Franklin Pierce, who served as the 14th President of the United States from 1853 to 1857, is generally regarded as one of the worst Presidents in United States history, his activities playing a part in the build-up to the Civil War.
Pierce, born in 1804, was a lawyer from New Hampshire who had served in Army during the Mexican-American War, reaching the rank of Brigadier General. He had also been a Representative and Senator, resigning from the Senate in 1842.
He was encouraged to stand as the Democratic nominee for the Presidency as a compromise between Northern and Southern interests. This was because he was a pro-slavery northerner who supported the 1850 Missouri Compromise that maintained the balance between slave and free states. Party unity was preserved by his nomination but he kept very quiet during the Presidential campaign, which meant that very few voters really knew that he stood for.
Pierce’s Presidency got off to bad start when his only surviving son was killed in a railway accident after Pierce had been elected but had not yet taken office. He consequently suffered from periods of depression during his Presidential term and tended to be a do-nothing President who did little to change the course of events.
The actions he did take were not all that wise or sensible. One was to allow the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act according to which new territories were able to decide the slave question for themselves, which was seen by abolitionists as forcing slavery onto new states.
In Kansas, pro- and anti-slavery factions flooded in from other states and resorted to violence in their efforts to influence the vote. The violence took the form of towns being raided and buildings set on fire, which led to the territory gaining the nickname of “Bleeding Kansas”.
There was also violence on the floor of the Senate, where one senator hit another with a cane and nearly killed him.
Franklin Pierce was seen as weak in his response to these events, and his pro-slavery attitude seemed to be confirmed when he proposed the incorporation of Cuba into the United States as a slave state.
Pierce lost the support of his party and was unable to contest the 1856 election.
In later life, Franklin Pierce continued to comment on political matters and was horrified by the prospect of Civil War. He became an alcoholic and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1869 at the age of 64.© John Welford