The first year of a new president’s first term is always a crucible. But often it’s only in hindsight, within the carefully considered pages of an authoritative presidential biography, that the full measure of that first year can be taken. In this new series on the best presidential biographies, Miller Center presidential scholars and experts recommend the ones most worth reading.
Franklin Pierce is considered at the bottom of presidential rankings. Yet, his life story and administration is important. His father was a Revolutionary War hero who survived at Valley Forge. The future president went on to fight in the Mexican War, rising from private to brigadier general. His pre-White House experience included being a U.S. Representative and Senator. After beating Winfield Scott in a 254-42 electoral victory, Pierce and his family were struck by tragedy. On January 6, 1853, Pierce, his wife Jane, and son Benjamin were in a train accident. The parents say Benjamin die in front of their own eyes. Pierce’s grief did influence his governance as president.
Few people remember that Pierce was college friends with novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography entitled Life of Franklin Pierce.
One of the early scholarly biographies was by Roy Franklin Nichols called Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills, but it is over 70 years old. Modern biographers include Michael F. Holt’s Franklin Pierce and Peter A. Wallner’s two-volume study: Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son and Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union. Holt is more critical of Pierce, arguing he was ill-suited for the job, as Pierce was a little more pro-Southern and made decisions that made war more likely, not less.
Wallner’s treatment is more revisionist history. The author paints Pierce as a president who did his best with what he was offered. The president supported issues like open immigration, defending religious freedom, opposing the acquisition of Cuba and more Mexican territory, and on the Union issue, he walked a moderate path.
To learn more about the Pierce Presidency, click here.