Franklin Pierce and the Fight for the Old Union

If Franklin Pierce is remembered at all today it is as an inept, do-nothing President whose only accomplishment was to sign the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Historians generally cite this bill, along with the 1857 Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case, as evidence of the aggressive designs of the South to extend slavery throughout the Union. These historians characterize Pierce, as well as his successor James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, as ambitious and unprincipled Northerners who were willing to violate the Constitution and advance Southern interests in return for Southern political support for their presidential ambitions. The historians thus ascribe much of the blame for the sectional conflict to them. The real Franklin Pierce, however, is a figure far richer and more complicated than the historical caricature.

Pierce was one of the most consistent Jeffersonian republicans to occupy the White House m the early republic. He firmly believed that the federal government should be kept within the limits established by the Founders. Accordingly, he vetoed numerous internal improvement bills (what we would today describe as pork-barrel projects) on the grounds of their unconstitutionality and fiscal excess. He also believed strongly in the republican policy initiated by Jefferson and continued by his successors of "extending the area of freedom" by acquiring territory out of which new states could eventually be formed....

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