The Pierce administration's last two years were anti-climactic and predictable. With the North on fire over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the president at a loss to understand why, the administration was in no position to keep ahead of an ever-worsening crisis. Moreover, even with all the advantage of hindsight, one cannot see how anyone could have prevented the disaster that came to be known as Bleeding Kansas. The same passion for protecting slavery in Missouri that had led Atchison to insist on repealing the Missouri Compromise inevitably led Missouri ruffians to pour into Kansas, seeking to legalize slavery. The same revulsion for repealing emancipation that had led northerners to turn against the Democratic party led New England settlers to race west, seeking to re-install freedom. Against all this, the bland president again had but the same blunt weapon—he could appoint conciliatory administrators.
Conciliation again could not be enough. Pierce's compromise choice for territorial governor of Kansas was Andrew Reeder of Pennsylvania, still another northern man with southern principles. Reeder, like Douglas' first Kansas-Nebraska draft, adopted too conciliatory a stance to suit proslavery Missourians. Atchison and other Missouri roughnecks believed that northern "fanatics," organized in the New England Emigrant Aid Company, were invading Kansas to prevent the adoption of slavery. The Missourians accordingly developed what they considered a counterinsurgency policy of pushing more proslavery settlers into Kansas and, failing that, of propelling Missourians over the border at the last moment to vote proslavery on election day, 30 March 1855. They demanded that the governor recognize their elected government, wherever they wished to establish it. With the aid of Missourians in Kansas for the day, proslavery settlers selected a proslavery legislature to meet near Missouri's border.
Northerners, on the other hand, called these transient voters illegitimate. Free-Soilers believed aggressive Missourians were first to cause all Kansas' troubles. Northern settlers accordingly urged Reeder to nullify the election of the first, proslavery Kansas legislature.
Reeder tried to satisfy both sides. On the critical matter of certifying the election of proslavery legislators, the governor accepted most of the southern selections and called the legislature into session. But his call edged toward "fairness" by declaring that the legislature should meet one hundred miles distant from the Missouri border. Atchison protested that the location was too northern to be fair. The Missouri senator also undercut Reeder's pose of fairness by noting that the governor owned the land where he had called the legislature to meet. Atchison brusquely demanded Reeder's ouster. The Missouri titan urged the appointment of a governor more sympathetic with southern attempts to repress northerners' "invasion" of a "southern" homeland.
Pierce, with his lifelong hatred of abolitionists, accepted Atchison's premises. The president thought the Kansas governor remiss for not blaming the origins of the trouble on the "invading" New England Emigrant Aid Company. Pierce also deplored Reeder's inability to demonstrate that local control by the settlers themselves worked fairly and peacefully. In July 1855, after some wavering, the president dismissed Reeder. Pierce then appointed as Kansas governor yet another conciliatory northern man with southern principles, Wilson Shannon, former governor of Ohio.
The territory Shannon was sent out to administer was now simply not administrable. Northern settlers had organized their own government under the so-called Topeka Constitution. With two governments claiming legitimacy and responsibility for law and order, violence could not be avoided. Shannon spent the better part of a year asking Pierce for troops to deter bloodshed.
Not even soldiers could prevent war. In May 1856 the nation's newspapers blazed with the news of a total breakdown of civil peace in Kansas. First came tidings of the southern sack of the Free-Soil town of Lawrence. Then came news of the so-called Pottawatomie Massacre, in which John Brown and seven others murdered five proslavery settlers near Pottawatomie Creek on 24–25 May 1856.
Pierce's bad fortune was to have the Democratic National Convention of 1856 meet in Cincinnati at the very moment the most bloody news was coming east. Whoever was to blame for the breakdown of government in Kansas (and Pierce always blamed the New England Emigrant Aid Company), the president's administration was not providing law and order. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, itself a political horror in the North, was doubling the horror by ushering in a stream of events indicating that the Democratic party's master formula, local control of slavery-related matters, produced not fairness but disaster in the territories.
Pierce dearly wished for another term, for another chance to prove that his administration could yet rescue the principle of popular sovereignty. But his moment had long since passed. In 1852 the party had needed a Yankee who leaned South with a smile. In 1856, Pierce's coalition needed a northern man with southern principles disassociated from policies Pierce had frowned upon but swallowed. James Buchanan, Pierce's man in England, had luckily been out of the country throughout the events that had made the last of the Young Hickories very old very quickly. In June 1856, Buchanan easily wrested the party nomination from the sitting president. That had never happened before in American politics.
Pierce never recovered from this unprecedented repudiation. His presidential term having ended as dismally as his congressional years, he was reduced to wandering over the globe until 1860, wondering what had gone wrong. Thereafter he sank even more deeply into an alcoholic haze, his lifelong battle with the demon drink dismally lost. He died in 1869, almost unnoticed, once again almost unknown. His reputation in the history books is about as bleak. So it had to be for an easygoing New Hampshire back-woodsman who was called forth to keep a party happy but savaged in a conflict fast yielding blood and bullets and old men trying to find laughter at the bottom of a bottle.