Born in 1804 at Hillsboro (Hillsborough), N.H., Pierce was the first President to see the light of life in the 19th century. His father was a farmer, tavernkeeper, militia leader, and politician. Young Pierce, the fourth son from his father's second marriage, attended a local elementary school and then academies at nearby Hancock and Francestown. In 1824 he graduated from Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine. After a winter back home, he read law at Portsmouth, N.H., Northampton, Mass., and Amherst, N.H.
Winning admission to the bar and returning to Hillsboro in 1827, the same year his father attained the governorship, Pierce began to practice. Two years later, at the age of 24, he was elected to the lower house of the State legislature (1829-33) and rose to the position of Speaker. Next came service in the U.S. House of Representatives (1833-37) and the Senate (1837-42), where when elected he was the youngest Member. In Congress he won a reputation as a solid Democrat.
In 1834 Pierce had married Jane Means Appleton of Amherst, N.H.; they were to have three sons, none of whom reached adulthood. About the time of his marriage, he bought a home in Hillsboro, but in 1838 changed his residence to Concord, N.H.
Pierce resigned from the Senate in 1842 for a variety of personal reasons. He went back to the practice of law, and later served as Federal District Attorney for New Hampshire (1845-46). Also taking an active part in State political affairs, he opposed the abolition movement because he felt it contributed to national divisiveness. In 1845 he turned down an offer by the Governor to fill out the unexpired portion of a U.S. Senator's term; and the next year rejected the position of U.S. Attorney General, proffered by Polk.
Upon the outbreak of the Mexican War (1846-48), Pierce enlisted in a New Hampshire regiment as a private, but his political prominence quickly won him the rank of brigadier general under Gen. Winfield Scott, under whom he served in Mexico. Back in Concord, in 1848 Pierce rejected the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and continued his legal and political pursuits. He labored on behalf of the Compromise of 1850, and served as president of the State constitutional convention (1850), where he opposed anti-Catholic proposals.
In 1852 Pierce, then a youthful 48, won the Presidential nomination. After 49 ballots, the convention turned to him when it was unable to agree on one of four major candidates. His landslide victory over his former commander, the aging Whig Winfield Scott, is mainly attributable to his party's stronger stand on the Compromise of 1850, Scott's lack of popularity in the South, and defections from the Whig Party on both sides of the slavery issue.
Tragedy marred the election triumph. Not long before assuming office, Pierce, his wife, and last surviving child, an 11-year-old son, were in a train wreck and the youngster perished before his parents' eyes. As a result, Pierce entered the Presidency in a state of grief and nervous exhaustion, and his spouse was unable to attend the inauguration.
Pierce appointed an intersectional Cabinet and tried to apportion patronage among the different factions in his party, but relied heavily on the advice of pro-southerners. His expansionism in foreign affairs further incensed northerners, who resented his attempts to extend slavery by means of territorial acquisition or diplomatic maneuver. They were particularly upset when he persuaded the British to reduce their involvement in Central America and recognized the apparently proslavery government set up in Nicaragua by an American soldier of fortune. By one means or another, Pierce sought to acquire Hawaii, Santo Domingo, and Alaska.
But by far Pierce's strongest quest was the purchase of Cuba from Spain. This not only failed but also seriously embarrassed him after a secret memorandum of a discussion on the subject among U.S. diplomats in Europe, drafted by Minister to Britain James Buchanan, leaked out. Known as the Ostend Manifesto, it advocated the use of force if necessary to take over Cuba and stressed its importance as a base to revivify slavery. The administration renounced the document.
Also unsettling to the Norththough the apparent rationale was to facilitate construction of a transcontinental railroad along a southern routewas Pierce's sponsorship of the Gadsden Purchase (1853), ceded by Mexico for $10 million. It consisted of the southern strips of present Arizona and New Mexico. Minister James Gadsden had sought but failed to acquire a far larger part of northern Mexico.
The event that spelled the doom of the temporary sectional truce, however, was the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854). Senator Stephen A. Douglas introduced it, but the President vigorously championed it. This measure divided the relatively unsettled central portion of the Louisiana Purchase into Kansas and Nebraska Territories. One aim of the legislation may have been to aid construction of a transcontinental railroad, this one from Douglas' home State, Illinois, along a central route to the Pacific. Mindful of southern Democratic congressional sentiment, he added to the bill the provision that the settlers in the new Territories should decide for themselves, by the process of popular sovereignty, their position on slavery.
Pierce supported and signed the bill in the hope that, if Kansas were admitted as a slave and Nebraska as a free State, both sides would be mollified. But the act reopened the question of slavery in the West. A storm of protest ensued from the North because, by permitting slavery north of 36°30' North Latitude, the legislation virtually repealed the Missouri Compromise (1820). Pierce's assent to the bill was followed by dramatic antislavery gains in the Congress.
Meanwhile, pro- and anti-slavery settlers poured into Kansas hoping to influence the outcome. Sporadic guerrilla warfare, during which John Brown gained his first taste of fame, broke out between the two factionsa prelude to the Civil War. Many elections were also fraudulently conducted and violently disputed. Acrid debates occurred in Congress and in the Nation. In late 1856 Pierce created temporary peace by sending in Federal troops and appointing a new Governor.
The national political ramifications of the Kansas controversy were far reaching. Antislavery Democrats deserted in droves. A new and powerful northern sectional party, the Republican, opposed the extension of slavery into the western Territories. The Democratic convention scorned both Pierce and Douglas and nominated less controversial James Buchanan.
In the spring of 1857, Pierce returned to New Hampshire, but in November left on a leisurely tour of Europe that lasted until the summer of 1859. He also spent the first half of the next year in Nassau. But, back in Concord, he spent his last years in bitterness, still believing in the validity of his policies as President.
In 1861, disturbed by the imminence of war, Pierce sought but failed to arrange a meeting of the five living ex-Presidents (himself, Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, and Buchanan) to try to stem the tide. He still fiercely resented the abolitionists and the rise of antislavery militance in the North. During the war, his denunciation of the Emancipation Proclamation and outspoken criticism of what he felt were Lincoln's invasions of personal and property rights brought him excoriation, even in his own State and community.
Because of this, the death of his wife in 1863 as well as that of his lifelong friend, author Nathaniel Hawthorne, the following year, and ill health, Pierce suffered severe depression. He succumbed at Concord in 1869 at the age of 64, and was buried there in the Old North Cemetery.
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004