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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #29: Franklin Pierce

He's so hot right now

A BOGO today because Peter Wallner's biography of Franklin Pierce runs to two full volumes. The first covers Pierce's pre-presidential years, and is an engaging look at antebellum NH politics and the concurrent social life of that city of northern charm and southern efficiency, Washington D.C. The second book tackles Pierce's widely-criticized Presidency, shedding some light on the challenges he faced and the deck that would have been stacked against any incoming chief executive in 1853.

I've always been curious about Pierce. I think that's natural for any politically-engaged New Hampshire kid, but he's also something of an enigma. Here was a well-educated soul, a graduate of Bowdoin College where he became friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne. A successful lawyer who would become US Attorney for NH. A veteran of the Mexican-American War. An accomplished politician - a Congressman and US Senator from New Hampshire who would rise to the pinnacle with his 1952 election to the Presidency. And yet nothing ever seemed to work out for luckless Franklin Pierce, at once regarded as one of the handsomest and least effective presidents we have had. His war exploits were marred by a knee injury and explosive diarrhea that led to persistent charges of cowardice. His struggles with alcohol led to his death from cirrhosis at the age of 64. (One of the great memorable lines relating to Pierce was the joke of a critic, claiming he was the hero of many a well-fought bottle.)

Pierce's personal life was an unremitting tragedy. His wife Jane suffered from tuberculosis and mental illness and was devoutly religious. They had three sons together - one died in infancy and another at the age of four. Their cherished remaining son Benjamin died at the age of 11 in a train accident just before Pierce's inauguration. Both parents were present and had a good look at the mangled body of their last child. It cast both into a severe depression, leading to more drinking for Frank and hatred from Jane, who considered Ben's death divine retribution for her husband's ambition. Good times.

Pierce's administration had signature failings, including support for the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act that pretty much ensured we'd have a Civil War before long. Pierce also enforced the Fugitive Slave Act, an example of his greatest failings as an executive - a legalistic interpretation of his duties and a lack of imagination. He wasn't good at the big picture stuff - he was a northerner who wanted slavery left alone, figuring it would tear the country apart if meddled with. He was right about that, of course, but wrong that it wasn't worth the price of fixing. His term wasn't without it's good stuff, of course - his cabinet (all unanimously approved by the Senate, and he only cabinet in history to go an entire four year term without turnover) was remarkably effective at implementing civil service reform. His secretary of war, a guy you might know by the name of Jefferson Davis, updated a military that was in sad shape (and that ironically he'd have to contend with a few years later).

Yeah, he was a failed President. He was a vocal critic of Abraham Lincoln, but he was a Democrat and that was partisan stuff. He drank too much and made the sectional schism in America worse. But he's New Hampshire's only non-fictional president, and Wallner's books are a great bit of insight into who he was and how nobody was going to be a good president in 1853.

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