Study Guide

Franklin Pierce in Kansas-Nebraska Act

By U.S. Congress

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Franklin Pierce

An Unsuccessful Success Story

Work-life balance wasn't really a thing people talked about back in the 1840s. If it had been, people might have been a little more sympathetic to the plight of poor President Pierce.

This guy had it rough. His marriage was an unhappy one; all three of his children died before the age of twelve, the last in a horrific train crash shortly before Pierce took office; and Frank himself had a pretty severe alcohol problem that dominated a good portion of his adult life.

If Norman Rockwell had been alive back then, he certainly wouldn't have been rushing over to the Pierce place for art ideas.

But not only did Franklin appear to be first in line at life's lemon stand on a personal level, he also presided over the United States during a crazy tense and chaotic period of time and is often listed as one of the country's worst POTUSes ever.

Why? What did this guy do in a past life to have such an awful go of it this time around?

Well, we can't answer that question, but we can discuss what he did in this lifetime to get people to loathe him so.

Franklin Pierce was a smart, well-connected, well-educated, and (apparently) fairly dapper dude who was really good at public speaking and winning local elections. He wasn't even thirty years old when he became a U.S. Congressman for his home state of New Hampshire, and he was elected POTUS before he was fifty, making him the youngest President ever at the time. He'd also served as a Brigadier General in the Mexican-American War, so he got to add "military background" to his résumé as well.

But even though Pierce's career might look fantastic on paper, it had more issues than Planet of the Apes had plot holes.

First, that fancy-schmancy military title was given to him as a favor, not because his military experience earned it. That, and rumors of supposed cowardice on the battlefield (they were never proven), caused many folks to mutter angrily behind his back before he even moved into the White House.

Then, two years after he was elected President, he signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and that made everyone mad.

Peeved With POTUS

President Pierce had always supported the right of the southern states to allow slavery. He felt like the abolitionists of the North were making way too much noise about the subject and threatening the unity of the country. That being said, the North wasn't necessarily surprised he'd gone along with the whole popular sovereignty spiel (even though it totally repealed the Missouri Compromise), but they were disappointed.

And maybe a little angry. Maybe a lot angry, actually. The ink from Franklin's signature on the act wasn't even dry before gaggles of northerners were packing up their wares and heading for Kansas to stave off what they felt sure would be a yay-for-slavery vote in the new territory.

On the other side of the coin, the South, who'd always had a friend in Franklin Pierce, definitely approved of the Kansas-Nebraska Act but didn't think it had enough pro-slavery teeth. Alarmed by the influx of abolitionists into Kansas Territory, some southerners, along with a bunch of their compatriots from Missouri, also made their way to Kansas to influence the vote.

Hilarity did not ensue.

And so, thanks to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the resultant Bleeding Kansas fiasco, President Pierce is largely credited as being the least effective thing ever in preventing the outbreak of war. He was such a zero of a President that his own party, his beloved Democrats, didn't even nominate him for reelection in 1856. They picked James Buchanan instead, and he ended up being an even worse POTUS than Pierce had been.

After that embarrassment, Franklin and wife Jane headed back to New Hampshire for a little while before ditching out altogether and spending the next three years traveling the world. After Jane passed away in 1863, Pierce turned to his old friend liquor for comfort; his depression, alcoholism, and generally declining health led to his own death in 1869.

Looks like even the best résumé in the world can't buy happiness, health, or peace.

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