Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) was born in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, on November 23, 1804. The son of an American Revolutionary War hero, he got his start in politics by first studying law and then being admitted to the bar in 1827. He was elected to the New Hampshire state legislature at the young age of 24, and then at 26, he became the body’s speaker.
Pierce was a strong member of the Democratic Party and an avid supporter of President Andrew Jackson. In 1833, Pierce started his terms in Congress, serving twice in the House of Representatives. He also served one term, from 1837 to 1842, in the Senate. In 1834, he married Jane Appleton, whose father had been the president of Bowdoin University, where Pierce had studied.
Pierce, like many of his predecessors, was a military man. During the Mexican War (1846-1848), he was an officer. He counted many southerners as his friends and was therefore sympathetic to their desire to have slaves, and his popularity grew as he enforced the Compromise of 1850.
Pierce’s 1852 presidential win was a narrow victory, but just two months before he took the office, he and his family were on a train from Boston to Concord when there was an accident. Although Mr. and Mrs. Pierce walked away with few and minor injuries, Bennie, their 11-year-old son, did not survive. Tragically, Bennie was the couple’s third son to die before reaching adulthood. Jane was so distraught, she never recovered from this loss and performed very little of her duty as First Lady.
During his inaugural address, Pierce said, “I fervently hope that the [slavery] issue is at rest,” and then went on to explain his desire to expand the nation’s border. This last idea did not go over well, since many northerners feared geographical expansion would just open up the doors to more slavery territory. Far from being resolved, the issue of slavery became a hotbed of controversy, and one of the president’s greatest downfalls was the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
The bill, proposed in 1854 by Senator Stephen Douglas, would make Kansas and Nebraska territories and repeal the ban on slavery in the former. The legislation made it so that citizens of the territory, and not Congress, could choose whether to allow slavery. Pierce’s support for slavery led to the establishment of a new opposition group, the Republican Party, made up of Free Soilers, former Whigs, and even some anti-slavery Democrats.
Violent skirmishes between pro- and anti-slavery citizens began breaking out across the territory. The conflict became so volatile that it reached even into Washington, when Preston Brooks, a South Carolina representative, assaulted abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in May 1856. “Bleeding Kansas,” as the clash became known, was the downfall of Pierce’s presidency and prevented him from winning the Democratic nomination for the next election.
Civil War broke out in 1861, and, since Pierce supported the southerners’ so-called right to own slaves, he claimed Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans had been reckless. He condemned Lincoln’s Emancipation Act of 1863, and, during a Democratic rally on July 4, he said the war was “fearful, fruitless, [and] fatal.” After news of the Union victory at Gettysburg, Pierce retreated from the spotlight. Jane died that same year, and the former president passed on in 1869.