Chester Alan Arthur by Zachary Karabell

President #21, C-SPAN Historians ranking #32

Muttonchops to the Rescue!

chesterarthurChester Alan Arthur, perhaps more than any other person to hold the job, never wanted to be President. He seemed stunned that he was put in that position. Then again, he accepted the job as Vice President, which does make you likely to become President. Ultimately, Arthur did about as well as you could expect for someone who had no previous experience in elected office and was suffering from a terminal disease.

Zachary Karabell, who has written about the 1948 Truman campaign, along with many other essays, drew the task of trying to make one of the lesser-known Presidents in one of the lesser-known periods of American history (the Gilded Age), and tries to show how Arthur was able to stumble his way to the Presidency, and, fortunately, stumble his way out without causing too much trouble, and even doing some good.

The backstory for Chester Arthur is one that is far from exciting. He was born on October 5, 1829 in North Fairfield, Vermont. At some point in his life, he started telling people he was born in 1830 (perhaps he was bad at math) and that was the year that the New York Times reported in his obituary and what was put on his gravestone.

Arthur’s father was a minister, and he eventually moved the family to New York. Chester Arthur ended up attending Union College in Schenectady. Like many educated men of his time, he gravitated toward a law practice. He learned the law through an apprenticeship with a law firm headed by abolitionists. Arthur became a strident opponent of slavery and  gravitated to the newly formed Republican Party in 1856.

In 1859, Arthur married his wife Nell and started a lucrative law practice in New York City. When the Civil War started, Arthur stayed out of the military in defence to Nell, who had family in Virginia. However, Arthur did get a job as a quartermaster, where he brough his considerable organizational skills to bear. Arthur became friends with the elite Republicans of New York.

After the Civil War, the American political system was not a pretty sight. Political machines dominated the landscape. The principal method of control was patronage. One group would get in a position to dole out jobs to friends, those friends would appoint more friends, and all of the people who got these jobs were expected to kick back a contribution (called “assessment”) to the party boss.

Very little in the way of issues was ever discussed in any election at this time. All that mattered were personalities and the sheer raw number of voters needed to get someone elected. Chester Arthur found himself to be an important of one machine, the Roscoe Conkling machine of New York.

Conkling was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1868. He quickly established himself as formidable party boss for New York. Federal jobs throughout the state were given to Conkling’s friends. Nominally, the President (in this case Ulysses Grant) would nominate the person, but it was almost always Conkling pulling the strings.

Arthur had been a loyal fundraiser for Conkling and the Republicans. In 1871, Arthur was appointed to one of the most lucrative Federal jobs at the time: Customs Collector of the Port of New York.

While this may have seemed like a dreary job, it was actually quite powerful. New York had, by far, the busiest port in the nation. Arthur was in a position to hand out hundreds of jobs (there were over 1300 people at the facility.) Also, under Federal moiety laws, if a Collector discovered that someone  had failed to pay a sufficient duty on goods that were being brought into the Port of New York, the Collector was entitled to a portion of the discrepancy. Through the moiety law, Arthur’s annual income went up from its stated $12,000 a year to close to $50,000 per year. (Adjusted for inflation, Arthur was pulling in a little under $900,000 in today’s dollars.)

The extraordinarily contentious election of Rutherford Hayes in 1876 (the election wasn’t decided until shortly before the inauguration) brought the idea of political reform to the forefront.  Although as Karabell points out, the concept of reform wasn’t much at the time. Only the worst excesses were talked about. But one of those places talked about was the Port of New York.

Treasury Secretary John Sherman appointed John Jay (grandson of the first Chief Justice) to investigate possible wrongdoing in the New York Customhouse. Jay’s report gave evidence of people having no-show jobs, or ones involving little or no work for rather high pay. The hiring process was pretty much just “So who do you know?” Arthur was singled out for rarely showing up for work before noon. This was because Arthur rarely showed up before  noon.

Hayes decided that he should remove Arthur from office. This wasn’t easy. Conkling, who wanted to keep the reliable Arthur in a position of power, fought the dismissal at every turn.

The first nominee to replace Arthur was a man named Theodore Roosevelt. (You might know his son of the same name.) His nomination was rejected by the Senate in 1877.  In 1878, Hayes suspended Arthur from his job during a Congressional recess and put in a replacement.

Arthur’s suspension (which turned into a dismissal) made him one of the most talked about men in America for period. Conkling’s supporters (known as the Stalwarts for their strong belief that Ulysses Grant should be elected a third time no matter what the cost) portrayed Arthur as a martyr. Conkling wanted to show how misguided reformers were for wanting to remove from office a dedicated public servant like Chester Arthur.

During this time, Arthur was raising money for Conkling. Arthur also became an important society figure, hosting numerous lavish dinners at New York’s famous Delmonico’s restaurant.

Early in 1880, Arthur’s wife Nell passed away at the age of 42 from pneumonia. Arthur was depressed for months over the loss of his beloved wife. But, he seemed to rebound in time to help out at the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago.

The convention was deadlocked between Grant and James Blaine of Maine. Blaine’s supporters were called “Half-Breeds.” Originally this was supposed to be derisive because Blaine’s supporters were considered Half-Republican and Half-Democrat, but the term became a badge of honor.

On the 36th ballot, the Convention decided on a compromise choice, Ohio Representative James Garfield. Garfield was not identified with either the Stalwarts of the Half-Breeds. Garfield would be in favor of reform, but wouldn’t do anything too rash.

Garfield needed to choose a running mate. He felt he needed a Stalwart and a New Yorker. It was nearly impossible to win the election in 1880 without carrying New York. So, Garfield asked Arthur, who met the minimum qualifications.

History does not know for sure if Garfield actually thought that Arthur, who had never run for any office in his life, would take the job. Perhaps Garfield was just asking Arthur to be polite and to placate Conkling. However, Arthur accepted the offer.

Conkling was livid that his friend would betray him. But, Arthur pointed out that for someone like him, being Vice President was about the best he could hope for in life. It wasn’t like Arthur ever thought he would become President.

Garfield squeaked out a win over Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880 in an election decided on a variety of issues, none of them important then or even now. Arthur was sworn in to office on March 4, 1881, and became President of a Senate that was divided equally between Republicans and Democrats.

Early on in Garfield’s administration, there was high drama. Garfield, upon the advice of Secretary of State James Blaine, decided to not appoint any of Conkling’s suggested candidates for office in New York. Garfield appointed people who were opposed to Conkling. Conkling resigned his office to show his displeasure. New York’s other senator, Thomas Platt, resigned as well. Arthur, who was never close to Garfield, became even more isolated as his political patron was now out of power. (Conkling and Platt hoped to be reelected to their seats by the New York state legislature, but they weren’t.)

Arthur’s world changed on July 2, 1881. A crazed man named Charles Guiteau fired a shot into Garfield’s back at a train station in Washington. Garfield lingered near death for the entire summer and passed away (almost entirely the result of horrendous medical care discussed here) on September 19, 1881. Chester Arthur, the amiable party loyalist, was now President.

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Arthur being sworn in

The country didn’t know what to make of the new President. Most thought he was just a party hack. Arthur likely didn’t think that he was the sort of man who would become President. But, we don’t know. Arthur had most of his papers destroyed shortly before his death. Even if he hadn’t, he wasn’t the type to keep a detailed diary of his thoughts or works.

Arthur didn’t move in to the White House for three months. He allowed Garfield’s widow time to move out. He also had the White House redecorated, hiring a young designer named Louis Tiffany. Arthur may not have known exactly what he was going to do as President, but he knew that he was going to make his home look stylish. In doing so, Arthur tossed out over 80 years worth of furnishings dating back to John Adams’ time.

Garfield’s Cabinet appointees resigned to allow Arthur could choose his own. Only the Secretary of War, Robert Lincoln, stayed on. Blaine was replaced by Frederick Frelinghuysen, much to the dismay of copy editors throughout the United States.

Arthur did not enjoy having his home and office being in the same place. He realized that his job was not one he could ever take time off from. He was now no longer everybody’s friend. He was everybody’s boss.

Complicating matters was Arthur developing Bright’s Disease. For many years, a variety of kidney ailments were grouped under this name. Arthur had what would be called today glomerulonephritis. Today, Arthur would have received blood pressure medication, kidney dialysis, or even a transplant. But, in the 1880s, all Arthur could do was watch his diet and hope for the best. However, he was living on borrowed time. He was often sluggish and lost his appetite. For Arthur, one of America’s most notable gourmands, not being able to eat was a crushing blow.

Despite Arthur’s illness (which he did not reveal until he left office) and his lack of experience, the new President did a respectable job in office. Arthur does not have a lot of accomplishments attached to his name because Congress was too closely divided, with even both parties being split over a variety of issues.

One of the first major pieces of legislation that Arthur had to deal with was the Chinese Exclusion Act. California politicians decided that the growing Chinese population in the state was a dangerous thing and something had to be done about it. The danger was that the Chinese were arriving in large numbers. And they were becoming economically successful.

If there’s one thing Americans don’t like, it’s immigrants arriving and doing well. It’s been an undercurrent in American politics from the establishment of the Jamestown colony to today. In 1882, the Chinese became the immigrant group that Americans chose to distrust.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, in its first form, prohibited the entry of any more Chinese into the United States, unless they could prove special circumstances. (These circumstances usually involved not wanting to get a job in California.) This prohibition was supposed to last 20 years.

Arthur, much to the surprise of everyone, vetoed the bill. Arthur felt that: 1) the law was fundamentally unjust because it singled out a group of people to prevent them from entering the United States. Arthur found this to be contrary to the spirit of what the Civil War was fought for. 2) Arthur believed that the law would violate a commercial treaty that the U.S. had with China. Arthur knew it was in the U.S. interest to maintain good relations with the lucrative Chinese market.

Stalwart Republicans couldn’t believe that Arthur didn’t rubber stamp their bill. The bill was reworked to lower the exclusion period to just ten years. Arthur, realizing that he had to approve some bill of this type or else completely lose any Republican support, signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. Restrictions on Chinese immigration would not be lifted until 1943.

In 1883, Arthur was handed a setback from the Supreme Court. Five civil rights cases were decided at the same time by the Court and were called The Civil Rights Cases. The net effect of them was to invalidate the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The Court ruled that Congress did not have the right to legislate private acts, even if those acts were in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

..it would be running the slavery argument into the ground to make it apply to every act of discrimination which a person may see fit to make as to guests he will entertain, or as to the people he will take into his coach or cab or car; or admit to his concert or theatre, or deal with in other matters of intercourse or business….

Arthur spoke out against the Court, but he was powerless to change the decision. Nor did he ask for Congress to pass a different law.

In the mid-term elections in 1882, the Republicans suffered severe losses at the polls, losing control of the House. The biggest issue of the campaign was government reform. This happened, in part, because Garfield’s assassin, Guiteau, was described as a disgruntled job seeker. Guiteau became an emblem for excesses in the patronage system. (The fact that Guiteau was never seriously considered for a job by anyone was unimportant.)

During Congress’s lame duck session at the end of 1882, the Republicans decided that they had to push through a civil service bill of some kind, so they could recover in time for 1884. And so, the Pendleton Act (proposed by a Democrat) was rushed through Congress. It established the first set of Federal jobs that would be decided through competitive examinations instead of “just knowing the right guy.” Also, once people moved into these positions, they were much harder to remove. It was the first baby step to creating a Federal civil service. Whether that is good or bad depends upon where you get your paycheck I suppose.

In his final two years in the White House, Arthur spent most of his time on foreign affairs. A Pan American Congress tried to foster cooperation among Western Hemisphere nations. Also, the United States established diplomatic relations with Korea. Arthur got to see the dedication of the Brooklyn Bridge, considered the greatest engineering feat of its time.

However, Arthur was a man almost without a party. The man who had spent his time helping out his friends, found out he didn’t have as many once he was in charge. His wife was dead. He was dying of kidney disease. Chester Arthur might have been the most powerful man in America, and perhaps the least happy. (Karabell suggests that Arthur would have been considered to have been clinically depressed.)

Arthur, even though he knew he wouldn’t live long, let his name be put into nomination for President by the Republicans in 1884. Arthur, mostly as a courtesy to an incumbent President, but also a way to make Blaine suffer, got enough votes to force the nomination to a fourth ballot. Blaine won the nomination, but would lose the election to Democrat Grover Cleveland.

After leaving the White House, Arthur moved back to New York and tried to resume his law practice. But, his health went downhill quickly. On November 16, 1886, Arthur passed away from a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was just 57 (although news reports of the time said he was 56 using the erroneous birthday.)

It’s not an easy job to make Chester Arthur interesting. Karabell gives it a good shot, but he even recognizes that he has an uphill battle. As Henry Wiggen says about Bruce Pearson at the end of Bang the Drum Slowly, “He wasn’t a bad fellow. No worse than most and better than some.”

Chester Arthur didn’t want to be President. But, he had to do it. Under the circumstances, with almost no preparation, he did a far better job than anyone could have hoped for.

Other stuff: During the election of 1880, opponents of Garfield and Arthur claimed that Arthur was born in either Ireland or Canada and was ineligible for office. The charges were proven to be unfounded. However, the cottage where Arthur’s Irish ancestors lived in Cullybackey in County Antrim is an historic site run by the British Government.

Arthur’s birthplace in Vermont is a state historic site. He is buried alongside his wife in the Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, New York.

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The Presidency of Franklin Pierce by Larry Gara

President #14, C-SPAN Historians’ ranking #40

At least Nathaniel Hawthorne liked him

DSCF0884Franklin Pierce is a very difficult president to read about. There weren’t many biographies written about him. A man named Peter Wallner wrote a two volume biography of Pierce that was published between 2004 and 2007. However, that was two too many volumes I wanted to read about Franklin Pierce.

Why? Because Franklin Pierce was simply an awful President. He had dubious qualifications for the office. He showed no ability to be able to perform the job. He had a governing style that either had him hiding his head in the sand and hoping that a problem would go away, or, confronting the problem by taking his right arm, extending it in front of him, and then further extending his middle finger. And, he was an alcoholic. After one term in office, his own party refused him renomination, the only incumbent President (elected version) to be saddled with that ignominy.

But, other than those flaws, Franklin Pierce did an admirable job. He had good penmanship I’ve heard (or I could be fabricating that.). He gave good speeches. People thought he was good looking. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a glowing campaign biography of him. (You don’t even have to buy Cliff’s Notes to read it.)

I opted to read a 1991 book by Larry Gara, a history professor at Wilmington College (it’s in Ohio) who specializes in the antebellum era. Gara took on the thankless task of trying to make sense of the four years America had to suffer with Franklin Pierce at the helm. The resulting work was enlightening and entertaining. When you finish it, you think, “Wow, it couldn’t have gotten worse.” But, America certainly did get much worse under James Buchanan, leading up to the Civil War.

Franklin Pierce was born on November 23, 1804 in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. His father served two terms as governor of New Hampshire.  Pierce stumbled his way through his education and ended up at Bowdoin College, where he became friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne. By 1827, he had graduated from Bowdoin and had set up a law practice in Concord, New Hampshire.

Pierce quickly got into politics, winning a seat in the New Hampshire General Court at the age of 24. He became Speaker of the House of Representatives in New Hampshire after two terms. He then parlayed that into a House seat in Washington in 1833, and then into the Senate in 1837. It’s not that Pierce was a shrewd legislator. But, he was a nice guy. And his father was famous.

In 1834, Pierce married Jane Appleton, the daughter of the president of Bowdoin College (not the woman depicted in the linked video). Jane was never well. They had three children. The first son died in infancy. The second died at the age of four of typhus, and the third died in a train accident at the age of 11 a few months before Pierce was inaugurated.

Because of his delicate family situation, Pierce resigned from the Senate in 1842. Pierce practiced law and gave speeches endorsing candidates, but little else. Gara also asserts that Pierce’s alcoholism had begun to develop, in part to cope with his difficult home life and also to ward off the boredom of living in Washington at the time. (Washington Nationals baseball was still years away.) Congress was rife with alcoholics at the time, Daniel Webster being the most famous one.

When the Mexican War started, Pierce enlisted as a private, but was quickly made a general. This wasn’t because he was a military genius, but rather because he was somewhat famous. He suffered a severe hip injury during a battle. He twice tried to ride into battle without sufficient treatment and passed out from the pain. Pierce was sent back home to New Hampshire, but he was now an officially certified war hero. Even though nobody really knew what he did. And he drank more to ease the pain.

By the time of the 1852 elections, American politics was a mess. Although there were nominally two parties: the Democrats and Whigs, there were almost a dozen different factions from each party that coalesced around various themes: slavery, expansion, nationalism, internal improvements, and the always popular organized beatings of immigrant Catholics.

Slavery was the most divisive issue obviously. The acquisition of territory from Mexico made Northerners afraid that the South would use that area to increase the spread of slavery. More slavery meant more political and economic power for the South. As Gara pointed out, very few of the opponents of slavery actually wanted free blacks living among them. They just didn’t want the South to increase its power.

However, both the Democrats and Whigs were national parties. So, neither could take a stand for or against slavery without losing significant amounts of support. The result was that slavery was pushed far into the background by the two parties.

Incumbent Whig President Millard Fillmore had no shot at the nomination. The Whigs wanted to nominate someone with flash and pizzazz. They turned to another hero of the Mexican War, Winfield Scott. While Scott did perform well in Mexico, he was a horrible candidate for President. He didn’t earn the nickname “Old Fuss and Feathers” for having a dynamic personality.

The Democrats had numerous candidates for the nomination, but none of them were particularly attractive. Illinois Senator Steven Douglas, former Secretary of State James Buchanan, and Michigan senator Lewis Cass (who had lost in 1848) were some of the candidates you may have heard of. And then there were a bunch that you hadn’t heard of.

At the Democratic Convention in Baltimore, there was a deadlock. The supporters of Cass and Buchanan wouldn’t budge and the voting continued ballot after ballot. On the 35th ballot, a faction of the party known as Young America (because they were young, not because they would have descendants who were David Bowie fans) decided to put Pierce’s name into nomination.

The Young Americans were a nationalist and expansionist wing of the Democratic Party. Douglas had been their standard bearer, but Douglas had ticked off too many people. So, they decided to make Pierce their candidate. It took until the 49th ballot before the supporters of Cass and Buchanan gave up and gave Pierce the nomination.

Why Pierce? Why him? It seems that New Hampshire Democrats felt that they were owed consideration for the Presidency since the state had been such a reliable Democratic vote in the last few elections. Pierce happened to be the most notable politician from the state. Also, Pierce was quite fond of the South and Southerners and would not fall in league with abolitionist forces.

You may wonder if Pierce was actively seeking the nomination. As far as I can tell, he was not NOT seeking the nomination. When Pierce found out the news, he convinced his wife to go along with the plan (which was hard to do) and he accepted the nomination. William King of Alabama was nominated as Vice President. King was an odd choice as he was suffering from tuberculosis. And he was very ill. But, he was needed to balance the ticket.

Pierce won the election rather easily over Scott with over 50% of the vote to 43% for Scott. Free Soil party candidate John Hale, a rival of Pierce in New Hampshire, took the rest. In the electoral vote, Pierce won 254 votes to 42 for Scott. Pierce won New Hampshire, but Scott won Vermont. This showed, even in 1852, that New Hampshire and Vermont are two states that only look like they should be similar. In reality, they are both populated by kooks. Before the election (as mentioned above) Pierce’s last surviving son was killed in a train accident. He and his wife were hurt, but not too badly. However, this death cast a pall on his administration. His wife rarely ventured out in public. Pierce tried to find solace in alcohol more and more often.

Vice President-elect King was so ill that he visited Cuba in an attempt to regain his health. Congress passed a law allowing him to be sworn in there. But, it was to no avail. King died 45 days after taking office.

Pierce did assemble a Cabinet that was better than what you would expect. His Secretary of State William Marcy, who knew next to nothing about foreign affairs, actually did a decent job. However, his Secretary of War was Jefferson Davis (a personal friend), ended up acting much like the vainglorious racist he would later become as President of the Confederacy. The rest of the Cabinet was loyal. Pierce is the only President to serve a full term in office and have no changes in his Cabinet.

After his inauguration, Pierce faced numerous crises, but the most pressing one was solving the problem of the expansion of slavery in the territories. The Compromise of 1850 was supposed to have delayed that problem for a while, but Congress couldn’t leave well enough alone.

Douglas proposed what would become known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Nebraska Territory (which was very large) would be split up and each section would have its inhabitants vote on whether or not slavery should be allowed in the territory.

Essentially, Douglas proposed (and Pierce agreed) to have Congress (which was presumably made up of fairly smart elected leaders) to cede its ability to legislate on the most pressing political and social issue of the day to a group of people who would most likely just be rounded up from some other part of the country, dropped into Kansas, and told how to vote. Douglas called it “popular sovereignty.” It turned out to be “Dress rehearsal for the Civil War.” [In present day California, the people rule in the same way, but we add the step of making them sign a petition shoved in front of them by a guy in front of the local Target. If someone spent enough money to round up the signatures, I’m sure Californians would vote on whether or not to reinstitute slavery. Those guys in front of Target can be quite persistent. Californians have also shown a propensity for voting in favor of measures that are contrary to the United States Constitution or rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. My God, do I live in one stupidly run state. Sorry for the digression.]

Douglas proposed the bill because he thought it would ease the way for building a transcontinental railroad. Douglas was beholden politically and financially to speculators who wanted to build such a railroad. Davis wanted to build a similar railroad, but he wanted it through the South.

Southerners descended upon Kansas and set up makeshift towns. Enough them got together that they claimed to have formed a government. A proposed state constitution was sent to Washington. It required anyone holding office in Kansas to own slaves. It also made speaking out against slavery illegal in the state. Pierce thought all of this was OK by him. Congress refused to accept the proposed constitution.

Eventually, pro and anti-slavery settlers poured into the state. Nobody knew who was in charge. But, they did like shooting at each other. The territory became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Pierce was flummoxed that instead of easing tensions in the slavery debate, all the Kansas-Nebraska did was to escalate tensions. Pierce was flummoxed on most days, however.

Debates in Congress in the bill became so heated that a South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, in response to a verbal attack on a South Carolina senator by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, walked into the Senate chamber on May 22, 1856 and beat Sumner over the head with a cane. The beating was so severe that Sumner could not resume his activities in the Senate for three years. Brooks was hailed as a hero in South Carolina and received numerous canes as a gifts, some engraved “Hit him again!” (Brooks passed away in 1857. Few people missed him.)

Pierce was also presented a bill that would have established a Federally funded system of hospitals to care for indigents who suffered from severe mental illness. This was the pet project of Dorothea Dix, one of the most respected women of the day. Pierce vetoed the bill stating that the Federal government couldn’t help everyone in need and it was a state responsibility. However, months later Pierce would sign into law bills granting Mexican War veterans favorable pensions and land deals.  Pierce was in favor of the Federal government helping out poor people who could still vote. And looked nice.

Another issue that came up was enforcement of the new Fugitive Slave Law. This law, part of the Compromise of 1850, required anyone anywhere in the United States to return a slave to its owner with barely any involvement in the legal process.

One case in Boston in 1854 saw a mob try to prevent a Fugitive Slave “commissioner” from returning a slave to the South. Pierce ordered in Federal troops to send the man back to the South and slavery. Pierce believed that preserving the “property” rights of the South were superior to the human rights of any one person. But, Pierce didn’t believe the man in custody was a person.

About the only area where Pierce wasn’t a total disaster was in foreign affairs. Fortunately, Secretary of State William Marcy was competent to run his office, even though his diplomatic corps consisted of people such as a failed Presidential candidate in Buchanan; a French national who somehow still managed to qualify to serve in the Senate, Pierre Soule; and a man who spent his time writing novels, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Marcy, through Minister to Mexico James Gadsden, expanded U.S. territory by purchase a strip of land (the Gila River Valley) in southern Arizona and New Mexico. This territory was not part of the land ceded from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. However, it was needed because surveyors determined that any Southern route for a transcontinental railroad would have to pass through it. Gadsden almost pulled off a deal that would have added Baja California and Sonora to the U.S. as well, but the Mexican government balked on dealing that area after American filibuster William Walker tried to claim the area as an independent republic.

Also, under Pierce’s watch, an American naval expedition under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry steamed to Japan (sent under orders from President Fillmore, but it took a while to get there) to open relations with what had been a hermit kingdom. The United States was able to establish trade, although not at the most favorable ports, and helped to bring Japan into the international community.

Pierce and Marcy had to deal with filibusters (using the original meaning of the word, not the delaying tactic in the Senate) in Nicaragua and Cuba. In Nicaragua, Walker tried to set up another republic for him to be in charge of, but he was eventually forced out when he lost the support of Cornelius Vanderbilt (who owned extensive shipping interests in the area), and that in turn caused Pierce to withdraw American support.

No filibuster expedition took over Cuba, but it seemed that Pierce wanted one. Marcy, along with Buchanan, Soule, and Minister to France John Mason, met in Ostend, Belgium to discuss acquiring Cuba. The men agreed that the U.S. should offer to buy the island or, if Spain refused, take it by force, either overtly or through a filibuster. This supposedly secret talk was quickly leaked to the press and became known as the Ostend Manifesto. Once Northerners heard of it, anti-slavery politicians saw it as another land grab for slaveholders. The plan was quickly dropped as other European powers expressed opposition.

If it seemed that Franklin Pierce could do nothing well, why did he become President? Gara looks to the political climate of 1852. The nation was undergoing rapid changes in its economy. Railroads were changing transportation. The telegraph was changing communications. Immigrants were changing the demographics. But, the government hadn’t adapted to these changes. Keeping matters calm was paramount.

However, more was needed. Leaders with a vision for the future were needed. But, the political system wasn’t set up to create one. Politicians of the time didn’t want to confront problems. They just wanted to keep people happy. But, they weren’t happy. They hated each other. There was a battle for economic control of the country with black slaves as the weight that tipped everything in the South’s favor.

Political leaders of the 1850s weren’t picked because they were smart or good leaders. They were picked almost solely because they were popular. And Franklin Pierce was popular. Or at least he was after some marketing.

However, once Pierce was forced to take office and actually try to deal with issues, it was apparent that he was hopelessly in over his head. He had no political base of support. There was no “Pierce Machine.” There was just one guy, Franklin Pierce, who drank a lot. Pierce had few friends in Congress. His wife was bereft with the loss of her children. Pierce was out on his own. And he was not up to the task.

Pierce was barely considered for renomination in 1856. James Buchanan, who was actually a worse President than Pierce, came back from England to become the 15th President. Buchanan mixed Pierce’s incompetence with a dash of graft and a heaping teaspoon of arrogance to break the country in half.

Pierce spent the rest of his life in New Hampshire where he was mostly ignored. He was accused of being a Southern sympathizer and an angry mob surrounded his house after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination when Pierce refused to hang a flag surrounded in black trim in memory of the slain Executive. Pierce claimed that he didn’t have to fly a flag to prove his loyalty. The mob dispersed. They likely knew that Franklin Pierce’s bigger problem was that he had to live with his own conscience. Pierce died on October 8, 1869 of cirrhosis of the liver.

I found Gara’s book to be fascinating and one of the best I’ve read about a President. Gara doesn’t try to defend Pierce or rationalize his actions in any way. Gara knows that Pierce was a poor President. In a less contentious time, Pierce may have just been mediocre. But, the slavery question turned Pierce from mediocre to horrible.

Franklin Pierce may be one of the least-known Presidents. But, maybe it’s all for the best. However, part of me thinks that Americans should know what kind of leaders we are capable of choosing if we don’t pay attention to what is truly important. America got Franklin Pierce as President, and the country deserved him for failing to realize that half of the country was living a life based on the idea that real live human beings were just “property.” Slavery had long been a slowly festering illness that was destroying the United States. By the time Pierce took office, the illness had become acute. It would get worse before it got better.

Other stuff: The childhood home of Pierce is part of a park run by the state of New Hampshire called The Pierce Homestead. The home Pierce owned in Concord is called the Pierce Manse and it houses the New Hampshire Political Library. Pierce is buried in the Old North Cemetery in Concord.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower by Tom Wicker

President #34, C-SPAN Historians’ Ranking #8

It’s Been Said That People Liked This Guy

eisenhowerWhen I was a kid in the 1970s, the 1950s were considered a cool time. “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” dominated television. Coming out of the turbulent 1960s (a decade glamorized in much different way from the 1950s), the 1950s were a time when America was strong, although tensions with the Soviet Union were high. People were happy.  Girls dressed in poodle skirts. All guys were pretty much like Fonzie. Annoying baseball historians (and I’m looking at you Ken Burns) sometimes refer to the 1950s as the best time of the sport because New York teams faced off in the World Series in five of the ten years.

The President for a good chunk of this period (1953-1961) was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last President to make his way to the White House, almost exclusively on the basis of what he achieved on the battlefield. He was a solid, dependable leader. He was able to bring people together. He seemed like everybody’s grandfather.

However, the reality of the 1950s was that it was an incredibly divisive time. The Supreme Court case of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas transformed the civil rights issue in such a way that it could no longer be ignored.

Additionally, the country became paranoid about a Communist takeover from within. This led to the rise of men like Senators Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon. Their career paths would take extraordinarily different paths.

The United States increasingly turned to covert activities to achieve foreign policy goals. Some would succeed in the short term, but others, such as the intervention in Iran, would affect the United States for decades to follow. There would be international crises in places like Vietnam, Hungary, and Egypt. They seemed to pop up all the time.

And, although the United States had the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet, the public grew increasingly fearful of tensions with the Soviet Union. Topping it off would be the USSR’s foray into space with Sputnik before the United States could even launch a small object into orbit.

The Dwight Eisenhower who had to deal with all of the above crises is the one that Tom Wicker, a longtime political columnist for the New York Times, writes about in his biography of the 34th President. Wicker presents a portrait of a man who wanted to lead, but didn’t want to get his hands dirty. Wicker’s Eisenhower is a much shrewder politician than people realize. But, in the end, you still aren’t sure just what Dwight Eisenhower was all about. What did he want to accomplish? What were his motivations? Why did he want to become President?

Dwight Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas on October 14, 1890 (and if you’re reading this on Wednesday wish Ike a happy 119th birthday!) His family moved to Abilene, Kansas when he was one. Eventually, Eisenhower made his way to the United States Military Academy in 1911, graduating in 1915.

This timing proved to be fortuitous for Eisenhower. The class of 1915 at West Point would eventually include 64 graduates who became generals, including Eisenhower and Omar Bradley. In 1912, Eisenhower, while playing on the Army football team, played against Jim Thorpe and his Carlisle Indian School team. (Carlisle won the game 27-6.)

Although Eisenhower was in the Army during World War I, he didn’t serve in any combat action during the brief American involvement in that bloody conflict. Eisenhower worked his way up the ranks as a career military man. He had married his wife, Mamie Doud, in 1916. They had two sons, one of whom died at age three of scarlet fever.

In 1926, Eisenhower found himself installed as the aide to the Army’s new Chief of Staff, Douglas MacArthur. Eisenhower learned the ways of Washington working under MacArthur. He also managed to endear himself to another Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall.

When the United States entered World War II, Eisenhower quickly shot up the ranks to become chief of the War Plan Division. Then, he commanded Operation Torch in North Africa. His success there put Eisenhower in position to assume command of the Allied Forces in the D-Day Invasion of 1944. The success of that operation made Eisenhower made him the envy of politicians from both parties, who saw Eisenhower as the Presidential material. MacArthur may have garnered more headlines, but it was Eisenhower who seemed to be held in the highest esteem by politicians. (Wicker whizzes through the pre-Presidential part of Eisenhower’s life figuring that most people already know it.)

There was talk of the Democrats trying to draft Eisenhower to run for President in 1948 in place of the unpopular Harry Truman. Obviously, he didn’t take that job. Instead, he took a position as president of Columbia University in 1948. He left that job in 1950 to assume the lofty title of Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

In 1952, Eisenhower realized that it was his time to become President (Wicker claims that Eisenhower first realized that he had a shot at becoming President as early as 1943). Eisenhower announced that he was a Republican, although he had worked behind the scenes to start lining up support for the nomination. Eisenhower wanted to avoid being labeled, although he would declare himself to be a “liberal Republican.”

The Republican Party nomination battle in 1952 pitted Eisenhower against Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who was called “Mr. Republican.” The Republican nomination battle would between its “old guard” which was more isolationist against Eisenhower’s more internationalist wing. In a tight battle on the convention floor, Eisenhower prevailed on the first ballot. As a political compromise, Eisenhower allowed Taft’s faction to pick his running mate. This turned out to be California Senator Richard Nixon.

Eisenhower would face Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who had won the Democratic nomination. Although Stevenson appealed to intellectuals and even cultivated an image as “an egghead,” he had little chance against Eisenhower. The Democrats had controlled the White House since 1933. Americans wanted a change. Eisenhower trounced Stevenson, winning nearly 55% of the popular vote, along with 442 electoral votes. The Republicans also took control of both houses of Congress.

Wicker doesn’t spend a lot of time on Eisenhower’s domestic accomplishments (such as the establishment of the Interstate Highway System and the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway) with one exception: civil rights. Eisenhower, however, didn’t accomplish much in this area except to react to events.

In 1953, Eisenhower unexpectedly got a chance to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court. And it was the Chief Justice position to boot. Eisenhower decided to appoint California Governor Earl Warren to the post. Warren had been Thomas Dewey’s running mate in 1948, and Eisenhower wanted to reward Warren for his support during the nomination battle.

This turned out to be a fateful appointment. A collection of school desegregation cases were before the Supreme Court and Warren served as a recess appointee and heard the cases being reargued. (The first set of arguments were deemed insufficient for the Court to make a decision.) After the arguments, Warren was confirmed by the Senate. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in the desegregation cases. Warren, writing for a unanimous court, declared:

“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Eisenhower was not expecting the decision to be so sweeping and he was slow to embrace it. He expressed only begrudging support for it. Eisenhower wouldn’t take any action in school desegregation until 1957 when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus refused to follow a Federal court order desegregating Little Rock’s Central High. Faubus mobilized the Arkansas National Guard to keep the African-American students out. This proved to be provocative enough to get Eisenhower to act. He sent in the 101st Airborne to work on crowd control and Federalized the Arkansas National Guard. However, aside from these actions, Eisenhower’s actions in civil rights were few and far between. (A very weak civil rights bill was passed in 1957, in part to Democratic Senate Leader Lyndon Johnson, who worked very closely with Eisenhower.)

One of Eisenhower’s biggest domestic problem was Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, who was determined to unearth the great Communist spy network that was going to ruin America. While many of McCarthy’s targets were Communists at some point in their lives, few were spies or disloyal to the United States. (The actual spies were too clever to get caught and most weren’t revealed until after the breakup of the Soviet Union.)

Eisenhower had to pay some lip service to McCarthy and his smear tactics during the 1952 campaign, but he quickly tired of the Senator. McCarthy finally overreached when he decided to take on the Army, an institution that Eisenhower was understandably quite proud of. McCarthy blamed George Marshall for harboring Communists in the military, an accusation that rankled Eisenhower. McCarthy even suggested in a speech that Eisenhower failed to occupy Berlin before the Soviet Army did in 1945, further endangering the country.

McCarthy was given televised hearings to investigate the Army. But, Eisenhower and his aides had developed a strategy to thwart McCarthy. If McCarthy asked for any White House documents involving the Army, Eisenhower would cite “executive privilege” and claim that he could not disclose certain activities to Congress. McCarthy began to become increasingly frustrated.

The hearings went poorly for McCarthy. He began to look more like a bully picking on defenseless people than a man thwarting the Red Menace. Eventually, McCarthy was dressed down on national TV by Army lawyer Joseph Welch. McCarthy would soon be condemned in the Senate for his behavior soon after. He would pass away in 1957 from the effects of alcoholism, which was one weakness Eisenhower and his staff tried to exploit.

Eisenhower had early successes in foreign policy. He was able to negotiate an armistice in Korea in July of 1953. That armistice lasts until this day. A covert revolution sponsored by the CIA overthrew Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and consolidated power in the Shah. This seemed like a good idea at the time as the U.S. gained a steady ally in the Middle East. But, eventually, there would be … complications.

In 1954, the French suffered a major defeat in Vietnam at the hands of Communist revolutionaries at a fortress called Dienbienphu. After the French withdrew, Vietnam was partitioned into a Communist north a non-Communist south. Elections to unify the country were scheduled for 1956. But, the elections never came to pass. Eisenhower spoke of how the U.S. had to support Vietnam because if it fell into Communist hands other parts of Asia would do so as well. This gave birth to the “Domino Theory,” which became a centerpiece of American policy in Southeast Asia until the 1970s.

The nation was shaken up in September of 1955, when news that the President had suffered a heart attack while traveling in Colorado. Vice President Nixon never formally took over the Presidency while Eisenhower recovered. Fortunately, Eisenhower made a fairly rapid recovery. However, Eisenhower’s mortality would now be a campaign issue in 1956 if he chose to run for a second term. (Eisenhower would also suffer a small stroke in November of 1957, but recovered quickly with no noticeable side effects.)

As it turned out, most Americans weren’t too worried about Eisenhower’s heart. They wanted him around to look after the troubled world situation. 1956 brought about two crises, both of which the U.S. could only act as a spectator. In Egypt, President Gamel Adbul Nassar, blocked in an attempt to get financing to build the Aswan Dam, moved to nationalize the Suez Canal. This brought about the ire of Britain and France, who didn’t trust Nasser and Egypt to operate the vital waterway.

The British and French, along with Israel, mobilized forces in Egypt. Israel attacked the Sinai Peninsula. The British and French moved forces in toward the Canal. This all happened very close to Election Day on November 5, 1956. U.N. peacekeepers would be called in to settle down the situation.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, dissatisfaction with the Soviet-backed leadership exploded in wide scale protests. Former Prime Minister Imre Nagy returned to power, and it appeared that Hungary would throw off Communism and return to some form of a multiparty democracy. Nagy said that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact.

But, the Soviet Union would not accept this. On November 3, 1956, the Soviet Union, which now had Nikita Khrushchev in charge, sent troops into Hungary. Nagy and many members of his government were arrested and later executed. By November 10, a new regime, one sympathetic to the Soviet Union, was in place.

Eisenhower was caught unaware by the Suez Crisis and could only react to it and try to contain it the best he could. The Eisenhower Doctrine was developed which stated that any country could request economic or militar aid from the U.S. if it felt threatened. (This policy would be invoked in 1958 when American forces intervened in Lebanon.) As for Hungary, it was impossible for Eisenhower to take any action to support the Nagy regime in Hungary without triggering World War III.

Election Day in 1956 was November 6. Eisenhower, still running with Nixon, a man he didn’t trust very much, easily won reelection in a rematch against Stevenson. Eisenhower won 57% of the vote and 457 electoral votes.

Under the terms of the 22nd Amendment, Eisenhower couldn’t run for reelection. He was the first President to face this dilemma. Some thought he would be hamstrung in his ability to accomplish anything. As it turned out, Eisenhower’s problems in his second term would mostly come from events not in this world.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union announced the successful launch of Sputnik. It was the first successful launching of an earth-orbiting satellite. It would make one orbit of the earth every 96 minutes, beeping along happily.

The American public was stunned that the Soviet Union had seemingly pulled so far ahead of the United States in technology. There were fears that the Soviets would be able to exploit space to send nuclear weapons at the United States. The educational system was blamed for poor math and science education. Fingers were pointed among various branches of the military over who was responsible for developing rockets.

Eisenhower, to his credit, realized that the problem with Sputnik was a political one, not a military one. Eisenhower appointed a science advisor and established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Presidents Kennedy and Johnson would get the fame for the space program, but it was under Eisenhower that it began.

Wicker spends a fair amount of time in the book on one of the last big crises of Eisenhower’s administration. One of Eisenhower’s goals was to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Before Eisenhower would go to meet with Khrushchev in Paris of May of 1960, the President possibly overreached in his attempt to gather intelligence on Soviet nuclear capabilities.

The main instrument of intelligence gathering in the era before satellites was the U-2 aircraft. Eisenhower continued to order flights over Soviet airspace in the days preceding the summit. One plane, that took flight on May 1, 1960, was shot down and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured in the Soviet Union. On May 5, Khrushchev announced to the world that an American pilot had been captured and that Soviet airspace had been violated. Eventually, Eisenhower had to admit that he had ordered the spy flights. The summit meeting that would start on May 14, accomplished nothing.

Wicker holds Eisenhower’s feet to the fire for this, feeling that Eisenhower wasted the best chance to negotiate a test ban treaty and greatly reduce the threat of nuclear war. Wicker believes that many of the U-2 flights that Eisenhower had ordered were needless. They were inviting disaster. And a disaster occurred.

In 1960, Eisenhower stayed on the sidelines for most of the campaign between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Nixon did not seek out Eisenhower’s help during the campaign. Eisenhower, when asked by a reporter for a major decision that Nixon took part in, replied “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”

Eisenhower’s most famous speech as President was his Farewell Address. In it, Eisenhower warned against the creation of a permanent armaments industry as part of the American economy. He most notably came up with the phrase “the military-industrial complex” to describe the situation.

After leaving the White House, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower retired to his home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Aside from a speech at the 1964 Republican Convention, Eisenhower spent much of his retirement out of the public eye. On March 28, 1969, Dwight Eisenhower died in Washington, D.C. His Vice President, Richard Nixon, was now in the White House.

Wicker’s book is not one of the better efforts. The book needed some editing and several events are listed as taking place in the wrong year. You don’t get a feel of just what Dwight Eisenhower was about. What made him tick? What was his political philosophy? Why did people like him so much? There aren’t enough answers here. Just a lot of questions.

Other stuff: The Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum is located in Abilene, Kansas. The Eisenhower National Historic Site is in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. You can also find Eisenhower’s face on some of the older one dollar coins. They aren’t in circulation in any more.

The National Archives lists Dwight Eisenhower as a New York resident when he ran for President, but others contend he was a native of Pennsylvania at the time.

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