by Michael Holt
Franklin Pierce often ranks as one of the worst presidents in US history. Michael Holt repeats this apparent axiom multiple times in his 133 page biography on the 14th President which is a part of Arthur Schlesinger’s The American President Project. Holt sticks to the facts and does not write to change anyone’s mind. Instead, he focuses on explaining why New Hampshire’s favorite son made the decisions he did. Even when these decisions were terrible and further fractured an already divided nation. His goal is ambitious for such a short biography. However, It is my opinion that he successfully does so in this short, succinct book.
Pierce’s story starts like most who ascended to the presidency – he was a son born to privilege. His father was a general in the revolutionary war who went on to become Governor of New Hampshire who sent his son, one of six children, to Bowdoin University. There he became interested in politics and a fervent anti-Federalist. After college, he started a law practice, became involved in the New Hampshire Democratic party, served terms in the state legislature, US House of Representatives, and the Senate before attempting to emulate his father by enlisting as a General in the Mexican-American war. He was destined to be anything but a war hero though since his time was spent falling off horses or sitting on a toilet.
After the war, Pierce went from being a failed General to becoming the dark horse presidential candidate on the 49th ballot at the 1852 Democratic convention because of, as Holt explains it, his dogged party allegiance, opposition to abolitionism, and steadfast resolve to uphold southern slave laws after the compromise of 1850. The country voted him in overwhelmingly above the Whig candidate and war hero General Winfield Scott. By the end of his term he lost the confidence of the people, Democrats lost most of their seats in Congress, the Republican party was born, and the battle over Kansas and abolitionism was hurtling the country closer to war.
Somehow Holt manages to fit this all into his biography and more as it continues through Pierce’s presidency, the civil war, and up to his less than glamorous death after battling alcoholism. This was the perfect book for me to get an introduction to Franklin Pierce’s life but lacked detail. On my second run, I will have to pick up Wallner’s two-part bio as a way to round out my knowledge of the 14th President.
Interested in reading it? Buy on Amazon here.
**This post is part of Neal’s project POTUS and Me: Reading My Way Through Presidential History. Check out the link to read more about Neal’s project!**