William W. Freehling
AN intriguing paradox characterizes Franklin Pierce's administration: on the one hand, few administrations exerted such a powerful impact on the social and political life of the American nation, but on the other hand, few presidents exercised such little influence on their administration's policies. Pierce was an inconsequential charmer who staked his claim for presidential greatness on other people's not very charming initiatives. His failure was not just his own but also that of a political culture so fragmented that its factions could agree only on a pleasant nonentity as president yet so convulsed that it demanded a president who would act forcefully. A split culture thus bred a non-actor clinging to more forceful statesmen's actions as if they were his own but who was sure to be destroyed when his adopted initiatives enraged half his civilization.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Life of Franklin Pierce (Boston, 1852), the first biography of Pierce, was written by his college friend. Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union , 2 vols. (New York, 1947), is a massive, wonderfully readable narrative of national history during the Pierce years. Roy Nichols, Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills (Philadelphia, 1931), the best biography of Pierce and one of the best of any president, is still very reliable. Larry Gara, The Presidency of Franklin Pierce (Lawrence, Kans., 1991), is especially informative on foreign policy matters. See also Wilfred J. Bisson, comp., Franklin Pierce: A Bibliography (Westport, Conn., 1993).