One ongoing argument among historians is the Great Man vs Social Forces debate. The argument goes like this: history is shaped by individuals (sometimes heroic sometimes villainous) - think Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Napoleon, Churchill, FDR, Hitler, the Beatles, and maybe even Vince Lombardi - who rise up out of various societies to lead them into a newer age of prosperity or improvement. Or history has been a slow continuous wave of events within societies that influence those leaders when they rise to some authority and they are merely puppets of historical inevitability.
I find to my philosophical truth - I'd like to think the facts bear it out - that it's a combination of forces: that yes societies of influence trend a certain way but that it takes a Great Man (now increasingly also Woman) to make sure history plays out the way it ought to. The will of the masses funneled through the will of a great leader at the right time. Have the wrong leader at the wrong time, you get Charles I of England making a mess of things or worse a Hitler taking the worst impulses of the masses and directing them into dark madness. Get the right leader at the moment of crisis where societal trends conflict, you get a Saladin or a George Washington.
Sometimes you get a muddle: the historical flow of society is going in one direction but you get someone who fails to or refuses to recognize the moment at hand. Say for an example a growing majority of a nation's population recognizing the inherent injustice of an economic system based on slavery existing in a nation priding itself on liberty and fairness, rubbing against an ever-shrinking group of political and economic elites who thrive on that slave economy yet refusing to moderate their stance in the face of growing opposition.
Into this comes the example of Franklin Pierce. Our fourteenth President was one of the more successful politicians of the day: had never lost an election, was politically ambitious - to the horror of his wife who hated Washington DC - and got himself elected President in 1852.
This was not a good time in United States history. The forces at conflict ever since the founding - between state and federal authority, between agrarian and industrial economies, between geographic regions - had settled on a final decisive issue: slavery. By 1852 what had meant to be a dying institution by the Founders - they limited slavery's expansion and some had expressed the belief the institution was too expensive to endure - was still alive (thanks to cotton) and kicking... and by kicking I mean "the slave-owner oligarchy wanted to expand slavery west of the Mississippi and north of the Missouri line as much as possible."
The abolition movement had up until the 1840s been a vocal but small minority even among Northerners who for the most part preferred a status quo, no-rocking-the-boat social order. But the Mexican-American War under Polk - viewed by more Northerners as an land grab for slaveowners - and the Compromise of 1850 forcing average civilians by pain of fine (and prison!) to help round up fugitive slaves - viewed by more Northerners as rife for abuse of kidnapping free-born Blacks - created more boat-rocking... just now by the increasingly arrogant (and fearful) Southerners, forcing a reaction out of their fellow Americans they weren't expecting.
This was a time crying for leadership: someone who could temper the angers of both sides and find resolution, or at worst pick a side and fight the good fight. A moderating figure who could revisit the Founders' intent of manumission or gradual emancipation to where Southerners could still make money on the cotton industry but at least with a freed, reasonably paid employee base. (This does, of course, overlook the growing racial hostility of Southern Whites... and growing racial FEARS of Southern Whites. Then again, there's not wrong with trying to appeal to the better angels of our nature.)
Pierce was not the leader we needed: whatever skills he had as a politician did not match the mood of the time. While Pierce's Democratic Party was still intact compared to the fractured Whigs, the Dems were themselves dividing along North and South interests and making it harder to get any legislation done. Making it worse was the one major bit of legislation that did pass during that time: the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Argued along the lines of "Popular Sovereignty" it officially ended the legal limitations of slavery into territories, making it possible for two territories from the Louisiana Purchase - Kansas and Nebraska - to be either Free or Slave State based on the territorial residents when they petition for statehood. If Pierce, who signed off on the Act, thought this would placate the abolitionists or slave-owners he was dead wrong. It brought out their worst instincts to compete for the new territories, which led to violence.
He wanted to rule akin to the righteousness of Polk, but instead he looked to be treading water. He was a man who could make many friends - his Cabinet was the only one to stay intact his short tenure, the only administration to ever do so - but was unable to convert such friendship into action on the national stage.
From all of this I can glean a Presidential character: Pierce was a Passive-Positive. He showed some Uncompromising traits - his steadfast implementation of the Fugitive Slave Act, for example - and his political ambition bordered on being an Active, but his personal Affability is one of his primary traits and that is the signature trait of a Pass-Pos.
One could argue that Pierce wasn't so much an Uncompromising figure as it was his political party, dominated by Southerners and pro-slavery leaders, creating the environment of arrogance and refusal to compromise that Pierce found himself as President. Pass-Pos leaders need (not a want, a genuine need) to be liked, meaning they behave and support actions according to what their circle of friends accept. And Pierce was surrounded by politicians who either profited from slavery or profited from the status quo. As a result he couldn't conceive past that small circle just how the rest of the nation was tilting against slavery, and his reacting against that made the situation worse. I would also argue Pierce isn't the only Passive-Positive in our nation's history to be stuck in this kind of environment... but that would be another review of Presidential Character yet to come.
When Pierce left the White House by 1856, he was a hated figure, having added to the accelerated historical trend in our nation's history towards civil war. If he could find solace in anything - and if you read up on his post-Presidential life, he didn't find much solace in anything at all - it would have been the fact his successor is rated much worse than Pierce by most historians...
Next Week: Not a Know-Nothing but certainly a Do-Nothing.