Part 3 - The Man Behind the Presidency
By Mark B. Oliver | February 18, 2011
President-Elect Pierce, faced marital disharmony, as despite his reassurances to the contrary, he had not only stood for public office but had been elected president.
On January 6, 1853, two months before his inauguration as 14th President of the United States, Pierce and his wife and son were traveling from Andover to Lawrence, Massachusetts on the Boston and Maine railroad. Their car derailed and rolled down an embankment killing 11 year old Benjamin instantly.
Jane Appleton Pierce had long resisted her husband’s political leanings and believed Benjamin’s death was divine retribution for Pierce seeking and obtaining political office. Not a well woman, she withdrew into herself further, leaving Pierce to take office distraught and without emotional support. He became the first president to ‘affirm’ his oath of office rather than swear it on a bible. The reason for this is unknown but his son’s recent death may have been a factor.
Despite his grave personal circumstances, Pierce ascended to the Presidency during a period of relative tranquility and economic growth. Committed to the maintenance of the Union, Pierce selected men of differing opinions for his Cabinet and sought to maintain the status quo at home while asserting a dominant stance in US foreign relations, but ambitions to purchase or wrest control of Cuba from Spain floundered.
In 1853, a boundary dispute arose between Mexico and the United States, which was resolved by negotiation with the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico of part of the disputed territory which would eventually form part of Arizona. Although the negotiations were successful, the purchase once again exposed the unresolved sectional conflicts inherent in territorial expansion.
In January 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas introduced a bill to organize the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. To win southern support for the organization of Nebraska, Douglas included a provision in his bill declaring The Compromise of 1950 to be invalid and allowing the residents of the new territories to decide the slavery question for themselves. It was a shrewd move. A southern politician risked losing support at home if they voted against the bill and if northern politicians rejected it, they would lose all hope of national office which seemingly required southern support.
Congress passed the bill which was forwarded to the President for either his signature or veto. Despite Pierce having vowed in his inaugural address to Congress that the compromise “is to suffer no shock during my official term if I have power to prevent it” he signed the bill into law. Before signing what became known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1954, Pierce held a closed meeting with Douglas and several southern Senators and only consulted with one of his cabinet ministers - Jefferson Davis.
Signing the Act disrupted the balance of slave and free states and was a huge shock to the American people. Pierce was now thought of as being malleable rather than disciplined and someone who “played to his audience.”
The free states organized to fill Kansas with anti-slavery settlers to which the south responded with armed incursions. In March 1855 a territorial legislature was elected in Kansas by armed gangs from Missouri, who had crossed the border to vote before returning home. Pierce recognized the pro-slavery legislature who enacted an oppressive slave code. The free-state settlers called a constitutional convention in the October and framed a state constitution which Pierce described as an act of rebellion. He went as far as dispatching federal troops to break up a meeting of the “shadow government” despite a congressional investigative committee finding that the election of the pro-slavery legislature was “illegitimate.”
The issue was unresolved during Pierce’s presidency and the common conception was that Pierce had been easily manipulated and he lost the support of the northern free states, from which he hailed. Having lost the confidence of the public Pierce failed to win the Democratic nomination for a second term and was succeeded as president by fellow democrat James Buchanan.
Pierce retired to Concord where he lived out the remainder of his life. While it is easy to judge a man who succumbed to political pressure in signing the Kansas - Nebraska Act into law, it must be seen against the prevailing political environment at the time. Pierce wanted to maintain the Union at all costs and avert the threat of Civil War and Douglas, by framing the legislation in the way he did, created a no-win situation for both Congress and the President.
Although not particularly effective as a president, Pierce showed remarkable personal strength after the death of each of his children and his wife’s clear disapproval of his position of political power.
Pierce traveled with his wife extensively following his presidency. Despite attempts to have him run for the presidency again, including one in 1864 the year following his wife’s death, he refused to do so. He died in Concord, New Hampshire on October 8, 1869, aged 64. He is interred at the Old North Cemetery in the town.