14th President, 1853-1857
Early Life and Pre-presidency
- Born on November 23, 1804 in Hillsborough, New Hampshire
- Parents: Benjamin Pierce and Anna B. Kendrick. Siblings: Benjamin Kendrick,
Nancy, John Sullivan, Harriet, Charles Grandison, Charlotte, and Henry Dearborn.
- Attended local schools and private academies. At 15, he entered Bowdoin College and graduated in 1824.
- Entered law school in 1826, was admitted to the bar in 1827, and then opened a law practice in Concord, New Hampshire.
- Elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives where he served from 1829 to 1833, serving as Speaker from 1832 to 1833.
- Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving from 1833 to 1837. He was the youngest representative in the House at the time.
- Elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1837 to 1842 then resigned.
- Appointed U.S. Attorney for the state of New Hampshire, a position he held from 1845 to 1847.
- Declined then President James K. Polk’s appointment as Attorney General.
- Married Jane Means Appleton (1806–1863) on November 19, 1834. Children: Franklin (1836), Frank Robert (1839–1843), and Benjamin (1841–1853).
- Joined the Army in 1847 during the Mexican–American War, attaining the rank of Brigadier General. He was part of General Winfield Scott’s troops that captured Mexico City. He resigned from the Army in 1848.
- Became President of the New Hampshire State Constitutional Convention in 1850.
- Nominated on the 49th ballot as the presidential nominee at the 1852 Democratic National Convention with William R. King as Vice President.
- The Democratic Party ran on a platform supporting the Compromise of 1850 and rejected any efforts to agitate the slavery issue. They won over the disorganized Whig Party.
- Two months before taking office, Pierce, his wife, and 11-year old son Benjamin were in a train accident. Benjamin, their last living son, died in the accident. It is said that his death caused severe depression in Pierce and greatly affected his Presidency.
- Took his oath of office on March 4, 1853 at the East Portico, U.S. Capitol.
- His 20-minute inaugural address was recited from memory.
- His Vice President, William R. King, died of tuberculosis on April 18, 1853 and was not replaced.
- The Ostend Manifesto, drafted in 1854 in Ostend, Belgium at the insistence of Pierce’s Secretary of State, outlined several reasons why the U.S. purchase of Cuba from Spain would benefit all parties and declared that the U.S. would have justification for wrestling Cuba if Spain declined the purchase offer. Southerners wanted Cuba as a slave state, and the publication of the manifesto in the House of Representatives only fueled the debate between the pro- and anti-slavery factions. The Manifesto was never acted upon.
- The Gadsden Purchase was a treaty signed by Pierce on April 25, 1854 and approved by Mexico on June 8, 1854. It involved the purchase of land that would become southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico from Mexico for $10 million. The purpose of the purchase was to build a transcontinental railroad through the Southern states.
- During Pierce’s term, Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Japan and successfully negotiated a treaty with Japan to allow trade with America and establish diplomatic relations with the country on March 31, 1854.
- Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 was a bill proposed by Senator Stephen A. Douglas to promote a transcontinental railroad through the Northern states. The largely unsettled Kansas and Nebraska territories were then under the Missouri Compromise area that barred slavery. Douglas proposed that the two territories be organized and that “popular sovereignity” would decide whether the territories would allow slavery or not, this necessitated the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.
- After heated debate in both Houses from pro- and anti-slavery members, the Kansas–Nebraska Act was signed into law by Pierce on May 30, 1854.
- The consequence of the Kansas–Nebraska Act was that pro- and anti-slavery settlers rushed to the two territories in order to influence the popular sovereignity vote in which white males would decide whether the territories would be a free state or a slave state.
- Bloody clashes between pro- and anti-slavery settlers led to what has been called “Bleeding Kansas.”
- When elections were held to set up a government in Kansas, pro-slavery supporters from other states illegally voted to elect a pro-slavery government. Pierce recognized the government, but when anti-slavery settlers set up a shadow government, Pierce considered their act rebellious and sent federal troops to bar them from meeting in Topeka.
- The aftermath of the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 led to the formation of the Republican Party, whose most famous leader was Abraham Lincoln.
- The Kansas-Nebraska Act was very unpopular with the American people and particulary outraged the anti-slavery northerners. Pierce was viewed as indecisive and easily manipulated by pro-slavery Congress members, who were mostly southern Democrats.
- He recognized the dictatorship of William Walker in Nicaragua in 1856. Walker was an American who conquered the country and introduced slavery. He wanted Nicaragua to join the Union as a slave state. Cornelius Vanderbilt, who wanted to build a canal there, put pressure on Pierce to make Walker surrender. Walker fled to Honduras where he was executed by British troops.
- Pierce wanted a second term but failed to win the Democratic Party’s nomination because of his unpopularity and his inability to resist manipulation by more forceful members of Congress.
- Retired to his home in Concord, New Hampshire with his wife.
- He and his wife traveled to the West Indies and returned in 1859.
- His supporters in the Democratic Party put his name in the 1860 and 1864 nominations for President, but he declined to run both times.
- After he left the presidency, he often blamed the Northern abolitionists for inciting sectional divide in the government.
- Although he supported the Northern cause during the Civil War, he was vocal about his dislike of President Abraham Lincoln’s handling of the war.
- He opposed Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of the habeas corpus during the Civil War, arguing that the protection of civil liberties should not be abandoned even in times of war.
- His wife never recovered from the grief at the loss of their son Benjamin in a train accident. She was called the “Shadow in the White House” because she rarely spoke or mingled. She died of tuberculosis in 1863. Pierce, meanwhile, returned to alcoholism.
- An angry mob gathered in front of his house soon after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and demanded to know why there were no public displays of mourning outside his home.
- He was called a “doughface,” a northerner with southerner principles.
- He was called an “archtraitor” when letters he had written to Confederate President Jefferson Davis became public in 1863 after they were seized during the Civil War. Those letters revealed a deep friendship with the pro-slavery Davis.
- Died on October 8, 1869 of cirrhosis of the liver.
- He is interred with his wife and two sons at the Old North Cemetery in Concord, New Hampshire.
- He met and became friends with the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne while the two were students at Bowdoin College. They became lifelong friends, and Pierce even bequeathed some items to Hawthorne’s children in his final will.
- The Franklin Pierce Lake in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire is named after Pierce and sits on an area that was the former site of a log cabin where Pierce may have been born.
- The Franklin Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough, New Hampshire where Pierce spent his years up until getting married was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961. It is operated by the Hillsborough Historical Society.