Franklin Pierce Biography
Franklin Pierce was the 14th President of the United States, serving from 1853 to 1857. He was born on November 23, 1804, in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. Pierce was a member of the Democratic Party and is best known for his role in the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which helped spread slavery into the western territories of the United States prior to the Civil War. He was also the only president from New Hampshire. After leaving the presidency, Pierce’s popularity declined and he lived out the rest of his life in obscurity.
Quick Facts About Franklin Pierce
Overview of the Life and Career of Franklin Pierce
Early Life of Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce was born in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, on November 23, 1804. He was the fifth of eight children born to Benjamin and Anna (Kendrick) Pierce. Pierce’s father was a veteran of the Revolutionary War who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill and who later served as a general in the New Hampshire militia. Prior to Franklin’s birth, Benjamin was a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives and he later served two terms as New Hampshire’s governor in the 1820s.
During his early childhood, Franklin Pierce attended the local town school in Hillsborough. Beginning at age twelve, his parents enrolled him in several private academies to prepare for college. In 1820, Pierce entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. While enrolled there, he became friends with future literary notables Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Pierce struggled academically during his first two years at college, but by the time he graduated in 1824, he ranked fifth in his class.
Early Legal Career
After leaving Bowdoin, Pierce studied law for three years. In 1827, he was admitted to the New Hampshire bar, and he opened a law firm in Hillsborough.
Franklin Pierce’s family connections no doubt paved the way for his entrance into politics. In 1827, voters elected Pierce’s father as Governor of New Hampshire. Two years later, the citizens of Hillsborough’s district elected the twenty-four-year-old Pierce to represent them in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, the same year that his father earned a second gubernatorial term. The younger Pierce served in the legislature for four consecutive terms from 1829 through 1833. During the last two years of his tenure, he was the speaker of the house.
U.S. Congressman from New Hampshire
In 1832 New Hampshire voters elected Pierce to the U.S. House of Representatives as one of five at-large members. Reelected in 1834, Pierce served in the 23rd and 24th Congresses from March 4, 1833, to March 3, 1837. Like his father, Pierce was a member of the Democratic Party and a staunch supporter of Andrew Jackson. It was during this time that Pierce may have begun seeking comfort from alcohol to escape the boredom and loneliness of life in the nation’s capital.
Marriage and Family Life
On November 19, 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton in Amherst, New Hampshire. How the couple met remains a mystery, as do details about their courtship. The bride’s deceased father was president of Bowdoin College before Pierce enrolled there. Jane had a somber personality, and she suffered from bouts of depression. Their twenty-nine-year marriage produced three sons. Their firstborn died just three days after birth. The other two did not survive childhood. Losing their children, along with Jane’s dislike of politics and Franklin’s heavy drinking, forged an unhappy marriage.
U.S. Senator from New Hampshire
In 1838 (before the popular election of U.S. Senators), the New Hampshire State Legislature elected Pierce to a seat in the U.S. Senate. Pierce took office on March 4, 1839, and served in the 25th to the 27th Congresses. Pierce entered the Senate during the mid-term of the presidency of Martin Van Buren and he supported the policies of Jacksonian Democrats during the Panic of 1837, which lasted throughout Van Buren’s administration. When the Whig Party gained control of the government in 1841, Pierce became disenchanted with his role in the Senate minority. On February 28, 1842, Pierce resigned from the Senate and returned to New Hampshire, where he could devote more time to his law practice.
Successful Attorney and New Hampshire Party Leader
In 1838, Pierce moved his family to Concord, New Hampshire, and opened a law partnership with Asa Fowler. Fowler managed their practice when Pierce was in Washington. During the months when the Senate was in recess, Pierce returned to Concord and practiced law. After resigning from the Senate in 1842, Pierce’s reputation as a successful trial lawyer blossomed and his firm flourished.
Although Pierce left Congress, he did not abandon politics. In June 1842, he assumed the chairmanship of the New Hampshire Democratic Committee. No doubt influenced by his own struggles with alcohol, and his wife’s loathing of spirits, Pierce had been a charter member of the Congressional Temperance Society since 1837. Upon returning to Concord, he continued his crusade against intemperance. On April 29, 1843, Pierce presided over a meeting of the local citizenry that drafted a petition to ban alcohol in Concord. Signed by over 1,700 people, the drive was successful and Concord became a dry town.
Franklin Robert Pierce Dies from Typhus
Domestic happiness did not last long for the Pierces after the Senator’s return to Concord. In the fall of 1843, both of their surviving children contracted typhus. The youngest son, Bennie, recovered, but on November 14, Frank Robert Pierce died from the disease at age four. Overcome with grief, Jane Pierce retreated into a world of depression. Franklin coped by immersing himself deeper into politics.
Pierce Helps Polk Win the Presidency
The decade of the 1840s was a period of political upheaval in America. When the New Hampshire Democratic Party splintered over economic and sectional disagreements, Pierce had his hands full trying to maintain party unity. During the 1844 presidential election, Pierce campaigned vigorously for his friend and fellow Democrat, James K. Polk. Pierce’s efforts helped Polk carry New Hampshire and win the presidency. Polk rewarded Pierce by appointing him as a federal district attorney for New Hampshire, a position Pierce held for two years from 1845 to 1847. In 1845, Pierce declined the Democratic nomination for governor of New Hampshire. The same year, he also declined an appointment to the U.S. Senate made vacant by the resignation of Judge Levi Woodbury. In 1847, Piece turned down an offer from President Polk to serve as the U.S. Attorney General because of his wife’s poor mental and physical health.
Brigadier General Pierce in the Mexican American War
On May 11, 1846, President Polk sent a message to Congress proclaiming that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” Two days later, on May 13, 1846, Congress approved a declaration of war against Mexico. Mexican officials reciprocated by declaring war against the United States on July 7. Perhaps eager to emulate his father’s Revolutionary War exploits, Pierce helped recruit a company of volunteers and enlisted in the army as a private to fight in the Mexican-American War soon after it began.
Early in 1847, Congress authorized the creation of ten army regiments to prosecute the war with Mexico. In February, Polk had Pierce commissioned as a colonel and charged him with raising one of the new regiments. On March 3, 1847, the president promoted Pierce to the rank of brigadier general, and placed him in command of a brigade of 2,500 New Englanders, even though Pierce had no previous military experience.
Three days after Pierce’s promotion, General Winfield Scott‘s American “Army of Invasion” began landing operations at the Mexican port city of Vera Cruz. Following a two-week-long siege, the Mexican garrison at Vera Cruz surrendered on March 28. The next week, Scott began pushing inland toward Mexico City. On June 27, Pierce’s brigade arrived at Vera Cruz and quickly departed to rendezvous with Scott. The two forces united on August 6, about 100 miles from the coast.
In mid-August, Scott scored major victories over the Mexican army at the Battle of Contreras (August 19–20, 1847) and the Battle of Churubusco (August 21, 1847). During the fighting on August 20, Pierce temporarily passed out when his horse fell on top of his leg after being startled by an explosion. One of his soldiers mistakenly believed that the general had fainted in the face of enemy fire and yelled out that “General Pierce is a damn coward!” Pierce’s reputation was further damaged the next day when his injury limited his effectiveness at Churubusco. As a final indignity, a severe case of diarrhea prevented Pierce from participating when Scott’s forces successfully stormed Chapultepec Castle on September 13, 1847, during the pivotal conquest of Mexico City.
After the fall of Mexico City, Pierce remained south of the border as part of the army of occupation. Bored with garrison duty and tempted by the heavy drinking of fellow army officers, Pierce fell off the wagon.
General Scott granted Pierce a leave of absence in December 1847. The native New Hampshire son came home to a hero’s welcome in Concord in January 1848. Although he never returned to active service, Pierce remained in the army until the Senate ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which officially ended the Mexican-American War in March 1848. Army officials accepted his resignation on March 20, 1848.
Slavery Debate and Compromise
When Pierce returned home, he resumed his legal career and continued in his role as leader of New Hampshire’s Democratic Party. To his dismay, the state party, and the national party, soon split over the extension of slavery in the territories Mexico ceded to the U.S. following the war. The Union nearly dissolved as Southern states threatened to secede if Congress prohibited slavery in the West. President Zachary Taylor warned he would personally hang anyone who attempted to disrupt the Union by force or by conspiracy. After Taylor died unexpectedly in July 1850, cooler heads prevailed and Congressional leaders hammered out a series of bills collectively known as the Compromise of 1850, which averted disaster. Although Pierce usually sided with Southerners in believing that the Constitution protected slavery, he heartily endorsed the Compromise of 1850.
Dark Horse Presidential Candidate
With the sectional crisis temporarily averted, Americans entered a decade of false security. As the nation seemed to return to normalcy, the slavery issue continued to bubble beneath the surface. Free-Soil Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio could have been speaking for both sides when he guardedly observed “the question of slavery in the territories has been avoided. It has not been settled.” Tragic events a decade later proved Chase correct.
Incumbent President Millard Fillmore‘s endorsement of the Compromise of 1850 cost him the support of his own party. As the presidential election of 1852 approached, the Whigs rejected Fillmore in favor of Pierce’s former military commander, General Winfield Scott. Aware of the disunity within the Whig Party, the Democrats sensed a solid opportunity to regain the presidency.
The Democratic National Convention convened in Baltimore from June 1-4, 1852. Like the Whigs, the party was divided along sectional lines. When the presidential balloting began on June 3, Michigan Senator Lewis Cass and former Secretary of State James Buchanan were the frontrunners. After neither candidate could muster the two-thirds majority of votes required to secure the nomination through the first twenty-nine ballots, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas took the lead through the next two ballots. When Douglas could not collect two-thirds of the votes, Cass re-took the lead, but could still not muster enough support to win. Reaching a clear impasse, the delegates began looking for a compromise candidate. On the thirty-fifth ballot, the Virginia delegation cast all fifteen of their votes for Pierce, a northern Democrat who was sympathetic to the South and who supported the constitutionality of slavery. Pierce’s vote total doubled on the next ballot and then remained nearly steady through the forty-fifth ballot when he gathered more southern support. Finally, with the convention deadlocked and the delegates, wore to a frazzle, the North Carolina delegation switched its support to Pierce and started a landslide. On the forty-ninth ballot, Pierce received all but fourteen votes and won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Election of 1852
Unlike the Democrats, the Whigs could not establish a semblance of unity during the 1852 campaign. The platforms of both parties endorsed the Compromise of 1850, making their positions on the major issue of the time nearly indistinguishable. Disagreements between abolitionist Whigs and pro-slavery Whigs splintered the party and kindled its disintegration. In the meantime, the Democratic strategy of nominating a “northern man with southern sympathies” proved to be successful. The Whigs’ hope of riding Winfield Scott’s record as a Mexican-American War hero to victory was somewhat neutralized because Pierce was a veteran of the same conflict. Whigs attempted to discredit Pierce’s war record by referring to him as “Fainting Frank” because he had blacked out during the Battle of Contreras. Election results proved that the attempt to disparage Pierce had little impact. Pierce won by a landslide, collecting 50.8% of the popular vote compared to Scott’s 43.9%. Scott carried only 4 states compared to 27 for Pierce. In the Electoral College, Pierce received 254 votes compared to only 42 for Scott.
Tragic Death of Benny Pierce
Pierce’s presidency began on a heartbreaking note. On January 6, 1853, two months before his inauguration, the president-elect and his wife were traveling with their sole surviving son, Benny, from Andover, Massachusetts to their home in Concord, when the axle of the railcar in which they were riding snapped. As the car derailed, Pierce instinctively seized his son, but could not maintain his grasp. Tragically, when the car tumbled off of the tracks, the boy’s head was crushed and nearly severed from his body as his parents looked on in horror. Jane Pierce never recovered from the shock and did not attend her husband’s inauguration. Throughout his presidency, she remained depressed and rarely took part in White House events.
Pierce proved to be another in a line of “administrative” presidents. His primary goal was maintaining domestic tranquility as the nation continued toward disunion. He tried to cater to Northerners and Southerners simultaneously with his political appointments, but he was unable to satisfy either faction. Perhaps hoping that the slavery issue would somehow resolve itself or disappear if ignored, Pierce concentrated most of his efforts as president on bureaucratic reform and foreign affairs.
The most notable foreign policy achievement of Pierce’s administration was the Gadsden Purchase. That agreement, negotiated by Senator James Gadsden, resolved a boundary dispute between the United States and Mexico. When the two sides completed the deal in 1854, the U.S. paid Mexico $10 million for 29,670 miles of land that became part of southern Arizona and New Mexico. The purchase established the final extent of the contiguous forty-eight U.S. states and helped fulfill the concept of Manifest Destiny.
Although Pierce desperately strove to preserve the Union by avoiding the pitfalls linked with the extension of slavery in the West, his presidency fell victim to the expansionist goals of a member of his own party — Stephen A. Douglas.
As the nation struggled with the slavery issue, settlers and entrepreneurs clamored to occupy the rest of the Louisiana Purchase. “Kansas Fever” became rampant. Before white settlers could inhabit the area on a large scale, however, officials needed to organize a territorial government to displace the native population, survey the land, and enact regulations for land ownership.
Congress considered petitions to establish a territory west of the Missouri River as early as 1851 but took no action on the proposals. In 1853, southern Senators refused to support a measure to organize the territory because it included a ban on slavery as required by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. On January 23, 1854, the Senate Committee on Territories, chaired by Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, submitted a bill, calling for the organization of two territories separated at the 40th parallel: Nebraska to the North and Kansas to the South. The new measure also stipulated that the section of the Missouri Compromise prohibiting slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase was “inoperative and void” because it had been “superseded” by the popular sovereignty provisions of the Compromise of 1850, even though the Compromise of 1850 did not apply to the Louisiana Purchase.
Senators debated the revised bill for nearly six weeks. William Seward of New York and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, two unabashed abolitionists, led the opposition to the measure. Beyond their moral objections to extending slavery into the new territories, Seward and Sumner argued that Douglas and his followers had no authority to renege on the Missouri Compromise. The abolition of slavery above the southern border of Missouri, they argued, was the condition to which the South agreed in return for admitting Missouri as a slave state. Despite their objections, on March 4, 1854, the Senate voted to approve the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The House endorsed the measure on May 22. When Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30, 1854, it became the defining event of his presidency.
Like Douglas, Pierce believed that implementing popular sovereignty would bring the sectional dispute over the extension of slavery to a halt. Instead, the Kansas-Nebraska Act kindled the opposite reaction. Political bickering turned into bloodshed in Kansas as ruffians on both sides of the issue hastened to the new territory to influence the vote over slavery. Violence in “Bleeding Kansas” peaked during the last year of Pierce’s presidency (1856) when abolitionist John Brown murdered five settlers during the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre, in retaliation for the sacking of the free-soil settlement at Lawrence.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act also sped up a complete realignment of the political landscape in the United States. The Democratic Party lost most of its support among Northerners and evolved to become the face of pro-slavery forces in the South. The Whig Party ceased to exist in the South and began crumbling in the North. Gradually, an amalgam of disaffected Democrats, abolitionists, and Free-Soilers coalesced as the new Republican Party. The two-party system that emerged from the turmoil caused by the Kansas-Nebraska Act was divided almost exclusively along sectional lines.
By the time Pierce’s term ended, the nation was closer to disunion, and he had lost the support of the Democratic Party. When the Democratic National Convention convened in Cincinnati on June 2, 1856, Pierce expected to receive a coveted second nomination. The slavery issue, however, deeply divided the delegates. Pierce’s approval of the Kansas-Nebraska Act cost him dearly as the delegates ended up nominating James Buchanan, who won the November election and became the nation’s fifteenth president.
After leaving the White House, the Pierces returned to New Hampshire. Hoping to improve his wife’s health and possibly their strained relationship, they spent the next three years traveling in the Caribbean and in Europe. Returning home in 1860, Pierce rejected overtures to serve as the fractured Democratic Party’s presidential candidate.
When the Civil War erupted, Pierce declared his loyalty to the Union, but throughout the war, he publicly opposed President Abraham Lincoln and his policies. Pierce was especially critical of Lincoln’s order to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, the Emancipation Proclamation, the use of conscription, and the arrest of Peace Democrat, Clement Vallandigham.
Later Years and Death of Franklin Pierce
Pierce’s unpopular views about Lincoln’s policies cost him many friends in his home state. His wife’s death from tuberculosis in 1863 left him further isolated. Two years later, Pierce built a summer cottage on Little Boar’s Head at North Hampton, New Hampshire, but it provided scant relief from his solitude. Increasingly, Pierce turned to alcohol as an escape. Eventually, his poor health confined him to his home in Concord. He died there with no family members present at 4:35 on Friday morning, October 8, 1869, at age sixty-four. The cause of death was inflammation of the stomach and cirrhosis of the liver, brought on by his heavy drinking.
Pierce’s funeral services were held on Monday, October 11. President Ulysses S. Grant, one of Pierce’s fellow officers during the Mexican-American War, declared the date a day of national mourning. Following the funeral service, Pierce was laid to rest beside his wife and two of his sons in the Minot enclosure at Concord’s Old North Cemetery.
Significance of Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce is important to United States history because he served as the 7th President of the United States and for the pro-slavery policies he supported during his term in office. Although Pierce signed the Gadsden Purchase, which added portions of the New Mexico territory to the United States, he also signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law, which escalated the sectional conflict over slavery and contributed to the Civil War.
Interesting Facts About Franklin Pierce
- Franklin Pierce is regarded as the second “dark horse” candidate to win the presidency, following James K. Polk.
- During the Election of 1852, he was criticized for his drinking habits and his Whig opponents called him the “Hero of the Well-Fought Bottle.”
- Pierce delivered his inaugural speech from memory – roughly 3,000 words.
- He was criticized for the “Ostend Manifesto,” a presidential memo that suggested the United States should take action against Spain if Spain refused to sell Cuba.
- Jefferson Davis served as his Secretary of War.
- His Vice President, William R. King, died 45 days after he took office and was never replaced.
- Pierce was close friends with celebrated author Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Hawthorne write Pierce’s campaign biography.
Fraklin Pierce APUSH Notes
Use the following links and video to study Franklin Pierce and his policies for the AP US History (APUSH) exam.
After he was elected President, Pierce supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Act repealed of the prohibition against slavery in territories north of the latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes and allowed voters in territories to decide if they wanted slavery.
While Pierce was President, his biggest accomplishment was the Gadsen Purchase from Mexico. Under the terms of the agreement, the United States purchased what has become southern Arizona and New Mexico for $10 million. When the United States took control of the territory, it completed the continental United States and fulfilled the nation’s Manifest Destiny.
The Failure of the Kansas-Nebraska Act
This video from Heimler’s History discusses Pierce and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.