American history, biographies, book reviews, Franklin Pierce, Michael Holt, Peter Wallner, presidential biographies, Presidents, Roy Nichols
Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher once remarked that “nice guys finish last.” Although he was referring to the dating scene and not politics, Franklin Pierce would have agreed with that statement to the extent it was applied to the presidency rather than courtship.
And although Franklin Pierce is not considered the very worst president this country has seen, he is uncomfortably close to the bottom of the pile. Even as he lived out his final years, Pierce knew history was not treating his legacy well. And he was, by nearly all accounts, a very nice guy.
From what I can tell, Pierce was a big fish in a small pond – or really a small fish in a tiny pond (New Hampshire). Shortly after being elected his town’s “moderator” at the age of twenty-four he was elected to the state legislature. Aided in his political ascension by his father’s reputation (a bigger fish who served as governor of the state) he later won election to the U.S. House of Representatives and, thereafter, the U.S. Senate. Pierce was no intellectual firecracker, but he did find success as a “people person.”
After leaving the Senate in the early 1840s Pierce became New Hampshire’s “party boss” for the Democrats. Here he ensured allegiance to party doctrine and worked to expel those who decided to swim against the tide. Incredibly, by 1852 he found himself the dark horse Democratic nominee for president running against obscure Whig nominee General Winfield Scott.
Pierce’s four years in the White House were disappointing, to say the least. But despite the wisdom of numerous historians who have eviscerated Pierce for supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act (and, by implication, slavery), he appears to me to have simply waded into waters far deeper than he could handle. His natural instinct was to avoid unnecessary conflict. He wanted to be liked, to be a crowd-pleaser.
So it was no surprise to me that Pierce pursued seemingly “safe” middle-ground in the white-hot debate over slavery. But the sectional detente he sought was fleeting. And as a result of his refusal to vigorously fight slavery, Pierce shoulders a large share of the blame for the country’s march toward Civil War. Unfortunately for the nation – and his legacy – he was simply ill-suited to serve as president at such a volatile time.
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* The first Pierce biography I read was Roy Nichols’s “Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills.” This 1931 classic was, for a long stretch, the only comprehensive biography available on Pierce. Nichols is thorough in exploring not only Pierce’s politics, but also his background and personality. Its style of writing is slightly dated, it is extremely – and unnecessarily – detailed at times, and it naturally skews toward a more academic audience. But it is a very useful (if not very entertaining) examination of Pierce. (Full review here)
The second biography I read, by Peter Wallner, was published in two pieces. His first volume, “Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son,” was published in 2004. This was followed in 2007 by a second volume, “Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union.”
In nearly every way, Wallner’s work meets or exceeds the standard set by Nichols. Critics fairly argue that Wallner goes too far trying to repair Pierce’s tarnished reputation. But his “glass half full” perspective makes the biography interesting for me; his defense is thoughtful, not impassioned, and forces a critical examination of the life and times of this mediocre president. Wallner’s work seems certain to remain the “go to” biography on Franklin Pierce for all but the most casual reader. (Full reviews here and here)
My final biography of Pierce was “Franklin Pierce” by Michael Holt. Published in 2010, this is a recent addition to The American Presidents Series which features short, high-impact biographies. Perfect for a time-starved reader, Holt’s biography proves descriptive, insightful and extremely well-balanced. Although it is not detailed enough to serve as the ideal text for a presidential scholar, it is the perfect book for someone who wants to get acquainted with Pierce without spending several long evenings with him. (Full review here)
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Best (Definitive) Biography of Pierce: Peter Wallner’s two-volume series
Best (Efficient) Biography of Pierce: Michael Holt’s “Franklin Pierce”
Reblogged this on Practically Historical.
Hey there – just curious if you bought Wallner’s biographies, and if so, whether you got them for a decent price. They’re very expensive on Amazon for some reason. Thanks!
Yes, I bought them before they were priced at a premium to gold and platinum. I’m not sure why they are so expensive, but I’ve gotten several notes like yours. My only advice has been to see whether your local library has (or can borrow) copies, or you might try contacting the author via my Related Links page (toward the bottom). He has emailed me in the past and might be responsive to inquiries about where to find affordable copies…
For anyone interested in purchasing Peter Wallner’s two-http://www.nhbooksellers.com/-franklin-pierce-by-peter-wallner direct from the publisher. I also refused to pay the prices being charged on Amazon and stumbled on the site…very nice people by the way.
James Salerno said:
Thank you very much for this link! I bought both volumes (paperback) for much, much less than what I would have paid on Amazon or eBay. I don’t think we’re getting a better Pierce bio anytime soon and the idea of not having the “definitive” biography and “settling” for the American Presidents series bothers my absurdly specific sense of cosmic order 🙂
Yes, thank you very much for the link. I was just about to give up on reading the 2nd volume because my local library doesn’t have it, the Colorado/Wyoming library alliance doesn’t have it, CU Boulder doesn’t have it… but I can afford $24 plus shipping, so pretty soon I’ll have it. It sounds a bit of a dreary read, but the first volume was interesting, so I’m sure I’ll get through this one. Maybe I should donate it to the library when I finish — it seems ridiculous that there isn’t a copy in any library in Colorado.
I too find it odd that Colorado/Prospector only had the pre-presidential volume. When I pay tuition this fall, I’ll add a little extra so Boulder can purchase a copy.
For anyone looking for Wallner’s series they are still over $100 a piece on Amazon. At the website provided by cruttendenandstone they are available in hard cover for around $30 each.
Gary Bryan Schantz said:
As one of the many people looking for a better price for the Wallner books…what website did you write had it for a good price? I tried copying and pasting cruttendenandstone from your post but nothing comes up.
If you’re okay with paperbacks:
For Frank, I went with the Peter Wallner two-volume biography and was not disappointed. I am not a huge reviewer reader, so I am not sure what critics have said, but I believe the majority of biographers are going to be overtly favorable to their study anyway. I thoroughly enjoyed Wallner’s volumes as he provided a decently deep delve into Pierce’s personal and professional life. He was able to write a through and interesting biography about a President many people do not know much about. For my tastes, Wallner was adequately academic and still easy to read.
steve schiwetz said:
Pierce is inadequate as president because he did not fight slavery—but if he had, he would have brought secession on earlier. The first president to fight slavery at all, as opposed to compromising on the subject, was Lincoln and he got secession.
Judging Pierce by present day standards does not do justice to him or the other people who tried to peacefully preserve the union of states.
Reading a Presidential biography is a great thing. In a book or two, spanning a lifetime of a great man, and reading all the events of import in the United States and abroad. Perspective, appreciation, and enlightenment occur. We owe you for your groundbreaking efforts to inform us more naive readers which books are worthy of our time (& money). Regarding “money” the Plano, TX public library is amazing with their InterLibrary Loan service. It generally only pulls from within Texas libraries and charges $2.50/book to defray the mailing. But they went over and above, and got me Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son by Peter Wallner (2004) from the Univ of the Vermont & State Agricultural College; Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union by Peter Wallner (2007) from the Monroe County Public library, Bloomington, IL. Taxes well spent.
Regarding Franklin Pierce, who almost nobody knows (this is a pun for the Antebellum literate). His Presidency was hardly one of the worse, his accomplishments actually quite stunning in many regards. I think I can make this comparison: Pierce was followed by Buchanan, and Obama was followed by Trump. Good Presidents followed by Bad Presidents. A constructive builder followed by a savage undoer.
Richard, one of the things I haven’t taken advantage of is my local library…but for Franklin Pierce, in particular, that may be the best route for most people to take given the relatively expensive cost of Wallner’s books!
On a more philosophical level, I’ve found that the most exceptional presidential biographies are useful in an enormous number of expected – and unexpected – ways: (i) they teach us about the subject and his (or, someday, her) life, (ii) they inform with respect to context: what the country has been through, how her citizens and representatives reacted and responded, and analyze the second- and third-order effects, (iii) they often teach us (sometimes subtly) what makes a person a great, motivating, inspirational leader, and (iv) they entertain. They do far more than that, of course, but the most unexpected pleasure for me has been that great biographies of great presidents are more entertaining and engaging than reading the best fiction.
Desperately looking for some middle ground between academic (two volume even) snoozefest at unusually high prices and “Cliff’s Notes American President’s series, Franklin Pierce,” I find the pickings few and far between. I came across this 2006 tome, which looks interesting, “The Expatriation of Franklin Pierce” which seems to be mostly about his career during and after the Civil War, not a pure biography of Pierce. Steve, have you come across this in any of your research? Has anyone else here? I am racing through Fillmore so I have to make a decision soon.
Here’s a review from a source I find reliable:
It is also posted to Amazon under Rule 62 Ken.
Above, I posted the link to Boulard’s Buchanan book instead of the Pierce book. However, Rule 62 Ken’s review of the Pierce book is on Amazon (4 stars). (Not sure why it’s not on his blog though.)
J. Jensen said:
Tried posting this, didn’t work. Now it keeps saying “duplicate comment” detected, so will add this disclaimer and hopefully it will change the text enough to let me post my original comment.
Gotta be honest, when I came here seeking the Franklin Pierce thread to make a comment, I did not expect it to be recently active with comments just a couple of weeks ago! Who would have thought. I actually came to see if there was any info on the very book you asked about as well. I had not seen Boulard’s Pierce bio until I discovered it via his Buchanan one. It sounds like the Pierce one is pretty good, and one Amazon review said if you pair it with Wallner’s two volume set, you have the most comprehensive coverage out there of Pierce. Boulard actually spends twice as much time covering Pierce’s post-presidency than Wallner does, so this book sounds like the best coverage out there of Pierce post-presidency. From the Amazon review: “In 203 pages, Garry Boulard more than doubles the space used by Peter Wallner to cover the same time period: Franklin Pierce AFTER his Presidency. That said, combine the writings of both men and you will have the best understanding of President Pierce possible today.”
Yes, sometimes I’m amazed what catches fire! And it’s great – often creating invaluable footprints for me to follow as I figure out what to read next on various former presidents. And, occasionally, I realize I overpaid for a biography I had a hard time finding 🙂
Agreed, see my review below. Boulard’s book was very good and with more detail and sources cited than Holt’s. A combination of the two at about 300 pages would be perfect for Pierce.
Steve: I really think you need to slip “The Expatriation of Franklin Pierce” into your follow up reading.
I “settled” for Michael Holt’s American Presidents “Cliffs notes version” and found it ok.
Someone was kind enough to recommend Boulard’s book, and I did not choose it because it mainly focused on his later life, especially the Civil War, but with only 130 or so pages, I tore through Holt’s and had plenty of time left, so I actually ordered Boulard’s book and am very glad I did.
I really like the structure, it’s almost like a movie, where they start well into the story and flashback. Starting with Pierce leaving the White House, it flashed back to how his early life he got there and his life after the White House flashes back to his tempestuous term. The prose is engaging and interesting.
The book contains many more primary source references and details that are sadly missing in Holt’s work. I would love to see some writer come up with a 300 page hybird of Holt and Boulard’s works, which would be the perfect biography length for Pierce.
One drawback is its typeface and structure the numerous endnotes are not in parentheses or superscript. They are the same size as the text and just thrown in at the end of sentences, like this .”and Jane Pierce never returned to Washington.25″ It is very jarring to the reader.
Other than that, a very enjoyable read, and I am glad I devoted some extra Pierce time to my reading.
Todd Sanders said:
I read both volumes of Peter Wallner. Overall I really liked them quite a lot. My only gripe is how much of an apologist for Pierce the author is. It appears his mission is to completely reverse the reputation of the 14th president, rather than simply to rehabilitate it. He repeatedly condemns the abolitionist movement and ascribes vile motives to Lincoln and the Republican party at every turn. I wish I can say to the author, “you know, sometimes it might just be a simple matter of right and wrong, and slavery is the most wrong thing we’ve ever done.”