Presidential Biographies: Franklin Pierce #14

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills by Franklin Nichols.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills by Franklin Nichols

Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills is, without a doubt, a phoenomenal biography. Originally published in 1931, with a second edition that adds a chapter evaluating Pierce’s legacy, it remains a stunning accomplishment. It gave me, as a reader, a sense of what it may have been like to be alongside Pierce at key moments, thinking about his inner decision making and motivations as well as his clear actions.

Pierce was born the son of a Revolutionary War Lieutenant in New Hampshire. His father wanted him to be educated, and he fought this at first, but after one particularly formative instance when his father took him halfway back to school and made him walk the rest in the rain, he decided he’d shape up. He also turned his grades around through determination, study, and taking partners to help him learn. Early on, these types of experiences helped shape him into who he would become. His father was hugely influential in his outlook on life, and, like his father, he hated the notion of a state being dominated by outsiders. He would be a staunch Democrat for his entire life.*

If there is one thing that characterizes Pierce’s political career, it is a consistent dual affirmation of the platform of the Democratic Party and a commitment to preserving the Union. It was these dual notions that one can consistently trace throughout his career. He rose to political power slowly, largely through his efforts in New Hampshire and keeping the Democratic Party unified there, ultimately ending up with him being called a “Dictator” who threw down opposition to his vision for the party in Concord. Throughout his life, he demonstrated a “hatred” (as Nichols calls it) for abolitionists, whom he saw as radicals stirring the pot for what could only end with war. Because of this hatred, he never took the abolitionists seriously enough, and this would plague him throughout his political career and particularly as President. As a Senator, he devoted his  efforts to securing better pensions for soldiers, for the United States had the “worst” pension system “on the face of the earth” (111). He faced down abolitionists in Senate and helped pass what could be referred to as a “gag order” on discussing slavery on the Senate floor (an effort John Quincy Adams would dedicate much of his late-in-life effort to overthrowing). The abolitionists may have gotten the last laugh on that, as they were then able to paint Pierce as opposed to the right to petition.

Pierce also became embroiled in battles over the railroads and what is now called imminent domain. Pierce had early on taken political allies who opposed the railroads and sided withe farmers or others with land interests, and he, as characterized most of his life, stayed consistent on this issue, even when it seems that siding with the railroads would have been politically expedient (or at least, could have made him wealthy). Temperance was another issue he faced, and Pierce was staunchly in favor of temperance and passing laws to that effect.

Once again, though, slavery reared its ugly head and Pierce as a Senator was led to call slavery a “great moral evil” even as he drafted a party platform that allowed for “squatter sovereignty”–allowing states to determine their own destinies as slave or free.

In the Mexican-American War, he learned a deep, personal antipathy for war, even though he attained the rank of brigadier general. It is perhaps his personal experience with war–he never distinguished himself as a hero, though he did his service dutifully–that would lead him, as President, to so vehemently work for compromise.

As President, he attempted to unite the Democratic Party by selecting a cabinet composed of the entire spectrum of Democrats, whether Northern or Southern. This led to some infighting, but Pierce had far less controversy in his cabinet than some other Presidents, including some who are inexplicably seen as far better administrators (here’s looking at you, Andrew Jackson). Andrew Jackson comparisons abounded, for Pierce was unafraid to use his power to veto, even on seemingly innocuous bills. He pushed hard for the Kansas-Nebraska Act that would lead directly to bleeding Kansas. This is perhaps the greatest blight upon his leadership, for this act would trigger bloody conflict and give rise to even greater tensions. Yet this apparent blunder was an attempt by Pierce to bring compromise, hoping to please the South with its allowing for slavery while letting northerners see hope for overthrowing things like the Fugitive Slave Act. This kind of dual purpose for legislation characterized Pierce’s Presidency, though he frequently simply managed to anger both sides rather than bring about reconciliation.

In foreign policy, Pierce probably ought to be seen largely as a failure. His attempts to annex Cuba failed–with great long term repercussions–though he did help open avenues for different areas of expansion. With Native Americans, he had difficulty selecting competent people to manage the territories and he failed to uphold or enforce treaties with Native peoples on multiple occasions. In conflict with Utah, he ultimately caved to Brigham Young’s stronghold in the state.

After his Presidency, he stayed loyal to the North but remained vehemently opposed to emancipation. He’d go on to claim that emancipation proclamation was unconstitutional and that it wiped out states while destroying “property” (read: slaves).

Pierce’s whole life was, again, characterized by a commitment to the principles of his party and attempts to keep the union. These efforts led to his attempts to pacify the south with compromises that would lead to a springboard for his most hated enemies, the abolitionists, to unite and make a serious effort to overthrow him. Ultimately, Pierce’s efforts undermined his goals, and this “Young Hickory” would have a tarnished legacy.

For all Pierce’s efforts, the critical eye of history has not shined brightly upon his legacy. Most recently, aggregate rankings of Presidential careers have placed Pierce in the bottom 5-10 Presidents to have ever held office in the United States. Such is the legacy of a man who gave his life, monumentally, to the effort to keep the country united and serve the principles he felt best. Whether an accident of birth, decisions made in his life, nurture, or some combination, it is the very fact that Pierce stuck to his principles and served some that were doomed to failure that led to the judgment of history. His attempts to placate the South while largely ignoring or downplaying the impact of new political players–most notably the abolitionists–were disastrous, ultimately leading at multiple points to a lose-lose scenario in which he angered both the North and South.

Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills is that rare biography that truly transcends itself, making the portrait of a person seem to become that person, as though the reader is living alongside and experiencing the life. It truly gave me a wonderful sense of Pierce’s life, and an admiration for his best qualities, while realizing his numerous faults. It’s an extraordinary work.

*In any historical analysis, it is important to see that some terms or their referents change over time. The Democratic Party of Pierce’s time was quite different from that of our time, as can be seen in even the simplest historical analysis, despite some claims to the contrary.

Franklin Pierce’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Franklin Pierce (14th President – Original Ranking #11) There is little historic doubt that Pierce’s Presidency agitated the fires of secession rather than calming them, though perhaps not directly. His hatred of abolitionists and general placation of the South certainly doesn’t improve with historical analysis, but it also led to the stirring up of those same abolitionists into a true, rival, political power. Pierce’s attempts to tow his party line and keep the country (and his party) unified at all costs ultimately failed, but it could also be argued that the wheels were already churning before Pierce came into the office. Surprisingly, he attempted a number of compromises which ended up simply exacerbating the two sides of several issues. Generally seen as among the worst Presidents on outcomes, I ended up coming out of reading on Pierce with an admiration for the man. He stuck to his values, even when it cost him political clout or other interest in himself. Though his values were frequently wrong, that he tried to navigate them in an increasingly difficult situation is admirable. Nevertheless, his favoring of Southern interests on slavery is particularly despicable, and his handling of Bleeding Kansas, the Native Americans associated with it, and many other issues was quite poorly done. Does he deserve a ranking in the bottom 5-10 Presidents? Possibly. But having him end up here–ranked beneath other, less principled or consistent persons who didn’t seek compromise, feels like an accident of history more than a reflection on his competence.


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One thought on “Presidential Biographies: Franklin Pierce #14

  1. […] Franklin Pierce (14th President – Original Ranking #11) There is little historic doubt that Pierce’s […]

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