In 1852 the Democratic party was split into hostile factions led by William L. Marcy, Stephen A. Douglas, James Buchanan, and Lewis Cass, none of whom could muster sufficient strength to secure the presidential nomination. Pierce, personally charming and politically unobjectionable to Southerners since he favored the Compromise of 1850, was made the “dark horse” candidate by his friends. He won the nomination (on the 49th ballot) and went on to defeat the Whig candidate, Gen. Winfield Scott, his commander in the Mexican War.
Pierce's desire to smooth over the slavery quarrel and unite all factions of the Democratic party was reflected in the composition of his cabinet, for which he chose such outstanding sectional representatives as Marcy, Jefferson Davis, and Caleb Cushing. A vigorous expansionist foreign policy was adopted, but it failed in most of its objectives. After the Black Warrior affair (1854), which brought the United States to the brink of war with Spain, Pierce authorized his European ministers, Pierre Soulé, John Y. Mason, and Buchanan, to confer on the means by which the United States might acquire Cuba. Their report, the so-called Ostend Manifesto, was leaked to the press and caused such an uproar that the administration was forced to disavow it. Troubled relations with Great Britain were not improved by the U.S. naval bombardment (1854) of San Juan del Norte, British protectorate in Nicaragua; the filibustering activities of William Walker further aggravated Central American affairs. Moves to annex Hawaii, acquire a naval base in Santo Domingo, and purchase Alaska ended fruitlessly. One achievement, the successful Japanese expedition of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, had been initiated in Millard Fillmore's administration.
On the domestic scene Pierce stood for development of the West (the Gadsden Purchase was made during his administration), but plans for a transcontinental railroad fell through. The Kansas-Nebraska Act enraged many Northerners and precipitated virtual civil war between the pro- and antislavery forces in Kansas. Pierce, by that time very unpopular, was passed over by the Democrats for renomination, and Buchanan succeeded him. Pierce's opposition to the Civil War made him more than ever disliked in the North, where he died in obscurity.
See biographies by R. F. Nichols (rev. ed. 1958) and R. F. Holt (2010).
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