“Franklin Pierce” by Michael Holt was published in 2010 and is one of the newest members of The American Presidents Series. Holt is a professor of American History at the University of Virginia and the author of a half-dozen books. Among these are “By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876” and “The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party.”
The American Presidents Series has been criticized for advancing the political views of its long-time editor, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., at the expense of a consistently objective view of history. Holt’s biography of Franklin Pierce, however, cannot be tarnished with that stain. And rather than embracing history’s dismal view of Pierce with no further effort to diagnose his failure, Holt’s biography is more intellectually substantive than its size would suggest.
Consistent with other books in the series, this biography is concise and punchy, containing just 133 pages of text. Despite this brevity, it captures the essence of Pierce’s genial personality and well-describes his almost effortless political rise from state legislator to president of the United States.
Holt’s biography provides excellent, though summary, background describing the political chessboard which confronted Pierce as he entered office. The reader is also granted a clear view of Pierce’s conduct as president as well as the rationale behind his controversial actions. The result is a surprisingly comprehensive account of Pierce’s presidency and the implications of his choices.
Holt is at his best when diagnosing the miserable failure of Pierce’s presidency while simultaneously demonstrating the man’s honesty and decency. Holt argues that Pierce’s decision to chart a “middle course” on the subject of slavery and his effort to preserve the unity of the Democratic party led to his disastrous policy decisions (notably the Kansas-Nebraska Act). Instead of pacifying a broad swath of the country he dangerously inflamed sectional tensions and may have set the country on a more direct path to Civil War.
One of the strengths of the book is also one of its weaknesses. Because it is so concise, the author is unable to fully explore all of the themes useful in fully understanding the political environment in the 1850s. Occasionally the author does choose to dive deeply into a topic – such as the evolution of the various political factions and the eventual destruction of the Whig Party. In these instances the pace slows considerably, and the biography begins to feel weighty and complex.
Overall, however, Holt has successfully shouldered the burden of describing a likable but unexceptional politician and analyzing his historically ineffective presidency in a balanced and thoughtful way. While not the deepest or most scholarly of presidential portraits, Holt’s biography of Franklin Pierce is exactly the type of book many will appreciate for this president: it is engaging, descriptive and delightfully efficient.
Overall rating: 4 stars