Presidential Administration

Franklin Pierce's time in office was marked by criticism and contention from both the North and the South. The entry of new territories into the United States continued to be a cause of dissension between the North and South. While the North wanted to keep new territories free, the South wished to add more slave territories and states to the nation.


Pierce made it clear in his inaugural address what he thought about the slavery question: “I believe that involuntary servitude, as it exists in different States of this Confederacy, is recognized by the Constitution. I believe that it stands like any other admitted right, and that the States where it exists are entitled to efficient remedies to enforce the constitutional provisions.”

When in 1854 an internal memo called the Ostend Manifesto was printed in the New York Herald advocating aggressive action to take Cuba if Spain was unwilling to sell it, the North saw this as an attempt to extend slavery to another territory. This memo caused so much criticism that Pierce and his cabinet were discredited.

Bleeding Kansas

While the Ostend Manifesto caused northerners concern because they opposed the extension of slavery, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed in 1854, actually caused them to take direct action — the Republican party was created in protest to the act. The law, which had been created by Stephen Douglas, divided the Kansas-Nebraska territory into two separate regions, each of which would be able to decide for itself whether to allow slavery. This idea of allowing the people to decide for themselves is known as popular sovereignty. Pierce strongly supported this bill and actively fought for its passage.

The real issue at stake was that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had provided that no slavery would be allowed above the 36 degree, 30 minute latitude line. Therefore, the Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise. While Nebraska was strongly antislavery and posed no real problems, Kansas was another story. After the passage of the act, proponents of both sides rushed into the territory to try and sway public opinion their way. Eventually, open hostility erupted and the territory gained the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.”

Two legislatures were created: One proslavery legislature that was comprised mainly of nonresidents who came across the Missouri border and one antislavery legislature based in Topeka. Pierce proclaimed in 1856 that the proslavery legislature was legitimate. Later, in 1856, proslavery forces invaded the antislavery center of Lawrence, Kansas. Violence also erupted on the floor of the U.S. Senate when, after Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner gave an antislavery speech, South Carolina senator Andrew Butler beat him severely with a cane. Upset over these actions by proslavery proponents, John Brown and his sons attacked and killed five proslavery advocates in May 1856. Antislavery forces would eventually prevail in 1861, but the violence continued until then.

Gadsden Purchase

In 1853, the United States had bought a stretch of land consisting of areas in modern-day Arizona and New Mexico as part of the Gadsden Purchase. This purchase completed the current boundaries of the continental United States. As in other areas of the country, the debate over whether to organize the territories as free or slave states continued to cause problems. The territories would not be organized and admitted as states until after the beginning of the Civil War.

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