The First Doughface: Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

The only U.S. President from my home state is rather embarrassing. He ran for office against a hero he had served under in the Mexican War, but he was certainly no hero himself, and the butt of endless jokes: widely ridiculed for falling of his horse, fainting in battle, and loving booze more than his wife — the “hero of many a well-fought bottle”. But he did win the election, against the odds, and the tragedy is that he could have been a fairly decent executive if not for his doughface shenanigans.

Franklin Pierce was fiscally prudent and paid down the national debt by an astonishing 83%. This you can say for him: he merits a high prosperity rating. But everything else torpedoes his overall ranking.

Crusading for the South

He bought the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico (1854) — tracts of land in southern Arizona and New Mexico — nominally to build railroads to the Pacific, but really to expand southern areas in his ongoing cause to stick a knife in anti-slavery whenever he could. He wasn’t just a northerner who stuck up for southern slave rights. He actively crusaded for the southern cause.

That’s why he tried to acquire Cuba — to make it a slave state. The southern states feared the Spanish were about to free their slaves in Cuba, which might give American slaves rebellious ideas. To increase southern voting power, Pierce threatened the Spanish to give up Cuba. The northern states were absolutely opposed to adding Cuba the union, let alone by force, and it didn’t happen. On the other hand, when presented with the opportunity to add Hawaii to the union, Pierce refused. Hawaii, after all, would have almost certainly entered as a free state.

And those aren’t the worst of his doughface sins. Pierce endorsed the calamitous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed those two vast territories (click on the right map to enlarge) to determine whether or not they would be slave states. The Compromise of 1850 had allowed the same decision for the New Mexico and Utah territories, but that was a hollow victory for the south given that nearby Mexico had outlawed slavery, there wasn’t an abundance of slaves around those regions anyway, and the land itself in those regions wasn’t conducive to a slave industry. The Kansas Nebraska territories threw the door wide open to awful possibilities.

Pierce went out of his way to make those possibilities real. It wasn’t enough for him to endorse the legislation. He actually injected himself into the territories’ decision-making process, by encouraging pro-slavery border thugs to cross from Missouri into Kansas and set up a pro-slavery government. He then recognized this government, and appointed countless pro-slavery governors in the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Northerners were so pissed, and a mini-civil war broke out in Kansas. Thus was born the Republican Party (in 1854), in opposition to the causes of slavery.

Fillmore vs. Pierce

Historians usually say that it was Millard Fillmore’s signing of the Compromise of 1850, which contained the Fugitive Slave Act, that made the Civil War inevitable. That’s not true at all. It was rather Pierce’s appalling shenanigans in the Kansas-Nebraska territories that put the nation on the road to war.

Even at the point of 1854, however, it’s inaccurate to say that the Civil War was inevitable. It was starting to look very likely, with increasing numbers of hotheads on both sides, but there were still alternatives. The British Empire had eliminated slavery in the 1833-38 period, and even “backwater” Mexico had ended the practice in 1829, and they both did so without resorting to war. A good president could have offered southern slave owners compensation for a gradual emancipation of slaves. The cost of such an emancipation would have been far less than the financial costs of the Civil War, not to mention the colossal cost of human lives (600,000, including 38,000 African Americans). Alas, Pierce’s shenanigans didn’t allow for calmer minds to prevail.

There is one good thing you can say for Pierce’s peace record. He signed the Canadian Reciprocity Treaty, thereby ending a long-standing dispute with Canada over fishing rights. The treaty also specified clearer borders between the nations, and got rid of tariffs on products traded between America and Canada. That, and Pierce’s good fiscal management, is pretty much all there is in his favor.

Peace — 4/20
Prosperity — 17/20
Liberty — 2/20

TOTAL SCORE = 23/60 = Bad

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