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 On 30 May 1854, he signed into law the Kansas-Nebraska Act which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and, at least theoretically, opened the Northern territory to slavery expansion.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)
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.