Piecing together the real Franklin Pierce
New Hampshire’s only President gets another look.
By Dan J. Szczesny
Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son, by Peter Wallner, Plaidswede Press, 2004, 258 pages.
America’s 14th president is not a popular guy. If he’s recognized at all, Hillsborough’s Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) is remembered as an ineffective policy wonk at best, or at worst as a slavery apologist.
Historian Peter Wallner is trying to change the way history regards one of New Hampshire’s most powerful, and most forgotten, politicians.
Wallner lectured Sunday at the Tuck Library in Concord in support of his excellent new biography, Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son (Plaidswede Press, 258 pages). Speaking to a crowd of about 100, Wellner used Pierce’s relationships with some of the country’s most well-known and, in some cases most-notorious, figures to paint his subject in a more favorable light. The lecture was given in support of the new book, but also as a preview of volume II, which Wellner said is expected to appear within two years.
The great orator Daniel Webster, Congressman and Senator John Parker Hale, the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and Confederate President Jefferson Davis were all intimately tied to Pierce through the course of his career. And in many cases, according to Wallner, it was the mutual loyalty of these friends that created much of the controversy in Pierce’s career. The common factor among all these relationships, as well as the eventual cause of Pierce’s downfall and rise of the Republican party, was the constant shadow of slavery.
Wallner’s book, which covers Pierce’s life up to his election as president in 1853, is the first half of a calculating deconstructionist biography designed to reconsider Pierce as a man of strength whose leadership as president was structured solely around keeping the United States out of civil war. In that Pierce was successful, but the controversy surrounding the man was not a result of indecision, as history remembers him, but rather of Pierce’s certainty that it was not slavery itself but the moral fanaticism of abolitionists that would force the south to secede. Pierce did not support slavery, Wallner said, but rather he believed temperance and diplomacy were the answer. Pierce’s unwillingness to make a stand either way eventually split the once powerful Democratic party and allowed the Republicans to steamroll into office with Abraham Lincoln in 1861. After leaving office, Wallner said, Pierce was vilified by the Republicans, who used his friendship with Davis to make him one of the most hated men in the country.
Wallner’s book is certainly not a breezy read, as he was forced to use not Pierce’s own letters and papers but those of the people who knew him to assemble a history of Pierce’s early life. Wallner said that Pierce simply did not keep correspondences or diaries. Still the book is a political junkie’s dream, particularly for readers interested in mid-19th-century New Hampshire politics.
And Wallner is certainly a political junkie. The one-time history teacher moved to New Hampshire two and a half years ago specifically to research and write this biography.
“I studied under a professor who wrote a biography of [James] Buchanan, so I had it in mind head to do something on Pierce for a long time,” Wallner said in an interview with HippoPress. “After 30 years as the headmaster of a private school, I needed a break.”
He took a part-time job at the state library and began his research.
“A sense of the climate of where Pierce lived was necessary to me,” he said. “People here want to feel positively [about Pierce] but don’t quite have the evidence to support that. Pierce wasn’t just an amicable non-entity. He was a man of ability.”
Thick with facts and heavy with local stories, Franklin Pierce is engaging and smartly researched. And given the positive spin Wallner gives Old Hickory from the Granite Hills, the book may become as controversial as Pierce himself.
- Dan J. Szczesny
2004 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH