It’s a minor tragedy of the historical profession that Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s instincts as a partisan ultimately trumped his gifts as a scholar. The son of a distinguished historian, he published a much-admired monograph on Andrew Jackson, and had begun a multi-volume history of the New Deal when politics (and fascination with the Kennedy clan) sucked him into a celebrity-driven world for which he was congenitally unsuited, at the expense of a burgeoning academic reputation.
The cost of Schlesinger’s Faustian bargain may be seen in several places, nowhere more poignantly than in his last major undertaking: general editor of Times Books’ “American Presidents” series. The series is a good idea—brief presidential biographies written by appropriate distinguished authors—gone sadly wrong. Schlesinger’s choices are not only almost uniformly designed to advance his dogmatic views on recent American history—Charles Peters on Lyndon Johnson, Elizabeth Drew on Richard Nixon, Robert Dallek on Harry Truman—but in certain instances, are irresponsibly eccentric: John Dean on Warren Harding, Gail Collins on William Henry Harrison, Gary Hart on James Monroe, George McGovern on Abraham Lincoln.
On the assumption that a stopped clock is correct twice a day, however, there are one or two exceptions, and one of them is Michael Holt’s book on Franklin Pierce. Holt, a scholar of 19th-century political history at the University of Virginia, was given the unenviable task of describing and assessing a president universally regarded as a dangerous failure. He has succeeded admirably.
A “doughface” Democrat from New Hampshire—that is to say, a Northerner with Southern sympathies—Holt emphasizes that Pierce’s political career (which encompassed distinguished service in the Mexican War) was devoted to serving the Democratic Party, and ensuring its unity. To that end, as president, he favored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which overturned the Missouri Compromise and revived the debate on expansion of slavery in the West. This accelerated the process of North-South estrangement, and hastened the arrival of the Civil War. As a 19th-century Democrat, however, he was also an assertive advocate of American national interests, promoting expansion in the West and power in the Pacific. It was Pierce who sent Commodore Perry to “open” Japan in 1854.
Holt examines these episodes not as moral lessons in hindsight but as complicated issues and debates. Pierce was, himself, a complicated man: A Bowdoin classmate and lifelong friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, he was also an alcoholic, and his public career was afflicted with a series of family tragedies. Denied renomination in 1856, Pierce endured an uneasy retirement until his death in 1869: He was not persuaded that Lincoln’s policies toward the South would succeed in the long run—he correctly predicted that they would fracture the Democratic Party—and his sympathetic correspondence with his onetime secretary of war, Jefferson Davis, did nothing to enhance his modern reputation.
Michael Holt deserves our thanks for a graceful, perceptive, fair-minded rendition of an interesting and instructive career in American politics.
Franklin Pierce by Michael F. Holt, Times Books, 155pp., $23