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date: 07 July 2022

Pierce, Franklinfree

(23 November 1804–08 October 1869)

Pierce, Franklinfree

(23 November 1804–08 October 1869)
  • Larry Gara

Franklin Pierce.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-13014 DLC).

Pierce, Franklin (23 November 1804–08 October 1869), fourteenth president of the United States, was born in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, the son of Benjamin Pierce, a former governor of New Hampshire, and Anna Kendrick. Franklin graduated from Bowdoin College in 1824. He then read law and was admitted to practice as an attorney in 1827. He married Jane Means Appleton (Jane Means Appleton Pierce) in 1834. They had three boys, none of whom lived to adulthood.

In 1829 Pierce was elected as a Democrat to the New Hampshire General Court. He served as Speaker for two years, then went to Congress in 1833, where he served two terms before his election to the Senate in 1836. In 1842 he resigned his Senate seat, continuing to work for New Hampshire Democrats while practicing law in Concord. As party disciplinarian, he denied party support to Free Soiler John P. Hale. President James K. Polk appointed him U.S. attorney for New Hampshire, but Pierce declined offers to become U.S. attorney general or to serve another Senate term.

In 1846 Pierce volunteered for service as a private in the Mexican War, rising to the rank of brigadier general. Leading his troops near Mexico City, he was thrown by a frightened horse, causing painful knee and pelvic injuries. An unwise attempt to resume command the following day caused him to faint from the pain. His Mexican War comrades later supported his political campaign. However, Whigs ridiculed his military service, referring to his reputation for heavy drinking by labeling him the “hero of many a bottle” and exploiting an allegation of cowardice, supposedly shouted by an officer when Pierce was unconscious from his painful accident.

Upon his return to New Hampshire Pierce resumed party responsibilities and a law practice, which increasingly served corporations and mill owners. As a Democrat he supported the controversial Fugitive Slave Law enacted as part of the Compromise of 1850.

Another New Hampshire Democrat, Levi Woodbury, had been poised as a dark horse presidential candidate should the 1852 Democratic convention deadlock, but Woodbury’s sudden death in 1851 opened the way for a possible Pierce nomination. After forty-eight ballots, the convention, which could not agree on any of the frontrunners, nominated a reluctant Pierce along with William R. D. King as vice president. The platform endorsed all of the Compromise of 1850 measures. The Whigs chose Winfield Scott for their candidate and also endorsed the compromise. The Free Soil party, which opposed the compromise, nominated Pierce’s political enemy Hale.

After a dull campaign characterized by personal attacks, Pierce won with 254 electoral votes to Scott’s 42, though the popular vote was considerably closer. Tragedy marred the triumph, however, when Pierce’s one surviving son, eleven-year-old Bennie, was killed in a railroad accident witnessed by both parents. Neither Bennie nor Jane Pierce had approved of Pierce’s candidacy, and Jane took the tragedy as a sign from heaven and never fully recovered from the shock of her son’s death. Soon thereafter, the death of Senator Charles G. Atherton deprived Pierce of an ally in the Senate, and Vice President King died in Cuba without ever having served in his office. King’s death made Missouri’s proslavery David R. Atchison president pro tempore of the Senate.

Pierce appointed his cabinet from all sections of the country but did not include members of the Stephen A. Douglas faction or any southern Unionists. Although old divisions over personalities and the slavery issue sparked criticism of various appointments, the entire cabinet served to the end of Pierce’s term in the White House. William Marcy of New York became secretary of state, Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis was secretary of war, Kentucky’s James Guthrie was secretary of the treasury, and James C. Dobbin from North Carolina was secretary of the navy. James Buchanan’s friend, James Campbell (1812–1893) of Pennsylvania, became postmaster general, Robert McClelland of Michigan was secretary of the interior, and Caleb Cushing of Massachusetts was attorney general. Only Marcy, Davis, and Cushing were well known nationally, and they dominated cabinet meetings.

Pierce never explained his decision to affirm rather than swear the presidential oath. He also broke with precedent by delivering his inaugural address from memory. The address was standard Democratic policy: limited federal government, public integrity, rigid economy, and recognition of states’ rights. He pronounced the 1850 compromise laws “strictly constitutional” and vowed to enforce all of them. He hoped the slavery controversy was “at rest” and that its demise would bring an end to “sectional or ambitious or fanatical excitement.” On foreign policy he bowed to the Young America faction, announcing that he would not be “controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion,” and he hinted at attempting the annexation of Cuba.

Congress defeated most of Pierce’s suggested reforms. While cabinet members urged reorganizing the military, wiping out the post office debt, improving the government workforce, and building a federally subsidized transcontinental railroad, congressmen were unwilling to relinquish the special privileges as required by many of the reform proposals. Nevertheless, little graft or corruption was associated with the Pierce administration.

As president, Pierce further developed a reputation as a “doughface,” a northerner with southern principles. Davis was one of his closest advisers, and the few internal improvement projects Pierce supported were all in the South. His frugality led some to characterize him as indifferent to the problems of ordinary Americans. That view was underscored by his opposition to homestead legislation and his veto of a bill for which Dorothea Dix had labored that provided government land to fund institutions for the indigent mentally ill. Strong bipartisan support did not deter Pierce’s veto. He believed the bill a violation of states’ rights and “subversive of the whole theory upon which the Union … is founded.”

Achievements in foreign policy were more modest than his inaugural address promised. His Young America supporters promoted an aggressive foreign policy of expansion, increase of American influence abroad, and efforts to frustrate the influence of Great Britain and France in the Americas. Complex negotiations with Mexico led to the Gadsden Treaty, which provided for purchase of land needed should Davis’s plan for a southern transcontinental railroad be implemented. Dissatisfaction with some of the treaty terms led to a rejection in the Senate, but a second version finally passed Senate muster.

The search for new supplies of guano, seabird droppings rich in phosphate for fertilizer, led to the first official move of the United States toward an overseas empire. In order to bypass the costly guano supplied by Peru, in 1856 Congress enacted legislation permitting any U.S. citizen discovering an unoccupied or unclaimed island containing guano to claim it for the United States. Within the next thirty years, more than seventy islands in the Pacific and Caribbean were annexed under this legislation.

Great Britain was the principal adversary of the United States during Pierce’s administration. One source of tension was the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, a treaty intended to facilitate cooperation in building a Central American canal. Pockets of British settlements in Central America and the plans and actions of American adventurers known as filibusters kept the pot boiling, as did the American bombardment of Greytown, a British protectorate, and the short-lived recognition of William Walker’s dictatorship in Nicaragua. Peace survived only because neither nation desired war. In 1854 a reciprocity treaty gave Americans permission to fish in Canadian waters and listed some commodities that both countries would admit without duty. Pierce, with some other northerners, even hoped the treaty would be a first step in the annexation of Canada. The British minister to the United States was recalled for illegally recruiting for his nation’s army during the Crimean War. Despite such setbacks, relations between Great Britain and the United States gradually improved.

Most of Young America’s annexation projects fell far short of their objectives. Plans to annex Samaná Bay and the Dominican Republic as well as the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) met with defeat in the Senate. Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s expedition to Japan began a process of opening that country to western trade, later supplemented by a more liberal treaty in 1857. Secretary Marcy rejected Perry’s recommendation to annex Formosa and other Pacific islands.

Under the Pierce administration, American meddling in politics abroad increased the problems of European monarchs. Secretary Marcy’s much touted “dress circular,” suggesting that American diplomats wear civilian dress rather than the required ceremonial outfits for official occasions, was more popular at home than in Europe. Marcy’s support for Martin Koszta, an Austrian revolutionary, caused a crisis with Austria-Hungary. Marcy also challenged Denmark when he objected to paying dues for passage through the Danish Sound. Several Young America diplomats used their European posts as centers of antimonarchical plotting. Notoriously active in such plots was Pierre Soulé, the American minister to Spain.

Soulé also played a major role in the move to annex Cuba, a longtime objective of the United States. Although Pierce favored annexation, he preferred purchase to military conquest. When Spain seized an American vessel, the Black Warrior, in Cuban waters, Marcy instructed three American diplomats to meet in Europe to propose a Cuban policy. Meeting first in Ostend then at Aix-la-Chappelle, the ministers issued a confidential communiqué suggesting an offer to buy Cuba and, should Spain reject the offer, taking the island by force. When the press learned of the so-called Ostend Manifesto, the resulting uproar forced the Cuban issue to be sidetracked. It was a major setback for the Pierce foreign policy.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, even more than the Ostend Manifesto, contributed to a major defeat for the Democrats in the elections of that year. Stephen A. Douglas had long advocated the creation of a western territory to encourage settlement and provide the right of way for a railroad. In order to get southern support for territorial government in Kansas and Nebraska, however, he had to agree to declare the Missouri Compromise “inoperative and void,” for southerners would not accept that 1820 ban on slavery in the creation of two new territories. Pierce and Douglas agreed to revoke the congressional ban and replace it with the principle that settlers themselves would decide for or against slavery. The prospect that southern settlers might make Kansas a slave state caused furor in the North. The Nebraska issue split the Democratic party and led to formation of a new northern party, soon called the Republican party.

Most settlers went to Kansas to work the land and improve their own economic situations. A minority, some of whom were sponsored by the New England Emigrant Aid Company, went there primarily to keep slavery out of the territory. Another minority from Missouri infiltrated Kansas, staying just long enough to vote for proslavery candidates. When such election fraud led to the creation of a proslavery government, free state settlers reacted by setting up their own government. Pierce believed that only the proslavery territorial government was legitimate.

All of the appointed territorial officials, including Governor Andrew H. Reeder, were proslavery. However, Reeder soon recognized the fraudulent nature of the proslavery legislature. That recognition, along with Reeder’s heavy involvement in speculative land deals, led Pierce to dismiss him. After his dismissal Reeder became a leader of the free state faction. His replacement, Wilson Shannon, also began with a strong bias against Free Soil settlers, and he, too, eventually concluded that not all the blame lay with them. While Shannon was governor, a proslavery mob led by a sheriff vandalized the free state town of Lawrence, and John Brown (1800–1859) carried out the murders of five proslavery settlers, sparking an incipient civil war.

Northern newspapers carried exaggerated accounts of the “sack of Lawrence” just as news arrived of South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks’s brutal attack on Senator Charles Sumner. “Bleeding Sumner” and “Bleeding Kansas” became rallying cries for northern Free Soilers. Although much of the violence in Kansas involved disputed land claims or personality clashes, they were all reported as a struggle between freedom and slavery. Shannon finally concluded that the territory was ungovernable and resigned just before Pierce ordered his removal. The third governor of the territory, John W. Geary of Pennsylvania, used more evenhanded tactics and brought about a temporary peace. Eventually he, too, grew impatient with the intransigent demands of the proslavery legislature, and he resigned in March 1857.

As the election of 1856 approached, Pierce’s popularity was at a low point. Many northern voters perceived him as truckling to the South. Especially irritating was the use, at Pierce’s request, of federal troops in Boston to return Anthony Burns to slavery. His failed efforts to annex Cuba convinced many that he favored expanding the country to acquire additional slave territory. Nevertheless, Pierce was convinced that he could be reelected. Keener political minds dominated the Democratic convention, which chose Buchanan from Pennsylvania, who as minister to Great Britain had not been tainted by the Kansas-Nebraska turmoil.

The presidential election of 1856 was the first for the new Republican party, made up of a coalition of antislavery Whigs, anti-Nebraska Democrats, northern Free Soilers, and nativists who emphasized anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic issues. Because sectional differences divided the nativist Know Nothing party, the Free Soil issue dominated the new coalition, which chose John C. Frémont as the Republican candidate. Although Buchanan was elected, the Republican party laid the groundwork for triumph in 1860.

Pierce viewed Buchanan’s victory as a vindication of his own policies: respect for the Constitution, states’ rights, and property rights, including slavery. His final message to Congress expressed satisfaction that the nation had rejected dangerous sectional politics. He also included a glowing review of his administration’s foreign and domestic accomplishments.

Travel, including an extended European trip, occupied much of Pierce’s time immediately after leaving office. It was in part an attempt to revive his wife’s health, but she died on 2 December 1863. Pierce considered Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 a repudiation of all he had worked for, and when the war erupted he placed major blame on the North for violating the constitutional rights of the southern states.

False and vicious rumors of Pierce’s membership in the disloyal Knights of the Golden Circle hurt and angered him. Nevertheless, he continued to criticize the Lincoln administration openly, and he vehemently opposed the Emancipation Proclamation. Except for the presence of a few loyal friends, Pierce’s last years were lonely. After his death in Concord, his body lay in state at the New Hampshire Capitol. It was his last official recognition.

Personal and public tragedy plagued Pierce’s presidency and undoubtedly contributed to his serious drinking problem. He was president at a time that called for almost superhuman skills, yet he lacked such skills and never grew into the job to which he had been elected. His view of the Constitution and the Union was from the Jacksonian past. He never fully understood the nature or depth of Free Soil sentiment in the North. He was able to negotiate a reciprocal trade treaty with Canada, to begin the opening of Japan to western trade, to add land to the Southwest, and to sign legislation for the creation of an overseas empire. His Cuba and Kansas policies led only to deeper sectional strife. His support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act and his determination to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act helped polarize the sections. Pierce was hard-working and his administration largely untainted by graft, yet the legacy from those four turbulent years contributed to the tragedy of secession and civil war.


The New Hampshire Historical Society and the Library of Congress both contain Franklin Pierce Papers. Perley Orman Ray, “Some Papers of Franklin Pierce, 1852–1862,” American Historical Review 10 (1904–1905): 110–27, 350–70, contains some material from the presidency years. Pierce’s official speeches and other papers are in James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789–1905, vol. 5 (1907). Roy Franklin Nichols, Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills, rev. ed. (1958), is a biography. Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union (2 vols., 1947), is still useful. For a more recent study see Larry Gara, The Presidency of Franklin Pierce (1991).