Miller Center

Franklin Pierce: Impact and Legacy

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It could be said that Franklin Pierce had little business being President, but in a nation fragmenting over slavery, only a bland, affable political lightweight was palatable to the electorate. Yet the irony of Franklin Pierce's administration is that a man less than qualified to be President was behind one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in American history. Once pressured into backing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Pierce accelerated the course towards civil war. In the 1850s, disputes over slavery were so emotionally charged that both sides sought moderate leaders. Franklin Pierce was one of these and thus became President of the United States.

Committed to a political style that emphasized party cohesion and compromise as a means of downplaying sectional differences, Pierce's leadership lacked the strength and tenacity of a Jackson or a Lincoln. As a result, tumultuous events simply overwhelmed him and he was sometimes dominated by forceful politicians like Stephen Douglas. For most historians, Pierce is viewed as an inept chief executive whose traditional style of leadership failed in the face of the massive electoral divisions over slavery and the aggressiveness of southerners. But other Presidents were unable to solve these issues, short of war. And from that war came two worthwhile resultséthe emancipation of the slaves and the restoration of the Union. Still, Franklin Pierce serves as an example of why difficult times require forceful leadership that is sensitive to issues both of change and continuity.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Jean H. Baker

Professor Baker is a professor of history at Goucher College. Her writings include:

Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists (Hill and Wang, 2005)

James Buchanan (Times Life Books, 2004)

The Civil War and Reconstruction (Co-authored with Michael F. Holt and David Herbert Donald, W.W. Norton, 2001)