The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Pierce, Franklin

PIERCE, pērs, Franklin, 14th President of the United States (1853-57): b. Hillsboro, N. H., 23 Nov. 1804; d. Concord, N. H., 8 Oct. 1869. His father, Benjamin Pierce (1757-1839), served in the Revolutionary War, was member of the State legislature 1789-1801, and from 1803 to 1809. He was a Democrat in politics, an active public-spirited man, and governor of New Hampshire from 1827 to 1829. His son, therefore, was brought up in an atmosphere of public service. Franklin Pierce was educated at various academies, Hancock, Francestown and Phillips Exeter, entered Bowdoin College, Maine, 1820, and had as classmates Longfellow and Hawthorne. He graduated third in his class in 1824 and studied law for the next three years, first with Levi Woodbury at Portsmouth, then at the law school of Judge Howe at Northampton, Mass., and finally with Judge Edmund Parker at Amherst, N. H. He was admitted to the bar in 1827 and entered politics almost immediately as a Democrat. In 1829 he was elected as a representative to the State legislature, and in 1832 was made speaker. In 1833 he entered Congress, became a close friend of Jackson and sustained him in important contests. His career in the House of Representatives during the next four years was uneventful, because most of his work was done in the committee-room. He rarely made a speech, and then not on the most important questions. He spoke 27 Feb. 1834, against the bill on the subject of Revolutionary claims, on the ground of economy and justice; and on 30 June 1836 against the bill making appropriations for the United States Military Academy, on the ground that it was legislation conferring “exclusive and gratuitous privileges.” He approved of Jackson's veto of the Maysville road bill, and in general was a believer in a strict construction of the Constitution. In December 1835 he spoke and voted against the policy of receiving petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. In 1837 Fierce was elected to the Senate, but was overshadowed by such men as Clay, Calhoun, Webster and Benton, Pierce being the youngest of all the senators. He seldom spoke and avoided, as in the House, the big questions of the day. He resigned in 1842 to accept the office of district attorney of New Hampshire.

When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, he enlisted as a private, enrolled in a company of volunteers organized at Concord, and soon received from the President a commission as colonel of the Ninth regiment. On 3 March 1847, he was commissioned as brigadier-general in the volunteer army, though practically without military experience. He was with General Scott in the march on the City of Mexico, but did not play a conspicuous part in the military operations. After his return home he engaged in the practice of law. The Democratic National Convention met at Baltimore 1 June 1852, with Lewis Cass, James Buchanan and Stephen A. Douglas as the leading candidates. On the 35th ballot the Virginia delegation voted for Pierce, and on the 49th he received 282 votes to 6 for all other candidates. This “dark horse” Presidential candidate was a real surprise to most people. The reasons for passing by the three leading candidates mentioned above were varied. Since each had a large following there was bitter personal rivalry, and this made the success of any one a matter of considerable doubt. The chief concern of the leaders was to placate the South and avoid the growth of a purely sectional party. Accordingly, the convention adopted a resolution pledging the party to enforce the compromise of 1850. Pierce was favorable to the institution of slavery, believing that it was guaranteed by the Constitution, and was thus considered a “safe man” by the South. In the election which followed in November, he received 1,601,474 popular votes to 1,386,580 for Gen. Winfield Scott, the Whig candidate, and at the meeting of the electoral college 254 votes to 42 for Scott. All of the States voted for Pierce excepting Vermont, Massachusetts, Tennessee and Kentucky. He was inaugurated 4 March 1853, and on March 7 announced his Cabinet, namely, William L. Marcy of New York, Secretary of State; James Guthrie of Kentucky, Secretary of the Treasury; Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, Secretary of War; Robert McClelland of Michigan, Secretary of the Interior; James C. Dobbin of North Carolina, Secretary of the Navy; James Campbell of Pennsylvania, Postmaster-General, and Caleb Cushing of Massachusetts, Attorney-General.

The election of Pierce may be considered primarily as a verdict in favor of carrying out the terms of the compromise of 1850 and the policy of expansion. In his first inaugural address Pierce said: “The policy of my administration will not be controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion.” He also declared that “our position on the globe renders the acquisition of certain possessions not within our jurisdiction eminently important for our protection.” This doubtless referred to Cuba, much desired by the southern expansionists for additional slave territory. Pierce appointed Pierre Soulé of Louisiana as Minister to Spain, a man who had previously declared in open senate his desire to annex Cuba to the United States by some other method than by purchase. In August 1854, Secretary of State Marcy suggested that Soulé, James Buchanan, and John Y. Mason, ministers respectively to Spain, England and France, have “a full and free interchange of views” in regard to the acquisition of Cuba. The result was a meeting at Ostend, where on 9 Oct. 1854 they drew up the famous Ostend Manifesto, in which Spain was urged to sell Cuba to the United States, and in case of refusal the question should be considered whether the interests of the United States were endangered by Cuba remaining in the possession of Spain. If answered in the affirmative, then “by every law, human and divine, we shall be justified in wresting it from Spain if we possess the power.” The exact relation of Pierce to this document is not fully known. It was disavowed by Secretary of State Marcy in the name of the President, but Pierce was held as more or less responsible for the incident by his enemies.

Moreover it was during the administration of Pierce that William Walker carried out his notorious filibustering expeditions in Central America, for the purpose of setting up a government under American rule favorable to slavery. In June 1855 he entered Nicaragua with a small force, captured Granada on 13 October, procured his election as President in July 1856, and proclaimed Nicaragua a slave State. His dominion was recognized by the American minister resident, and Pierce received Walker's envoy, though he had previously issued proclamations warning the people against armed expeditions to countries with whom the United States was at peace. Ministers from other Central American republics protested against this violation of neutrality, but to no purpose.

Pierce supported several other policies of importance. He wished to expand American commerce as rapidly as possible, first by federal subsidies to shipping and second by opening up new areas for trade. Commodore Perry was sent to Japan to induce this nation to open her ports to American trade and was successful in his mission. Pierce also supported the plan of linking California more closely with the rest of the country by means of a transcontinental railroad. The best route lay through territory, a portion of which was in the possession of Mexico. Accordingly James Gadsen was sent to Mexico to purchase a strip of territory on the southern border of New Mexico. He secured a tract of some 50,000 square miles for $10,000,000, which was known as the Gadsen purchase. The railroad was planned largely to benefit the economic development of the lower South, and Congress voted the funds for the survey of routes. Pierce advocated the building of the railroad in his first annual message, and handed over the work of seeing to the survey to Jefferson Davis.

Americana 1920 Pierce Franklin.jpg


Fourteenth President of the United States

Another policy was the opening up of the Northwest to settlement. The platform of the Democratic party declared that the party “will resist all attempts at renewing, in Congress or out of it, the agitation of the slavery question, under whatever shape or color the attempt may be made.” Pierce also, in his inaugural address, advised against the reopening of the slavery question. Nevertheless the conflict over the extension of slavery into the territories was the great event of his administration. The occasion was the plan of Senator Douglas to open up the great Northwest to settlement, remove the Indians to reservations or to the Southwest, connect Chicago with the Pacific Northwest by a railroad, open the territory to slavery and thereby become the next President of the United States. The supremacy of the Northwest was at stake and this was a plan to checkmate the South for a Southern Pacific railroad. Douglas won the support of the Middle West, western Missouri, and powerful interests in the South. This last because of a promise that the Kansas-Nebraska bill should contain a clause giving settlers the right to determine for themselves whether they would have slaves — the doctrine of popular sovereignty. Thus the Missouri Compromise of 1820 prohibiting slavery in the Louisiana territory north of 36° 30', except Missouri, would be repealed. Pierce gave his support to this plan and signed the bill. Thus he aided the South in its desire for the extention of slavery into the territories, although the most of the Northwest would in the end naturally become free territory. This action of Pierce wrecked his administration. He immediately organized Kansas and Nebraska as territories, and supported the pro-slavery party in Kansas during the remainder of his term of office, in an effort to prevent the admission of Kansas as a free State. Thus he helped make the Democratic party of the North subservient to that of the South, and supported the slave power in its extreme demands for more slave territory. He believed that this would satisfy the South and thus disunion and civil war would be avoided. He was under the influence of Jefferson Davis, his Secretary of War, and this accounts, in part, for his altitude on several important public questions. After his retirement from the presidency he traveled in Europe for three years, returning home early in 1860. He was opposed to the methods of the Abolitionists, but supported the North when war broke out.

Pierce did not measure up to the standard of most of the Presidents. He was not a commanding figure in any field. He was honest in his intentions as a conciliator of the two sections, in his belief that the Constitution guaranteed slavery as an institution, and that the way to avoid civil war and disunion was to support the South in this view. His strong leaning toward the South, however, really had the effect of promoting sectional strife and finally in leading to civil war. He was an amiable, honest, generous, modest, educated gentleman, but lacked intellectual acumen and that idealism necessary for great leadership. His chief stock in trade was attention to legislative details, fidelity to party, winning manners, and a neutral compromising character which was a negative rather than a positive and constructive force. His last years were passed at his home at Concord, N. H., beloved by his personal friends but almost forgotten by his countrymen.

Bibliography. — There is no good life of Pierce. The early biographies were published for campaign purposes and do not cover his term of office. Consult life by Bartlett, D. W. (Auburn N. Y., 1852), and by Hawthorne, Nathaniel (Boston 1852), both eulogistic accounts; Ireland, J. R., ‘History of Life and Administration and Times of Franklin Pierce’ (Chicago 1888), in Vol. XIV of his Republic. See also Richardson, J. D., ‘Messages and Papers of the Presidents’ (Washington 1897); Leech, W. L., ‘Calendar of the Papers of Franklin Pierce’ (Washington 1917). Some of his correspondence is printed in American Historical Review, Vol. X, 110-127, 350-370. The best accounts of his administration are in Schouler, James, ‘History of the United States’ (New York 1894), Vol. V; Rhodes, James Ford, ‘History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850’ (Vols. I-II, New York 1900); von Holst, Hermann, ‘Constitutional History of the United States’ (Vols. IV and V, Chicago 1899).

Associate Professor of History, University of Chicago.