Peter Wallner‘s two-volume biography is the most recent comprehensive look at Pierce’s life and presidency. “Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union” is the second volume of the series and was published in 2007. Prior to writing this biography Wallner moved to New Hampshire in order to more fully research Pierce’s life. Previously he was a history teacher; he is now a professor at Franklin Pierce College.
This second volume covers Pierce’s life from his first day in the White House until his death in New Hampshire at the age of sixty-four. The four years of Pierce’s presidency were undoubtedly less satisfying than Pierce had hoped they would be; he left the White House unpopular and largely unappreciated. The years of his presidency and retirement are also less exciting for the reader of this volume than Wallner’s account of Pierce’s first forty-eight years (chronicled in the first volume).
As was true with the first volume in this series, the second volume proves exquisitely researched, extremely thorough and appropriately detailed. No relevant aspect of Pierce’s political life (and few of his personal life) seem to have escaped Wallner’s attention. Only Pierce’s sad spiral into alcoholism in the last years of his life seems underemphasized in this account. Happily, Wallner liberally sprinkles interesting observations and conclusions throughout the text which makes digestion of the enormous array of facts and details more manageable.
Also true in this volume, Wallner proves more forgiving of Pierce’s conduct as president than most historians. Where many see Pierce’s actions relating to slavery as blindly ignoring a fundamental miscarriage of justice (or, worse, actually stoking the fire) Wallner sees the antebellum president searching for a middle ground, trying to carve a path satisfactory to both pro- and anti-slavery forces. Although Pierce failed in his efforts, Wallner sees an attempt to preserve the Union rather than an effort to perpetuate and expand slavery.
The most common criticism of this biography is that Wallner attempts too forcefully to redeem Franklin Pierce’s political legacy. Ironically, the most useful aspect of this volume for me is the author’s thoughtful and well-argued defense of Pierce’s tenure as president. And rather than masking his opinions as facts, Wallner makes it easy to distinguish between the two. Although he is clearly sympathetic to the former president’s plight (Pierce’s skill set was lacking given the demands of that era, and his timing in office was unfortunate) Wallner skillfully challenges conventional wisdom relating to Pierce’s legacy.
In contrast to his first volume, however, Wallner is unable to cover the last years of Pierce’s life (political and otherwise) in a consistently interesting and engrossing way. The four years of Pierce’s presidential term coincided with a complicated, volatile and important time for the country. But absorbing the details of this antebellum term is often difficult and occasionally tedious. Long sections devoted to important topics such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Cuba seem unending at times; it was occasionally all I could do to avoid skipping ahead to the next chapter.
Overall, however, this second volume of Peter Wallner’s series on Franklin Pierce is an impressive, sweeping and thoughtful analysis of Pierce’s presidency and retirement (though it is unclear why Pierce’s life required division into two volumes). Although Wallner convincingly demonstrates that history’s view of Pierce is one-dimensional and superficial, less persuasive is the author’s claim that Pierce was a “martyr for the Union.” But while this second volume is not often entertaining, it is consistently penetrating, thought-provoking, insightful, humanizing and extremely scholarly.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars