From Publishers Weekly
Like many historians, Holt considers Franklin Pierce's administration (1853-1857) to be so inept that perhaps the greatest praise is that the succeeding administration, James Buchanan's, was worse. Son of a prominent New Hampshire governor, Pierce (1804-1869) served in the Houseand Senate, resigning in 1842 but remaining leader of the Democrats in New Hampshire, where he remained extremely popular. This stood him in good stead when he was chosen in 1852 as a dark-horse presidential candidate by a deadlocked Democratic convention. He drubbed Winfield Scott in the presidential election to become the country's 14th president. However, Pierce saw abolitionism as a threat to the Union, and his sympathy with Southern views helped lead the nation to civil war. Holt (The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party
) argues that Pierce's support of 1854's Kansas-Nebraska Act helped trigger the expansion of slavery into the territories. This bitterly divided the party in the North, which denied Pierce renomination in 1856. Holt writes well, delivering a lively, opinionated account of a president who served in turbulent times and did not improve matters. This is an admirable addition to the already admirable American Presidents series.(Apr.)
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Pierce deserves his low ranking by historians, but not, Holt argues, because he was a bad man or politician. Handsome and athletic, he’d been a state representative at 24, a congressman at 29, a one-term U.S. senator at 34, and was New Hampshire’s leading Democrat when he became the first dark-horse candidate to secure the presidency in 1852. With congressional, state-legislative, and governorship majorities, the Democrats were riding high, and Pierce aimed to keep it that way. He chose cabinet members to represent the party’s factions and crafted his domestic policy to quash divisive squabbles. But his era’s big issue was slavery. He backed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, arguing that it nullified all previous limitations on the extension of slavery, and stood by during subsequent terrorism in Kansas on the grounds that the Constitution barred the president from intervening. Despite foreign-policy successes and a squeaky-clean administration, he wasn’t nominated for a second term because Kansas-Nebraska, foreboding all too well what lay ahead, fractured his beloved party. Another excellent American Presidents series volume. --Ray Olson