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Book Review: Franklin Pierce - Martyr for the Union by Peter Wallner

Peter Wallner's second volume on the life of President Franklin Pierce, entitled Franklin Pierce - Martyr for the Union, begins with Pierce's first day in office and confronts the major issues that Pierce faced as President. The main issue is the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and the battle over whether these states would be slave states or free states. Wallner also discusses numerous other issues of Pierce's presidency including foreign relations, efforts to reach a treaty over Canadian fishing rights, meddling by Great Britain to recruit Americans to fight in the Crimean War and concerns about foreign involvement in the western hemisphere. Other topical issues of Pierce's presidency that are ably covered by the author include Pierce's efforts to prevent the popular "filibustering" expeditions (mercenary paramilitary operations designed to overthrow governments in Cuba and other Caribbean islands) and the doling of patronage among the competing political factions in New York.

franklin pierce martyr

Wallner greatly admires his subject for his steadfast adherence to the constitution, his genial nature and his display of principle in unpopular situations. In doing so, the author loses objectivity and fails to adequately address many of his subject's most glaring faults. First and foremost among these is the issue of slavery. Pierce views abolitionists as the enemy. To him they are an evil faction intent on harming the nation. This position completely overlooks the morality of slavery and the fact that Pierce holds strong racist views that approve of the bondage of African-Americans. Wallner mentions Pierce's racism very briefly and matter-of-factly, without concern for how it might affect an assessment of Pierce as an individual. Although the author describes his subject as very principled, Pierce's practice of using bribery to achieve his legislative goals (whether by the use of patronage, as in the case of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, or by the use of money, as in the case of the Canadian fishery treaty) are ignored by the author as something that every president did in those days. There are moral inconsistencies that seem unimportant to the author in his assessment of Pierce as President.

Wallner makes his book enjoyable by the inclusion of a number of lesser known but interesting facts about Pierce. These include his visit to a brothel, a clandestine visit to Michigan during the civil war, a skinny-dipping episode, Pierce's eloquent confrontation of an angry mob following the death of Abraham Lincoln, and a mysterious "other woman" that Pierce sees following the death of his wife. But there are huge chunks of Pierce's life that are not given their proper attention in this book. The major one is Pierce's drinking, which is only briefly touched on from time to time, mostly after Pierce's presidency. (Pierce died of cirrhosis of the liver, and yet the book barely mentions his drinking). Another is his relationship with his wife Jane Pierce. We never really know the strength of their bond, though the author can be excused for this somewhat because the Pierces destroyed much of their private correspondence.

In his gathering and telling of the facts of Pierce's life and his presidency, Wallner is to be commended. He is thorough and tells us much about Franklin Pierce that we could not learn elsewhere. It is his conclusions and judgements of those facts that are suspect however, and the reader is better off coming to his or her own conclusions, rather than accepting those of the author.

In this reader's opinion, Franklin Pierce was no martyr. But his story is a feast for history geeks
Tags: genre: non-fiction, subject: history, xxx author last name: r-z
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