Andrew Jackson by Sean Wilentz

President #7, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #13

Coming soon to an ATM near you!

andrewjacksonJust who was Andrew Jackson? Was he the first president to create a political following among the masses and ride that to power? Was he a shameless opportunist who pandered to the lowest common denominator? Was he a war hero? Was he a man who set into place a policy that turned out to be genocidal? Was he devoutly loyal to the United States and its Constitution? Did he interpret the Constitution as he saw fit?

According to Sean Wilentz, the answer to all these questions is “yes.” However, in Wilentz’s view, there was an explanation for all of Jackson’s actions, and, ultimately, they served to benefit the United States.

Andrew Jackson’s stock among historians has risen and fallen throughout the years like the Dow Jones 30 on a day when Timothy Geithner coughs. Wilentz traces these changes in the introduction to his book and then sets out, as best you can in 170 pages, to explain the complicated life of Andrew Jackson.

The future President was born near the South Carolina/North Carolina border in 1767 and was caught up in the tail end of the Revolutionary War, when he and his brothers were captured by British soldiers. The young Jackson refused to shine a British officer’s boots, claiming he was a prisoner of war, and for his insolence, Jackson received a gash in his head with a sword that never left him. That wound would be a constant reminder of Jackson’s distaste for Britain, aristocracy, and privilege.

Jackson’s father died before he was born, and his mother died when he was still in his teens.  So, Andrew Jackson was very much a self-made man. In 1791, he married a woman named Rachel Donelson, who provided both love and some financial security for him. However, Rachel was not completely divorced from her husband. After a period, the two would marry again to make it official. This would end up being a significant event in American politics later. Jackson would also fight several duels to uphold his wife’s honor, and killed one person during one.

By 1796, Jackson, who had moved west to Tennessee, used his political connections to become that state’s first member of the House of Representatives, and, a few months later, moved on to the Senate. Jackson resigned from the Senate in 1798 to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court, and later took up farming at his plantation, the Hermitage.

However, Jackson was not bound for a quiet life. The War of 1812 gave Jackson the chance to serve in the military, and get some measure of revenge against the British who treated him so shamelessly during the Revolution.

Jackson’s first military encounters, however, were against the Creek Indians in Alabama. Responding to a massacre by a group of Creeks called the Red Sticks at Fort Mims in 1813, Jackson led his troops to extract vengeance. In two engagements, Jackson’s troops killed nearly every Red Stick Creek male and took all the women and children as prisoners. Additionally, Jackson was able to get a treaty ceding Creek land in Georgia and Alabama to the U.S. Jackson was prepared to do whatever it took to keep whites and Indians separate. He firmly believed that the two groups could not coexist peacefully.

After his success in Alabama (at least in the eyes of President Madison), Jackson moved on to New Orleans to defend that crucial port city against the British. On January 8, 1815, Jackson famously routed the British in what would be the last battle of the War of 1812, which was technically already over since a peace treaty had been signed about 10 days earlier. However, Jackson failed to receive a Tweet from @ghentytreaty in time that read “USA and UK say war over! Woo hoo! Henry Clay is totally wasted!”

Wilentz points out that Jackson’s victory at New Orleans was just as much the product of British bungling (there were numerous logisticial problems), but history judged that from then on, Jackson would be “The Hero of New Orleans.” And Jackson didn’t take kindly to anyone saying otherwise.

With the War of 1812 over, Jackson kept up his military adventures, moving on to Florida, which was still part of Spain. Jackson ostensibly had moved his troops to Georgia to deal with the Seminoles, but that soon morphed into a mission to take control of Florida. And with a few military victories and the executions of two British subjects, the United States was able to parlay this into buying Florida from Spain. Jackson became its first territorial governor.

In 1822, Jackson was nominated for President by the Tennessee legislature, which also elected him to the Senate. But in the election of 1824, Jackson, despite winning the most popular votes AND electoral votes, lost the election. With four candidates running, no one had a majority, and the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams as President. Jackson made Adams his enemy. And if you were an enemy of Andrew Jackson, that was a lifetime job. (Jackson would continually advocate for the direct election of the President. That has not worked so far.)

Adams turned out to be ill-suited for the presidency, and Jackson exacted his revenge with an easy win in 1828. However, the campaign was ugly, with numerous slurs brought up about Rachel Jackson, and her questionable first marriage. Rachel Jackson died of a heart attack in December of 1828. Andrew Jackson never forgave anyone for the slights on her reputation.

Crises hit Jackson almost immediately after his inauguration. Jackson, like most Presidents, removed many Adams supporters from their officers and replaced them with people loyal to him. Jackson referred to this as “rotation in office,” but it soon was dubbed “the spoils system.” While Jackson was not the first, or last, President to use the power of patronage, he became the most closely identified with it.

Jackson also faced a crisis within his own Cabinet. Secretary of War John Eaton, one of his closest friends, had married a woman named Margaret Eaton, who was not from upper crust society in Washington. Her first husband had reportedly killed himself while at sea. She was snubbed by many of the wives of the other Cabinet members along with the wife of Jackson’s Vice President, John Calhoun. Jackson backed Eaton, although by 1831, five members of Jackson’s cabinet had resigned in the fallout.

After this, three major domestic events defined Jackson’s presidency.

First, Jackson, in agreement with Georgia’s government, ordered the removal of Cherokees from that state to western territories, such as Arkansas. The removal was not voluntary, and the Seminoles would be subject to attacks by settlers along the way. Approximately 8,000 Cherokees died on the journey west (called “The Trail of Tears”). However, Jackson stood by his decision. He believed that it was better for all parties if Native Americans lived in Federal territories where they would receive more protection than they did from local authorities. This turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes of the Jackson administration.

Jackson’s second major crisis was the Rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson greatly distrusted banks and paper money. Jackson especially disliked the way the Bank of the United States was run. He felt that it’s director, Nicholas Biddle, was creating an aristocracy who made money from the hard work of people who needed to use the bank to buy land or get credit.

In 1831, Henry Clay pushed forth a bill that would extend the bank’s charter for another 20 years. This was done four years before the charter expired for two reasons: 1) to remove the issue from the upcoming election, and 2) to make the bank an issue in the upcoming election. Clay assumed that the Bank, which was well run, would get its recharter.

However, Jackson shocked the political establishment by vetoing the bill rechartering the bank. His veto message used populist themes to explain why he took his action. Jackson felt that the bank was unconstitutional (although the Supreme Court had already said otherwise), and in his duty as President, he couldn’t allow it to continue. He did not want the Federal Government to sponsor an institution that benefited a group of wealthy Easterners.

The third crisis Jackson faced was the Nullification Crisis. The state of South Carolina believed that tariffs were too high (one bill was named “The Tariff of Abominations”), preventing residents from buying cheap goods from Europe, instead having to rely on more expensive goods made in other parts of the country. Also, South Carolina felt that too much of the revenue from tariffs was being used to build canals and roads in the North and East.

South Carolina believed that that the Constitution was a contract among the states. And if a state believed that a law was too onerous to uphold, the state had the right to declare it null and void within its borders. Or, if it was really offended, the state could secede all together.

Jackson was not going to allow one state to opt out of the country that he believed in so much. He used a two pronged approach to the crisis. In a message to Congress, Jackson offered to work with South Carolina to adjust the tariffs to more appropriate levels. And in another bill, Jackson authorized the use of force to collect tariffs. Jackson began sending ships out to sea to meet ships and collect tariffs there before the ships would dock in Charleston.

South Carolina eventually backed down as a compromise tariff was reached. But the crisis would be revisited again,  with more deadly implications over the issue of slavery in 1860.

Jackson campaigned for reelection in 1832 using the Bank Veto as something of a campaign platform. His opponent, Clay, tried to use the Veto against Jackson. But the people loved Jackson, and he was easily reelected. Jackson also had a new Vice President in Martin Van Buren.

Jackson’s second term saw him put the finishing touches on the Bank of the United States. Not content to wait for the charter to expire, Jackson ordered all Government deposits to be withdrawn from the Bank of the United States and redistributed to a series of state chartered banks. Biddle reacted to this by greatly curtailing credit, creating a brief financial panic. However, Jackson won the battle of popular opinion over Biddle. Credit markets loosened up, and the economy grew.

Wilentz spends a chapter examining Jackson’s views on slavery. And Jackson doesn’t come out well here. Jackson was a slave owner and profited greatly from having slaves. But during Jackson’s Presidency, the nascent Abolitionist movement was starting to grow from fringe level into a major political force. Abolitionists attempted to send through the mail to nearly everyone in South Carolina, political materials advocating their side. Jackson had to figure out which was more important: maintaing the Federal Government’s duty to deliver the mail, or to keep South Carolina happy by not delivering “objectionable materials.” Jackson ultimately sided with South Carolina on this point, allowing local postal officials to skirt any obligation to deliver all the mail.

At the end of Jackson’s administration, Texas split away from Mexico. Texas had been settled by many slaveholding Americans. Jackson saw Texas as a natural part of the United States, believing that John Quincy Adams had negotiated it away in 1819. However, Jackson was not able to negotiate any method to annex Texas. That would wait until 1845.

What stands out the most for Wilentz in his view of Jackson is that Jackson was a champion of democracy. He firmly believed in democratic ideals. Wilentz acknowledges that, according to today’s standards, Jackson can look like a monster. However, Jackson was a product of his time. And in many ways, Jackson was ahead of his time in his reliance on the people to make the right choices in a democracy. Jackson believed that the President had a job to lead the country. And leadership was not something he was afraid of.

Does America need another Andrew Jackson? Probably not. Did America need Andrew Jackson in its past? It’s hard to envision the country otherwise.

Other stuff: Jackson’s home, the Hermitage, is run by a private foundation. Jackson and his wife Rachel are buried there. It is about 12 miles east of Downtown Nashville. It is not this Hermitage.

Jackson’s portrait has appeared on the $20 bill since 1928 (the year of a major redesign of American currency). He replaced Grover Cleveland. Of course, in 1928, not many people had $20 bills.

Andrew Jackson was the first President to be subject to an assassination attempt. A man named Richard Lawrence tried to shoot Jackson with a pistol at close range in January of 1835. Both of Lawrence’s pistols failed to fire and Jackson subdued Lawrence by hitting him with his walking stick. Lawrence was sent to an asylum for the mentally ill.

Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer

Don’t Panic!

President #8, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #31

martinvanburenMartin Van Buren is not a president who inspires people in this day and age. He exists mainly as a name to remember when you’re trying to remember the names of all the presidents. Fortunately, Ted Widmer, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, penned a biography of the first president born after the Declaration of Independence, the first president who wasn’t at least part English (there have been only two and Barack Obama isn’t the other one), and the first president who grew up speaking a language other than English.

Born into a lower middle class Dutch family in the upstate New York city of Kinderhook, Martin Van Buren was the first president to get elected primarily because he had the political smarts to pull it off. Van Buren was neither a military hero nor was he a Founding Father (or son of one). He was a man who became quite taken with the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson as a young man and then was able to work his way up to the highest office in the land.

And almost as soon as he took office, the United States economy plunged into a financial panic that had not been seen since the Constitution had been adopted. And master politician Martin Van Buren was not a master economist and after four years, Van Buren was bounced out of office in the 1840 “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign of the Whig Party that got the American people used to buying into catchy slogans in an effort to make them feel better about themselves.

Widmer has a sense of humor that appealed to me. Here is a passage from a chapter where the author discusses Van Buren’s attempts to organize opposition to then incumbent president John Quincy Adams.

None of this activity was lost on President Adams, who could not have looked upon Van Buren’s activity with more disfavor if he was an emissary from the Vatican seeking to convert Yankee maids to Papism and then sell them into white slavery.

Van Buren’s accomplishments are usually presented in terms that a reader could compare to the political realities of today. The problems may have been different (well, except for the major financial disaster, that seems to be something we can relate to now), but there are parallels to today. When Van Buren’s opponents couldn’t find an actual solution to a problem that Van Buren couldn’t solve either, the alternative became to attack the person. Van Buren had done the same thing when he was attacking Adams as president and Van Buren ended up with a taste of his own medicine.

But just what did Van Buren do as president? If you’re looking for a major accomplishment that Van Buren had while he was president, you aren’t going to find one. But before Van Buren moved into the White House, he had begun the development of the Democratic Party as the first truly organized political party in the United States. But Van Buren did little to end or even ameliorate the financial panic.

Much of what we think of when we think of a political party were started by Van Buren. He established state party committees and tried to keep all parts of the country informed as to what the Democratic “message” was.  This was all at a time when communications in the United States were revolutionized by the development of the telegraph and railroads. Politics was no longer local, it was national. (Well, until the 1980s, when Tip O’Neill told us that all politics was local.)

Van Buren’s became a confidante of Andrew Jackson after the election of 1824. Although Van Buren had backed William Crawford in 1824, he saw that Jackson was the man who was going to go places. Van Buren advised Jackson to stay out of the political arena and, in the words of Widmer, “to look presidential.” Van Buren’s strategy paid off and in 1828, Jackson won the presidency over Adams, who had to ruin his image by actually trying to govern (which he did poorly.)

At the same time, Van Buren was elected governor of New York. However, he held that office for only a few months as Jackson appointed Van Buren Secretary of State. Later, Jackson appointed Van Buren to serve as U.S. minister to Britain (this was not considered a demotion at the time), but the Senate rejected Van Buren’s nomination with Vice President John Calhoun casting the tiebreaking vote against Van Buren. Calhoun would later resign the Vice Presidency before Jackson could not invite him back and Van Buren took over the #2 job in 1833. Calhoun had also been John Quincy Adams’ Vice President and was getting tired of the job. And Calhoun was just an all around miserable person.

Following after one of America’s most popular presidents in Jackson, Van Buren had little trouble defeating a combination of Whig Party candidates in 1836 (William Henry Harrison finished second). However, Van Buren’s Vice President, Richard Johnson of Kentucky, had to be elected by the Senate as he failed to get a majority of the electoral votes as many Southerners objected to the fact that Johnson had been married to one of his former slaves.

But the economic hard times defined Van Buren’s four years in office. He was not equipped for the job and likely wasn’t helped that Jackson had shut down the Bank of the United States, the national bank that had provided some sense of semblance of rationality while speculators were driving up land prices and then going broke. Interestingly at this time, one of the economy’s problems was that the Federal Government was running a SURPLUS and was returning money to the states. It would be even more interesting if I knew why running a surplus was bad. But I’m not an economist, just a guy with a blog. Economists today still don’t agree on why there was a panic in 1837, but banks refusing to lend people money was a start.

Widmer includes this description of the Panic of 1837 (as its familiarly called) that was penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Cold April; hard times; men breaking who ought not to break; banks bulled into the bolstering of desperate speculators; all the newspapers a chorus of owls.

While in office, Van Buren had to face the issue of slavery head on and most of the time he tried his best to not make eye contact. Van Buren did refuse to annex the new nation of Texas to the United States because he feared what a large slave-owning state would do to the balance of power in the U.S. And Van Buren has been portrayed as the villain in the Amistad affair, but Widmer attributes this more to Steven Spielberg’s direction of the 1997 film. Nigel Hawthorne portrayed Van Buren in the film. (For more on the Amistad case, read the John Quincy Adams review.)

However, after leaving office, Van Buren had a change of heart about slavery. Widmer can’t point out exactly why except that perhaps Van Buren realized that some things were more important that than trying to keep the South placated as part of a nationa coalition. Van Buren tried for office again in 1844, but lost the nomination to James Polk, who ended up snubbing Van Buren or any of his associates for his administration. In 1848, Van Buren ran again, but the Democrats wouldn’t have him and he ran on a third party ticket called the Free Soil Party, but failed to win any electoral votes, but was enough of a pest to throw the election to Whig candidate Zachary Taylor. Van Buren got to be the Ross Perot of 1848.

Widmer managed to pull off the not so easy task of making the life of a career politician, not known for his soaring oratory or military bravery (Van Buren didn’t go to college or serve in the military), into a living, breathing, relevant figure for our times. Martin Van Buren definitely was not a great president. And he may be forgotten, but he is a part of our nation’s history and he is worth looking into.

Other stuff: Van Buren’s wife, Hannah, died in 1819 and he never remarried, although he supposedly was quite popular with the ladies. Widmer believes though that he never had a sexual relationship with anyone after his wife passed away.

Van Buren’s home, Lindenwald, is now part of the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, New York.

At 5’6″, Van Buren is believed to be the second shortest U.S. president. Only James Madison (5’4″ to 5’5″) was shorter. However, there aren’t any accurate measurements as few presidents have submitted to getting measured as if they were attending the NFL Draft Combine.

After Van Buren was elected President while serving as Vice President, no other sitting Vice President pulled off that feat until George H.W. Bush did in 1988.

Martin Van Buren was also reference in an episode of “Seinfeld.”

The next president up in my list doesn’t yet have a biography published in the American Presidents Series. So I’m going to read a biography from a different publisher. And it will be about 5 times longer (800 or so pages) than the books in this series. So it may take a while to get the next review published. But stay tuned.

John Quincy Adams by Robert V. Remini

All Three Names Please!

President #6, C-SPAN historians ranking #19

jqadamsJohn Quincy Adams had one of the most distinguished careers in service to the United States that any person may have had. However, the four years he was president, from 1825 through 1829, were a series of political missteps compounded by the fact that he was the only president ever to be elected despite not getting the most ELECTORAL votes.

JQA, as he styled himself in correspondence, was the son of the second president, John Adams. He accompanied his father to Europe during the Revolution and learned French and German along the way. At the age of 14, he accompanied the American minister to St. Petersburg, Richard Dana, because French was spoken among diplomats at the time.

When Adams returned home to the U.S., he attended Harvard (however his admission was delayed because it was felt he didn’t speak Greek or Latin well enough) and graduated with honors and set up a law practice.

Adams fell in love with a Massachusetts woman, but neither her family nor Adams’ parents could ever agree on when or if the marriage should take place, and Adams never married the only woman he apparently ever truly loved. Adams eventually married a British woman and started a family, but he never seemed to truly love his wife.

Eventually, Adams was given a diplomatic post in Europe, first in the Netherlands and then later in Russia, and moved up to the post of Secretary of State under President James Monroe in 1817. And according to author Robert V. Remini, one of the foremost authorities on Adams’ era and a biographer of Andrew Jackson, Adams may have been the greatest Secretary of State ever.

Adams acquired Florida from Spain and in the same negotiation managed to get Spain to acknowledge that the Louisiana Territory extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean. There was also a successful treaty signed with the British in 1818 that settled part of what is now the U.S.-Canada border and also helped U.S. commercial interests greatly. And Adams was the man who wrote what would become known as “The Monroe Doctrine,” a cornerstone of American foreign policy that stated that any further attempts by European powers to colonize any country in the Western Hemisphere would be opposed by the United States.

With a pedigree and a list of accomplishments like Adams, it would seem that his elevation to the White House would have been a cinch. But it most certainly wasn’t.

In 1824, American politics was nominally a one-party system as the Federalists had gone the way of the tricorn hat. But this “one party” had numerous factions and little or no formal structure. Four people were nominated for president: Adams, Andrew Jackson (the extremely popular military hero of the War of 1812), William Crawford (the Secretary of the Treasury and the favored candidates of what would be considered the party regulars in Congress), and Henry Clay (who thought he was the best equipped man for the job because he had an ego the size of his home state of Kentucky.)

1824 was the first year that popular vote totals were recorded in a Presidential election. Jackson came out on top with about 152,000 votes and Adams had about 113,000. Jackson won 99 electoral votes, Adams won 84, Crawford won 41, and Clay finished in 37. Under the terms of the Twelfth Amendment, the top three in the Electoral College vote would be eligible for selection by the House.

This put Clay in the position of kingmaker as he could instruct the states that voted for him to vote a particular way. According to Remini, Clay didn’t hesitate to make his choice. Clay didn’t want Crawford to become President because that man had recently had a stroke and was nearly blind and couldn’t talk.  And Clay despised Jackson and didn’t want to see a military man as President. So that left Adams.

But what would Adams do to make it worth while for Clay to support him? It was pretty clear. Adams had to make Clay his Secretary of State. And in doing so, Adams prevailed in the House, winning 13 of the 23 state delegations. And as an added “prize,” Adams pretty much destroyed any chance of accomplishing anything as President because now Jackson and his supporters were, to put it mildly, pissed off.

To make matters worse, in Adams’ first message to Congress (presidents did not directly address Congress at the time, but rather sent over messages to be read), he laid out an ambitious legislative agenda. Adams wanted numerous internal improvements with roads and canals built all over the country. Adams wanted a national university and a national observatory. He wanted to go on the metric system. He wanted to send representatives to a Pan American Congress that was convening in Panama.

Adams ended up getting none of these and was widely ridiculed in the press. It didn’t help that Adams felt it was unseemly for a President to answer any criticism publicly. It also didn’t help that his Secretary of State, Clay, was even more disliked. And the Vice President, John Calhoun, didn’t like Adams.

And to be fair, Adams was hard to love. He didn’t exude a lot of warmth. He was the product of an unhappy childhood. Despite the way HBO had Laura Linney portray Abigail Adams, JQA’s mother, on TV, she was never going to win Mother of the Year. She was a parent, according to Remini’s description of her, who withheld affection and gave out a lot of criticism. JQA didn’t attend his own mother’s funeral and didn’t seem too broken up about it.  And Adams in turn was a bad father and had one son kill himself and another drink himself to death.

The John Quincy Adams Presidency was a four-year long trainwreck and in 1828, Jackson won the rematch easily despite a bitter campaign where Jackson’s people accused Adams of pimping out his own son to the Prussian court and Adams’ people accusing Jackson’s wife of bigamy.

After leaving the White House (Adams, like his father, didn’t stick around for the inauguration of his successor), JQA wanted to retire to Massachusetts, but eventually he was asked to run for a House seat and took his seat in 1831. Adams found his true calling in the House of Representatives.

While serving in Congress, Adams argued against the “gag rule” which prevented any discussion of the abolition of slavery. Adams also would represent the Africans on the Amistad, who had taken over the ship that was taking them to America and slavery and tried to return home. Adams won that case and the Africans were free men. It was a sign of the times though that it took a Supreme Court ruling for human beings to actually be given human rights.

Remini’s book on JQA’s presidency tried to highlight four years of John Quincy Adams’ distinguished career. But Adams’ life was much more than four bad years in the 1820s. And Remini reminds us of that. Some great men aren’t necessarily great presidents. And even Adams knew this about himself.

Other stuff: If you want to visit parts of John Quincy Adams’ history, you should visit the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. Adams had a granchild born in the White House, the first child ever to be born there. He passed away in the U.S. Capitol.

James Madison by Garry Wills

Invade Canada!

President #4, C-SPAN historians rank #20

jamesmadisonJames Madison was definitely a president with an impressive resume. For starters, Madison wrote much of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He was a passionate defender of religious freedom. He served in the House of Representatives. He was Secretary of State for eight years under Thomas Jefferson. But his eight years spent as President are almost entirely remembered for the War of 1812 (which only lasted a little over two years), an event that had two effects: 1) it made Madison appear to act in a way that was very much the opposite of what he believed in for most of his life and 2) created dread in the minds of American schoolchildren who feared that their history teacher would make them write about the War of 1812 on a test and they’d have to figure out just what the whole war was about.

Garry Wills, who has profiled historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Saint Augustine, tries to make sense of the presidency of one of the Founding Fathers who seemingly succeeded at everything in life, except being president. But Wills makes the case that Madison’s eight years as president were not as bad as some historians made them out to be. Wills doesn’t believe that Madison was the greatest president, but he defends Madison for not giving up his most cherished principles, embodied in the Bill of Rights, in a time of war. Madison’s biggest problem in Wills’ eyes was that he made poor choices for his Cabinet and tried to fight a war without much of a standing army.

Madison’s contributions to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are easily his greatest achievements. And it would have been hard for Madison to accomplish anything greater during his term as a president, especially in light of the world he was entering. And just what was that world?

When Madison was inaugurated in March of 1809, the United States was still suffering the effects from an embargo on trade that President Thomas Jefferson had pushed for, and Madison, his Secretary of State, fully supported. The embargo on trade was supposed to put economic pressure on both the British and French from attacking American ships who tried to trade with either country. The United States wanted to be a neutral. But in the Napoleonic Wars, there were just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line. Wait, that’s a Bruce Springsteen song. Sorry…

Where were we? Oh yes, the Napoleonic wars and the U.S. getting caught up in them. Madison hoped that economic pressure would force either the British or French to give in and allow the U.S. neutral trading rights, but that was not to be. And by 1812, Madison, tiring of British attacks on U.S. merchant ships by press gangs trying to get back sailors who had left the British Navy, asked Congress to declare war on Britain. The U.S. had an equal beef with France, but the French had slightly better P.R. among Americans. Madison, who always thought economic sanctions could fix any problem, had aligned himself with the “War Hawks” in Congress, led by Speaker Henry Clay.

With a war started over maritime matters, the American response, logically, was to attack Canada. Why? Well, why not? It’s Canada. How hard could it be?

It turned out to be rather difficult. It was especially difficult because Madison entrusted the command of the troops to Revolutionary War heroes (who were old and mostly incomptetent), political appointees (who were mostly incompetent, but not necessarily old), or people who were crooks (such as General Robert Wilkinson who had taken bribes from Spain and thought about overthrowing the government in a plot with Aaron Burr and once decided to quarter most of his soldiers near a swamp in New Orleans in the summertime and half of them got malaria and died.). The U.S. takeover of Canada never happened, although U.S. troops did burn the city of York (now Toronto) to the ground. This served only to make the British angry and they responded in kind by burning down large parts of Washington, such as the White House.

The U.S. Navy had a few big victories, but the biggest one served to give them control of Lake Erie, which seemed like a lot of effort to just keep the future site of Cleveland safe. And the U.S. had enough victories on the battlefield to keep the British at bay. The biggest U.S. victory came in New Orleans in 1815, a few days after a peace treaty was signed in Ghent, Belgium. The battle went something like this.

Wills mentions how the U.S. had little intelligence of British troop movements during the war. The primary source of information came from reading newspapers. The Secretary of State, James Monroe, decided to do some scouting on his own since few people in the Army were willing to do so. Monroe was also told to go take command of the troops in the Northwest that had failed to take over Canada, although Monroe did not take official command.

Many of these problems that Madison encountered were Jefferson’s fault, in the eyes of Wills. Jefferson shunned a large navy, preferring a system of small gunboats, which proved to be almost, but not quite entirely, useless in defending the coastline. And Jefferson feared a standing army. However, a standing army can come in handy when you’re going to war against a very, very, very, very big and rich country.

However, Madison, unlike other presidents during wartime (including revered figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt) did not restrict civil liberties. Madison didn’t shut down presses of people who opposed the war. Madison didn’t imprison the members of the Hartford Convention, a group of New England Federalists who were thinking of seceding from the United States (they didn’t, mainly because they realized it was a bad idea and people were making fun of them.) And when Congressional leaders asked Madison to proclaim a National Day of Prayer and Fasting when the war started, Madison declined, figuring that people who wanted to pray “would do so on their own.”

Wills’ history of Madison’s presidency accomplishes something that took this history major his whole life to figure out: just what was the War of 1812 fought for. And now I can drop in references to Macon’s Bill Number Two and force people to use Google to see if I am making sense.

For those interested in the full James Madison experience, you should visit his home, Montpelier, which is in Orange, Virginia. Or perhaps you can just take a look at the Bill of Rights. Madison would probably appreciate that more.

Miscellany: Madison’s first vice president, George Clinton, also ran against him as president and received six electoral votes for president. Clinton was Jefferson’s second vice president. Clinton was one of Madison’s chief political rivals. Clinton died before his term was up.

For his second term, Madison chose Elbridge Gerry as his Vice President. While Gerry agreed with Madison, he died in office too.

Being James Madison’s Vice President was sort of like being a drummer for Spinal Tap.

Housekeeping note: You can reach this site now also by using the URL http://allthepresidentsbooks.com.

Also I’ve gone through my backlog of books I’ve read, so give me a few days to get to a new one.

Furthermore, I’m going to use the tag “Democrats” for presidents who would have been described as “Republican” or “Democratic-Republican” at the time because it’s simpler. And if you don’t know what I’m getting at, you’re probably not interested in reading this blog to begin with.

John Tyler by Gary May

Him too!
10th President. C-Span historians rank: 35

My chaotic journey through the history of the U.S. Presidency begins with a book about the first vice-president to succeed a president who passed away while in office. Gary May, a professor at the University of Delaware, penned this surprisingly sympathetic look at one of America’s lesser presidents.

John Tyler was tacked on to the Whig Party’s ticket in 1840 because he had a recognizable name and could help the party out in Virginia, which was still a big player in national politics at the time, as it had 23 electoral votes. The two problems with this were: 1) Tyler had until very recently before the election been a Democrat and had only switched over to the Whigs more or less out of spite and 2) the Whigs, with William Henry (“I died in 30 days”) Harrison leading the way, won the election by a large margin (234-60) and still lost Viriginia.

Harrison, who was 68 when elected and not in the best of health to begin with, died a month into office. So it was time for Tyler to take over. Tyler hadn’t even been living in Washington since the inauguration as he really had nothing to do. But he comes back, tells everyone he’s the boss, vetoes Henry Clay’s favorite legislation, the chartering of a national bank, and almost his entire Cabinet resigns on the spot.

It didn’t get much better for Tyler. He couldn’t get any legislation passed. He couldn’t appoint judges. His wife died. And in 1844, while he and his Cabinet were cruising the Potomac on the U.S.S. Princeton, a cannon exploded on deck and killed his Secretary of State, Secretary of Navy, and dozens more. The gory details are here. For a traumatic event that wiped out many high ranking members of government, very few people know about it. Tyler was below deck at the time and unhurt by the explosion. (For those not scoring at home, Senate President Pro Tem Willie Mangum would have been next in line to become president at the time.)

But Tyler eventually remarried while in office and ended up fathering 14 15!! children in all. And he still has grandchildren (or least a grandchild) alive. Think of when your grandfathers were born. John Tyler was born in 1790!

Tyler’s biggest accomplishment was the annexation of Texas. Tyler had made it his quest to get at least that done before he left office. Thanks to the lobbying of his second wife, Julia, who by all reports was one of the best looking women in Washington, but she was also not afraid to throw herself into the political arena to help her husband.

Since both parties didn’t like Tyler, he didn’t run for reelection. James Polk, the Democratic candidate in 1844 and the eventual victor, campaigned on adding Texas to the United States. But Tyler managed to get Texas added to the U.S. on his watch when he signed a Congressional resolution the day before he left office annexing Texas. Perhaps Tyler knew that there was a city there named after him.

When Tyler passed away in 1862, he was about to start serving in the Confederate Congress. So his passing was not exactly mourned throughout the land.

However, Tyler should be remembered mostly for setting the precedent that when the President dies, the Vice-President becomes president. Some (read “Henry Clay”) wanted to call Tyler the “Acting President.” But Tyler called himself “President” and insisted that he had all the rights and privileges of the office. This principle didn’t become a formal part of the Constitution until 1967.

May wants us to believe that Tyler, a man who financed his first trip to Washington to serve in Congress by auctioning off his most beloved household slave, is not as bad as most historians view him. He believes that Tyler worked as well as he could in such an impossible situation. It’s not easy to govern when you have no constituency. But Tyler didn’t quit. You can’t blame a President for trying I guess.

(Postscript: From the introduction to this book, I have the impression that William Henry Harrison will get his own book, which will be an interesting task. If you’re ever in the Charles City, Virginia area, you can visit Tyler’s home, called Sherwood Forest.)