Franklin Pierce, fourteenth president of the United States, was born on November 23, 1804, in Hillsboro, New Hampshire. Like his predecessor James K. Polk, Pierce was a little-known figure retired from national politics when the Democratic Party summoned him to be its candidate for president.
The great objects of our pursuit as a people are best to be attained by peace, and are entirely consistent with the tranquility and interests of the rest of mankind.
Franklin Pierce, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1853.
The son of a former governor of New Hampshire, Pierce was elected to the New Hampshire legislature at the age of twenty-five. He went on to represent New Hampshire in the U.S. House of Representatives (1833-37) and in the Senate (1837-1842). He resigned from the Senate a year before the end of his term, however, in deference to his wife, Jane, a chronically depressed and physically fragile woman who loathed her husband’s involvement in politics, particularly at the national level.
With the exception of a brief stint as a high-ranking officer in the Mexican War, Pierce spent the next decade practicing law and serving as federal district attorney in Concord, New Hampshire. When told that the 1852 Democratic national convention had nominated her husband for president as a compromise candidate on its forty-ninth ballot, Jane Pierce “fainted dead away.” The Pierces’ young son, the only one still living of their three children, was killed in a gruesome railway accident two months before his father’s inauguration.
As president (1853-57), Pierce opposed antislavery legislation in the interests of promoting sectional harmony and economic prosperity. His administration paved the way for construction of a transcontinental railway and promoted American settlement of the Northwest. During his presidency, the United States acquired 30,000 square miles of territory from Mexico through the Gadsden Purchase. Pierce’s accomplishments were overshadowed by his support for the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), which replaced the Missouri Compromise of 1820 with permission for each new state to decide on the basis of popular sovereignty whether or not it would allow slavery. One result was the outbreak of violent conflict in the territory that came to be known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
A hard-working but generally weak chief executive, Pierce was blamed for heightening sectional tensions within the Democratic Party and for the concomitant rise of the new Republican Party. He failed to win the Democratic nomination for reelection in 1856. Fellow Democrat James Buchanan succeeded him in the White House, and Pierce entered an unhappy retirement in which his genial temperament was increasingly overtaken by alcoholism. His wife died in 1863, his hostility to the Lincoln administration isolated him during the Civil War, and he himself died a notably lonely man on October 8, 1869.
- For more photographs of the Pierce homes in Hillsboro and Concord, New Hampshire, search on Pierce in Architecture and Interior Design for 20th Century America: Photographs by Samuel Gottscho and William Schleisner, 1935-1955.
- Learn more about the political climate of Pierce’s presidency and the historical context of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in “Conflict of Abolition and Slavery,” part of the online exhibition The African-American Mosaic.
- Browse Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Photographs and Family Letters, 1862-1912 to see 3,000 glass plate negatives, and read a similar number of family letters recording and discussing the process of settlement in Nebraska. Read the 1868 love letters of Uriah Oblinger to Mattie Thomas. And view, for example, a home in Leroy Leep, or Buffalo County, or Nebraska’s Old Carns Bridge Post Office.
- Read Chief Justice Roger Taney’s letter to Caleb Cushing for a contemporary account of public attitudes in a pivotal 1857 Supreme Court case concerning slavery. Cushing served as attorney general during the Pierce administration. This document is featured in the collection Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years.
- Learn about elections and U.S. presidents. Select from the presentations & activities section of the Teachers Page for an overview and additional resources on these topics.