Franklin Pierce (1804-1869)/biography

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Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce.jpg

In office
March 4, 1853 – March 4, 1857
Vice President William R. King (1853)
None (1853-1857)
Preceded by Millard Fillmore
Succeeded by James Buchanan

In office
March 4, 1837 – February 28, 1842
Preceded by John Page
Succeeded by Leonard Wilcox

Born November 23, 1804(1804-11-23)
Hillsborough New Hampshire
Died October 8, 1869 (age 64)
Concord New Hampshire
Nationality United States
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Jane Appleton Pierce
Occupation Lawyer
Religion Episcopal
Signature Franklin Pierce Signature.png

Franklin Pierce (November 23, 1804October 8, 1869) was an American politician and the fourteenth President of the United States, serving from 1853 to 1857. He is to date the only president from New Hampshire and was the first president born in the nineteenth century.

Pierce was a Democrat and a "doughface" (a Northerner with Southern sympathies) who served in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Later, Pierce took part in the Mexican-American War and became a brigadier general. His private law practice in his home state, New Hampshire, was so successful that he was offered several important positions, which he turned down. Later, he was nominated for president as a dark horse candidate on the 49th ballot at the 1852 Democratic National Convention. In the presidential election, Pierce and his running mate William R. King won in a landslide, defeating Winfield Scott and William A. Graham by a 50 to 44% margin in the popular vote and 254 to 42 in the electoral vote.

His good looks and inoffensive personality caused him to make many friends, but he suffered tragedy in his personal life and as president subsequently made decisions which were widely criticized and divisive in their effects, thus giving him the reputation as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. Pierce's popularity in the North declined sharply after he came out in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, repealing the Missouri Compromise and reopening the question of the expansion of slavery in the West. Pierce's credibility was further damaged when several of his diplomats issued the Ostend Manifesto. Historian David Potter concludes that the Ostend Manifesto and the Kansas-Nebraska Act were "the two great calamities of the Franklin Pierce administration.... Both brought down an avalanche of public criticism." More important says Potter, they permanently discredited Manifest Destiny and popular sovereignty.

Abandoned by his party, Pierce was not renominated at the 1856 presidential election and was replaced by James Buchanan, which is to date the only instance of an incumbent President not to win his party's nomination for a second term (with the exception of the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, who did not seek reelection in 1968 despite his eligibility). After losing the Democratic nomination, Pierce continued his lifelong struggle with alcoholism as his marriage to Jane Means Appleton Pierce fell apart. His reputation was further damaged when he declared support for the Confederacy and died in 1869 from cirrhosis.

Philip B. Kunhardt and Peter W. Kunhardt reflected the views of many historians when they wrote in The American President that Pierce was "a good man who didn't understand his own shortcomings. He was genuinely religious, loved his wife and reshaped himself so that he could adapt to her ways and show her true affection. He was one of the most popular men in New Hampshire, polite and thoughtful, easy and good at the political game, charming and fine and handsome. However, he has been criticized as timid and unable to cope with a changing America."

Early lifeEdit

Franklin Pierce was born in a log cabin near Hillsborough, New Hampshire. The site of his birth is now under Lake Franklin Pierce. Pierce's father was Benjamin Pierce, a frontier farmer who became a Revolutionary War soldier, a state militia general, and a two-time governor of New Hampshire and tavern owner. Pierce's father was a leading New Hampshire politician. His mother was Anna Kendrick. He was the seventh of eight children; he had four brothers and three sisters.

Pierce Birthplace

Franklin Pierce Homestead

Pierce attended school at Hillsborough Center and moved to the Hancock Academy in Hancock at the age of 11; he was transferred to Francestown Academy in the spring of 1820. Later that year he was transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy to prepare for college. In fall 1820, he entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, where he participated in literary, political, and debating clubs.

There he met writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, with whom he formed a lasting friendship, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He also met Calvin E. Stowe, Seargent S. Prentiss, and his future political rival, John P. Hale.

In his second year of college, his grades were the lowest in his class but he worked to improve them, and graduated in 1824, third in his class. After graduation, in 1826, he entered a law school in Northampton, Massachusetts, studying under Governor Levi Woodbury, and later Judges Samuel Howe and Edmund Parker, in Amherst.

Jane Appleton Pierce

Jane Appleton Pierce

He was admitted to the bar and began a law practice in Concord in 1827.

Early political careerEdit

After graduating college Pierce entered local politics and rose to a central position in the Democratic party of New Hampshire and became a member of the Concord Regency leadership group. Pierce began his political career in 1828, when he was elected to the lower house of the New Hampshire General Court, the New Hampshire House of Representatives. He served in the State House from 1829 to 1833, and as Speaker from 1832 to 1833. Pierce served in the state legislature of New Hampshire while his father was governor.

In 1832, Pierce was elected as a Democrat to the 23rd and 24th Congresses (March 4, 1833March 4, 1837). He was only 27 years old, the youngest U.S. Representative at the time.

In 1836, he was elected by the New Hampshire General Court as a Democrat to the United States Senate, serving from March 4, 1837, to February 28, 1842, when he resigned. He was chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Pensions during the 26th Congress.

After his service in the Senate, Pierce resumed the practice of law in Concord with his partner Asa Fowler. He was district attorney for New Hampshire and declined the Democratic nomination of Governor of New Hampshire and the appointment as Attorney General of the United States tendered by President James K. Polk.


On November 19, 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton, the daughter of a former president of Bowdoin College. Appleton, who was born in 1806 and died in 1863, was Pierce's opposite. She came from an aristocratic Whig family and was extremely shy, deeply religious, often ill, and pro-temperance. Jane could be described as shy and tubercular and she was never happy with the fact that her husband was in the political world. His personal life imposed a great deal of pain on him and Pierce was known to many as being a heavy drinker.

General Franklin Pierce

Brigadier General Franklin Pierce

Mrs. Pierce hated life in Washington, and encouraged Pierce to resign his Senate seat and return to New Hampshire, which he did in 1841. They had three children who all died in childhood. Two of their children died to early deaths and the last one survived until the age of 11 and was killed in a train wreck. None of them lived to see their father become president. This made her believe God was displeased with her husband's political ambitions. [1] After the deaths of her children, Mrs. Pierce was overcome with melancholia and disdained herself during her husband's presidency.

Franklin Pierce, Jr. (February 2, 1836February 5, 1836) died three days after birth.

Frank Robert Pierce (August 27, 1839November 14, 1843) died at the age of four from epidemic typhus.

Benjamin "Bennie" Pierce (April 13, 1841January 16, 1853) died at the age of 11 in a tragic railway accident in Andover which his parents witnessed, 1 month before the inauguration of his father.

Mexican WarEdit

He enlisted in the volunteer services during the Mexican-American War and was soon made a colonel. In March 1847, he was appointed brigadier general of volunteers and took command of a brigade of reinforcements for Winfield Scott's army marching on Mexico City. His brigade was designated the 1st Brigade in the newly created 3rd Division and joined Scott's army in time for the Battle of Contreras. During the battle he was seriously wounded in the leg when he fell from his horse.

He returned to his command the following day, but during the Battle of Churubusco, the pain in his leg became so great that he passed out and was carried from the field. His political opponents used this against him, claiming that he left the field because of cowardice instead of injury. He again returned to command and led his brigade throughout the rest of the campaign culminating in the capture of Mexico City. Although he was a political appointee, he proved to have some skill as a military commander. He returned home and was a member of the New Hampshire State constitutional convention in 1850 and served as its president.

Election of 1852Edit

Scott vs Pierce campaign

The Game-cock & the Goose
A Whig Party cartoon favoring Pierce's main opponent, Winfield Scott.

Pierce drew support because of his long career as Democrat activist and also because he fully supported the party's policy commitments. The Democratic Party nominated Pierce as a "dark horse" candidate during the Democratic National Convention of 1852. Pierce was considered a darkhorse candidate because he had no credentials as a major political figure or as a statesman. He was also not a military hero, and his tenure in legislative offices was pretty brief. The convention assembled on June 12 in Baltimore, with four competing contenders—Stephen A. Douglas, William L. Marcy, James Buchanan and Lewis Cass — for the nomination. Most of those who had left the party with Martin Van Buren to form the Free Soil Party had returned. Prior to the vote to determine the nominee, a party platform was adopted, opposing any further "agitation" over the slavery issue and supporting the Compromise of 1850 in an effort to unite the various Democratic factions.

When the balloting for president began, the four candidates deadlocked, with no candidate reaching even a simple majority, much less the required supermajority of two-thirds. On the 35th ballot, Pierce was put forth as a compromise candidate. He had never fully articulated his views on slavery, which allowed him to be acceptable to all factions. He also had served in the Mexican-American War, which allowed the party to portray him as a war hero. Pierce was nominated unanimously on the 49th ballot on June 5. Alabama Senator William R. King was chosen as the nominee for Vice President. [2]

Pierce's opponent was the United States Whig Party candidate, General Winfield Scott of Virginia, whom Pierce served under during the Mexican-American War, and his running mate, Senator, Governor and Secretary of the Navy William A. Graham of North Carolina. Pierce easily prevailed as Scott — nicknamed Old Fuss and Feathers — ran a blundering campaign. Two other opponents were Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire, a political foe of Pierce's, and Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts who at the time was serving as Secretary of State (However, Webster died before election day).

The Whigs' platform was almost indistinguishable from that of the Democrats, reducing the campaign to a contest between the personalities of the two candidates and helping to drive down the turnout rates in the election to their lowest level since 1836. Pierce's likable personality, plus his helpful obscurity and lack of strongly held positions, helped him prevail over Scott, whose anti-slavery views hurt him in the South. Scott's advantage as a known war hero was countered by Pierce's service in the same war.

Pierce was also helped by Irish Catholic support of the Democratic Party and their disdain for the Whig Party.


Electoral map of the 1852 presidential election.

The Democrats' slogan was "We Polked you in 1844; we shall Pierce you in 1852!" (a reference to the victory of James K. Polk in the 1844 election). [1] This proved to be true, as Scott only won the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Vermont. The total popular vote was 1,601,274 to 1,386,580, or 50.9% to 44.1%. Pierce won 27 of the 31 states, including Scott's home state of Virginia. John P. Hale, who like Pierce was from New Hampshire, was the nominee of the remnants of the Free Soil Party, garnering 155,825 votes (5% of the total).

The election of 1852 would be the last presidential contest in which the Whigs would field a candidate. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act divided the Whigs, with the Northern Whigs deeply opposed, resulting in a split between former Whigs, some of whom joined the nativist American Party Know-Nothings, others the Constitutional Union Party, and still others the newly formed Republicans.

At his inauguration, Pierce was the youngest President ever, age 48, a record he would keep until 46 year old Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated president in 1869.

Results of the election: Pierce/King: 254 electoral votes, 1.6 million popular votes Scott/Graham: 42 electoral votes, 1.3 million popular votes Hale/Julian: 0 electoral votes, 155,000 popular votes.

Presidency 1853-1857Edit



Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce assumed presidency at a time of tranquility and peace. The Compromise of 1850 seemed to have weathered the storm around the issue of slavery, and things seemed to be a little calmer. This problem suddenly appeared during his administration, and Pierce did little to deal with it and his policies showed how the Union was so disrupted.[2] Pierce was then forced into handling an administration that was dealing with great national tension. Pierce was nicknamed "Young Hickory of the Granite Hills". He was able to follow in the footsteps of previous party presidents because he was committed to the same causes they were and because other party members saw the virtues of the qualities he possessed. Pierce served as U.S. President from March 4, 1853, to March 4, 1857. Two months before he took office on January 6, 1853, shortly after boarding a train in Boston, president-elect Pierce and his family were trapped in a derailed car when it rolled over an embankment near Andover. Pierce and his wife survived and were merely shaken up, but they watched as their 11-year-old son Benjamin ("Bennie") was crushed to death in the train disaster. Grief-stricken, Pierce entered the presidency nervously exhausted.

King the Vice President

Pierce's Vice President William R. King died a little over one month after his inauguration--as a result, Pierce had no Vice President during most of his term

The family had already lost two children to typhus, and Jane Pierce believed the train accident was divine punishment for her husband's acceptance of the high office of the presidency. Other events deepened the somber mood of the new administration, former First Lady Abigail Fillmore's death in March and that of Vice President William R. King's in April. As a result, Pierce chose to "affirm" his Oath of Office on a law book rather than the Bible. To date, only Pierce and Herbert Hoover have "affirmed" rather than sworn oaths. He is also among a small number of Presidents who did not take the presidential oath on a Bible. (As an example,Theodore Roosevelt did not place his hand on anything at all). In his inaugural address, he proclaimed an era of peace and prosperity at home and vigor in relations with other nations, saying that the United States might have to acquire additional possessions for the sake of its own security and would not be deterred by "any timid forebodings of evil."


Pierce selected for his Cabinet not men of similar beliefs but a broad cross-section of people he personally knew. Many thought that the diverse group would soon break up, but instead it became the only Cabinet, as of 2007, that remained unchanged through a four-year term. In the foreign policy realm, Pierce showed a traditional Democratic assertiveness. When Pierce came into office there was significant tensions with a weak Spain, a reclusive Japan, and a powerful Britain creating problems in Central America. Just like in domestic affairs, Pierce's leadership seemed to be one of the main focuses of people because he seemed to be too overwhelmed by forces he could not control.[3]

Pierce aroused sectional apprehension when he pressured the United Kingdom to relinquish its special interests along part of the Central American coast, and when he tried to persuade Spain to sell Cuba for $100 million (USD) because of the expansive sugar crop in Cuba.

The release of the Ostend Manifesto, signed by several of Pierce's cabinet members, caused outrage with its suggestion that the U.S. seize Cuba by force, and permanently discredited the Democratic Party's expansionist policies, which it had so famously ridden to victory in 1844.

Forcing Slavery Freesoilers Throats

Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Freesoiler
An 1856 cartoon depicts a giant free soiler being held down by James Buchanan and Lewis Cass standing on the Democratic platform marked "Kansas", "Cuba" and "Central America". President Pierce also holds down the giant's beard as Stephen A. Douglas shoves a black man down his throat.

But the most controversial event of Pierce's presidency was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and reopened the question of slavery in the West. This measure, the handiwork of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, allegedly grew out of his desire to promote a railroad from Chicago, Illinois to California through Nebraska. This problem came as much of a surprise to Pierce and the rest of his party members since they had spent a great deal of time calming down and fixing the difficult sectional tension. The party leaders thought they had succeeded in doing this because of things like the Compromise of 1850.

Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, advocate of a southern transcontinental route, had persuaded Pierce to send James Gadsden to Mexico to buy land for a southern railroad. He purchased the area now comprising southern Arizona and part of southern New Mexico for $10 million (USD), commonly known as the Gadsden Purchase. This became known as the greatest success of the Pierce presidency.

Douglas, to win Southern support for the organization of Nebraska, placed in his bill a provision declaring the Missouri Compromise null and void. Douglas provided in his bills that the residents of the new territories could decide the slavery question for themselves. Pierce, who had acquired a reputation as untrustworthy and easily manipulated, was persuaded to support Douglas' plan in a closed meeting between Pierce, Douglas, and several southern Senators, with Pierce consulting only Jefferson Davis of his cabinet.

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act brought about a sequence of events that developed into Bleeding Kansas. Pro-slavery Border Ruffians, mostly from Missouri, illegally voted in a government that Pierce recognized, and Pierce called the Topeka Constitution, a shadow government set up by Free-Staters an act of "rebellion." Pierce continued to recognize the pro-slavery legislature even after a congressional investigative committee found its election illegitimate. He furthermore sent in federal troops to break up a meeting of the shadow government in Topeka.

The Act also caused widespread outrage in the North and spurred the creation of the Republican Party, a sectional Northern party which was organized as a direct response to the bill. The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln would lead to declarations of secession in 1860 and 1861.

Meanwhile, Pierce lost all credibility he may have had in the North and in the South and as of 2007, was the only elected president (rather than a Vice President who succeeded to the position) to fail to be renominated by his party for a second term. Pierce is ranked among the least effective Presidents as well as an indecisive politician who was easily influenced. He was unable to command as President or to provide the required national leadership.

Major legislation signedEdit


Portrait of Franklin Pierce as a General mounted on a horse.

Administration and CabinetEdit

The Pierce Cabinet
Office Name Term
President Franklin Pierce1853–1857
Vice President William R. King1853
Secretary of State William L. Marcy1853–1857
Secretary of Treasury James Guthrie1853–1857
Secretary of War Jefferson Davis1853–1857
Attorney General Caleb Cushing1853–1857
Postmaster General James Campbell1853–1857
Secretary of the Navy James C. Dobbin1853–1857
Secretary of the Interior Robert McClelland1853–1857

Supreme Court appointmentsEdit

Pierce appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:

States admitted to the UnionEdit


Franklin pierce stamp

Pierce postage stamp

Later lifeEdit

After losing the Democratic nomination, Pierce reportedly quipped "there's nothing left to do but get drunk" (quoted also as "after the White House what is there to do but drink?") which he apparently did frequently. He once ran over an elderly woman while driving a carriage. During the Civil War, Pierce further damaged his reputation by declaring support for the Confederacy, headed by his old cabinet member Davis. One of the few friends to stick by Pierce was his college friend and biographer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, although he had fallen so low that he was not asked to stand as a pallbearer at Hawthorne's funeral.

In 1863 during the aftermath of Vicksburg, Union Soldiers under General Hugh Ewing's command captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis' Fleetwood Plantation, and Ewing turned over Davis' personal correspondence to his brother-in-law William T. Sherman.[4] However, Ewing also sent copies of the letters to a few people he had known in Ohio, which, after being published, permanently ruined the reputation of former President Pierce.[5] Their release coincided with that of Pierce's book, Our Old Home. As early as 1860, Pierce had written to Davis about "the madness of northern abolitionism," and other letters uncovered stated that he would "never justify, sustain, or in any way or to any extent uphold this cruel, heartless, aimless unnecessary war", and that "the true purpose of the war was to wipe out the states and destroy property."[6] His reputation was destroyed. Even author Harriet Beecher Stowe referred to him as "the archtraitor."[7]

Franklin Pierce died in Concord at 4:40 a.m. on October 8, 1869 at 64 years old, from cirrhosis of the liver, which had to do with his heavy drinking problem that he carried throughout his life, and was interred in the Minot Enclosure in the Old North Cemetery of Concord.


Old north cemetery pierce

Pierce's tomb at the Old North Cemetery, Concord, NH

Places named after President Pierce:

In fictionEdit

  • Appearing in 9 episodes of Season 5 of The West Wing, Ryan Pierce, the nephew of a powerful Senator and related to Franklin Pierce, was a White House intern assigned to Josh Lyman.

Preserved homeEdit


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Brinkley, A. and Dyer, D. The American Presidency.2004. Houghhton Mifflin Company.
  4. ^ Allen 1999, p. 359
  5. ^ Allen 1999, p. 360
  6. ^ Allen 1999, p. 360
  7. ^ Allen 1999, p. 360


  • Allen, Felicity. Jefferson Davis, Unconquerable Heart. St. Louis, Missouri: University of Missouri Press. 1999. ISBN 0826212190.
  • Brinkley, A. and Dyer, D. The American Presidency.2004. Houghhton Mifflin Company.
  • Gara, Larry, The Presidency of Franklin Pierce (1991), standard history of his administration
  • Nichols; Roy Franklin. Franklin Pierce, Young Hickory of the Granite Hills (1931), standard biography
  • Nichols; Roy Franklin.The Democratic Machine, 1850-1854. Columbia University Press, 1923. online version
  • Potter, David M, The Impending Crisis, 1848 - 1861. New York, New York: Harper & Row, 1976. ISBN 0-06-013403-8.
  • Taylor; Michael J.C. "Governing the Devil in Hell: 'Bleeding Kansas' and the Destruction of the Franklin Pierce Presidency (1854-1856)" White House Studies, Vol. 1, 2001, pp 185-205

External linksEdit

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Political offices
Preceded by
Millard Fillmore
President of the United States
March 4, 1853 – March 4, 1857
Succeeded by
James Buchanan
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
John Brodhead
Thomas Chandler
Joseph Hammons
Joseph M. Harper
Henry Hubbard
John W. Weeks
Member from New Hampshire's
At-large congressional district

March 4, 1833 – March 3, 1837
Served alongside: Benning M. Bean,
Robert Burns, Joseph M. Harper, Henry Hubbard,
Samuel Cushman, Joseph Weeks
Succeeded by
Charles G. Atherton
Samuel Cushman
James Farrington
Joseph Weeks
Jared W. Williams
United States Senate
Preceded by
John Page
Senator from New Hampshire (Class 3)
March 4, 1837 – February 28, 1842
Served alongside: Henry Hubbard, Levi Woodbury
Succeeded by
Leonard Wilcox
Party political offices
Preceded by
Lewis Cass
Democratic Party presidential candidate
Succeeded by
James Buchanan

This page uses content from the English language Wikipedia. The original content was at Franklin Pierce. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with this Familypedia wiki, the content of Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons License.

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