Pre-service occupations: lawyer, general, U.S. Congressman, U.S. Senator
Key events during his administration: Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), “Bleeding” Kansas (mid 1850s), Gasden Purchase (1853)
Presidential rating: Failed and unpopular
A basic necessity of presidential campaigns in mid-1800s was the campaign biography. These books told the tales of the exalted candidates in glowing terms, and highlighted their virtues, offices, accomplishments, beliefs, positions and family life. (These self-serving bios are still done today, but the all-encompassing web site is starting to take over.) Most were fair-to-poorly written and quickly forgotten, but some were actually quite good. You can still find some in better university or large-city public libraries.
Franklin Pierce was fortunate: one of his campaign bios was written by his good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. While his life of Pierce doesn’t match The Scarlet Letter or House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne contributed an admirable book to the campaign of the everyman candidate, the promising Young Democrat from New Hampshire. Hawthorne said of his friend after the election of 1852 that “I have come seriously to the conclusion that he has in him many of the chief elements of a great ruler…He is deep, deep, deep.”
For 150 years, history has disagreed.
When I told a friend I was reading a biography of President Franklin Pierce, his response was “Who?” He was serious. Franklin Pierce is probably the most forgotten of all the forgotten presidents. He’s not very well known, he has no policies or doctrines named after him, he set no precedents, and he left no enduring legacy that anyone today can remember.
He was chosen as a unity candidate and nothing more. Yet he was president during a time of tremendous upheaval, presaged only by the bloody decade about to follow. Franklin Pierce, the mild man from New Hampshire, surrounded by personal tragedy, at first was the toast of his party and the country, passed into political obscurity and alcoholism, unlamented by the Democratic Party.
What happened? Is his reputation really deserved? (One latter-day biographer says no.) And what lessons of leadership can we learn from the politician-lawyer-general?
Every man’s friend
Franklin Pierce was not a primary mover and shaker.
He was likable and charming, and he was devilishly handsome. His charm was partly built on an unfortunate tendency to agree with the last person he spoke to. As a young lawyer, he proved able in the courts and could turn a jury with his charm. In New Hampshire, Pierce mastered state politics, helping to turn his state into a Democratic Party stronghold.
But he wasn’t known so much as a leader than as a party man. Instead of becoming a well-known orator or statesman, he did yeoman’s tasks and built a reputation as a reliable vote. He built a network of friends and contacts by working more behind the scenes. Pierce became known as a Democratic party hatchet-man: a disciplinarian called upon to keep straying members in line.
From the late ’20s to early ’40s, Pierce served in various state offices and then in Congress. But he declined the nomination of governor of New Hampshire, and then, curiously, to become attorney general under President Polk. (That had more to do with personal problems, which lead him to leave Washington for a while. See below.)
During this period, Pierce built upon his belief in Union, handed down by his Patriot father, a soldier under Washington. Equally important, as a New Hampshire politician, Pierce developed a strong opposition to agitators and reformers of all kinds. Crusaders, regardless of the cause—slavery, alcohol, Catholics, immigrants—were troublemakers to Pierce because they threatened the Union. They threatened, to his Jacksonian understanding, the founders’ intent that state matters, including slavery, would and should be handled by the states, and agitators were the real internal threat to the nation.
Union and opposition to agitators/reformers is critical to understanding Pierce the president, because the attitudes he fostered in New Hampshire would guide him in the White House. His most recent biographer, Peter Wallner, explains the critical importance of this understanding:
“While his charm and kindness were so sincere as to be unquestioned by his friends, his political principles were equally sincere and ready to be applied to whatever crisis he would face as the nation’s chief executive. His experience battling reformers of all types—temperance crusaders, anti-Catholics, nativists, and antislavery proponents—had convinced him of the intolerance, selfish motives, and divisiveness of their causes. To Pierce, single-issue politicians who inflamed the emotions of voters could only lead to disorder and, ultimately, disunion. Pierce stood for tolerance and acceptance of the common man of whatever ethnic or religious background. He believed in Christian ecumenicalism against Protestant evangelicalism. He stood for law and order against chaos and lawlessness. To him, the Constitution was supreme, and there could be no higher law in a civil society. The Democratic Party was the only national institution
standing between civil peace and civil war.
“Pierce believed these things so deeply he was willing to sacrifice his own popularity to the benefit of his party… In all of his thinking the moral issue of slavery played no part, as antislavery agitation was associated in his mind with personal attacks, local church schisms, and the intolerance of people who looked down on the common man while claiming moral superiority. It was this dogmatic absolutism, he thought, that led to defiance of the law and order, threatened destruction of the Union, and the abandonment of the manifest destiny of the nation that Pierce accepted unconditionally. In Pierce’s mind, slavery was the price, a regrettable one to be sure, that people must pay for their safety, their prosperity, and their freedom.” (Wallner, P. 257)
While searching for the “why?” of the Pierce presidency, I think I finally understood, thanks to Wallner. If you keep “Union and tolerance” in mind, the Pierce presidency makes a lot more sense.
The unity candidate
In 1852 the Democrats were in as bad a condition as the Whigs. The two parties were coming apart over slavery politics. For the Whigs, the only man who could have saved the party fortunes that year wasn’t seriously running. President Fillmore, who could have held the party together, had decided enough was enough, and wasn’t truly seeking re-election. The Whigs would settle on nominating General Winfield Scott, which did nothing for the party’s unity and actually fractured it even more. (The only Whig presidential successes had been through popular generals, but Scott was nowhere near as popular as Harrison and Taylor had been.)
Meanwhile the Democrats, hungry to regain the White House, searched for a man who could unite the numerous factions of an obviously splintered party. There were those flirting with the Free-Soil party, which stood opposed to slavery’s expansion. There were “Hard shell” Democrats who adhered to Jacksonian principles above all else. There were two Pennsylvania factions, one under James Cameron, the other under James Buchanan. There were the Young Americans, led by Stephen A. Douglas, who felt it was time to push the old party leaders out the door and seek a more aggressive expansion of American interests in the West and around the world. And that was just in the North.
In the South, there were of course hard-core states rights men who abhorred any compromise with the North, whom they viewed as all abolitionists. And there were more moderate Southerners who favored compromise. And there were some who looked to the West but without slavery.
Each faction had a favorite candidate, but none of them could deliver the presidency; each was more likely to alienate a crucial block elsewhere, especially in the South, where, thanks to the 3/5s rule in the Constitution, no president could be elected without Southern support.
That’s where Franklin Pierce emerged as the unity candidate. Pierce’s ability to seemingly satisfy all people made him the perfect choice to run as the Democratic standard-bearer in 1852. With a unity candidate to rally around, the Democratic machine first created by Martin Van Buren cranked up again. Pierce was quite appealing, and he had a war record, too. It was no match for Scott’s, of course. But it does merit some mention.
During the Mexican War, Pierce volunteered for service as a private. Elevated to colonel, he held the rank of brigadier on Scott’s Mexico City campaign. His service was not so distinguished, however, due to an unfortunate series of accidents. On one occasion, his horse bolted and threw him, and he fainted from the pain. Pierce returned to duty for the final assaults on Mexico City, but while leading his men through a swamp, he twisted his ankle—and fainted again. Naturally, the Whigs hooted in delight over the fainting general.
Lest you think his service amounted to nothing, Pierce did lead a 2,500-man column from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, during which he fought off six attacks from Mexican forces. But General Pierce wasn’t a “War Hero”—nothing like the caliber of Generals Taylor or Scott.
However, the Whigs never warmed to General Scott as a candidate, and many stayed home rather than vote for him. Whether or not that made a crucial difference is debatable. The campaign itself was rather lackluster, as both sides agreed on the issues: support the Compromise of 1850 and leave slavery to the states. Much of the campaign press, therefore, involved mudslinging.
In the end, the popular vote was close, but Pierce won an electoral blowout by winning all but four states. Finding a unity candidate worked quite well for winning the White House.
But governing from the White House? That was something quite different.
Tragedy and alcoholism
Franklin Pierce’s personal life played a role in his presidency. For one, Pierce had troubles with alcohol. One of the reasons why he at first resisted the call to higher office, and eventually fled Washington, was his weakness for drink. Politics then was often conducted in conjunction with the fruit of the vine, and Pierce, knowing his problem, eventually left the Senate rather than be continually put in situations where his vice would harm him.
His wife, Jane, was deeply spiritual and a temperate, which didn’t help him much either. She also didn’t approve of her husband’s political ambitions. Jane was often ill from tuberculosis and wasn’t happy in the White House. Although he adored his wife and she loved him, their marriage was strained. Their happiness, it seemed, was wrapped in young Benjamin, their only child of three that had lived.
But two months after the election of 1852, the Pierces lost Benjamin. They were on a homebound train when the train wrecked shortly before their station. Before his parents’ eyes, 11-year-old Benjamin was crushed to death under a passenger car.
Jane Pierce never truly recovered. Pierce’s inaugural was a somber occasion, with most of the formal celebratory activities being cancelled. You can even detect Pierce’s pain in his inaugural address.
(The Pierce administration began seemingly surrounded by death: outgoing President Fillmore lost his wife weeks after leaving the White House, and Vice President William King died in April. He was not replaced.)
While I’m no psychoanalyst, the death of his only remaining child shortly before he assumed office had to have weighed heavily on Pierce. How much of a factor Benjamin’s death played during the Pierce years is a matter of debate, but it’s possible that the event may have sapped some of the enthusiasm from the president.
A stumble over a strong cabinet
President Pierce assembled a cabinet that was designed to please all factions of the party, instead of one that resembled his own views. Pierce chose men from North, South and the old West. But his choices were curious, odd and ultimately failed to satisfy the tenuous party unity.
Each faction believed that they were the one that got Pierce elected, so they were the ones that deserved the lion’s share of appointments. Naturally, they were disappointed. Right away, Pierce was in trouble, and he lacked the commanding personality to make headstrong would-be kingmakers agree to his decisions.
It wasn’t a good start, and it shook faith in the new administration.
However, his cabinet functioned remarkably well, and combined was a far stronger cabinet than any of the previous several cabinets. In fact, as of this writing, the Pierce cabinet remains the only cabinet to stay intact throughout an entire administration. The cabinet sometimes fought fiercely with each other, but it served Pierce and the country well. It’s odd that Pierce receives no credit for it.
Each cabinet officer was a strong leader of his department, and worked hard to deal with problems against an obstinate Congress. For example, Postmaster General James Campbell fought a long, but ultimately losing, battle with Congress to streamline postal services, eliminate its $2 million deficit and get rid of Congressional privileges. Treasury Secretary James Guthrie yanked federal funds away from private banks and placed them in the federal treasury per law. And Secretary of the Navy James Dobbin tried to get Congress to authorize a further modernization of the fleet by switching over to steam, stepping up training and increasing the ranks of young officers. Congress balked, but finally added new sloops at the end of Pierce’s term.
The most notable cabinet members were Jefferson Davis, the firebrand from Mississippi, as secretary of war and William Marcy as secretary of state, a skilled politician who had last served as Polk’s able secretary of war.
Davis was a pigheaded man who would see only one point of view—his—and no other, and that view was the Southern view. He did moderate his speech somewhat, but he saw everything through a Southern lens. He was especially keen to have the transcontinental railroad have a specifically southern route. However, he was an able secretary of war, and with Pierce’s support, expanded the Army by four regiments among other improvements. Davis’ tenure is also notable for his interesting experiment to use camels as pack animals in the southwest. The “camel corps” was ridiculed, especially by those who favored mules and horses, but the camels worked well and Confederates actually used some in New Mexico during the war.
Davis also served as the one cabinet officer on who Pierce most relied; the president would sometimes meet with Davis late at night on the sly, so it wouldn’t seem to prying eyes that he overly favored the South.
Pierce could have easily recovered politically from the initial cabinet stumble. But two events, one foreign and one domestic, turned Northern Democrats and much of the rest of the North against him, and left many Southern Democrats alienated as well. Midway through his term, the president was in serious trouble.
The domestic event is complicated, so I’ll deal with the foreign event first.
The Pierce record of foreign policy was actually respectable except for one thing. Pierce continued the policies and sentiments of his predecessors by continuing to explore opportunities for expanding American influence and trade in Central and South America and across the Pacific. He had two notable successes in this regard.
First, Pierce’s ministers succeeded in purchasing a section of land from Mexico called the Gasden Purchase, as part of Secretary Davis’ designs for a southern railroad route to California. This section of land, which forms all of present-day southern Arizona and the panhandle of New Mexico, was actually a disappointing purchase for the president. He had wanted something much larger, including large portions of northern Mexico, including the state of Chihuahua and Baja California. Mexico at first was open to the idea, because post-war Mexico was near economic collapse. But the antics of an American “filibuster” (the term for an adventurer and would-be conqueror) named William Walker helped poison the deal when he tried to set up his own empire in Baja.
The treaty finally went through as we know it today. Pierce was disappointed with the final result, and his critics were unhappy that it ever even happened. Free-Soilers and abolitionists charged that it was just more territory to satiate the slave power’s expansion plans. Regardless, the Gasden Purchase marked the final expansion of the contiguous United States. A transcontinental railroad would be built through there, but not for another two decades.
Pierce also had a minor foreign policy success in the acquisition of several small Pacific islands, including the Christmas Islands and Midway. The reason? Guano. Incalculable tons of the stuff was white “gold” as fertilizer, and Pierce ordered the raising of the Stars and Stripes on any island where there was no claim.
There was also Secretary of State Marcy’s “dress circular” to all foreign offices, stating that American ministers could wear anything they wanted to, i.e., dress like an American, not as a foppish foreigner. Some ministers were aghast, but James Buchanan, appointed minister to the Court of St. James, approved. And so did many of Pierce’s normal critics.
If we could leave the Pierce foreign policy at that—even including the troubles with Great Britain in Central America—we could declare it a modest, if not spectacular, success. But we can’t. There is Cuba and the Ostend Manifesto. For decades, the plantation class looked southward to expand slavery: Central and South America and especially Cuba. The huge island 90 miles off the American shore just had to become a Unites States possession, some believed. Many Northerners wanted nothing to do with Cuba, fearing that seizing Cuba would expand slavery—regardless of what was happening on the island itself (Cuba was in the midst of throwing off slavery).
The Pierce administration heeded the counsel of southerners, especially Davis, that Spain could be persuaded to let go of Cuba. The U.S. minister to Spain, a hapless and tactless Young America and slavery proponent named Soule, made no secret of his desire to acquire Cuba. In 1854, when the Kansas-Nebraska act was starting to shred America, Soule, James Buchanan and another diplomat composed the Ostend Manifesto while in Europe that ostensibly said that the United States should buy Cuba from Spain, or failing that, take it, as it rightfully belonged under American control. The three diplomats sent the document back to the secretary of state, but the contents were soon made public.
Outrage ensured. Northern politicians of various factions—even some Democrats—newspapers and general public, already unhappy over Kansas, believed this was further proof that Pierce was a pro-Southern stooge. The administration had blundered badly, and it wasn’t even an official document (it had only been signed by three diplomats and not actually been presented to the Spanish government). Nevertheless, Spain, France and Great Britain registered their displeasure, and both president Pierce and Secretary Marcy had to disavow the document and any further attempt to get Cuba.
It was a major embarrassment Pierce didn’t need. At about the same time the Cuba plans fell apart, President Pierce was attaching his administration to a dangerous idea that wound up destroying his presidency—and wounding the country.
Stephen A. Douglas wrecks the Compromise “peace”
Nothing showed the weakness of President Pierce more than the imbroglio over Nebraska and Kansas. To his credit, Franklin Pierce did have peace on his mind. Like his predecessors, Pierce looked to compromise to hold the Union together. But conditions were changing, making a compromise like 1850 unworkable, and the very nature of the next big argument over slavery expansion/containment required strong leadership, not just compromise. If Pierce had been president in an earlier era, his approach might have worked.
Unfortunately, Pierce’s approach was too one-sided, and he placed all of the blame on one side.
What made this whole mess worse was that it didn’t have to be done. The Compromise of 1850 was necessary because it dealt mainly with the fallout from the Mexican War. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, however, was more of a battle of choice instead of absolute necessity.
Stephen A. Douglas, the leader of the Young Americans, put fourth a bill for organizing the Nebraska territory by dividing it into two states. Douglas, like many politicians of the time, sought to have the lands settled for building the transcontinental railroad. So far, so good. But then Douglas and his allies, including Missouri’s Sen. Atchison, threw in a boner: settlers would be left to decide whether slavery was allowed.
As you can imagine, this “popular sovereignty” doctrine caused a firestorm. While not exactly repealing the Missouri Compromise, which forbade slavery west of the Mississippi and north of Missouri’s southern border (except for Missouri itself), it effectively rendered the 1820 compromise “null and void.” Pro-slavery forces, at first wary of popular sovereignty, then cheered—as did anyone else who believed the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. But Free-Soilers, abolitionists and Northern Whigs damned the bill, saying it was yet another sop to the slave power.
Pierce may have dismissed abolitionists as a dangerous crusading fringe group that threatened the country’s peace—and in truth, abolitionists were a fringe group, right up until emancipation in 1863—but he failed to grasp that the dynamics of slave politics had changed drastically in a short time. Abolitionists attacked the immorality of slavery, which in turn caused an automatic defensive reaction among the planter class. But the Free Soilers, who were not fringe crusaders, opposed the expansion of slavery because they didn’t want the competition with slave labor in the territories nor did they appreciate the negation of the Missouri Compromise.
President Pierce, despite his belief that the Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional, had to be persuaded to support the bill by Secretary Davis and other Southerners. Eventually he came around. The president expended a lot of political capital working to get Kansas-Nebraska passed into law. He wasn’t the lead, however; Douglass was. Pierce and Marcy used every bit of cajoling and promising they could to get Democrats to agree to the bill. In the end, they won, and it was a significant legislative victory.
But the cost of that victory was enormous.
Democrats took hits throughout the North in the elections of 1854 due to the unpopularity of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Fugitive Slave Law and a rising discontent with a president who seemed to side with the slave power on every issue.
Pierce didn’t help himself when he appeared ready to give money to railroads and land to veterans but vetoed in 1854 a very popular and bipartisan bill in support of Dorthea Dix’s hospitals for the indigent insane. The president used his veto on constitutional grounds, but his lack of consistency made even his supporters start to back away.
Then the troubles started in Kansas. Because popular sovereignty operated on the principle of majority rule, whoever arrived in Kansas in sufficient numbers first would organize the state. Pro-slavery settlers from Missouri poured over the border while Free-Soilers and abolitionist settlers were just getting underway.
It would be an incorrect impression to say that Bleeding Kansas was nothing but a massive, bloody battle between slave and free, because the majority of people really wanted nothing to do with either side and just wanted the land. (A lot the land itself was not yet in government hands, e.g., “secured” from Indians!)
In short, pro-slavery settlers succeeded in organizing elections first, and, illegally aided by Missourians crossing the border, created a pro-slavery government. Slavery was permitted and no one was allowed to say otherwise. Anti-slavery forces cried foul and tried to set up their own government. The question of the legitimacy of the pro-slavery government did not trouble President Pierce, who recognized their government and appointed a pro-Southern man as territorial governor.
Violence began in 1855. Most incidents were isolated until May 1856 when Border Ruffians (pro-slavers) “sacked” Lawrence by attacking and burning a couple of Free Soil businesses and homes. One day later, a South Carolina Congressman named Preston Brooks viciously attacked Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner with his cane on the Senate floor over a harsh speech Sumner had given that insulted Brooks’ cousin. In response, John Brown and his sons murdered five pro-slavery settlers at Osawatomie, Kan. Sporadic violence continued until 1859, then renewed in 1861 when the big war began.
President Pierce refused to recognize the free state shadow government and repeatedly blamed them and Eastern Free-Soilers and abolitionists—and only them—for the violence. He even sent in federal soldiers to block the shadow government. Both of Pierce’s territorial governors were committed pro-southerners who sided with the pro-slave Kansas government on every decision. Only his third governor, appointed far too late to do Pierce or Kansas any good, was largely fair to both sides.
Pierce’s one-sided approach to the troubles in Kansas hurt his already damaged reputation. It was the ultimate proof that the president was completely pro-southern and played into the hands of the slave power. That’s not how the president viewed himself, of course. He saw himself as maintaining law and order—though I wonder if his ministrations in Kansas would have been different had a free-soil government organized first, one that outlawed slavery.
Pierce’s refusal to disavow the pro-slavery Kansas government, even after a congressional committee declared the initial election illegitimate, was yet another serious misstep. Through Bleeding Kansas, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with its unnecessary popular sovereignty and equally unnecessary repeal of the long-settled Missouri Compromise, Franklin Pierce destroyed his presidency.
He believed he was standing on principle, but it was principle, I believe, that was founded in quite a remarkably skewed view of “tolerance.” By believing that the pro-slavery forces were the ones who stood for law and order and only the Free Soilers and abolitionists were the lawbreakers, Pierce set himself up to fail in Kansas.
Larry Gara writes:
“Nearing the end of his term, the lame-duck president took a more even-handed approach that helped calm the storm, but it was too late to rehabilitate Pierce’s personal reputation. “Bleeding Kansas” came to symbolize the failures of the administration. The majority of Americans saw the president as, at best, incompetent. Some, including old friends, judged him more harshly. B.B. French, his former secretary, commented in July 1856 that Pierce was “in rather bad odor, and will stink worse yet before the 4th of next March.” At that point the president could no longer please anybody. Even a wise and highly skilled leader would have had great difficulty. Pierce was neither. He failed to understand the forces at work in the country, and tried to perpetuate the policies of the past rather than confronting the problems of his own time. Jacksonian democracy had run its course. The fundamental changes at work in all aspects of American life required a degree of political adjustment that the president from New Hampshire could neither understand nor implement.” (Gara, p. 126)
1856 and decent
The presidential election of 1856 was one of the most critical elections in America’s history. “Most critical election ever” seems to be tossed about freely every four years, but in this case, it was true.
The political scene was shattered in 1856. The Whigs no longer existed as a national force, and barely registered anywhere. The American Party, which had won seats in some state houses and in Congress, would enjoy a brief moment this year with former President Fillmore as its standard-bearer before quickly fading forever. And there was a new party in town: the Republicans, made up of former Whigs, Free Soilers, abolitionists, less stringent Know-Nothings and ex-Democrats. Already holding seats in Congress, the new party was organized for one primary purpose: stop the expansion of the slave power. It was a purely sectional party—Northern and upper Western—and its strength was a major threat to the South. Its official platform, though not taken totally at face value by most Republicans, was an all-out attack on the Pierce administration, and included a promise to deal harshly with Pierce and his allies if the Republicans were elected.
The attacks were rarely repeated by Republicans but became a major part of the Democratic campaign as evidence of the extremism of the new party; either way, they stung Pierce badly. His final message to Congress was in part a rebuttal to the Republican platform, and, as usual, blames sectionalists and other extremists for all of the problems.
By then, however, Democrats had turned their backs on the president: Although he made a strong showing at the convention, President Pierce was rejected for a second term by the Democratic party. Instead, they chose Pennsylvanian James Buchanan, a former senator, secretary of state and Pierce’s minister to England. Buchanan, of course, won that November.
Following his enforced retirement, Pierce became bitter and would often turn to drink. When the war began, Pierce refused to support the North or the Lincoln administration. He called the war unnecessary and an assault on property and people. He was referred to as a traitor, and when his correspondence with his old friend and now Confederate president Jefferson Davis was revealed in 1863 during the Vicksburg campaign (after Davis’ Mississippi plantation was captured), Pierce’s personal reputation was destroyed.
He died in 1869 from cirrhosis of the liver.
Franklin Pierce was a good man who probably should not have been president—or, at least, not president during a time of tremendous upheaval. It’s possible that I may revise what I’ve written here after reading the second volume of Wallner’s book (see Resources), but I doubt it. History seems to have gotten Pierce right—but maybe not for quite the right reasons, though.
Larry Gara, in his 1991 volume for the University of Kansas’ American Presidency Series, advances what is the standard accepted belief on Pierce, and it is a powerful argument. In attempting to reach a new agreement that totally negated what had come before—the Missouri Compromise of 1820—Pierce and Douglas thoroughly and completely misunderstood—or missed entirely—the growing anger in the North over catering to every whim of the slave power. In attempting to appease the South and holding to a rigid standard that slavers were following the law in Kansas and Free-Soliers and abolitionists were in the wrong, Pierce alienated much of the North.
Pierce left the White House in March 1857 convinced he had done all that he could, and it’s possible he was right. His final message to Congress, though, underscores his inability to see just what was going on in the country. He couldn’t—or wouldn’t—grasp that many Northerners were now opposed to slavery either from a moral standpoint (the minority view), or for political reasons or personal reasons.
Eminent historians of the antebellum era, most notably David M. Potter (The Impending Crisis) and William R. Freehling (The Road To Disunion), remain unimpressed with President Pierce’s performance, and it is hard to disagree. (Freehling barely mentions Pierce as a factor in the Kansas-Nebraska Act in volume 1, except as someone easily rolled, though he used different words.)
But Peter Wallner wonders if there was something else at work that made the situation simply impossible for Pierce: The collapse of the second party system (the disintegration of the Whigs and the building divisions between Northern and Southern Democrats), the increasing sectional hostility—turning into hate—were factors that worked against Pierce. Wallner argues that Pierce was a strong Unionist who saw all forms of agitators and reformers as the real enemies, not the slaveholders of the South. The Union could be held together through strength of unity, not division.
So why did the “law and order” and “Union-above-all” approach work for Taylor and Fillmore but not for Pierce? The former two were compromising from a position of strength and, more importantly, neutrality. They had the reputations and political strength to see the compromise through, and were working to solve a sticky problem stemming from the fallout of the Mexican War. And the Compromise of 1850 only built on established precedence. Even the Fugitive Slave Law did that, but it fueled unintended fires. Pierce, on the other hand, sought to thoroughly undo established precedent and create an entirely new template by repealing the Missouri Compromise and embracing Douglas’ notions of popular sovereignty.
Instead of removing the slave question from the purview of Congress and putting it back to the states, the Kansas-Nebraska act wrecked the Pierce presidency, destroyed what was left of the Whigs, divided the Democrats, gave birth to the Republican party and inflamed the agitation over slavery worse than the Fugitive Slave Law and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
And I’m not even sure it was a bold gamble on Pierce’s part, because he wasn’t the lead: Stephen A. Douglas was, along with a couple other senators and congressmen. President Pierce was a supporter—the best man, if you will, not the groomsman. So I can’t even give him credit for boldness that failed.
In the end, Franklin Pierce was a man promoted beyond his station. A brilliant lawyer, an excellent New Hampshire party operative and a good Democratic party soldier, he should never have become president.
Final assessment: Failed and unpopular
My first primary resource was Larry Gara’s The Presidency of Franklin Pierce (1991), part of the University of Kansas’ American Presidency Series. (As noted in the previous entry on Millard Fillmore, Gara is yet another historian who believes there was a complete split between the Taylor and Fillmore presidencies over the Compromise of 1850, even though Elbert Smith, writing about both men in the same series a few years earlier, proved otherwise!)
My other resource was Peter A. Wallner’s Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire's Favorite Son (2004), part one of a planned two-part biography. The first volume takes Pierce up to the first day of his presidency. It remains to be seen whether Wallner will be as favorable toward his subject as he was in volume one, but so far I remain unconvinced that history has gotten Pierce that wrong.
Note: It’s a small world: The Bush family originally hails from New Hampshire. 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. George H.W. Bush himself was a great-great-grandson of Pierce’s fifth cousin on Pierce’s mother's side.
All illustrations are in the public domain and taken from the Library of Congress Photographs and Prints Division unless otherwise noted.
1. Franklin Pierce in a daguerreotype taken by Matthew Brady
2. Gen. Franklin Pierce, designed and engraved on steel by W.L. Ormsby, N.Y.
3. A less “glorious” and more typical photograph of Pierce in his officer’s uniform
4. Jane Pierce.
5. Social qualities of our candidate. The Librrary of Congress description for this lithograph states: “Reports of his alcoholism haunted Democratic candidate Franklin Pierce during the 1852 campaign. The matter is taken up here with mocking reference to the Maine Liquor Law of 1851, a landmark prohibition measure first passed in Maine and subsequently adopted in several other states. An obviously inebriated Pierce leans against a large tree at right, holding a bottle out toward a man who passes on horseback. The man holds a document “Maine Liquor Law” and carries a barrel of “Hard Cider” on his saddle. He wears a wide-brimmed hat and a drab outfit, indicating that he is a Quaker, among the chief supporters of the temperance movement. Quaker: “Friend that tree looks as if it was old enough to stand alone—Thee need n’t hold it up any longer.” Pierce: “You have the advantage of me, stranger.—My name is Frank Pierce & I’ll stand as long as this tree will stand by me! I’m granite all over! give us your hand--Will you take a horn? I’ll give you a toast—Here’s confusion to all Maine Liquor Laws. An owl perched on a branch of the tree hoots twice. The Quaker’s barrel of “Hard Cider” has a double meaning: it alludes to an earlier (and successful) Whig presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison, and casts doubt on the Quaker’s temperance commitment.”
6. A somewhat fancy hand-colored lithograph of the 14th President of the United States.
7. A portrait of Pierce produced for the 1852 campaign.
8. Official White House portrait (White House Historical Association)
9. Stephen A. Douglas, “Young American”
10. John Brown
11. John L. Magee created the rather romantic lithograph Southern Chivalry – Argument versus Club in 1856, depicting Rep. Preston Brooks' attack on Sen. Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate.
12. Forcing slavery down the throat of a freesoiler. The Library of Congress description of this 1856 editorial cartoon says: “The artist lays on the Democrats the major blame for violence perpetrated against antislavery settlers in Kansas in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Here a bearded “freesoiler” has been bound to the “Democratic Platform” and is restrained by two Lilliputian figures, presidential nominee James Buchanan and Democratic senator Lewis Cass. Democratic senator Stephen A. Douglas and President Franklin Pierce, also shown as tiny figures, force a black man into the giant's gaping mouth. The freesoiler’s head rests on a platform marked “Kansas,” “Cuba” and “Central America,” probably referring to Democratic ambitions for the extension of slavery. In the background left is a scene of burning and pillage; on the right a dead man hangs from a tree.
13. President Pierce sometime during his term