The genial but troubled New Englander whose single-minded partisan loyalties inflamed the nation's simmering battle over slavery
Charming and handsome, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire was drafted to break the deadlock of the 1852 Democratic convention. Though he seized the White House in a landslide against the imploding Whig Party, he proved a dismal failure in office.
Michael F. Holt, a leading historian of nineteenth-century partisan politics, argues that in the wake of the Whig collapse, Pierce was consumed by an obsessive drive to unify his splintering party rather than the roiling country. He soon began to overreach. Word leaked that Pierce wanted Spain to sell the slave-owning island of Cuba to the United States, rousing sectional divisions. Then he supported repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which limited the expansion of slavery in the west. Violence broke out, and "Bleeding Kansas" spurred the formation of the Republican Party. By the end of his term, Pierce's beloved party had ruptured, and he lost the nomination to James Buchanan.
In this incisive account, Holt shows how a flawed leader, so dedicated to his party and ill-suited for the presidency, hastened the approach of the Civil War.
Like many historians, Holt considers Franklin Pierce's administration (1853-1857) to be so inept that perhaps the greatest praise is that the succeeding administration, James Buchanan's, was worse. Son of a prominent New Hampshire governor, Pierce (1804-1869) served in the Houseand Senate, resigning in 1842 but remaining leader of the Democrats in New Hampshire, where he remained extremely popular. This stood him in good stead when he was chosen in 1852 as a dark-horse presidential candidate by a deadlocked Democratic convention. He drubbed Winfield Scott in the presidential election to become the country's 14th president. However, Pierce saw abolitionism as a threat to the Union, and his sympathy with Southern views helped lead the nation to civil war. Holt (The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party) argues that Pierce's support of 1854's Kansas-Nebraska Act helped trigger the expansion of slavery into the territories. This bitterly divided the party in the North, which denied Pierce renomination in 1856. Holt writes well, delivering a lively, opinionated account of a president who served in turbulent times and did not improve matters. This is an admirable addition to the already admirable American Presidents series.