"We Polked you in 44, we're Pierce you in 52!"
Franklin Pierce may have my favorite campaign slogan yet. But in terms of presidencies, wow, this guy is a total disaster. I mean, Millard Fillmore just nuked the only major opposition party into oblivion. Governing should be easy, right? Not when you're Pierce, who do his best to one-up Fillmore and wreck the Democratic party on the bloody shoal known as "Bleeding Kansas."
Follow along as Pierce falls hilariously short in his pursuit of military glory in the Mexican-American War, gets elected president anyway when Democratic partisans can't agree on any of the more-qualified candidates, and then triggers a mini Civil War in Kansas after he passes the Kansas-Nebraska act.
By the time Pierce leaves office, we'll be four years away from The Civil War.
1. Franklin Pierce – Michael F. Holt
2. Millard Fillmore – Paul Finkelman
3. Bosom Friends – Thomas J. Balcerski
4. James Buchanan - Jean H. Baker
5. Abraham Lincoln – David Herbert Donald
Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)
14.) Franklin Pierce 1853-1857
I need to open today’s episode with a correction. In episode 13 on Millard Fillmore, I incorrectly said New York politician William Seward was named president Zachary Taylor’s secretary of state. That’s not true. Seward was a senator from new York during Taylor’s presidency, not secretary of state. Though, even from outside the administration, Seward did still have far more influence on Taylor than Fillmore did.
On with the show!
Welcome to Abridged Presidential Histories, episode 14, Franklin Pierce – “Faintin’ Frank!”
In our last episode, President Millard Fillmore basically destroyed the Whig Party with his overzealous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act.
Today, Franklin Pierce will say “Hold my beer.”
In Pierce’s case, the hill he’ll choose to die on is the Kansas-Nebraska act – a law that sounds like a good idea on the surface – let each territory vote for itself if it will allow slavery or be free – but which goes south in a hurry when pro-slavery border ruffians barge into Kansas from slave-holding Missouri and rig the elections at gunpoint to get the outcome they desire.
Pierce will spend all his credibility, and then half the Democratic party’s credibility, trying to defend this farce of a pro-slavery government in Kansas.
So grab yourself a drink and hold on tight as Pierce pulls the country one step closer to civil war.
Franklin Pierce was born on Nov. 23, 1804, in Hillsboro, New Hampshire, with all the natural gifts you’d expect a politician to have. He was handsome, charming, a natural leader among his friends – and he seemed capable of getting away with everything. Seriously, the kid loved to fish and play and not do his homework, but he seemed to have the right kind of aw shucks personality to get away with it and lead a blessed life.
One of the few times Pierce got in trouble for his shenanigans came at the age of 12 when his family sent him to a boarding school, which he decided he didn’t like. So, one day, he up and walked home. Which you’d think might get you in trouble, but when his dad found him at the dinner table, he acted like everything was fine, it’s cool, gave his son dinner, then invited young Frank for a carriage ride … they were deep into a giant storm in the middle of nowhere when Frank’s father turn to him and said, “We’re halfway back to the boarding school, now. You can walk the rest of the way yourself,” and that’s exactly what Frank did.
Which you’d think would teach him a lesson. But it didn’t.
In 1825, Pierce graduated college and two years later he started practicing law. Pierce’s style as a lawyer is about what you’d expect from the type of young man he was – he didn’t win with strongly crafted arguments or well-prepared files of evidence. He won by pulling on the jury’s heartstrings and appealing to them emotionally. Nobody confused him for a great lawyer, but he was a successful one.
And in 1828, he started to get into politics.
Pierce didn’t only have the personality of a politician, he had the family pedigree of one. His father, Benjamin Pierce, had served with George Washington at Valley Forge and later become governor of New Hampshire – and that’s what got young Franklin into politics in the first place, he was stumping for his dad’s reelection in 1828.
Pierce’s dad didn’t win re-election in 1828, but he did in 1829 – and his coattails carried his son to the state house. That’s right. Franklin Pierce’s community was so inspired by the young man’s speechmaking that it elected him to the New Hampshire congress as a Jacksonian Democrat – and I feel it must have crossed somebody’s mind that having the governor’s son as the local representative might result in a bit more of the state’s budget being thrown their way, too.
Anyway, shortly into his political career, Pierce met and married a woman named Jane Means Appleton on November 19, 1834, and Franklin Pierce owes a LOT to Jane Means Appleton. For one, she was very pro-temperance – as in, anti-alcohol. And Franklin was turning into a bit of a lush. He cleaned up his act for their marriage, but it would be a very tragic marriage. They’d have three children together, but each would die before their 12th birthday. One death, that we’ll get to later, was so ghastly, that Jane never got over it. When she passes away later in his life, Franklin’s going to fall way, way off the wagon.
So, brace yourself for an unhappy ending.
Back in politics, Pierce served four terms in the state legislature, and one as New Hampshire’s speaker of the house, before being elected senator to D.C. in 1837, but he resigned just before his first term ended in 1842, maybe because his Jane wanted him closer to home, or maybe because the democrats had just lost majority control of the senate and being a senator isn’t as fun when you don’t get to set the agenda. Anyway, Pierce resigned his seat and went home to New Hampshire, where he became the most powerful man in the state’s democratic party
And then, five years later, he went off to war.
In 1847, Pierce enlisted in the Mexican-American war, which was then in its second year. And this is where Pierce’s life begins to resemble a bit of a three stooges act.
Pierce probably saw the war as a chance to win the kind of glory his father had won in the revolution – glory that could set an ambitious young man up for further political success. But here’s the tricky thing about military glory, there are no guarantees in war. And if you go chasing it, you might not find it.
By the time Pierce arrived in Mexico with a regiment of New Hampshire volunteers that he’d organized, General Winfield Scott – Ol’ Fuss n’ Feathers! - was already on the doorstep of Mexico City. If you remember to episode 11 on James K. Polk, General Scott had launched a naval invasion of central Mexico with an eye on capturing Mexico city to force favorable peace terms on the Mexican government, which was kind of mucking up Polk’s plans by not surrendering.
So Pierce is getting here just in time for the climactic battle of Mexico city, which is great, right? Like, so much glory!
Except, well. Pierce is Pierce.
Pierce’s first chance at glory came during one of the first attacks on Mexico city. Pierce was all ready to lead the charge, mounted on his horse with his men, when a shell landed nearby and terrified his steed. The horse bucked in such a way that the saddle jammed into Pierce’s groin and he lost consciousness and fell from the saddle, injuring his leg in the process. Soldiers nearby thought Pierce had fainted from fright and declared him a “damned coward” as they charged on without him.
Which, man – embarrassing! But it’s ok. Mexico City is a tough nut to crack and there are going to be several more offensives before the city was won. So Pierce got back with his unit and got ready for the next one. This time, he decided he’d lead the way on foot – no horse was going to thwart him this time. The signal for an attack was given and he began to lead a charge over very craggy volcanic rock when he twisted his ankle and was so hobbled that he didn’t reach the fighting until it was over. This might be when his soldiers started calling him “Fainting Frank.”
Which, shoot. That’s two lost chances. But hey, he’ll get two more!
Pierce again rejoined his men, who this time were being held in reserve to be thrown into the fight at the pivotal moment. Which is great! You know all those war movies where the reinforcements arrive just in time and save the day? This is Pierces chance to be those reinforcements! And so there he is with his men, again, and he’s ordered into the battle, and he’s leading the charge, and watching his step, and he doesn’t trip or fall or anything – and then he gets there and the battle’s already over. Turns out, the second wave wasn’t needed that day.
Which meant Pierce was down to just one last chance to win glory. And once again, it’s just not his day. Pierce was bedridden with diarrhea during the last day of the battle when he heard an order to charge had been given. He bolted out of bed, buttoned up his pants, leapt onto his horse, and charged to the front! Only to, once again, discover the battle had ended right before he got there. And this time I can only imagine he discovered that with poopy pants.
So that’s the distinguished war record of Franklin Pierce. A bruised groin, a twisted ankle, and two late arrivals – one with poopy pants.
Needless to say, he’s not going to be the next George Washington with a record like that.
But, well, lesser men had become president. He could too! He went home to New Hampshire to play party boss and bide his time.
When the election of 1852 arrived, the national political scene was in an interesting place. Two years earlier, the compromise of 1850 had passed, and as we covered in the past two episodes, the north was super unhappy with the fugitive slave act, and the south was super unhappy that the Compromise hadn’t made slavery legal everywhere. And, the crazy thing is, you might the northerners would be willing to leave over that, but no, it was the southerners who were threatening secession.
During the off-year elections of 1851, many of these radical southerners ran for office – particularly the governorships of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi – on secessionist tickets. But, while the compromise of 1850 hadn’t, you know, made slavery legal everywhere, it sure had given the south just about everything else it wanted. So you ended up having a weird realignment of parties in 1851 where radical democrats ran secessionist candidates and moderate democrats teamed up with Whigs to run unionist candidates, who clobbered the secessionists and really seemed to put the whole secessionist movement to bed.
For a few years, anyway.
As a result, when the election of 1852 came around, the Democrats were convinced they could only win if they found a northern candidate – because the north would trust a northerner – who supported the compromise of 1850 – which the south had just shown it supported.
Which meant the Democrats had three serious candidates: Michigan Senator Lewis Cass, Former Pennsylvania Senator James Buchanan, and Illinois senator Stephen Douglas.
As you may have noticed, none of those men are Franklin Pierce. But don’t worry. Back then, each state’s democratic party would get together before the convention and agree who the state’s favorite son would be. We haven’t talked much about favorite sons yet, but basically the favorite son got to negotiate on their state’s behalf with the major candidates’ representatives to see who could offer the best deal in exchange for the state’s support. So, if you’re the favorite son of New Hampshire, maybe someone promises federal investments in ports, or a certain number of patronage appointments for New Hampshire loyalists, or even a cabinet position for the favorite son in return for delivering the state’s votes.
So it was a pretty big deal when New Hampshire’s favorite son was, also not Franklin Pierce. Seriously. New Hampshire’s favorite son was some judge, but then that judge died, and New Hampshire decided it’s new favorite son was totally Franklin Pierce.
So, Yeah. It’s going to be that kind of election. Pierce is going to win, and nobody is going to see it coming.
The democratic convention of 1852 was the sort of knockdown, drag out convention fight that is now a thing of legend. The supporters of Lewis Cass, James Buchanan, and Stephen Douglas were at each other’s throats for ballot after ballot, hour after hour, day after day! Pierce’s name wasn’t even mentioned as a presidential candidate until the second day of the convention, and he wouldn’t win until the third day – that’s how deadlocked this thing was. As the Cass, Buchanan, and Douglas diehards were going at it, everyone else was getting annoyed, and that’s when, on the 35th ballot, the Virginia delegates cast the first ballots for Pierce. And slowly, gradually, others started to drift his way, too.
As the convention went to DAY THREE, more and more delegates came around to the affable, inoffensive Pierce. The Cass supporters were like, well, he’s better than Buchanan or Douglas. And the Buchanan supporters were like, well, he’s better than Douglas or Cass. And the Douglas supporters were like, well, you get the point.
Then, on the 49th ballot, the entire convention swung his way. Pierce had won! When a rider from the Democratic Convention tracked down Pierce and his wife on a carriage ride to share the news, Pierce was stunned and his wife fainted.
Compared to the nomination fight, the election of 1852 was a cakewalk. The democrats were a well-oiled machine that year – they could have turned out the vote for a jar of Mayonnaise. And the whigs? Well, as we mentioned at the start of today’s episode, outgoing president Millard Fillmore had all but destroyed them with his aggressive enforcement of the fugitive slave act. The party declined to renominate Fillmore and instead nominated Winfield Scott– ol fuss and feathers! – pitting Pierce against his old commander from the Mexican-American War, but the southern whigs abandoned the party in outrage over the rejection of Fillmore and the northern whigs abandoned the party in outrage over the fugitive slave act. One whig said trying to unite the party in 1852 was like peeing into a wind that was blowing 60-miles-per-hour against you. Pierce swept the electoral college 254 to 42, and won 27 of 31 states, but, in the popular vote, he just eked out a 51% majority.
And so, on March 4, 1853, 48-year-old Franklin Pierce – Faintin’ Frank! - the New Hampshire Democrat and kinda sorta Mexican-American War Veteran who was gifted with charm, but not much else, was sworn in as the 14th president of the United States. Let’s take a look around the country, and the world, to see what he inherited.
Internationally, the Taiping rebellion was raging in China. This was a brutal civil war in China between the reigning Qing dynasty and, I kid you not, a pseudo christian communist revolutionary movement led by a guy who thought he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ - really. And this rebellion is actually a pretty big deal. The Taiping rebellion is the bloodiest civil war in world history and 20 million people will die before it’s over. The American civil war, by comparison, will kill less than 1 million people. So, massive upheaval was underway in China.
Domestically, the United States was far more divided than Pierce’s electoral college route would suggest. The Compromise of 1850 had been designed to diffuse tension over the expansion of slavery in land acquired from Mexico, but just two years later, the south was already clamoring for more. More protection for the so-called rights of slave owners, who wanted to take their slaves wherever they wished, and more freedom to settle those slaves in federal territory and create more slave states. There was no such thing as enough. And as much as the south wanted more, the north wanted the bullcrap to end. Slavery needed to be contained – how long until the south forced it back on the north? They needed only look at the injustices of the fugitive slave act to see what the south really thought of State’s rights – they were meaningless. Just another false pretense to be used when it suited the south and jettisoned when it didn’t.
It was going to take a master-class politician to navigate these tricky waters, and Pierce was no master. Pierce would immediately undermine himself by blowing his political appointments – the first task of any new administration and a key one to building and strengthening support.
But you know what? I’m going to give Pierce a lot of slack for the early days of his administration, because, two months before he was sworn in, at a time when he should have been building his cabinet and planning his administration, he was hit by one of the most terrible personal tragedies I’ve ever heard of.
On January 6, 1853, Pierce, his wife, and his 11-year-old son were traveling by train when the train derailed in a freak accident. Pierce and his wife were ok, but when Pierce looked behind him to where his son had been sitting, he saw his son – his last surviving son – had been partially decapitated by the accident. The back of the boy’s head had torn off. How do you ever unsee something like that? At his inauguration, Pierce refused to be sworn in on the bible, feeling god had punished him for his sins. His wife was more direct then that, thinking his hubris in pursuing the presidency had brought god’s wrath upon them, as if he’d made some unholy deal with the devil – his son’s life for the presidency.
And so, if Pierce’s heart and head weren’t in it when he had to build his cabinet, I totally get it. But it was unfortunate. Because the people who took advantage of his tragedy and distraction did him no favors with the cabinet they created.
So here’s the deal, similar to the now-defunct Whigs, the Democrats were being pulled in opposite directions by abolitionists and pro-slavery fanatics. But, as we saw in the off-year election of 1851, those guys were still in the minority. They may have been a loud minority, but most of the country was in the middle. When Pierce became president, he set out to build a unity cabinet – which is great – but he built his unity cabinet almost exclusively by nominating guys on the two opposite fringes of the party and hardly nobody from the middle. And this caused all sorts of problems.
A. Because he was nominating extremists – and I mean extremists, future confederate president Jefferson Davis was put in charge of the war department for goodness sake! - it was hard as hell to get any of them confirmed in the senate, so Pierce was immediately losing political capital trying to win confirmation fights.
B. By putting extremists in his cabinet and leaving moderates out in the cold, Pierce was empowering the radical wings of his party and weakening the moderates in the middle. Whenever he wanted to build consensus for something during his administration, there’d be nobody in the middle to build consensus with.
And there’s one other important thing to keep in mind. Remember how Pierce didn’t even get any votes at the party convention until the 35th ballot? Yeah, he wasn’t anybody’s first choice. He was a compromise candidate. So it was really easy for folks to start blaming him whenever they saw something they didn’t like, because no one had ever wanted him to be president in the first place.
So, with that backdrop, I’m going to dive into the two pivotal conflicts of Pierce’s presidency:
The Kansas-Nebraska Act.
And Bleeding Kansas.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act was another conflict over the expansion of slavery – this time, in the lands of the old Louisiana Purchase. If you remember back to episode 5 on James Monroe, this question had been settled in 1820 when the north and south agreed that slavery would be allowed in Missouri, but forbidden in any other Louisiana Purchase Territory north of Missouri’s southern border.
Well, by 1853, the south was wanting out of that agreement.
It had been 49 years since Louisiana had been purchased, and 33 years since the Missouri compromise, but there was still a TON of that old Louisiana Purchase land left to settle. Only Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa had gone from Louisiana territory to statehood. Everything else from Texas to the Canadian Border – pretty much the whole great plains – was an unorganized territory known as “Nebraska.” And now, in the 1850’s, two groups of people were finally wanting to move in – northern farmers, who wanted to set up family farms, and northern railroad companies, who were competing with the south to build the first railroad to California, because everyone knew the first rail company to reach California was going to strike it rich. But here’s the hitch – nobody could buy any of that land until the federal government turned it from unorganized territory into organized territory.
And Democratic Illinois senator Stephen Douglas – the midwife of the Compromise of 1850 –and president Pierce both wanted to make it happen
But there was at least one powerful voting block that didn’t want to let them do it. The entire south.
Southern congressmen were throwing a major hissy-fit because, you guessed it, slavery. They were vowing to defeat any legislation that organized Nebraska into a territory that could be sold and settled unless the Missouri compromise was thrown out the window and slavery was allowed to expand there.
Which the north, of course, was calling malarkey on.
So Senator Douglas came up with the compromise I mentioned the top of the episode – the Kansas-Nebraska act. The act organized that vast Nebraska territory – practically the whole great plains – into two territories – Kansas and Nebraska – and then decreed the Missouri Compromise was null and void and the two territories would vote for themselves if they’d allow slavery or not.
Which yay, democracy at work! Unless... unless the two sides decided mob violence would be more fun. Huh.
And this bill, by the way, was super unpopular. The whigs were dead as an opposition party, but a random hodge podge of small anti-Democrat parties popped up all over the north to take their place, such as the Know Nothings we discussed in our last episode, and an upstart coalition in the Midwest that was calling itself the Republican Party. These new opposition parties shocked the Democrats by clobbering them in the midterm elections after the Kansas-Nebraska act was passed into law. Democrats lost 66 of the 91 northern congressional seats they held. Now, that didn’t all go to the Republican party, but quite a bit did. The Republican Party is growing.
So, ok. The act is passed, the deed is done. It’s time for everyone to cool down and let folks move in and let democracy do its thing as the territories vote to decide if they want to allow slavery or not.
And this is when everything goes off the rails.
So, when Kansas opens up to settlement, most of the folks who move in are northern farmers or southerners who were so small-time they’d never owned any slaves. And as the northerners moved in, they had to pass through the slave state of Missouri to get to Kansas, which meant many of these northerners were getting their first up-close look at slavery and they weren’t liking it. The slave pens, the auction blogs, the misery – they didn’t want that in Kansas. And when the southerners of Missouri saw all these northerners heading to Kansas, they got real nervous. They had assumed that if each territory could vote its own fate, Kansas would vote for slavery. But what if it didn’t? If Kansas was free… Missouri’s slaves could flee across the border whenever they liked. That just wouldn’t do.
It was time for Missouri to put its thumb on the scale in Kansas.
On March 30, 1855, election day for Kansas’s first territorial legislature, which would determine the slavery question for Kansas, hundreds of heavily-armed, pro-slave border ruffians from Missouri crossed into Kansas to take over polling places, stuff ballot boxes, and make sure they got the results they wanted. This, straight up, was the stealing of democracy by the slaveocracy. The fraudulently elected legislature was so pro-slavery that they made it illegal to hold office without swearing an oath that slavery would forever be legal in Kansas, they made harboring a fugitive slave punishable by 10 years’ hard labor, and they made circulating abolitionist literature a capital offense. As in, sharing this podcast could get you the death penalty.
Which is CRAZY.
The few legislators who hadn’t been put in office by the border ruffians resigned and formed a rival “free state” territorial government in Topeka that, well, it wanted two things. They wanted democratic elections, and they wanted to ban slavery … and all black people from Kansas.
Because, yeah, they were still racist, too. This isn’t exactly a great decade for the American exceptionalism crowd.
Back in Washington D.C., Pierce had to decide how to handle this mess. Should he recognize the free state government? The fraudulent one? Or call for new elections?
And, what do you know, he totally recognized the fraudulent one.
Pierce declared the free state government was an outlaw regime that had to disband and go home. “Any attempted insurrection,” he said, “would be resisted not only by the employment of local militia, but also…” The army.
And that’s about when the shooting started.
On May 21, 1856, the pro-slavery legislature formed a posse of mostly Missourians that attacked Lawrence, Kansas, and destroyed the printing press of an anti-slavery newspaper and shelled a hotel with a cannon. Nobody was hurt, but what the hell!
One day later, in Congress, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks attacked Massachusetts republican Charles Sumner on the floor of the senate and beat him with a cane until he was nearly dead. The reason for the attack was that Sumner had called Brooks’ cousin, who was another congressman, a pimp for slavery. And this was no light beating. Sumner was sitting at his desk, writing, and Brooks walked up and just started wailing on him. And when colleagues tried to make Brooks stop, one of his friends pulled a gun and said to let Brooks finish.
Sumner’s desk sat empty until he was healthy enough to return several years later. Massachusetts refused to replace him. They wanted everyone to see the empty desk and remember what the South had done.
The country was going to hell, and Pierce was taking most of the blame for it. The Democratic party realized it had to ditch him if it wanted to keep the white house. Five days before the Democratic convention that Pierce had hoped would renominate him, the New York Herald wrote, “Pierce’s follies, his imbecileliites, his false promises and still falser associates, have ruined him with his own party. He is now merely a dupe in their hands.”
Further north, in New Hampshire, his hometown burned him in effigy.
After the first day of balloting, at that democratic convention of 1856, Pierce withdrew his name. The south supported him! But. Yeah. Nobody else did. James Buchanan, one of the three favorites Pierce had upset in 1852, finished ahead of him on every ballot. The nomination would be his.
As Pierce closed out the final months of his administration, the situation in Kansas went from bad to worse. An anti-slavery radical named John Brown and his sons murdered five innocent people who didn’t even own any slaves. They were killed because they had paid their allegiance to the pro-slavery government of Kansas instead of the “free-state” one in Topeka. The US Army responded by arresting the “free state” governor and dispersing the first meeting of its legislature, making it look to the north like the army had become a tool of the southern slaveocracy.
And the killing continued.
More than 200 people would be killed during the tragedy known as Bleeding Kansas – a tragedy that will continue in our next episode during the presidency of James Buchanan. As for Faintin’ Frank? He gave one final grievance-laden speech to Congress, then departed the presidency on March 4, 1857, leaving a divided and damaged country behind him.
So. Not good. But outside these major developments, how else had the United States, and the world, changed during the administration of Franklin Pierce?
Well, there was actually quite a bit of other stuff, domestically.
In 1853, a small American fleet known as the Perry Expedition, which had been dispatched by president Millard Fillmore before he’d lost reelection, reached Japan and threatened to basically blow up the Japanese capital if they didn’t open their ports to American trade and end a 220-year policy of isolation. Soooo. Yeah. They agreed to trade.
Also in 1853, a railroad promoter named Gadsden negotiated the Gadsden purchase from Mexico, adding nearly 30,000-square miles, after initially trying to get much more, and finalizing our current southern border. Fun fact, the treaty was signed by the 12-time Mexican leader Santa Anna, who we’ve been running into since episode A on Sam Houston.
In 1855, a free black man named John Mercer Langston was elected to political office in Ohio – making him the first ever African American to be elected to serve in the U.S. Government.
The Pierce administration also witnessed the peak of America’s filibustering craze - which didn’t mean then what it means today. Today, the term filibuster refers to a senator taking the floor and speaking about whatever they want for hours or days to run out the clock on the session and prevent a vote from taking place. Back in the 1850’s, a filibusterer was basically an American adventurer who got a bunch of guns, money, and men, and tried to launch a coup in another country to overthrow its government and either rule as dictator or pursue annexation as a new slave state. They were basically running the Texas playbook, but poorly. For the most part, Pierce and other presidents tried to stamp these out, as foreign governments didn’t really like American adventurers trying to topple them, but one filibusterer named William Walker did succeed in making himself president of Nicaragua for about 10 months in 1856. He would later be executed by Nicaraguan firing squad in 1860.
So. That happened, too.
On the invention front, Vermont inventor David M. Smith invented! The clothes pin. Yeah. That’s what I’ve got for you.
Internationally, the Crimean was fought in Europe from 1853 to 1856. This was a nasty war between France, Great Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia, which was expanding a bit too aggressively for France and Great Britain’s taste. The war was so disruptive to international trade that it actually led to a brief boom for American farmers, as western Europe lost access to Russian grain during the fighting.
The world’s first oil refinery was built in Romania in 1856 – so get ready for vehicles powered by the exploding remains of dinosaurs.
And a new method to mass-produce steel called the Bessemer Process was discovered in England in 1856. Steel is going to be a gamechanger for construction and inventions ‘round the world.
After Pierce left the presidency, he spent some time traveling Europe, but was back in the United States by 1859, when it was apparent Buchanan’s presidency was even more of a disaster than Pierce’s had been – so look forward to that. Future Confederate President Jefferson Davis – who, remember, had been Pierce’s secretary of War – pressed Pierce to run for a second term, clearly loving the idea of having a northern stooge in the white house. But a second run for the presidency never came to be.
When states started seceding after Lincoln’s election, Pierce tried to slow that train down by writing letters to southern newspapers saying hundreds of thousands of northerners were ready to defend southern rights and, if the south would just be patient, the north would kick those troublesome abolitionists out of the country, but I have to think this did more harm than good. Like, If I were in the south and I saw that article, I’d think, great! The north doesn’t want to fight. This will be easy. Let’s do it.
Pierce stayed largely silent during the civil war, but started calling it a failure just before the union victory at Gettysburg. So. Poor timing there.
After the war, Pierce offered to represent Jefferson Davis at his treason trial, but Davis politely declined.
The end of Pierce’s life was a sad one. His wife and his best friend in 1863 and 1864, leaving Pierce to declare, “there’s nothing left to do but drink.” Five years later, on Oct. 8, 1869, he died, too. Of severe cirrhosis of the liver, likely from extreme alcohol abuse. He was 64 years old.
So what can we learn from Franklin Pierce?
How about, learn to admit when you’re wrong?
This is a lesson that any of the 1850’s American presidents could offer, because they were all terrible at it, but I think Pierce’s handling of Bleeding Kansas is where it’s most apparent. I mean, I get it. The guy opposed abolitionists. He thought they were too radical. But is allowing a bunch of border ruffians to elect a pro-slavery government at gun-point less radical? The massive losses suffered by the Democrats in the 1854 midterms should have been a huge ringing alarm bell that something had to change, but instead Pierce doubled down, and, because he doubled down, he couldn’t even get renominated by his own party.
So that’s the lesson. Be willing to admit you’re wrong. We all make mistakes. But the only mistakes that can really end us are the ones we refuse to admit we’ve made.
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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.
The primary biography for today’s episode was Franklin Pierce, by Michael F. Holt
In our next episode, we’ll look at the life and presidency of James Buchanan, the man who will rig the game the way he wants it, and still manage to lose it all in the most extraordinary way possible – civil war.
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.