Franklin Pierce / Franklin Pierce - Key Events

Franklin Pierce - Key Events

01/06/1853: Pierce's son killed

Two months before taking office as President, Franklin Pierce and his family are struck by tragedy. A train wreck kills the Pierces' eleven-year-old son, Benjamin, the only surviving child of his marriage. Jane Pierce, already unhappy with the prospect of moving to Washington, interprets the death as a condemnation of her husband's decision to be President and becomes a recluse. President Pierce, meanwhile, is grief and guilt-stricken when he enters office.

03/04/1853: Franklin Pierce inaugurated
Franklin Pierce is inaugurated as the nation's fourteenth President. His inaugural speech alludes to the need for additional lands to enhance U.S. security -- a pledge which angers Northerners who charge that Pierce is bowing to Southern desires to expand slavery.

12/30/1853: Gadsden Purchase
The Gadsden Purchase, negotiated by James Gadsden, U.S. minister to Mexico, is signed. At the cost of $15 million, the United States acquires more than 29,600 square miles of new territory in southwest Arizona and New Mexico. The purchase establishes the final boundaries of the United States and, by providing a strip of land to the Pacific Ocean, will be used a route for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Fernando Wood wins the New York City mayoral race, becoming the first boss of Tammany Hall to fill the position. Under the leadership of Wood, Tammany Hall has become the dominant force in the life of New York City politics. Formed in 1786, the Tammany Society evolves to uphold Jeffersonian politics in the city. In the late 1840s, the political organization enjoys success over the local Know-Nothing and Whig parties through its affiliation with numerous immigrants. Its programs and services provide new Americans with food, employment, and protection. In return, the party's constituents overlook Tammany's fraudulent elections and other corrupt practices.

Gadsden Purchase Treaty Signed

On December 30, 1853, the Gadsden Purchase Treaty was signed, giving the United States approximately 45,000 square miles of northern Mexico. President Franklin Pierce and his Secretary of State Jefferson Davis wanted the land - which now comprises New Mexico and a quarter of southern Arizona - for a proposed southern transcontinental railroad. Pierce appointed South Carolinian railroad promoter James Gadsden as American minister to Mexico and charged him with negotiating a treaty with President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna of Mexico. After a few false starts, Gadsden and Santa Anna agreed on a treaty in which the United States would purchase 55,000 square miles for $15 million dollars. In addition, the treaty resolved outstanding differences between the two nations regarding the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican War.

The Gadsden Purchase aroused significant opposition at home, especially during the debate over Senate ratification. Antislavery politicians charged that the treaty was actually an effort to expand slavery. Railroad promoters seeking a northern transcontinental railroad objected to the purchase for it seemed to insure the demise of their favored project. These protests were to no avail, however. On April 25, 1854, the Senate ratified the treaty but reduced the land grant and cut the payment to $10 million dollars. In June, the House passed an appropriations bill, and the treaty went into effect.

The Gadsden Purchase was an important but limited victory for President Pierce. His administration obtained a sizable amount of land without war and settled international problems resulting from the Mexican War. Pierce's southern allies acquired the land they needed to build a southern railroad route to the Pacific. However, Pierce's victory came at a price. As the treaty's ratification debate demonstrated, the Gadsden Purchase inflamed sectional tensions over the expansion of slavery. This issue was a recurring problem for the Pierce Administration - and one it failed to solve.

1854: “Bleeding Kansas” 
“Bleeding Kansas” -- a guerilla war between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers as they attempt to establish “popular sovereignty” -- emerges and consumes Kansas for two years.

03/31/1854: Treaty of Kanagawa
After nearly three centuries of Japanese isolation, Commodore Matthew Perry -- first ordered to Japan by President Fillmore -- signs the Treaty of Kanagawa, marking the beginning of the Pacific nation's trade with the rest of the world. The United States is permitted a consulate in Japan, and U.S. ships will be allowed to sail into Japanese ports for the purpose of conducting limited trade.

04/26/1854: Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society
The Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society is founded by Eli Thayer to encourage opponents of slavery to move to Kansas. Thayer, who becomes a U.S. Congressman (Republican) from 1857 to 1861, establishes the society while serving in the state legislature. On February 21, 1855, the society is renamed the New England Emigrant Aid Society.

05/30/1854: Kansas-Nebraska Act
The Kansas-Nebraska Act is signed into law after being introduced by President Pierce's rival, Senator Stephen Douglas (Democrat - IL). The bill reopens the question of slavery in the West by repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820, organizes the Kansas and Nebraska territories on the basis of “popular sovereignty,” and paves the way for the transcontinental railroad from Chicago to California. Although Pierce dislikes the proposal and worries that it will create national controversy, he succumbs to pressure from various senators who threaten to block appointments.

Pierce Signs Kansas-Nebraska Act

On May 30, 1854, President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was designed to solve the issue of expanding slavery into the territories. However, it failed miserably; the Kansas-Nebraska Act was one of the key political events that led to the American Civil War.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act organized the territories of Kansas and Nebraska on the basis of popular sovereignty, which allowed the two territories to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery when they applied for statehood. This act effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that outlawed slavery north of the latitude of 36 degrees 30 minutes in the former Louisiana Territory because it opened the possibility that Kansas and Nebraska (both above the 36º30' line) could become slave states. Northern anti-slavery politicians and activists were livid. Southerners assumed that the Kansas territory would become a slave state, while Nebraska would be a free state.

Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois designed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and pushed it through Congress. He hoped the act would settle the divisive issue of extending slavery into the territories by removing it from national politics and leaving it for the individual states and territories to decide. Douglas also believed that the Democratic Party could unify behind the banner of popular sovereignty-and that this would greatly aid his presidential aspirations.

In fact, the law did neither. It provoked violence between pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas, and it failed to unite the Democratic Party. Southern Democrats favored the bill, but Northern Democrats, sensing their constituents' unease with the extension of slavery, generally avoided taking a stand on it. The Kansas-Nebraska Act also deepened the serious sectional divides in the Whig Party, leading to its eventual destruction. Finally, the act intensified Northern anti-slavery sentiment, which aided the formation of the Republican Party. This political realignment was a major cause of the Civil War.

President Pierce personally lobbied Democrats to support Douglas's bill. As the tide of opposition rose in the North, Pierce used the Kansas-Nebraska Act as a test of party loyalty. He used his presidential powers to cajole, threaten, or promise federal patronage for support and, in the end, was able to direct the votes of many Northern Democrats. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was the most important legislation of the Pierce presidency, but it was a costly victory. Many in the North believed Pierce catered to Southern interests who wanted to expand slavery. This led to a loss of Northern support for Pierce's foreign policy. President Pierce showed that he could not govern effectively or unite the party. The divisive debate surrounding the spread of slavery would not go away-as it had not in 1820 and 1850, and Pierce's presidency languished as a result.

06/05/1854: Canadian Reciprocity Treaty 
The Canadian Reciprocity Treaty opens the U.S. market to Canadian agricultural products, including timber and fish. In return, the United States gets new commercial rights in Canadian waters and on the Great Lakes.

07/06/1854: Republican Party founded
Coinciding with the further disintegration of the Whig Party, the Republican Party is founded in Jackson, Michigan. Its membership is composed of Whigs, Free-Soilers, and northern Democrats angry at the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, specifically, and concerned with the prospect of expanding slavery.

10/18/1854: Ostend Manifesto 
The Ostend Manifesto written by Pierre Soule, U.S. minister to Spain, suggests that the United States threaten to invade Cuba if Spain is not willing to sell the island to the United States. Soule's brash diplomacy in Spain dashes Pierce's hopes to annex Cuba, a goal supported by Southerners who viewed the island as a location where slavery might flourish. The State Department disavows any connection to the document and forces Soule's resignation later that year. Future President James Buchanan is one of three signers of the Manifesto. In congressional elections, the Whigs continue to decline in power while Democrats also suffer losses. The fledging Republican Party has yet to prove its ability to contest the Democrats but boasts impressive gains through cooperation with the American Party. Forty-four Republicans are elected to the House of Representatives.

02/10/1855: Nationality laws amended
Nationality laws are changed so that all children born abroad to U.S. parents are guaranteed American citizenship.

06/05/1855: Know-Nothing Party renamed
The Native American Party, or Know-Nothing Party, becomes the American Party.

09/05/1855: Free State forces
Antislavery settlers in Kansas form an army -- entitled the Free State forces -- with munitions from Northern states. Abolitionist John Brown follows five of his sons to the territory to lead the group.

10/23/1855: Topeka Constitution
In response to the pro-slavery territorial government and its illegal political proceedings, the Topeka Constitution, written by Free State forces and outlawing slavery, creates a second government in Kansas.

11/26/1855: Wakarusa War 
The Wakarusa War threatens Lawrence, Kansas. Fifteen hundred Border Ruffians attack the town, only to retreat after finding it defended by Free State forces. Lawrence -- originally named Wakarusa -- becomes the center of Free-State activities after being founded by the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society.

02/22/1856: Republican Party holds first national meeting
The Republican Party holds its first national meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The American Party, or Know-Nothing Party, meets in Philadelphia to nominate former President Millard Fillmore for President in the upcoming election.

05/21/1856: Border Ruffians attack Lawrence, Kansas
Pro-slavery forces and Border Ruffians, including Sheriff Jones of Douglas County and his followers, lead another attack on Lawrence, Kansas. One person dies as the band burns a hotel and two newspaper offices.

05/22/1856: Sumner-Brooks Affair
The Sumner-Brooks Affair occurs, in which cane-wielding Representative Preston Brooks (D-SC) attacks abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) on the Senate floor. The fight is provoked by conversation and derogatory remarks made two days earlier during the Senate debate on the admission of Kansas. Following the beating, Brooks is arrested and fined $500; he subsequently resigns (although he will be re-elected). Sumner suffers severe injuries, taking three years to recover from the beating.

05/24/1856: John Brown's raid
In retaliation for the pro-slavery raid on Lawrence, Kansas, John Brown and several followers massacre five unarmed, pro-slavery Kansans along the Pottawatomie Creek.

06/02/1856: DNC nominated James Buchanan
The Democratic National Convention nominates James Buchanan of Pennsylvania for President and John Breckinridge of Kentucky for vice president. Although Pierce desires a second term, his party refuses to nominate him, unhappy with his performance. Such a denial to a United States President is without precedent.

06/02/1856: Know-Nothing Party nominates Millard Fillmore
The anti-slavery section of the Know-Nothing Party nominates former President Millard Fillmore for President and Andrew Jackson Donelson for vice president.

06/17/1856: RNC nominates 
The Republican National Convention nominates California senator John C. Frémont for President and William L. Dayton for vice president.

08/01/1856: “Bleeding Kansas” continues
“Bleeding Kansas” continues to rage without a settled government. Raids persist, with 200 dead and $2 million in property lost during the two years of strife. From August 24-26, 1856, an army of 400 to 600 hundred pro-slavery Missourians attack John Brown and 40 defenders. In the Battle of Osawatomie, the settlement (all but four homes) is burned by the invaders and John Brown's son Frederick is killed. Four wagonloads of dead and wounded are brought to Booneville, Missouri, when the invading army returns.

09/17/1856: Whig National Convention nominates Fillmore
The Whig National Convention nominates Millard Fillmore (also chosen by the pro-slavery contingent of the Know-Nothing Party) for President and Andrew J. Donelson for vice president.

11/04/1856: James Buchanan elected
James Buchanan is elected President of the United States, with John Breckinridge winning the vice presidency. The Democrats defeat Republican candidate John C. Frémont, even though Frémont wins 11 of 31 states -- all in the North -- and Millard Fillmore, who runs on both the Whig and Know-Nothing tickets. Although Buchanan's electoral college returns are strong, the new President carries only 45.3 percent of the popular vote and wins only four of fourteen Northern states.

01/15/1857: State of Disunion Convention
The State of Disunion Convention, contemplating the peaceful separation of North and South, is held in Worcester, Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society supports this gathering. William Lloyd Garrison delivers a speech avowing “No union with slaveholders.”

02/21/1857: Foreign coins declared illegal
Congress declares that foreign coins are no longer considered legal tender in the United States.

03/04/1857: James Buchanan inaugurated 
James Buchanan is inaugurated as the fifteen President of the United States.