Franklin Pierce was a senator for New Hampshire, a lawyer, and a general during the Mexican American War prior to being elected president in 1853. He was considered by the Democratic party as a candidate which would not divide the party more on the issue of slavery. Pierce and his wife, Jane, had a history of family tragedy, with all three of their sons dying as children, with his third child passing away following a train derailment only two months prior to Franklin taking the oath of office.
While it is unfair to minimize a president’s time in office down to few short words, for Pierce it is quite easy: The Kansas-Nebraska Act and unfettered division. The 1854 act, pre-dating Harlan’s time in D.C., granted residents of the Nebraska Territory and the newly established Kansas Territory the ability to vote on whether or not slavery would be allowed in their borders. This led to acts of violence between people wanting to extend slavery, for a number of reasons, and those opposed to its extension, commonly referred to as Bleeding Kansas. This act effectively nullified the Missouri Compromise, though it could and was argued that the admission of California as a free state already did this, and further divided opinions on where slavery fit into American law and life. Often overshadowed, Pierce notably authorized the expedition to begin planning for a transcontinental railroad, invested in internal infrastructure, and maintained neutrality during the Crimean War.
And yet, the Kansas-Nebraska Act brought irredeemable bloodshed and turmoil. This, alongside prominent diplomats drafting a proposal for either the purchase of Cuba from Spain or forceful annexation from the monarchy, in order to expand the slave states, contributed to his status as a one-term president. He left unsupported by his party or the American people. Pierce is seen by many historians as a weak leader put in power when the nation needed a stronger one. However, it should be considered why he was elected in the first place: his ability to not rock the boat as it were. While it can still be true that the US needed a strong and outspoken leader at the time, this fact does not make him a bad president outright, instead perhaps he was exactly what the Democratic party and American voters thought they wanted, until they realized who they got.
James Harlan was not withholding of his criticisms of Pierce and his Democratic party. In a speech given at the Iowa Republican convention, Harlan lists seven indictments against the administration following its end in . Among them were: the enactment and protection of slave codes against free men, their drive to fortify the right to slavery into the Constitution, “Enormous and unnecessary,” government spending, whose bill, Harlan claimed, was footed by the North, and a desire to only raise taxes and expand slave territory by any means possible, among other claims. Harlan had little care for the work of Pierce. He would go on to state that the politics of Pierce’s democracy were the same as that of James Buchanan’s. Harlan held hope that the Republican party could, “drive from the temples of Liberty the money-changers, and the dealers in the bodies and souls of men, who have defiled its alters,” and to, “… control the vast energies of this great Republic…”
Interested in more history? Check out the Harlan-Lincoln House!
Boulard, Garry. “The Expatriation of Franklin Pierce.” Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2006.
Framer, John. “The New Hampshire Annual Register. 1854.
Harlan, James. “The Responsibility, the Practice, and the Policy of the Democratic Party since the Inauguration of Franklin Pierce, March 4th, 1853. 1859.
Holt, Michael F. “Franklin Pierce: THe American President Series: The 14th President, 1853-1857. New York: Times Books, 2010.
Wallner, Peter A. n”Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son.” Concord: Plaidswede Publishing Co., 2004.