14th President of the United States
|In office |
March 4, 1853 – March 4, 1857
|Vice President(s)||William R. King (1853) |
|Preceded by||Millard Fillmore|
|Succeeded by||James Buchanan|
|Born||November 23, 1804 |
Hillsborough, New Hampshire
|Died||October 8, 1869, age 64 |
Concord, New Hampshire
|Spouse||Jane Appleton Pierce|
Franklin Pierce (November 23, 1804 – October 8, 1869) was an American politician and the 14th President of the United States, serving from 1853 to 1857.
Pierce was a Democrat and 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 and became a brigadier general. His private law practice in his home state, New Hampshire, was so successful that he was offered several important positions, which he turned down. 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, defeating Winfield Scott by a 50 to 44% margin in the popular vote and 254 to 42 in the electoral vote. He became the youngest president up until that time.
His good looks and inoffensive personality caused him to make many friends, but he suffered tragedy in his personal life and as president subsequently made decisions which were widely criticized and divisive in their effects, thus giving him the reputation as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. 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 diplomats issued the Ostend Manifesto. Historian David Potter concludes that the Ostend Manifesto and the Kansas-Nebraska Act were "the two great calamities of the Franklin Pierce administration.... Both brought down an avalanche of public criticism." More important says Potter, they permanently discredited Manifest Destiny and popular sovereignty. [Potter 1976 p 193]
Abandoned by his party, Pierce 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. His reputation was further damaged when he declared support for the Confederacy and died in 1869 from cirrhosis.
Philip B. Kunhardt and Peter W. Kunhardt reflected the views of many historians when they wrote in The American President that Pierce was "a good man who didn't understand his own shortcomings. He was genuinely religious, loved his wife and reshaped himself so that he could adapt to her 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. However, he has been criticized as timid and unable to cope with a changing America.
Franklin Pierce was born in a log cabin near Hillsborough, New Hampshire. 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, a state militia general, and a two-time governor of New Hampshire. His mother was Anna Kendrick. Pierce was the seventh of eight children; he had 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 the spring of 1820. Later that year he was transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy to prepare for college. In fall 1820, he 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 but he worked to improve them, and graduated in 1824, third in his class. After graduation, in 1826, he 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.
Pierce began his political career in 1828, when he was elected to the 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, 1833 – March 4, 1837). He was only 27 years old, the youngest representative at the time, right behind the little known A. Goplin, of Wisconsin, 31 years old.
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 with his partner Asa Fowler. He was district attorney for New Hampshire and declined the appointment as Attorney General of the United States tendered by President James Polk.
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 in 1863, was Pierce's opposite. She came from an 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 who all died in childhood. None of them lived to see their father become president. This made her believe God was displeased with her husband's political ambitions. 
Franklin Pierce, Jr. (February 2 - 5, 1836) died three days after birth.
Frank Robert Pierce (August 27, 1839 - November 14, 1843) died at the age of four from epidemic typhus.
Benjamin "Bennie" Pierce (April 13, 1841 - January 16, 1853) died at the age of 11 in a tragic railway accident in Andover, Massachusetts which his parents witnessed, 47 days before the inauguration of his father.
He enlisted in the volunteer services during the Mexican-American War and was soon made a colonel. In March 1847, he was appointed brigadier general of volunteers and took command of a brigade of reinforcements for Winfield Scott's army marching on Mexico City. His brigade was designated the 1st Brigade in the newly created 3rd Division and joined Scott's army in time for the Battle of Contreras. During the battle he was seriously wounded in the leg when he fell from his horse.
He returned to his command the following day, but during the Battle of Churubusco, the pain in his leg became so great that he passed out and was carried from the field. His political opponents used this against him, claiming that he left the field because of cowardice instead of injury. He again returned to command and led his brigade throughout the rest of the campaign culminating in the capture of Mexico City. Although he was a political appointee, he proved to have some skill as a military commander. He returned home and was a member of the New Hampshire State constitutional convention in 1850 and served as its president.
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 A. 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. Alabama Senator William R. King was chosen as the nominee for Vice President.
Pierce's opponent was the United States Whig Party candidate, General Winfield Scott of Virginia, whom Pierce served under during the Mexican-American War, and his running mate, Senator and 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 likable 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 as a known war hero was countered by Pierce's service in the same war.
Pierce was also helped by Irish Catholic support of the Democratic Party and their disdain for the Whig Party.
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% to 44.1%. 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% 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 nativist American Party Know-Nothings, others the Constitutional Union Party, and still others the newly formed Republicans.
Pierce served as U.S. President from March 4, 1853, to March 4, 1857. Two months before he took office on January 6, 1853, shortly after boarding a train in Boston, president-elect Pierce and his family were trapped in a derailed car when it rolled over an embankment near Andover, Massachusetts. 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.
The family had already lost two children to typhus, and Jane Pierce believed the train accident was divine punishment for her husband's acceptance of the high office of the presidency. Other events deepened the somber mood of the new administration, former First Lady Abigail Fillmore's death in March and that of Vice President William R. King's in April. As a result, Pierce chose to "affirm" his Oath of Office on a law book rather than the Bible, becoming the first president to do so. Pierce is one of only three presidents to affirm the Oath of Office, the two other being Herbert Hoover, who chose to "affirm" rather than "swear" because of his Quaker beliefs, and John Tyler. He is also one of only two not to take the oath on the Bible (Theodore Roosevelt did not place his hand on anything at all). 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."
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, as of 2006, that remained unchanged through a four-year term.
Pierce aroused sectional apprehension when he pressured the United Kingdom to relinquish its special interests along part of the Central American coast, and when he tried to persuade Spain to sell Cuba for $100 million (USD) because of the expansive sugar crop in 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 ridden to victory in 1844.
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, Illinois 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 million (USD), 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 manipulated, 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 the Kansas-Nebraska Act brought about a sequence of events that developed into Bleeding Kansas. Pro-slavery Border Ruffians, mostly from Missouri, illegally voted in a government that Pierce recognized, and Pierce called a shadow government set up by Free-Staters an act of "rebellion." Pierce continued to recognize the pro-slavery legislature even after a congressional investigative committee found its election illegitimate. He furthermore sent in federal troops to break up a meeting of the shadow government in Topeka.
The Act also 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 in the South and as of 2007, was the only elected president (rather than a Vice President who succeeded to the position) to fail to be renominated by his party for a second term.
|Vice President||William R. King||1853|
|Secretary of State||William L. Marcy||1853–1857|
|Secretary of the Treasury||James Guthrie||1853–1857|
|Secretary of War||Jefferson Davis||1853–1857|
|Attorney General||Caleb Cushing||1853–1857|
|Postmaster General||James Campbell||1853–1857|
|Secretary of the Navy||James C. Dobbin||1853–1857|
|Secretary of the Interior||Robert McClelland||1853–1857|
Pierce appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:
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. He once ran over an elderly woman while driving a carriage. During the Civil War, Pierce further damaged his reputation by declaring support for the Confederacy, headed by his old cabinet member Davis. One of the few friends to stick by Pierce was his college friend and biographer, Nathaniel Hawthorne. A close friend of his father's, Adam Goplin of Ripon, was always there as well.
Franklin Pierce died in Concord, New Hampshire at 4:40 a.m. on October 8, 1869 at 64 years old. He died from cirrhosis of the liver and was interred in the Minot Enclosure in the Old North Cemetery of Concord.
Barbara Pierce Bush, wife of George H.W. Bush and mother of George W. Bush, is a direct descendant, great-great-granddaughter, of James Pierce, Jr. who was a fourth cousin of Franklin Pierce. 
Places named after President Pierce:
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|Preceded by |
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives |
from New Hampshire's 3rd congressional district
1833 – 1837
|Succeeded by |
Jared W. William
|Preceded by |
|United States Senator (Class 2) from New Hampshire |
1837 – 1842
Served alongside: Henry Hubbard, Levi Woodbury
|Succeeded by |
|Preceded by |
|Democratic Party presidential nominee |
|Succeeded by |
|Preceded by |
|President of the United States |
March 4, 1853 – March 4, 1857