Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce: The 14th President's Enigmatic Legacy

Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, served during a tumultuous period in American history. Born on November 23, 1804, in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, Pierce’s presidency spanned from 1853 to 1857. Despite his relatively short time in office, Pierce’s legacy is marked by significant events, including the debate over slavery and the growing sectional tensions that ultimately led to the Civil War. In this comprehensive article by Academic Block, we will explore the life, political career, and key policies of Franklin Pierce, shedding light on the man behind the presidency and the challenges he faced during a pivotal era in American history.

Early Life and Education

Franklin Pierce was born into a politically active and prominent family. His father, Benjamin Pierce, was a Revolutionary War veteran who later became the governor of New Hampshire. Growing up in a politically charged environment, young Franklin was exposed to the complexities of governance from an early age. He attended local schools and later enrolled at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he developed a keen interest in law and politics.

After graduating from Bowdoin in 1824, Pierce studied law in Northampton, Massachusetts, under the guidance of Levi Woodbury, a family friend and future Supreme Court justice. Pierce’s legal education laid the foundation for his future political career, as he honed the skills necessary for navigating the intricate world of American politics.

Early Political Career

Pierce embarked on his political career at a young age, serving in the New Hampshire state legislature in 1829. He quickly rose through the ranks, gaining recognition for his oratory skills and commitment to Democratic principles. In 1833, at the age of 29, Pierce was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served three consecutive terms.

During his time in the House, Pierce aligned himself with the Democratic Party, led by President Andrew Jackson. He supported Jackson’s policies, including the controversial removal of Native American tribes from their ancestral lands, known as the Trail of Tears. Pierce’s unwavering support for Jacksonian democracy endeared him to the party leadership and paved the way for future political advancements.

Mexican-American War and Military Service

One of the defining moments in Franklin Pierce’s early political career was his service in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Despite his initial reluctance to engage in armed conflict, Pierce accepted a commission as a brigadier general in the volunteer army. His military service played a crucial role in shaping his political identity, as he experienced the harsh realities of war and witnessed firsthand the toll it took on the nation.

Pierce’s bravery in the Battle of Contreras and the Battle of Churubusco earned him accolades, and he returned home a war hero. His military service bolstered his political standing, and he became known as the “Hero of Churubusco.” However, the war also had a profound impact on Pierce’s personal life, as he struggled with the loss of close friends and the emotional toll of battle.

Presidential Election of 1852

The 1852 Democratic National Convention marked a turning point in Franklin Pierce’s political career. The Democratic Party was deeply divided over the issue of slavery, with tensions rising between Northern and Southern Democrats. Pierce emerged as a compromise candidate, a conciliatory figure who could potentially bridge the gap between the factions.

The Whig Party, Pierce’s main opponent in the election, was weakened by internal divisions and lacked a clear platform. The Whig candidate, Winfield Scott, was a decorated military officer but failed to capture the public’s imagination. In contrast, Pierce positioned himself as a unifier and a champion of the Democratic ideals of states’ rights and popular sovereignty.

In the election of 1852, Franklin Pierce won a landslide victory, securing both the popular and electoral vote. His presidency began at a time when the nation was grappling with the divisive issue of slavery, and Pierce faced the daunting task of maintaining unity in the face of growing sectional tensions.

Pierce’s Domestic Policies

The Kansas-Nebraska Act:

One of the most consequential decisions of Franklin Pierce’s presidency was his support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Proposed by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the act aimed to organize the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and allow residents to determine whether they would enter the Union as slave or free states, a concept known as popular sovereignty.

While popular sovereignty seemed like a compromise, it reignited the debate over the extension of slavery into new territories. The act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery in territories north of the 36°30′ parallel. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act intensified sectional tensions and led to violence in the newly formed Kansas Territory, a prelude to the bloodshed that would characterize the Civil War.

Bleeding Kansas:

The implementation of popular sovereignty in Kansas led to a bitter and violent conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers. The territory became a battleground, earning the moniker “Bleeding Kansas.” The violence included brutal clashes such as the Pottawatomie massacre led by the abolitionist John Brown and the sacking of the town of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces.

Pierce’s handling of the situation drew criticism from both sides of the slavery debate. Many Northerners saw the administration as complicit in allowing the spread of slavery, while Southerners criticized Pierce for not taking a more aggressive stance in support of pro-slavery settlers. The events in Kansas further deepened the divide between North and South and set the stage for the political and social upheaval that would culminate in the Civil War.

Ostend Manifesto:

Another controversial aspect of Pierce’s presidency was the Ostend Manifesto, a diplomatic initiative aimed at acquiring Cuba from Spain. The manifesto, drafted by American diplomats in Ostend, Belgium, argued that if Spain refused to sell Cuba to the United States, the U.S. would be justified in taking the island by force. The document, with its aggressive and expansionist tone, sparked outrage in the North, where many viewed it as an attempt to extend slavery into new territories.

The Ostend Manifesto became a political liability for Pierce, as it played into the growing perception that his administration was overly sympathetic to Southern interests and expansionist ambitions. The controversy further fueled the sectional animosity that defined the political landscape of the 1850s.

Foreign Affairs:

While domestic issues dominated Pierce’s presidency, he also faced significant challenges on the international stage. One such challenge was the strained relationship with Great Britain over the issue of Central America’s access to the Caribbean. The British had proposed a treaty, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which aimed to prevent any one nation from gaining exclusive control over a canal in Central America.

The Pierce administration, while initially accepting the treaty, later sought to revise its terms in a more favorable direction for the United States. However, the proposed revisions faced opposition, and the controversy surrounding the treaty contributed to diplomatic tensions with Great Britain. Although the crisis was ultimately resolved diplomatically, it underscored the complex nature of international relations during Pierce’s presidency.

His Works:

Pacific Railroad Survey (1853-1856): One of the significant infrastructure projects initiated during Pierce’s presidency was the Pacific Railroad Survey, which aimed to explore potential routes for a transcontinental railroad. The idea was to connect the East and West coasts, facilitating transportation and trade. While the actual construction of the transcontinental railroad did not commence until later administrations, Pierce’s support for the survey laid the groundwork for future expansion.

Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s Expedition to Japan (1852-1854): In an effort to open up trade with Japan, Pierce authorized Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s expedition to the East. The mission, known as the Perry Expedition, sought to establish diplomatic and trade relations with Japan, which had been largely isolated from the rest of the world. Perry’s successful negotiations paved the way for increased economic and diplomatic ties between the United States and Japan.

Gadsden Purchase (1853): The Gadsden Purchase was a significant land acquisition from Mexico, negotiated by U.S. Minister to Mexico James Gadsden. The purpose of the purchase was to obtain a strip of land (present-day southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico) for the construction of a southern transcontinental railroad. While the planned railroad was not immediately realized, the Gadsden Purchase played a role in shaping the U.S.-Mexico border and had implications for future infrastructure development.

Treaty with China (1856): Pierce’s administration negotiated the Treaty of Tientsin with China in 1856. The treaty expanded trade relations between the two nations, providing increased access to Chinese markets for American goods. This diplomatic effort aimed at fostering economic development and strengthening ties with an important trading partner in the Pacific region.

Exploration of the Amazon River (1857): While the actual exploration and survey of the Amazon River began in the later years of Pierce’s presidency, the United States South America Surveying Expedition, led by Lieutenant William Lewis Herndon, sought to explore the Amazon River and its tributaries. The expedition aimed to gather scientific and commercial information, emphasizing the potential for economic development and trade opportunities in South America.

Construction of Lighthouses and Navigation Aids: As part of ongoing efforts to improve maritime safety and navigation, the construction of lighthouses and other navigation aids continued during Pierce’s presidency. These projects were essential for the safety of ships and the facilitation of trade and transportation.

Death, Legacy and Historical Assessment

After the Civil War, Franklin Pierce retreated from public life and spent his later years in relative obscurity. His health, both physical and mental, declined. The burden of personal losses, the weight of his presidency, and the nation’s turmoil took a toll on Pierce, and he struggled with alcoholism and depression.

On October 8, 1869, Franklin Pierce passed away at the age of 64. His death marked the end of a challenging chapter in American history and the life of a man who had grappled with the complexities of leadership during a tumultuous era.

Franklin Pierce’s presidency is often viewed through the lens of the sectional tensions that ultimately led to the Civil War. While he is remembered as a compassionate and amiable man, his leadership during a critical period in American history has been widely criticized.

Pierce’s support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the concept of popular sovereignty is seen as a miscalculation that exacerbated the issue of slavery rather than resolving it. The violence in Kansas and the deepening divide between North and South during his presidency underscore the challenges he faced in maintaining national unity.

The Ostend Manifesto further tarnished Pierce’s legacy, as it highlighted his administration’s willingness to pursue aggressive and expansionist policies that fueled Northern suspicions about Southern influence in the federal government.

Despite these criticisms, some historians argue that Pierce faced an almost impossible task given the deeply entrenched divisions over slavery. They contend that the seeds of conflict were sown long before Pierce took office, and the factors leading to the Civil War were beyond the control of any single individual.

In assessing Pierce’s legacy, it’s essential to consider the broader historical context and the complex dynamics that shaped the era. The sectional tensions that defined his presidency were rooted in decades of unresolved disputes over the expansion of slavery, economic differences, and differing visions of the nation’s future.

Final Words

Franklin Pierce’s presidency remains a subject of historical debate and analysis. His term in office coincided with a period of intense sectional strife, and his attempts to navigate the turbulent waters of American politics ultimately fell short of preventing the outbreak of the Civil War.

While Pierce’s legacy is marked by controversy and criticism, it is crucial to recognize the broader historical forces at play during his presidency. The nation was on the brink of a cataclysmic conflict, and the challenges Pierce faced were symptomatic of deeper divisions that had been festering for decades.

In hindsight, Franklin Pierce’s presidency serves as a cautionary tale about the delicate balance required to lead a nation facing profound internal discord. His story reminds us that the decisions of leaders, even those made with the best intentions, can have far-reaching consequences, shaping the course of history in ways that are often unpredictable and profound. Please provide your comments below, it will help us in improving this article. Thanks for reading!

Franklin Pierce
14th President of the United States
Personal Details
Date of Birth : 23th  November 1804
Died : 8th  October 1869
Place of Birth : Hillsborough, New Hampshire, U.S.
Father : Benjamin Pierce
Mother : Anna Kendrick
Spouse/Partners : Jane Appleton
Children : Frank Robert, Franklin “Frank” Jr., Benjamin “Bennie”
Alma Mater : Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine
Professions : Politician, Lawyer
Career History

Served As:     14th President of the United States
Time Period:  March 4, 1853 – March 4, 1857
Predecessor:  Millard Fillmore
Successor:     James Buchanan

Served As:     United States Senator from New Hampshire
Time Period:   March 4, 1837 – February 28, 1842
Predecessor:  John Page
Successor:      Leonard Wilcox

Served As:     Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New Hampshire’s at-large district
Time Period:  March 4, 1833 – March 3, 1837
Predecessor:  Joseph Hammons
Successor:     Jared W. Williams

Served As:      Speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives
Time Period:   January 5, 1831 – January 2, 1833
Predecessor:   Samuel C. Webster
Successor:      Charles G. Atherton

Served As:      Member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives from Hillsborough
Time Period:  January 7, 1829 – January 2, 1833
Predecessor: Thomas Wilson
Successor:     Hiram Monroe

Famous quotes by Franklin Pierce

“In a government whose distinguishing characteristic should be a diffusion and equalization of its benefits and burdens the advantage of individuals will be augmented at the expense of the community at large.”

“The legislation of Congress was enacted under a government which is a partnership, in which North and South are equal partners. A breach of the compact is a dissolution of the partnership.”

“The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times, and under all circumstances.”

“I believe that involuntary servitude, as it exists in different States of this Confederacy, is recognized by the Constitution. I believe that it stands like any other admitted right, and that the States where it exists are entitled to efficient remedies to enforce the constitutional provisions.”

“Fellow-citizens, the cup of forbearance has been exhausted, even before the recent information from the frontier of the Del Norte. But now, after reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil.”

Franklin Pierce

Controversies related to Franklin Pierce

Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854): One of the most significant and controversial actions during Pierce’s presidency was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The act, designed by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and allowed the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide the issue of slavery through popular sovereignty. This decision intensified the sectional conflict over slavery and led to violent clashes in the newly formed Kansas Territory, known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

Bleeding Kansas (1854-1856): The implementation of popular sovereignty in Kansas, as provided by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, resulted in a violent and bloody struggle between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers. The territory became a battleground for conflicting interests, with both sides engaging in brutal acts of violence. The situation in Kansas heightened tensions between the North and the South, and the controversy over the events in the territory further deepened the national divide.

Ostend Manifesto (1854): In 1854, Pierce’s administration faced controversy over the Ostend Manifesto, a diplomatic initiative regarding the acquisition of Cuba from Spain. The manifesto, drafted by American diplomats in Ostend, Belgium, suggested that if Spain refused to sell Cuba to the United States, the U.S. would be justified in taking the island by force. The document, with its aggressive and expansionist tone, raised concerns, especially in the North, where many saw it as a Southern attempt to expand slavery into new territories.

Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act: Pierce’s strong support for the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required the capture and return of escaped slaves to their owners, angered many in the North. The law was highly controversial as it intensified efforts to apprehend and return fugitive slaves, leading to confrontations between pro- and anti-slavery groups.

Loss of the Democratic Nomination (1856): Pierce’s presidency alienated factions within the Democratic Party. By the time of the 1856 Democratic National Convention, the party was deeply divided over issues related to slavery and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Pierce’s inability to unify the party and his association with controversial policies contributed to him losing the nomination to James Buchanan, who would go on to win the presidency.

Public Perception and Isolation: Pierce’s presidency left him politically isolated and unpopular, particularly in the North. His perceived sympathy toward Southern interests and his handling of the sectional crisis eroded his political support. The divisive decisions made during his tenure left a lasting impact on his legacy, and he became a symbol of a failed attempt at compromise during a volatile time in American history.

Academic References on Franklin Pierce


“Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union” by Peter Wallner (2007)

“Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son” by Peter Wallner (2004)

“Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills” by Roy Franklin Nichols (1931)

“Franklin Pierce: A Biography” by Michael F. Holt (2010)

“The Impeachment of Franklin Pierce: A Story of Treason” by David Stephen Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler (2010)

Articles and Academic Journals:

“Franklin Pierce: Northern Man with Southern Principles?” by Robert W. Johannsen (1966)

“Franklin Pierce and Expansionism: An Evaluation” by Maurice G. Baxter (1973)

“The Mexican War and Franklin Pierce’s Undeclared War with Spain” by Robert W. Johannsen (1977)

“Franklin Pierce and the Kansas-Nebraska Act” by Larry Gara (1959)

“The Public Papers of Franklin Pierce” edited by Roy Franklin Nichols (1938)

Franklin Pierce

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