Franklin Pierce Biography
Fourteenth President of the United States
Years Served as President: 1853-1857
Vice President: William Rufus DeVane King
Age at Inauguration: 48
Home State: New Hampshire
Date of Birth: November 23, 1804
Died: October 8, 1869
Married: Jane Means Appleton
Children: Franklin, Frank, Benjamin
Nickname: Handsome Frank
What is Franklin Pierce known for?
Franklin Pierce is best known for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which helped push the United States into the Civil War.
He was also considered young and handsome, resulting in his nickname “Handsome Frank.”
Franklin Pierce was born in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. His father Benjamin had been a Revolutionary War hero who was twice elected the governor of New Hampshire.
Pierce graduated from Bowdoin College in 1824. He studied law and became a lawyer in 1827.
In 1834, Pierce married Jane Appleton. She was the daughter of a former president of Bowdoin College.
Jane and Franklin had three sons, but they all died before reaching adulthood. Their son Franklin died in infancy, and their son Frank died of typhus at age four. Benjamin was killed in a train accident when he was 11.
Political and Military Career
Pierce’s political career began while he was relatively young. At age 24, he was elected to the New Hampshire state legislature. Two years later, he became the state legislature’s speaker.
He began serving in Congress in 1833, where he was first a member of the House of Representatives and later a Senator.
His wife Jane didn’t like life in Washington, and Pierce eventually returned to Concord and continued practicing law.
When the Mexican-American War started in 1846, Pierce joined the army. He soon became a brigadier general before staying mostly out of public life for the next ten years.
In 1852, Pierce became the dark horse presidential candidate at the Democratic national convention. Pierce himself didn’t have plans to become president, but he did as the party asked and won the election.
Two months before he took office, Pierce and his wife and young son were on a train from Boston to Concord. The train wrecked, and the couple’s son Benjamin was killed.
Benjamin’s death is considered the reason that Pierce struggled with alcoholism and depression. His wife did not want to live in Washington and was rarely at the White House.
When Pierce became president, it was a mostly peaceful time for the United States. The Compromise of 1850 was working—so far, and the country was enjoying economic prosperity.
However, Pierce quickly angered northerners with his inaugural address. He proposed that the nation should expand its borders, which many saw as an effort to expand slavery.
Pierce soon purchased the land that now makes up Arizona and New Mexico. He also tried to persuade Great Britain to give up interests in Central America and Spain to sell Cuba to the United States.
His administration wrote the Ostend Manifesto, which said that if the U.S. decided Spanish ownership of Cuba was a security threat, the U.S. would be justified in taking Cuba by force.
These actions were all seen by northerners as support for the South and for slavery, and tensions grew.
In 1854, Pierce supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act proposed by Senator Stephen Douglas. The bill organized Nebraska and Kansas into territories.
It also repealed the ban on slavery in Kansas that had been introduced in the Missouri Compromise in 1820.
The act stated that Congress did not have the right to decide which territories would allow slavery. This decision would be left up to the territories themselves.
Violence soon broke out in Kansas, and the battleground was nicknamed “Bleeding Kansas.” The Kansas-Nebraska Act is seen as a major cause of the Civil War and a dark shadow on Pierce’s presidency.
After the Presidency
Because Pierce did not handle the “Bleeding Kansas” situation effectively, he wasn’t nominated for reelection by the Democratic Party. He retired to New Hampshire.
During the Civil War, Pierce accused Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party of acting recklessly. He publicly opposed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Pierce’s wife died in 1863, and he stayed out of the public eye after that. He died in 1869 of liver failure.
Fun Facts About Franklin Pierce
During the Battle of Contreras in the Mexican-American War, Franklin Pierce was badly injured when his horse fell on his leg. He tried to return to battle, but he fainted and was given the nickname “Fainting Frank.”
Pierce’s opponent in the presidential election was Winfield Scott, who had been his commander in the war.
At the time he was elected, Pierce was the youngest U.S. president in history.
Franklin Pierce was the first president to memorize his inaugural address and the first president to “promise” his oath instead of “swearing” it.
He was also the first (and only) president to keep his entire cabinet together for all four years.
Pierce’s vice president, William Rufus DeVane King, died just six weeks after the election.
Pierce was the first president to put up a Christmas tree in the White House. Yay!
He had no middle name.