Franklin Pierce was elected as the 14th and possibly worst president of the United States on Nov. 2, 1852. During his presidency he confronted two divided houses: the growing friction between the North and the South and his wife’s unhappiness with his political career.
Pierce was a successful lawyer who parlayed his charm, reputation and family connections into a political career.
He married Jane Means Appleton, the daughter of the president of Bowdoin College, Pierce’s alma mater. It wasn’t a great match. He was gregarious, vain, a drinker and a son of the frontier. She was shy, sickly, refined and a proper daughter of New England’s theocracy.
They married in 1834 after an eight-year courtship. By then he was a member of Congress. Their wedding was held at her family home Amherst, N.H., and they left immediately afterward for Washington, D.C.
She put up with his first session, but returned home to her mother in New Hampshire for the second. She gave birth to their first son, Franklin Jr., in 1836, but he only lived a few days.
Jane Pierce managed another season in Washington. When she learned her husband was elected to the Senate for the term beginning in 1837, she seemed unimpressed.
Pierce succumbed to Jane’s wishes and quit the Senate in 1842. She had given birth to two more sons, Frank Robert in 1839 and Benjamin in 1841. Washington was no place to raise their children.
They moved to Concord, where Franklin pursued his legal career and dabbled in politics. Their son Frank Robert died an agonizing death of typhus in 1843.
When the United States went to war with Mexico in 1846, Franklin Pierce accepted a commission as brigadier general. He returned from the war safely and as interested in politics as ever.
In 1852, the Democratic Party nominated Franklin Pierce for the presidency of the United States. When Jane heard the news, she fainted. Their remaining son Benny wrote a letter to her saying, “I hope he won’t be elected.”
He was elected as a doughface, a northerner with southern sympathies.
Two divisive decisions made him a one-term president. He signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and supported the Ostend Manifesto, which justified the use of force in seizing Cuba. Both were ways to expand slavery. He also enforced the Fugitive Slave Act.
Pierce regretted his presidential aspirations even before he was sworn into office.
Just after he was elected president, the Pierces’ 11-year-old son Benny was crushed to death in a freak train accident. Wood fell on the boy's head and Pierce picked him up, not realizing he was dead until he took off his cap. The boy’s head was like jelly.
Pierce never got over it. He didn’t take the oath of office on the Bible because he believed his son’s death was God’s judgment for his political campaigning.
No wonder Pierce had a problem with alcohol.
When he ran for president in 1852, he didn't have a campaign slogan. When it came time for re-election his opponents did: "Anybody but Pierce."
Legend has it that as he left office he told reporters, "There is nothing left but to get drunk." His reputation was destroyed, at least in the north, when he declared his support for the Confederacy. He was shunned for the rest of his life, though his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne stood by him.
Franklin Pierce died on Oct. 8, 1869, of cirrhosis of the liver.
This story was updated in 2017.