The Presidency of Franklin Pierce by Larry Gara

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

At least Nathaniel Hawthorne liked him

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looks Like My Work Here is Done

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSCF0889
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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LBJ: A Life by Irwin and Debi Unger

President #36, C-SPAN Historians’ Ranking #11

In Treatment

lbjLyndon Baines Johnson was President for just a little over five years. However, if you try to read some of the biographies that have written about him, you may feel like you need five years to get through all of them.

Robert Caro has written three volumes of a biography on Johnson, and he hasn’t even gotten Johnson into the White House. That’s 2,555 pages just to get you through the 1950s. I read an excerpt from the third volume once on a flight home from New York to L.A. I don’t even think I had enough time to finish. Or, quite possibly, there was a good in-flight movie.

Robert Dallek managed to fit Johnson’s life into two volumes. Dallek’s works stretch for 1,456 pages.

Randall Bennett Woods opted to go the one volume route. That book is just a little over 1,000 pages long.

Johnson’s own memoirs (ghost written by a young Doris Kearns, who had not yet married former Johnson aide Richard Goodwin) for the time of his Presidency are a piddling 636 pages.

My choice for finding an LBJ (the man loved those initials) biography involved the following criteria:

  1. Was the book more or less objective?
  2. Was the book about all of Johnson’s life?
  3. Would I experience severe and/or potentially disabling back pain while carrying it around?

The book LBJ: A Life by Irwin and Debi Unger passed all three tests, especially the important third test. This book runs for just 586 pages. It covers Johnson from his birth to his death. Although it’s somewhat  sympathetic to Johnson,  it’s not a hagiography. Still, you get the feeling that there is so much more that can be said about one of the most potent forces in 20th Century American politics.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was born on August 27, 1908 in a city his ancestors founded in the Texas Hill Country. As people with great imagination, they called the town “Johnson City.” Lyndon’s father was Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., a member of the Texas State Legislature. His mother was named Rebekah Baines, which provided him with his middle name.

Young Lyndon did well in the Johnson City schools, but didn’t wish to go to college at first. He ran away from home, and found work in places like San Bernardino, California. He hoped that a family friend would be able to get him to pass the bar in Nevada, which had rather low standards in the 1920s. But, Lyndon Johnson ended up back in Johnson City when that plan failed.

Reluctantly, Johnson enrolled at Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now called Texas State University) in San Marcos, Texas. While it wasn’t nearly as prestigious as the nearby University of Texas, it was a school that Johnson’s parents could afford. And, even with its lower admission standards, Johnson still needed a full year of preparatory classes.

In college, Johnson would first demonstrate one of his ways of getting ahead. He would find an older authority figure (in this case, the university president), befriend him, and then use those connections for personal advancement.

Johnson graduated from college in 1930.  He had been deeply involved in campus politics.  But before he could make politics his career, he needed to get a job first to establish himself in the community. So, he worked as a high school history teacher in Houston. From this position, he parlayed that connection into a job in Washington as a secretary for a Texas House member named Richard Kleberg.

After making himself indispensable to Kleberg (who wasn’t very interested in doing much work), Johnson got himself appointed to be the head of the National Youth Administration work program in Texas. The NYA was a Roosevelt New Deal program that employed thousands of college age men and women in a variety of public works projects. Along the way, he met a woman named Claudia Taylor. Everybody called her “Lady Bird,” a nickname she picked up at birth.

Johnson was attracted to Lady Bird for a variety of reasons. She had access to money. She understood politics. She was intelligent, a University of Texas graduate. She would improve his station in life. The two were married in 1934. She would always be called be Lady Bird Johnson from then on, so she could have the same initials as her husband. They would have two daughters, Lynda Byrd and Luci Baines.

In 1937, Representative James P. Buchanan (no relation to the former childless President) passed away. This left an opening for Johnson to run for a House seat back in his home district in the Hill Country. Johnson won the special election and became the youngest member of Congress at the time, just 27 years old.

Johnson caught the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was looking for more sympathetic members of Congress from the South. Some New Deal programs were starting to face opposition from conservative Southern Democrats. Roosevelt took Johnson under his wing, helping out with projects back in his district. Johnson, in turn, became one of Roosevelt’s staunchest supporters in Congress. Johnson also became friends with Sam Rayburn, who would soon become Speaker of the House. Both Roosevelt and Rayburn took something of a paternal interest in the young Texas representative.

In 1941, Johnson decided to run in a special election to fill a Senate seat left vacant by the death of Morris Shepard. Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel appointed Andrew Houston, an 87-year old descendant of Sam Houston, to hold on to the seat until an election could be held. Johnson assumed O’Daniel himself wouldn’t run for the seat, but that was not the case. Johnson seemed to have won the election when the polls closed. However, O’Daniel had enough connections throughout the state to get enough counties to change their vote totals just enough to push him over the top. Lieutenant Governor Coke Stevenson, who wanted to move up to the Governor’s office, massaged the vote totals.  O’Daniel would win by about 1300 votes.

Since it was a special election, Johnson held on to his House seat. When World War II began, Johnson temporarily left his office in the hands of Lady Bird while he served in the Navy. (Johnson was a member of the Naval Reserve and had served on the Naval Affairs Committee.) Johnson spent most of his time on the West Coast, but was sent out in 1942 to do some observation in Australia, where he was invited on a bombing run. One of the two planes sent up was shot down and Johnson’s plane was damaged, but landed safely. General Douglas MacArthur awarded Johnson a Silver Star for his efforts. Roosevelt ordered all members of Congress in the Armed Forces back to Washington soon after.

By 1948, Johnson felt it was time to make another go at the Senate. He knew he couldn’t wait around in the House to move up the ladder. O’Daniel wasn’t going to run for reelection as he turned about to be something of a joke. Johnson would face off against the incumbent governor, Coke Stevenson. (Coke was his given name. Texas politicians had very cool names at this time. There was also a governor named Beaufort Jester around this time. ) This election would be epic. Caro and Dallek both devote hundreds of pages each to the event. I will try to be more brief because you have likely already stopped twice while reading this to go to the bathroom.

The election was a battle between the conservative establishment of Texas in Stevenson and a more progressive style favored by Johnson.

Johnson toured the state by helicopter, a novel method at the time. His face was omnipresent. At the same time, Johnson was suffering from a painful attack of kidney stones. Somehow, Johnson was able to work through the pain for most of the campaign. Eventually, he would go to the Mayo Clinic for the still experimental treatment of having the stones removed with a cytoscope. This was actually the second method tried. The first was to drive Johnson over a lot of bumpy roads with the aim of dislodging the stones. In the end, Johnson missed two weeks of the campaign, although the normal recovery time during that time for kidney stone surgery was six weeks.

In the primary, no candidate got a majority, although Stevenson led. There would be a runoff between Stevenson and Johnson one month later on Saturday, August 28, 1948. The race was extraordinarily close. On August 30, Stevenson led by 119 votes. On September 2, the lead moved up to 351. But, Johnson, remembering his defeat to O’Daniel in 1941, knew what needed to be done. The counties close to the Mexican border reported their votes last. And Johnson controlled (i.e., bought off) those counties. When they reported, Johnson ended up winning by 87 votes. And so was born “Landslide Lyndon.” (By comparison, Al Franken won his Senate seat in Minnesota by 312 votes over Norm Coleman.)

Johnson quickly worked his way up the ladder in the Senate. He befriended Georgia Senator Richard Russell, who had no family (similar to Rayburn), and learned from him. Russell would prove to be far more conservative than Johnson on civil rights issues, but the two men remained friends until the late 1960s.

After just two years in the Senate, Johnson was voted Minority Whip. And in 1952, when Democratic Senate Leader Ernest McFarland was defeated for reelection in Arizona by Barry Goldwater, Johnson was chosen as Senate Minority Leader.

Johnson developed a reputation as a forceful leader who was able to work well with Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1955, the Democrats regained control of the Senate and Johnson became Majority Leader at the age of 46.

Many historians consider Johnson to be the most effective Majority Leader in the Senate’s history (the position didn’t exist until the 1930s). The Majority Leader sets the agenda for the Senate and has great control over its actions. Johnson strongly believed that Congress should get things done. He did not wish to obstruct the Eisenhower Administration, although he did always keep an eye out for the interests of the Democratic Party.

Johnson was an adept vote counter and master of persuasion. He developed a way of speaking to people known as “the treatment.” He would get very close to a person and speak directly to their face. He was not afraid to touch other Senators or lean into them. The linked illustration shows Johnson giving “the treatment” to Rhode Island Senator Theodore Green in 1957. Green was 90 years old at the time.

After his first session as Majority Leader, Johnson had worked himself so hard, he ended up suffering a heart attack.  He rested for the second half of 1955, but made a triumphant return to the Senate in 1956. In 1957, he was able to push through the first major civil rights bill through Congress since Reconstruction. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was far from revolutionary, it served notice to Northern politicians that Johnson was not a typical Southern segregationist. Southerners looked at Johnson’s actions in the Senate as an act of betrayal.

Johnson was constantly driven to seek higher office in part because he feared dying young, like his grandfather and father. So, in 1960, Johnson made a bid for the Presidency. However, Johnson, the master politician, didn’t understand that Presidential nominees weren’t going to be chosen exclusively in backroom deals as they had before. Johnson’s younger Senate colleague, John Kennedy, ran in primaries and used his success in them to make himself a viable national candidate. It also had the effect of eliminating the competition, in particular Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey.

When the Democratic Convention convened in Los Angeles in 1960, Johnson still thought he had enough delegates that he could win nomination on a second or third ballot. But, Kennedy’s forces were better organized and outmaneuvered Johnson to get the nomination for the young Bostonian on the first ballot.

Then, for reasons that are still debated, Kennedy offered Johnson the Vice Presidential slot on the ticket. Did Kennedy offer Johnson the spot figuring that he’d be turned down anyway? Did Kennedy think that Johnson would help him with Southern voters? Nobody seems to know for certain. But, Johnson accepted the spot, and became Vice President on January 20, 1961.

Johnson hated the Vice Presidency. He found out that there was little to do. He wanted to serve as the head of the Democratic Senate Caucus, but was told by his old colleagues that such an arrangement could not work. Even worse, Johnson felt marginalized and belittled by the Easterners in the Kennedy Administration.

John Kennedy was a Harvard-educated Bostonian with a glamorous wife who went to school in France. Johnson felt like Kennedy’s advisers treated him like a country bumpkin. The greatest amount of animus was between Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who had angered each other during the Los Angeles Convention. The two men, both with short tempers and huge egos, never saw eye to eye. (And that’s putting it politely.)

Everything changed on November 22, 1963. John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Prior to the trip, Johnson was hoping that Kennedy would take him off the ticket in 1964. Now, he was President.

After the initial mourning period for Kennedy, Johnson set to work to implement some of Kennedy’s policies, most importantly a civil rights bill. Johnson wanted Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill to be adopted in part as a memorial to the slain President.

Johnson used his Senate connections to avoid a Southern filibuster. Most importantly, Johnson got Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen to back the bill. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in any public facility, in employment, and in government. Although the Act still had many loopholes and would be toughened up throughout the years (including today), it was a landmark bill nonetheless. Johnson’s biggest fear about the Civil Rights Act was that it would be eventually turn Southern whites from reliably Democratic to reliably Republican voters.

However, Johnson knew that to be elected President in his own right in 1964, he would need to have accomplishments of his own. Johnson was both realistic, in that he knew that it was impossible to ride into office on the memory of John Kennedy, and proud, in that he wanted to show the Kennedy people that he could do more than their leader.

Johnson’s bold legislative plan was announced on May 22, 1964 in a commencement address at the University of Michigan. In that speech, Johnson said:

We are going to assemble the best thought and broadest knowledge from all over the world to find these answers. I intend to establish working groups to prepare a series of conferences and meetings—on the cities, on natural beauty, on the quality of education, and on other emerging challenges. From these studies, we will begin to set our course toward the Great Society

The Great Society was supposed to be Johnson’s legacy to the United States. There would be hundreds of government programs established in the fields of education, welfare, conservation, agriculture, and, most importantly, health care.

But, the Great Society had a counterpart when it came to government spending:  the Vietnam War.

On August 2, 1964, a Navy destroyer, the U.S.S. Maddox, was fired upon by North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf of Tonkin. (A second attack on a different ship supposedly took place, but that has been denied by the Vietnamese.) Johnson knew that in an election year, he could not allow an attack on an American vessel go without retaliation. So, Johnson asked Congress to give him the authority to use force to assist any member of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, i.e. South Vietnam.

Congress passed a joint resolution giving Johnson the authority to send more troops to Vietnam with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. There were only two dissenting votes.

Johnson ordered the bombing of several North Vietnamese supply sites. This then developed into a larger bombing campaign. And then more soldiers were added on the ground. And so on.

Back at home, Johnson faced conservative Republican Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. Goldwater had emerged from an unusually contentious campaign. The 1964 Republican Convention in San Francisco would see Goldwater’s supporters boo New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Goldwater took a very hawkish position on the war in Vietnam and facing off against the Soviet Union overall. Goldwater’s most controversial position was advocating giving field commanders the authority to use nuclear weapons, albeit low-level ones.

Nevertheless, Johnson jumped on this suggestion to paint Goldwater as a dangerous man hell-bent on sending the world into nuclear annihilation. This led to one of the most infamous political ads in television history, the “Daisy Girl Ad.” The ad ran only once. But it did its job.

Johnson routed Goldwater in the election, winning over 61% of the vote. But, in a foreshadowing of America’s political realignment, Goldwater won five Southern states.

With overwhelming Democratic majorities behind him, Johnson started to enact a dizzying array of proposals. The most durable legacy of this time period was Medicare, the first time the Federal government was providing health insurance to civilians on a wide scale basis. Health insurance had been backed by both Roosevelt and Truman, but it took Johnson to push it through.

Johnson also had the Voting Rights Act passed in August of 1965. This measure removed many barriers to registration for African-Americans throughout the country. It was one of Johnson’s proudest moments. And, a few days after it passed, the Watts district of Los Angeles exploded in racial violence.

The racial violence that would mark Johnson’s term in office from 1965 to 1969 deeply disturbed Johnson. But, it wasn’t because Johnson felt that there was more work to be done in the area of civil rights and poverty. Rather, Johnson felt that African American voters were not suitably grateful for all the hard work Johnson had done for him. Johnson seemingly always a politician who saw every issue in terms of trading off favors to different sides so something could be done.

Despite all of Johnson’s social programs, his term in office is remembered primarily for the Vietnam War. Johnson was fearful of being the first U.S. President to lose a war. (James Madison seemingly gets credit for a tie.) Johnson kept seeing parallels in Vietnam to World War II.  The “Domino Theory” was an accepted way of thinking in the Johnson Administration. If Vietnam fell to Communist forces, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a holdover from Kennedy’s Cabinet, tried to figure out some way for the U.S. to “win” while fighting a “limited” war. But, a solution was nowhere to be found.

According to the Ungers, the situation in Vietnam sent Johnson into deep depressions after dealing with it. As much joy that Johnson received from his Great Society programs, Johnson felt a corresponding amount of pain over Vietnam. The Ungers even go as far to assert (without much documentation) that Johnson suffered from a very mild form of bipolar disorder. Johnson was also reported to have made aides stand beside open bathroom doors while he defecated as he gave dictation. He also was reported to deliberately stand up at seemingly random times in meetings to force political opponents to stand up and sit down repeatedly in an effort to annoy them.

Whatever was troubling Johnson, many of his aides sensed that Johnson was mentally unstable. Richard Goodwin and George Ball were advisers who left the Administration feeling that Johnson’s mood swings were too difficult to deal with. Johnson would describe people like Goodwin and Ball as disloyal.

Protests over the Vietnam War became larger and more widespread after 1965. Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas held public hearings to examine the conduct of the war. The American effort in Vietnam appeared to accomplish little.

Early in 1968, there was a cease fire in the war to observe the lunar new year in Vietnam, a period called Tet. During the cease fire, the North Vietnamese unleashed a major offensive, catching much of the South Vietnamese forces unprepared. However, American forces managed to repel most of the North Vietnamese forces.

Although the Tet Offensive may not have been a military success for the North, it proved to be an enormous psychological victory. The war in Vietnam appeared to be headed toward a long and bloody stalemate. Walter Cronkite, in an editorial on his CBS newscast, declared the war to be “unwinnable.”

Not a 1968 Presidential campaign ad
Not a 1968 Presidential campaign ad

Johnson was going to run for reelection in 1968, but antiwar Democrats had already found a candidate to run against Johnson. Their first choice would have been Robert Kennedy, now a New York Senator after leaving his post as Attorney General in 1965, but he declined, feeling that Johnson was unbeatable. Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy decided to take on Johnson.

In the New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968, Johnson was a write-in candidate (which was not unusual at the time) against McCarthy. Johnson won by a 49-42 margin, a surprisingly small margin for an incumbent President. The results were interpreted as a condemnation of Johnson’s Vietnam policies, although some historians think that much of the anti-Johnson vote came from people who felt that Johnson was too weak in his approach to Vietnam.

On March 16, Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy. Johnson knew that it was time to get out. Also, he had thought of not running anyway because of a fear of dying in office.

In a speech on March 31, 1968, Johnson announced a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam in the hopes of starting peace negotiations. At the end of the speech, Johnson said, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

The rest of Johnson’s administration would be marked by tragedy. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4. Robert Kennedy would be killed on June 6. The Democratic Convention, which nominated Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, would be marked by violence.

Johnson didn’t think that Humphrey would make a good President. He hoped that Nelson Rockefeller would get the GOP nomination. But, Richard Nixon would be the Republican candidate.

Reluctantly, Johnson backed Humphrey, although he felt betrayed when Humphrey announced a peace plan in a speech on September 30, 1968. (Johnson felt betrayed a lot.) Johnson sincerely believed that his efforts in Vietnam were in the country’s best interests.

Nixon would narrowly defeat Humphrey in the 1968 election. Johnson would retire to his ranch in Texas, where he worked on his memoirs and tried to repair his legacy.

His retirement was not long. He suffered a second heart attack in 1972 that left his heart beyond repair. He passed away on January 22, 1973. He was 64 years old. It was the same age that a team of actuaries told him his life expectancy would be when he was weighing a run for a second term in 1968.

And with all of my ramblings here, I think I only covered the tiniest fraction of the life of Lyndon Johnson. And with all that has been written about him, there are so many places to turn to find information on this most complex man. Lyndon Johnson’s life was full of contradictions. It seemed that for every step forward, he took a step or two backward. He definitely got things done, but the question is: did he do the right things?

Other stuff: The Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library and Museum is part of the University of Texas in Austin. It’s open every day but Christmas. Lyndon Johnson’s ranch in Johnson City, Texas is now the Lyndon Johnson National Historical Park. There is also a Lyndon Johnson Memorial Grove on an island in the Potomac River.

Lyndon Johnson was 6′ 3.5″ tall, the second tallest of any U.S. President, behind only Abraham Lincoln. Johnson would bring his own oversized bed (seven feet long) on all foreign trips with him.

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Roy Jenkins

President #32, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #3

Brother can you spare a coin that has my face on it?

fdrWith the exception of Abraham Lincoln, no American President ever faced crises of the scope that Franklin Delano Roosevelt did. He entered the White House as the nation was in the throes of its worst economic situation ever. When he died twelve years later, the country was the preeminent economic and military power in the world.

And if you were alive in 1932 when Roosevelt won his first term in office, you would have been quite surprised to think that this man would have been able to accomplish so much. Roosevelt’s accomplishments before taking office would not have have led you to believe that a radical restructuring of the American government and economy would take place.

Roy Jenkins, a British author who served in both houses of Parliament, tried to sum up the extremely complicated life of Franklin Roosevelt in about 180 pages. Jenkins passed away in January of 2003, a few months before this book was published. Jenkins chose not to examine Roosevelt as some sort of larger than life figure, but rather as a politician who worked his way up the system. Jenkins clearly is in Roosevelt’s camp; but, he isn’t afraid to point out Roosevelt’s flaws.

And if you thought Jenkins had a hard time compressing Franklin Roosevelt’s life into 180 pages, it’s even harder trying to write this post in anything resembling a concise manner. But, I’ll give it a shot.

Franklin Roosevelt was born into a wealthy family in Hyde Park, New York on January 30, 1882. There were two prominent branches of the Roosevelt family in New York. Franklin came from the Dutchess County line, which was mostly Democratic, in contrast to most of the residents of the area. Theodore Roosevelt came from the Oyster Bay (in Nassau County on Long Island) line, who were nearly all Republicans.

The two sides of the family had a merger of sorts when Franklin married his fifth cousin, Eleanor, in 1905. Theodore Roosevelt escorted Eleanor (his niece, her father had already passed away) up the aisle at the wedding. As a wedding “gift,” Eleanor got the “privilege” of living with Franklin’s mother, Sara, for the next 36 years. Sara Roosevelt was: domineering, possessive, rude, dismissive, and otherwise decidedly unpleasant.

Franklin Roosevelt had been educated at Groton and Harvard, where he was never known as an especially bright student. Soon after his marriage, Roosevelt entered Columbia Law School. He never graduated from there, but he did manage to pass the New York State Bar Exam.

In 1910, Roosevelt made his first foray into politics, winning a seat in the New York State Senate. By 1913, Roosevelt’s stature had risen to the point that he was named Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson. Franklin Roosevelt was now in the same position that Theodore Roosevelt occupied before the Spanish-American War.

During his time in this job, Franklin had an affair with his secretary, Lucy Mercer. When Eleanor discovered this, she offered to divorce Franklin. Ultimately, they both decided it would be a bad idea politically. Eleanor chose from then on to support her husband politically, but not conjugally. It turned out to be one of the most powerful marriages in American political history. Eleanor constantly steered her husband onto a more leftward course, one that was far more liberal than people would anticipate coming from a wealthy scion of Dutchess County.

Roosevelt was nominated by the Democrats as their Vice Presidential candidate in 1920, but lost badly. A Republican wave carried Warren Harding into office.  Just one year after the election, Roosevelt’s life changed dramatically.

In August of 1921, while vacationing at his summer home in Campobello, New Brunswick, Roosevelt contracted what was widely considered to be a case of polio. (Late in 2003, some doctors cast doubts on this diagnosis and suggested that Roosevelt actually had contracted Guillain-Barre Syndrome.) Whatever the cause, Roosevelt would never have full use of his legs again.

Roosevelt could have (and at times very much wanted to) gone into retirement. But, Eleanor Roosevelt, along with aide Louis Howe, encouraged Franklin to remain involved in politics. Roosevelt began extensive physical therapy at Warm Springs, Georgia. (He ended up buying the facility.)

In 1924, Roosevelt made his political comeback when he was able to walk (using very heavy leg braces and  some assistance) to the podium at the Democratic National Convention in New York City to deliver a nominating speech for New York governor Al Smith.

Smith didn’t get the nomination in 1924, but he would four years later. This meant that New York would need to have a new governor. Smith suggested that Roosevelt run for the office. Jenkins portrays Smith as a schemer who figured that he would lose the Presidential election in 1928 (which he did) , but could use his pliable friend Roosevelt in Albany as a a tool for him to remain on the national stage. Jenkins believes that Smith also figured that Roosevelt may not have lived through his first two-year term.

But, the plan went awry. It turned out that Roosevelt had ideas of his own about how to be governor. And these ideas didn’t involve Al Smith. The two friends would become bitter rivals for the rest of their lives. Smith would be one of the leading conservative critics of Roosevelt on the Democratic side.

As the Great Depression grew worse and worse during 1932, it was becoming clear that the Democrats were going to be able to win the White House from the extraordinarily unpopular incumbent Herbert Hoover.

Roosevelt was the leader on the first two ballots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but did not have the necessary 2/3 majority that the Democrats required. Speaker of the House John Nance Garner along with Al Smith each had enough votes to create a deadlock.

But, some behind the scenes maneuvering got Roosevelt the nomination. Breaking with tradition, Roosevelt flew from the Governor’s Mansion in Albany to Chicago (which took over nine hours in 1932) to accept the nomination in person. Prior to this, candidates just waited at home to be told that they had been nominated. Garner was given the Vice Presidential nomination.

The election of 1932 was not close. Roosevelt won 57% of the popular vote and 472 electoral votes. The Democrats (and the allied Farmer-Labor Party) picked up 101 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate. Change was in the air. However, Roosevelt would not inaugurated until March 4, 1933, the last inauguration on this date. The country had to wait until then to find out what Roosevelt’s plan would be to solve the economic crisis that was only growing worse.

Roosevelt refused to meet with Hoover to discuss plans to bolster the banking system, which was hovering on collapse. There was growing unease that the country could lapse into chaos and social disorder. Unemployment was around 25%.

As it turned out, Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address turned out to be one of the most famous speeches of the 20th Century. (Newsreel footage linked here.)

This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

Roosevelt was inaugurated on a Saturday. Banks were closed on Sundays. And on Monday, Roosevelt ordered all banks in the United States closed for the week to allow the Treasury to examine their books to assess their solvency. Roosevelt convened Congress on March 9, and one of its first acts was to pass legislation that actually made Roosevelt’s actions legal. Banks began to reopen in the next two weeks.

Then, a flurry of activity came from the White House and was passed by Congress. Acronyms ruled the day. There was the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Act), TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), and Roosevelt’s most prized program, NRA (National Relief Administration). All of these actions (and there were far more than I will detail here) represented unprecedented government actions regarding the economy. Farmers were paid to not plant crops. Young unemployed men were put to work on government projects. Wage and price controls were instituted. These programs were called, after a term used in Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign, “the New Deal.” (Additionally, the 18th Amendment, which had established Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment late in 1933. So, Americans could now both be poor AND drunk at the same time LEGALLY.)

In the short term, the economy improved a little. However, since it was close to rock bottom, that was not much of an accomplishment. Roosevelt’s programs faced opposition from all sides. Some Republicans accused Roosevelt of unfairly trying to fix the economy by taking money away from the prosperous. There were also demagogues from the extreme right, such as Father Charles Coughlin, a Detroit priest who had a radio show that excoriated Roosevelt for falling in with Jewish-controlled moneyed interests. There was also Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, who mixed wide scale corruption in his home state with populism. Long wanted to “Share the Wealth” although he gave little details on what his plan was. There was also Charles Townsend, a California physician, who devised a plan where elderly Americans (over 60) would receive $200 a month (which they would be required to spend in 30 days) paid for by a national sales tax.

Coughlin was eventually muzzled by his local bishop. Long was assassinated in Baton Rouge. Townsend’s plan was preempted by Roosevelt’s Social Security program, which started off paying only $20 per month in benefits.

An even bigger problem for Roosevelt was the Supreme Court. Nine of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs went to the Supreme Court and, on seven occasions, they were ruled to be unconstitutional.

Even with these problems, Roosevelt had little trouble getting reelected in 1936. The Republicans nominated Kansas Governor Alf Landon. It was the biggest Electoral College wipe-out in American history in any contested election. Roosevelt won 523 electoral votes (and over 60% of the popular vote) to just 8 for Landon. The Democrats ended up with an 80-16 margin in the Senate and a 347-88 margin in the House. The Senate chamber didn’t have enough room to put all the Democrats on one side of the chamber; so, some Senators had to sit on the wrong side of the aisle.

With this majority, Roosevelt could have accomplished even more, but he wasted his political capital on a battle with the Supreme Court. Roosevelt, not wanting his New Deal legislation tossed out by a majority Republican court, came up with a plan to add justices to the Court. Roosevelt proposed that the President be allowed to appoint one extra justice for each sitting member on the court who was 70 1/2 years old or over, with a maximum of six. Publicly, Roosevelt said that his plan was simply a way to ease the workload for the Supreme Court. However, almost the entire nation saw it as an encroachment on the Judiciary by the Executive Branch.

The plan was bottled up in the Senate. Even some of Roosevelt’s staunchest supporters wouldn’t go along with it. Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson died amidst the legislative wrangling. Also, the Supreme Court, perhaps fearing strong public opinion against it, began to uphold most of the reworked New Deal legislation. Finally, many of the justices began to retire. In the end, Roosevelt appointed eight Supreme Court justices while in office, including two justices who would shape the court for decades after in Hugo Black and William O. Douglas. (Jenkins also mentions that some of the justices would have retired earlier, but one early piece of New Deal legislation cut the pension for Federal judges in half.)

Although Roosevelt now had a friendly Supreme Court after a fashion, he ran into an unfriendly economy. The economy slowed down again in what was termed “The Roosevelt Recession.” Roosevelt took a different tack now. He and his advisers believed that the economy needed massive amounts of Federal government support. The budget deficit soared (by 1938 standards) to record levels. Taxes went up. Whether or not this plan worked is debated among economists to this day. (Or this minute. Just get two economists together and ask them about it. Report back to me.)

As a backdrop to all of this was the increasingly tense state of international affairs. Germany had become a Nazi state under Hitler and had rearmed and was taking over territory (Austria and the Sudetenland) and starting wide-scale persecution of Jews. Japan was asserting its dominance in Asia and the Pacific, having already taken over Manchuria. Italy, not wanting to get left out of the action, decided to attack Ethiopia.

When World War II finally began in 1939 with the German attack on Poland, Roosevelt somewhat vainly hoped to keep the United States out of the fray. Roosevelt even made a speech where he promised “not to send your sons into any foreign wars.” There was still a strong isolationist movement in the United States, led by Charles Lindbergh among others.

Because world tensions were so high, and also because the Democrats didn’t have any candidates on the horizon, Roosevelt allowed himself to be drafted for an unprecedented third term. Henry Wallace would be the new Vice President. The Republicans nominated Wall Street lawyer Wendell Willkie, who didn’t oppose most of the New Deal, but did feel that Roosevelt had not run the economy efficiently. Willkie fared a little better than Landon, but still lost badly.

As we know, the United States didn’t stay out of the war. Roosevelt slowly moved the United States over to the British side of the war. First, he traded American destroyers for long-term leases on numerous British naval bases. Then, he developed a plan known as Lend-Lease, where the United States would send ammunition, tanks, and planes to the British. At the end of the war, the British could give them back, or, if the material was destroyed, they could be paid for. It is not believed that the British sent much back unused, or had any money left at the end of the war to pay for what they used.

The United States was finally pushed into the war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Roosevelt asked Congress for declaration of war against Japan, which passed almost unanimously. Hitler then decided to honor a treaty he had made with the Japanese and had Germany declare war on the United States. The United States reciprocated and now the United States was now faced with fighting a war all over the globe. Also, the United States was now on the same side as the Soviet Union, which would prove problematic for the next 60 years or so.

In recent years, much has been written and aired about World War II. The History Channel seems to be dedicated to programs about it. So, I won’t be offering much more about the conflict.  (It’s just like your high school history class where the teacher tries to jam World War II into one lesson on the second to last day of school. Also, did World War II end the Depression? Discuss amongst yourselves and report back to me.) But, I will point out some of the parts of Jenkins’ book that I found odd.

First of all, Jenkins referred to Roosevelt’s plan to intern Japanese-American citizens living on the West Coast to camps further into the interior as “disruptive.” That’s one way of putting it. Jenkins also defended Roosevelt’s treatment of refugees, asserting that the United States took in more Jewish refugees than any other country. Whether Roosevelt’s efforts were enough is not addressed by Jenkins.

Jenkins also looks at Roosevelt from a European perspective. And, for someone living in Great Britain, Roosevelt looked like a savior. Jenkins marveled at how much abuse Roosevelt took in the American press during the war. But, in many respects, it was just politics as normal in the United States.

In 1944, Roosevelt’s health began to decline. His blood pressure had soared to dangerously high levels.  He was suffering from hardening of the arteries. Doctors reported that he looked gray and suffered from lassitude. Nevertheless, Roosevelt decided to run for a fourth term. His opponent would be New York governor Thomas Dewey. Roosevelt decided to drop Wallace from the ticket and replace him with Missouri Senator Harry S Truman. It isn’t believed that Roosevelt was looking for a replacement in case he passed away. Roosevelt probably felt that he had a better chance to win with Truman on board, rather than the increasingly erratic and extreme left-leaning Wallace. Roosevelt won, although by a smaller margin than in 1940. Roosevelt’s fourth inaugural was a brief ceremony, ostensibly for wartime decorum, but also because his health was so poor.

Roosevelt had run a strenuous campaign, which had taxed his health even more. But, he knew the war was coming to an end. In February of 1945, he traveled all the way to the Crimean port city of Yalta for talks with Churchill and Stalin. Roosevelt, although younger than both Churchill and Stalin, looked considerably older. The postwar state of Europe was beginning to be mapped out. And the map would end up being quite favorable to Stalin and the Soviet Union. Roosevelt and Churchill were unable to guarantee a democratically elected government in Poland after the war, as well as stop Soviet incursions into the Baltic States. The only “concession” Stalin had to make was to agree to attack Japan 90 days after the surrender of Germany.

Upon his return to the U.S., Roosevelt addressed Congress about the conference. For the first and only time, Roosevelt sat down to give his speech before Congress. His health wouldn’t allow him to stand up with braces for any extended period. That speech was on March 1, 1945. Six weeks later, on April 12, 1945, in Warm Springs, Georgia, Franklin Roosevelt died of a massive stroke.

Harry Truman became President. On July 16, 1945, the first nuclear weapon was successfully tested in New Mexico. On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Roosevelt’s time was gone, or was it?

We are still living with the New Deal. There is still Social Security. There is insurance for bank deposits. The Tennessee Valley Authority still provides power to a large portion of the country.  Many of the people reading were not alive while Franklin Roosevelt was in office. But, more so than any other President, his legacy is one that we cannot escape.

Other stuff: Franklin Roosevelt was buried at his family home in Hyde Park. It is now part of the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is nearby. Eleanor Roosevelt is buried alongside her husband. There is a Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Memorial along the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Eleanor Roosevelt was reportedly 5’11” which made her the tallest First Lady in history until she was matched by Michelle Obama. Before his illness, Franklin Roosevelt stood 6’2″.

Roosevelt’s first Vice President, John Nance Garner, died 15 days shy of his 99th birthday on November 7, 1967. He is the longest-lived Vice President. Of the four people who ran against Roosevelt for President, three of them outlived him: Herbert Hoover (died at age 9o in 1964), Thomas Dewey (died at age 69 in 1971), and Alf Landon (died at age 100 in 1987.) Wendell Willkie died in 1944 at age 52 of a heart attack.

Only two members of Roosevelt’s Cabinet served through all four administrations: Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. The last surviving Cabinet member from Roosevelt’s administration was his first Postmaster General, James Farley, who passed away in 1976. Farley resigned his job in 1940 because he didn’t believe that Roosevelt should have run for a third term.

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Woodrow Wilson by H.W. Brands

President #28, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #9

Take Princeton and give Fourteen Points

wwilsonI. Introduction

Woodrow Wilson was a President so full of promise to many in America, that it seemed shocking how dismally his eight years in office ended. The United States went from being a Great Power to being the Greatest Power while he was in office. But, despite all the lofty ambitions Wilson brought with him, his time as President was also marked by violent upheavals in all parts of society. The United States was a drastically different place from the time Wilson was inaugurated in 1913 than it was when he left in 1921.

II. Growing Up

The 28th President was born Thomas Woodrow Wilson on December 28, 1858 in Staunton, Virginia. His father was a Presbyterian minister who moved his family throughout various cities in the South.  Young Thomas struggled with dyslexia through much of his childhood. Wilson originally attended college at Davidson, but didn’t like it there and dropped out. His father then pulled some strings and got his son admitted to the College of New Jersey (which would eventually become Princeton University). Wilson concentrated on the study of politics and wrote a senior thesis arguing that the President’s Cabinet should be responsible to Congress, as is the case in Britain.

Upon graduation from Princeton, Wilson enrolled in the University of Virginia to study law. Wilson didn’t like the study of law much and dropped out before finishing his studies; although, he would open a law practice for a brief period. Ultimately, Wilson opted to go back to school, enrolling in Johns Hopkins University’s relatively new doctorate program. He earned a Ph.D. in 1886. While in the process of earning that degree (the only President to hold such a degree), Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr College. He also authored Congressional Government, which would become an influential book in political science in its time. Wilson managed to write his book on Congress without ever once visiting Washington and observing Congress in action. But, he became an expert nonetheless.

III. From Ph.D. to the Presidency

Wilson, who dropped the name Thomas and just went by Woodrow sometime in the 1880s, moved on to Princeton to teach. He was one of the most popular lecturers on campus. His class on American government was THE class to take for upperclassmen. Wilson’s popularity among both students and faculty eventually got him promoted all the way to university president in 1902. Wilson, although a poor fundraiser, still managed to raise the profile of Princeton nationally. He became one of the most respected men in America. And, the Democratic party saw him as a Presidential material. He was sympathetic to the Progressive movement; but, he also would appeal to the Democrat’s base in the South because of his upbringing.

There was one problem, though. Wilson had never held elective office. To remedy that situation, Wilson stepped down from his Princeton job to run for governor of New Jersey in 1910. He won that election easily, and almost immediately began campaigning for President in 1912. The Republican party split in 1912 between the conservatives, led by President William Howard Taft, and the Progressives, led by former President Theodore Roosevelt. Taft won the Republican nomination.  So, Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate. The beneficiary of all this was Wilson, who won the election fairly easily. Although Wilson won just 41.8% of the popular vote, he ended up with 435 electoral votes, the highest total recorded up to that time.

IV. Shaking Things Up

Calling his domestic policies “The New Freedom,” Wilson shook up the establishment in Washington. He ended the tradition of Presidents not addressing Congress in person. Since Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, Presidents had communicated with Congress by sending a written message. But, Wilson presented himself to a joint session of Congress in April of 1913 to tell that body that he was ready to work with them to get things done. And, he felt it would be easier if they could talk to him face to face.

Wilson wanted to lower tariffs, feeling that high ones served only to protect corporate interests. To make up for the lost revenue from the tariffs, Wilson instituted an income tax (made possible by the 16th Amendment, which the Republicans had pushed through prior to Wilson taking office).

Additionally, Wilson started two government agencies that would have long lasting effect on the country. To help administer antitrust law, Wilson signed a bill establishing the Federal Trade Commission. And, to help bring more regulation and order to the banking industry, Wilson created the Federal Reserve System.

Wilson knew little about banking, but received a crash course from adviser Louis Brandeis. The Federal Reserve System established a series of regional banks, guided by a Board of Governors in Washington, that controlled the money supply, and oversaw banking regulations.

V. Jim Crow, Suffragettes, and Demon Rum

As a child of the Confederacy, Wilson didn’t forget his roots. Unfortunately, this meant that Wilson allowed Federal departments, most notably the Post Office, to segregate its workers. Wilson would oppose any type of civil rights legislation while President.

Wilson also faced an increasingly hostile women’s suffrage movement. Although Wilson never backed women’s suffrage, the 19th Amendment would eventually be ratified in 1920 toward the end of Wilson’s time in office, granting women the vote in all of the states.

Also, the Prohibition movement succeeded in getting the 18th Amendment ratified in 1920. Wilson was not a supporter of Prohibition. He vetoed the Volstead Act, which set up enforcement of Prohibition. This veto was subsequently overriden by Congress.

VI. Love Lost, Love Found

Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, passed away from kidney disease on August 6, 1914. The President’s grief was almost inconsolable. Wilson’s staff kept close tabs on him to make sure he didn’t try to hurt himself.

However, Wilson would meet someone new just six months after Ellen’s death. This woman, Edith Bolling Galt, was a widow who was prominent in Washington society. Wilson was quickly smitten with her. They would marry on December 18, 1915. Edith would become one of Woodrow Wilson’s most trusted advisers. Her role would be even more important in the final years of the Wilson administration. But, that would be getting ahead of the story.

VII. Trouble Brewing South Of The Border

One glaring gap in Wilson’s resume was foreign policy experience. Wilson knew little about the ways of diplomacy. His choice for Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, was a political appointment to keep Bryan’s wing of the Democratic Party happy.

Wilson soon faced a foreign policy crisis in his own neighborhood. Mexico was in a state of upheaval after longtime president Porfiro Diaz was overthrown in 1911. By 1913, Victoranio Huerta had managed to get himself installed as president.

However, Huerta refused to call for democratic elections. Wilson sent a series of emissaries to convince Huerta otherwise, but eventually gave up. Wilson sent in Army troops instead. General John Pershing led a force that landed at Veracruz that ended up leading to Huerta’s resignation. Wilson even tried forming alliances with Mexican Revolutionary figures such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. The former ended up splitting with the Carranza government (that was backed by the U.S.). Villa and his men would cause more headaches for Wilson.

VIII. Danger from Beneath

Although World War I began in August of 1914, Wilson didn’t think the United States would have much of a role in it at first, and that it would end quickly. This was either naive, or extremely wishful thinking on Wilson’s part.

As the two sides settled in to a long and bloody conflict, it was clear that the winner would be the side that either ran out of soldiers or money first. The United States had plenty of both at the time. Both sides needed U.S. goods to help them through the war. Since it was easier for the U.S. to ship goods to Britain rather than to Germany, the Allied Forces ended up getting the lion’s share of U.S. exports. Germany tried to get more money by asking the Wall Street firm of J.P. Morgan to help sell its war bonds; but, Wilson blocked that action.

Germany now felt that it had to stop the flow of U.S. goods into Great Britain by declaring the area around the island as a war zone. Any merchant ship suspected of carrying war materiel to Britain was subject to being sunk by German submarines.

This action by Germany represented a change in the way war had been conducted. People on ships that were sunk by submarines had little or no hope of rescue. The threat of a sudden attack made Atlantic crossings terrifying.

Hundreds of American lives were lost this way. Wilson’s first response was to issue a series of diplomatic notes to Germany, threatening all sorts of economic sanctions if it continued. Wilson did not wish to commit the U.S. to war as his reelection campaign was coming up in 1916.

IX. “He Kept Us Out of War”

Wilson’s opponent in 1916 was former Supreme Court justice Charles Evans Hughes. Although Theodore Roosevelt wished to run again, the Republicans felt that Hughes would present a slightly more moderate image than the bellicose Roosevelt, who was pushing for American entry into the war. One of Wilson’s campaign slogans was “He Kept Us Out of War.”

Hughes and the Republicans ran an especially poor campaign, rife with internal struggles over ideology. Wilson refused to attack Hughes during the campaign, remarking “One should not murder a man bent on committing suicide.” Nevertheless, Wilson won by a narrow margin in the popular vote (52-47) and by 23 in the Electoral vote (277-254). If Hughes had been able to carry California, which he lost by about 3,000 votes, he would have won.

X. About that war …

The British mounted an effective propaganda campaign against Germany in an attempt to rally American public opinion in favor of joining the war. British agents intercepted a message from German ambassador to the U.S., Arthur Zimmermann, that indicated that Germany hoped to get Mexico to join the war on the German side with the hope of reclaiming much of the American Southwest for Mexico.

Also, the Germans stepped up their submarine warfare, sinking several more American ships. By April of 1917, Wilson had come to the conclusion that the U.S. had to enter the war on the Allied side. Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on April 2, 1917. It was approved four days later.

It took several months for the Americans to be able to send any troops to Europe. The Army was relatively small, with most of the fulltime soldiers occupied with matters in Mexico. Wilson asked Congress to allow conscription to swell the ranks. This was the first time conscription had been used since the Civil War.

There were many protests against conscription. Wilson and the Justice Department did not hesitate to prosecute anyone opposing the war effort. The nascent Communist Party was a favorite target of the Federal government.

Wilson also sent some troops to Russia in 1917 in an attempt to reverse the course of the Russian Revolution. That was … not successful.

XI. Why I’m Using These Numbers

Wilson was confident that the Allies (officially, Wilson said that the U.S. was not part of the Allies. He preferred the term “associate”) would win the war. And, before the bulk of the American forces arrived, Wilson issued his famous “Fourteen Points.” The two most important points were that secret treaties should be prohibited and that a permanent multinational peacekeeping organization (call it a “League of Nations”) should be established to maintain the peace.

French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau famously remarked (repeated in various forms) “Mr. Wilson bores me with his Fourteen Points; why, God Almighty has only Ten!”

Wilson was correct in thinking that the war would be over. American troops proved to be fresh enough to be allow the Allies to break the German lines. The war ended on November 11, 1918. Now all that was left to do was negotiate a peace treaty. What could possibly go wrong with that?

XII. It All Went Wrong

The Palace of Versailles would be the site of the peace negotiations. Wilson decided to travel there himself, an unprecedented move for an American president. Normally, such matters were reserved for Secretaries of State or specially appointed ministers. But, Wilson wasn’t going to allow such important business to be handled by his underlings. Wilson was received by huge throngs in Europe. He was, at the time, the most popular man on the planet.

But, Wilson could not translate his popularity into negotiating skill. He was not open to compromise. But, Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George weren’t open to compromise either. Wilson wanted relatively generous conditions for peace with Germany. The French and British wanted Germany to pay. And pay. And pay some more. And to give up territory. And then pay some more.

Eventually, Wilson would get his League of Nations, with a promise of collective security for all members, but he gave in on reparations. Wilson sailed back home to the U.S. expecting the treaty to be warmly received.

XIII. Irreconcilable Differences

Wilson presented his treaty to the Senate, expecting quick ratification. That was not to be. Senate Republicans, led by Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, knew they had enough votes to block the treaty. The League of Nations horrified many Americans, who had no desire to see the country get involved in world disputes to which it was not a party.

Lodge delayed the vote on the treaty through the spring of 1919. (He started off by reading the entire treaty aloud into the record. That took two weeks.) Public opinion began to grow against the treaty. So, Wilson decided to take his plea to the people and embarked on a whistlestop campaign throughout the country. Republican senators, known as the “Irreconcilables,” dogged Wilson giving speeches counter to his position.

During the strenouous tour, Wilson took ill. Plagued much of his life by high blood pressure, Wilson suffered a massive stroke. He had to cancel the rest of the tour. Wilson had had several small strokes during his lifetime which had resulted in temporary paralysis of one of his hands. When he was in France for the treaty negotiations, on one day, Wilson suddenly asked an aid to help him rearrange the furniture in a particular room because he thought the green and red furniture were fighting with each other. It’s quite possible that Wilson may have been in a compromised state of health during the negotiations.

XIV. An Unhappy Ending

Wilson was left almost totally incapicitated by his stroke. Edith Wilson, along with personal aid Joseph Tumulty and physician Cary Grayson, kept Wilson’s condition hidden from almost everyone. Vice President Thomas Marshall was kept away from Wilson. Secretary of State Robert Lansing (who had succeeded Bryan in 1915) publicly asked if the President was competent.

Although no one knows for certain what was going on, there is enough evidence to think that Edith Wilson made many of the day-to-day decisions of the President. Tumulty also assisted in the decision making. Wilson was well enough to get messages to the Senate demanding that the Treaty of Versailles be approved as is, without any reservations or amendments. Wilson did not wish to see his beloved League of Nations be tossed aside.

However, the treaty would never gather enough votes for ratification, not even earning a majority, let alone the necessary 2/3 vote. Wilson entertained the idea of submitting the treaty to the people as part of a national referendum, but that proved Constitutionally impossible.

Wilson served out his term in isolation. He was not well enough to attend the inauguration of his successor, Warren Harding. Surprisingly, Wilson outlived Harding. Harding passed away on August 2, 1923. Wilson died in Washington, DC on February 3, 1924.

Other stuff: The author of this book is a professor at Texas A&M University; but, he lives in Austin.

Woodrow Wilson has a plethora of places named after him. The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library is located in Staunton, Virginia. The Woodrow Wilson House is a museum in Washington, DC run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. There is also the Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home in Augusta, Georgia. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is a think tank in Washington, DC. Lots of people run into traffic on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge connecting Maryland and Virginia just south of the District of Columbia. The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy is part of Princeton University.

Wilson is buried at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. He is the only President to be buried in Washington.

Wilson was also the subject of a 1944 biopic called “Wilson.” It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and won 5. It was also a box office flop.

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