A Reference Resource
Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, came to office during a period of growing tension between the North and South. A politician of limited ability, Pierce was behind one of the most crucial pieces of legislation in American history. Although he did not author the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he did encourage its passage by Congress. And that piece of legislation set the nation on its path to civil war.
Like many American politicians, Franklin Pierce's career was aided by his father, a two-term governor of New Hampshire. Before he was thirty, Franklin Pierce had served in the New Hampshire legislature and had been elected to the U.S. Congress where he served as both a congressman and senator. Bored and lonely in Washington, the young congressman developed a drinking problem and a reputation as a gossipy Washington insider. In an attempt to settle down, the handsome, socially gregarious Pierce married Jane Means Appleton. Jane Pierce was her husband's opposite; she was painfully shy, deeply religious, often in bad health, and a strong advocate of the temperance movement. She detested Washington and refused to live there, even after Pierce became a U.S. senator in 1837. Indeed, Jane's disgust with the political life in Washington must have been behind Pierce's decision to resign from the Senate in 1841. Subsequently, Franklin Pierce served in the Mexican-American War, and in something of a surprise was elected President in 1852. After his presidency he retired to Concord, New Hampshire, where he died in 1869.
Born on November 23, 1804, Franklin Pierce, though by no means wealthy, had more advantages than most young boys in rural New Hampshire. His father, Benjamin Pierce, had led the local militia to victories in the American Revolution, and as a result, he enjoyed a status in the area of Hillsborough that gave him influence in local politics. Both he and his wife Anna Kendrick's families had been in America since the early Puritan settlements of the 1620s. Like other ambitious parents, Benjamin and Anna wanted their eight children to have a better education than their own.
Franklin attended local schools until age twelve when he was sent to private academies. At fifteen, he entered Bowdoin College in Maine where he made many friends, including a budding young writer named Nathaniel Hawthorne. At first, young Franklin enjoyed the social life at Bowdoin so much that his schoolwork took second priority. Soon he was last in his class. He gradually began to apply himself to his studies and by graduation in 1824, he ranked fifth in his class.
Rapid Rise to National Politics
While at Bowdoin, Pierce had honed his public speaking, which made him a natural for the legal profession. In 1829, he was elected to the state legislature, two years after his father won election to the governorship. Attractive and well-connected, the popular Pierce was chosen Speaker of the House in 1831. Both Franklin Pierce and his father were fervent supporters of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the War of 1812, whose modest origins and country manners inspired great affection from farmers and the working class. Both men rejoiced when "Old Hickory" was elected President in 1828. Jacksonian Democrats were the rising party and in 1832, in the same election that gave Old Hickory his second term, Franklin Pierce—still not thirty years old—was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he voted the Democratic party line on nearly all issues.
Life in Washington took its toll on Pierce. The city in the 1830s was an unpleasant place with ill-smelling swamps and political intrigue. Politicians serving there lived mostly in shabby boardinghouses. Bored and homesick, many found comfort in alcohol. Drinking quickly became a problem for Pierce. Before long, stories of his partying and drunken escapades were a staple of the capital's grapevine.
In 1834, the congressman married Jane Means Appleton, the daughter of Jesse Appleton, who had been President of Bowdoin College, Pierce's alma mater. Franklin and Jane Pierce seemingly had little in common, and the marriage would sometimes be a troubled one. The bride's family were staunch Whigs, a party largely formed to oppose Andrew Jackson, whom Pierce revered. Socially, Jane Pierce was reserved and shy, the polar opposite of her new husband. Above all, she was a committed devotee of the temperance movement. She detested Washington and usually refused to live there, even after Franklin Pierce became a U.S. Senator in 1837. Jane appleton and Franklin Pierce had three children, only one of whom survived early childhood.
As a senator, Pierce's legislative record was no more distinguished than it had been when he was a U.S. representative. No important bills bore his name, and his personal convictions followed the Jacksonian positions—the use of hard money, opposition to the United States Bank, and suspicion of internal improvements. Only one cause seemed to inspire any real passion in him: opposition to the abolitionist movement. Many of Pierce's best friends on the Washington party circuit were southerners, and he came to sympathize with their proslavery views. One of these, future Confederate president Jefferson Davis, became his closest political ally. By 1841, Pierce and his wife had had enough of Washington, and he resigned from the Senate, moving his family back to New Hampshire.
Skilled Attorney and Politico
In his thirties, Pierce stopped drinking and joined the temperance movement. He then led a successful drive to outlaw liquor in his new hometown of Concord. He opened a law practice there as well, and with his skill as a public speaker and his local fame, he was an immediate success as a trial lawyer. Courts of law were a prime form of entertainment, and Franklin Pierce was a star in this setting during the 1840s. Citizens from all over New Hampshire fought for a place in his courtrooms, and he seldom disappointed them. Pierce had little interest in the drab bookwork of the law, but he was a master at assessing a jury and then appealing to its emotions. He took high-profile cases and consequently his fame spread. He also remained involved with politics, managing Democrat James K. Polk's successful bid for the White House in New Hampshire. The grateful new President offered several patronage positions that Pierce refused.
Mexican War Military Service
Aware of the positive effect of military service on his father's political success, Franklin Pierce saw an opportunity in the Mexican-American War. He helped enlist men into the New Hampshire Volunteers and was himself a private. Using his connections, he appealed to President James Polk for a commission. The President repaid Pierce's old campaign favors. By the time the force sailed for the Mexican shores of Veracruz in mid-1847, Pierce was a brigadier general commanding over two thousand men, though he had no military experience whatsoever.
The American commander for this invasion force was General Winfield Scott, seemingly larger than life (six and a half feet tall and three hundred pounds), who insisted on by-the-book discipline and protocol that inspired the nickname "Old Fuss and Feathers." Despite decisive victories in northern Mexico by General Zachary Taylor, the Mexican government refused to agree to American demands, and as a result, Pierce's forces joined with Scott's at the city of Puebla in May 1847, after a 150-mile march from Veracruz during which they were frequently harassed by Mexican guerrillas. The combined force then set out for Mexico City.
In August, the army won two battles against Mexican forces southwest of Mexico City. Unfortunately, the war soon proved less than kind to the inexperienced Brigadier General Pierce. At the Battle of Contreras on August 19, his horse stumbled. Pierce was thrown onto the pommel of his saddle and fell off his horse, crushing his leg. He passed out from the pain and some of the men under his command began to break ranks and flee. The injured Pierce was able to ride again within a month but he arrived too late to participate in decisive victory at the Battle of Chapultepec in September 1847. Some soldiers, perhaps resentful of a political general like Pierce, began referring to him behind his back as "Fainting Frank." The unfair allegations later followed him into presidential politics. Pierce returned home to New Hampshire at war's end. His résumé now included a war record and the title "Brigadier General Franklin Pierce."
Building a Political Career
After his return, Pierce, already a well-known lawyer, was active in New Hampshire's Democratic party and became its undisputed leader.
By the election year of 1852, the issue of slavery in the territories divided the nation, with southerners insisting that they should be allowed to take their slaves into any new territories, and a growing group of northerners commited to free soil without the competition of slaves. Both Democrats and Whigs found it more and more difficult to appeal across the sectional divide. In order to protect the South, the Democratic Nominating Convention required a two-thirds majority of votes for President. But a proslavery northerner might attract both sides.
Franklin Pierce was that man. Nominated in 1852, after the convention deadlocked for 48 ballots, Pierce ran againt the Whig general Winfield Scott, his commander in the Mexican War. Historians agree that "Fainting Frank" did not so much win the election; rather, "Old Fuss and Feathers" bungled the campaign with long, uninspiring speeches. More importantly, the Whig party was losing popularity, and Scott was its last presidential candidate.
Like most Americans, Pierce remained firmly opposed to the abolition of slavery in the states where it already existed. he also upheld the right of Americans to own property, even human property. And he took southern positions on the right of southerners to take slaves into new territories, particularly Kansas. He firmly supported the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act, the end of the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and the admission of California as a free state.
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.
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.
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.
Like several of his predecessors, Franklin Pierce found foreign policy a welcome change from the domestic conflicts over slavery. Unfortunately, his lack of leadership and his tendency to give in to pressure groups hampered his effectiveness in the foreign arena.
Even though the Mexican War had ended, there were border disputes that had to be settled. Land that now comprises lower Arizona and New Mexico was part of a proposed southern route for a transcontinental railroad. Pierce was convinced by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to send Senator James Gadsden (who had personal interests in the rail route) to negotiate the Gadsden Purchase with Mexico. Under the agreement, the U.S. paid Mexico $15 million to secure the land. The Treaty included a provision allowing the U.S. to build a transoceanic canal across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, but this option was never exercised. The acquisition of land in this purchase secured the final boundaries of the continental United States.
Attempt to Acquire Cuba
Far less successful was Pierce's pet cause—the annexation of Cuba. For years, southerners had coveted the great island as a place to expand their slavery-driven agricultural economy. Failed filibustering expeditions during the Taylor and Fillmore presidencies were evidence of the South's attempts to obtain this slaveholding Caribbean possession of Spain.
Southern interests in Cuba were understandable. After all, that nation allowed slavery and was developing a plantation form of agriculture, and would continue to do so until two decades after the Civil War.
During Pierce's administration, many Americans reasoned that if Cuba were to be purchased from Spain, they would in effect have another slave state. The wrong man was charged with the delicate task of negotiating with Spain's poor but proud king. Pierre Soulé, an overbearing southerner, had been named Pierce's minister to Spain, with instructions to go as high as $130 million, but Soulé had little patience for the slow ways of the Spanish court. The more he tried to bully Spain into selling Cuba, the more that nation resisted the idea. Soulé even rewrote the treaty to include threats of American military action if Spain did not comply, which only stiffened Spanish resolve. Soulé met with James Buchanan, Pierce's ambassador to England and future President of the United States, and John Mason, the minister to France. Together, they drafted the Ostend Manifesto, a document that set the justifications for American possession. The Manifesto also warned that if Cuba refused America's proposal, "internal peace" in the United States might be threatened by continued Spanish control, since slaves might revolt on the island, threatening the institution of slavery in the U.S. Under such circumstances, America might be required to take control of Cuba. After the document was published, Pierce's secretary of state, William Marcy, was forced to repudiate the Manifesto because of the diplomatic uproar in Europe and in the north that ensued.
England, Central America, and Asia Pacific
While a tariff agreement with Great Britain was reached, Pierce expelled the British ambassador to the U.S. for his recruitment of former British immigrants as soldiers to fight in the Crimean War against Russia. Additionally, the President opposed British settlement in Central America, and he supported American military action to keep that imperialist nation out of a region considered by Americans to be under their control.
In 1856, Pierce recognized a dictatorship in Nicaragua established by William Walker, an American freebooter who had conquered that nation and had begun to introduce slavery. Walker hoped to gain Nicaragua's entry into the Union as a slave state. Walker's control soon angered railroad titan Cornelius Vanderbilt, who intended to build rail lines and a canal in that nation. Vanderbilt pressured Pierce to use the U.S. Navy to force Walker to "surrender" the country. Walker then took his forces to Honduras, where the British navy captured him. He was executed by a Honduran firing squad.
President Millard Fillmore had commissioned Commodore Matthew Perry's exploratory mission to Japan, a nation that had been closed to Europeans for centuries. Jane Pierce, meanwhile, was slowly wasting away from tuberculosis, and Franklin traveled with her to the West Indies in hopes that the warmer climate would benefit her. It did not, and she died in late 1863.
Pierce settled in New Hampshire after his presidency. When the Civil War erupted, Pierce voiced support for the northern cause, as did many doughfaces—that is, northern men with southern principles. A loyal Democrat, Pierce did not support the new president, Abraham Lincoln. In fact, Pierce publicly blamed Lincoln for the war. This outspoken criticism cost the former President a number of longtime friendships.
By the end of the war, Franklin Pierce was all but forgotten, as reclusive as his wife had been in the White House. Always fond of liquor, he had returned to it. When Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, an angry mob surrounded Pierce's home. Only a final display of the old lawyer's once-famed oratorical skills kept his house in one piece: he gave a speech urging the crowd to disperse peacefully, and they did. When Franklin Pierce died in the fall of 1869, little was written about him.
Jane Pierce was a deeply religious woman, born into the Congregationalist church, and her beliefs penetrated almost every aspect of the family's life. No meal took place without grace. Before his tragic death, her son, Benjamin Pierce, was sent to church every single morning and after his death, religion seemed to be the only solace for his parents.
In his rare time away from the cares of office and family, Pierce enjoyed fishing and visits to the country. With the President and his wife still in mourning when they moved to Washington, social life in the Pierce White House was limited. Because of Jane Pierce's frail health, opposition to drinking, and her depression over the loss of her child, social functions at the White House were almost nonexistent during the first half of the Pierce administration. In its later months, she did manage some appearances at events there, but she came to be known as "The Shadow in the White House."
During the 1850s, America experienced a great influx of immigrants, mostly from Ireland and Germany. The campaign of 1852 was the first to acknowledge the foreign born as a political force. Winfield Scott boasted to Irish Catholic voters that his daughter had been schooled in a convent. His campaign operatives tried to pin on Pierce an old New Hampshire statute prohibiting Catholics from holding state office. Pierce forces responded by reminding immigrant voters of how Scott had ordered the hanging of more than sixty men, mostly Irish immigrants who had deserted from the American army and fought for Mexico.
Immigration and Race Relations
In the three decades before Pierce left office, over five million immigrants found American shores. Many settled in the poorest sections of the largest citieséNew York, Boston, and Chicago in particularéwhere they compted, often with blacks, for tedious, backbreaking, menial jobs unwanted by native-born white Americans. Most of these Irish immigrants were Roman Catholic. As has happened during many such surges in immigration, entrenched Protestant Americans were unnerved by what they perceived as a threat to American values. Catholics were viewed as less loyal to their new nation than to their pope in Rome. Democrats were less anti-Catholic, and Pierce courageously named as postmaster general James Campbell of Pennsylvania, who became the first Roman Catholic cabinet officer in American history.
The arrival of large numbers of Irish Catholics affected race relations as well. Skilled trades and construction work that had been open to African-American freedmen in the North were closed to them between the 1840s and 1850s. Similarly, in upper-class households in the North, some African-American household servants were replaced by Irish women, although it is worth remembering that only a quarter million African-Americans lived above the Mason-Dixon line. Despite competition in the labor force, residential patterns were not segregated and large numbers of immigrants lived cheek by jowl with African-Americans in the poorer sections of Eastern cities.
Political Party Politics
A new party, the Know-Nothingsétheir official name was the American partyésought to exploit nativist prejudices against these immigrants. They held secret meetings, and when questioned by outsiders, they were instructed to answer, "I don't know." Led by former President Millard Fillmore in the presidential election of 1856, the Know-Nothings railed against the Catholic faith and sought to restrict Catholic immigration. Their message resonated with many voters, and in the mid-1850s, the party won several governorships and legislative seats. In 1856, the Know-Nothings won over 20 percent of the vote and actually carried Maryland. Five years later, however, the intense debates over slavery eclipsed the upstart party's anti-immigration cause.
As the Whig party disintegrated and was replaced by the Republican party, voting constituencies fragmented increasingly along ethnic and religious lines. German American voters, particularly those in rural Midwestern areas, moved into the Republican party along with Protestants from the northeast. Southern whites remained in the Democratic Party, which they dominated. African American slaves in the South, of course, were not part of the electorate and onlyu five northern states granted the vote to blacks.
It could be said that Franklin Pierce had little business being President, but in a nation fragmenting over slavery, only a bland, affable political lightweight was palatable to the electorate. Yet the irony of Franklin Pierce's administration is that a man less than qualified to be President was behind one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in American history. Once pressured into backing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Pierce accelerated the course towards civil war. In the 1850s, disputes over slavery were so emotionally charged that both sides sought moderate leaders. Franklin Pierce was one of these and thus became President of the United States.
Committed to a political style that emphasized party cohesion and compromise as a means of downplaying sectional differences, Pierce's leadership lacked the strength and tenacity of a Jackson or a Lincoln. As a result, tumultuous events simply overwhelmed him and he was sometimes dominated by forceful politicians like Stephen Douglas. For most historians, Pierce is viewed as an inept chief executive whose traditional style of leadership failed in the face of the massive electoral divisions over slavery and the aggressiveness of southerners. But other Presidents were unable to solve these issues, short of war. And from that war came two worthwhile resultséthe emancipation of the slaves and the restoration of the Union. Still, Franklin Pierce serves as an example of why difficult times require forceful leadership that is sensitive to issues both of change and continuity.