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President Franklin Pierce's Politics and Economics

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  • 0:05 The Election of 1852
  • 1:12 Political and Economic…
  • 2:05 Slave Power
  • 3:37 An Unpopular President
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

In the wake of the Compromise of 1850, President Franklin Pierce pursued an aggressive agenda of expansion. In this lesson, find out why it inflamed sectional tensions, and why he wasn't re-nominated for a second term.

The Election of 1852

Although America seemed peaceful on the surface following the Compromise of 1850, the national conventions leading up to the 1852 presidential election showed otherwise. Southern Whigs favored the incumbent president, Millard Fillmore. But northern Whigs felt the Compromise had been a sell-out, which they blamed on Fillmore. It took 53 ballots, but finally, the Whigs settled on General Winfield Scott, a hero from the Mexican-American War. It was a strategy that had worked for them in the past.

President Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce

The Democrats faced the same divisive issue. After 34 votes, four different men surfaced as front-runners. Finally, someone introduced a new name: Franklin Pierce. The Democrats liked that he was a northern man with southern sympathies. He was also a Brigadier General of the Mexican-American War (though this fact was downplayed). The fact that he was a so-called 'dark horse' was also considered a good thing, since that strategy had worked in their favor in the recent past. President Franklin Pierce won an electoral landslide, but it wouldn't take long for him to alienate many Americans and push the nation to the brink of war.

Political and Economic Expansion

After the election, but before his inauguration, the Pierce family was in a train accident in which their 11-year old son died. Bennie had been the last of the president's surviving children, and both of his parents moved into the White House exhausted with grief. The president poured his nervous energy into economic and territorial expansion for the nation, noting that it was in America's national security interests to claim more land - and that he would not be restrained by 'any timid forebodings of evil from expansion.' Among his few non-controversial actions was opening diplomatic relations with Japan, hoping that open trade would follow. He also expanded trade with Canada and moved the U.S. closer to acquiring Hawaii. But from the outset, Northerners were suspicious and refused to be distracted from what seemed like his obvious intention to expand slave power.

American William Walker staged a coup in Nicaragua
William Walker

Slave Power

President Pierce used the Monroe Doctrine to force Great Britain out of Central America and promised to use the military to keep them out. He recognized the government of William Walker, an American who had staged a military coup in Nicaragua. Though, Pierce backpedaled in response to pressure from Cornelius Vanderbilt, an American millionaire who had his own designs for the region. Then, his Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, convinced him to buy a strip of land at the southern border of the New Mexico territory for $10 million. With the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, Franklin Pierce completed the remaining contiguous territory of the United States - often called the 'lower 48.' Though the land was intended to be used as a route for the transcontinental railroad, it angered northerners both for its price tag and for its expansion of southern territory.

In the following year, Senator Stephen Douglas would compete to get the transcontinental railroad through land he owned and reignite the firestorm of slavery with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Violence erupted between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers in the territory after popular sovereignty was established. Pierce did little to address this problem. Also in 1854, the Ostend Manifesto was leaked. This letter, from some of his diplomats, revealed to the world that Pierce had attempted to buy Cuba (ostensibly to become a new slave state), and that he should consider military action if Spain refused to sell the land. Pressure from the American public and European leaders led him to abandon this plan.

Location of the 1853 Gadsden Purchase land
Gadsden Purchase Map

An Unpopular President

This cartoon reveals how many people felt about the administration's policies. Take a moment to look it over. First, read the title to help you identify the audience and/or the artist's attitude toward the subject. In this case, 'Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Freesoiler' should help you infer that the attitude of the cartoon is negative towards the figures represented. The president and his supporters hold down a giant 'Freesoiler' (a person who believed that slavery should not expand into new territory) and push a protesting slave into his throat. Stereotypes and exaggerated images like these generally represent something more complicated in the context in which they were drawn. In this case, a giant represents the anti-slavery residents of Kansas. It's taking the strength of four politically-powerful men to achieve their goal. What does it mean that they are shoving the slave down his throat? I'd say the artist thinks Americans are opposed to slavery's expansion.

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