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American History Series: Pierce, New President, Is Friendly but Weak

In 1853 Franklin Pierce had to choose between two policies on slavery. One would lead to a fight with northern and southern extremists. The other would bring them into his administration. Transcript of radio broadcast:

Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.

In eighteen fifty, President Zachary Taylor died after serving about a year and a half in office. Taylor's vice president, Millard Fillmore, took his place.

Early in his administration, President Fillmore signed the Compromise of Eighteen Fifty. That compromise helped settle a dispute over slavery and the western territories. It ended a crisis between northern and southern states. It prevented a civil war.

The eighteen fifty compromise did not, however, end slavery in the United States. So the issue was not really settled. It continued to affect the nation. And it was the most important issue of Millard Fillmore's presidency.

Here are Kay Gallant and Harry Monroe with this week's program in our series.


In eighteen fifty-two, an American woman published a book about slavery. She called it "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote the book for one reason. She wanted to show how cruel slavery was. Stowe's words painted a picture of slavery that most people in the North had never seen. They were shocked.

Public pressure to end slavery grew strong. Abolitionists wanted to free all slaves immediately. Even if that could be done, there was the question of what to do with the freed slaves. Their rights as citizens were limited. Some states closed their borders to negroes. Other states permitted negroes, but said they could not vote.

In many places, it seemed impossible that negroes and whites could live together peacefully, in freedom. The best answer, many people thought, was to free the slaves and help them return to Africa.


It was not a new idea. Forty years earlier, a group of leading Americans had formed an organization for that purpose. They called it the American Colonization Society.

In eighteen twenty, the Society began helping send negroes to Africa. The negroes formed a government of their own. In eighteen forty-seven, they declared themselves independent. They called their new country the Republic of Liberia. The new country had a constitution like that of the United States.

By eighteen fifty-four, nine thousand negroes from the United States had been sent to Liberia. Some had technical skills. They knew how to make iron. They knew how to use steam engines and other machinery. The Colonization Society hoped these negroes would use their skills to help improve life for the people of Africa. The Society's plan ended a cruel life of slavery for many negroes.

But it could not be denied that the plan was a way to get black people out of the United States. Many whites refused to accept the fact that most free negroes did not want to go to Africa. The negroes had grown up in the United States. It was their home.


Negro slaves took great chances to escape to freedom. Many gained their freedom through the so-called "underground railroad." That was not a real railroad. It was an organization of people who secretly helped slaves escape to the North.

An escaped slave would be hidden during the day by a member of the organization. Then at night, the negro would be taken to another hiding place farther north. The process was repeated every day and night until the escaped slave was safe in New England or even Canada.



The year eighteen fifty-two was a presidential election year in the United States. The eighteen fifty compromise was a major issue in the campaign. A number of men wanted to be the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. They included senators Lewis Cass of Michigan and Stephen Douglas of Illinois.

Another was former secretary of state James Buchanan. Cass and Douglas supported the idea of letting the people of a territory decide if slavery would be permitted in that territory. Buchanan opposed the anti-slavery movements of the north. Because of this, he had many supporters in the South.


The Democrats opened their presidential nominating convention in Baltimore on the first of June, eighteen fifty-two. The delegates agreed that a man must win two-thirds of the convention's votes to be the party's candidate.

On the first ballot, no one got two-thirds of the vote. So the voting continued. Finally, on the forty-seventh ballot, support began to increase for one of the minor candidates. His name was Franklin Pierce.

Pierce was from the northeastern state of New Hampshire. He had served as a congressman and senator. On the forty-ninth ballot, Pierce won. He would be the Democratic Party's candidate for president.


The Whig party held its presidential nominating convention in Baltimore two weeks after the Democrats. Three Whigs wanted to be nominated: President Millard Fillmore, Secretary of State Daniel Webster and General Winfield Scott.

The same thing that happened at the Democratic convention now happened at the Whig convention. Delegates voted over and over again. But no man got enough votes to win. It took fifty-three ballots before one of the men -- General Scott -- won the nomination.



The presidential campaign lasted about five months. The election was in November. Pierce, the Democrat, won a crushing victory over Scott, the Whig. The Democratic victory was so great that many people thought the Whig Party was finished. In fact, many Whigs themselves hoped their party had been destroyed.

Northern Whigs wanted to form a new anti-slavery party. And southern Whigs wanted to form a party that would better represent their interests. The Democrats won the election, because they were able to bridge the differences between their northern and southern members. The Whigs were not able to do that.


The new president, Franklin Pierce, was a charming man. He made friends easily. Those who knew Pierce best worried about this. They knew that under all his friendly charm, he was a weak man. They feared that the duties and problems of the presidency would be too great for him to deal with. As president in eighteen fifty-three, Pierce was forced to choose between two policies on the issue of slavery.

He could support the Compromise of Eighteen Fifty and declare it to be the final settlement of the problem. That would lead to a fight with northern and southern extremists. Or he could compromise with the extremists and give them jobs in his administration. That would be the easy way to satisfy their demands. And that was the policy Pierce chose.


In putting together his cabinet, President Pierce tried to include men from every group in the Democratic Party. He named William Marcy of New York to be secretary of state. Marcy opposed the spread of slavery and all talk of splitting the Union.

Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was named secretary of war. Davis, more than any other man, represented the southern extremists. He had threatened to take the South out of the Union if any limits were put on slavery.

Caleb Cushing of Massachusetts was named attorney general. Although a northerner, Cushing was a friend of many southern extremists. He was a very able man, but his loyalties were not clear. James Buchanan of Pennsylvania was named Minister to Britain.


All of these men had strong ideas about the future of the United States. President Pierce found it difficult to control them.

One senator said the administration should not have been called the Pierce administration, because Pierce did not lead it. He said it was an administration of enemies of the Union who used the president's name and power for their own purposes.


For a time, things were peaceful. The dispute over slavery had cooled. But thoughtful people did not believe that peace would last long. No permanent solution had been found to settle differences over slavery and the right of states to leave the Union.

One northerner wrote: "It was said hundreds of years ago that a house divided against itself cannot stand. The truth of this saying is written on every page in history. It is likely that the history of our own country may offer fresh examples to teach this truth to future ages."

We will continue our story of the presidency of Franklin Pierce next week.



Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Kay Gallant and Harry Monroe. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs can be found along with historical images at Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.


This is program #80 of THE MAKING OF A NATION