- Hardcover: 625 pages
- Publisher: American Political Biography Press (August 1, 1993)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0945707061
- ISBN-13: 978-0945707066
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 2 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 16 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #865,498 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills
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Franklin Pierce - - the fourteenth President of the United Sates - - has existed in the public mind as a stereotype rather than as a many-sided human being. The predominate picture that we have of him is that of a weak and shallow man, a "mediocrity" who left little imprint upon the history of the United States. This stereotype, however, is grossly misleading, for Franklin Pierce was not a simple man. Indeed, his personality was complex, made up of varying strengths and conflicting inadequacies, while his life, full of inner turmoil, had an aspect of overwhelming tragedy. This authoritative biography makes available a full-scale study of an unusually interesting human being. With the same thoroughness and intensity that have distinguished all if his historical writing, Roy F. Nichols follows Pierce's life from his earliest years in New Hampshire, though his college career at Bowdoin, his marriage into the distinguished ranks of an established New England family, his rise in politics, his services as a brigadier general of volunteers in the Mexican War, and his election to the Presidency as a "dark Horse" candidate of the Democratic Party. Mr. Nichols minutely examines all the domestic and international crises that beset Pierce's administration - - the growing conflict between North and South that was to erupt within a decade into civil war, the abortive attempt to annex Cuba, the troubled relations with England, the filibustering activities of such men as William Walker which aroused much resentment in Central America toward the United States. Not only does the author refashion the exciting events of these critical days in American history, but he also unfolds, with sympathy and compassion, the tragic developments that dogged Pierce in his personal life -- his difficult marriage, his wife's illness, the death of three sons, the final bleak years of obscurity before he passed away, almost forgotten by the nation he had served.
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One is the incredible amount of minutiae that Nichols brings into the book once Pierce is president. In a sense that is fine since the book is intended to be inclusive but it’s not clear we need an entire chapter of nine pages about the members of Congress in Pierce’s first year. Some of these individuals were important later on, many not. Frequently it is hard to pick out important people or events in the book through all the names, meetings, etc. that Nichols mentions. But I think the bigger and related problem with the years of Pierce’s presidency is how Nichols organizes it. Everything is strictly chronological. Instead of taking a major issue like Kansas-Nebraska and following through on its development and Pierce’s actions, situations that turn out to be important get lost in events and meetings on different topics that followed chronologically. Even though this is how Pierce experienced it, to an outside reader the scattershot of domestic and foreign policy issues tends to make it hard for the reader to see patterns and how events unfolded. Nichols often gives one line criticizing Pierce for something like weak decision-making but then immediately launches into the next often unrelated event to occur and it is not clear exactly why Nichols made the negative comment at that point. Nichols says in the last chapter he is trying to counter a stereotype of Pierce as president. That is fine but the author needs to make his case in a more organized way.
Oddly then, the book flows most easily and is most readable before and after Pierce’s presidency. Pierce’s relationship and dedication to his strong-willed and thoroughly Jeffersonian father seemed to affect his decisions throughout his life. So did his personal battles with alcohol though Nichols only occasionally mentions that. The tragic death of Pierce’s ten-year-old son and only remaining child right before his inauguration in a train accident that the Pierces experienced firsthand had a huge effect on Pierce’s presidency. But Pierce never was a strong leader and, if ever the times called for such leadership, it was in the 1850’s. Nichols does not develop his brief criticisms of Pierce but the details of his presidency are definitely here. I found Holt’s brief biography of Pierce in the American Presidents Series much better organized and better written all-around. But that book is a summary. Nichols’ book could be better organized at times but it is the most thorough biography of this president on the market.
When I refer to this work as a "Plodder," I intend no disrespect. Nichols work is, for the most part, a straightforward biography of a New Hampshire politician who became an unlikely compromise candidate for the presidency in 1852. To borrow a sports analogy, one has to be in a position to win in order to win, and the author painstakingly traces the steps of this methodical politician that put him in lightning's way.
Nichols leaves the reader with ample evidence to believe that Franklin Pierce owed at least something of his steady rise through local offices to the reputation of his father, General Benjamin Pierce, a Revolutionary war hero and governor of New Hampshire in his own right. Franklin graduated from Bowdoin and began his lawn practice precisely at the heydey of his father's own success. A late twentieth century biographer most certainly would have delved into the psychodynamics between father and son.
In the style of the day, Nichols hints at, but does not detail, several critical factors in Pierce's life. His marriage to Jane Appleton smacks of Lincoln's trials with Mary Todd. His drinking was problematic. His absence of commitment to one of the proper religious denominations of the day was noted then by those who charted such things. He seemed to have been unduly shaken early in his congressional career when John Calhoun denounced him on the floor over a ludicruously insignificant matter. Later The reader is left to surmise the impact of a horrific family tragedy upon Pierce's state of mind as he prepared to take the presidential oath in 1853.
Nichols' Pierce was himself a plodder who for the most part achieved political offices the old fashioned way: he earned it, and particularly by his services within the Democratic Party. Pierce enforced party discipline with a ruthlessness that served him well early in his career, but his intractibility was a serious handicap in the 1850's as America saw multiple realignments of political families. Nichols recounts the presidential years in straightforward fashion, but he deftly questions the wisdom of trying to build national unity through a "representative" cabinet of such diverse characters as Jefferson Davis and William Marcy. The upshot of such a strategy was a not unexpected rearguard action from within the executive branch that stymied the few genuine executive initiatives from the presidential desk.
Much to his credit, Nichols reminds his readers that the Pierce Presidency was more than Bleeding Kansas. In fact, one is left with the impression that Pierce never had the full picture of the Kansas situation. The years 1853-1857 were times of Indian wars in the northwest, railroad dealings and wheelings north and south, filibustering in central America, the emergence of the Know-Nothings, and a variety of midrange diplomatic problems with England and Spain in particular. Some of Pierce's diplomats--Pierre Soule and Dan Sickles, for example--did not represent him well. There is surprisingly little information about reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law; Pierce never waivered in his belief that the growing vocal reaction against slavery was nothing more than the annoyance of a few malcontents, an impression formed in New Hampshire in the 1830's when Pierce was laboring to build party unity.
The absence of a psychological vocabulary hinders Nichols when he attempts to describe the dissolution of Pierce after his presidency. As the Civil War unfolds, Pierce's inability to either understand its forces or accept the new national order becomes eery. In the structured world of Franklin Pierce, the abolitionists are the villains, true anarchists, and their sin is disruption of the Democratic Party. The moral component of both "causes," north and south, totally escaped him...
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Roy Nichols wrote this book in the 1930s.Read more