For those of you who don't know of him, Michael F. Holt is one of our finest antebellum historians. His The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War – 1,000 pages of microscopic print describing the battles of the parties during the era of the Second Party System – is a masterpiece of political analysis. His The Political Crisis of the 1850s made my Road to the Road to Gettysburg top ten list.
The editors of Times Books's American Presidents Series recruited Prof. Holt to author the most recent volume of the Series, a biography of Franklin Pierce – and it has proved an inspired choice. The book is, in a word, superb.
Consistent with the format of the series, the book is short (133 pages of text) and non-academic (there are no footnotes). Packed in the thin volume is a remarkably detailed description of Franklin Pierce's life and career. It turns out that our fourteenth president had many positive attributes and was in some ways a tremendously sympathetic personality. Prof. Holt recounts, for example, that, after Pierce looked after the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne while Hawthorne's daughter was sick, Hawthorne rendered a remarkable and moving tribute:
“Never having had any trouble before, that pierced into my very vitals, I did not know what comfort there might be in the manly sympathy of a friend, but Pierce has undergone so great a sorrow of his own, and has so large and kindly a heart, and is so tender and strong that he really did us good, and I shall always love him better for the recollection of those dark days.”
But that is not, I suspect, why you would consider reading even a relatively brief biography of Pierce. If you know even a smidgen about him, you probably know that he traditionally ranks among our worst presidents. Does Pierce (you might ask) deserve the low marks he has generally received? If so, what exactly did he do that warrants criticism, and why?
Prof. Holt does not dissent from the consensus that Pierce's presidency was disastrous, and the reason is not hard to find. “Signing off on the Kansas-Nebraska bill . . . was the biggest mistake of Franklin Pierce's political career.” And “the second biggest mistake of his political career” occurred when he “signed the bill into law at the end of May 1854.” These events pulverized the Democratic party, which suffered “crushing defeats in the North” in the fall 1854 elections. Even worse, Pierce unwittingly set into motion a course of events that would give rise to the Republican party and civil war:
If the 1854 and 1855 elections witnessed a massive repudiation of Franklin Pierce's party and the policy he had foolishly endorsed, it was not instantly clear who had benefited most from that rebuff. Northern voters had begun a marked realignment against Pierce's party, but it did not necessarily benefit that party's traditional foe, the Whigs. Instead, a diverse conglomeration of new political coalitions emerged.
Among students of the period, the most interesting question is not whether Pierce made a catastrophic miscalculation, but why. And it is here that Prof. Holt truly shines, and why this book is well worth reading even if you are generally familiar with the events. Historians have traditionally cited one or more reasons, which Prof. Holt discusses and concedes “played a role in wrecking what had once been a dazzlingly successful political career” - explanations focused on personal weakness, grief and “a lack of farsighted statesmanship.”
To these, Prof. Holt, adds an additional suggestion that will resonate with those of you familiar with his earlier work: “I argue here that the primary factor bringing Pierce to grief was his obsession with preserving the unity of the Democratic party,” Prof. Holt has argued throughout his long career that the parties in the Second Party system defined themselves against each other and gained their strength by doing so. Franklin Pierce's decision, according to Prof. Holt, was the result of his understanding of this dynamic. Pierce perceived the need to stake out an issue that united the Democrats and placed them in sharp opposition to the Whigs. “Reuniting Democrats . . . may explain the president's decision.”
In Pierce's defense, it was not entirely foreseeable that Kansas-Nebraska would be transformed from a partisan issue into a sectional one. Pierce was foiled by The Appeal to Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States - “one of the most masterful pieces of political propaganda written in the nineteenth century.”
I won't go on – after all, you should buy the book. Suffice it to say that Prof. Holt has provided us with a clear and succinct review of the relevant events and their consequences. More importantly, you will be the beneficiary of the insights of one of America's foremost historians into how and why things went so terribly wrong.
About the illustration:
The artist lays on the Democrats the major blame for violence perpetrated against antislavery settlers in Kansas in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Here a bearded "freesoiler" has been bound to the "Democratic Platform" and is restrained by two Lilliputian figures, presidential nominee James Buchanan and Democratic senator Lewis Cass. Democratic senator Stephen A. Douglas and president Franklin Pierce, also shown as tiny figures, force a black man into the giant's gaping mouth. The freesoiler's head rests on a platform marked "Kansas," "Cuba," and "Central America," probably referring to Democratic ambitions for the extension of slavery. In the background left is a scene of burning and pillage; on the right a dead man hangs from a tree.