Franklin Pierce, 14th President (1853 to 1857): Deferring to Railroads and Acquiring Property

This article is a part of our series From Lighthouses to Electric Chargers: A Presidential Series on Transportation Innovations

By the 1850s, the U.S. had more than 17,000 miles of railroad tracks that were bringing coal, timber and agricultural products from previously inaccessible areas to rapidly growing markets. The railroads and their investors often prioritized expansion and profit over safety which is why bridges collapsed, locomotive boilers exploded, and inadequate track maintenance led to derailments.

Franklin Pierce, a former New Hampshire congressman, was elected U.S. president in 1852. He had three children; his first lived only a few days and his second died of typhoid at the age of 4. Two months before Pierce’s inauguration, he was traveling through Massachusetts on a train with his wife and their only surviving child, an 11-year-old boy. Tragedy hit their family a third time when a railcar axle broke causing the train to derail. The two-car train plunged down an embankment, instantly killing the child.

Today, railroad companies are required to report all of their accidents. After every collision or derailment involving a serious injury, the Federal Railroad Administration assigns investigators to determine the cause. These investigators inspect tracks, signals, locomotives, rail cars and other equipment. They also interview train crews and review the railroads’ inspection, testing, and maintenance reports.

In the 1850s, railroads were not required to report any data and the federal government did not conduct investigations. As president, Pierce did not consider legislation or regulations that could have prevented future derailments. Rather, he and his wife saw the accident as God’s will rather than a railroad safety issue. Their laissez-faire attitude towards private industry was not unique. Congress did not pass legislation regulating railroad safety until 1893 and that was only after railroad unions became a powerful political force.

Pierce, like many other Democrats of his era, deferred to industry and states on all sorts of issues, from railroad safety to slavery. His perspective on transportation improvements was similar to those of Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Enhancing the nation’s infrastructure was desirable, but typically not in the federal government’s purview.

In 1854, when Pierce vetoed a public works bill, he said, “The great constitutional question of the power of the General Government in relation to internal improvements has been the subject of earnest difference of opinion at every period of the history of the United States. Annual and special messages of successive Presidents have been occupied with it, sometimes in remarks on the general topic and frequently in objection to particular bills.”

Pierce said, “It is quite obvious that if there be any constitutional power which authorizes the construction of railroads and canals by Congress, the same power must comprehend turnpikes and ordinary carriage roads; nay, it must extend to the construction of bridges, to the draining of marshes, to the erection of levees, to the construction of canals of irrigation; in a word, to all the possible means of the material improvement of the earth.” Furthermore, he warned, a broad interpretation of federal power, might even lead to Congress establishing schools, hospitals, and libraries.

Even if Pierce thought the public works legislation was constitutionally permissible, he would have vetoed the bill because he did not believe the federal government should be building and managing canals, roads and railroads. He argued that it would paralyze private enterprise, exhaust the National Treasury, and leave the “people burdened with a heavy public debt, beyond the capacity of generations to discharge.”

President Pierce realized there was no fixed rule to decide what, of the infinite variety of possible transportation improvements, were within the scope of the power delegated by the Constitution. Although he disapproved of direct public works, he was willing to use his powers to improve transportation in other ways.

For instance, he supported federal funding of surveys that identified potential routes for a transcontinental railroad across North America. Surveyors, scientists, and artists documented rivers, mountains, trails, and elevation, as well as information about the native Americans, wildlife, and fauna they encountered.

Then in 1854, President Pierce signed a treaty with Mexico that resolved border disputes and purchased 30,000 square miles of land, now part of Arizona and New Mexico (per the map). The acquisition was needed to build a transcontinental railroad across southern states that would avoid mountainous terrain.

The treaty also included a provision allowing the U.S. to build a canal across Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec to shorten the distance that ships needed to sail between cities on the Pacific Ocean with the cities along the Atlantic Ocean and Mississippi River. (The isthmus is shown in the map.) The canal was never built because a canal across Panama would be less than half as long.

Today, rehabilitating and improving the existing (and partly abandoned) rail line across the isthmus is one of Mexico’s highest priority infrastructure projects. Mexican officials are hoping to see the rail line compete with the Panama Canal and move hundreds of thousands of containers every year upon completion.

In 1856, Pierce was not nominated for a second term at the Democratic national convention because of his unpopularity in the north and civil unrest. The territory of Kansas was the scene of violent confrontations between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. In the 1850s, Kansas had two different capitals, constitutions and legislatures. In the midst of this conflict, President Pierce appointed a pro-Southern governor of the territory, further inflaming an issue that was threatening to tear apart the nation.

And the transcontinental railroad built utilizing Pierce’s 30,000-square-mile purchase of land from Mexico in 1854 was not actually built until the 1877-1883 period, but eventually became the main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

This article is a part of our series From Lighthouses to Electric Chargers: A Presidential Series on Transportation Innovations

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