Providence quickly delivered another message to the Pierces. On the way to Concord from Boston on 6 January 1853, the president-elect's train car derailed and rolled down an embankment. Pierce and his wife escaped injury, but their beloved eleven-year-old son, Benjamin, the only one of their three children to survive infancy, was fatally mangled before their eyes. Mrs. Pierce, always a dour hater of the political life, pronounced the death God's way of leaving an inadequately prepared man free of domestic distraction. Pierce, who knew his credentials, thought she might be right. "No heart but my own," he told the nation in his inaugural, "can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others." Meanwhile, Mrs. Pierce was in her bedroom, penciling little notes to Bennie apologizing for not loving him enough.
The self-doubting president in the big gloomy house was mercifully presented with initial tasks he had been trained to handle. Pierce, an effective party boss in New Hampshire, knew how to use patronage to build a coalition. Democrats had selected him in part because a man so blandly conciliatory would invite all party factions to share the victory. His assigned task was to fuse both northerners who had bolted the party in 1848 and southerners who had considered breaking up the Union in 1850 with the middling sorts who had championed the Compromise of 1850 as a party-restoring, Union-saving measure. The task required critical patronage plums for Democratic extremists of North and South.
The conciliatory party boss from New Hampshire, predictably, conciliated. He awarded one of the leading southern radicals, Jefferson Davis, the post of secretary of war. He gave one of the leading New York Barnburners, John A. Dix, the assignment of assistant secretary of the treasury. True both to the southern-dominated coalition that had elected him and to his own southern leanings, appointments went more often to slaveholders. The southern tilt was the more pronounced because some of Pierce's important northern appointments, such as that of Caleb Cushing of Massachusetts to be attorney general, predictably went to northerners like himself, who considered abolitionists to be irresponsible Yankees. Cushing and Davis were ultimately the most important cabinet members precisely because Pierce was what he had been selected to be—a northern man with sympathy for slaveholders. But with appointments such as the sensitive Dix selection, the new boss had also been true to the party's need for healing. The politician had fulfilled his mandate.
The great middle of the Democratic party proceeded to wail that this appeaser of extremes had ignored the centrists. The whine echoes in the historical literature. Pierce, the patronage distributor, is often condemned for failing to steer in the middle of the road. The truth is that in the manner of the forgiving diplomat, he was trying to broaden the middle to include both extremes. If the party was to save the Union, he could do no less; if the coalition had needed an unforgiving centrist, he would never have been the politico selected. His patronage gestures to all left few in revolt. The question was whether his policies could equally well keep merely half-loyal extremists in uneasy alliance with the scoffing middle.
Pierce's announced policies combined the party's old unenergetic domestic program with its new energetic foreign policy. This youngest Hickory yet was a champion of the "Young America" program, which sought to extend American energies throughout the hemisphere. "My administration will not be controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion," bragged the new president. Any domestic troubles from hemispheric expansionism would be settled by the soothing principles of the Compromise of 1850. For the rest, his administration would prevent government intervention in the private sector and thus cause no irritations. As with the patronage, he would be a peacemaker, unless perchance expansionism required some new Mexican war.
His first—alas, also his last—triumph was a peaceful extension of American territories. In the Gadsden Treaty of early 1854, so called after its negotiator, James Gadsden of South Carolina, the Pierce administration bought some forty-five thousand square miles of territory from Mexico at a cost of $10 million. The United States received less acreage than Pierce desired and a great deal less than most ardent southern expansionists would like to have possessed on the slaveholders' flank. But limits on the territorial gain of the South had the unintended effect of limiting the political damage in the North. The more extreme northern antiexpansionists could not stir up a Mexican War-style revulsion against so slight a concession to Young America's appetites. The conciliating character in the White House had brought forth a conciliatory result, largely because the Mexicans had to some degree fulfilled yet blunted his administration's thrust.
Other people were not so kind to Pierce in his pursuance of the larger and more devoutly desired of his Young America policies. Cuba was truly the apple of this president's eye. His southern cronies wished it as an extension of their slaveholding empire. His democratic sympathies went out to Cuban victims of Spanish tyranny. He wanted to extend freedom for whites by buying up a territory enslaving blacks. If the Whig antislavery crowd found that formula grotesquely inhumane, the handsome president here again exuded that style of American humaneness, with a southern accent, that he was elected to serve. He only needed to secure this southern extension as genially as he had secured the Gadsden Purchase.
The president adopted a seductive strategy for bringing a Cuban purchase attractively to the American Congress. August Belmont, the American banker, believed that because the Spanish king was badly in debt, Spain's creditors could discreetly induce the monarch to ease the pressures on him by selling the far-off island. The American public could then be informed that the tyrant had willingly sold a neighboring people into American freedom.
Pierce put some subtle men into the right spots to bring off this delicate public relations coup. Belmont was given a diplomatic post at The Hague, where he would be in close proximity to the financial and political powers whose aid he would need to enlist. This move was suggested by future president James Buchanan, the ambassador to Great Britain and a prime advocate of Belmont's scheme. Pierce waited for the apple to fall deliciously into his lap.
Unfortunately, his Cuban initiative came to national attention with all the delicacy of a herd of buffalo. The chief buffalo was one Pierre Soulé, a swashbuckling Louisiana extremist whom Pierce had appointed ambassador to Spain. He pursued high-handed ways of intimidating the Spanish authorities into selling Cuba. With Spain stiffening against Soulé's public posturing, the Pierce administration decided on a private conference of its foreign ministers at Ostend, Belgium, in October 1854. From that meeting of Buchanan, Soulé, and Minister to France John Y. Mason of Virginia came the notorious Ostend Manifesto.
The manifesto, chiefly composed by Buchanan, largely urged the Belmont-Buchanan plan of quiet negotiations toward purchase. But Soulé insisted on some louder additional phrases concerning the forcible coercion of a monarch who would not voluntarily sell. Should Spanish possession endanger American power and security, declared the ministers, "by every law human and divine, we shall be justified in wresting it from Spain, if we possess the power." This jarring language, so different from Pierce's usually conciliatory approach, doomed Pierce's policy. The Ostend Manifesto, when made public, inspired an outcry in the North. Since the ministers were Pierce's, his administration was undermined.
The responsibility was in fact the president's. He had allowed the notoriously boorish Soulé to attend the European conference, against Buchanan's discreet advice. Pierce had permitted Soulé's presence because his southern friends wanted what they had achieved with the patronage—at least an extremist's input. But this time, indiscreet slave-holders had pushed too hard, and the likable balancer in the White House had been shoved way too far to the South to protect his precarious hold on the North.