An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States- Franklin Pierce

Jan 17, 2013 by

Franklin PierceMichael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Today we will look at Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth president of the United States. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-( during what time period or event or series of events ?)

Franklin Pierce was born November 23, 1804 in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. He is the only president to have been born in that state. He came from a political family, as his father was a state militia general and a two-term governor of New Hampshire. Pierce was able to attend a number of academies while growing up, and was accepted as a student by Bowdoin College in the fall of 1820. Initially he did not do well academically, ranking second from the bottom in his class. He worked to improve his standing, however, and stood third from the top in his class when he graduated. He then entered the Northampton Law School in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1826.

In 1827, he passed the bar examination in New Hampshire, and opened up a law office in Concord, New Hampshire. After only one year into his legal career, Pierce was elected to serve in the lower house of the New Hampshire General Court. In 1832, he was chosen to be the speaker of the house for that body. In November of that year he was elected to serve in the US House of Representatives. He served two terms in that capacity, and was then chosen by the New Hampshire legislature to represent the state in the US Senate. He served until 1842, when he resigned to resume his law practice in Concord. In 1847 he volunteered for service in the Mexican War, and although he had no military experience Pierce was commissioned as a colonel in the US Army. He was promoted to brigadier general later that year, and commanded a brigade in the army of General Winfield Scott in his campaign to capture Mexico City.

Despite his lack of military experience, Pierce proved to be an effective leader. He was also brave; although he suffered a serious leg injury at the Battle of Contreras, the next day he had himself strapped to his saddle and resumed command of his unit. After the war, he returned to his legal practice. In 1852, fate thrust him into the national limelight. The Democratic Party at its national convention deadlocked in its efforts to choose a candidate for president, going through 34 ballots without selecting one individual. On the 35th ballot, Pierce’s name was introduced for consideration, and he gradually gained support on the succeeding ballots. He finally won the nomination on the 49th ballot.

Ironically, his opponent in 1852 was his former commanding officer, Winfield Scott. Pierce won easily, and was inaugurated in March of 1853. Unfortunately, it was not as enjoyable an event as it might have been otherwise. Two months prior to his inauguration, Pierce, his wife, and their only surviving son were involved in a railroad accident that took their child’s life. Pierce’s wife thought that it was a punishment for Pierce’s ambition, and blamed him for their loss. This cast a pallor over his administration.

  1. What was he MOST known for?

Pierce is notable because he was the first president to simply state his intention to uphold the oath of office, rather than swear to it on a Bible. Pierce also is unique among presidents in that he is the only president to ever have ended his presidency with the same cabinet members that he began with. But what Pierce is best remembered for is his role in the problematic history of the Kansas Territory. When Stephen Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, organizing the remaining land from the Louisiana Purchase into two territories where the people would decide the fate of slavery within their borders, Pierce threw his full weight behind the measure. Pierce should have recognized that this would infuriate Northerners, as Douglas’s act overturned the principle that slavery could not exist north of a line drawn westward from the southern boundary of Missouri (as established by the Missouri Compromise in 1821).

Pierce further enraged that part of the country by consistently siding with the pro-slavery faction in Kansas, even long after it was proven that they did not speak for the majority of the residents in that territory. That territory devolved into a virtual civil war, giving it the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.” Pierce must shoulder much of the blame for allowing that state of affairs to develop.

  1. What would you say were his strengths?

Pierce was intelligent, brave, and made friends easily.

  1. What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

Pierce seems to have lost touch with the realities of American politics while he was practicing law from 1848 until he became president in 1853. He either didn’t recognize how inflammatory an issue the extension of slavery had become, or thought that he could convince people from the Democratic Party to go along with the pro-slavery forces for the sake of party unity. Clearly, this was not the case. Indeed, his actions as president led directly to the rise of the Republican Party, which would dominate the presidency for over half a century.

  1. What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

Pierce was responsible for adding a valuable piece of territory to the national domain. His secretary of war, Jefferson Davis, was convinced that a railroad connecting newly acquired California with the rest of the nation was in the best interest of the United States. As a consequence, he advised Pierce that a southern route for this railroad would be the most practical. Topographical maps revealed that the best route for the railroad would actually go through a portion of northern-most Mexico, and so Pierce initiated an effort to buy that land. Because of debts that it had incurred fighting the Americans only a few years before, Mexico needed a cash infusion. For that reason, they agreed to sell the land to the US. This acquisition comes down through history known as the Gadsden Purchase, and eventually the Southern Pacific Railroad was built through that land.

  1. In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Most historians are agreed that Pierce was one of the worst presidents in history because of his inept leadership in relation to the events surrounding the creation of the Kansas Territory. Some historians are of the opinion that the ensuing bloodshed in Kansas would have happened regardless of who was president, but they still excoriate Pierce for allowing the issue of the extension of slavery to immerge in the first place.

  1. What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

Pierce could point with pride to the Gadsden Purchase, and it was during his presidency that the effort begun during the Fillmore presidency to establish relations with Japan came to fruition. Unfortunately he will be best remembered for mishandling the issue of the extension of slavery so badly that is virtually guaranteed that the nation would come to blows over it.

  1. Could you provide a summary statement about our fourteenth President?

Pierce was like many presidents before and after him—a person who had an impressive record of public service before occupying the White House, but one who could not prove up to the task of serving as our nation’s chief executive.

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