Inauguration of President Pierce: March 4th, 1853. (Months Past)

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Inauguration of President Pierce: March 4th, 1853. (Months Past)


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


FRANKLIN PIERCE was no one's initial choice as fourteenth President of the United States, not even his own. The Democratic convention of 1852 took forty-nine ballots to settle on him as its candidate after failing to agree on any of the more fancied runners. Pierce was comparatively unknown, a lawyer and former Senator from New Hampshire. He had held a command in the Mexican War in the 1840s, though an unfair allegation 'of cowardice and his heavy drinking gave opponents a chance to sneer at him as `the hero of many bottles'. Even so, he won the election handily, defeating General Winfield Scott for the Whigs.

At his inauguration the new president caused some surprise by affirming instead of taking the oath, a decision he never explained, and he was the first president to deliver his speech from memory. In it he expressed the vain hope that the slavery issue was now `at rest' and that there would be no further `sectional or ambitious or fanatical excitement' about it. He signalled his support for the expansion of the United States and in his term of office he tried to buy Cuba and sent Commodore Perry to open up Japan. It was in Pierce's time that the United States took its first official step to the creation of an overseas empire. It was a question of bird droppings, required as fertiliser. In 1856 Congress authorised the annexation of any uninhabited or unclaimed island from which guano could be recovered, and more than seventy Pacific and Caribbean islands were commandeered in the next thirty years. …

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