By Michael Gerhardt
There are few presidents more forgotten — and perhaps worth forgetting than — Franklin Pierce. To the extent he is remembered at all, historians and others dismiss him as a weak president who allowed strong-willed senators sympathetic to slavery interests to force him to take actions, which helped to provoke a near civil war in Kansas and bring the nation itself closer to the Civil War that formally broke out in 1861. Yet, there are at least five things that make remembering Pierce worthwhile.
First, he was not a weak president. Historians and others frequently get Pierce wrong. His problem was not that he was weak but rather that he was too strong. He came into the presidency as a Northern Doughface, which was meant that he was someone from the North (New Hampshire in Pierce’s case) that sympathized with pro-slavery forces. But he did not merely sympathize. At the urging of Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and a few others, Pierce decided to abandon his campaign pledge (which he repeated in his inaugural address) not to tinker with the Missouri compromise, which had restricted slavery in certain federal territories. Instead, Pierce wrote in his own hand the infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was a federal law authorizing the territories of Kanas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether to adopt pro- or anti-slavery constitutions. Pierce did not stop there, however. Once the law went into effect, Pierce used every power he had as president to force slavery down the throats of the people of Kansas. Indeed, one popular cartoon of the era shows a grisly depiction of Pierce trying to do just that. His were not the actions of a weak man but of a stubborn one, who insisted until his dying day that abolitionists not slaveholders were responsible for the bloodshed in Kansas and the Civil War itself.
Second, Pierce is the only American president to serve out a full term without a single change in his cabinet. Other presidents, including Lincoln, had difficult relations with their cabinets, but Pierce is unique for having assembled a relatively harmonious group as his cabinet. Thus, he was able to focus less on the infighting within his administration and more on the substance and implementation of the policies of his administration
Third, Pierce exhibited the human cost of the presidency. Nothing is more painful — and horrible — for a parent than losing a child. In fact, on their trip to Washington for the inauguration, the Pierce’s railcar fell down an embankment; and both Pierce and his wife watched helplessly as their son was crushed in front of their eyes. Pierce’s wife never recovered. She blamed Pierce’s ambitions for their son’s death. Pierce sought solace from religion throughout his presidency — and from the friendship of a few people, particularly Jefferson Davis.
Fourth, Pierce, with the help of his Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, began to modernize the army. They helped to secure civilian control of the army, upgrade standards for promotion, and improve the weaponry. Ironically, when Davis led the Southern confederacy during the Civil War, the army he faced was the one he had helped to equip.
Lastly, Pierce demonstrates the price a president plays for embracing the wrong side of history. Pierce’s stubbornness in defending slavery became his legacy, which thus became one that many people wanted to forget. Indeed, in the State Capitol of Kansas, streets heading west out of the downtown are named in order of antebellum presidents — with one exception. There is no Pierce street. After it took control of the State legislature, the Free Soil party wanted to bury Pierce’s memory. To the extent Pierce is remembered in Kansas, it is as the president Kansans most want to forget.
Michael Gerhardt is Samuel Ashe Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. A nationally recognized authority on constitutional conflicts, he has testified in several Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and has published five books, including The Forgotten Presidents and The Power of Precedent. Read his previous blog posts on the American presidents.