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Franklin Pierce: The American Presidents Series: The 14th President, 1853-1857 Hardcover – March 30, 2010
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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
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I like the author Michael F. Holt. He’s a fine writer but his subject is hopeless. Writing a book about Franklin Pierce surely must have been tantamount to putting lipstick on a pig. As president, Pierce made one mistake after another, and as things grew worse he blamed everything on the abolitionists. Pierce’s biggest blunder was supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which violated the Missouri Compromise of 1820. To justify his action, Pierce went so far as to say the Missouri Compromise was of “doubtful constitutionality.” The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed settlers in those territories to decide whether or not to allow slavery. To influence the decision, Pierce appointed a pro-slavery governor. A fraudulently-elected proslavery territorial legislature resulted which brazenly deprived northern settlers of Kansas of fundamental civil rights, and so angered the abolitionists that a local civil war broke out. Kansas became “Bloody Kansas.” What’s ironic is Pierce was a firm believer in states’ rights, except when it came to slavery. Had he held to his principles, it’s doubtful there would have a been a “bloody Kansas,” as most settlers in the territory opposed slavery. The result of Pierce’s meddling in Kansas’s affairs hastened the coming of the Civil War.
Pierce was, by all accounts, handsome and charming. But he was also weak and indecisive, what today we would call an “empty suit.” The author says his purpose in writing the book “has been to try to explain why Pierce did what he did. And rather than see personal weaknesses as the source of his missteps in the White House, I attribute Pierces’s most fateful political decisions to his obsession with preserving the unity of the Democratic Party.” What Pierce failed to realize was that as president he was the leader of all people regardless of party, of Northerners and Southerners alike. His appeasement of the South was a failure of leadership.
In office, he rigidly followed Democratic strict constructionist principles and attempted, rather unsuccessfully, through patronage to keep the party strong. His most glaring mistake was to interfere with established lines and regions of slavery. The Missouri and 1850 Compromises were hard to achieve, but brought some stability to the issue. But Pierce permitted the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 that allowed popular sovereignty in organized territories to determine the existence of slavery. That unleashed years of violence in Kansas and caused a huge realignment of political forces. The Republican Party rose out of the ashes of the Whigs and Know-Nothings, which was determined to stop Southern power.
There is no doubt that Pierce and Buchanan, both Northerners with strong Southern leanings, should be held accountable for pouring fuel on the smoldering slavery question. The US has had quite a few inept presidents – usually it doesn’t matter so much. In the case of Pierce and Buchanan, they were disasters for the well being of the US.