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.
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 the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection .
- View selected items from the Library’s collection of Franklin Pierce Papers. The online presentation includes a Timeline of key events in Franklin Pierce’s life.
- 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.
- The Kansas-Nebraska Act: Primary Documents in American History online guide provides additional resources about this act.
- 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.
- Learn about elections and U.S. presidents. Select Elections from the presentations section of the Teachers Page for an overview and additional resources on these topics. Also view the Presidential Elections Resource Guides to find more information on the Library’s website.