Franklin Pierce Rediscovered

Second Volume of Biography Takes New Angle on President

Posted June 25, 2007 at 4:59pm

If ever there were a historical fantasy draft among schoolchildren, Franklin Pierce wouldn’t fare very well.

“They wouldn’t know anything about him. Most of the textbooks that I see don’t even mention him anymore,” historian Peter Wallner said in an interview with Roll Call.

In fact, Wallner concedes, there are virtually no experts who wouldn’t deem Pierce to be an unknown at best and a failure at worst.

While this is quite the ironic admission from the man who has penned more than 600 pages in two volumes on the frequently forgotten 14th president, it was this very obscurity that led Wallner to move to New Hampshire five years ago to begin researching Pierce.

The first volume of his biography, “Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son,” was released in 2004, and the second volume, “Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union,” is slated to be in bookstores on July 4.

Prior to Wallner’s books, almost all scholarly opinions about Pierce, who served as president from 1852 to 1856, had come from Civil War-era anecdotes, and

the last biography of him was written more than 70 years ago by Roy Nichols.

While this past research cast Pierce as a historical villain for his willingness to tolerate slavery, Wallner looks at the pre-Civil War era from a different angle — one from which abolitionists were often as fanatical as slaveholders and from which Pierce was merely a casualty of historical forces over which he had no control.

It also is an angle from which filibusters were not Congressional maneuvers, but instead voyages of conquest to foreign countries, and from which Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, is seen as a loyal friend and defender of the Union. Add to the mix some corrupt and inept politicians, and all the ingredients are there for a revisionary look at history.

For the most part, when Pierce is considered at all, it is for his support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which set up the two would-be states as territories and allowed for popular sovereignty in the localities to determine whether they would allow slavery.

As a result, the bill effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise, which would have made it unlawful to even consider allowing slavery in either territory, and it made Pierce a bitter enemy of the abolitionists in the North, who generally labeled him as a weak and indecisive leader.

To this, Wallner attributes Pierce’s enduring legacy. “I think it’s the result of people having labeled him at a very early time in history … as a failure, as a doughface and nobody ever checked since that time to see if that characterization was accurate,” he said.

In the second volume of his biography, Wallner sets about evaluating this characterization and ultimately finds it misleading.

The Franklin Pierce that he sees is an unflappably honest and modest president, guided by a strict interpretation of the Constitution and an aim to reduce corruption.

But at the same time Pierce was hamstrung by a corrupt Congress and a Democratic Party that had far too many fractures, not only between the North and South, but also between other sets of rivals who have since been relegated to historical cobwebs.

Pierce’s belief in the integrity of government work, which made him a precursor of the modern civil service standards, made him opposed to doling out the patronage that these factions were used to, which only made these fractures more intense and made him a victim of his own good intentions.

Failing to support the Kansas-Nebraska Act in this divisive time period, Wallner said, might have caused the South to bolt from the Democratic Party and possibly the Union far earlier than it did and would jeopardize the rest of Pierce’s legislative agenda, which eventually brought about reforms to the Treasury, Army, Navy and international relations with Central America and England, among other accomplishments.

In demonstrating this, Wallner tweaks some standard conceptions of history and extracts some rich fibers of American history from oblivion.

While he makes it clear that Pierce was no supporter of pro-slavery agitators, he also connects abolitionists, for example, with the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party and portrays Jefferson Davis, who served as Pierce’s secretary of war, as a levelheaded adviser and faithful friend.

And although filibusters were then renegade voyages to Nicaragua or Cuba to try to invade them (trips that Pierce, by the way, opposed) rather than attempts to block judicial nominees, Wallner draws some parallels between the issues that Pierce was dealing with, such as immigration and the trade-offs between national defense and civil liberties (Pierce later opposed Abraham Lincoln’s widespread use of martial law) and the problems the nation is grappling with today.

Ultimately, Wallner succeeds in portraying Pierce as a friendly, charismatic and most of all honest — too honest, in fact — person who always tried to foster unity within his party and desperately wanted to avoid rocking the boat on slavery or any other social issue for fear of causing the Union to fall apart. Pierce was not able to prevent this from happening, but Wallner argues that he at least forestalled it and he backs this all up with a wealth of research and primary sources.

While the book’s style is somewhat distracting, its content often dense and on many occasions it comes off as overly complimentary of a man who, as Wallner concedes, was very best an average president, the biography is an interesting character sketch of a man who history tends to ignore or condemn.

And in the process, it might just question the role of the honest politician. “As the American people we always tend to think that every four years we want to choose a man who is honest and forthright and incorruptible and that was Franklin Pierce — and look what happened to him,” Wallner said.