Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1852

In preparing for the 1852 presidential election, the Democratic Party confronted a dilemma. Every leading Democratic presidential candidate—James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, William Marcy, and Stephen A. Douglas—faced strong opposition from one faction of the party or another. At their convention, held in Baltimore in early June, none of these men could secure the two-thirds majority of delegates needed for the nomination. Ballot after ballot produced only more hostility within the divided party, and a deadlock ensued.

After thirty-four ballots, it became obvious that a new candidate was needed. Clearly, a political figure who was not so well-known was needed—a dark-horse, as James K. Polk had been in 1844. The nominee would have to be pleasant and accommodating to all the party's factions. Above all, his beliefs would have to run against the grain of his home region. A proslavery southerner or an anti-slavery northerner would never get two-thirds of the delegates to vote for him. A proslavery northerner, however, might appease both sides. Pierce's political machine in New Hampshire had sensed this, and had begun quietly working the convention floor, among southerners in particular. On the thirty-fifth ballot, Franklin Pierce's name was placed in nomination. Virginia gave him his first support, with all fifteen of its votes.

The fact that many of the delegates had never even heard of Pierce helped. Having few enemies, nor indeed any reputation, Pierce could be molded by his supporters into whatever the delegates were looking for in a candidate. Handsome, sociable, a fine speaker, a Mexican-American War veteran—above all a man not forceful enough to ruffle anyone's feathers—Franklin Pierce was the ideal candidate. Weary of fighting, the Democrats handed Pierce the nomination on the forty-eighth ballot. A senator from Alabama, William Rufus King, was suggested for vice president.

Two weeks later, the Whigs met in Baltimore as well. The incumbent President Millard Fillmore ruined his chances for another term with his support of the controversial Compromise of 1850. Finally, on the fifty-third ballot, the Whigs nominated General Winfield Scott, Pierce's commander during the Mexican-American War.

Scott did not run an effective campaign. Ignoring orders from his Whig handlers to remain silent on the slavery issue, his acceptance of the nomination voiced agreement with the party's pro-Compromise platform. Support for him, always lukewarm at best in the South, cooled even further as southerners defected to the Democratic party and voted for Pierce.

Personal Political Contest

With neither side eager to discuss issues relating to either their party's platforms or slavery, the contest turned personal. Reviving the old "Fainting Frank" stories, Whigs accused Pierce of cowardice during the Mexican-American War, and of drunkenness as well. Democrats fired back, dredging up a decades-old story of Scott refusing a dueling challenge from war hero and former President Andrew Jackson. They also tried to paint Scott as a would-be military dictator.

Unlike his rival, Pierce did no campaigning whatsoever, which probably helped his cause. It is probable that his wife's feelings about his return to politics had something to do with his low profile, although few candidates for the presidency in this period in American history did any campaigning. Jane Pierce had been disgusted by her husband's candidacy and did not welcome the prospect of returning to Washington. Before the convention, Pierce had assured her that he was not seeking the nomination; when she received the news that he had accepted it, she fainted. Afterwards, she accused her husband of lying to her about his political aspirations.

Pierce left electioneering to others, including his old college classmate Nathaniel Hawthorne. The author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables agreed to write the traditional flattering biography of Pierce.

Modern historians consider 1852 less a campaign that Pierce won than one that Scott lost. One newspaper of the day called it the most "ludicrous, ridiculous, and uninteresting presidential campaign" ever. Whatever the truth of these speculations, Pierce won the election easily in a contest in which nearly 70 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots. Scott carried only four states in the electoral college, losing even in his native Virginia. Pierce had majorities in both houses of Congress, and hopes grew for a cooling of the sectional disagreements dividing Americans. Pierce was the youngest President to date.

A Sad Presidency

Two months before he was inaugurated, Pierce lost his only surviving child (two others had already died) in a train accident witnessed by both parents. Jane Pierce never recovered. She lived in the White House as a recluse, while the President remained distracted from his duties. Jane Pierce was the most tragic and unhappy First Lady in American history. To White House visitors she seemed like a sad ghost. Social functions were almost unheard of during the first half of the Pierce administration, and one official noted in his diary that "everything in that mansion seems cold and cheerless." There were other reasons for sadness in the White House when two of Pierce's closest political allies died.