Franklin Pierce

14th president - 1853-1857

 

Polls seeking to identify the worst US president of all time usually feature Franklin Pierce in their top five. Nominated by the Democrats as a compromise candidate (on the 49th ballot), he was elected by a landslide against Mexican war hero Winfield Scott. This unexpected success coincided with personal tragedy: his only surviving son (two others had died in infancy) was killed in a train accident two months before his inauguration. His wife, unable to cope with her loss, blamed it on his political ambitions; they were never fully reconciled and she spent much of his term writing letters to her dead children. The strain proved a crucial setback in his lifelong battle with alcohol, and he relied increasingly on the bottle to help him deal with the strains of office.

These proved considerable. An ardent supporter of the rights of individual states, Pierce tried, like his predecessors, to prevent disagreements over slavery from tearing the Union apart. But his best-known piece of legislation had, if anything, the opposite result. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed southern slave-owners to take their slaves wherever they wished, effectively overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and opened up the possibility of slavery being expanded into the west. This disastrous measure was prompted by a desire to promote a railroad from Chicago to California through Nebraska. (For similar reasons, relating to a southern railroad, Pierce had already sent James Gadsden to Mexico to purchase the area now comprising southern Arizona and part of southern New Mexico for $10m.)

The provision that, in effect, residents of the new territories could decide the slavery question for themselves resulted in a rush of settlers into Kansas, as southerners and northerners vied for control of the territory. Shooting broke out, and "bleeding Kansas" offered a grim foretaste of the horrors of the Civil War.

As support for the Democrats collapsed, Pierce was further discredited when the contents of the Ostend Manifesto – recommending the acquisition of Cuba, by purchase or by force, from Spain – were leaked. He was not renominated for the 1856 election – "Anybody but Pierce" was the popular slogan when the Democrats were choosing their candidate.

Retirement saw Pierce lapse into alcoholism. His marriage finally collapsed, and his declared support for the Confederacy during the Civil War was the final nail in the coffin of his reputation. He died of cirrhosis in 1869.

In his own words

"There's nothing left but to get drunk." (on losing his party's nomination)

"A Republic without parties is a complete anomaly. The history of all popular governments show how absurd is the idea of their attempting to exist without parties."

In others' words

"Pierce didn't know what was going on, and even if he had he wouldn't have known what to do about it." Harry S Truman

"There are scores of men in the country that seem brighter than he is, but [he] has the directing mind, and will move them about like pawns on a chessboard, and turn all their abilities to better purpose than they themselves could do." Nathaniel Hawthorne

"He was a small politician, of low capacity and mean surroundings, proud to act as the servile tool of men worse than himself but also stronger and abler. He was ever ready to do any work the slavery leaders set him." Theodore Roosevelt

Minutiae

He was the first president to recite his inaugural address from memory.

Pierce was the first president to have a full-time bodyguard, he was once attacked with a hard-boiled egg.

His Vice-President, William Rufus King, died of tuberculosis before he could assume his duties.

He once ran over a pedestrian while driving his carriage in Washington (possibly in a drink-driving incident). He was arrested, but released when his identity became known.

He was a keen fisherman.

He observed the Sabbath so strictly that he refused to open his mail on a Sunday.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Technical Software Consultant (Excel, VBA, SQL, JAVA, Oracle)

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: You will not be expected to hav...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor