Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) was born in New Hampshire and educated at Bowdoin College in Maine and Northampton Law School in Massachusetts. He served as a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives where he rose to the speakership, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1833 to 1847, and was a U.S. senator from 1837 to 1842.
After serving in the New Hampshire militia and the U.S. Army, where he was a brigadier general and fought in the Mexican-American War, he received the Democrat nomination for president. He won the election over General Winfield Scott by a landslide and served from 1853 to 1857. He appealed to Democrats because he was a Northerner who believed that the U.S. Constitution protected slavery.
His presidential inauguration was spoiled and his marriage strained by the death of a son in a railroad accident, which his wife believed to be punishment for his seeking the office. Pierce was the first and only individual to “affirm” rather than “swear” his presidential oath. In his inaugural address, which he delivered from memory, Pierce observed that “You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me by your strength” (Inaugural Addresses 1969, 103).
Perhaps in part because of his military service, Pierce was the first president to make extensive references to the U.S. flag in his inaugural address. He observed, overly optimistically, that “The field of calm and free discussion in our country is open, and will always be so, but never had been and never can be traversed for good in a spirit of sectionalism and uncharitableness” (Inaugural Addresses 1969, 09).
Pierce took action on behalf of religious minorities
In 1848, Pierce represented a group of Shakers (a millenarian Christian group known for its ecstatic behavior and celibate lifestyle) before the Judiciary Committee of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, which was considering restrictive legislation. In his closing arguments, he observed that “They are in a church which they believe to be the true church. They are lifted above the things of the world, above earthly connections, above ties of blood and nature” (Eaton 2020).
Although the New Hampshire Constitution contained a provision limiting certain offices to Protestants, Pierce’s supporters claimed that he had sought on a number of occasions to repeal it (Hawthorne 1852). As president, Pierce became the first U.S. president to name a Roman Catholic to office when he appointed James Campbell of Pennsylvania to the office of postmaster general (Baker).
Pierce supported states who wanted slavery, enforcement of Fugitive Slave Law
Pierce favored territorial expansion, and during his administration, in 1854, the U.S. finalized the Gadsden Purchase with Mexico that added almost 30,000 square miles to what later became part of the states of Arizona and New Mexico. That same year, Congress adopted the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which Stephen Douglas had advocated and Pierce had supported. It overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by supporting the doctrine of popular sovereignty, leaving the status of slavery in the western territories to these territories as they became states.
The resulting attempts, especially in Kansas, by pro- and anti-slavery forces to gain control, and Pierce’s support for the former including attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, further aggravated tensions between Northern and Southern states. It also led to the establishment of the Republican Party, which supported the doctrines of “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, and Free Men.”
The new party fielded a candidate, John C. Fremont, in the 1856 presidential election and won the presidency with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
Supreme Court sustains religious freedom during Pierce’s administration
In Baker v. Nachtrieb, 60 U.S. 126 (1856), the U.S. Supreme Court sustained religious freedom when it upheld a property agreement between a religious society and its members. Although Pierce was president during a time when the Supreme Court, relying on Barron v. Baltimore (1833), had decided that provisions of the First Amendment applied only to the national government and not to the states, state courts did make some important decisions related to such freedoms during this time.
In Commonwealth v. Cronin, 2 Va. Cir. 488 (1855), a Virginia court upheld the priest-penitent relationship by saying that a priest was not obligated to testify in a criminal trial about a dying wife’s confession. A less liberal decision by the Maine Supreme Court in Donahoe v. Richards, 38 Me. 376 (1854) ruled that the father of a girl who had been expelled from public school for refusing to read from the King James Version of the Bible had suffered no monetary injury for which he could sue on her behalf.
Pierce blamed abolitionist rhetoric with increasing conflict over slavery
As a member of the House of Representatives, Pierce had supported the gag rule tabling anti-slavery petitions without discussion (Finkelman 2916, 183).
Similarly, in Pierce’s last state of the union address, which he delivered on Dec. 2, 1856, he put much of the blame for the increasing sectional conflict over slavery on abolitionist rhetoric. He noted that:
Perfect liberty of association for political objects and the widest scope of discussion are the received and ordinary conditions of government in our country. Our institutions, framed in the spirit of confidence in the intelligence and integrity of the people, do not forbid citizens, either individually or associated together to attack by writing, speech, or any other methods short of physical force the Constitution and the very existence of the Union. Under the shelter of this great liberty, and protected by the laws and usages of the Government they assail, associations have been formed in some of the States of individuals who, pretending to seek only to prevent the spread of the institution of slavery into the present or future inchoate States of the Union, are really inflamed with desire to change the domestic institutions of existing States.
Pierce’s appointment to Supreme Court concurred that Blacks could not become citizens
Pierce’s only appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court was John Archibald Campbell from Alabama, who served from 1853 to 1861, and wrote a concurring opinion in the Dred Scott Decision which had invalidated the Missouri Compromise and declared that Blacks could not become U.S. citizens.
Pierce denounced Lincoln during the Civil War, resumed heavy drinking, which had plagued him through much of his life, and died a relative recluse whose efforts to compromise to preserve the Union had failed (Finkelman 2016, 192).
John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. This article was published on Nov. 8, 2023.