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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James Buchanan by Jean Baker

President #15, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #42

You know my successor and I average a ranking of 21.5!

jamesbuchananAs I careen through the roster of American presidents, I knew that eventually I would hit bottom. There had to be someone whom historians considered to be THE WORST President ever. Historian Jean H. Baker of Goucher College lays out the case for why James Buchanan is as bad as they get. And it’s not a pretty sight.

Baker not only believes that Buchanan was just guilty of violating his oath of office by failing to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. She also believes that he may have committed treason against the United States.

Why did America’s only bachelor (and the only Pennsylvanian) President end up as such a colossal failure? Was Buchanan incompetent? Was he in over his head? According to Baker, Buchanan’s main sin was that he was so pro-Southern and pro-slavery that he would do whatever it took to appease that section of the Democratic Party. Buchanan said he believed in the Constitution; but, he only believed in his very narrow interpretation of it. Buchanan would rather have been right, than to have done right.

But, even more than Buchanan’s belief that he was right, his biggest problem, according to Baker, was his pro-Southern attitude. Buchanan may have grown up in Pennsylvania, but his closest friends and advisers were Southerners. He also believed that slavery was an institution that the Federal government had a duty to protect. His ideas on how to patch up the deepening sectional divide over the expansion of slavery served only to make matters worse.

Baker explains in an introduction that not many people want to examine the life of Buchanan. People want to believe that Presidents are heroes. And almost everyone thinks that Buchanan’s successor was the greatest President ever. But, Baker explains, there is value in learning about how someone like Buchanan, who had one of the most distinguished resumes of any person elected President, could be so bad.

Buchanan was born into a well-to-do family in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. His father sent him to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Buchanan wasn’t a great student, and was briefly expelled from school for bad behavior, but managed to graduate. He never spoke well of his alma mater. (The school website’s history section doesn’t mention that Buchanan attended. Baker did speak about this book at Dickinson.)

Upon graduation, Buchanan moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to study law as an apprentice. Buchanan felt that working in Pennsylvania’s capital would be beneficial to his practice. He passed the bar in 1812, the same year Pennsylvania moved its capital to Harrisburg. (I once got lost in Harrisburg after pulling off the highway too early. Don’t ever do that. Take my word for it. No one needs to see that much of Harrisburg.)

However, Buchanan kept his practice in Lancaster, which still was one of Pennsylvania’s largest cities. Apparently, he did a good job because he earned a sizable income and was pulling in what would be a six figure income today by the time he was 30.

Buchanan also became involved with a woman name Ann Coleman. They became engaged in 1819.  But, the marriage was called off. No one knows for sure why it happened. Baker believes that Coleman tired of Buchanan’s lack of affection for her. Also, Buchanan was seen in the company of another woman while they were engaged. Coleman died soon after (of an unknown cause, although she was extremely distraught) the engagement ended. Coleman’s father refused to let Buchanan come to his daughter’s funeral. Buchanan would never marry.

The bachelorhood of Buchanan has often been shown as “proof” that Buchanan was homosexual. Baker doesn’t believe there is any proof of it. First of all, Baker points out, no one in Buchanan’s time would have identified himself as homosexual. There were just men who sometimes had sex with other men. Denial was prevalent. Buchanan likely was involved in criminal cases as a lawyer where men were accused of homosexual acts that were deemed illegal at that time.

Also, Buchanan may have just been not interested in sex. Baker tells us that Buchanan never had to shave in his life. He couldn’t grow facial hair. She posits the idea that Buchanan may have suffered from a hormonal imbalance that left him generally uninterested in sex with anyone.

In his writings, Buchanan would mention his desire to get married, but only for career reasons. Buchanan liked the idea of a woman who would cook for him and take care of him, but he certainly didn’t want to have to be affectionate or caring or chatty.

According to Baker, Buchanan’s lack of a spouse was an important part of his Presidency. Because Buchanan had no wife and family to rely on for support, his closest friends became other government officials. And the people who tended to be the friendliest toward Buchanan were Southerners. Buchanan would, for a time, share a room (and a bed) with Alabama Senator William King. The two men were very close and Andrew Jackson dubbed them “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.” (Buchanan was actually a big supporter of Jackson.)

Despite his personal setbacks, Buchanan’s political career moved along well. He worked his way through Pennsylvania state government and on to the House of Representatives, and later a position as Minister to Russia.

Upon his return from Russia, Buchanan set his sights on the Senate. He lost in his first try, but the Pennsylvania Legislature elected him in 1834 to fill a vacant term. Buchanan worked his way up to the Chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee.

In 1844, Buchanan felt that his time had come to run for President. However, James Polk took the nomination and won the election. Polk showed his appreciation for Buchanan’s work in the campaign by naming him Secretary of State. However, Buchanan thought that he might want to serve on the Supreme Court. He vacillated between the two. Polk decided to leave Buchanan at State, tiring of Buchanan’s indecision.

Buchanan served as Secretary of State during the Mexican War, an early demonstration of America’s desire to acquire territory by any means necessary. The new territory added by the Mexican War would almost prove to be the nation’s undoing as heated debates sprung up over whether the new territory would be free or slave. Buchanan sided with pro-slavery forces; but, the matter was not decided before Polk’s term had ended.

Denied the nomination again in 1848 by the Democrats (Lewis Cass was the nominee and he lost to Whig party candidate Zachary Taylor), Buchanan found himself without a position in government. He spent time back at his Lancaster estate, Wheatland, where he kept an eye on the political scene with hope for a run for the White House again in 1852.

Buchanan was certain that 1852 was his year. But, the Democratic Convention was deadlocked for 49 ballots until Franklin Pierce, a man who would later look great compared to Buchanan, won the nomination and the election. Buchanan was given a post as Minister to the Court of St. James in London.

While it may have seemed like political exile for Buchanan to serve in London, it actually worked out to his benefit. The debate over the expansion of slavery into the new territories became even more heated. The flash point was in Kansas, which was believed to be the last part of the country that could operate with a slave-based economy. Congress, behind the efforts of Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This allowed the residents of each of those territories to decide for themselves whether or not slavery would be allowed in their borders.

Instead of this turning out to be a peaceful triumph of popular democracy, “popular sovereignity” (as Douglas’ plan was called) led to pro- and antislavery forces flooding into Kansas. Eventually, two governments were established in Kansas. Deciding which one was legitimate proved to be Pierce’s undoing. Pierce backed the proslavery Lecompton government, and disavowed the antislavery Topeka government. (The relative locations of the two Kansas cities can be seen at this link.) By the end of Pierce’s term, the matter still had not been settled. Pierce was denied renomination by the Democrats because of the uproar.

So, who did the Democrats turn to in 1856? They turned to a man who hadn’t been in the country while the debate over Kansas inflamed the people. Buchanan would finally get his chance to run for President.

Buchanan had spent his time concentrating on European affairs; although, he did participate in crafting a memorandum along with two other Southern diplomats serving in Europe called the Ostend Manifesto. This manifesto stated that the United States should use whatever means necessary to acquire Cuba from Spain. Buchanan saw Cuba as crucial to American interests, as well as a place where a slave-based economy could be put in place. The Ostend Manifesto was widely denounced in the North by antislavery forces. These antislavery politicians had formed a new political party: the Republicans.

The Republicans first nominee for President was John C. Fremont, an explorer and military hero (of sorts) from the Mexican War. Although born in Georgia and married to the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Fremont had actually served in the Senate representing California.

In a modern day campaign, the 65-year old Buchanan, a bachelor as well as a man who had to always tilt his head at an angle because his eyes didn’t always point the same direction along with being farsighted and nearsighted in different eyes, would have been no match against the dashing Fremont.  But, this was 1856. Few people saw the candidates in person. And the South dominated the Electoral College. Buchanan won election fairly easily. It also helped that the Republicans weren’t even on the ballot in Southern states.

James Buchanan now had won the job that he had sought since 1844. He filled his Cabinet with Southerners, with the exception of Lewis Cass, who was the Secretary of State. Buchanan didn’t have much use for Cass and intended to carry out foreign policy on his own, with the goal of acquiring Cuba.

In his inaugural address, Buchanan spoke of how the issue of the expansion of slavery in the territories would soon be decided by the Supreme Court. The famous case of Dred Scott v. Sandford would be decided soon after the inauguration. Scott, a slave, was suing for his freedom in Federal court on the basis that he gained his freedom when his owner moved with him to a free territory.

Buchanan had made inquiries before the March 4 inaugural to determine the status of the case. One of the justices, John Catron of Tennessee told Buchanan that the Court would rule against Scott, but only on narrow grounds.

Catron suggested that Buchanan speak with the court’s Pennsylvanian justice, Robert Grier, to get him to go along with Chief Justice Roger Taney’s broader opinion. Buchanan did so, and Taney handed down an opinion, with Grier’s concurrence, that stated that Congress had no power whatsoever to regulate slavery in the territories.

Furthermore, Taney ruled that a slaveowner held on to his slaves as his personal property in perpetuity. It was not a right that could be infringed upon by Congress. Buchanan thought that the decision settled the matter, which was naive. The Dred Scott decision only served to draw more people over to the antislavery side. Increasingly, Northerners believed that the Federal government was nothing but a tool for Southern slave owners.

More bad news came for Buchanan in the form of a financial panic. The Panic of 1857 hit the United States soon after Buchanan took office. There had been much land speculation in the West in the years prior to 1857. That market collapsed and set off a financial downturn. Buchanan, in his message to Congress about the Panic, stated that the Federal government was not empowered to give individuals any relief. Buchanan just waited for the problem to fix itself. It didn’t bother Buchanan much that Northern states were more affected by the Panic than Southern states.

But, Buchanan had more ways to screw up. And with the Kansas situation, Buchanan displayed his inability to lead in many different ways.

The problem of the two competing governments in Kansas had not been resolved when Buchanan took office. Buchanan decided to accept the proslavery Lecompton government as the legitimate one in the territory, even though it represented a minority of the residents. The Lecompton government submitted a proposed constitution to Congress. If Congress approved it, statehood would follow.

The Senate, with enough pro-slavery Southerners in office, approved the constitution. But, the House would be a different matter. The population of the free states greatly outnumbered the slave states. (Baker says it was about 80% to 20%; although, Buchanan insisted in public that it was closer to 50-50.)

Buchanan undertook an aggressive lobbying effort of House members to get them to vote in favor of the Lecompton pact. Baker writes of how Buchanan promised to use his patronage power to reward compliant House members. There was even talk that some members of the House were bribed (through intermediaries) either with money or prostitutes.

Despite Buchanan’s efforts, the House voted down the Lecompton constitution. But, Buchanan would not give up. He suggested a new bill that would have granted Kansas immediate statehood (instead of waiting to reach the recommended minimum population of 93,000) if it adopted the Lecompton constitution. Congress passed the bill, but the voters of Kansas (all of them this time as there had been earlier disputed elections), voted to not accept the pro-slavery constitution. It was rejected by a margin of 11,000 to 1,800.

In the wake of this political fiasco, the Republicans took control of Congress in the 1858 elections. An investigation was started to examine Buchanan’s actions during the Kansas constitution votes. Buchanan refused to cooperate with the investigation. He believed that Congress had no right to investigate any wrongdoing by him. (If Congress had kept looking, evidence that Buchanan’s Secretary of War received kickbacks from contractors would have turned up also.)

Buchanan had promised to serve only one term. The Democrats were happy to be rid of him. However, the Democrats split into two over the slavery issue, nominating two candidates: Stephen Douglas (whom Buchanan hated) and John Breckinridge (whom Buchanan disliked also and he was the Vice President.) John Bell of Tennessee ran as the candidate of the Constitutional Union Party, a nativist faction. And, there was a fourth candidate: a Republican from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln won easily despite not appearing on the ballot in any Southern state.

Faced with the prospect of an antislavery President, the state of South Carolina held a special convention and voted to secede from the United States. During the final four months of Buchanan’s administration, Buchanan showed himself to be unable to deal with the problem of secession.

Buchanan believed that: 1) no state had the right to secede and 2) the Federal government had no authority to force a state to stay in the Union. So Buchanan did very little to stop the secession movement, which soon spread to other states.

Baker, and other historians of this time period, believed that Buchanan, at least, could have tried to politically isolate the more radical secessionists. This could have isolated the problem to South Carolina or a few neighboring states. But, left unchecked, almost the entire South had seceded by the time Lincoln was inaugurated. And, the Confederate States of America had become organized.

Buchanan compounded the problems by having so many Southerners in his administration. This gave the Confederate states intimate knowledge of the strengths of the U.S. Army, as well as Federal properties throughout the South. Baker goes as far as to accuse Buchanan of treason in the amount of assistance he gave to the Confederacy.

Eventually, Buchanan would take a stand at an Army fort in Charleston called Fort Sumter. The state of South Carolina wanted the fort surrendered. Buchanan could not accept “surrendering” a Federal facility to a state. This didn’t prevent Buchanan from entering into negotiations with South Carolina officials about the fort, granting the secessionists an air of legitimacy.

In the final two months of his Presidency, Buchanan’s Southern cabinet members resigned. Northerners were appointed to take their place. Buchanan was starting to stay up late hours and asking Cabinet members to sleep over at the White House to keep him company.

Buchanan decided that he would try to send supplies to Fort Sumter to help defend it. However, the supply ship was never able to get to the fort and offload its cargo. Eventually, Fort Sumter’s supplies would run out, but that would be after March 4, 1861. That would be Abraham Lincoln’s problem.

Of all the presidential biographies I’ve read so far, this is the first one where the author had absolutely no regard for the subject. Jean Baker found nothing redeeming in Buchanan’s life. Nevertheless, the book is worth reading, if only to see just what Lincoln had to follow. No President ever took office in more trying circumstances than Lincoln. It’s quite possible that James Buchanan would be second in that category. But, only one of them succeeded at his job.

Other stuff: James Buchanan’s estate, Wheatland, is in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and is operated by the James Buchanan Foundation. The bibliography of suggested readings about Buchanan on the estate’s website includes Baker’s book.

James Buchanan’s birthplace is a Pennsylvania state park called, Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park. It is near Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. Or Fort Loudon. Or Cowan’s Gap. Or Mercersburg. Here’s a map.

There is also a memorial to James Buchanan in Meridian Hill Park (part of Rock Creek Park) in Washington, DC.

Buchanan’s Vice President, John C. Breckinridge, was just 36 years old when inaugurated. He remains the youngest Vice President ever. Breckenridge was the SECOND Vice President to be indicted for treason (the other being Aaron Burr). Breckenridge, who served in the Confederate government, was not tried.

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George Washington by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn

President #1, C-SPAN historians ranking #2

You Never Forget Your First Time

georgewashingtonThe face of George Washington is well known to Americans. He stares at us on dollar bills. His profile is on the quarter. His portrait used to be a fixture in school classrooms. The capital city of the nation is named for him.

And, just like all of us, George Washington was just one person. One person, full of the typical needs and wants, features and defects, highs and lows, just like anyone else. He was the first true hero of the United States of America. But, why him? What made George Washington, Virginia plantation owner, into GEORGE WASHINGTON, American icon?

Historians James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn, both of Williams College, try to cut through the mystique that often clouds our judgment of George Washington. Their book is not revisionist by any means. But, it is a way for people to get a better grasp on just who the first President of the United State truly was.

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732; although, at the time, he thought his birthday was February 11. The British had not yet adopted the Gregorian calendar, so they were 11 days behind. (This would be the case until 1752.  Although, it would be fun if we celebrated Washington’s birthday one day before Lincoln’s.)

Washington didn’t attend any university; but, he did receive training in surveying. He also received a commission to serve in the Virginia militia. The two jobs would end up setting Washington on his path to fame.

One of Washington’s first major jobs as a surveyor was to map the parts of Virginia near the Ohio border in 1753. This put Washington into close contact with the French, who controlled that part of North America.

In 1754, France and Britain went to war in North America over the control of the territory of what was then called “The Northwest.” Washington served alongside British generals during this conflict, known as the French and Indian War in North America and the Seven Years War in Europe. (The war lasted nine years in North America, so it needed a different name.)

Washington was attached to British General Edward Braddock, who led his troops into an ambush at the Battle of the Monongahela. Braddock was killed; but, Washington was able to rally the remaining troops. For his efforts, Washington was sent to accompany General John Forbes in an attempt to capture Fort Duquesne.

There was no battle at Fort Duquesne, though. The French abandoned the fort in the face of the overwhelming size of the British forces. Fort Duquesne became Fort Pitt, and later Pittsburgh. Forbes ended up with a baseball stadium in Pittsburgh named after him.

For all of his service, Washington hoped that the British Army would give him a commission. But, no commission would be awarded. Washington took this as a tremendous slight. Washington was keenly aware of the importance of titles and status. He realized that the British Army would never consider a colonial like him worthy of honor.

Washington did receive a generous grant of property for his service, and he was able to parlay that into great personal wealth. And with this wealth, Washington did become one of the most famous and most important people in Virginia. Washington would serve in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Although not as radical as other members of that body, such as Patrick Henry, Washington did join others in calling for a boycott of imported goods from Britain.

When the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1774, Washington was part of Virginia’s delegation. Washington dressed in his military uniform for all the meetings. And when the American Revolution began the following year, the Congress decided to appoint Washington as the head of the Continental Army. Presumably, this was because he already had a uniform.

Washington agreed to serve without pay, asking only to be reimbursed for expenses. During the Revolution, Washington became, in the words of Burns and Dunn, a transactional leader. Washington had to take care of forming an army, keeping it equipped and fed, making sure people all over the colonies (soon to be states) were happy. It was almost a triumph of management, more than military expertise.

After eight long years, Washington and the Americans won their independence from Britain in 1783 (although hostilities had ended in 1781 after the Battle of Yorktown.) Washington addressed his officers in what was known as his Farewell Address. It would turn out that Washington’s public life was far from over.

The United States, under the terms of the Articles of Confederation, was almost ungovernable. The Congress had very little authority. States tried levying tariffs on goods imported from other states.

Meanwhile, in Western Massachusetts, a Revolutionary War veteran named Daniel Shays led a popular uprising against the government of Massachusetts. Shays’ wanted the state to stop property seizures by creditors against farmers. Although the violence was relatively muted, the concept behind Shays’ Rebellion stirred Washington to take action to change the American government.

The action turned out to the Constitutional Convention. Washington did not directly call for it, but encouraged others to do so. And Washington also welcomed an invitation to participate in it. And Washington had little trouble in accepting the job as the president of the convention.

Washington’s job at the Constitutional Convention was not to come up with new ideas. The heavy lifting, from an intellectual standpoint, was left to people such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. But, it was Washington’s air of authority (he wore his military uniform during much of the convention to help with this) that kept the delegates in line.

After the Constitution was ratified, there was little doubt who would be the man chosen to be the first President. It had to be Washington. He won every electoral vote in 1789.

Washington had one of the most difficult jobs as President because nobody knew just what the President was supposed to do.  Washington had no example to go by. He had to find out how to make it all work. And he had to do it right away.

During the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, many thought that Congress would end up as the most powerful branch of government. But, Washington was able to shape the office of President into a more powerful force.

Burns and Dunn point out two main ways Washington accomplished this. First, Washington, thanks to the efforts of Hamilton, made the President a proactive force in making legislation. Washington did not want to sit back to wait for Congress to propose action. Most notably, Hamilton sent to Congress plans to consolidate state debts into one national debt, as well as a plan to set up a national bank. Washington fully supported these policies.

The second area where Washington asserted the authority of the President was in foreign affairs. After Washington negotiated a treaty with several Indian tribes early in his Presidency, he went to the Senate to discuss the treaty with its members. But, the initial meeting was a disaster as the senators were not prepared to ask questions and Washington was asked to come back later. Washington had no desire to ever repeat that experience. Since then, all presidents have negotiated treaties and then just presented the completed document for the Senate to vote on. Washington also knew that since the President had the right to receive and appoint ministers and ambassadors, the President had the right to recognize nations.

Washington relied heavily on Hamilton and Jefferson for advice and counsel. The two men were given a great deal of latitude to make decisions. But, it was Hamilton who ended up being Washington’s favorite adviser.

Hamilton, who during the Constitutional Convention proposed an executive who would be elected for life, saw great promise in the United States. Hamilton felt that a strong Chief Executive was needed for this. Washington was of the same mind. The favoritism that Washington gave to Hamilton would ultimately to the rise of the two-party system in the United States.

Burns and Dunn point to a 1791 article anonymously written by Madison as the beginning of factionalism in U.S. government. At this time, Hamilton’s plan for the assumption of state debts by the Federal government was before Congress. Madison opposed this because he felt it was outside the scope of Congress’ powers according to the Constitution. Also, Madison felt that the plan was unfair to many Revolutionary War veterans who had sold off their debt certificates to speculators at a fraction of their value. Hamilton’s plan had all of the certificates redeemed at full value.

Although most in government knew that Madison had written the piece, Washington and Hamilton believed that Jefferson was the man behind the whole idea. Jefferson also believed that his views were being ignored by Washington.  So, he resigned his position as Secretary of State in 1793.

In addition to domestic differences, the American political system also split along the lines of France and England. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the United States was left in the position of having to choose whether to honor its Revolutionary War alliance with France, or, try to remain neutral and avoid the wrath of England.

Jefferson and his supporters backed France. Hamilton and his supporters sided with England. Washington opted for a policy of neutrality, knowing that the United States could not afford a war with any European power.

However, the English were not going to allow American ships to trade with their French enemies. The Royal Navy began to seize American merchant ships and choke off trade. Washington opted to try diplomacy to get the English to relent in their attacks.

So, Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to London in 1794 to negotiate a treaty. Jay didn’t have much to bargain with. When he returned, the treaty didn’t have much in the way of concessions from the British. There were no provisions to relieve the pressure on American shipping; but, the British did agree to abandon their forts along the Canadian border.

Jay’s Treaty (as it would be called) was sent to the Senate in 1795, where it was debated in secret. (The Senate conducted almost all of its business behind closed doors in the early years of the Republic.) The Senate voted to ratify the treaty.

It did not take long for details of the treaty to emerge. Public reaction to it was harsh. Mobs burned effigies of Jay throughout the country. (Jay said he could ride up and down the country at night using the lights from his burning effigies.) Hamilton was shouted down at a public meeting trying to defend the treaty. Washington was stunned by the reaction. It was the first time that Washington faced an enormous amount of opposition from the American public. (Washington had been reelected in 1792 unanimously.)

Washington was not sure if he would sign the treaty; but, the decision was made for him in the summer of 1795. At that time, Washington was given a letter written by his Secretary of State, Edmund Randolph, to the French minister to the United States. Randolph seemed to indicate that he felt that the treaty was favorable to England, instead of France. Also, Randolph, somewhat obliquely, solicited a bribe from the French to prevent the treaty from going into force. Washington would not tolerate such disloyalty from his Secretary of State. Randolph was fired, and the treaty was signed by Washington.

Toward the end of his second term in 1796, Washington was a tired man. He complained of vision and hearing problems, and, even worse, memory lapses. He had worked nearly all of his adult life to the creation of a new nation that he was extraordinarily proud of. But, Washington knew it was time to retire from public life for good. Washington’s example of serving two terms would be followed by all presidents until Franklin Roosevelt. (The 22nd Amendment made the two terms limit a requirement instead of an example.) Washington delivered a second Farewell Address.

In this address, Washington bemoaned the partisanship that had taken over American politics. He also famously warned against the United States from entering into any alliances that would force the country to become needlessly involved in European matters. This philosophy would guide American foreign policy for most of the 19th Century.

In 1797, after the inauguration of John Adams as the second President, Washington returned to his home at Mount Vernon. Burns and Dunn portray the retired Washington as one who had come to accept partisanship in government. When Washington was asked to lead the Army by Adams in a possible war against France, Washington insisted that all his officers be Federalists (as the supporters of Adams and Hamilton had become known.) Washington also worried that the United States was in danger of being taken over by the Illuminati. (Someone had traveled through time and given Washington the collected works of Dan Brown.)

Washington passed away on December 14, 1799 at the age of 67. Henry Lee, in a eulogy for Washington, described him as being “first in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” George Washington, the man, was dead. George Washington, the myth, lives on to this day.

Other stuff: Normally, this section is reserved for listing places that are memorials dedicated to the President reviewed. However, I don’t have enough space or energy to list all of the homes, monuments, and memorials dedicated to George Washington.

Washington’s Mount Vernon home is not a national park or monument. It is run by a private foundation called the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Foundation. The Washington Monument is not considered to be a National Monument by the United States Park Service. It is a National Memorial. Construction began on the Washington Monument in 1848; but, it was not completed until 1884. There were problems with raising money for the monument. Also, there was this thing called the Civil War….

For those not wishing to travel to Virginia or the District of Columbia, you can just visit the state of Washington. I hear it’s pretty much the same as our nation’s capital.

Washington had no children with his wife Martha. However, Martha did have two children by her first husband.

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Warren G. Harding by John W. Dean

President #29, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #38

Getting back to normalcy?

hardingAmerica’s 29th President, Warren Gamaliel Harding, has not fared well in the eyes of historians. He is viewed as a weak leader who appointed corrupt friends to high government positions. He was accused of extramarital affairs and fathering illegitimate children. People have speculated that he was murdered by his wife. And not many people even know or cared about what happened during his Administration.

John W. Dean (yes, that John W. Dean, from Watergate times) took on the task of trying to find out who the real Warren Harding was. And why Dean? Is it because he is an expert on presidential scandals? No, it’s actually because Dean grew up in Marion, Ohio, the same town where Harding grew up and lived most of his life. Dean has spent a good amount of his life studying the life of Harding.

Dean has been rather harsh toward other Presidents in books he’s written (namely Richard Nixon and George W. Bush), but in this biography, Dean is almost sympathetic to one of the lesser lights to inhabit the White House. Dean tries to get you to believe that Harding was a decent man, who was in over his head, yet still tried his best.

However, it is hard to believe that someone like Warren Harding ever made it to the White House. Harding did little in his political life except be nice to the right people and “look” presidential. He accomplished little on the domestic front, and his principal foreign policy initiative, the Washington Naval Disarmament Conference, was soon forgotten.

When Harding was 18, he was able to get the financing (all $300 of it) that let him purchase the Marion Star newspaper in his Ohio hometown. Harding loved running a newspaper and developed an interest in politics because of it.

One of the local figures in Marion that Harding took on was the richest man in town, Amos Kling. Eventually, Kling’s daughter, Florence, married Harding, despite the protestations of her father. Florence Harding had borne a child out of wedlock before marrying Warren Harding, although that son ended up being raised by her father, who described his grandson as his “son.” Kling disapproved of Harding and started a rumor campaign in Marion that described Harding as being part African-American. (Kling actually used a far less polite term.) Harding would have to confront stories about his ancestry throughout his life.

Florence, often described as the woman who pushed Warren into politics, actually didn’t do so, according to Dean. Harding decided to run for the state legislature on his own. While serving in Columbus, Harding developed a reputation as being an all around nice guy, who gave good speeches. This eventually elevated Harding into the lieutenant governor’s job in Ohio, but when he tried for the governor’s job in 1910, he was defeated.

Harding started his political comeback when he put William Howard Taft’s name into nomination at the Republican Convention in 1912. In 1914, when Ohio held its first direct senatorial election, Harding won and he and Florence headed off to Washington.

While in the Senate, Harding generally tried to spend most of his time developing connections that could help his standing. He befriended a senator from New Mexico named Albert Fall. This would end up not being a good career move in the long run for Harding. But, at least Fall had a nice mustache.

After eight years of Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats in the White House, the American voters were ready to vote Republican. Wilson’s popularity had plummeted after World War I with the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke and for the final 18 months of his term, he was rarely seen in public, and the government was run mostly by Wilson’s wife and some key aides.

Nevertheless, Wilson thought he could run for a third term. He was politely told by people that he shouldn’t do so. (Primarily because Wilson was almost dead and could barely talk or see.) Theodore Roosevelt was talked about as a candidate to run for the White House in 1920, but those plans were interrupted when Roosevelt died in 1919.

So, the two major political figures for the 1920 Presidential campaign (Wilson and Roosevelt) were either dead or incapacitated. Into the void, entered Warren Harding, the nice guy from Ohio.

Harding started his campaign in the winter of 1919, but his strategy, formed by Ohio’s Republican boss, Harry Daugherty, was to not try to win the nomination outright, but rather to just hang around during the primaries (which were still in their infancy) and then hope for a deadlocked convention. Harding’s plan was to try to offend as few people as possible.

And Harding’s plan worked. Leonard Wood, who had served with Roosevelt in Cuba in the Spanish-American War, was the leader among a crowded field heading into the Republican Convention. But Wood had irritated too many people during his campaign. No majority was reached by the Friday of the convention. Most observers felt that the delegates wanted to nominate someone on Saturday. Why? So they wouldn’t have to pay for an extra day of hotels. And on that Saturday, Harding ended up as the choice of the Convention on the tenth ballot.

Harding ran against another Ohioan, Governor James Cox (who had a young assistant Secretary of the Navy named Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his running mate, a counterpoint to dour Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s running mate). It would be the first election in which women could vote. It was a landslide. Harding won over 60% of the vote and racked up 404 electoral votes. Harding became the first sitting member of the United States Senate to be elected President.

Almost from the outset, Harding ran into problems in office. His Cabinet had some good people in it, such as Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, Secretary of Labor James Davis, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon.  However, Harding also picked friends like Daugherty to be Attorney General and Fall to be Secretary of the Interior. Florence’s personal physician, Charles Forbes, would be in charge of veterans medical affairs.

Harding, like seemingly every President, felt that there was too much government spending, and he needed to rein it in. And, like most Presidents, he wasn’t all that successful at doing that. Harding did establish the Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget) which may be the one legacy of Harding’s administration that lives on today that people have heard of.

Dean tries to detail other legislative initiatives that Harding tried, but none of them stand out. Harding vetoed a plan to award World War I vets a bonus because he didn’t like the way it was funded (primarily, because it wasn’t funded at all). There were some attempts at raising tariffs, which were a pet cause of Republicans of the time. Harding also tried to limit immigration, but that didn’t work as desired because Harding was hesitant to order wide-scale deportations. Dean paints a picture of Harding as a diligent worker, but someone who just didn’t have the temperament to be an executive. He was someone who was your pal, not your boss.

Harding had one minor success in foreign affairs when he was able to get the major powers (U.S, Britain, and Japan) to come to Washington (with Hughes mediating) and negotiate a treaty that was supposed to slow down (or stop all together) the buildup in naval armaments. This was a noble idea. But, World War II spoke to the lasting effect of that treaty.

Scandals started to touch the White House early in 1923. Forbes was discovered to have sold large amounts of surplus government medical supplies to private companies seemingly below cost. But, Forbes actually was taking kickbacks on the deals and enriching himself. Forbes was dismissed from his post.

In the summer of 1923, the Hardings embarked on a trip for the West Coast and Alaska, in order to relax and also to do some campaigning for his own agenda. Harding became the first President to visit Alaska and the first to visit Canada. But while golfing in Portland, Harding took ill with severe chest pains. Harding, who came into office with a bad heart and likely had suffered a mild undiagnosed heart attack in the winter, was suffering from congestive heart failure and pneumonia. In an era before antibiotics and detailed knowledge of cardiological problems, there was little that doctors could do for Harding. He passed away in San Francisco on August 2, 1923 at age 57.

Not long after Harding’s passing, more scandals came to the fore. The most famous was the Teapot Dome scandal. Interior Secretary Fall had been leasing what were supposed to be protected oil reserves to private interests, headed by California oilmen Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny. The fact that Fall leased them was not the problem. The problem was that Sinclair and Doheny had furnished Fall with bribes in order to get the leases. Eventually, Fall would go to prison for receiving the bribes, although Sinclair and Doheny were acquitted of giving a bribe. Attorney General Daugherty was caught up in this scandal, as well as several others. (It would take a lot of space to list them.) Daugherty resigned his position, but was never convicted of any crime.

In addition to the real scandals, a cottage industry about fabricating Presidential scandals sprung up. A woman named Nan Britton wrote a book called The President’s Daughter, where she claimed to have had an affair with Harding in the White House and having a child with him. H.L. Mencken gave the book a favorable review and sales skyrocketed. Most historians believe that no such affair with Britton occurred.  Harding did have at least one extramarital affair before he became President, according to Dean.

A man named Gaston Means got author May Dixon Thacker to write a book about his “reminiscences” of Harding. It was titled The Strange Death of President Harding. It was supposed to revelatory and accused Florence Harding of poisoning her husband. The book is considered to be almost, but not quite, entirely untrue. Nevertheless, Florence Harding is still thought by some to have murdered her husband.

Warren Harding didn’t leave much of a legacy. His election showed the danger of electing a President who just looked the part. He came from an era where speeches with passages like this:

America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.

were considered brilliant oratory.

Dean states that his main reason for writing about Harding was to set the record straight on him. And to that extent, he succeeds. Warren Harding was not a great president, but he wasn’t a horrible person. He just was unremarkable, and overly loyal to his friends. He was a man who stumbled into the highest office in the land by pissing off fewer people than his opponents. It seems that Americans haven’t used that technique for electing a President subsequently.

Harding’s successor, the laconic and phlegmatic Calvin Coolidge, would actually be the President who become far more famous and beloved by the American people.

Other stuff: Warren Harding’s home isn’t part of the National Park Service. Instead, it is operated by the Ohio Historical Society and it is in Marion.

Author Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, described the “Warren Harding Effect”, where people judge a person instantly, but use the wrong clues.

Harding appointed former President Taft to be Chief Justice. Harding’s Secretary of Agriculture, Henry C. Wallace, was the father of Henry A. Wallace, who would hold the same position under Franklin Roosevelt, and then later serve as Vice President for one term.

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.