Frequently relegated to the footnotes of history, President Franklin Pierce (1853-1857) tends to be remembered, if at all, for ranking among the worst of the nation’s chief executives. There is certainly reason enough for him to earn this distinction:
- He was the only elected president to be denied the nomination of his own party for re-election.
- Alcoholism tarnished his reputation and his performance as President, particularly the rumored incident while he was in office where he ran over an elderly woman while drunkenly driving a carriage.
- He was, arguably, the last President who could have prevented the Civil War, but instead made it virtually inevitable with his support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and fugitive slave laws.
- While opposed to secession, Pierce favored slavery. His sympathies with southern interests, combined with his appointment of Jefferson Davis (future President of the Confederate States of America) as his Secretary of War, caused many in the north to question his loyalties.
While his record is less than admirable, it is, perhaps, mitigated by the tragedy that came upon the 14th President that cast a shadow over his entire administration. Shortly after his election as president, Pierce, his wife, and their 11 year-old son, Bennie, were taking a train to Boston when their car derailed and rolled down an embankment. Mr. and Mrs. Pierce emerged unscathed, as did all other passengers — except one. Bennie was decapitated before their eyes.
Devastated by this tragedy, Mrs. Pierce remained in almost-complete seclusion in the White House during the four years of her husband’s presidency. Pierce descended into deeper and deeper alcoholism, and when his own party adopted a campaign slogan of “Anybody But Pierce,” he did not put up much of a fight to stick around for another four years.