican Party, a sectional, Northern party which was organized as a direct response to the bill. The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln would provoke secession in 1861.

Meanwhile, Pierce lost all credibility he may have had in the North and was not renominated.


After losing the Democratic nomination, Pierce reportedly quipped "there's nothing left to do but get drunk" (quoted also as "after the White House what is there to do but drink?") which he apparently did frequently, once running down an elderly woman while driving a carriage drunk. During the Civil War, Pierce further damaged his reputation by declaring support for the Confederacy, headed by his old cabinet member Davis. One the few friends to stick by Pierce was his college friend and biographer, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Franklin Pierce died in Concord, New Hampshire at 4:40 in the morning of October 8, 1869, from cirrhosis of the liver, and was interred in Minat Inclosure in the Old North Cemetery.


Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, New Hampshire, is named after Pierce, as is the Franklin Pierce School District in Tacoma, Washington, and the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, New Hampshire


PresidentFranklin Pierce1853–1857
Vice PresidentWilliam R. King1853
Secretary of StateWilliam L. Marcy1853–1857
Secretary of the TreasuryJames Guthrie1853–1857
Secretary of WarJefferson Davis1853–1857
Attorney GeneralCaleb Cushing1853–1857
Postmaster GeneralJames Campbell1853–1857
Secretary of the NavyJames C. Dobbin1853–1857
Secretary of the InteriorRobert McClelland1853–1857

Supreme Court appointments

Pierce appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:

Major legislation signed

History Clipart and Pictures

External links

Preceded by:
U.S. At-Large Congressman from New Hampshire
Succeeded by:
Preceded by:
John Page
U.S. Senator from New Hampshire
Succeeded by:
Leonard Wilcox
Preceded by:
Lewis Cass
Democratic Party Presidential candidate
1852 (won)
Succeeded by:
James Buchanan
Preceded by:
Millard Fillmore
President of the United States
March 4, 1853March 4, 1857
Succeeded by:
James Buchanan

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