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Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, is the only President to hail from New Hampshire. He holds the unfortunate distinction of being among one of the worst American Presidents to date, much because his presidency was marked by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This act repealed the Missouri Compromise, allowing states to decide whether they would allow slavery. It reopened the wounds just barely healed in 1850 by the Missouri Compromise, and would again provoke enmity between North and South on the issue of slavery.
Though Franklin Pierce was from the North, he was unquestionably in support of slavery. Strong evidence suggests that Pierce was opposed to the abolitionists and letters detailing his disbelief in a proposed civil war were circulated after his presidency. Further, Franklin Pierce was thought by many to be poor at his job, easily influenced and an indecisive leader. He left behind a sad legacy of presidential mistakes that would cumulatively bear some responsibility for the Civil War.
President Franklin Pierce was born in 1804 and received a good education, though his grades were always poor. In 1827 he was admitted to the bar and began his practice as a lawyer. People liked Franklin Pierce, attracted by his good looks and easy personality. He was soon offered a number of political positions. He served in the state government of New Hampshire, as US House Representative from 1833-1837, and then as a Senator from 1837-1842. He resumed private practice as an attorney, and soon became District Attorney in New Hampshire.
The decision to retire from political life for some time was largely influenced by the wife of Franklin Pierce, Jane Means Appleton. Their family life together was unhappy and unfortunate. They lost their first child in 1836 at three days old, their second child died when he was just four, and their third and last child was killed in an accident in 1853. The deeply religious Appleton suffered from severe depression, and was diagnosed with melancholia. She believed the deaths of her children were due to Pierce’s engagement in political life, especially that of their youngest son, who died after Franklin Pierce had been elected as president.
Even though Franklin Pierce left the political national scene for a time, he was not inactive. He even volunteered to serve in the Mexican American War and served for three years, rising to the rank of Colonel, and Brigadier General. He severely injured his leg and returned to New Hampshire in time to become president of the 1850 New Hampshire State Constitutional Convention.
The nomination of Franklin Pierce to the presidency was not expected to succeed. He was a dark horse candidate, who was not well known. Yet his personality was winning, and he soon became the most likable candidate. He easily took the presidency in 1852, winning 254 electoral votes. Though, actually, his opponents had a great deal of the popular vote, roughly 1.3 million as compared to Pierce’s 1.6 million.
His actions in office from 1853-1857 made him the enemy of his own party, and he became disliked by both Southern and Northern Democrats, who refused to nominate him for a second term. He was criticized for flip-flopping on the slavery issue, and also for his expansionist policies as he tried to annex Cuba to the United States. He was additionally disliked for choosing a Cabinet made up of his friends rather than his political brethren.
The deaths of his children and the illness of his wife did not leave Franklin Pierce unaffected. He steadily declined into increased alcoholism, especially after completing his term as president and making numerous political enemies. Ultimately, he died at the age 64, from cirrhosis of the liver, a common problem associated with years of heavy alcoholism.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who was Franklin Pierce and what is he known for?
Franklin Pierce was the 14th President of the United States, serving from 1853 to 1857. He is known for his attempts to maintain peace between the Northern and Southern states through policies like the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which ultimately failed and pushed the country closer to civil war. Pierce's presidency is often criticized for his pro-Southern sympathies and inability to find a lasting solution to the issue of slavery.
What were the major events and policies during Franklin Pierce's presidency?
During Franklin Pierce's presidency, several significant events and policies shaped his tenure. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed territories to decide on the legality of slavery, led to violent conflict in "Bleeding Kansas." The Gadsden Purchase in 1853 expanded U.S. territory in the Southwest. Additionally, Pierce's enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and his foreign policy efforts in attempting to acquire Cuba were notable aspects of his administration.
What was Franklin Pierce's early life and political career like before becoming president?
Before becoming president, Franklin Pierce had a notable political career and personal life. Born in New Hampshire in 1804, he attended Bowdoin College and practiced law. Pierce served in the New Hampshire legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Senate. He gained military experience as a brigadier general during the Mexican-American War. His political ascent was marked by his advocacy for states' rights and support for the Democratic Party.
How did Franklin Pierce's presidency impact the lead-up to the American Civil War?
Franklin Pierce's presidency is often viewed as a period that exacerbated tensions leading up to the American Civil War. His support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act and enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act angered abolitionists and intensified sectional divisions. Pierce's failure to alleviate the growing discord over slavery and his alignment with Southern interests contributed to the fragmentation of the Union and set the stage for the conflict that would erupt shortly after his presidency.
What is Franklin Pierce's legacy and how do historians view his presidency?
Franklin Pierce's legacy is largely overshadowed by his presidency's association with the intensification of pre-Civil War tensions. Historians often rank Pierce as one of the least effective U.S. Presidents due to his inability to manage the nation's sectional conflicts and his lack of success in preventing the country's slide toward civil war. His administration is viewed critically for its role in the events that ultimately led to the secession of Southern states.