Franklin Pierce The American Presidents Series: The 14th President, 1853-1857

The American Presidents

Michael F. Holt; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz, General Editors

Times Books




176 Pages



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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.


Praise for Franklin Pierce

"This is a valuable book . . . Holt gives Pierce his due as a politician serving in fractious times and as a man pulling against the swells of a difficult life."—Mike Pride, The Telegraph (Nashua)

"Holt creates a solid portrait of both man and President. Pierce, a New Englander known for his charm and good looks, traditionally ranks as one of our nation's worst leaders. Holt does not dispel or challenge any previous assessments but rather tries to explain the pre-Civil War President's actions. Holt's thesis is that Pierce's obsession with the Democratic Party and priority of party over country in the tumultuous 1850s in fact damaged his party and pushed the country more quickly toward war . . . Recommended for high school and undergraduate readers and all libraries stocking this series."—Leslie A. Lewis, Duquesne University Library, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Library Journal

"Handsome and athletic, [Pierce]'d been a state representative at 24, a congressman at 29, a one-term U.S. senator at 34, and was New Hampshire's leading Democrat when he became the first dark-horse candidate to secure the presidency in 1852. With congressional, state-legislative, and governorship majorities, the Democrats were riding high, and Pierce aimed to keep it that way. He chose cabinet members to represent the party's factions and crafted his domestic policy to quash divisive squabbles. But his era's big issue was slavery. He backed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, arguing that it nullified all previous limitations on the extension of slavery, and stood by during subsequent terrorism in Kansas on the grounds that the Constitution barred the president from intervening. Despite foreign-policy successes and a squeaky-clean administration, he wasn't nominated for a second term because Kansas-Nebraska, foreboding all too well what lay ahead, fractured his beloved party. Another excellent American Presidents series volume."—Ray Olson, Booklist

"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."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt


A Precocious Start

Franklin Pierce was born on November 23, 1804, in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. He was the sixth child of Anna Kendrick Pierce and General Benjamin Pierce, who also had a daughter from a previous marriage. Pierce...

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  • Michael F. Holt; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz, General Editors

  • Michael F. Holt is the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of six books, including the award-winning The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party and By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

  • Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Dominique Nabokov