Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Domestic Affairs

The bitter, windy March cold that settled over Washington, D.C., on inauguration day seemed fitting for Franklin Pierce, who mourned the tragic loss of his son two months earlier. Using his renowned oratorical skills, the new President delivered his twenty minute speech without notes. "It is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself," he told the sparse, somber crowd. "You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me by your strength." While Franklin Pierce took the inaugural oath, his wife huddled in a hotel room, writing apologetic letters to her dead son. In a portent of the future, no inaugural ball was held.

With such personal tragedies to deal with, it is not surprising that Pierce was distracted from his work. His cabinet appointments pleased almost no one. The choice of Mississippi's Jefferson Davis as secretary of war drew particular criticism from many anti-slavery supporters. By handing patronage to politicians with extreme political viewpoints, Pierce quickly alienated his party's moderates. Then, his vice president, William Rufus King, died of tuberculosis.

Kansas-Nebraska Act

It would be the President's old rival, Democrat Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, who damaged the Pierce administration beyond repair. For decades, America's most hotly debated issue was slavery in the territories. As the country expanded, especially as a result of the Louisiana Purchase and land taken from Mexico after the war in 1848, a debate ensued over whether each new territory or state should permit the practice. The South insisted on an equal number of slave and free states, because this would provide protection in the U.S. Senate. Pierce's predecessor, Millard Fillmore, had worked with Douglas to push the Compromise of 1850 through Congress. Their efforts had been directed toward appeasing both sides on the issue of slavery and keeping the Union intact.

The area comprising Kansas and Nebraska had been largely unsettled when Pierce took office, but there were plenty of settlers, entrepreneurs, and supporters of slavery and free soil poised to move in. The problem lay in the new territory's slavery status. Earlier legislation—the Missouri Compromise of 1820—banned slavery in the region, but southerners wanted this overturned. In January 1854, Stephen Douglas, chairing a Senate committee that oversaw new states and territories, introduced legislation that established popular sovereignty—that is, letting local white citizens decide the slavery issue themselves. Douglas had personal reasons to settle the issue of slavery in the territories: he hoped that the newly proposed transcontinental railroad would adopt a northerly route through the West, and would originate in Douglas's hometown of Chicago, thus ensuring his political clout and wealth.

Pierce at first urged Douglas to leave the decision to the Supreme Court, which he believed would declare the various compromises that had banned slavery from territories unconstitutional. In this manner, the courts, and not the Congress or President, would be blamed by northerners. Douglas refused, claiming that only a congressional repeal of the Missouri Compromise would keep the South in the Union. In a meeting with leading senators, including Jefferson Davis and Douglas, Pierce agreed under pressure to this explicit repeal of the prohibition against slavery in the territories, north of the latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes. After bitter debate, Congress passed Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act in May 1854, and Pierce signed it.

The act was one of the most influential pieces of legislation in American history. In its wake, one party, the Whigs, was destroyed, while a new and strictly northern party, the Republicans, came into being, soon to be led by a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. On the other hand, the Democrats were gravely weakened, especially Douglas and Pierce, as northern Democrats split over the measure. Intended to lessen controversy, the act did the opposite, increasing national debates and tensions over slavery between North and South.

Bloodshed in Kansas

The new territory of Kansas quickly became the nation's battleground over slavery. Since the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed popular sovereignty—in this case, white male voters deciding the issue of slavery in the new territories—proslavery agitators streamed into Kansas, determined to influence any election. Abolitionists quickly tried to do the same. With tensions mounting, the proslavery factions installed their own government in the region and demanded federal support. Their antislavery opponents urged the territorial governor appointed by Pierce not to do so, and the governor, Andrew Reeder, seemed sympathetic to the antislavery majority. Proslavery leaders then demanded that Pierce fire Reeder. The President's longtime disdain for abolitionists carried the day, and he adhered to the proslavery faction's wishes, appointing Wilson Shannon, an Ohioan with proslavery sympathies. Enraged free-soil residents then tried to install their own government, and by the end of Pierce's term, the Kansas territory was the scene of violence and bloodshed, hence its nickname, "Bleeding Kansas." Violence occurred in May 1856 when the town of Lawrence was looted and burned by proslavery "border ruffians" from Missouri. A few days later, militant abolitionists under John Brown murdered five proslavery men at Pottawatomie in retaliation for attacks on free-soil communities. Pierce initially resisted sending federal troops to restore order.

The situation in Kansas and the ongoing debate over slavery prevented Pierce from attending to other matters, although nineteenth-century Presidents considered themselves mere administrators. Still, for his failure to solve the slavery issue, the American public increasingly saw him as indecisive and ineffective.

Pierce considered his presidency a work in progress, and he desperately wanted a second term to make amends for his earlier shortcomings. His party, however, would have none of it. His poor handling of domestic and foreign affairs did little to secure him support in the Democratic Party. Consequently, his party abandoned him as a presidential candidate in 1856 and chose James Buchanan.