Franklin Pierce

The administration of Franklin Pierce (1804-1869), fourteenth president of the United States, was marred by the bitter quarrel resulting from the passage of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Franklin Pierce was born in Hillsborough County, N.H., on Nov. 23, 1804, the son of a Revolutionary general and governor of New Hampshire. Pierce graduated from Bowdoin College and studied law under Levi Woodbury, who was secretary of the Treasury under Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Following his father, Pierce joined the Democratic party, supporting Jackson for election in 1828. Pierce served in the New Hampshire Legislature (1828-1832) and in the U.S. House of Representatives (1832-1842). Pierce declined President James Polk's offer of the position of attorney general, instead accepting appointment as U.S. attorney for New Hampshire. During the Mexican War, Pierce served as a brigadier general under Winfield Scott.

Because he was relatively unknown and had not antagonized voters, Pierce received the Democratic nomination for president in 1852. Though he was elected over Scott, the Whig candidate, his overall majority was only 50,000 out of over 3 million votes cast.

As president, Pierce was mainly concerned with promoting national unity by including all Democratic factions in the Cabinet and by strictly adhering to the Compromise of 1850. Pierce hated change and relied on tradition to steer the government. However, his hopes for unity were destroyed by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Enactment of this law led to a revolt by antislavery Democrats and to the creation of the Republican party, replacing the Whig party in the North. Pierce's vigorous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act alienated the same elements.

Kansas created other major problems. Pierce's inept gubernatorial appointee in Kansas was unable to prevent either the election frauds committed by the Missourians who crossed the border or the violence that erupted between pro-and antislavery settlers. By 1856 complete chaos existed in Kansas; two governments were established, and Pierce was helpless to control the situation.

In foreign policy, Pierce and his secretary of state, William L. Marcy, generally followed expansionistic policies. They tried to purchase Cuba and officially recognized the regime set up by the American adventurer William Walker in Nicaragua. Pierce also tried to increase American prestige by mediating the Crimean War between England and Russia.

Because of Northern opposition to Pierce, James Buchanan defeated him at the Democratic convention in 1856. He retired to New Hampshire and was accused of being a Southern sympathizer during the Civil War. He died in Concord on Oct. 8, 1869.


Further Reading on Franklin Pierce

The only biography of Pierce is Roy Nichols, Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills (1931; 2d rev. ed. 1958), a sympathetic portrait. Material on his administration and the politics of the era is in Ivor D. Spencer, The Victor and the Spoils: A Life of William Marcy (1958), and Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan: A Biography (1962).