Worst Presidents: Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

His fervor for expanding the borders helped set the stage for the Civil War.

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Extending the list of timid pre-Civil War compromisers, Pierce was a Jackson Democrat from New Hampshire whom Whig foes called "doughface"—a northerner with southern principles.

Elected as the 14th president, the handsome Mexican War veteran believed ardently in national expansion even at the cost of adding more slave states. To that end, he vigorously supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which, along with the earlier Compromise of 1850, effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Less successfully, he proposed annexing Cuba, by arms if necessary, but his opponents, suspecting the addition of a new slave state, outed the plan and ultimately forced him to renounce it. He did manage to secure U.S. recognition of a dubious regime in Nicaragua, presided over by an American proslavery adventurer, William Walker, who had instigated an insurrection and installed himself as president.

Theodore Roosevelt later wrote of Pierce that he was "a servile tool of men worse than himself ... ever ready to do any work the slavery leaders set him." Not even a fawning campaign biography written by Pierce's college friend Nathaniel Hawthorne could offset such damning reviews.