In this episode of 12 O’Clock High, a podcast on business leadership, Richard Lummis and myself consider what leadership lessons might be learned from the presidency of Franklin Pierce, who succeeded Millard Fillmore to become our country’s 14th President. Pierce is universally rated as one of our worst Presidents, much worse than even the man he succeeded who, in 1856, actually ran as the head of a political party named the “No-Nothings”. That is how poorly Pierce has fared over history. However, even with that low rating on the Presidential scale, there are several leadership lessons to be garnered in leadership from his Presidency.
Pierce is little known and little remembered today. Yet, he had quite an impressive political career. He was born in New Hampshire and served in the US House of Representatives and in the Senate until he resigned from the Senate in 1842. Moving back home to New Hampshire he practiced law. President Polk offered him the job of Attorney General but he turned it down because his wife absolutely loathed Washington and everything about it. He took part in the Mexican American war, as a particularly luckless Brigadier General who was seen as something less than the ideal 19th-century soldier, in at least in terms of toughness, as he once passed out on the battlefield from a painful injury sustained in combat. He was seen by the Democratic Party as a compromise candidate in the election of 1852, one who was capable of uniting with the northern and southern wings of the party. He was nominated for President on the 49th ballot at the 1852 Democratic National Convention. His wife fainted on hearing the news.
Pierce was elected to the House at the age of 28 and to the Senate at the age of 32. When he became President he was only 48, making him the youngest man to be elected President until Jack Kennedy. However, it is not his youthful age for which Pierce’s Presidency is remembered as there were three things which decidedly and negatively impacted him. They were depression, what we would now call PTSD and alcoholism. As a president, Pierce was a noted, very heavy drinker. He died from what is believed to be cirrhosis of the liver. Numerous commentators have talked about his drunkenness, not for his outrageous behavior but for its incapacitation of Pierce at this critical junction of our country’s behavior. Although I think he started drinking at a much younger age, there are two seminal events which led to this heavy drinking while President: depression and PTSD.
Pierce’s wife did not want to go back to Washington D.C. and because of her, they delayed their trip to Washington after he was elected until early January of 1853. While traveling from New Hampshire to Washington via train, their train was involved in a derailment with both Pierce and his wife injured and their only surviving son, Benjamin, killed literally while in his mother’s arms during the derailment. His wife went into a far beyond deep depression and deep mourning for a couple of years, staying in New Hampshire. Even after she moved to Washington, she would not receive visitors at the White House.
The effect on Pierce also put him in a very deep depression. We now had someone who drinks too much, medicating themselves with a depressive, which is alcohol. This only makes your depression worse. The final part is somewhat speculative, due to the understanding of concussions and head injuries at the time which was the injury cause of PTSD in Pierce. When you put these three factors together, we had a president who was probably not at his full capacity. Unfortunately for the country, this was a time when we needed a President at full capacity. Even with these hardships, Pierce was able to accomplish a few things through decisive leadership.
While Texans and other people from the southwest may well be aware of the Gadsden Purchase treaty with Mexico other Americans may not be as familiar with it. It was negotiated by rail magnate James Gadsden with America’s (and Texas’) old nemesis, General Antonio de Santa Anna. Gadsden purchased some 55,000 acres from Mexico, which filled out the lower 48 states, for $15,000,000. Later the Senate reduced the amount of the price and the size of the purchase by some 11,000 acres and to $10,000,000. Pierce was able to get this amendment to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo through the Senate at a time when sectional tensions were extraordinarily high. This purchase really was a commercial opportunity and it was the last piece of territory to which the southern a transcontinental railway would be built.
Cuba, Yet Again
There was still the old southern states desire to obtain Cuba from the crumbling Spanish Empire by hook, crook or nook. Pierce acceded by offering to purchase the island from the Spanish. However certain prominent southern members of his administration drafted a Memo which basically said that if Spain turned down the purchase price, the US needed to take the island over by force. When you couple this with the sectional tensions, this enraged northerners because they thought that Cuba would become a slaveholding state because it was a slaveholding province of Spain. Pierce completely scotched the idea that the U.S. would take Cuba from Spain by force, putting off an event which would not happen until 1898.
The greatest challenge of the Pierce administration was the passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which led to Bleeding Kansas. Organizing the largely unsettled Nebraska Territory was a crucial part of Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s plans for western expansion. He wanted a transcontinental railroad with a link from Chicago to California, through the vast western territory. Senator Douglas wanted to organize the territory and let local settlers decide whether to allow slavery. The territory would be split into a northern part, Nebraska, and a southern part, Kansas, and the expectation was that Kansas would allow slavery and Nebraska would not. Pierce was skeptical of the bill, knowing it would result in bitter opposition from the North. Douglas convinced him to support the bill. It was tenaciously opposed by northerners such as Ohio Senator Salmon P. Chase and Massachusetts’ Charles Sumner, who rallied public sentiment in the North against the bill. Pierce and his administration used threats and promises to keep most Democrats on board in favor of the bill. The Whigs split along sectional lines; the conflict destroyed them as a national party. The Kansas–Nebraska Act was passed in May 1854 and would come to define the Pierce Presidency.
However once the law was passed, Pierce believed in faithfully executing the laws of the United States and believed he should enforce it. What he was not seeing was the lawlessness on the ground, particularly in Kansas, which garnered the nickname of Bleeding Kansas. Moreover, he could not see how far this new law went in further alienating the North and South to the point where, in the 1854 midterm elections, the Democrats were basically wiped out in the House and Senate. There is one other event, while I do not believe you can lay on Pierce it did speak to the alienation of the country. This was the caning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks, a South Carolina congressman on the floor of the Senate, which led to the phrase a Bleeding Sumner. Now we had Bleeding Kansas and Bleeding Sumner. Then came the 1854 mid-term elections and the Democrats lost their majority. Up until that time, Pierce was able to keep the Democratic Party together but after that lost election, Pierce lost all effectiveness as President and was completely ineffective his last two years as President.