Pierce, Franklin

Born: 1804-11-23 Hillsborough County, New Hampshire

Died: 1869-10-08 Concord, New Hampshire

Franklin Pierce was a lawyer, state legislator, U.S. representative, U.S. senator, district attorney, army officer, and fourteenth president of the United States. Born into a prominent political family, Pierce attended academies in Hancock and Francestown, New Hampshire before preparing for college at Phillips Exeter Academy. He matriculated to Bowdoin College, graduating in 1824. He subsequently read law and earned admission to the New Hampshire bar in 1827. Pierce soon combined his legal practice with politics. A Democrat, he won election to the New Hampshire General Court in 1829. Pierce remained in the General Court until 1833, serving as speaker in 1832 and 1833. In 1832, New Hampshire voters elected him to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from March 1833 to March 1837. He married Jane Means Appleton in 1834, with whom he had three sons, none of whom lived to adulthood. Pierce moved to the U.S. Senate in 1837, sitting in that body from March 1837 until his resignation in February 1842. Upon leaving the Senate, Pierce practiced law in Concord, New Hampshire. James K. Polk appointed him U.S. attorney for New Hampshire, and he remained in that office until enlisting in army upon the commencement of the Mexican War. During the war, Pierce rose to the rank of brigadier general, seeing action in the campaign against Mexico City, suffering severe injuries in a fall from a frightened horse. Returning to New Hampshire after mustering out of the army, Pierce resumed his law practice and his political career. He was president of the New Hampshire constitutional convention in 1850, and he supported the Compromise of 1850. Pierce became a dark horse candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 1852, and during a divisive Democratic National Convention, delegates selected Pierce as the party’s presidential nominee. In the presidential election, Pierce handily defeated the Whig candidate, Winfield Scott, winning 254 electoral votes to forty-two for Scott. Tragedy struck the Pierce family, however, when Bennie, Pierce’s one surviving son, died in a railroad accident before Pierce’s inauguration. Franklin and Jane Pierce witnessed Bennie’s death, and this tragedy, coupled with the death of vice-president elect William R. D. King, cast a dark shadow on the Pierce presidency. In foreign policy, Pierce bowed to the Young America faction and its annexation schemes, but Pierce’s only foreign policy achievement was the Gadsden Purchase, which brought the United States land needed for a southern transcontinental railroad. Pierce’s attempts to annex the Dominican Republic, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), Cuba, and other territories proved futile. On the domestic front, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and subsequent violence in the Kansas Territory tainted the Democratic Party and Pierce’s reputation. Despite his foreign policy failures and dissatisfaction among Democrats over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Pierce hoped to be reelected in 1856. Delegates to the Democratic National Convention selected James Buchanan as their candidate. Immediately after leaving office, Pierce spent much of his time traveling. He opposed Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign in 1860, seeing Lincoln’s victory as a repudiation of his work as president. He blamed the North for the Civil War and regularly spoke out against the Lincoln administration during the war, leading some to erroneously suspect him of treason.

Larry Gara, “Pierce, Franklin,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 17:495-97; Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1949 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1950), 1681; Gravestone, Old North Cemetery, Concord, NH.