In 1852, Franklin Pierce seemed to his fellow Democrats to be an ideal choice for the presidency. A northerner with southern sympathies, Pierce could seemingly engender credibility in both regions in a year marked by continuing debate over slavery. But his willingness to listen to pro-slavery extremists served the country poorly once he was in office. The most obvious case in point was his approval of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which allowed slaveholders to settle in an area once closed to slavery. The result was armed violence in Kansas and an escalation in hostilities between North and South. Northerners could not find words harsh enough to describe him: Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, accused him of "imbecility."
George P. A. Healy derived the original version of this image from sittings that took place in Boston in November 1852, shortly after Pierce's election was confirmed. At the same time, Healy was painting for Pierce a likeness of the president-elect's campaign biographer and longtime friend Nathaniel Hawthorne.