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Franklin Pierce, America’s 14th President, had two simple goals: keep his party together and keep his country calm through the storm of the slavery debate. Simple, but not easy. Joseph Fornieri, Professor of Political Science at the Rochester Institute of Technology, explains how Pierce’s leadership (or lack thereof) pushed America toward civil war.
By all accounts, Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States was a fine person: charming, caring, deeply empathetic. These are all characteristics you want in a friend—and Pierce had many—but they don’t necessarily make for a strong leader. Unfortunately, Pierce’s appointment with history came when such a leader was sorely needed. Try as he might to fill the role, Pierce couldn’t do it.
Franklin Pierce was born November 23, 1804, in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. Raised in the shadow of his prominent father, Benjamin, a Revolutionary War hero, Franklin began his political career shortly after graduating from Bowdoin College in 1824.
He was a political natural. In addition to his good looks, he was an eloquent speaker. Gifted with a photographic memory, he almost always spoke without notes, connecting directly to his audience. He won his first election in 1829 to the New Hampshire State Legislature. In 1832 he was elected to Congress, and by 1837, he was a US senator, the youngest member at the time.
The overriding political issue of the day was slavery. To understand Pierce, we need to understand his position on this issue. While not a slave owner himself, Pierce believed that the Constitution committed the federal government to protecting slavery. Not surprisingly, Pierce’s position endeared him to his Southern colleagues. This support was key to his political career.
By 1842, Pierce was ready to leave Washington. He needed to make more money and care for his chronically ill wife. He did both without ever truly leaving politics. In fact, he became more influential during this period by becoming the Democratic Party boss of his home state of New Hampshire. He might have happily stayed there were it not for the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846.
The Americans won that war decisively, acquiring vast new territories in the west, including California. But the victory also had the unintended consequence of stirring up the slavery issue. What would happen to these new territories? Would they become slave or free?
After fierce debates, the Compromise of 1850 resolved the issue—or so it seemed. California would be admitted into the union as a free state while the status of the new territories of New Mexico and Utah would be determined at a later, unspecified time. And that’s where things stood when Franklin Pierce, through an improbable series of circumstances, became America’s 14th President.
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