April 21, 2010 / 3:49 AM / 9 years ago

Book Talk: Historian Holt finds admiration for President Pierce

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - When historian Michael F. Holt was asked to write a book on Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States, he admits he had little interest in the Democrat who ran the country from 1853 to 1857.

A portrait of U.S. President Franklin Pierce, who served from 1853-1857. REUTERS/Library of Congress/Handout

But Holt, a leading historian of 19th century U.S. politics and author of six books, said he was asked to write the book as the 32nd volume in The American Presidents Series by respected historian and series editor Arthur M. Schlesinger who died just days after writing to him.

He set out knowing that Pierce was regarded as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history whose single-minded partisan loyalties inflamed the nation’s simmering battle over slavery but ended up with a certain admiration for him.

Holt spoke to Reuters about Pierce and about his writing:

Q: Did you need to change your writing for the series?

A: “The only pressure was limits on the number of words as they want short books. The directions were 35,000 to 50,000 words and I came in at 40,000 words. One had to condense a great deal.”

Q: How did you find new material?

A: “I am not sure how much new I brought to it. I really only went on what has been previously written and the research I had done. We have a wonderful, digitalized collection of 19th century newspapers. I used some for my research funds to help our library buy that. I typed in Franklin Pierce and got 7,000 hits. I could get lots of reference to Pierce in obscure newspapers.”

Q: How did you approach the book?

A: “I built this book not around the fact that he made some bad decisions but why. My answer was that he was overly concerned about preserving the unity of the Democratic party but his decisions did exactly the opposite and he helped divide his party and open up the west to slavery and bring on the Civil War.”

Q: Had you researched him much previously?

A: “Pierce never particularly interested me. But one reason I wrote this book was that I got a very flattering letter from Arthur Schlesinger, the original editor of this series, asking me to do it. He wrote this letter eight days before he died. It made it one of the last letters he wrote. I learnt things about Franklin Pierce that I didn’t know but I don’t think I changed my opinion of him overall. He is acknowledged as one of the worst presidents and I didn’t change my opinion on that.”

Q: Did you like him?

A: “I came to admire him in many ways. I knew he was amiable but he had such a real capacity of empathy for people in physical and emotional pain that he ended up being an admirable character that made some big mistakes. All three of his sons died young, one in a horrible train crash just two months before he was inaugurated which did not help his wife who was a morose character anyway, and went into seclusion for a year-and-a-half. She was always ill and pre-deceased him, dying of tuberculosis...I see him more as tragic then venal or malicious or simply dumb. He believed what he was going was the right thing.”

Q: What started your fascination with this period?

A: “David Herbert Donald, the historian who was the biographer of Lincoln. He was my teacher as an undergraduate at Princeton and I studied with him as a graduate at John Hopkins. David was an incredible, mesmerizing, exciting man who sparked this interest.”

Q: Ever though about writing outside this period?

A: “I haven’t thought about it but my wife and children have asked why I don’t write a historical novel with sex and mystery. I simply don’t have the imagination.”

Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Miral Fahmy

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