The Log-Cabin Campaign by Robert Gray Gunderson

log cabin campaignThe 1840 Presidential campaign has always gone down as one that introduced a new style of campaigning. One where a candidate would actively seek the office and give speeches. And, a campaign which would be more about personalities than issues. One would think that a pretty good book could be written about this campaign.

This 1957 book  by a University of Kentucky speech professor is not a good book. While it professes to be scholarly (it has footnotes!), the author uses a style of prose that makes him sound like a frat pledge from the 1980s. All the major figures are referred to by nicknames. Whig candidate William Henry Harrison has so many nicknames that you can lose track (the Hero of Tippecanoe, Old Tip, Tip, Cincinnatus, The County Clerk) of just who the author is referring to.

Van Buren’s party, the Democrats, are almost always called “Loco-Focos” after the name of the faction of the Democratic party that Van Buren came from. (The term refers to a name for matches, which some New York Democrats used to light candles at a meeting where Tammany Hall bosses had all other light sources turned off or closed.)

The book goes on and on about various Whig party powerbrokers (in particular Thurlow Weed) and how they raised money or found stump speakers (such as Abraham Lincoln) to help Harrison’s campaign. But the book is mostly just a series of anecdotes strung together with some old timey speak tossed in.

Just what Harrison stood for was never clear. But, the Whigs were never big on details. They just wanted to be elected. That, and have a national bank. Other than that, they were mostly just hoping that Andrew Jackson, or his designated successor, Van Buren, would be embarrassed.

If there is anything interesting to be gleaned from this book, it’s mostly just some trivia about William Henry Harrison. For example, did you know that at the time of the election, Harrison’s job was Clerk of the County Courts (hence the nickname above) in Sandusky County, Ohio? He had been out of work for a while.

Did you know that Martin Van Buren’s Vice President, Richard Mentor Johnson, was essentially dumped from the ticket because Southerners seemed to dislike the fact that he was living with one of his slaves in a marital situation. (That was only socially acceptable at the time if you forced yourself on the slave, instead of seeking consent. O America, you never fail to be so hypocritical. Nevertheless, Johnson still received the electoral votes for Vice President in 1840.)

And in 1840, Whig rallies tend to consist of people rolling giant canvas balls with the name of supporters written on them. The idea was to “get the ball rolling for Tip.” It was also to make fun of Missouri Democratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who had given a speech in 1837, leading to the reversal of the Senate’s censure of Andrew Jackson.

“And now, sir, I finish the task which three years ago I imposed upon myself. Solitary and alone, and amid the jeers and taunts of my opponents I put this ball in motion.”

Harrison outpolled Van Buren by 126,000 votes. That wouldn’t amount to much today, but in 1840, that was good enough for a 6 point win. The Electoral vote was even more exaggerated with Harrison earning 234 votes to Van Buren’s 60. (Johnson lost 12 electoral votes for Vice President to other Southerners, including future President James Polk.) Van Buren had little chance of winning after the nation suffered a severe economic downturn in 1837. Credit was extraordinarily tight, and the public had soured on the Democrats having a monopoly on power pretty much since 1801.

Ultimately, Harrison has gone down in history mostly because he died after just a little bit more than a month after his inauguration. It was popularly believed that he contracted pneumonia after delivering a lengthy inaugural address in cold weather, but it seems more likely that he died of complications from being 68, being stressed out, and drinking Washington D.C.’s poor water. Vice President John Tyler succeeded him and turned out to hold none of Harrison’s (or the Whig Party’s) positions on just about anything. And nobody was happy for four years.

1840 ball rolling

Party Over Section: The Rough and Ready Presidential Election of 1848

So have you been yearning deep in your soul to find out more about the election of 1848? Of course you have. Who wouldn’t.

1848 election(To save you the Googling: Zachary Taylor won.)

I picked up a copy of this book and just wondered how much could be written about a presidential election that was won by a party that doesn’t exist anymore, the Whigs, and by a candidate that died just a little over a year into office. And while few people may know that Zachary Taylor won the election of 1848, even fewer know who he defeated.

For Sibley, a Cornell professor, what is most important about this election is not necessarily the winner, but rather that it began to mark the end of elections that were decided by party matters as sectional differences were soon to overwhelm American politics leading to the Civil War.

And perhaps the most important figure in this whole election was not the man who won or even the man who finished second. Instead, it was a third-party candidate, former President Martin Van Buren, who ran on the Free Soil Party ticket. Van Buren would not win any states, but he won over 10% of the popular vote, and won over 25% of the vote in New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

While 1848 was a year of revolution and social upheaval in Europe, over in the U.S., things were much quieter. The United States had triumphed over Mexico in a war that added a sizeable chunk of the Southwest, including a place called California. This had all been the doings of expansionist Democratic President James Polk. Polk had pledged to serve just one term, so the 1848 would be an open election. (Polk never got home after leaving Washington, dying of cholera on the way soon after leaving office.)

The Whig Party, which was a diverse group of political interests that coalesced along the idea of Federal government expansion for internal improvements and a national bank, saw the 1848 election as a chance to get back into the White House. The Whigs had won in 1840 with William Henry Harrison, but Harrison died soon after taking office and his successor turned out to be WINO (Whig in Name Only) John Tyler.

One thing the Whigs agreed on was that the war with Mexico was wrong. Whigs in Congress vehemently opposed the war, particularly one Illinois Representative named Abraham Lincoln, who kept pushing the “Spot Resolution” that would have made Polk provide a map showing the exact spot where the alleged Mexican incursion into American territory started.

The most prominent Whigs were getting very old. Henry Clay, who had already lost three presidential elections, was 71. Daniel Webster was 66 and was known to have a drinking problem. So, the Whigs decided that since they had success with a military man before in Harrison, they would try it again.

There were two heroes of the Mexican War: Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. Scott was far more of a political animal than Taylor. Taylor had never voted in any election. Nobody knew what his policies. Scott, unfortunately for him, had made some political statements, some of them nativist. The Whigs decided that the decidedly rough around the edges Taylor would be their man. The Whig convention took just one day. Former New York representative Millard Fillmore was nominated for Vice President.

The Democrats were in a mess. A sharp division sprung up when a Pennsylvania representative named David Wilmot added an amendment to an appropriations bill that would prohibit slavery in any of the newly acquired territory from Mexico. (Wilmot was not an abolitionist. He just didn’t like whites and blacks mixing for the most part.) However, anti-slavery forces jumped on the Proviso and support for it became a source of discord.

The discord was sharpest in New York. The Democratic party there split into two groups: the Barnburners, who supported the Wilmot Proviso; and the Hunkers, who were more likely to try to find some common ground with the South over the expansion of slavery.

When it came time to name delegates for the Democratic Convention, New York sent two different delegations, both of which demanded to be seated as opposed to the other. At the Convention,  organizers decided to allow both groups to be seated, but gave New York the same number of votes. Neither New York side agreed to this and one group left and the other refused to vote.

The Democrats trotted out three candidates: Lewis Cass of Michigan, who fought in the War of 1812 (although he was part of a unit that surrendered Detroit to the British without firing a shot); James Buchanan, the Secretary of State; and Levi Woodbury, a Supreme Court justice. Cass prevailed after four ballots because he was the least objectionable of the three. William Butler of Kentucky was nominated for Vice President.

The Barnburners from New York, along with other anti-slavery politicians (both Whigs and Democrats), and nominated Van Buren for President on the Free Soil Party ticket. Charles Francis Adams, son of the former President, was nominated for Vice President.  Van Buren did not have much in the way of anti-slavery credentials, but he did have name recognition.

The campaign itself was not overly exciting. The candidates rarely ventured out to speak for themselves, using surrogates to speak for them. Not much was known about Taylor’s views on slavery expansion. And Taylor wasn’t going to tell people if he didn’t have to. The Whigs did not even have a platform. They just put out a short statement at the convention that everything was OK.

Lincoln turned out to be one of Taylor’s biggest supporters and people took notice of him. However, Lincoln had agreed to not run for reelection to the House, so he could not immediately capitalize on his good publicity.

Both parties did their best to turn out their voters, who would all vote on the same day (November 7, 1848) for the first time in American history.

With New York’s Democrats in disarray, Taylor and the Whigs were able to win that state and its 36 (out of a total of 290) electoral votes, which went a long way to winning the election. The Whigs won most of the Eastern Seaboard, while the Democrats prevailed in the West. Much of the South voted for Taylor because he lived in Louisiana and was a slave owner.

However, the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress. The Free Soilers had managed to win nine House seats. The Democrats didn’t easily take control in the House because they only had a plurality, not a majority, and it took 63 ballots before a Democratic Speaker was chosen.

Taylor would die in 1850. Cass would go on to be Secretary of State for Buchanan prior to the Civil War, where he was pretty much the only competent person in that administration.

American politics, which hadn’t exactly been a pleasant thing to watch previously, was going to get extremely nasty in the years to come.

 

The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828 by Lynn Hudson Parsons (1824, 1828 elections)

The Line To Run For President Ends Here. It Begins Back There. Birth Of Modern Politics by Lynn Hudson Parsons Image Image Although the title of this book states that it is about 1828, close to half the book is devoted to the 1824 election. The two elections were so closely related that they merit discussion in the same place. From out of the chaos that was the 1824 election, came a manner of presidential elections that, with only occasional exceptions, has been the same. That is, with two slates of candidates from two parties, slugging it out on a national stage, full of name-calling, mud-slinging, and vague discussions of the issues. Continue reading

Year of Meteors by Douglas R. Egerton (1860)

yearofmeteors1860 Election Results

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I had not come across this book when it was published back in 2010, but with the renewed interest in all things Lincoln, I was intrigued about a book about the backroom politics that resulted in Lincoln’s election in 1860. Egerton’s book though is not mostly about Lincoln, who is something of a supporting character, but rather on the important figures of the time, whom history has more or less forgotten in the wake of the 16th President’s accomplishments.

The most important character in the book is Lincoln’s Illinois rival, Stephen Douglas. Coming into the election of 1860, Douglas was the most famous political figure in America. He possibly may have also been the most loved and most hated at the same time. In trying to come up with a solution to the territorial expansion of slavery, Douglas came up with a plan that made things worse, popular sovereignty, which would allow the residents of the territories choose for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. This led to even more strife.

In 1860, there were four major candidates for president and one “third party” candidate who drew significant support. The Democrats ended up having four different conventions in two different cities. Southern extremists, called “Fire Eaters”, had no desire to compromise and hoped that the Democrats would fall apart, ensuring a Republican win that would force Southern states to secede. And that is what happened, as the Democrats nominated two candidates, Douglas, a Northerner who owned slaves in Arkansas (indirectly), and John Breckenridge, a Kentuckian who actually didn’t own any slaves.

The Democrats originally convened in Charleston, but could not agree on a nominee because the party required any nominee to get 2/3 of the votes of the delegates. Eventually, some of the Southern states walked out. Some of them tried to form their own convention in another part of Charleston. That didn’t work, so they gave up and agreed to meet again in Baltimore. Then, they split up again and each group nominated its own ticket. Egerton makes the point that the Democrats could have avoided much of this mess if they had chosen their nominee by majority vote and also apportioned state delegate totals by party strength in the state instead of by electoral votes, which ended up giving a lot of votes at the conventions to Democrats from places like Massachusetts, where they stood almost no chance of winning. (Lincoln would win Massachusetts with over 60% of the vote.)

The Republicans were expected to nominate New York Senator William Seward, but the party believed that he would be considered too radical and would not have carried states like Pennsylvania or Ohio (or even New York), so the party turned to Lincoln, who was a popular, yet lightly-regarded figure at the time.

Unusual for the time, the election of 1860 played out the way, political experts of the day thought it would back in June of that year. The Republicans carried all of the Northern states, and only appeared on the ballot in one state that would eventually secede: Virginia. Breckinridge won most of the South. Douglas won only in Missouri and a few electoral votes in New Jersey despite finishing second in the popular vote. Compromise candidate John Bell of Tennessee finished third in the electoral vote despite never espousing any platform. Lincoln won with the lowest popular vote percentage ever, just 39.65%. To a certain extent, Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell all hoped that no one would win a majority of the electoral vote and then force a House vote to decide the Presidency, but they were not very good at math.

After Lincoln’s election, South Carolina and Georgia started the secession movement. There were last ditch efforts at compromise, but the Republicans would not back them, primarily because they granted an expansion of slavery into the territories. Also, Lincoln did not want to come into office with his hands tied to a policy he didn’t support. And so the nation headed off on into the Civil War. The Southern Fire Eaters, whose ideology was based on white supremacy and an antiquated economic system, got their wish of plunging the nation into a bloody conflict. The South thought that the North would cave easily, one in an increasingly great series of miscalculations they would make. The South, while wanting to preserve its “way of life” actually wanted to preserve its economic power, something the North was happy to take from them.

Egerton’s book does a tremendous job of looking at the events of 1860 almost as if you were living at the time. You wouldn’t have thought in 1860 that Abraham Lincoln would become one of the most important historical figures of all time. You would have thought Stephen Douglas was bound for that. But Douglas would die early in 1861, a victim of his own alcoholism. Lincoln’s fame persists. Other figures played their parts in a drama that we hope we never see again.

Odds and ends: At the top of each post, I will put up the results of the election or elections covered in each post. The results will be listed in order of electoral votes received, not popular votes. However, the 1860 election remains the only one to have such an anomalous result. Douglas appeared on the ballot on more states than Lincoln.

Senator Benjamin Fitzpatrick of Alabama was originally chosen as Douglas’ running mate, but he declined the nomination. Herschel Johnson of Georgia took his place.

Most election data will be taken from Dave Liep’s U.S. Election Atlas, which is a free source of a lot of interesting election data. Please note that the site uses RED on its maps for Democratic wins and BLUE for Republican wins. The colors used by television networks today were chosen arbitrarily.

John Breckinridge was serving as a Senator when the Civil War began. He sided with the Confederacy (despite Kentucky not seceding). He was expelled from the Senate for his actions. He later served in the Confederate government and, after the Civil War ended, fled to Europe to live in exile until an amnesty allowed him to return to Kentucky in 1868.

Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time by Freeman Cleaves

President #9, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #39

Let Me Be Brief…

If you mention the name William Henry Harrison to most people, the initial reaction will be “I don’t know anyone by that name.” So, after you get past the people who are completely ignorant of the man, you might get the reaction of “Oh, the guy who died after a month in office as President.” And after you get past those people, you get the people who say, “Wasn’t his nickname ‘Tippecanoe’?”  Then you run into someone who is a direct descendant of Tecumseh, and you get punched in the face.

Finding a biography of William Henry Harrison was not an easy task. The book I found was published in 1939. And, it goes on for 343 pages, not counting the end notes, bibliography, and index. And Harrison does not get elected President until page 329. There was a  lot to slog through. In the end, I learned that perhaps one reason people do not write full-length biographies of William Henry Harrison is that is he was not very interesting.

Freeman Cleaves, who wrote mostly about the Civil War, penned a lengthy book that utters nary a bad word about William Henry Harrison. Either Harrison was beyond reproach, or he was incredibly boring. You could decide if you read the book, but you do not have to. I have read it for you as a public service. This public service does not extend to telling you if William Henry Harrison was a good person. But, I do know a lot about Indiana in the early 19th Century now.

The life of William Henry Harrison is somewhat interesting. It is not 343 pages worth of interest, but it is a little more interesting than reading about Millard Fillmore.

William Henry Harrison was the youngest child of Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Elizabeth Bassett. He was born on February 9, 1773 on the Berkeley Plantation in what is now Charles City, Virginia.

When he was 14, Harrison went off to Hampden-Sydney College. But, after two years, Harrison left when the college changed its religious affiliation from Episcopalian to Methodist.

Harrison then was going to try his hand at medicine and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, but he dropped out because his family told him that there was not enough money for him to stay in school. So, Harrison decided to join the Army. He received a commission as an ensign in the Army in 1791.

The United States Army was not a prestigious institution at the time. The country feared a large standing army. Almost all of the forces were stationed in what was then called the Northwest Territory (think Big Ten Conference.)  The Army posted Harrison to a fort outside of Cincinnati.

Harrison quickly moved up the ranks. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (near Toledo) in 1794. This battle, along with the subsequent Treaty of Greenville (negotiated by Harrison) brought some peace between American settlers and a confederation of Great Lakes area Indian nations.

In 1795, Harrison married Anna Symmes, daughter of a prominent judge in Ohio.  They would have 10 children together, nine of whom lived to adulthood.

Harrison settled down in 1797 and was appointed to the job of Secretary of the Northwest Territory. Two years later, Harrison won the election for the territory’s non-voting delegate in Congress. This job is similar to positions today held by people from exotic places like Guam and the District of Columbia.

In 1801, outgoing President John Adams appointed Harrison as the first territorial governor for the new territory of Indiana. Harrison moved his family to the bustling metropolis of Vincennes, the capital city.

Harrison tried to attract settlers to Indiana. He had two approaches. One was to relax prohibitions on slavery and indentured servitude in the territory. The other was to make sure that some of the Indian tribes that did not sign the Treaty of Greenville did not make any trouble.

By 1809, the Indiana Territory was allowed to choose its own legislature. This body had a pro-abolition majority that voted to prohibit slavery in the territory. In that same year, Harrison negotiated another treaty, this one with the Delaware, Wea, Kickapoo, and Potawatomi nations that allowed white settlement along the Wabash River.

This treaty, known as the Treaty of Fort Wayne, raised the ire of a Shawnee chief named Tecumseh. A charismatic leader, Tecumseh formed his own confederation of tribes to oppose the terms of the treaty. In 1811, Tecumseh, with 1100 men, visited Harrison at his home in Vincennes for a contentious meeting (not aided by the fact that neither men could speak directly to each other because neither spoke the other man’s language.) Tecumseh wanted the Treaty of Fort Wayne abrogated, or else he would side with the British. (The discussion between Harrison and Tecumseh also took longer because no one had a dictionary handy to find out what ‘abrogate’ meant.)

Tecumseh, along with his brother Tensketawa, ratcheted up the tension. Harrison and Tecumseh traded accusations and slurs against each other.

On November 6, 1811, Harrison decided to lead an expedition against Tecumseh’s forces at an encampment called Prophetstown (Tensketawa was also known as The Prophet.). This encampment was near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers. The forces led by Tensketawa made an attack on Harrison’s forces, but we were driven back, suffering heavy losses. Harrison received wide acclaim for this victory at what would be called the Battle of Tippecanoe. He also received criticism for not continuing the battle and capturing or killing Tecumseh and Tensketawa.

Harrison’s battle with Tecumseh became of the larger War of 1812. Harrison wanted to  command the American forces in the Northwest, but that command was given to General William Hull. Hull proved himself to be such a capable general that he had to surrender Detroit to a troop of British and Canadian soldiers. Tecumseh also was on the British side. (The Army court martialed Hull for the unpardonable crime of losing to Canadians.)

With Hull disgraced, Harrison was given command. He started a march up through Northern Ohio. His forces split in two, and a group of Kentucky militia under the command of General James Winchester, went well beyond the lines of communication to find supplies at a town called Frenchtown (which is now Monroe, Michigan.)

While Winchester and his men were well fed, they were also sitting ducks for a large force leaving from Detroit under the command of British General Henry Procter. Tecumseh’s men were also part of the contingent.

Winchester’s troops were caught by surprise. Nearly all of them were killed in an engagement known as the Massacre of the River Raisin. Nearly 400 men were killed, with the rest taken prisoner. Those taken prisoner were almost all subsequently killed.

Avenging this defeat became of primary importance to the United States. Harrison was able to marshal his forces, augmented by more Kentucky militia eager to avenge the deaths of their comrades. Aiding this cause was a spectacular naval victory on Lake Erie by Commodore Oliver Perry. Procter now faced a nearly impossible situation in trying to resupply his troops. So, Procter ordered a retreat.

Harrison and his men pursued Procter, along with Tecumseh, and finally engaged them near the Canadian city of Moraviantown on October 5, 1813. The American forces routed the British and Indian forces in what would become known as the Battle of the Thames. During this battle, someone killed Tecumseh. No one knows for certain who it was, although Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky would take credit for it in public, and parlay that into election as Vice-President in 1837.

Despite the victory, Harrison still received criticism from the Secretary of War, John Armstrong, over spending on supplies. Harrison resigned his commission and Andrew Jackson was given the command of the Army in the West. The War of 1812 would last into 1814 and most of Washington, D.C. would be burned to the ground by British troops.

In the aftermath of the war, Harrison decided to leave the world of the military behind. He won election to the House of Representatives from Ohio in 1816, riding in on a wave of anti-incumbency. Prior to the 1816 election, Congress had voted to change its pay scale from eight dollars a day to $1500 for an entire two-year term. Since Congress met for about five months a year at the time, this was a big salary boost. The public outcry was enormous.

When the new Congress convened in 1817, the salary reverted back to a per diem, at nine dollars per day. Harrison supported this measure, although he did not do much else of note in Congress. In 1820, Harrison ran for Governor of Ohio, but lost. In 1824, he was chosen to the United States Senate by the Ohio Legislature.

Harrison was facing financial problems at the same time. He actually wanted a diplomatic job (which paid around $9000 per year plus expenses). He wanted to go to Mexico, but President John Quincy Adams gave that appointment to Joel Poinsett. (Yes, the flower guy.)

In 1828, Harrison was given the title of Minister to Colombia. He ventured by ship through the Caribbean to Maracaibo in Venezuela. Eventually, he took a 10-day trip by mule to the Colombian capital of Bogotá. There he met Cololmbian President Simon Bolivar.

Bolivar, who had been the Great Liberator, was now bordering on becoming the Great Dictator. Harrison sent dispatches back to Washington, warning of Bolivar’s increasing paranoia and restrictions of personal liberties.

But, Harrison was not in Colombia long. In 1829, Andrew Jackson became President and appointed a new minister to Colombia. Harrison returned home to Ohio.

For several years, Harrison had little to do. He managed his estate (which was not overly profitable). He welcomed back veterans of his various campaigns. He wrote books, and had books written about him.

In 1836, the Whig Party decided on a unique strategy for the Presidential election. Instead of nominating one candidate, the Whigs would nominate several candidates, each of whom was supposed to be very popular in one part of the country. The hope was then to split the electoral vote and send the election to the House. This plan had several flaws. First, the Democrats controlled the House and would win any election there. Second, it is hard enough to find one good presidential nominee, let alone two or three. In 1836, the Whigs nominated four candidates: Daniel Webster, Hugh White, Willie Mangum, and Harrison. Harrison was chosen because of his military background and his popularity in the West.

In the end, Martin Van Buren won the election with 170 electoral votes and over 50% of the popular vote. Harrison polled the second most votes of any of the Whigs and won 73 electoral votes. Van Buren’s running mate, Richard Johnson, did not get a majority of the electoral vote, sending his election to the Senate. (Virginia Democrats would not vote for Johnson because he had a black mistress. Johnson prevailed in the Senate by a 33 to 16 margin.)

Harrison did not have to do much after the 1836 election to become popular. In 1837, the nation went into a scary depression known as the Panic of 1837. Credit markets dried up and tens of thousands of people were left in poverty. Van Buren could not solve the economic mess (or did not have enough time for the economy to right itself) and he was going to be an easy target in the Election of 1840.

Henry Clay saw 1840 as being his chance to finally win the Presidency. But, it was not to be. Clay had made too many enemies. Harrison was the choice of the Whig Convention. The congenial general from Ohio would run for President despite being a relatively elderly 67 years old at the time.

The presidential campaign of 1840 was groundbreaking. The campaign would not be about the issues, but about personalities. Van Buren was portrayed as an out of touch aristocrat. Harrison was the hard working military hero.

When a Democratic newspaper printed that “Harrison would like to retire to his log cabin and drink hard cider and contemplate moral philosophy,” the Whigs turned the dig into a campaign slogan. Harrison, along with running mate John Tyler, adopted the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” as a theme for the campaign. In 1840, it was hip to be a country bumpkin. (Not that Harrison was actually born in a log cabin or lived in one.)

The Whigs also adopted a campaign slogan of “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” to emphasize Harrison’s military background. A large paper ball was rolled through various cities after Whig candidates won local elections. The idea was “to get the ball rolling for Harrison!” After the victory, the names of the winning candidates would be written on the ball.

Harrison, contemptuously referred to by Clay as nothing more than “a Trajan”, beat Van Buren easily, winning 19 of 26 states for 234 electoral votes. Harrison won nearly 53% of the popular vote.

Not many people knew which issues Harrison campaigned on. They just liked him, and he seemed better than Van Buren.

Harrison believed in a national bank, the supremacy of Congress to the President (which meant almost no vetoes), Federal funding of internal improvements, reform of the spoils system, and a promise to serve one term.

When Harrison got to Washington, he was greeted as a hero. He was also besieged by job seekers. He picked a Cabinet and planned to have all major decisions ratified by its members. The stress of the transition quickly began to wear Harrison down.

Hundreds of people would see Harrison each day, begging for a job. The Whigs wanted to get rid of all the Democrats in office. Harrison wanted to take a more restrained approach. But, after eight years of  Jackson and four years of Van Buren, the Whigs wanted their share of Federal jobs.

Harrison was inaugurated on March 4, 1841 on a cold and wet day in Washington. He gave the longest inaugural address in history, over 8,000 words, and that was after Daniel Webster heavily edited it. With the poor weather and the long speech, many of the estimated 50,000 in attendance stopped paying attention and left.

History books tell us that Harrison picked up a cold during his inaugural address because of the poor weather. However, most doctors would tell you that cold weather itself will not make you sick. But, a 68-year old man, under a high amount of stress, living among many unfamiliar people in crowded conditions, is a good candidate to pick up a virus from someone.

Harrison’s cold turned into pneumonia. And, even today, you do not want to get that. His health quickly deteriorated. On April 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison became the first President to die in office.  William Henry Harrison went from President to historical footnote.

Other stuff: Harrison’s birthplace, the Berkeley Plantation is available for visits and run by a private foundation. William Henry Harrison was laid to rest in a tomb in North Bend, Ohio. The tomb is maintained by the Ohio Historical Society. Harrison’s estate in Vincennes, Indiana was called Grouseland, and it is available for visits. Tippecanoe Battlefield Park is a National Historic Landmark, although it is maintained by the state of Indiana.

Tecumseh’s final resting place is unknown. He does have a line of air conditioners named after him. And noted Civil War general William Sherman has the middle name of Tecumseh.

The battlefield for River Raisin was designated as a National Battlefield Park on March 30, 2009.

William Henry Harrison’s grandson, Benjamin, would become President in 1889. Benjamin was the son of John Scott Harrison, who served in the House of Representatives for Ohio. Harrison’s brother, Carter Bassett Harrison, was a member of the House for Virginia. Harrison’s great-great-grandson, also named William Henry Harrison, represented Wyoming in the House.

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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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Polk: the Man who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

President #11, C-SPAN Historians’ ranking #12

Looks Like My Work Here is Done

polkBetween the time of Andrew Jackson and before the time of Abraham Lincoln, American Presidents were an undistinguished lot, to put it kindly. No one served more than one term. Most are forgotten.

However, one man in the job managed to stand out. That was James Knox Polk. Polk was the lone President of his era who used the office to actually get things done. He came, seemingly from nowhere; and then, after one term, died soon after leaving office.

Polk’s mostly glowing reputation stems from the fact that he promised to accomplish four major goals while in office. And he did that. Whether or not Polk used methods to accomplish these goals (such as fighting a war of conquest against Mexico that was of questionable legitimacy) is what needs to be evaluated. However, it seems clear from reading this book that James Polk was a man who was very intent on getting things done.

James Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina on November 2, 1795, but his family moved to Tennessee when he was 11. At age 17, young James Polk suffered from a severe pain in his urinary tract. He had a stone lodged in a delicate part of his anatomy. A doctor removed the stone in a way that you don’t want the details of. One of the side effects was that James Polk never had any children.

At the age of 20, James Polk enrolled in the University of North Carolina. UNC was a small institution at the time and had just one professor. (But, preparing for the future, there were seven basketball coaches even though the game hadn’t been invented yet.)

When Polk returned to Tennessee, he got a job as the clerk of the State Senate in 1819. He began to build relationships with prominent Tennessee politicians such as Davey Crockett, Sam Houston (both of whom would move on to Texas), and, most importantly, Andrew Jackson. By 1823, Polk was elected to the Senate. The next year, he married his wife Sarah.

Polk supported Jackson in his quest for the Presidency in 1824, and, like many (since Jackson got the most popular AND electoral votes), was bitterly disappointed when John Quincy Adams was chosen President by the House of Representatives. Polk fingered Henry Clay as the chief villain.

In 1825, Polk was elected to the House of Representatives. By 1833, he was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, thanks to Jackson’s support. In 1834, Polk ran for Speaker of the House, but lost out to another Tennessean, John Bell. However, in 1835, Polk finally ascended to the Speakership.

However, Polk had to give up the Speakership in 1839. He was needed back in Tennessee as the Democrats needed a strong candidate for governor. He won that race, but was defeated for reelection in 1841. When he challenged the incumbent governor (James Jones, portrayed as a hayseed by Borneman) in 1843, Polk lost again. He seemingly was a man going nowhere politically.

Polk still had hopes that he could get back to higher office. His goal for 1844 was to be the Democratic nominee for Vice-President. As he was just 49, Polk figured he could wait until 1852 or 1856 to get a shot at the Presidency.

But, events took a strange turn. In 1844, the hottest political issue in the country was Texas. The then independent country was practically begging to become part of the United States, as it was heavily in debt, and threatened by Mexico and Great Britain.

President John Tyler submitted a treaty annexing Texas that the Senate rejected. Northerners were hesitant to admit such a large slave-owning state into the Union. Tyler’s third Secretary of State (the first one, Daniel Webster, resigned. The second one, Abel Upshur, died in a steamship explosion), John Calhoun, was a proponent of annexation. However, he hurt his plan when he wrote a lengthy diplomatic memorandum to the British minister to the U.S. detailing why slavery was good for Texas and good for America. Texas was now inextricably linked in the minds of many with slavery.

The two presumptive nominees for President in 1844 were Whig candidate Clay and Democratic ex-President Martin Van Buren. Clay was opposed to the annexation of Texas because it would create divisions over slavery and possibly provoke a war with Mexico. Van Buren turned out to be opposed to annexation as well, also because of fears of adding any more slave-owning states to the Union.

Clay and Van Buren announced these positions coincidentally on the same day. When news of Clay and Van Buren’s opposition to Texas reached Andrew Jackson, in retirement in Tennessee, Old Hickory summoned his protege, Polk, to visit him.

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James Polk at the National Portrait Gallery

Polk was a proponent of the annexation of Texas. Polk was pretty much in favor of adding just about any territory the United States could get its hands on. Jackson told Polk that he should aim for the Presidency in 1844. Jackson could make it work.

Both parties held their conventions in Baltimore in 1844. The Whigs nominated Clay by acclamation. They assumed that the Great Compromiser would have his best chance to win the Presidency in his third try.

The Democrats were facing a much more difficult situation. For starters, Democratic party rules required any nominee to gain 2/3 the votes of the delegates. Van Buren led in delegates, but was well short of 2/3. And there was significant opposition to Van Buren. But, there was no one candidate for the anti-Van Buren forces to rally around.

During the eighth ballot, Polk received 44 votes. Then on the ninth, there was a stampede for Polk, bringing him up to 231 votes and making him the nominee.

The convention then nominated Silas Wright of New York for Vice President, but he declined as he chose to run for governor of New York. The convention then chose George Dallas of Philadelphia.

The Whigs derisively asked “Who is James K. Polk?” Polk was considered to be untested and inexperienced, despite his tenure as Speaker of the House. Henry Clay had the resume to be president.

But, when the votes were counted, Polk prevailed by 39,000 votes and by 65 in the electoral vote. The difference was New York, which had 36 electoral votes. Polk carried it by only 5,000 votes. Some credit third party candidate, James Birney (of the antislavery Liberty Party) of siphoning just enough votes to make the difference. (You can’t blame Florida, it wouldn’t become a state until 1845.) Polk failed to carry his home state of Tennessee

Clay ended up hurting himself by waffling on the Texas issue, making it sound as if he could back annexation. Polk resolutely maintained his position on Texas. He also proposed that he would  accomplish four things in office:

  1. Settle the Oregon border dispute
  2. Add California to the United States
  3. Adjust the tariff so it would be on a revenue basis, and not protectionist
  4. Establish an independent Treasury to maintain the assets of the United States, ending the practice of the Federal Government depositing its funds in a host of state banks

Also, Polk pledged to serve just one term, which neutralized a similar pledge that Clay had made. The Whig party did not believe that the President should have much power, but did believe in an activist government that spent money on internal improvements. The Democrats believed in a powerful executive, but also in limited government. It made a lot more sense back in 1844 than it does now.

The Texas issue was solved (to a certain extent) before Polk was inaugurated. On March 3, 1845, Tyler signed a Congressional joint resolution annexing Texas as part of the United States. Once the details were sorted out, Texas would become a state.

As Clay sulked over being denied the Presidency a third time, Polk got to work almost immediately. He intended to be an active hands on manager. He insisted that his Cabinet members stay in Washington and be available to him at all times. He tried to schedule Cabinet meetings twice a week.

Polk’s first big issue he faced was the Oregon situation. The Oregon Territory had been jointly occupied by the Americans and British since a treaty in 1818 (the Spanish and Russians also had claims to the area, but they abandoned them.) The area was sparsely populated, with cafe lattes being much harder to find than they are now. The 1818 Treaty had a provision where either signatory could ask out with one year’s notice. Presumably, the issue would then be resolved by negotiation, arbitration, or going to war. Polk wanted negotiation or war, with little use for arbitration.

The British were willing to negotiate the situation, but it was hard getting an agreement on where to draw the border. The 49th Parallel represented the border between the U.S.  and Canada from Minnesota until you hit the Oregon Territory. One plan had the U.S. getting most of the Oregon Territory except for the area around Puget Sound stretching out east to the Columbia River.

Polk, and his Secretary of State James Buchanan, didn’t particularly like this idea as Puget Sound was necessary from both an economic and strategic standpoint. (Polk also owned stock in Boeing and Microsoft. He was always looking ahead.)

Another problem was a growing nationalist movement in America that demanded that the United States take control of the ENTIRE Oregon Territory, all the way up to the 54’40° mark at the border with the Russian territory of Alaska. The phrase “54’40° or Fight!” entered the American political dialog. One Philadelphia paper used the phrase “Phifty Phour Phorty or Phight” and then changed that to an abbreviation of “PPPP.” (The repeated use of PHs for Fs was about as funny in 1845 as it is today.)

Polk and Buchanan finally agreed to compromise on a border at the 49th Parallel. The British asked for unrestricted navigation for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Polk agreed to this after the State Department found out that the Hudson’s Bay Company was going to lose its charter in the 1850s anyway. The treaty was ratified on June 18, 1846. Polk bought everyone espressos to celebrate.

One quirk of this decision was that there ended up being part of the United States that would only be accessible through Canada. That area is now called Point Roberts, Washington. I visited it once. It’s really not worth the trip.

What Polk is known best for is the Mexican War. This conflict would end up adding three whole states and parts of four others to the United States. It would also prove to be a prelude to the Civil War. And, even today, the peace treaty concluding the war is still in dispute.

After Polk indicated he would make Texas a state (making it much easier for fans to travel to the Cotton Bowl), Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with the U.S. Polk didn’t see this as a crisis, but rather an opportunity.

Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to take up a position in Texas south of the Nueces River near Corpus Christi (which Mexico believed to be the border) and north of the Rio Grande (which the United States thought was the border). Polk had a representative, John Slidell, travel to Mexico City to offer the Mexican government $25 million plus some debt relief in exchange for the territories of New Mexico and Alta California. The Mexican government (which changed frequently at this time) declined the offer.

On April 25, 1846, Taylor’s troops were engaged by Mexican forces and eleven soldiers were killed. When news of the battle got back to Washington, Polk claimed that “American blood had been spilled on American soil.” He asked Congress to declare war, which was done with only a handful of dissenting votes.

Borneman believes that Polk demanding a declaration of war was a turning point in American history. The only other time Congress had declared war (back in 1812), it was Congress, specifically Henry Clay, leading the cause. President James Madison supported the declaration, but deferred to Congress. Polk was not going to let Congress take its time. He wanted action. In the three subsequent declarations of war, the President would be the person telling Congress to declare war. (Since World War II, much of the world has gotten out of the declaring war business. It’s easier to fight without one.)

Polk hoped that a $2 million inducement would bring former Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna return from exile. Polk figured that Santa Anna would retake control in Mexico, followed by a surrender. However, Santa Anna just took the money, and kept fighting. Santa Anna would eventually serve as Mexican President four separate times.

General Stephen Kearney led a small force from Kansas and occupied Santa Fe without a fight. Kearney kept on moving to California in an attempt to claim that territory. When Kearney got to California, he found out that explorer John C. Fremont had already led a rebellion that established an independent republic in California, known as the Bear Flag Republic. (Hence the flag!)

Fremont’s adventuring ended up complicating matters greatly. However, Kearney was eventually able to gain control of the area after a series of small battles in Southern California. The Treaty of Cahuenga finished off this part of the war.

The portion of the war in Mexico proved to be a bit more difficult. For starters, both of the principal American generals, Taylor and Winfield Scott, were Whig politicians who were reportedly angling for the Presidency. Scott had already made attempts to gain the nomination in 1836 and 1840.

Taylor also did not want to help out Scott, who was given the order to make an amphibious landing at Veracruz to take that port, and then proceed on to Mexico City. Taylor won a major battle against Mexican forces in the Battle of Buena Vista (although Borneman doesn’t give Taylor much credit) on February 22, 1847. The Whig press seized upon this victory as one of America’s greatest military triumphs, although mass desertions in the Mexican ranks probably helped out more.

Meanwhile, Polk sent another minister to Mexico, Nicholas Trist, to join Scott. Once Scott captured Mexico City, Trist was to present his credentials as an ambassador and negotiate a treaty. Scott managed to successfully land at Veracruz in March of 1847. Some of the officers under Scott’s command were Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and George Meade. It was like spring training for the Civil War.

Scott pushed on to take over Mexico City and on to Puebla, before stopping his advance in May of 1847. Now, it was time to negotiate.

Polk wanted Trist to get the Mexican government to cede to the U.S. all of Alta California and New Mexico as “payment” for the war costs. Trist turned out to be of an independent mind. He first offered to settle the Texas-Mexico border NORTH of the Rio Grande, which would have made the whole cause of the war bogus. When Polk got wind of this, he wanted Trist to come home.

Fortunately for Trist, communications were slow enough that he had enough time to convince the Mexican government to give Polk almost all of what he wanted. Mexico agreed to give up the land shaded in red in the linked map in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The treaty was signed on February 2, 1848. Trist sent it back to Washington quickly, forcing Polk to have to send it on to the Senate.

With the exception of a section that would have guaranteed Spanish and Mexican land claims, the Senate accepted the treaty on March 10, 1848.

Polk’s conduct of the war was not popular with everyone. An Illinois Representative named Abraham Lincoln tried to get Congress to pass what he called “The Spot Resolution” that would force Polk to identify the actual spot where the initial hostilities happened. It did not pass. In Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau refused to pay a tax in support of the war and went to jail for a night because of it. Thoreau penned his famous essay “On Civil Disobedience” based on this experience.

Another problem for Polk came from another member of his party, Representative David Wilmot of Pennsyvlania. Wilmot tried to attach a rider (more frequently called the Wilmot Proviso) to an appropriations bill for the war that would have abolished slavery in any territory taken from Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso never passed, but it served as a model for antislavery forces leading up to the Civil War.

One of the questions about Polk’s Administration is: Did he start the war with Mexico in order to provide the South with more territory that would be available for slavery? Borneman doesn’t think that was the case. He portrays Polk as an ardent nationalist in the tradition of Andrew Jackson. Polk wanted California as much for strategic purposes as anything else. However, Polk’s reputation for most of the post Civil War period portrayed him as a greedy slaveowner.

Lately, Polk has been regarded much better by historians. He receives high marks for accomplishing all four of his campaign promises. (The tariff reform and Independent Treasury measures passed with surprisingly little opposition from Congress.)

However, Polk did not leave much of a legacy. Zachary Taylor, whom Polk thought would be a terrible President, succeeded him. Polk and his wife Sarah hoped to spend a quiet retirement in Nashville. But Polk was not a healthy man. The linked photo shows Polk in February of 1849. He is just 53 years old in the photo.

The Polks went by boat from Washington and headed south. They planned to go up the Mississippi back to Tennessee. One of the ships the Polks were on was riddled with cholera sufferers. Polk fell victim to it. On June 15, 1849, just 103 days after leaving office, James Knox Polk died in Nashville. He had the shortest retirement of any President. He also was the youngest President to die of natural causes. His widow, Sarah, lived until August 14, 1891, the longest widowhood of any First Lady.

Borneman’s book, at least the title, claims that Polk changed America. However, it seems to me that Polk was more of a phenomenon than a trendsetter. There would not be another President who would use the office of the Presidency in a similar way until Abraham Lincoln. And Lincoln was opposed to almost all of Polk’s policies.

Polk is unique in American history in that he seemingly came from nowhere, made an enormous impact on the country. Then he died, leaving no political legacy whatsoever. The two Democrats who followed Polk in office, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, were two of the worst Presidents ever. By the times the Democrats got back to the White House in 1885, James Polk’s time had long passed.

Other stuff: The James Polk House is in Columbia, Tennessee, but it’s not where he died. That home was torn down in 1901. Instead, it’s a home from 1816 where Polk lived for a time. James and Sarah Polk are entombed on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.

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