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Franklin Pierce: Significant Facts and Brief Biography


Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Library of Congress

Life span: Born: November 23, 1804, in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire.
Died: October 8, 1869, in Concord, New Hampshire.

Presidential term: March 4, 1853 - March 4, 1857

Accomplishments: Franklin Pierce served his one term as president during a period when the United States was starting to be torn apart over the issue of slavery. And as Pierce seemed unaware of the gravity of the situation, and demonstrated no ability to cope with it, he is generally regarded as an unsuccessful president.

Pierce was nominated and elected, in part, because of his known sympathies toward the slave-holding South. And his energetic enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and his support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act alienated him from people in the North, especially in his own native New England.

Supported by: Pierce had joined the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson in his youth. He remained a Democrat, with distinct southern sympathies, for the rest of his life.

Opposed by: When running for president in 1852, Pierce was opposed by the Whig candidate Winfield Scott, a general who had been the hero of the Mexican War. Pierce himself had served under Scott in Mexico, where Scott thought Pierce was a terrible soldier and once ordered him from the field.

Presidential campaigns: When the Democratic Party held its nominating convention in Baltimore in 1852 the party was badly split. There were several likely candidates for the nomination, including Lewis Cass of Michigan, Stephen Douglas of Illinois, and James Buchanan of Pennsylvania.

None of the more obvious candidates could muster the required two-thirds vote for the party's nomination. After a number of ballots had been taken, the epic brokered convention finally nominated Pierce, as a dark horse candidate, on the 49th ballot on June 1, 1852.

Pierce's nomination was especially surprising, as he had not been a political player for nearly a decade. And that may have been the key: he had no strong enemies. And he was generally remembered fondly by those he had known while serving as a congressman and senator during his decade in Washington.

Incidentally, the struggle to find a nominee also affected the Whig Party that year, which set a record by taking 53 ballots to finally nominate General Winfield Scott.

The campaign of 1852 was odd as both candidates supported the Compromise of 1850, which was the burning issue of the day. And while Pierce was ridiculed for his lack of experience and rumors of his alcoholism, he managed to win a decisive electoral college victory.

One footnote to the 1852 campaign is that Pierce called upon his Bowdoin College classmate, Nathanial Hawthorne, to write a campaign biography. The great novelist produced a favorable book. And after Pierce was inaugurated as president he rewarded Hawthorne by giving him a lucrative government job as the American consul in the British city of Liverpool.

Spouse and family: After serving two years in Congress, Pierce married Jane Means Appleton, the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, in 1834. She seemed the opposite of Pierce, who was known to enjoy socializing. Jane Pierce suffered from a variety of illnesses, including bouts of depression.

Pierce and his wife had three sons, all of whom died in childhood. The first two died of childhood diseases (a common fate at the time). The third son, Benjamin Pierce, died in a railroad accident as Pierce and his wife and son traveled to Boston by train, during the period between his election as president and his inauguration.

The train derailed and 11-year-old Benjamin Pierce was killed. His parents were understandably devastated, and Pierce thus took office during a period of deep sadness.

Education: Pierce attended Bowdoin College, in Maine, graduating in 1824. He then studied in law offices (a standard practice in an era before law schools were common), including the office of Levi Woodbury, a noted New England lawyer who served on the U.S. Supreme Court. Pierce was admitted to the bar in 1827.

Early career: Pierce worked as an attorney but was always involved in Democratic Party politics (following in the footsteps of his father, who was also politically active).

Pierce was elected to the New Hampshire state legislature in 1829. He ran for Congress, and served in the House of Representatives from 1833 to 1837. He also served one term in the U.S. Senate, from 1837 to 1842.

During his decade in Washington, Pierce was known more for his social life, and his purported heavy drinking, than for any political accomplishments.

In 1842 Pierce returned to New Hampshire and devoted himself to the practice of law. He was offered the post of attorney general in the administration of James K. Polk, and turned it down. He also turned down an opportunity to the run again for the U.S. Senate.

When the Mexican War broke out Pierce enlisted in the Army, and was made a brigadier general. His service in Mexico was close to disastrous: he was injured when his horse stumbled and fell, and General Winfield Scott (his future opponent in the presidential race) considered him unfit to be an officer.

Later career: Pierce lived for a dozen years after leaving the presidency, most of it in relative seclusion. There were rumors he had returned to heavy drinking. And his sympathies for the South during the Civil War made him controversial even among his neighbors in New England.

Unusual facts: Pierce was very friendly with Jefferson Davis, whom he appointed as his secretary of war in 1853.

During the Civil War Pierce was quite vocal in criticizing Abraham Lincoln.

Death and funeral: Franklin Pierce died on October 8, 1869, at the age of 64. It was suspected that his drinking contributed to his death.

He was buried next to his wife, who had died in 1863, in Concord, New Hampshire.

Legacy: Pierce's presidency has no real legacy, as he was not very effective in office.

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