In the countdown of the Presidents of the United States from Worst to First today we are at #40- the 14th President Franklin Pierce. Franklin Pierce served as president from 1853-57. The Civil War era presidents are not doing well in this countdown- the two presidents I have ranked worst than Pierce are the two who bookend President Lincoln- James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.

Franklin Pierce was born on November 23, 1804 in a log cabin in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. Pierce went to college at Bowdoin College in Maine where he met a fellow student future author Nathaniel Hawthorne- and they became lifelong friends. Another classmate in college was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Pierce graduated from Bowdoin-5th in his class of 14. After graduation he studied the law and was admitted to the bar in September 1927.

Shortly after becoming a lawyer the young Pierce began his political career. He started by serving in the New Hampshire State Legislature from 1829-1833. He then moved up to the United States House of Representatives 1933-1937 and the U.S. Senate 1937-42. At this point in time his wife wanted him to give up politics and he wanted to go home and make some money so he resigned from the senate and did go home for a few years.

In May of 1846 Pierce would enlist as a private in the volunteers and serve in the Mexican War. He would quickly rise to the rank of brigadier general. He  would be among those who went with Major General [and future opponent in the presidential election of 1852} Winfield Scott to negotiate an armistice which would be rejected. After the war ended Pierce resigned from the army.

In 1852 the Democratic Party met in Baltimore, Maryland for this convention. The top four contenders were Lewis Cass who had been their nominee in 1848, future president James Buchanan,  Stephen Douglas and William Marcy. The convention was deadlocked and Pierce who didn’t receive a vote until the thirty-fifth ballot, ended up as the compromise candidate and by the forty-ninth ballot was given the nomination. Why did they choose a party hack like Pierce? His views seemed to make him someone who could get support throughout the country. In the pre-Civil War era the political parties looked to nominate the candidate who offended the least amount of people.  His opponent would be Whig nominee General Winfield Scott. The election wouldn’t be close with Pierce winning the electoral college 254 to 42. Pierce would win 27 states to Scott’s four.

Back then Inauguration Day wasn’t until March. A terrible tragedy happened to the Pierce’s between election day and the inauguration. On January 6, 1853 Pierce, his wife and son Bennie were returning home from Massachusetts where they had attended a funeral of a close friend when the passenger car they were on broke loose and rolled down an embankment. Franklin and Jane Pierce were unhurt but 11 year old Bennie was decapitated. This had an understandably devastating impact on both the Pierce’s. Franklin Pierce who today would probably be considered an alcoholic, would continue his heavy drinking. Mrs. Pierce who suffered from ill health and depression most of her life to begin with would become a recluse in the White House and would get the nickname in Washington as ‘Shadow of the White House.” She never got over Bennie’s death.  { The Pierce’s first two sons had died at very young ages, there are no direct descendants of Franklin Pierce.}

Inauguration Day was March 4, 1853, like our recent POTUS Barry Obama who would refuse to say “Islamic terrorism”, Pierce in his inaugural refused to mention the big word of the day that was causing all the trouble, ‘slavery.” Instead of coming out and naming it he called it ‘the important subject.”

In the year Franklin Pierce was elected POTUS- Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published and would sell like the Harry Potter books, becoming the second best selling book in the United States behind The Bible. When Abraham Lincoln met Stowe years later supposedly he said “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” would help gain many supporters in the north to the abolitionist cause.

Franklin Pierce as far as personality goes was a popular fellow, very friendly and likable. When the question is asked who the most handsome president is, the answer by the experts on this subject is usually Franklin Pierce. Shows looks only go so far.

The overwhelming issue of the day was slavery. When the country needed strong leadership they got indecisive leadership from a string of presidents- Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan. Pierce was overwhelmed by the events of the day. He was considered by many northerners as a ‘doughface’ a northern man with southern sympathies. Pierce has also been accused over the years as being more dedicated to his Democratic Party than to the United States of America.

I will start off by mentioning the few positives from the Pierce administration. His cabinet reformed their departments and improved accountability. In the first summer of his presidency the Gadsden Purchase [negotiated by James Gadsden who was Minister to Mexico- Pierce had little to do with it} in which the United States purchased 29,000 square miles of parts of Arizona and New Mexico occurred. This was done with a plan to build a southern route of a transcontinental railroad. Also on the positive side of the ledger Pierce signed trade treaties with both Britain and Japan.

The country was coming apart at the seams. Senator Stephen Douglas and President Pierce’s Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in 1854. The popular sovereignty clause in the act would prove to be a disaster. People on both sides of the slavery issue would flood into the state to try and influence the vote on whether the state would have or not have slavery. From 1854 to 1856 there was a Civil War in Kansas over the issue. “Bleeding Kansas” would introduce to history John Brown who would later spark the American Civil War with his actions in 1859 at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. {is there a more controversial figure in American history than John Brown? Over 150 years since his execution he is still a hot button topic with many on both sides of the issue- hero or terrorist? Usually with time the passions fade but not with John Brown.}

There was a rigged election in Kansas with the border ruffians- pro slavery won. The Abolitionists refused to concede victory and set up their own free state government. President Pierce sided with the pro-slavery government which turned many more in the north against Pierce. Violence in Kansas intensified.

During this period the Whig Party was going belly up and a new political party began to form- the Republican Party. They were against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, would nominate their first presidential candidate in 1856 and then elect the first Republican POTUS in 1860.

In 1856 there was no question that Franklin Pierce was through. His party nominated James Buchanan who would go on to defeat Republican John Fremont and No-Nothing -former POTUS Millard Fillmore in the election.

It would have taken an exceptional man and president to have solved the problems that Pierce faced, George Washington wasn’t going to walk through the door. Pierce wasn’t close to having the qualities to meet his challenges. In every historical ranking of the presidents over the years Pierce ranks near the bottom. I can’t disagree with those assessments. I have him the third worst behind James Buchanan and Andy Johnson.

Franklin Pierce would be rejected by his Democratic Party in 1857, the would nominate James Buchanan as their candidate instead of the incumbent Pierce. Franklin would go home to New Hampshire and become even more unpopular during and after the American Civil War.  He would be outspoken against President Lincoln and when Lincoln was assassinated because Pierce didn’t seem broken up by this, a crowd threatened his home. Friends and former supporters turned against him. His wife Jane died in 1863 and Pierce sank into a deep depression and started to hit the bottle even more. He would die in 1869 of cirrhosis of the liver. His passing was mourned by few.

Some trivia to tell your friends about #14 POTUS Franklin Pierce-

  • Franklin Pierce is the only president from the state of New Hampshire. New Hampshire is always in the spotlight every four years with their primary. Pierce was so unpopular that it took fifty years after his death for his home state to erect a statue in his honor.
  • Pierce’s vice president- William King [ I wrote about him and his close friendship with President Buchanan in the Buchanan profile a couple days ago} had tuberculous and after the election went to Cuba in hopes of recovery. He was too ill to attend the Inauguration and died the next month never assuming his duties as vice president. Pierce would not have a vice president.
  • Franklin Pierce memorized his Inaugural Address and gave it without notes. His speech was over 3000 words long.
  • Future President of the Confederate States of America- Jefferson Davis would serve as Secretary of War under President Pierce and is generally considered one of the best. He modernized the army, an army that in the 1860’s would defeat his Confederacy.
  • During his administration Pierce appointed one new member to the U.S. Supreme Court- John Campbell from Alabama. When the American Civil War broke out Campbell quit and headed south and would serve the Confederacy as assistant Secretary of War.
  • All seven of Pierce’s Cabinet members served the whole four years. This is the only time that this has happened.
  • The Secret Service didn’t exist during Pierce’s presidency but he is the first POTUS to have a full time body guard.
  • Can you imagine this happening today? As president Pierce liked to walk the streets of Washington, D.C. by himself and talk with the people. The only time this turned bad was when a drunk once threw an egg at him.
  • President Pierce is the only elected president who party didn’t nominate him for re-election.
  • President Pierce is the only president who took the office affirming not swearing the oath.