So Franklin Pierce, like Millard Fillmore, is one of those presidents people either:
a) mock openly, or
b) forget about altogether.
I myself alternate between these two approaches. (Very mean of me, that mocking part. Basically, it takes the form of, “I love the presidents… even Franklin Pierce!” or, “Oh, man. To complete the U.S. Presidents Reading Project, I have to read a biography of Franklin Pierce!” But really, what’s meaner: the mocking or the forgetting?)
(Photo credit: Library of Congress)
It turns out that one of the reasons we don’t think much of (or about) Pierce is that he wasn’t a very good president. Meaning, largely: As president (1853-1857) he made decisions that exacerbated the tension between the North and South during the years leading up to the Civil War.
In fact, even C-SPAN’s 2009 Historians Presidential Leadership Survey places Pierce 3rd from last. Dang.
So where did he go wrong? Well, the biggie is that he supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act.*
So, yeah, that didn’t work out so well. (Bleeding Kansas, anyone? The Civil War?)
Weirdly, Pierce was overeager to be supported by the South, despite the fact that he was from New Hampshire.
Michael F. Holt posits that most of Pierce’s poor decisions were inspired by his fervent wish to keep the Democratic party strong. And, perversely, it all turned out the opposite. Sucks to be him.
So–what else was in this book?
Well, Pierce was a handsome devil, by all accounts. And he liked to be liked. (Oh, but, Pierce, ’tis better to be feared than to be loved! Didn’t they make you read The Prince at Bowdoin?)
He served in the Mexican-American War as a brigadier general, where he transported supplies effectively and then had some embarrassing moments and missed all the good stuff.
He was a wonderful comfort to friends who were suffering loss. He was with his old friend Nathaniel Hawthorne when Hawthorne died. Pierce himself died from illness linked to liver failure; the man liked the bottle, and it got him in the end.
In conclusion, I’d like to say: Thank you, authors/editors/publishers of the brief biographies of The American Presidents series. One hundred and fifty pages is all I really wanted to spend with Franklin Pierce, and now I know why.
*Here’s my kindergartner-level explanation of the Act (skip this section at will): When Nebraska was going to be organized, all of its territory was north of the line set during the Missouri Compromise—meaning that when it became a state, it would enter the Union as a free state. The South, which Pierce catered to, was not liking that, so those who supported the South proposed dividing the Nebraska territory into two sections: Nebraska (free state) and Kansas (slave state).