14 - Franklin Pierce
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Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills by Roy Franklin Nichols
Franklin Pierce by Roy F. Nichols
Franklin Pierce was the first President to have a Christmas tree in the White House.
Franklin Pierce is the only President to have said "I promise" instead of "I swear" at his Inauguration.
Pierce died of cirrhosis of the liver as a result of years of heavy drinking.
Pierce was arrested while in office for running over an old woman with his horse, but his case was dropped due to insufficient evidence in 1853.
One of the Democratic party's slogans during Pierce's campaign for president was: "We Polked you in 1844; we shall Pierce you in 1852."
Pierce installed the first central-heating system in the White House.
During his second year at Bowdoin College in Maine, Pierce had the lowest grades out of anyone in his class. He changed his study habits, and graduated third in his class. Among his class mates were Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Pierce was wounded during the Mexican War.
He defeated his old commanding officer from the Mexican War, Winfield Scott, when he was elected president.
Pierce was the first president born in the 19th century.
I read Franklin Pierce by John DiConsiglio, which is part of a children's series on the presidents, aimed at elementary to middle school level. I didn't realize that until I picked up the book at the library, but figured at worst, I'd get a basic biography on the man. Bonus for me was there was some fabulous photos and prints of the period, which are often eliminated for adults. I will read another book about Pierce, but found this one an age appropriate introduction to the man.
Franklin Pierce is consistently rated well below average as a President. For good reason. As Larry Gara ably demonstrates, Pierce was clearly unable to meet the challenges of a very challenging time, in spite of holding a majority in Congress. This was a period when sectional divisions reached a fever pitch, leading up to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the near civil war between pro-slavery settlers i the Kansas Territory from the South through Missouri and the free-staters supported by the North. The situation screamed for a leader, but Pierce was clearly in the Southern camp, making the situation worse instead of better. Even in the arena of foreign affairs, the Pierce administration couldn't accomplish much. The crowning achievement was the Gadsden Purchase that completed the borders of the continental US - but even this treaty with Mexico was lacking in several important aspects mainly due to the sectional divisions in the Senate forcing the watering down of the treaty.
Probably the most telling indicator of Pierce's ability is Gara's book itself. Most of the discussion is not about what Pierce did. Instead, it's about what his cabinet did, what Congress did, what diplomats and agents did. In spite of the issues with Pierce himself, though, Gara's discussion of the broader political landscape is good, and makes a decent survey of the situation leading up to the US Civil War.
This is a fairly well-crafted, fairly sympathetic, presentation of the fourteenth President. The man described is a man whose "amiability was more striking than his judgment" (I borrowed those words from a booklet of brief descriptions).
Mr. Franklin was a "dark horse" candidate nominated for the 49th ballot of the 1852 Democratic convention. He was elected 254 - 42 on the party's firm support of the Compromise of 1850 and due to the electorate's suspicion of the Whig candidate, General Winfield Scott. In those days, the conflicted interests of North and South colored all domestic matters and, for the most part, Mr. Pierce's sensibilities fell on the side of the South. But, into the second year of his administration, he endorsed the Kansas/Nebraska bill which effectively repealed the "Compromise". That upset the heavies on both sides of the slavery issue. He did, however, support infrastructure improvements, such as a transcontinental railway, but this too caused political waves as expansion southward was needed in the vicinity of Arizona and New Mexico by the surveyors working on the project. With expansion came the spectre of possible extension of slavery. The times were more difficult than he seemed to understand.
He was not nominated for a second term. The Democrats favored James Buchanan who was "less controversial".
My sense, after reading this book, was one of infinite sadness. His marriage into a well-established, New England family was star-crossed. Jane was frail and overwrought after the loss of two sons. She was excessively absorbed in her remaining son - she lived for the boy, not the husband. When he was lost in a tragic railroad accident just two short weeks before Mr. Pierce's inauguration, she placed sole blame on her husband - for accepting nomination - and she was never really on deck as first lady or as a supportive life partner. I felt sad for her, sad for him and sad for the country, as it was virtually headless.
Author: Roy Franklin Nichols
Read: Mar 12 - Mar 20
Format: hardback, 547 pages
Source: Public Library
Category: Who/What/When/Where/How/Why? - Bios/history
Challenges: 101020, 75 Book, SYLL, USPC, Chunkster
Franklin Pierce was the man elected to follow Millard Fillmore as President of the United States. The two men were completely different and not just in their political outlooks but in their approach in life.
"The Democratic Party was to become for Pierce his family, his fraternity, his church, and his country." Pierce was the son of a Revolutionary Officer and his hero worship of all things military (especially Andrew Jackson) in his early years pushed him toward a career dedicated to his nation.
After he was basically drafted for the Presidential election in 1852, his son was killed in a train accident on his way to Washington and his wife, being hysterical, blamed his election saying he needed to concentrate on the problems of the nation so God had taken her son so to get him out of the way. Suffering from his loss, Pierce, nevertheless tried to balance the factions of the Democratic party but was not up to the task. His cabinet members had no experience in foreign affairs (except for Buchanan).
That said, he did have a certain administrative ability and was able to identify areas of improvement in mail services, staffing shortages, and military requirements.
"His offices (throughout his life) had come to him because he was useful as a compromise choice to settle differences between contending parties." He wasn't always the best qualified and because of that, many issues escalated during his administration. Pierce authorized the opening of the Kansas/ Nebraska territories in 1853 before the surveys were completed in 1856. This resulted in conflicting property claims.
Franklin Pierce's Presidency lacked diplomacy both foreign and domestic so that he was not able to garner the nomination of his party again in 1856.
Pierce was strongly opposed to the Civil War feeling that a peacefully solution should have been found.
He condemned the Emancipation Proclamation saying "he couldn't understand how the people of the United States would tolerate this attempt to 'butcher' their own race for the sake of 'inflicting' emancipation upon the 4 million Negros who were in no sense capable of profiting by freedom."
His death in 1869 was not heralded as had been his other predecessors.
Editorial: I guess at this point I have to say that IMHO, this man probably didn't deserve to be elected to the office of President of the United States. However, due to the issues of the time and the inability of the factions to reach any agreement as to what needed to be done, no one would have been able to resolve the issues any better.
I saw the same sadness in his life, but mainly I saw his lack of leadership. Rarely did he appear to make a decision on his own without excessive time and discussion with his "friends".
I also completed volume one of Peter A Wallner's labor of love on Pierce, titled Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire's Favorite Son. Wallner makes it clear that Pierce's life has not been chronicled since Nichols' book, which was published in the 1930s. He asserts that since then, scholarship and research has revealed more about the time period and the evidence has destroyed the myth of the "Slave Power" conspiracy in the South, since southern politics was as divided as that of the North. Wallner touches on many personal aspects of Pierce's life: his "complex" marriage, the death of his sons, his battle with alcohol. The main thesis of the two volume work is that Pierce's actions are colored by two goals: the preservation of the Union and the unity of the Democratic party, not some overarching need to please everyone. I'm sure he'll touch on it more in the second volume, which involves Pierce's life after inauguration day. I'll review that book when I finish it.
Wallner tends to contradict himself some, saying that Pierce put the Union before politics, even after stating that his Kansas Nebraska Act stance was political in nature. He also talks about the drinking, but not really in depth, likely because he is hamstrung by the lack of historical evidence on the subject. But the picture he paints of Pierce makes more sense than the one that other historians have painted, of a weak politician looking for approval from everyone who was dominated by his cabinet. He was clearly the master of his own administration.
by Roy Franklin Nichols
Way back when, I read the book Star-Spangled Men, a book about the worst Presidents in American history. It was that book that inspired me to embark on my presidential biography reading list. Anyway, I forget if that book had pegged Franklin Pierce as the worst president ever, or if he was merely one of the contenders for the distinction. Either way, his reputation was somewhat lacking. Heck, even in this book, Mr. Nichols--someone who is sympathetic to the 14th president--has to admit that he made some significant mistakes. This biography takes the stand that Franklin Pierce was a principled man who had the misfortune to make the wrong political decisions. He appealed to his countrymen's sense of fair play, only to learn that they, for the most part, weren't interested in playing fair.
As for the book itself, the 1930's style adds a slight challenge to reading it, but it does flow rather smoothly. It does seem to be written for the scholar, as Mr. Nichols habitually refers to people by their last names after their initial introduction. Or maybe he was just expecting the reader to pay close attention to what they were reading. If that was the case, I, like Franklin Pierce, fell a bit short.
The Presidency of Franklin Pierce by Larry Gara * 8/31/11
Simply awful. Reads like a bunch of term paper note cards strung together with little order or thought to organization. Boring, hard to follow, and worst of all, almost no information on Pierce. Most of the narrative concerns the political parties and personalities which existed at the time Pierce was President, with Pierce himself mentioned only peripherally. I read just over half and decided to try Michael F. Holt's Franklin Pierce: The American Presidents Series instead. What are the odds they'd both be so bad? To be continued.....
Franklin Pierce: The American Presidents Series: The 14th President, 1853-1857 by Michael F. Holt **** 9/29/11
Unlike Larry Gara's book The Presidency of Franklin Pierce (see #13 above), this entry in The American Presidents Series is actually about Pierce, and it does a very good job of giving the reader some insight into Pierce's personal and political lives and failures. Pierce is often touted as one of the worst of our leaders and a leading candidate for "The President Who Did the Most to Bring On the Civil War". If you're reading through the presidents, give this one a try - short, well-written, enough detail to get on to #15 (Buchanan) and then to the main course: Lincoln and his era.
Sketches and Studies by Nathaniel Hawthorn, of which the first part was a bio of our 14th President.
I would not recommend this brief bio, as it was a campaign fluff piece. But it was the only one I could find in my price range (Free). My local library only has children books on this president. All that said, I am counting it as a Pierce bio, so I can move on to another one.