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This week, as Americans think about what they chose to do yesterday, we're celebrating some of the less successful choices the nation has had in the White House. Yesterday, we focused on Andrew Johnson. Today, we've reached the third-worst US President of all time, Franklin Pierce.
The Compromise of 1850 had been supposed to, if not solve the tensions around slavery, at least fudge the issue for a while and stop the US tearing itself apart. So Franklin Pierce's presidency, starting in 1853, should have been a period of relative calm. That it wasn't says a lot about how poorly compromise served the USA of the mid 19th Century.
Franklin's candidacy was something of a compromise, too - it had taken thirty four ballots amongst Democrats to realise they weren't going to be able to agree on a candidate for the 1852 election. Instead, Franklin - a former Senator who had returned to practicing law - was adopted to run, his support for the Compromise making him just-about-acceptable as a candidate for the South.
He won the White House, and it went downhill from there. In his inaugural address, he said
"I fervently hope that the [slavery] question is at rest"
Maybe if it had been, his Presidency could have been a better one. Even without the slavery question, though, he was something of a disaster - he was even arrested while President after his horse ran over a woman; lack of evidence saved his skin.
Politically, he was inept. His desire to expand the territory of the US was rotten. Pierce tried to bully Spain into selling Cuba to the US, for example. His tactics failed and just made Spain less likely to sell; his attempt to purchase the island enraged Northerners who saw this expansion as an attempt to increase the writ of slavery throughout the Americas.
Pierce's biggest bungle, though, was his support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. By allowing the new territories to decide on their slavery policies, the Act scuppered the Missouri Compromise which, since 1820, had forbidden slavery north of latitude 36°30′. Supporting the Kansas-Nebraska act was effectively support for slavery, and Pierce's endorsement of the Fugitive Slave Act and returning escaped slaves to their "owners" added to that impression.
In the long term, Pierce helped hasten the nation along the road to the Civil War. In the short term, he choked off any support he might have had and, when he came up for re-election, the Democrats shunned him and picked James Buchanan as their candidate for 1856. (We'll get to him later this week.)
In fairness to Pierce, he had a pretty miserable personal start to his Presidency - a train crash between election and inauguaration claimed the life of his son, the third boy that Pierce had to bury. And his wife had not supported his campaign, and continued to offer no support in his four years in power. He was in over his head, and the story of his time as a soldier, fainting at the thought of fighting, further scuppered his chances of being thought a good choice.
And once out of office? Pierce is recorded as not having had much of a plan to cope then, either. He told a friend:
There’s nothing left to do but get drunk.
Sadly, this was something he did do successfully. By 1869, his liver had had enough, and Pierce was dead.