Jonathan P. Baird: Pierce’s disturbing record on slavery

  • Pierce

For the Monitor
Published: 11/7/2019 6:45:24 AM

In writing about the New York Times1619 Project and slavery last month, I made a notable error. As pointed out by Monitor reader William Judd, I had included New Hampshire’s only president, Franklin Pierce, on a list of presidents who owned slaves. He did not.

As someone who attended Franklin Pierce Law Center and as someone who has been to the Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough, I became curious about Pierce and the slavery question. There is not much good quality information readily available about Pierce.

I had previously read that a consensus of historians generally ranked him as one of our worst presidents. While it is true that Franklin Pierce did not own slaves, I think it is fair to say his slavery views and his handling of slavery-related issues were beyond abysmal.

Pierce hated abolitionists. It was a defining passion for him. Pierce was a Democrat and in that era before the Civil War, the Democrats were the political party generally aligned with pro-slavery interests. Although he was a Northerner, he had Southern-type principles.

When an Anti-Slavery Society formed in New Hampshire in 1835, Pierce wrote to a friend: “One thing must be perfectly apparent to every intelligent man. This abolition movement must be crushed or there is an end to the Union.”

Before the Civil War, the country was incredibly divided over the slavery question. Pierce was a compromise presidential candidate in 1852. Democrats correctly believed Pierce would have national appeal since he was loyal to the Union but with a pro-Southern ideology. Pierce was the most pro-slavery New England politician.

Pierce won the Democratic nomination on the 49th ballot at the 1852 Convention. He upset James Buchanan, who had been expected to be the nominee. Sen. William King of Alabama became Pierce’s vice president. Sen. King’s family was the largest slaveholding family in Alabama.

After the 1852 Convention, New Hampshire Congressman Edmund Burke wrote to Pierce: “I think we did right in putting King on the ticket. You know he is Buchanan’s bosom friend and thus a great and powerful interest is conciliated. … The slave states will fall into our laps like ripe apples.”

At his inauguration in 1853, Pierce had this to say about slavery: “I believe that involuntary servitude, as it exists in different States of this Confederacy, is recognized by the Constitution. I believe that it stands, like any other admitted right, and that the States where it exists are entitled to efficient remedies to enforce the constitutional provisions.”

Jefferson Davis, later the president of the Confederacy, was one of Pierce’s best friends. After his 1852 election to the presidency, Pierce made Jefferson Davis his secretary of war.

A crucial issue for Pierce was the expansion of slavery into the Western territories beyond what was then the United States. Kansas and Nebraska were two places that were in play. The Compromise of 1820 had previously banned slavery north of the 36 degree 30’ parallel, excluding Missouri. The South wanted to overturn that compromise.

There was a continuing battle between slave and free states that was reflected in the Compromise of 1850. Pierce was pushed by Sen. Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis and other Southern interests to weigh in on the side of the South. Pierce did so when he signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, a highly consequential piece of legislation that repealed the Missouri Compromise.

Both pro- and anti-slavery advocates poured into Kansas, leading to violent political confrontation in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Probably no act of Congress divided the nation as much, heading the United States toward Civil War.

Pierce became unpopular in the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Democrats moved on from him, making James Buchanan the party’s presidential nominee in 1856. Pierce was generally seen as someone who advocated for the pro-slavery states.

As president, Pierce enforced the Fugitive Slave Act. When an escaped slave named Anthony Burns was seized in Boston, President Pierce dispatched federal troops to enforce Burns’s return to Virginia. That show of force backfired and turned many New Englanders against slavery, so much so that a multi-racial crowd of abolitionists attacked the court in Boston where Burns was being held and tried to free him. Pierce became hated for his role in this affair.

After his tenure as president, Pierce became a harsh critic of President Lincoln. When Lincoln was assassinated, a mob gathered outside Pierce’s home in Concord demanding to know why Pierce had not raised a flag as a public mourning gesture. Pierce was able to talk the mob down.

Pierce had been a very successful trial lawyer in Concord in the 1840s. Before he became president, he had a long record of public service, including speaker of the House in the New Hampshire Legislature, congressman and senator.

Although on domestic policy Pierce had inflamed conflict, he had tried to unite the country with a very aggressive program of imperialism and foreign expansion. He had sought to annex Hawaii and purchase Cuba. Many abolitionists believed that he wanted to acquire new territory for slavery.

Pierce suffered deep tragedies in his life, including the death of his three children. His 11-year-old son Benny died in a horrible train accident in Andover, Mass., right before Pierce became president. Both he and his wife were there.

Pierce had a serious alcohol problem. He persisted in drinking even though his physical condition was deteriorating. He died in 1869 of cirrhosis of the liver. None of his family members were present. In his last years he had expressed support for Andrew Johnson’s version of Reconstruction and he applauded Johnson’s acquittal after he was impeached.

While to his credit Pierce was not a slaveholder, there is almost nothing there to feel good about. He was from New Hampshire but fundamentally he was a slavery collaborator.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at

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