March 4, 1853 – March 4, 1857, one term
Almost always landing in the top five of the lists of worst US presidents, Franklin Pierce is conversationally characterized as being “timid and unable to cope with a changing America.”
To be fair it probably didn’t help that he and his wife were witnesses to their son being crushed to death in a train accident that they both survived. Mrs. Pierce apparently spent the four years as First Lady communicating via mail with their dead son, while Franklin, who had always been a bit of a drinker, increasingly sought advice and comfort from his old pal Jack Daniels.
But Pierce was a big advocate of state’s rights, and when he sponsored and signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, he basically opened up the possibility of slavery expanding into the west. The legislation overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and gave slave owners the right to take their slaves wherever they wanted (This was mostly because the boys in Washington were pushing for an east-to-west railroad through Nebraska) The Kansas Territory exploded into a violent mess (“Bleeding Kansas”) as southerners and northerners duked it out for control of the place, having essentially been given permission to figure it out for themselves.
Also it didn’t help that Pierce was anti-abolitionist, or in other words he kinda believed that there wasn’t anything really all that wrong with slavery. In letters that became public in 1863 - while the Civil War raged on - he characterized the conflict as “aimless” and “unnecessary” and that it’s true purpose “was to wipe out the states and destroy property.” Oops.
To his credit, Pierce was an advocate for strong civil liberties, chastising Abe Lincoln for suspending Habeas Corpus during the Civil War. Pierce firmly believe we should not abandon our protection of civil liberties, even in a time of war – imagine that, Bush! But this was after his presidency and few were listening any more.
Fun Facts: Pierce had no Vice President for almost his entire term, his running mate William R. King having died a month after the inauguration. Astonishingly, King was actually inaugurated in Cuba, where he had traveled for health reasons (he had been diagnosed with terminal Tuberculosis) He was the shortest serving Veep in American History.
King, btw, was rumored to be the “special companion” if-you-know-what-I-mean-and-I-think-that-you-do of the soon to be President James Buchanan, who has long been considered to be America’s first gay President.