As a young congressman, Franklin Pierce was fond of socializing and drank heavily. To please his wife who hated both Washington, D.C. and his drinking, he agreed to go back to his law practice in New Hampshire. He displeased her when he signed up for the Mexican War. Pierce wanted to serve his country but was a terrible general who suffered from multiple injuries and fainted often.
Portrait of Franklin Pierce
When the Democrats nominated him for president in 1852, his main advantage was that he had been out of politics for years and had no enemies. His journey to Washington turned tragic when he and his family were involved in a train wreck. He and his wife were unharmed, but their young son died. Mrs. Pierce refused to accompany her husband to his inauguration and returned to New Hampshire to grieve.
Though he was from a non-slave state, Pierce believed that the Constitution supported slavery. He made Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, a member of his cabinet. As president he enforced the Fugitive Slave Act that Northerners hated.
He also supported the Kanas Nebraska Act, which allowed people in the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide whether they wanted slavery in those territories or not. Slave owners and abolitionists rushed into Kansas in an effort to influence the vote on slavery. The clashes between the slave owners and the abolitionists turned violent. Pierce was unable to unite the country or his party while the fighting continued.
Democrats passed over Pierce and nominated James Buchanan for the next election. When the South left the Union, Pierce wrote a letter of support to his friend Jefferson Davis. The letter became public and Pierce was viewed in his own state as a traitor. The increasingly reclusive former president drank so much after his wife’s death that he also died.
Before the election of 1844 former president Andrew Jackson requested James K. Polk to visit him. He told Polk that he wanted someone who favored the annexation of Texas to run for president and promised to back Polk for the job.
Polk had experience serving as governor of Tennessee and as a congressman, but more famous names were being considered. Still, Polk was nominated by the Democrats and won the election with his promise to acquire both Oregon and Texas for the U.S. At his inauguration “Hail to the Chief” was played for the first time.
Portrait of President James K. Polk
Polk is well-known for accomplishing his expansionist goals. Under his administration Britain ceded Oregon to the U.S. After a costly war with Mexico, Texas, California, and New Mexico became part of the United States, too.
Not everyone was pleased with Polk’s tactics, however. Polk claimed that war with Mexico was forced upon the U.S. because Mexican forces attacked the American troops that, on Polk’s orders, happened to be near the border of the two countries. A new congressman named Abraham Lincoln introduced “spot resolutions,” demanding that Polk identify the spot where American blood was shed on American soil. Indeed, it was unclear whether the troops led by Zachary Taylor had been in Mexican or American territory when fired upon.
Polk’s pro-slavery views offended others who did not want slavery to extend to new U.S. territories. More anti-slavery northerners began to leave the Democratic Party and join the Whigs.
Polk had promised to serve only one term and refused to run for another. He couldn’t have run for office again anyway because he was physically drained by his four years as president. He believed that “No president who performs his duty conscientiously can have any leisure.” Polk refused to delegate tasks and was the first president to insist on staying all summer in the White House despite the heat in Washington. His nearly non-stop work ethic contributed to his death three months after he left office.