Franklin Pierce (1804-69)

Figure 1.--This wonderful Daguerreotype of Mrs. Pierce and Benny was taken about 1850. Benny was 9 years old. It beautifully captures the relationship between mother and son. Such connections were rare in Daguerreotypes which were usually stiff frontal mposes. Note the blouse and button on trousers Benny is wearing. Suits for boys, especially matching jsckets and pants, did not become standard until the 1860s. Source: New Hampshire Historical Society.

Franklin Pierce was the youngest president up to that time. He is arguably the most obscure of all the American presidents. He was one in a series of one-term presidents bent on holding the Union together through compromise with southern planters and in doing so ruined his political career. The Civil War approached during the adminisration of Franklin Pierce as guerrilla raids in Kansas forsaw the fierceness of the impending struggle. The United States, by virtue of the Compromise of 1850, seemed to have weathered its sectional storm. By pursuing the recommendations of southern advisers, Pierce--a New Englander--hoped to prevent still another outbreak of that storm. is support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, however, undermined his efforts to defuse the slavery debate and made the civil war virtually inevitable. The best that can be said of Pierce is that the Civil War did not break out during his presidency. But because of the Kansas-Nevraska Act, he did noy postpone, but rather hastened the onset of the War. In fairness it is likely that no politican could have reconciled the growing sectional division and prevented the War. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, however, was a terrible mistake for a president attempting to defuse sectional strife.


Benjamin Pierce and Anna Kendrick descednded from families that had arrived with the the early Puritan settlements (1620s). Franklin was one of the eight children. His father was a rough frontier farmer. He had served during the Revolutionary War, became a general in the state militia. His status in Hillsborough gave him substantial influence in local politics. His father was twice elected governor of New Hampshire. Franklin's father was a devoted Jeffersonian Democrat. He was the major force in Franklikn's life. He passed on his patriotism and personal commitment to public service. His mother has been described as prone to depression and reportedly drank too much, both characteristics seems to have also ing\herited.


Franklin was born in a log cabin on a frontier farm near Hillsboro, New Hampshire (Novenber 23, 1804). The site is now under Lake Franklin Pierce. Some of his siblings died in infancy. He grew up with four brothers, two sisters, and one half-sister. By all accounts, Franlkin had a happy childhood, growing up in beautiful surroundings of gardens and forests. He was very active and athletic as a boy in an era before sports had yet become important--especially on the frontier. When he was 5 years old he was severely injured when he fell from a horse. Doctors believed that he might never be able to walk again. He was, however, a very healthy boy and quickly recovered. As a boy, Franklin heard so much about the military exploits of his father in the Revolutionary War and of his older brother in the War of 1812 that at first he wanted to become a soldier. Less obvious at the time, his father's stints as govenor inspired a life-long interest in politics. From an early age, Franklin seems to have convinced himself thast he was destined to accomplish great things.

Boyhood Clothing

I have few details on his boyhood or how he was dressed as a boy.


The Pierces wanted their children to have a better education than their own. Public eduvation was still rudimentary, especially un rural areas. Franklin was sent to private e schools as a boy. He attended the local Hillsborough School. Later at age 12 years old he entered Hancock Academy where he boarded. Disliking the stern discipline there, he ran away from school and walked home. His parents were in church , but when they returned and found Franklin they at first father surprised him by saying nothing about his truancy. After Sunday lunch, his father hitched up the carriage and told young Frank to get in. Apparently his father thought walking all the way back to school was too much of a trip for his son. Halfway back to Hancock, however, his father told him to get out and walk back to school. He had to hike the rest of the way in a rainstorm. Later, Pierce wrote that this lesson in discipline marked a turning point in his life. Pierce entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.when he was 15 years old. He was part of the famous class at Bowdoin which also included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne, two American literary giants. There he began a lifelong friendship with Hawthorne, who was later to become the famous author. Pierce's carefree and irresponsible attitude toward his studies soon carried him to the bottom of hisclass, though he became a favorite among the students. However, after applying himself to his studies, he graduated and graduated third in his class (1824). After graduation he studied law and was admitted to the Bar (1827).

Political Career

Pierce after becoming a lawyer entered politics. Here he was aided by his father who was a major force in New Hampshire politics. As a result while still in his 20s, Pierce served in the New Hampshire legislature, become the speaker. He was then elected to the U.S. Congress. He began in the House, but won eledction to the Senate. He lived in Washington as a bachelor and became bored in Washington. He acquired the reputation as a heavy drinking gossipy insider. This was during the Jacksonian era and Pierce was a devoted supporter of Andrew Jackson. One biographer contends that a notable confrontation with South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun over abolitionism profoundly affected Pierce and left him fearful of confronting the South out of concern over seccession. [Nichols] A more recent biographer interprets the confrontation differently. [Wallner] Pierce as leader of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, opposed free soil activists attempting to influence the state Democratic Party. He helped Noah Martin with the gubenatorial election.

Presidential Election of 1852

Pierce, after serving in the Mexican War, was proposed by New Hampshire friends for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1852. At the Democratic Convention, the delegates agreed easily enough upon a platform pledging undeviating support of the Compromise of 1850 and hostility to any efforts to agitate the slavery question. There was still hope at the time that the Compromise of 1850 would resolve the slavery issue and thus eliminate the secesionist movement in the South. The delegates balloted time and again without nominating a candidate. There were 48 failed ballots. Eventually it becme obvious thatvthe majot candidates had blocked each other. Thus it became necessary to find a compromise candidate. Pierce, a true "dark horse." Pierce was from a small state which works against a presidentil candidate. He was, however, a masterful natural politican. [Wallner] His friendliness, simplicity, and ease in meeting people gained him many votes. He had the knack of remembering the name and face of nearly everyone he met. Pierce's efforts in New Hampshire to resist the free soilers brought him support from southern deldegates. This and support from northern delegates gave Pierce the nomination on the 49th ballot. Pierce's friend Nasthaniel Hawthorne wrote Pierce's campagin biography. As a candidate, his desire to please led him to make promises he could not always fulfill as president. Pierce was acceptable to both the North and South, in part because of his service in the Mexican War and his absence from Washington during the devisive political debate over slavery and other sectional issues was polarizing the American electorate. Probably because the Democrats stood more firmly for the Compromise than the Whigs, and because Whig candidate Gen. Winfield Scott was suspect in the South, Pierce won with a narrow margin of popular votes, although the margin in the Electoral College was masive--the largest since President Monroe and the Era of Good Feelings (1820). What this dichotomy showed, however, was not massive support for Pierce, but the beginning of the breakup of the Whig Party--largely on the slavery issue.


Historians who have dimissed Pierce, generally charge that he went to great lengths to apease Southern slave-holders. One biographer, however, maintains that Pierce in his public statements and letters made no effort to hide the fact that he detested slavery and viewed it as a stain on the nation. He was much more open about this than several other presidents in the years leading up to the Civil War. He saw slavery was not an issue that could be resolved constituionally in his day. He thus sided with the South on the issue of slavery. His devotion was to the Union and his primary effort was to uphold the Constitution and to avoid civil war even if it mean accepting slavery. His policies affected his popularity in the North where abolitionist sentiment was risuing. Pierce clashed with Abolitionists because he feared civil war. There were also other issues associated with the Abolitionists (anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and prohibitionist beliefs) that he did disagree with. [Wallner] His efforts to placate the southern planters, however, undermined his popularity in the North and he failed to win the Denocratic nomination for a second term.

Personal tragedy

The Pierce administration was preceeded by a great personal tragedy. The President-elect and his wife, 2 months before he took office, he and his wife saw their 11-year-old son killed before their eyes. The Pierces On January 6, 1853, during a family trip, were in a train wreck. President-elect and Mrs. Pierce were uninjured, but Benjamin was killed. It was a terrible blow to the parents who had already lost two sons. Mrs. Pierce, completely overcome, lived in seclusion at the White House. She came to believe that her son's life had been the price of her husband's victory. Her husbanf had to bear his wife's bitter accusations, as well as his own grief, at the very moment when he most needed strength and confidence. Grief-stricken, Pierce entered the Presidency nervously exhausted and denied the support of his wife.

Presidency (1853-57)

Few politicans rate the Pierce presidency very highly. He is arguably the most obscure of all the American presidents. He was one in a series of one-term presidents bent on holding the Union together through compromise with southern planters and in doing so ruined his political career. The Civil War approached during the adminisration of Franklin Pierce as guerrilla raids in Kansas forsaw the fierceness of the impending struggle. The United States, by virtue of the Compromise of 1850, seemed to have weathered its sectional storm. By pursuing the recommendations of southern advisers, Pierce--a New Englander--hoped to prevent still another outbreak of that storm.


In his Inaugural he proclaimed an era of peace and prosperity at home, and vigor in relations with other nations. The United States might have to acquire additional possessions for the sake of its own security, he pointed out, and would not be deterred by "any timid forebodings of evil."

Foreign policy

Pierce hoped to pursue an active foreign policy to distract Americans from sectarian domestic issues. He had only, however, to make gestures toward expansion to excite the wrath of northerners, who accused him of acting as a cat's-paw of Southerners eager to extend slavery into other areas. Therefore he aroused apprehension when he pressured Great Britain to relinquish its special interests along part of the Central American coast, and even more when he tried to persuade Spain to sell Cuba. He also failed in efforts to purchase Alaska. He did succeed in opening trade with Japan, sending a squaderon under Comodore Matthew Perry to Japan.

U.S. Army

President Pierce chose Mississppi Senator Jefferson Davis as his Secretary of War. The two had worked together in the Senate. Davis was one of the most importnt members of the Pierce cabinet. This is a little noted appointment and of some interest because of Davis' subsequent selection as Confederate president. Davis was not a fire brand Southerner. He would subsequently oppose secession, but contend it was within a state's soverign rights. As Secretary of War, he submitted four annual reports on the U.S. Army to Congress, documents of considerable interest to Civil War historians. He took two major steps as Secretary of War to strengthen the U.S. Army. First, he increased the size of the regular army from 11,000 to 15,000 men. Second he saw to it that the improved guns which had used successfully used during the Mexican–American War became standard equipment. [Dodd, pp. 133-35.] As a result, the professional core of the U.S. Army that would fight the Civil War was stgrengthened. Of course this was the same Army that split as a result of the secession crisis.

Trans-continental railway (1853)

Secretary of War Jefferson Davis prepared an elaborate report for Congress on various routes for the proposed Transcontinental Railroad (1855). He was a vocal advocate of a southern transcontinental route, persuaded Pierce early in his presidency to send James Gadsden to Mexico to buy land for a southern railroad. He purchased the area now comprising southern Arizona and part of southern New Mexico for $10 million--the Gasden Purchase.

Kansas-Nebraska Act

At the center of Pierce's efforts to placate the southern planters was the Kansas-Nebraska Act which he signed (1854). Pierce did not author the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but promoted its passage by Congress. The Act instead of defusing sectional passions as he expected, moved America on the path to civil war. It heloped ignite the violent renewal of the sectional storm engulfing America. The Kansas-Nebraska Act essentially repealed the Missouri Compromise by reopening the question of slavery in the West. This measure, the handiwork of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, grew in part out of his desire to promote a railroad from Chicago to California through Nebraska. Douglas's proposal, to organize western territories through which a railroad might run, caused extreme trouble. Douglas provided in his bills that the residents of the new territories could decide the slavery question for themselves. The result was a rush into Kansas, as southern slavers and northern Free Soilers vied for control of the territory. Shooting broke out, and "bleeding Kansas" became a prelude to the Civil War. By the end of his administration, Pierce could claim "a peaceful condition of things in Kansas." Politically the Kansas-Nebraska ruined him politically. In the North, itvws seen as pandering to the South and it brought him little support in the South.

White House Christmas Tree

President Pierce's started one of the most popular White House traditions. He set up the first decorated Christmas tree in the White House near the end of his term (1856). He invited the Sunday school class of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church to see it and passed out presents.

James Buchanan

President Pierce wanted a second term. One way of ensuring this was eliminating potential competitors. One of those was James Buchanan. Buchanan was nominated by the importabnt Pennsylvania delegation at the 1852 convention. And though he did not win, he presented a formidable challenge to President Pierce. Thus Pierce decided to remove him from active politics by nominating him to the prestigious post of ambassador to Great Britain (53). Pierce calculated that safely enconsanded accross the Atlantic that Buchanan could not effectively mount a political challenge. At the time without even Trans-Atlantic cables, America and Europe were isolated to a significant degree that is difficult to imagine today. Buchanan was a strong believer in American expansion. He helped draft the Ostend Manifesto, an indication that the United States wabnted Cuba, despite Spainish plans. Problems developed with Britain over American adventurism in Central America, threatening a possible naval war. The outbreak of the dreadful Crimean War so affected British public opinion that there was little support for a war with America. Buchanan had hoped to have some success in shifting British policy to be more acceptive of American expansionism. Frustrated, he wrote Pierce and requested to be creplaced. Ironically being removed from American politics when the acrimonious debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Act occurred, proved to be a great advantage to Bucanan. Pierce's support fot\r the Act essentially made his renomination impossible. Buchanan believed that both secession and federal interference with slavery in the states was unconstitutional. This and the fact he was untained by the Kansas-Nebraska made him the perfect compromise candidate. The Abolitionist Movement was making considerable progress in generating anti-slavery sentiment in the north. Even so, most Americans wanted to preserve the Union even if it meant the continuation of slavery.


Pierce ended his term an exceedingly unpopular president. The Kansas-Nebraska Act in particular had undermined his popularity. And to his disappointment, the Democrats refused to renominate him, turning to the less controversial Buchanan. Pierce returned to New Hampshire, leaving his successor to face the rising fury of the sectional whirlwind that he was unable to staunch. He died after the Civil War in 1869.


Some historians see President Pierce as a bumbler and ineffective. Often historians describe his an inept and too timid to confront Southern slave holders. A forceful exercise of Federal authority may well have simply launched the War earlier. It should be noted that the Southern Confederacy came close to winning the Civil War in 1862. Had the War occurred in the 1850s the North and South would have been more evenly matched and the South's chance of successfully secceeding enhanced. One historian disputes the assessment of Pierce as inept and classifies him as a masterful politican. [Wallner] There is probably little any president could have done to have resolved the steady decline toward Civil War because the slavery issue was essentially uncolveable constitutionally. Anti-slavery sentiment fueld by the Abolitionist Movement was growing in the North and the South was unwilling to give up slavery. It is true that Pierce tried to placate the South to avoid secession. It is difficult, however, to see what else he could have done. While the Abolitionists had suceeded in painting slavery and the South as morally flawed, there was no massive support in the North for forceful action against the South. And Constitutionally, there was no way to force the South to end slavery. Pierce did not create slavery. He had to deal with it politically and few of his critics can explain what he could have realistically done to defuse the growing sectional divide.

Jane Means Appleton Pierce (1806-63)

Jane Means Appleton Pierce was not a successful First Lady. She in many ways despite becoming the most important woman in America a tragic figure. She was fated to lose all of her three children and her term as First Lady has to be view in that light, especially the loss of Benny on the way to Washington. Jane Means Appleton thus might be the subject a tragic novel. She was a pleasant looking, dignified, but shy woman. Her shyness made her uncomfortavle with Pierce's political ambitions. She was also a sensitive woman if frail health. Her father was a Congregational minister and she was a devout Christain since childhood. When her father died, her mother moved the family to Amherst, New Hampshire. It was here at Bowdoin College that she met a charming young graduate and lawyer with political ambitions--Franklin Pierce. The two immedistely connected. They deferred marriage several years. They finally married when Jane was was 28 years old. That was on the old side in an age when many women married young. Her family was not happy with her choice and opposed the maaatige to Pierce. And while she was attracted to him, she was nmot pleased with his knterest in politics and discouraged it as best she could. In fact she convinced him to leave Washington at the very time his political star was rising. He retired as a U.S. senator (1842). The tragic death of a 3-day-old son, the expectation of a new baby, and Jane's distaste for Washington all bore on his decesion. But tragedy followed themm home. The infant second son, Frank Robert, died of typhus (1843). Pierce did not chose an easy retiremebnt from politics. He served in the Mexican war, reaching the rank of brigadier general and returned home a hero. The Pierce's lived as private citizens in Concord, New Hampshired, out of the lime light. It was perhaps the happiest period of their married life. Another son, Bennie, survived the Thyhus incident. Jane watched over like any mother who had lost two earlier children. The Democratic Party nominsted Pierce their candidate for President (1852). He was an unexpected dark horse. He was nominated in part because he wa not in Washington during rancorous debates over slavery, Jane swooned at the surprising news. Pierce took her to Newport to recover in the sea air. Benny who stayed at home wrote to her: "I hope he won't be elected for I should not like to be at Washington and I know you would not either." Pierce's argument was that that his election would be an asset for Benny's future career success. This proived to not be the case. They President-elect and his family traveled as part of their prepsrations to move to Washington. Trains at the time were very new and lacked basic saftey features. Benny for his part was very excited about the train ride and ran all over the train to investigate. It was at this time that the train detailed (January 6, 1853). In one of the greates persional tragedies of any president, Benny killed before their eyes. The whole nation wnt into mourning. Mrs. Pierce never really recovered. Pierce was inagurated (March 4, 1853), but as they were in mourning, there was no inaugural ball. Mrs. Pierce did not even attend the innaguration. She joined her husband in Washingtom later. There were other vunhappy events. The former First Lady, Mrs. Fillmore's died (March 1853). Vice President Rufus King died (April 1853). Mrs. Pierce was from child \hood religiously devout. And as First Lady shed turned to her religion and prayer for solace. She stuggled to perform the myriad social duties as First Lady. A girlhood friend asisted her--Abigail Kent Mean. Mrs Means was an aunt by marriage, Mrs. Robert E. Lee wrote in a persinal letter letter: "I have known many of the ladies of the White House, none more truly excellent than the afflicted wife of President Pierce. Her health was a bar to any great effort on her part to meet the expectations of the public in her high position but she was a refined, extremely religious and well educated lady." Pierce only served one term. The Pierces took an extended trip to Europe, an effort primarily to assist Mrs Pierce recover her health. By this time, she was a virtual invalid. She clutched Benny's Bible vurtually every where she went. The Democrats offered him their 1860 Democratic nomination, but he declined primarily out of consideration of his wife. He was one of the few Democrats who may have been able to have won the ,election. But this probably only would have delayed the Civil War. Abolitionism eas growing in the north and support for sucession was increasing in the South. Mrs Pierce did not reciver her health. She died atvhome in New Hampshire (q1863). Her final resting place was close to Benny's grave.


The Pierces had three sons, two of which died at an early age. Their third son Benjamin survived infancy, but died tragically in an accident as the family was traveling begore befor the President-elect's innaguration. Perhaps the most tragic death of all the presidential children. The President's wife eventually came to believe that God did not approve of her husband's political career. Even Pierce himself began to think that God was chastising him.

Franklin Jr. (1836)

Baby Franklin Jr. was born in 1836, but died only 3 days later. His parents who dearly wanted children grieved terribly.

Robert (1839-43)

The Pierce's second son Robert was born in 1839. The death of a 3-day old baby, the arrival of a much-anticipated second son, and his wife's dislike of Washington, caused Pierce to retire at the apparent height of his political career as a United States Senator in 1842. The boy was lovingly cared for by doting parents. Unhappily, Robert died of typhus in their home during 1843.

Benjamin (1841-53)

Their third son Benjamin was born in 1842. The Pierces', no doubt because of the tragic death of their first two boys, were absolutely devoted to their remaining son, Benny. Few presidential children were loved more than Benny. One early image shows Benny and Mrs. Polk. Benny is standing next to his seated mother. He wears a plaid tunic which looks much like a shirt. A belt is worn at the waist over the tunic. This is a popular fashion of the day and appears in many Daguerotypes of the 1840s and 50s. Mrs. Pierce hated politics because she saw it taking her husband's attention away from her and their beloved Benny. She fainted when he unexpectedly and withoit seeking the office was nominated on the 49th ballot by the Democratic Convention. She so hated politics that Benny wrote her wishing that his father would loose the election. It was politics that would, indirectly lead to Benny's untimely death. Benny was tragically killed in a train accident as the Pierce's were making a family trip before the innagural. The train the Pierces' were aboard jumped the tracks. The accident occurred before his disdraught parents' eyes.


Dodd, William E. Jefferson Davis (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs and Company, 1907).

Nichols, Roy F. (1931).

Wallner, Peter A. Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son, Vol. I (Plaidswede Publishuing, 2004).

Wead, Doug. All the President's Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Familirs (Atria: New York, 2003), 456p.


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Created: June 25, 1999
Last changed: 9:11 AM 9/24/2011