Book: Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills
Author: Roy Franklin Nichols
1. Date- It is easy to write off the 1850s as an unthinkable chaos in American history. Maybe it was. However, if one American decade can come close to those years of uncertainty it is the 1930s. The decade was a sobering reality that the peace of the past was drifting toward a paradigm shifting war that only clairvoyants could hope to predict. Perhaps it was these kindred feelings that allowed Nichols to pen a seemingly relevant work on the 14th president in 1931. With 160 years since Pierce took office, Nichols’s work cuts that difference in half, giving modern readers a midstream perspective on antebellum America. At points, Nichols writes as if he is closer to Pierce’s time, at others it is as if he is making statements on contemporary times. Readers can’t help but see some testaments to both times. For example, slavery is dealt with the now all too familiar Lost Cause lens with zero coverage of the slaves themselves. Instead, Nichols continues the perspective of the times as an unavoidable clashing of ideologies, not the humanitarian struggle. This blindspot and antiquated look at the era perfectly illustrates how completely Pierce and others missed the most important issue of their lifetime. However, this is not all bad for the modern Pierce reader. Many modern works on the 14th president focus perhaps too heavily on his slavery actions while Nichols’s glossing over of this ugly smear led him to have extended conversations of other areas such as foreign policy and the economy. Those extended conversations are just as relevant to modern American debates as they were to the 1850s. What emerges is a surely outdated but a valuable snapshot perspective of the turbulent 1930s making sense of the fraying 1850s. That is a viewpoint with tremendous value.
2. Scope- In one of the strongest aspects of the work, Nichols decides to work a traditional cradle to grave work. With Pierce biography beyond rare, this is a treat to those seeking a complete project. He sticks completely to a chronological single volume and even extensively makes amends in the notes for shallow aspects of the biography. This review promises to not use “shallow” again. This could not be further from the truth. At 625 pages, all sense of being a short biography for a quick read is disregarded. Nichols instead broaches the subject of a light long biography with many epic characteristics found in titanic tomes. The Pierce story is allowed to breathe. For starters, much print is dedicated to his marriage and his family. For those wondering why this mundane detail is noteworth, this is not something that is typical of political biography. Another curious aspect of this work is that it has a generous helping of contemporary scholarship. Beneficially for those attempting the project in this antebellum era, many of the pre-Civil War presidents have a 400-600 page work from the 1930s. It makes it easy to compare. Nichols truly distinguishes this work with his great coverage of Pierce’s childhood and his political maturity. The scope does seem to run out of steam towards the end. After a dense, slow and ultimately overkill look at Pierce’s presidency, Nichols opts for a sprint to the end of Pierce’s life. One wonders why Nichols even mentioned Pierce’s post presidency voyage to Europe because he rapidly speeds up the narrative without warning. Whereas 1856 had occupied dozens of pages, 1857 thru his death in 1869 barely represented 40 pages. Again, this is not a fatal flaw. It is a total scope and the meat of the narrative is perhaps rightfully in the presidency, but there is a sense that much of Pierce’s life is merely given lip service. One wonders if there is anything really Nichols could have written about.
3. Author- Unlike many works that are elevated into the Presidents Project, this is neither the pinnacle nor twilight of the author’s career. In fact, 1931 was only Nichols’s second year as a Professor of History at University of Pennsylvania. Prior to this role, Nichols rose the ranks in prestigious academia circles including a Masters from Rutgers and a PhD from Columbia. His first notable publication was of the Democratic political machine from 1850-1854. Following this 1923 acclaimed work, Nichols frequently distinguished himself as an authority of the antebellum era. As mentioned earlier, he was by no means a run of the mill Lost Cause writer that dominated political scholarship in the era. He was frequently cited for being a writer abnormally focused on “psychology, sociology, and the natural and physical sciences to support traditional narrative political history with humanistic insights from the emerging field of social history.” This run-up to this reviewed work was but a peg in the wheel toward even higher levels of success. After Nichols’s work on Pierce in 1931, he won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1949 for his work on the fraying American Union. 1961 saw him win both the Haney Medal for Literary Excellence and the Athenaeum Literary Award. Needless to say, this work is the epitome of an academia focused biography penned by a man who dedicated his life to academic research. It is not concerned with rumors and speculation, but instead tackles preconceived notions with impeccable study and sound reasoning. If this sounds like the dry, educational and thorough answer to your Pierce cravings, well then we have done our job.
4. Length- Nichols makes a bold supposition crafting a Franklin Pierce work and extending it to 625 pages. This extended biography bordering on epic represents a work that in length is often reserved for legends. Hardly any historian would list Pierce as deserving of the treatment just listed. However, Nichols was searching for emotions beyond the surface as explained in the author section of this review. Throughout the work and in the epilogue, Nichols never claims to use this longer work to vindicate or revise past criticisms of Pierce. Instead, he feels that a longer work is needed because of the complexity of a man. Nichols felt the truncation of what he found would only exacerbate the misconceptions and hollow biographical stereotypes. By making a longer work, Nichols clearly leaves the casual or passerby of presidential biography mostly off the grid. It is imagined that those skipping around in presidential biography would circle Pierce as “skippable” and 625 pages of Pierce as further validation of their theory. However, for the more disciplined and dedicated (is that the nicest way to say it?) antiparticle in the Presidents Project, it is tremendously beneficial that such an obscure president gets such an extended look. It is a long and towering work that no doubt scares off light readers early and makes no flashy movements to cheaply “hook” in the others. Nichols takes his time and lets Pierce guide the action even when action is found wanting.
5. Mission- On the surface, there are several seemingly obvious reasons for a scholar to write a book on Pierce. As is becoming a theme with mostly mediocre if not failure of presidents many academics check in simply to see if the failures were still failures. It is by no means a predictable exercise. Occasionally, the revisits uncover new realities and stocks begin to rise. Other times, the reader is left to wonder if the subject is better left alone with their shortcomings. Nichols makes a brilliant move and plays it both ways. He certainly does revisit Pierce and he no doubt sees an overwhelmingly poor presidency. However, he abundantly proves the mission of going back to look at men like Pierce. One example is in the writing style of Nichols himself. Nichols also was not like others. His writings sought to employ more psychology and sociology than what was expected from 1930s writers. This unique perspective brings to light Pierce as the complex failure as opposed to a weak cartoon that he was stereotyped. After all, failures have many complex factions not unlike successes. This deepening perspective proves crucial for the reader to better understand the times and the sympathies that led to some of Pierce’s decisions. Instead of saying Pierce made bad choices, Nichols dives into Pierce’s inability to say no and his frequent ambiguous statements. Again, these are similar conclusions as a shallow (theres that word again) textbook may say, but Nichols’s reveal more of Pierce as a human being. Not just a normal human, but a real person struggling with the reins of the highest office. Perhaps at one point Nichols set out to write the grand vindication of Pierce. Maybe he knew all along he would arrive at the spectacularly overplayed platform of Pierce the Failure. Regardless, his decision to reaffirm the failures of Pierce while discovering new realities and more complex truths gives the reader a successful mission. One can always succeed at explaining failure.