Book: Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son
Author: Peter A. Wallner
1. Date- Mr. Pierce meet Bush’s America. 2004 may not on the surface appear to be an ideal time to update the American reader on Frank Pierce, 14th president, but sometimes with total lack of scholarship it was as good of a time as any. It was the first cradle to grave work on Pierce since the Great Depression. Confusingly, this decade-old work by Dr. Peter Wallner is only incidentally about the 14th presidency of the United States. This is only part one of the story, covering Pierce’s birth in a young nation up until his inaugural in 1853. Dr. Wallner brings the reader to the edge of the presidency and 2004 is a surprising kindred spirit in American politics. As with any election year, the future is always the focus, but the personalities and intricacies of the human beings inside end up being the story. While there were certainly a lot of foreign and domestic issues surrounding the Bush-Kerry election, an event climaxing at this book’s publication, falsehoods and character attacks outlived policy quibbles. In that sense, the Pierce reader will recognize the swirling accusations and half truths obscuring the true Franklin Pierce as his gets put through the all too familiar ringer in his presidential quest. The whispers of Pierce’s struggles with alcohol are not all too dissimilar than sitting President Bush who was a recovering alcoholic himself. His challenger John Kerry? Well, he hoped to spend an election addressing his military prowess but instead spent a great deal of time correcting hearsay accounts on the ground disparaging his service. While Pierce was not George Bush or John Kerry (or even an amalgamation of the two), this work was published during an election year reminding the readers everywhere that sometimes the presidential contest never ends up being about the presidency at all. Taking Pierce scholarship from the outdated Nichols work of 1931 into the 21st century, Dr. Wallner does a solid job of making Pierce seem relevant at the time of publication.
2. Scope- This first volume of Dr. Wallner’s Pierce biography was always meant to bring the audience to the doorstep of the presidency. Instantly, the scope of the work becomes very clear. Despite not quite endorse this as a multi volume work, it is impossible to not think of this as volume one of two. In regard to scope of the subject, volume one is a complete tale of the rise of Franklin Pierce. Dr. Wallner starts off the narrative with the upbringing of Pierce, solidifying his family’s connection to the nation’s founding and the Jeffersonian bedrock foundation that Pierce would try to maintain into the 1850s. With the presidency pushed off to another volume’s scope, Dr. Wallner only needs to get the narrative to the precipice of Pierce’s obvious career peak. After covering the early years, the scope is then rounded out in Pierce’s mid years rather than traditional presidential biographies that end in death. The personal look at Pierce’s life and relationships is particularly notable as yesteryear’s almost total disregard to delving into private life. Family and friends become key actors with Dr. Wallner’s long study of Pierce’s personal growth. Characters are not just mentioned but are explained through personal correspondence often quoted verbatim to maintain grammatical and spelling errors of the time. The narrative goes right through Pierce’s nomination in 1852 and subsequent election to office. Again, Dr. Wallner’s decision to take the presidency off the table makes the usual appetizer of the presidential biography, the campaign, into a focal point of the life’s story. For example, the election of 1852 turned on Pierce staying home while his opponent General Winfield Scott electioneered throughout the midwest. Dr. Wallner’s scope showed 1850s American expectations of a presidential candidate while showcasing how Pierce used this knowledge to win. Absent a total scope these details would be meaningless, but with a segmented and total arch the significance is readily apparent.
For a casual reader, the man who is bringing Pierce to the 21st Century may not be totally in it himself. Peter Wallner does not have a Wikipedia page. However, it wasn’t some nobody named Dr. Wallner that wrote the first Pierce cradle to grave work in 75 years. The relative obscurity is in many ways an advantage for readers. For starters, he isn’t a defensive family member or partisan trying to resurrect the legacy of one of history’s bottom feeders in the presidency. The perspective is academic and justifiably asks how much of Pierce’s reputation is based on detractors and other non-supporters. One would think becoming president ensures tomes of objective study encompassing multiple perspectives. This is not totally true when it comes to the less exciting and obscure presidents. Amazingly, one vindictive or spiteful author could permanently set the tone for the legacy of a president. With this in mind, Dr. Wallner does not blow his chance by swinging the story to the other extremes. As a member of the New Hampshire Historical Society, Dr. Wallner certainly had an interest in lifting Pierce up from obscurity if only to update the story to the 21st century. But his fair, if void of judgement, perspective never reaches a “homer” status and draws no analogies to a local supporter or blind faith. For a man like Pierce, local interest societies may be his best chance at being the subject of a full scale biography. Once again, the presidency is not enough to ensure scholarship. Dr. Wallner’s other pursuits have mostly been academic. After receiving his Ph.D. in History from Penn State, he has taught in an adjunct role at the New Hampshire Community Technical College and at Franklin Pierce College. Before higher education he taught history at a more secondary level for 30 years. To date, Dr. Wallner is almost universally recognized as the go to voice for all Pierce related perspectives including his First Lady and the antebellum America that elected him.
4. Length- By splitting his Pierce research into two volumes, Dr. Wallner partially eliminated the risk Nichols took back in 1931. With such a full career plus a presidency, the biography of Pierce can quickly become a longer than needed manuscript. Add in the fact that decades pass before a complete look at Pierce is conducted, many events that are “skippable” for other well known chief executives become essential components for a definitive look at the 14th president. Dr. Wallner does his best to mitigate that balancing act. The end result is not a 50/50 work that many two part works end up being. With this 2004 work, volume one evolved into the short 322 page preview of Pierce’s life before the presidency. However, for a short biography many characteristics seem at odds with the goal of keeping content brisk for the rapid reader. For example, Pierce’s predecessor, Millard Fillmore, had both a short and long biography reviewed here in the President’s Project. In the short biography only slightly shorter than this first volume, the story just moves along and does not get bogged down in personal animosities. Also, trivial personal details that are on the surface interesting do not progress the narrative. All of those factors become strong points of Dr. Wallner’s first work. In only 322 pages, Dr. Wallner is able to surpass Nichols’s lack of personal connection to his subject and create a deeper portrait than one might expect at a work twice the length. Certainly this is not a disappointment to the presidential historian or interested scholar. However, this long-style biography done short does begin to shed light on the fact that this book is hard to find and not readily available despite. It is difficult to imagine fans of short presidential biography will appreciate those characteristics in this work. That is just half of the battle. Without a proper resolution in the presidency of Pierce and his later career, one begins to wonder why Dr. Wallner split the book up at all.
5. Mission- In many respects the cookie cutter definition of the first cradle to grave in 75 years completely speaks to the mission of Dr. Wallner’s work. Despite this basic truth the deeper mission is more nuanced. For example, Dr. Wallner in the above link states, “Franklin Pierce was a more significant figure as a political leader in the mid 19th century than he’s generally considered to have been. He – and if you read his views, if you read what he believed in at the time, it wasn’t so far removed from the mainstream of political thinking, even today.” Many less responsible authors would be tempted to present this sentence to build a case that Pierce is close to Rushmore. However, Dr. Wallner keeps such undue praise in perspective and tremendously adds to his credibility as an author. Instead of saying Pierce is misjudged as to his level of success in his political rise, he simply points to Pierce’s significance as the discrepancy. As a member of New Hampshire historical circles, Dr. Wallner is successful in drawing past actions and linking them to Pierce’s significance. The second part of the quote is perhaps more telling of the mission for Dr. Wallner’s opening volume. This string of mediocre and unsuccessful presidents has been tossed aside for most of the casual readers with minimal discussions and critical study. Misjudgements spread far and wide. As recently as April 21, 2015, former President Bill Clinton even told a room of Georgetown students that Franklin Pierce rose from Governor of New Hampshire to the White House. Sorry Mr. President, like many Americans, the 14th president remains a cloudy and murky man from a history class of yesteryear. Frank Pierce was never Governor. Despite raising to the highest levels of elected office in the United States and not being “so far removed from mainstream of political thinking,” Dr. Wallner had a mission to show the rise. He had to show that correcting the record matters and the rise of Pierce is a necessary story to tell. He had a Herculean task but a decade later becomes the weakest aspect of this effort. The verdict is not kind to Dr. Wallner. Amazingly, this book is barely ten years old and does not appear on most mainstream book sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. So much for bringing Pierce to the masses.