Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Franklin Pierce, Forgotten Conservative

Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth president of the United States, was born in Hillsborough, New Hampshire in 1804 and died in Concord, New Hampshire in 1869.  Franklin was the son of Benjamin and Anna Kendrick Pierce.  His father, Benjamin, fought in the American Revolution and later served as governor of New Hampshire.  Before entering politics, Franklin attended Bowdoin College and studied the law.  In 1834, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton.  Two months before he took office as president, the couple witnessed the death of their eleven-year-old son in a train accident.  Their other two children also died in childhood. 

Franklin Pierce entered politics early in life.  In 1829, at the age of 24, Pierce was elected to the New Hampshire legislature, serving as speaker of the house in 1832 and 1833.  In 1833 he was elected to the United States House of Representatives.  He served there until 1837, when he took a seat in the Senate.  In 1842, Pierce resigned his seat in the Senate because of family concerns and returned to Concord to practice law.  When the United States went to war with Mexico, he volunteered to fight.  He served with distinction in Mexico and was promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

A loyal Democrat and defender of states’ rights, Pierce supported the Compromise of 1850 with its notorious Fugitive Slave Act.  In the presidential election of 1852 he easily defeated fellow Mexican War veteran General Winfield Scott.  As president, Pierce underestimated the strength of Northern opposition to the expansion of slavery.  On 30 May 1854, he signed into law the Kansas-Nebraska Act which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and, at least theoretically, opened the Northern territory to slavery expansion.  When Kansans created two state governments, one pro-slavery and one anti-slavery, which were each competing for legitimacy, Pierce supported the pro-slavery government.  In 1856, the Democrats nominated James Buchanan for president instead of the unpopular Pierce.

Historian Michael F. Holt convincingly argues that the key to understanding Pierce’s presidency is his commitment to the Democratic Party and Jeffersonian principles. “Preserving the unity of the national Democratic party” was Pierce’s “top priority as president.” (Holt, 48) Unlike some members of what James G. Randall labeled the “Blundering Generation” of American politicians, Pierce recognized the importance of national political parties to preserving the federal union. After the death of the Whig Party, Pierce’s Democratic Party stood as one of the last national institutions and one of the few links tenuously holding the sections together. Thus, the national Democratic Party became indispensable for maintaining union among sovereign states. Four years after Pierce left the White House, the Democratic Party split along sectional lines. The fractured political landscape allowed Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of a sectional Republican Party based in the North, to triumph in the electoral college over three other sectional candidates.

After leaving the White House, Pierce remained an outspoken advocate of states’ rights and strict construction.  During the Civil War, he received Republican scorn for publicly criticizing the Lincoln administration’s violations of civil liberties. Yet Pierce never wavered from his principles. His “devotion to Jeffersonian principles, and deep commitment to the . . . Jacksonian Democratic Party endured for the remainder of his life.” (Holt, 10)

Bibliography

Holt, Michael F.  Franklin Pierce. New York: Times Books, 2010.

Nichols, Roy F.  Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills. Second edition.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969.

9 Responses to “Franklin Pierce, Forgotten Conservative”

  1. gabe

    Sir:

    If I am reading you correctly, we are to celebrate the Presidency of this man because “Preserving the unity of the national Democratic party was Pierce’s top priority as president.”
    Gee, how does that differ from the Enlightened One currently occupying the Oval Office?
    Should we also celebrate this statist?
    I submit that this is not a proper role for a “Chief Magistrate” of this country.
    It can be argued that it was precisely Mr Pierce’s priority to maintain the Democrat Party above all else that led to the dissolution of that very party. Had he offered something other than a vigorous endorsement of the K-N Act, and instead attempted to work some real compromise, perhaps things would have turned out different.
    Gee, this does sound like the Enlightened One – No Compromise and let’s preserve the unity of the Democrat party.

    take care
    gabe

    Reply
  2. Peter Haworth

    Gabe,

    I think it is pretty clear from the piece why Professor Busick praises Pierce’s defense of the Democratic Party: it was the last-standing institution of the multi-party system, which was necessary for maintaining the federal union in a peaceful manner. There were three real choices during the late Antebellum period: (1) preserving the union through fostering one in which all sections willingly wanted continual membership; (2) allowing the union to dissolve peacefully due to irreconcilable differences; and (3) compelling states to remain in (or rejoin) the union through bayonets. Pierce advanced the first, Buchanan the second, and Lincoln the third. Readers can judge for themselves which course was most appropriate.

    Best Regards,
    Peter

    Reply
    • gabe

      Sean:

      My apologies for a certain sarcasm in my post. AS I indicated below in a reply to Peter, that sarcasm was really directed at the Enlightened One and I am somewhat helpless to stop myself when thinking of this present example of a STATIST PAR EXELLENCE.

      Again my apologies. I do stand by my argument in my response to Peter.

      take care
      gabe

      Reply
      • Sean

        That’s fine, Gabe. Don’t worry about it. Really. I’m glad you read my humble little essay.

  3. gabe

    Peter:

    I understand the tactical benefit of maintaining the Democratic party in the period leading up to the war. My issue is not with the attempt to do so but rather with a policy (or lack thereof) which ultimately led to the splitting of the Party and the rise of the Republican Party. In effect, this is what the K-N Act did. Now I don’t presume to know what an acceptable compromise would have been (I, like many others, have my own thoughts on this) but it does not appear that Pierce made any real effort to do so. To argue that Pierce tried to “preserv(e) the union through fostering one in which all sections willingly wanted continual membership” does not quite resonate. It may be so only in so far as the anti-slavery states were not disposed to dissolving the Union or seceeding. As you know, although some of the radical abolitionists’ rhetoric may indicate otherwise, there was never any attempt on the part of those states to seceed during the ante-bellum period. So that extent your assertion about Pierce is correct. But to force the North to accept the expansion of slavery should not be considered a prudential practice / policy if the goal is to keep the Union united.

    If earlier post seemed a little harsh, it had less to do with Pierce than with the Enlightened One. Just couldn’t resist. My apologies.

    Take care
    gabe

    Reply

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