Kierstin's Reviews > Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce by Michael F. Holt
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Jul 27, 10

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Read from June 03 to July 26, 2010

OMG people, Franklin Pierce is a train wreck to locate, digest, and analyze. Our 14th President and a Democrat, he was elected in 1852 and served one term. He was a lawyer and local politician in his home state of New Hampshire, and was considered a good looking and charming guy who made friends easily.

He was elected in a landslide following the dismal service of VP-turned-POTUS Millard Fillmore, and largely considered a consensus candidate in the era of sectional rigidity (which ultimately also became his greatest flaw in the eyes of voters). A northerner with southern sympathies, Pierce campaigned on a platform of state's rights, constitutionalism, and bridge building (relational, not actual).

In Pierce's (and the author's) defense, US politics in the 1850s was a mess of factions within party umbrellas. You've got northern abolitionists, northern sympathizers, northern republicans, southern pro-compromisers, southern anti-pro-compromisers (totally what they were called), southern unionists, and the western front to name just a few. Then in 1854, the Know-Nothing party took advantage of the confusion and swept the midterm elections. (They earned their name by claiming to know absolutely nothing about the party line to avoid exposure and recrimination of their anti-immigrant/catholic sentiments.)

Pierce was a decent politician and decided to build his cabinet in an attempt to represent the feuding ideas within the Democratic party, as opposed to simply filling it with supporters from his own camp (northern sympathizers - which were actually men from the north with positive feelings for the southern predicament). Ultimately, this tactic was a mistake, fueling resentment that led to his failed renomination, but Pierce's cabinet is historically considered the most "honest" due to the complete lack of patronage and cooperation. His cabinet, against the odds, is also the only one ever to remain intact for an entire administration.

In that environment, Pierce's Administration embarked on a few adventures of impact:

1)He very much wanted to acquire Cuba, which caused significant concern/elation about its inevitable admission as a slave state. The purchase from Spain was not accomplished, and instead the feelers caused unease in European allies who were abiding by Manifest Destiny expansion prohibitions.

2) Secretary of War Jefferson Davis convinced Pierce to coordinate the purchase from Mexico the land in what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico for a railway line (it was the only passable land for the technology of that time). The only point of interest here is that with this purchase the continental US became what we know it as today.

3) The Kansas/Nebraska Act of 1854. Whoa Doggies. This piece of legislation was a nice bit of kindling placed just a couple of years before the 1861 start of the Civil War. Essentially, for railroad expansion to occur, the western territory needed to be speculated and organized into a state-in-waiting. For the slave/non-slave state count to remain balanced, Nebraska would enter free and Kansas would enter slave. The expansion of slavery was considered anathema to abolitionist northerners, and the idea of popular sovereignty was agreed to, meaning citizens of the states would vote to decide the outcome for themselves. The "solution" caused a run of Missouri slave holders to cross the border on vote day, resulting in an official "slave government" that enacted unusually cruel and harsh pro-slavery laws in the territory. A shadow "free government" was stood up in protest, which Pierce did not recognize, leading to regular violence on the prairie.

At this point in history, Democrats were so divided they could barely scrape a win in the 1856 election, and only by dumping Franklin Pierce from the ticket. The pro-southern, pro-compromise-at-any-cost stance of the Democratic party helped birth the pro-North, abolitionist-sympathizing Republicans who won their first election just four years later.

(For anyone who cares about his personal life like I do, Pierce was married to a religious conservative and had three sons. One son died in infancy, another at 4 years old from illness, and the last one was decapitated in front of his parents in a train accident on the way to Pierce's inauguration. His best friend was author Nathaniel Hawthorn, with whom Pierce would travel frequently. After the death of his wife, and Hawthorn a few years later, Pierce returned to the heavy drinking his wife prohibited and died of cirrhosis in a cabin on the New England shore.)

This bit of American history is mired in the details of the day and offers little besides a further explanation of why we went to civil war. The author premised his book on a silly and unnecessary thesis but I am grateful to him for providing me with the one and only Franklin Pierce biography in easy circulation.
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