Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) became President in the unhappy aftermath of the Compromise of 1850, and presided over the period when the tension between North and South turned violent, eventually leading to the Civil War.
Pierce was born November 23, 1804 in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, the son of Benjamin Franklin Pierce, who later served as Governor of New Hampshire. Franklin studied at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he met and befriended Nathaniel Hawthorne. Pierce studied law, but his chief interest was in politics; by age 24, he had won a seat in the New Hampshire legislature; by 26 he had become youngest Speaker of the House in state history. He was elected to a seat in the U.S. House, serving five terms in all, and then won a seat in the U.S. Senate. On the urging of his wife Jane, who hated politics, Pierce resigned his Senate seat after four years to practice law back in New Hampshire.
Pierce joined the Army during the Mexican War, doing so at least as much out of ambition as out of patriotism, as the mid-1800's was the era of the war hero, with Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor winning the White House more for their "war hero" status than their political abilities. Pierce enlisted as a private but worked his way up to brigadier general under Winfield Scott.
After the war Pierce returned to his law practice in Concord, but returned to politics in 1852 when the Democratic convention could not agree upon a presidential candidate. Michigan's Lewis Cass hoped to run again to avenge his loss in 1848, but was splitting Midwestern support with Illinois' ambitious Senator Stephen Douglas. New York's William Marcy and future President James Buchanan also had significant support. Stuck with a deadlock, a number of delegates began suggesting Pierce as a compromise, and he was nominated on the 49th ballot.
Pierce faced his old Mexican War commander, General Winfield Scott, in the election. Since both parties supported the only major issue of the day, the Compromise of 1850, the campaign was more about personalities than issues. Scott's Whig supporters attacked Pierce as a coward, claiming he'd fainted on the battlefield (in reality, he'd passed out from loss of blood after being shot). More accurate were the claims that Pierce was a drinker; the Whigs claimed that General Pierce had been "the hero of many a well-fought bottle." Pierce ignored the claims and hired his old Bowdoin classmate Nathaniel Hawthorne to write his campaign biography. The Democrats were well-organized and the "doughface" Pierce was amenable to Southern states. The Whigs, on the other hand, were falling apart, and Scott was eyed suspiciously by the South. It was no surprise, then, that Pierce won easily, taking 51% of the popular vote to Scott's 44% and winning 254 electoral votes to Scott's 42.
Pierce has been described as the only President without a single accomplishment in office. While this isn't entirely true- the Gadsden Purchase took place during Pierce's term- the reputation comes from Pierce's inability to manage the growing slavery crisis. (Additionally, Pierce was beset with a personal tragedy, as his son Bennie died in a train accident as the Pierces came to Washington) The nation reaped the fruits of the Compromise of 1850 during Pierce's administration; he aligned himself strongly with the proslavery Democrats and approved of vigorous enforcement the Fugitive Slave Act in Boston, which turned many against the proslavery forces. Pierce also stood with the proslavery forces in Kansas, which led to a violent confrontation as the proslavery crowd and abolitionists literally fought over the status of slavery in the Kansas territory.
Pierce's inability to do much of anything about the conflict finished him politically. He made it known he would be willing to run for reelection but the Democrats refused to nominate him, settling on James Buchanan instead.
Pierce returned to New Hampshire and lived quietly in Concord until his death in 1869.