Franklin Pierce served as the fourteenth president of the United States from 1853 to 1857. He was the youngest person to be elected president up to that time. A northern Democrat who sought to preserve southern SLAVERY, Pierce's administration proved a failure because he antagonized the growing abolitionist movement by signing the KANSAS-NEBRASKA ACT of 1854, which gave the two new territories the option of whether to permit slavery. Pierce was unable to win renomination for a second term.
Pierce was born on November 23, 1804, in Hillsboro, New Hampshire. His parents were Benjamin and Anna Kendrick Pierce. Pierce graduated from Bowdoin College in 1824 and returned home to take over his father's duties as postmaster, after his father entered politics. Pierce studied law with a local attorney and was admitted to the New Hampshire bar in 1827. In that same year his father was elected governor of New Hampshire, which proved helpful to Pierce's own nascent political ambitions.
Pierce was elected as a Democrat to the New Hampshire legislature in 1829 and in 1832 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. A strong supporter of President ANDREW JACKSON, Pierce also became associated with the cause of slavery. In 1835 he attacked the flood of abolitionist petitions addressed to the House, which contained the signatures of more than two million people. He joined southern Democrats in imposing a "gag rule" that prevented the House from receiving or debating these petitions.
In 1837 Pierce was elected to the U.S. Senate. He resigned in 1842 for personal reasons and returned to Concord, New Hampshire, to become the federal district attorney. Except for a brief tour of duty as an Army officer during the Mexican War (1846–48), Pierce remained out of the political arena until the DEMOCRATIC PARTY national convention in 1852. The three leading candidates for the presidential nomination, Lewis Cass, STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS, and JAMES BUCHANAN, failed to win the necessary votes after forty-eight ballots. The convention turned to Pierce on the forty-ninth ballot as a compromise candidate who, though virtually unknown nationally, enjoyed support from northern and southern Democrats. He easily defeated General Winfield Scott, the WHIG PARTY candidate, in November 1852.
Pierce took office in March 1853, at a time when the issue of slavery threatened to divide both the Democratic and Whig parties, as well as the nation itself. Pierce sought to ease tensions by appointing a cabinet that contained a mix of southern and northern officials. Still critical of abolitionism, he enraged the antislavery movement with his signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The act repealed the MISSOURI
COMPROMISE OF 1820, which restricted the boundaries of slavery to the same latitude as the southern boundary of Missouri—36° 30′ north latitude. The new territories of Kansas and Nebraska were organized according to the principle of popular sovereignty, which permitted voters to determine for themselves whether slavery would be a legalized institution at the time of the territories' admission as states.
Abolitionists saw the popular sovereignty principle as a means of extending slavery northward and westward. Pierce proved weak and indecisive as violence erupted in Kansas and Nebraska. On May 25, 1856, the militant abolitionist JOHN BROWN led a raid against supporters of slavery at Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, killing five persons. Though appalled at the raid, Pierce said nothing and did little to address the growing violence between abolitionists and supporters of slavery that soon gave the territory the name "Bleeding Kansas." His support of slavery led to defections from the Democratic party and ultimately contributed to the establishment of the antislavery REPUBLICAN PARTY.
Pierce did achieve some success in foreign affairs. In 1854 Pierce received the report of Commodore Matthew C. Perry's expedition to Japan and the news that U.S. ships would have limited access to Japanese ports. His administration acquired a strip of land near the Mexican border for $10 million in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, negotiated a fishing rights treaty with Canada in 1854, and in 1856 signed a treaty with Great Britain resolving disputes in Central America.
However, Pierce's popularity was damaged by his secret attempt to buy Cuba from Spain. The public disclosure of the October 1854 diplomatic statement called the Ostend Manifesto shocked Congress and the public. The manifesto discussed ways in which the United States might acquire or annex Cuba with or without the will-ingness of Spain to sell it. Pierce was forced to disclaim responsibility for the plan, but his integrity was placed in doubt.
Pierce was not renominated by the Democratic party in 1856, largely because of his difficulties with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and his ineffective leadership. The party turned to James Buchanan, who was elected but did little to resolve the political and sectional differences over slavery.
Pierce retired from public life in 1857 and returned to Concord, New Hampshire, to practice
law. He became a vocal critic of President ABRAHAM LINCOLN during the Civil War, however, attacking the EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION of 1863. When, in April 1865, he failed to hang a flag in mourning for the assassinated Lincoln, a mob attacked his home.
Pierce died in Concord on October 8, 1869.
Gara, Larry. 1991. The Presidency of Franklin Pierce. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.
Nichols, Roy F. 1988. Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills. 2d ed. Norwalk, Conn.: Easton Press.