Presidential Cabinet Meets with President Pierce
The greatest challenge to the country's equilibrium during the Pierce administration, though, was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.
It repealed the Missouri Compromise and reopened the question of slavery in the West. This measure, sponsored by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, had its origins in the drive to facilitate the completion of a transcontinental railroad with a link from Chicago, Illinois to California through Nebraska.
Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, advocate of a southern transcontinental route, had persuaded Pierce to send James Gadsden to Mexico to buy land for a southern railroad. He purchased the area now comprising southern Arizona and part of southern New Mexico for $10 million (USD), commonly known as the Gadsden Purchase. This became known as the greatest success of the Pierce presidency.
Douglas, to win Southern support for the organization of Nebraska, placed in his bill a provision declaring the Missouri Compromise to be null and void; the bill provided that the residents of the new territories could decide the slavery question for themselves. Although his cabinet had proposed an alternative plan, Pierce was subsequently persuaded to support Douglas' plan in a closed meeting with Douglas and several southern Senators, having consulted with Jefferson Davis alone of his cabinet members.
The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act triggered a series of events that came to be known as Bleeding Kansas. Pro-slavery Border Ruffians, mostly from Missouri, illegally voted in a government that Pierce recognized, and Pierce called the Topeka Constitution, a shadow government set up by Free-Staters, an act of "rebellion." Pierce continued to recognize the pro-slavery legislature even after a congressional investigative committee found its election illegitimate, and dispatched federal troops to break up a meeting of the shadow government in Topeka.
The Act provoked outrage among northerners who saw Pierce as kowtowing to slave-holding interests, provided the impetus for the formation of the Republican Party, and contributed to critical estimates of Pierce as untrustworthy and easily manipulated. Having lost public confidence, Pierce failed to receive the nomination by his party for a second term. Testament to Pierce's ruined reputation is the fact that he was the first president to have a full-time bodyguard, having been attacked once with a hard-boiled egg.
Pierce has been ranked among the least effective Presidents. He was unable to steer a steady, prudent course that might have sustained a broad measure of support. Having publicly committed himself to an ill-considered position, he maintained it steadfastly, but at disastrous cost to his reputation.
Pierce had barely mentioned Nebraska in his State of the Union message the previous month and was not enthusiastic about the implications of repealing the Missouri Compromise. Close advisors Senator Lewis Cass, a proponent of popular sovereignty as far back as 1848 as an alternative to the Wilmot Proviso, and Secretary of State William L. Marcy both told Pierce that repeal would create serious political problems. On Saturday January 22 the full cabinet met, and only Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and Secretary of Navy James C. Dobbin supported repeal. Instead the president and cabinet submitted to Douglas an alternative plan that would have sought out a judicial ruling on the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. Both Pierce and Attorney General Caleb Cushing believed that the Supreme Court would find it unconstitutional.
Douglas’ committee met later that night. Douglas was agreeable to the proposal, but the Atchison group was not. Determined to offer the repeal to Congress that Monday but reluctant to act without Pierce’s commitment, Douglas arranged through Secretary Davis to meet with President Pierce on Sunday even though Pierce generally refrained from conducting any business on a Sunday. Douglas was accompanied at the meeting by Atchison, Hunter, Phillips, and John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky.
Douglas and Atchison first met alone with Pierce before the whole group convened. Pierce was persuaded to support repeal, and, at Douglas’ insistence, Pierce provided a written draft asserting that the Missouri Compromise had been made inoperative by the principles of the Compromise of 1850. Later, Pierce informed his cabinet which concurred in the change of direction. The Washington Union, the communications organ for the administration, wrote on January 24 that support for the bill would be "a test of Democratic orthodoxy."
Biography of Franklin Pierce
President Pierce's Support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act