The Presidents of the USA



Franklin Pierce
His administration was marred by the bitter quarrel resulting from the passage of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. Pierce was an ineffectual leader and took many bad decisions which were widely criticized and earned him a reputation as one of the worst presidents.

Born: Nov. 23, 1804, Hillsborough, N.H.
Political partyDemocrat
EducationBowdoin College, B.A., 1824
Military service New Hampshire Volunteers, 1846-48 (Brigadier General), wounded in the Mexican War
Previous public office♦ New Hampshire House of Representatives, 1829-33
♦ House of Representatives, 1834-36
♦ U.S. Senate, 1837-42
♦ U.S. attorney for New Hampshire, 1842-46
Died Oct. 8, 1869, Concord, N.H.
picture of Franklin Pierce

Early Life & Career

Franklin Pierce was the son of Benjamin Pierce, a revolutionary war hero who was twice elected governor of New Hampshire. Franklin attended Bowdoin College, where he became friendly with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who later wrote his biography. At age 23 he became a lawyer and began his own spectacular rise in state Democratic politics, becoming speaker of the state legislature at age 26. He then served several terms in Congress, where he strongly supported the policies of President Andrew Jackson, especially the veto of the national bank. He became a U.S. senator at age 36.

November 19, 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton (1806-63), the daughter of Jesse Appleton, a former president of Bowdoin College. They lived permanently in Concord. They had three children, all of whom died in childhood:

Pierce served in the Mexican-American War as a brigadier general of volunteers from his state under the overall command of General Winfield Scott and was injured at the Battle of Contreras when he fell off his horse. He returned to his New Hampshire law practice at the end of the war.

Pierce's devotion to the Democratic party, his success in the middle reaches of American politics, and his brief service in the Mexican War were all useful credentials at the faction-ridden, stalemated Democratic National Convention in 1852.

Pierce was a dark-horse contender in that Convention which deadlocked between leading candidates James Buchanan and Lewis Cass, and Pierce was the convention's compromise choice on the 49th ballot. He defeated General Scott, who had won the Whig nomination, by a large margin, in a campaign that emphasized sectional unity. His sweep of states (he lost just four) was the greatest landslide since the election of James Monroe. It began the disintegration of the Whig party. At age 48, Pierce had capped his political career by becoming the youngest President up to that time.


Franklin Pierce's Presidency was marked by family tragedy. Two months before Pierce assumed office, his son Benjamin was killed in a railroad accident. Mrs. Pierce did not attend her husband's inauguration, and she secluded herself in the White House for two years. She was known as "the shadow in the White House." She wore black mourning clothes each day and refused to take part in Washington life. Distracted by his wife's grief, Pierce was an ineffectual leader in domestic and foreign affairs.

Pierce tried to give the South a major role in his administration by appointing Jefferson Davis from Mississippi as his secretary of war and a coalition of Southern planters and Northern financiers to his cabinet, none of whom wished to push the abolitionist cause. Pierce and the cabinet agreed on most issues: he made not a single change of personnel during his entire term.

The nation was enjoying economic growth and relative tranquility, and the Compromise of 1850 calmed the debate over slavery. When the issue flamed up early in his administration, Pierce did little to cool the passions it aroused. Sectional conflicts reignited. In the first year of his presidency, he was arrested for running over an old woman with his horse, but charges were dropped due to a lack of sufficient evidence.

Pierce used federal law enforcement to implement the Fugitive Slave Act, which required federal and state officials to assist slave owners in recovering slaves who had fled to free states in the North. He encouraged the construction of transcontinental railroads to bind the nation together, and the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico (for $10 million) was made with a new southern rail link in mind. In 1854 Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, establishing new territorial governments, ending the Missouri Compromise and reopening the question of slavery in the West.

It provided that when the Kansas and Nebraska territories applied for statehood, their citizens would determine whether or not the state would be free or slave. Soon Kansas was in flames as pro-slavery “border ruffians” and fiery abolitionists such as John Brown fought over its future.

Pierce blundered in foreign affairs. He believed that territorial expansion might be a way to unite North and South. In his inaugural address he hinted at his goal of annexing Cuba, and he even had his Vice President take his inaugural oath on that island. Pierce instructed the U.S. ministers to Spain, Great Britain, and France to meet in Ostend, Belgium, to prepare recommendations about the possible purchase of Cuba from Spain. Their memorandum to Pierce, known as the Ostend Manifesto, proposed to offer the Spanish up to $110 million, but it advocated an invasion to seize the island if the Spanish refused to sell. The secret dispatch was leaked to Whig newspapers, causing great embarrassment to the administration and aborting diplomatic efforts for the sale.

Pierce was more successful in opening Japan to foreign trade through the expedition of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853. In 1856 Pierce recognized a dictatorship in Nicaragua established by William Walker, an American who had taken over that nation by force and had begun to introduce slavery as a prelude to having Nicaragua apply for admission to the Union as a slave state. Although an expansionist, Pierce rejected Hawaii's application to join the Union, though he agreed to a request by King Kamehameha to place the islands under U.S. protection from European powers seeking conquest or trade concessions.

Because of his domestic and foreign policy blunders, Pierce was ignored at the Democratic convention of 1856 and did not have the chance for a second term.


After losing the Democratic nomination for reelection in 1856, Pierce retired and traveled with his wife overseas. He returned to the U.S. in 1859. During the Civil War he gained local notoriety by opposing the policies of the Republican party and claiming that the Emancipation Proclamation was unconstitutional.

He his lifelong struggle with alcoholism and his marriage to Jane Means Appleton Pierce fell apart. His reputation was destroyed during the Civil War when he declared support for the Confederacy, and personal correspondence between Pierce and the Confederate President Jefferson Davis was leaked to the press.

Franklin Pierce died in Concord, New Hampshire, on October 8, 1869, at 64 years old from cirrhosis of the liver.


As president, he made many divisive decisions which were widely criticized and earned him a reputation as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history.

Historians have ranked Pierce as among the least effective Presidents. He was unable to steer a steady, prudent course that might have sustained a broad measure of support. Having publicly committed himself to an ill-considered position, he maintained it steadfastly, at disastrous cost to his reputation.

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