Pierce was born in New Hampshire. His father had fought in the Revolutionary War and had also been a state legislator. Franklin Pierce represented his state in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1833 to 1837 and in the US Senate from 1837 to 1842. He resigned from the Senate and operated a successful private law practice in New Hampshire, In 1845 he was appointed U.S. Attorney for his state. He left home to serve in the Mexican–American War as a brigadier general in the Army. At the Battle of Contreras he was injured when a horse fell on him, and his inability to fight later led to unfounded accusations of cowardice that would later be used against him politically. In his autobiography, Ulysses S. Grant attests to Pierce's honorable service and bravery, while disapproving of his politics.
When the election of 1852 rolled around, Pierce was seen by Democrats as a compromise candidate who could unite northern and southern interests. He was nominated as the party's candidate for president on the 49th ballot at the 1852 Democratic National Convention. He and running mate William Rufus King defeated the Whig Party ticket of Winfield Scott (his commander in the Mexican War) and William A. Graham in the 1852 presidential election.
On route to his nomination, tragedy struck when a train derailed and the Pierce's only surviving child, a son named Benny, was killed. The Pierces had lost two other children previously and the tragic circumstances of Benny's death left the parents devastated. Pierce's wife Jane saw the event as some sort of punishment from God for her husband's political hubris and for a time she refused to live in Washington. The tragedy likely contributed to Pierce's excessive drinking.
As president, Pierce wanted to attempt to enforce neutral standards for civil service, but this was difficult to do while also satisfying the diverse elements of the Democratic Party with patronage. His effort largely failed and turned many in his party against him, especially the New York faction. Pierce subscribed to an expansionist vision. He signed the Gadsden Purchase of land from Mexico and led a failed attempt to acquire Cuba from Spain. He also signed trade treaties with Britain and Japan. As a manager he was able to see his Cabinet reform their departments and improve accountability.
However these minor successes were overshadowed by political strife during his presidency. His popularity dropped significantly in the Northern states after he supported the Kansas–Nebraska Act, legislation which nullified the Missouri Compromise. Many in the South continued to support him, but the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to violent conflict over the expansion of slavery in the American West. Pierce supported the pro-slavery factions, even though they promoted violence and appeared to be a minority that had acquired political success fraudulently. Pierce's administration was further damaged when several of his diplomats issued the Ostend Manifesto calling for the annexation of Cuba, a document which was severely criticized.
Pierce expected to be renominated by the Democrats in the 1856 presidential election, but was abandoned by his party. His reputation in the North suffered further during the Civil War as he became a vocal critic of President Abraham Lincoln. He had kept in correspondence with Jefferson Davis, an old friend who had once been a member of Pierce's cabinet. This further damaged his reputation.
Pierce's family life continued to be an unhappy one and his wife Jane suffered from illness and depression for much of her life. Pierce died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1869. Historians and scholars generally rank Pierce as one of the worst and least memorable U.S. Presidents.
After Pierce died, Americans didn't really think about him very much. He was considered to be one of a series of antebellum presidents whose fumbled their way towards a civil war. Scholars mostly considered Pierce's presidency to be a failure, and in rankings of presidents, he is ranked near the bottom, usually among the four worst. A survey of the public placed him third-to-last among his peers in C-SPAN surveys conducted in 2000 and 2009. Although he did not lead that fight — Senator Stephen Douglas did — Pierce gets blamed for the disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act. His failure of Pierce, as president, to achieve sectional conciliation and his kicking the can of slavery down the road along with other presidents helped bring an end to the dominance of the Democratic Party that had began with Andrew Jackson. Republicans dominated national politics for most of the next seven decades as a result. As historian Eric Foner puts it, "His administration turned out to be one of the most disastrous in American history. It witnessed the collapse of the party system inherited from the Age of Jackson".
Roy Nichols is probably Pierce's leading biographer. Nichols' assessment of Pierce's legacy is telling. He wrote:
"As a national political leader Pierce was an accident. He was honest and tenacious of his views but, as he made up his mind with difficulty and often reversed himself before making a final decision, he gave a general impression of instability. Kind, courteous, generous, he attracted many individuals, but his attempts to satisfy all factions failed and made him many enemies. In carrying out his principles of strict construction he was most in accord with Southerners, who generally had the letter of the law on their side. He failed utterly to realize the depth and the sincerity of Northern feeling against the South and was bewildered at the general flouting of the law and the Constitution, as he described it, by the people of his own New England. At no time did he catch the popular imagination. His inability to cope with the difficult problems that arose early in his administration caused him to lose the respect of great numbers, especially in the North, and his few successes failed to restore public confidence. He was an inexperienced man, suddenly called to assume a tremendous responsibility, who honestly tried to do his best without adequate training or temperamental fitness."
Pierce's biggest flaw is that he saw slavery as a question of property rather than one of morality. He considered the actions of abolitionists as divisive and as a threat to the rights of southerners, without any thought of the human rights of those held in slavery. He criticized those who sought to limit or end slavery. Nor is his legacy rescued by any foreign policy or legislative success. The Ostend Manifesto and the Kansas–Nebraska Act were both disasters. Both attracted what one historian describes as "an avalanche of public criticism."
Historian Larry Gara is somewhat more charitable towards Pierce's presidency. He notes that Pierce faced an impossible task. Gara writes:
"He was president at a time that called for almost superhuman skills, yet he lacked such skills and never grew into the job to which he had been elected. His view of the Constitution and the Union was from the Jacksonian past. He never fully understood the nature or depth of Free Soil sentiment in the North. He was able to negotiate a reciprocal trade treaty with Canada, to begin the opening of Japan to western trade, to add land to the Southwest, and to sign legislation for the creation of an overseas empire [the Guano Islands Act]. His Cuba and Kansas policies led only to deeper sectional strife. His support for the Kansas–Nebraska Act and his determination to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act helped polarize the sections. Pierce was hard-working and his administration largely untainted by graft, yet the legacy from those four turbulent years contributed to the tragedy of secession and civil war."