Franklin Pierce: The 14th Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
As the Compromise of 1850 barely held the nation together, Franklin Pierce ascended to the presidency was a Northern Democrat with strong ties to the South. Pierce was known to booze in a time that was known as the “alcoholic republic” as a lot of political maneuvering and posturing happened in taverns. While he was probably what would be known today as a functioning alcoholic, Pierce managed to stay sober during his presidency.
Slavery and Civil Rights
In a speech on June 5, 1845, Franklin Pierce referred to slavery as “one of the greatest moral and social evils, a curse upon the whole country.”
Nonetheless, he also viewed slavery as a right “secured by the constitution, which binds together and which I humbly hope ever will bind together this great and glorious confederacy as one family.” To Pierce, abolitionists were “reckless fanatics” who threatened the union.
During U.S. Senate deliberations on slavery in the District of Columbia, Pierce said:
I oppose the Abolitionists …. domestic slavery exists here in its mildest form …. [Slaves] are attached to the families in which they have lived from childhood. They are comfortably provided for, and apparently contented.”
Along similar lines, Pierce later denounced the Emancipation Proclamation as an attempt to “butcher” the White race for the sake of “inflicting” freedom on Black people who would not benefit from it. At one point, Pierce even threatened his brother, who was a legislator:
If you vote for [abolitionist] resolutions … you are no brother of mine; I’ll never speak to you again.”
As president, Pierce’s position on slavery was summed up in his inaugural speech on March 4, 1853, when he said that laws to enforce slavery “should be respected and obeyed, not with [reluctance] but cheerfully …. I fervently hope that the question is at rest, and that no sectional or ambitious or fanatical excitement may again threaten the durability of our institutions or obscure the light of our prosperity.”
Bloody Monday was August 6, 1855, in Louisville, Kentucky, an election day, when Protestant mobs attacked German and Irish Catholic neighborhoods. These riots grew out of the bitter rivalry between the Democrats and the Nativist Know-Nothing Party. Multiple street fights raged, leaving twenty-two people dead, scores injured, and much property destroyed by fire. Five people were later indicted, but none was convicted, and the victims were not compensated.
A train wreck killed Pierce’s son soon after his inauguration. Pierce and his wife lost two other children to disease previously. Pierce’s Vice President William Rufus King died within his first 6 months in office as well. Pierce left the presidency disgraced and returned to drinking heavily after his wife died.
The Gadsden Purchase is a 29,670-square-mile region of present-day southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico that the United States acquired from Mexico by the Treaty of Mesilla, which took effect on June 8, 1854. The purchase included lands south of the Gila River and west of the Rio Grande where the U.S. wanted to build a transcontinental railroad along a deep southern route, which the Southern Pacific Railroad later completed in 1881–1883. The purchase also aimed to resolve other border issues.
The first draft was signed on December 30, 1853, by James Gadsden, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, and by Antonio López de Santa Anna, president of Mexico. The U.S. Senate voted in favor of ratifying it with amendments on April 25, 1854, and then transmitted it to President Franklin Pierce. Mexico’s government and its General Congress or Congress of the Union took final approval action on June 8, 1854, when the treaty took effect. The purchase was the last substantial territorial acquisition in the contiguous United States, and defined the Mexico–United States border. The Arizona cities of Tucson and Yuma are on territory acquired by the U.S. in the Gadsden Purchase.
The financially strapped government of Santa Anna agreed to the sale, which netted Mexico $10 million (equivalent to $230 million in 2019). After the devastating loss of Mexican territory to the U.S. in the Mexican–American War (1846–48) and the continued filibustering made by New Mexico governor William Carr Lane in the zone, some historians argue that Santa Anna may have calculated it was better to yield territory by treaty and receive payment rather than have the territory simply seized by the U.S.
The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 was a territorial organic act that created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. It was drafted by Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas, passed by the 33rd United States Congress, and signed into law by President Franklin Pierce. Douglas introduced the bill with the goal of opening up new lands to development and facilitating construction of a transcontinental railroad, but the Kansas–Nebraska Act is most notable for effectively repealing the Missouri Compromise, stoking national tensions over slavery, and contributing to a series of armed conflicts known as “Bleeding Kansas”.
The United States had acquired vast amounts of sparsely settled land in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, and since the 1840s Douglas had sought to establish a territorial government in a portion of the Louisiana Purchase that was still unorganized. Douglas’s efforts were stymied by Senator David Rice Atchison and other Southern leaders who refused to allow the creation of territories that banned slavery; slavery would have been banned because the Missouri Compromise outlawed slavery in territory north of latitude 36°30′ north.
To win the support of Southerners like Atchison, Pierce and Douglas agreed to back the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, with the status of slavery instead decided on the basis of “popular sovereignty”. Under popular sovereignty, the citizens of each territory, rather than Congress, would determine whether or not slavery would be allowed.
Douglas’s bill to repeal the Missouri Compromise and organize Kansas Territory and Nebraska Territory won approval by a wide margin in the Senate, but faced stronger opposition in the House of Representatives. Though Northern Whigs strongly opposed the bill, the bill passed the House with the support of almost all Southerners and some Northern Democrats.
After the passage of the act, pro- and anti-slavery elements flooded into Kansas with the goal of establishing a population that would vote for or against slavery, resulting in a series of armed conflicts known as “Bleeding Kansas”. Douglas and Pierce hoped that popular sovereignty would help bring an end to the national debate over slavery, but the Kansas–Nebraska Act outraged many Northerners, giving rise to the anti-slavery Republican Party.
In the Kansas Territory, fighting began over slavery. On May 21, 1856 pro-slavery forces burned down the abolitionist settlement of Lawrence, Kansas to the ground. The political situation quickly disintegrated into violence that Pierce could not or would not handle. Ongoing tensions over slavery would eventually lead to the American Civil War.
John H. Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist leader. A religious man more than anything else, Brown believed he was raised up by God to strike the death blow to American slavery. Brown felt that violence was morally necessary to end American slavery, since peaceful efforts had failed.
Brown first gained national attention when he led anti-slavery volunteers and his own sons during the Bleeding Kansas crisis of the late 1850s, a state-level civil war over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. He was dissatisfied with abolitionist pacifism: “These men are all talk. What we need is action—action!” In May 1856, Brown and his sons killed five supporters of slavery in the Pottawatomie massacre, a response to the sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces. Brown then commanded anti-slavery forces at the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie.
In October 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), intending to start a slave liberation movement that would spread south; he had prepared a Provisional Constitution for the revised, slavery-free United States he hoped to bring about. He seized the armory, but seven people were killed, and ten or more were injured. Brown intended to arm slaves with weapons from the armory, but very few slaves joined his revolt. Within 36 hours, those of Brown’s men who had not fled were killed or captured by local militia and U.S. Marines, the latter led by Robert E. Lee. Brown was hastily tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men, and inciting a slave insurrection. He was found guilty of all counts and was hanged on December 2, 1859, the first person executed for treason in the history of the United States.:179 Brown said repeatedly that his anti-slavery activities were in accordance with the Golden Rule and his belief that all men are created equal.:721
The Harpers Ferry raid and Brown’s trial escalated tensions that led, a year later, to the secession of the Confederate States and the American Civil War. Southerners feared that others would soon follow in Brown’s footsteps, encouraging and arming slave rebellions. He was a hero and icon in the North. Union soldiers marched to the new song “John Brown’s Body”, that portrayed him as a heroic martyr. Newly-freed African Americans walked to the same song, and they often lowered their voices speaking of Brown, as if he were a saint. His beliefs, though radical, were fairly popular in his time. He has been both remembered as a heroic martyr and visionary, and as a madman and terrorist.
The Ostend Manifesto, also known as the Ostend Circular, was a document written in 1854 that described the rationale for the United States to purchase Cuba from Spain while implying that the U.S. should declare war if Spain refused. Cuba’s annexation had long been a goal of U.S. slaveholding expansionists.
At the national level, American leaders had been satisfied to have the island remain in weak Spanish hands so long as it did not pass to a stronger power such as Britain or France. The Ostend Manifesto proposed a shift in foreign policy, justifying the use of force to seize Cuba in the name of national security. It resulted from debates over slavery in the United States, manifest destiny, and the Monroe Doctrine, as slaveholders sought new territory for the expansion of slavery.
During the administration of President Franklin Pierce, a pro-Southern Democrat, Southern expansionists called for acquiring Cuba as a slave state, but the outbreak of violence following the Kansas–Nebraska Act left the administration unsure of how to proceed. At the suggestion of Secretary of State William L. Marcy, American ministers in Europe—Pierre Soulé for Spain, James Buchanan for Britain, and John Y. Mason for France—met to discuss strategy related to an acquisition of Cuba. They met secretly at Ostend, Belgium, and drafted a dispatch at Aachen, Prussia.
The document was sent to Washington in October 1854, outlining why a purchase of Cuba would be beneficial to each of the nations and declaring that the U.S. would be “justified in wresting” the island from Spanish hands if Spain refused to sell. To Marcy’s chagrin, Soulé made no secret of the meetings, causing unwanted publicity in both Europe and the U.S. The administration was finally forced to publish the contents of the dispatch, which caused it irreparable damage. The dispatch was published as demanded by the House of Representatives.
Dubbed the “Ostend Manifesto”, it was immediately denounced in both the Northern states and Europe. The Pierce administration suffered a significant setback, and the manifesto became a rallying cry for anti-slavery Northerners. The question of Cuba’s annexation was effectively set aside until the late 19th century, when support grew for Cuban independence from Spain.
Anti-slavery groups in the north were incensed by the passage of this pro slavery legislation. A little known politician in Illinois named Abraham Lincoln would start the radical new Republican Party on February 28, 1854 to oppose the expansion of slavery. As a somewhat failed Whig politician, he would become the leading spokesman against the expansion of slavery galvanizes political support for him and bringing him back into the scene politically.
Pierce didn’t see his role in the deterioration of the union and genuinely thought he had a chance for a second term, but was rejected by his own party for the election of 1856. This is what happens when you “let the people decide” how moral issues will be legislated. They will turn on one another and demonize their opponents to the point of violence without strong federal authority and intervention. This means bucking the extreme within even those that agree with you.
The oversight of the federal government is the only thing that restricts the whims of individual citizens whether you agree or disagree with the moral issue. “My side is the side of God, good, right, holy, principled etc. Your side is the side of the devil, bad, wrong, evil, disingenuous” is how this narrative has always played out.
People whining about a tyrannical federal government need to look no further than the antebellum south when the federal government was at it’s weakest. In fact, Lincoln started the Republican Party as a response to a feckless and weak federal government who refused to take a firm stand on a moral issue.
- Alcoholic politicians from around the world (Any surprises?). (2020, March 8). Alcohol Problems & Solutions. https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/alcoholic-politicians-from-around-the-world-any-surprises/
- Bleeding Kansas: From the Kansas-Nebraska Act to harpers ferry. (n.d.). Welcome to Civil War on the Western Border | Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. https://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/essay/bleeding-kansas-kansas-nebraska-act-harpers-ferry
- Bloody Monday memorial. (2020, June 29). Ancient Order of Hibernians. https://www.louisvilleirish.com/bloody-monday-memorial/
- David rice Atchison. (2013). Home – Kansas Historical Society. https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/david-rice-atchison/16725
- Encyclopedia Brunoniana | Marcy, William L. (n.d.). Brown University. https://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/Databases/Encyclopedia/search.php?serial=M0120
- Franklin pierce. (n.d.). UnderstandingPrejudice.org. https://secure.understandingprejudice.org/draft/slavery/presinfo.php?president=14
- Gadsden, James. (2016, October 11). South Carolina Encyclopedia. https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/gadsden-james/
- Gadsden purchase: History and facts. (2019, July 19). PLANERGY Software. https://planergy.com/blog/gadsden-purchase/
- Missouri Historical Society. (n.d.). William Carr lane papers, 1813-1926. The Missouri Historical Society is … Missouri Historical Society and was founded in 1866. https://mohistory.org/collections/item/A0873
- Popular sovereignty – Annenberg classroom. (2017, August 4). Annenberg Classroom. https://www.annenbergclassroom.org/glossary_term/popular-sovereignty/
- University of Pittsburgh library system. (n.d.). University of Pittsburgh Library System. https://www.library.pitt.edu/1856-election
James Buchanan (1857 – 1861) would follow Franklin Pierce
Millard Fillmore (1850 – 1853) preceded Franklin Pierce
Zachary Taylor (1849 – 1850) assumed the Presidency after the Mexican War
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.