Education: Essay

Franklin Pierce's 1854 Veto

by Dr. Graham Warder, Keene State College

Dorothea Dix was a remarkably successful advocate. She persuaded state legislatures to fund the creation or expansion of institutions for the treatment of mental illness. And then, after years of lobbying, she convinced the Congress of the United States to endorse a plan to support the mentally ill at the federal level. In 1854, however, she met with a significant defeat. Her efforts to add the resources of the federal government to her cause came to naught. President Franklin Pierce vetoed the bill that would provide ten million acres of federal land to be sold for the support asylums for the indigent insane.

The year 1854 was a momentous one for Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire. The President, called the "Young Hickory of the Granite Hills" by his supporters and "Fainting Frank" by his detractors, was a Jacksonian Democrat who was popular with Southern voters because he favored the expansion of slavery. He sought to limit the power of the federal government over the states, thus staking out a strong "states-rights" position.

That year, westward expansion was forcing the issue of slavery upon the federal government. As decisions needed to be made about whether slavery would be allowed in the new territories, bitterness increased between North and South. The President in 1854 supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That bill was designed to be the first step in the construction of a transcontinental railroad, a feat ultimately achieved by the generous donation of western lands to railroad companies. The Kansas-Nebraska Act left the issue of slavery in the territories to the residents of the West. The result was a violent confrontation in Kansas that would mark the countdown to the Civil War.

Franklin Pierce had to make another important decision in 1854. He was grieving the recent death of his son in a railroad accident, an event that left the mourning First Lady so depressed that she rarely left her bedroom. Ironically, the new decision had to do with care for people with psychiatric disabilities. Pierce had to decide whether to sign the newly enacted bill that would provide for the care of the "indigent insane."

The legislation advocated by Dorothea Dix -- and passed by the House and Senate -- was not unprecedented. At a time when there was no federal income tax, public land represented the largest potential financial resource available to the federal government. Federal lands had already been used to promote the construction of railroads, and there were discussions in 1854 of a homestead act that would provide free land to settlers who were willing to move to the West. Federal lands had even been used, in a small way, to assist in public welfare for people with disabilities. The American School for the Deaf was partially supported by the sale of a "township of land" granted by the federal government to the school in 1819.

Pierce believed that to set aside a large amount of land for the mentally ill represented an unwarranted expansion of federal authority into areas more properly the responsibility of the states, local government, or private charity. Presidential vetoes were relatively rare in the nineteenth century and usually justified on the basis of the constitutional interpretation. Pierce read the Constitution as a document that minimized the authority of the central government.

The arguments Pierce made in the veto of Dix’s bill are familiar ones to historians of social policy. Pierce feared that if the federal government assumed responsibility for the care of the indigent insane, the care of all impoverished Americans would then become its responsibility, a development in which the Founders would never have acquiesced. Pierce declared he sympathized with the aims of the bill but could not agree with its means. Federal lands eventually would be used to help to build a transcontinental railroad, would be given to homesteaders, but would not be provided to finance care for people with psychiatric disabilities. Responsibility would remain with the states.

Pierce placed ultimate authority -- sovereignty -- with the states. As he asked, "Are we not too prone to forget that the Federal Union is the creature of the States, not they of the Federal Union?" The notion was soon to be tested in a bloody civil war.

Federal responsibility for social policy was considerably augmented during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, but even today, the relative balance between the states and the national government remains controversial. Franklin Pierce's veto of the bill favored by Dorothea Dix was a crucial nineteenth-century turning point in the continuing debate on the role of government in the lives of people with disabilities.

How to cite this essay in a Chicago Manual of Style footnote: Graham Warder, “Franklin Pierce's 1854 Veto,” Disability History Museum, (accessed date).