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While Franklin Pierce was widely regarded as a kind and friendly person, his presidency would destabilize the fragile peace between the North and the South, according to Joseph Forneri, professor of political science at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Franklin Pierce was born in New Hampshire near the turn of the 19th century, and was the son of Benjamin Pierce, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Benjamin distinguished himself at the Battle of Saratoga and was renowned as a war hero – he would later serve as governor of New Hampshire, and Franklin spent much of his early political career in his father’s shadow.
Pierce began his political career shortly after graduating from college in 1824 – by 1829 he was elected to the New Hampshire state legislature and by 1832 he had been elected to Congress. By 1837 he was the youngest member of the Senate.
“The overriding political issue of the day was slavery,” Forneri said. “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, financial concerns and his wife’s chronic illness compelled him to resign from the Senate and take a step back from any electoral ambitions, although in political terms he arguably became more powerful during this period as he emerged as an influential apparatchik and Democratic party boss in New Hampshire.
However, the seizure of large swaths of the Southwestern United States after the Mexican-American War destabilized the delicate balance of power between slave and free states and created an opportunity for a man like Pierce to achieve national prominence.
A tentative compromise was reached in 1850 which admitted California to the Union as a free state and left the status of the New Mexico and Utah territories indeterminate.
“That’s where things stood when Franklin Pierce, through an improbable series of circumstances, became America’s 14th president,” Forneri said.
“When the Democratic convention opened in June 1852 in Baltimore Pierce was not even a dark horse candidate – he wasn’t a horse at all,” Forneri explained. However, a continual deadlock between candidates representing different regional interests created an opening for Pierce, a Northerner who would protect Southern slavery.
Pierce was selected as the Democratic nominee on the 49th ballot and coasted to a victory in the general election, as the rival Whig party was even more sharply divided on the slavery issue.
While in office, however, Pierce would fracture the country even further by shepherding the Kansas-Nebraska Act advocated for by Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglass, which undid all previous legislative compromises and let the various territories decide for themselves whether or not they would permit slavery within their borders.
While Douglass’s concept of popular sovereignty was meant to end the controversy surrounding slavery, it only escalated it. Kansas and Nebraska saw widespread violence between settlers as pro- and anti-slavery factions flooded the new territories, determined to swing the state’s formative elections in their favor.
“Bleeding Kansas” presaged the violence that would engulf the country as abolitionist and anti-abolitionist forces split the young nation in two.