Franklin Pierce by Michael F. Holt
America’s 14th president, Franklin Pierce, lives ignominiously along with his successor, James Buchanan in the fetid cellar of American presidential rankings. A prime example of a so-called ‘doughface’, Pierce perfectly fit the mold of the Northern politician seemingly beholden to the slavocracy and their unflagging desire for territorial expansion of their peculiar institution.
A lifelong alcoholic who nevertheless promoted temperance (at the behest of his teetotaler wife), Pierce’s promotion and signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act would be his most notorious and noteworthy accomplishment. This law, which effectively nullified the Missouri Compromise, allowed for the newly established territories of Kansas and Nebraska to vote on whether or not to allow slavery within their borders. In Kansas, this led to the so-called “Bleeding Kansas” events, a series of bloody clashes between pro-slavery men and abolitionists that presaged the Civil War that would ultimately engulf the nation within the decade.
In spite of this dubious record, in reading Holt’s book, Pierce never struck me as much other than a pretty amiable guy that was possibly just in over his head. George W. Bush seems like a fairly apt modern day equivalent, at least in terms of personality and demeanor.
Born in New Hampshire and raised in a household steeped in Democratic politics, Pierce would grow up to serve in both the U.S. House and Senate before becoming the first true dark horse presidential candidate.
His marriage to Jane Appleton was an odd one. Not only were the Appletons prominent Whigs, but Jane was shy, deeply religious, abhorred politics, and seemed to be chronically suffering from one illness or another. She seemed a stark contrast to Pierce, the charming, fun-loving young politician. And yet, he seemed to genuinely love her, though they would spend vast amounts of time apart.
All in all, Holt’s Franklin Pierce is, like the other editions of the American Presidents Series I’ve read, a solid if unexceptional read. I’ve typically reserved this series for those presidents to which very few books have been devoted. James Buchanan will also be represented via the APS series before I turn my attention to the American president to which more books have been devoted than any other, Honest Abe himself.