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”