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franklin pierce

6 july 2010

Name the American President: Scion of a prominent New England political family, in his youth he was much fonder of alcohol than academics, squeaking through his degree work at a tony college. Despite Eastern-Establishment roots, he identified strongly with Southern conservatism, though he saw himself as compassionate. Elected President despite slender experience, he was totally out of his depth, and he sowed the seeds of an electoral disaster for his party eight years later.

Well, Franklin Pierce, obviously. Who were you thinking?

Several American Presidents have had rocky terms, thanks to forces beyond their control or their own mistakes. Several otherwise talented men have displayed remarkable political tone-deafness while in the White House (including Tyler, Buchanan, Hoover, and Nixon). Pierce not only faced overwhelming difficulties and made mistakes, but was shockingly out of touch with the national mood. My own impression is that only two American Presidents have come to the office truly unprepared and unequal to the task: Franklin Pierce and George W. Bush.

In fact, Pierce's capacities were so low that it's fairly dumbfounding to realize that he had two things going for him that Bush 43 didn't: he had an honorable war record (even if most of it consisted of falling off his horse and limping into battle well behind the men he was supposed to have been leading), and he was a pretty slick public speaker.

Those qualities, plus a sincere bonhomie that made him a beloved friend, redeem Pierce somewhat as a human being. And his unsuccessful battle with the bottle garners him considerable sympathy, as does the death of his young sons (the last died in a train crash while Pierce was President-elect). Aside from that, there's not much you can say about President Pierce. He inherited a country that was heading for political disaster, and he spent four years making the situation worse.

Pierce, like his successor Buchanan, was a "dough-face": a Southern sympathizer from a Northern state. By the 1850s, it was becoming impossible for the Democrats, despite dominating the national political scene and controlling the South, to nominate a Southerner for President. A New Hampshire man who, for whatever odd reasons, was a vigorous defender of slaveholders was, however, perfect. One detects a certain group cynicism in the 1852 "dark-horse" Democratic nomination of Pierce. Holding an effective veto in national politics, the sprawling Democratic coalition found a sublimely incompetent figurehead to unite behind. They got what they bargained for.

Pierce's Administration shows the basic limitations of conservatism as a philosophy. Successful conservatives, like Ronald Reagan, have set themselves about dismantling something. It may have needed dismantling only in their own ideologous imaginations, but at least they had something to do. Pierce, by contrast, was all about what the Federal government couldn't do. It couldn't create "internal improvements," so there was no point trying to build anything. It couldn't interfere with slaveholders, so there was no point in trying to solve pestilent sectional disputes: in fact, all Pierce could do was exacerbate them by insisting that previous compromises were null and void. His one great policy initiative was trying to buy Cuba. So that it could become a slave state. This went over in the North like an exploding cigar.

Historians have not been kind to Pierce. Michael Holt is a good deal kinder than the standard biographer, Roy Nichols. Evidently a more recent champion, Peter Wallner, has been far more sanguine about Pierce's record. The best that Holt can say is that Pierce's demolition of the Democratic Party was in the service of desperately trying to keep that party together. It's a convoluted argument that fits a certain theory of factions (parties are held together, in Holt's view, by external opposition, which it's in their interests to cultivate). It might be better to say that the theory and practice of the Pierce Administration was just a bloody mess.

Holt, Michael F. Franklin Pierce. New York: Times Books, 2010.