The incredible happened because, in the year 1852, only a man of Pierce's soothing mediocrity could satisfy a terribly divided Democratic party. In 1848, Free-Soil Democrats had seceded from the party to support Martin Van Buren's anti-southern third-party effort. After the Compromise of 1850 somewhat settled angry political turmoil, these so-called Barn-burners returned to their scorched party. Southerners were not happy about having the fugitives back. Northerners who had stayed were even less happy with the returned "traitors." Everyone was prepared to hate everyone else's candidate, and any candidate with any firm position was bound to excite ire. The result was that none of the Democrats' leading men—especially Lewis Cass of Michigan, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, and young Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois—could garner the necessary two-thirds majority of the Democratic convention.
The formula for breaking the deadlock was to find a southern man whom the North could trust; a northern man whom the South could trust; or, best of all, a northern man with southern principles whom not even anti-southern northerners could much dislike. It first occurred to a Virginian, on the convention's thirty-fifth ballot, that no one disliked Franklin Pierce. He was that rarity, a New Englander liked even by slaveholders. If the Barn-burners distrusted so southernized a northerner, they knew how pleasant he was and how he, with his easygoing nature, might respect differences. On the forty-ninth ballot, the convention nominated "Young Hickory from the Granite Hills."
In the election, the latest Young Hickory scored an electoral college triumph, 254–42, rivaling Old Hickory's. But his popular vote margin was dangerously thin. Pierce won the presidency despite receiving 14,000 fewer votes than his five opponents in the North. His national popular-vote majority of 44,000 came heavily from the Democratic party's southern power base. (Pierce's popular vote was 1.6 million, and that of his chief rival, the Whig Winfield Scott, was 1.4 million.) His was a mandate to lean a little precariously South, without quite losing a balance wavering in the North. It was the perfect posture for a northern southerner who loved everyone except abolitionists. The man and the hour had met.