My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1961

I’m a huge science fiction fan, and, having read a list of what are alleged to be the top 200 science fiction novels, I decided to next tackle a read-through of all the Hugo Awared winners and nominees for best novel. Let me know your thoughts and favorites.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (Winner, My Winner) Grade: A
It’s basically a thoroughly Roman Catholic ‘Mad Max.’ Is it even possible to not like that as a concept for a novel? Effectively three short-stories tied together, this novel tells of a dystopian future at three stages. A Roman Catholic order of monks, those who follow Leibowitz, have preserved human knowledge after major nuclear war and pushback against learning and science have set humanity back centuries. It’s a haunting, beautiful novel with character and delight to spare. Fantastic.

The High Crusade by Poul Anderson Grade: B-
Ever wanted to know what would happen if you had Medieval Knights running around in space? If your answer was yes, then this is the novel for you. But really, that’s… basically what this is. Your visceral reaction to the concept question that I started with will probably be a great guideline for your level of enjoyment of the novel. It’s campy, it’s weird, it’s a bit dragged out, but it also has a weird kind of classic feel to it that makes it read almost like a weird sci-fi Once and Future King. It is definitely not as good as that masterpiece of literature, but it captures that feel occasionally, and that makes it worth a read as well. I realize I’ve written this much and barely talked about the novel itself, but it would be pretty spoilerish for this one to say almost anything about the plot, so here we are. Read it if what I’ve said appeals.

Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys Grade: C-
It’s hard to hate on this novel as much as I wanted to at times. Yes, it reads rather choppily. Yes, its characters suffer from early sci-fi tropes and lack of characterization. Yes, it feels somewhat like a hack job. But it also manages to highlight so many of the things that make later hard sci-fi so great. Budrys here gives us a prototype for so much other hard sci-fi that would come later, and he fits it together with a kind of fun-house horror that somehow is not as terrible as it really ought to be. By no means is this an excellent work–it should be read largely for historical value–but it’s not awful, which is about as good an endorsement as I can give it.

Deathworld by Harry Harrison Grade: A-
I think this book benefited some from blowing my expectations out of the water. After reading The Stainless Steel Rat, I was pretty sure what to expect here. But instead of something that was pure action, Harrison delivered a remarkably thoughtful mystery of what is happening on a deadly world. The humanity with which it was delivered was also somewhat surprising, given the rough-and-tumble attitude he seems to have in his writings. Harrison’s view of women reflected his own (backward) perspectives of the time, but he did, to his credit, include one female character who was actually more three dimensional than many other characters, including males, in the book. I enjoyed this one quite a bit, but was somewhat disappointed with the next two. They were okay, this one was great.

Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon Grade: C+
Sturgeon wrote here an interesting experimental novel. What if gender norms and sexes were totally irrelevant? What would society look like? That’s the question he asks with this set piece novel. Much of it is spent on exposition, to the point where it starts to lose interest at points. The answers Sturgeon provides to some questions that naturally arise at times seem dated and even quaint, but this was clearly ahead of its time when it was written. Not a bad read, and short enough that it doesn’t outlive its stay.

Links

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

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Reading the Classics: “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

The best on-screen adaptation

I have decided to mix in some classics with my constant reading of sci-fi/fantasy, philosophy, theology, and biographies. In order to pick which classics to read, I have largely crowdsourced recommendations of which classic literature they have enjoyed, combining this with lists of major classic works. So yeah, pretty subjective, but we can deal. As I read through the classics, there will be SPOILERS, because I want to actually talk about them. Maybe it will encourage you to read them, or, if you have read them already, you can join in a deeper discussion of these great works. Feel free to recommend your favorites, as well.

Pride and Prejudice is a longtime favorite of mine. I have read it maybe 3 times before, and loved both the recent movie adaptation and of course the most excellent BBC adaptation. For this reading, as I thought about “Reading the Classics,” I reflected on what made this such an excellent novel with a long staying power. And, when I say “reading,” I meant listening, because I listened to it on Audible. It made for a delightful experience.

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice is a longtime favorite of mine. I have read it maybe 3 times before, and loved both the recent movie adaptation and of course the most excellent BBC adaptation. For this reading as I thought about “Reading the Classics,” I thought about what made this such an excellent novel with a long staying power. And, when I say “reading,” I meant listening, because I listened to it on Audible. It made for a delightful experience.

There are, I think, two primary things that make Pride and Prejudice great. First is the enduring wit of Jane Austen. Her social commentary continues to amuse and remain relevant even more than a hundred years after her life. We can put ourselves in the shoes of the characters–not directly, perhaps, but we can imagine similar social situations. There will always be haughty men and women. There will always be awkward social situations, and family members overstepping their bounds or causing embarrassment. The way these things play out in Pride and Prejudice is part of its staying power. Austen captures those timeless things that can go wrong and intertwines them into a story of manners–good and bad.

The second thing that makes Pride and Prejudice great is not Mr. Collins, though I was quite tempted to say so, as I find him endlessly amusing. The second thing is actually Austen’s own outlook on the world seeping in at opportune moments. Whether it is her dry commentary on social norms or her subtle jabbing at clergy who are inept, she prods her readers to rethink expectations and consider what is the norm for their own society. One thing that strikes me on that score is that Austen tends to depict nearly any clergy throughout as lost, shallow, or impious. Some have suggested that is a comment from Austen on her own (lack of) faith, but from what I’ve read about Austen as well as my own reading of her, it seems more probable that Austen is in fact pointing out the systemic issues with having a state church and the way that leads to such inept, sometimes faithless people getting jobs as clergy. In other words, her barbs aimed at the clergy in the novels is a way to awaken readers, however subtly, to the need for reform.

Picking these two things as those which make the novel great is not, of course, to discount the many, many other things (like Mr. Collins) that make it so enjoyable. Yes, the dialogue is spot on. Yes, the central narrative is woven together in a satisfying and sometimes surprising way. Yes, Austen’s use of caricature for humor is excessively diverting. Did I mention I enjoy the English-isms? I do. But this read through, it seemed to me the two aforementioned things are what makes it so enduring, so perfect.

Should you read Pride and Prejudice? Yes, obviously. It’s got a 4.25/5 rating on Goodreads, a site not really known for generosity in its reviewers at all times. Looking at the long list of friends of mine who’ve rated it on Goodreads, I noticed that one of them gave it a 3-star rating and I’m tempted to unfriend them. But enough of that. This is a fantastic book, even if you’re not into this kind of book. I wasn’t, until I read it.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Five for Friday: Let’s talk 5 random books! – March 15, 2019

Over at the “Little Red Reviewer,” “Redhead” has been posting a “Five for Friday” feature on five random books from her shelves to discuss and encouraging others to do so. So here, I go. Following (directly, as quoted in the link)  her rules:

The only things these books have in common are:
-they were on my bookshelf
-I’m interested in your thoughts on them

This random mix was actually what was nearest at hand on my shelf, though I was already carrying the Bonhoeffer book to bring downstairs to read.

The Secret of Dragonhome by John Peel (1998)
I got this out of a Scholastic catalog at school and adored it so, so much. It was one of the first books that truly opened my eyes to the wonders of fantasy, making me realize more lay beyond Narnia (which are, of course, excellent books). I was desperate for a sequel when I finished. To be fair, the book is basically stand-alone, but a sequel did come out in 2011. I have it sitting on my shelf, afraid to read it because I adored this book so much. I re-read it as an adult and it still enthralled me. Were you blessed by running into this novel at a young age? Anyone read the sequel?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Berlin 1932-1933 Readers of my other site will know I’m a bit of a fan of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed by the Nazis. I have been reading through his collected works, trying to match them up chronologically as I go. Excited to dive in. Any other Bonhoeffer fans?

Titan, A.E.: Akima’s Story by Kevin J. Anderson (2000)
Titan, A.E. is one of my all-time favorite movies and is, in my opinion, criminally underappreciated on sci-fi lists. A few years back I learned Kevin J. Anderson wrote a couple novels in the universe to set the story, but again, have been afraid to dive in. Anyone read this prequel to the film? Enjoy it?

“S” by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (2013)
Saw a coworker reading this right when it came out and thought it looked really interesting. Then, got it for a gift at Christmas out of the blue! But I’ve never managed to bite the bullet and take it up and read. The concept is what intrigues me: multiple readers scrawling notes in the margins to put together a mystery for you, the actual reader. It fascinates me. I’m curious as to others’ opinions.

The Night Lords Omnibus by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
A collection of three novels and some stories from the Warhammer 40k universe. Deal with it. I love this fictional setting. It’s grimdark and awesome. I’ve only read the first novel so far and felt a little bit lukewarm about it. I’ve only heard great things from fans, though, so I may take it up again, though I probably need to re-read the first one.

“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight- A prophet for then and now

[H]e is the lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins. –Frederick Douglass (quoted on p. 361)

Frederick Douglass is one of the most important thinkers in the history of the United States. David W. Blight’s fantastic biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom shows the man in a way I hadn’t met him before, despite reading one of his three (!) autobiographies. I write in this post that he is a prophet for then and now because much of what Douglass had to say can still apply to today. His philosophical insight, his way of speaking, and his life’s devotion to a cause are things we can think on and emulate to this day.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, took help where he could, taught himself to read and write, and escaped from slavery. He became one of the most traveled people of his century, a prolific speaker, writer, abolitionist, and philosopher. Blight uses the term “prophet” in the way that highlights Douglass’s words to moral persuasion, just as so many of the Old Testament prophets did. And Douglass was a deeply Christian man who saw two faiths that were incompatible co-existing in the United States: the religion of slaveholding and the religion of Christ.

Douglass existed in a place where few others did. A former slave, he told firsthand accounts of the brutality of that horrific system and its injustice. Working with white abolitionists, he favored more radical views and even, at times, the perfectionism of some aspects of the abolitionist movement, while also moderating some of his positions depending upon the crowd to which he spoke. An insightful, lucid thinker, he called injustice to account and pointed out the true hypocrisy of people calling themselves Christians while perpetrating awful deeds. One example of the clarity of thought he provided united with his “radical” persuasions about antislavery can be found in his philosophical argument about the morality of the slaveholder and slave: “The morality of a free society can have no application to slave society. Slaveholders have made it almost impossible for the slave to commit any crime, known either to the laws of God or to the laws of man. If he steals, he takes his own; if he kills his master, he imitates only the heroes of the revolution” (quoted on page 57). This kind of sharp logic is revolutionary and world-changing, and many saw it as such.

Douglass’s life would be impossible to summarize here. Blight’s biography is one of those which goes for a fairly comprehensive look at the life of its subject. A few notes along the way: Douglass reacted to and changed his view on some things over time. His bootstrap-type thinking for African Americans was moderated in later years as he saw how inequality could be enforced through Jim Crow laws and the like. He married a white woman after his first wife died, causing no small amount of controversy and showing his–and Helen Pitts’s–commitment to the equality of all people regardless of skin color. He leveled vicious attacks on slaveholders and their cruelty but later in life moderated some of these claims, perhaps in order to try to assist with the reunification of a country he saw as died and resurrected after the Civil War. There is no shortage of rich detail to his life. Blight points out how Douglass was, as any would be, prone to shaping his personal narrative to fit current needs. He was also one who enjoyed the spotlight and did not wish to cede it to other rising stars, though he did help mentor many African Americans and was generous with his often overestimated wealth.

Though Blight does little reflection on Douglass’s application to our day, the parallels could be drawn out. For one, racism continues to exist to this day. Organizations that are white nationalist, KKK, and the like continue to exist. Less overt racism continues in supposed color-blind laws that are unequally applied. Moreover, the co-existence of true faith–the faith in Christ–with radical heresy and anti-Christian beliefs continues to this day in movements like the Prosperity Gospel. Any Christianity which tears people down rather than freeing them with grace, which divides rather than unites (as in Galatians 3:28) is a Christianity without Christ. Let us allow Douglass to continue to be our prophet of freedom and listen to his words today.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is a truly monumental work on the life of a monumental human being. Douglass is a name that every American ought to be familiar with. He was a prophet of our country and one whose words should continue to stir us to fight inequality on every level. Biographies that truly shake and shape the reader are few and far between, but this is one that did so for me.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

SDG.

Presidential Biographies: James Buchanan #15

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Buchanan, the Fifteenth 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 President James Buchanan: A Biography by Philip Shriver Klein.

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.

President James Buchanan: A Biography by Philip Shriver Klein

Klein’s biography of Buchanan begins with some rather poignant words:

The man who elects to play the role of peacemaker may, if he succeeds, be soon buried in historical oblivion… A peacemaker who fails, on the other hand, is likely to receive for his efforts only resounding curses from both the warring camps. Such was the fate of James Buchanan.

Klein, in other words, is keen to show readers how Buchanan tirelessly worked to preserve the Union for war and, because he failed, has been cast into the bottoms of Presidential rankings for over a century. Is that the case? Was Buchanan’s cause worthy? Were his efforts, though ultimately in vain, laudable? These are questions that are definitional to how one will view the legacy of Buchanan.

Buchanan was largely a self-made man who spent his life as a bachelor. He grew up to become a lawyer and was rather successful at it, ultimately amassing enough reputation to begin transferring it to greater wealth. He managed his family’s household affairs, including using his own money when needed to loan to those in his family with needs. This, needless to say, did not make him the mot popular member of the family. Though, later in his life he encountered an almost Jane Austen-like affair where a former supporter became a bitter enemy and he settled it with all the aplomb and skill of one of her heroes. He embarked on a lengthy and highly successful political career even though he shared Andrew Jackson’s belief that the Presidency is something the nation ought to call one to rather than something one ought to strive for. His striving for this office is clear throughout his life. Though he spoke about the evils of slavery, he spent much of his political career placating and even enforcing laws favorable to the enslavers. He was an entirely mixed bag, and this makes it difficult to fully get at the man behind the layers.

Buchanan was firmly of the belief that Providence–that term so often assigned to the actions or determinations of the Divine–had given America to the Americans–by which he meant white men, of course. There were, after all, people living in those “unclaimed” parts of the country, but like many who had gone before him and too many afterwards, he didn’t value their lives. His attitudes on race were made clear by his comments about freed slaves, whom he joked should go live in Mexico where there would be “no prejudice” against them for their skin color. The message was loud and clear: white people mattered; others did not.

This is made even more clear in Buchanan’s peacemaking, which is at the center of Klein’s depiction of the man’s personality. For Buchanan, the way to peace was to utterly placate and give in to the demands of the South. Unlike Pierce, who put his every effort into compromise after compromise which ultimately failed to satisfy either party, Buchanan simply caved in to the demands of the South and supported many of their initiatives. For example, he advocated allowing postmasters to refuse to deliver abolitionist literature, arguing that such literature would encourage rising up against the government. In this, he was similar to Andrew Jackson, his occasional inspiration (though the latter simply looked the other way as postmasters did his illegally). Another example was Buchanan’s activity as a Senator to effectively end “agitation” for abolition in the Senate, basically ensuring a gag order on slavery therein.

As President, he continued his forebears policy of vigorously pursuing the Fugitive Slave Act, using the power of the government to re-enslave or sometimes even enslave free people (the laws were notoriously difficult to argue against even as someone who wasn’t the genuine “fugitive”).

Buchanan’s foreign policy is an interesting tell of his character. For one thing, he advocated for foreign leaders to free slaves in their countries, which apparently means Buchanan had almost no sense of irony whatsoever. As Senator, he helped negotiate a satisfactory commercial treaty with Great Britain for postal rates going across the ocean and helped bring a stop to illegal seizures on both sides of the ocean as well. He consistently pursued the acquisition of Cuba, even after it became extremely unpopular in the North. Buchanan saw Cuba as a land that could bring additional wealth and resources to the United States, while most Northerners and virtually all Southerners saw it as an opportunity for slavery to expand. Buchanan helped soften relations between Hawaii and the United States by rebuking a minister to Hawaii who effectively encouraged military action against the people of Hawaii.

For all of Buchanan’s political acumen, he and many of his ilk (Franklin Pierce, for example) who desired the perseverance of the Union over all else failed to take the abolitionists seriously. It was ultimately those pesky nuisances who swung the election and the tides of the country to Lincoln and, ultimately, to war. Buchanan encouraged Lincoln to maintain the Union and attempted 11th hour negotiations to preserve the Union even to the end.

What are we to make of this man, with all his rugged look and astute mind? A friend of mine made the comparison to Neville Chamberlain- was he wise for attempting peace? Could Hitler truly be pacified? Similarly, for Buchanan, is it wise to strive for peace with those who support an institution you personally believe is evil? Should you allow yourself to even become a belligerent in favor of said institution, enforcing laws that would bring people into slavery? Is that a price worth paying for a “peace” for your favored people? I think not. Though history may have judged Buchanan too harshly in some respects, it also seems to me there is a peace that is not worth having. When peace costs fellow humans a life of slavery leading too often to a harsh death, is it true peace? No.

Buchanan’s efforts were in vain, and they were arguably made in favor of something he ought not to have striven for anyway. Nevertheless, it is clear that new evaluations and insights into Buchanan’s life–and the period surrounding it–are needed, and fruitful research could continue in this era. Klein’s biography is fascinating, if decidedly tilted in favor of the man we learn about therein. The biography seems exhaustive, though Klein himself states he initially desired a multi-volume treatise, only narrowing its focus to try to appeal to a larger audience (the book is still over 400 pages). I recommend  President James Buchanan: A Biography to you.

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

James Buchanan (15th President – Original Ranking #13)- Often ranked as the worst overall President, Buchanan’s legacy was demolished by the Civil War. He made every effort to preserve the Union, sometimes changing his position with the mood of the times, sometimes not. But always, he bowed to the interests of Southern states. The preservation of the Union was something he prized far more than the equality of people or the abolition of slavery, an institution he said he deplored and found evil but made every effort to preserve from the abolitionists. His biographer entitled a chapter “Cursed are the Peacemakers” in an attempt to point to his work for peace, but is peace a worthy goal with slavery? One’s answer to that question will largely determine what one thinks of Buchanan’s legacy.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1960

Yeah, that’s a sPaCe BlAsTeR!

I’ve almost completed my read-through of the top science fiction books of all time and was casting about for something else to do. I decided that reading through the list of Hugo award winners and nominees wasn’t a bad way to spend my time.

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (Winner)- Grade: B+
Heinlein created a somewhat surreal story with a surprising lack of actual trooper-ing happening. I mean, there’s a lot of lead-up to fighting scenes, but very little of the action is portrayed. It’s good, but not quite as good as I was expecting. It also features what would become even more pronounced in later Heinlein writings- an insistence that you as a reader sit and read lengthy sections where he expands on his views of sex or economics. Despite that, it comes out at the other end a quite good novel, if not necessarily worthy of the hype it has. Hey, it’s better than the movie!

Dorsai! (AKA Genetic General) by Gordon R. Dickson- Grade: C-
It’s easy to see how this book influenced so much other military science fiction. It is also easy to see why it hasn’t remained the enduring classic that some of the others on this list have. It’s full of dull, stilted inner dialogue, thin characters, and ho-hum battle scenes. A stage setter? Absolutely. Still worth reading? Only for the historical value of it.

The Pirates of Ersatz (AKA The Pirates of Zan) by Murray Leinster- Grade: A-
Space pirates? I was pretty sure nothing could go wrong there, but I was surprised by how thoughtful this book was, and how not much at all like a pirate novel it turned out to be. I expected a campy book about some free shooting space pirate blowing stuff up. Yes, there is plenty of piracy here, but the novel is not about the action of space pirates raiding other ships. It’s about the main character, Bran Hodder, and his interactions in a sometimes careless universe. He initially is thrown into the plot because of a rather comedic scenario in which he accidentally made a possible death-ray emitter. From there, he goes on to fulfill a few action/adventure tropes, but he also has a fair share of Robin Hood in him (itself its own trope). But Leinster weaves these trope-like ideas together in a way that makes sense and actually contributes to the overall plot. It’s a very good read that holds up surprisingly well.

Brain Twister (AKA That Sweet Little Old Lady) by Mark Philips- Grade: B-
There is a healthy dose of humor in this pseudo whodunnit, pseudo action adventure, maybe slightly Red Scare novel. I’m still not sure what to make of it. The science fiction in it is downplayed, but essential to the plot. It’s a fun romp that you can read in just a few hours, and if you find it at a library or something I’d recommend taking the time to do so, just so I can ask you what the devil happened.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut- Grade: F
I have read enough of his books to think that yes, it’s him and not me. Anyway, this book has some bare bones plot about people going places and doing things so that you, the reader, may be subjected to a constant stream of consciousness of same-sounding dialogue that tells you about Vonnegut’s ideas. Nothing by Vonnegut is worth reading, in my opinion. His “dark humor” is laughably quaint and based on stupid jokes. His alleged wit about the way of the world is trite. His characters are infants. His dialogue is forced. His reflections on religion could be refuted by a first year theology student. There is nothing here that is not found in every other one of his books, recycled and reused. It is awesome in its awfulness.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

My Read-Through of the Hugos- Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

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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SDG.