Year of Meteors by Douglas R. Egerton (1860)

yearofmeteors1860 Election Results

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism by Jules Tygiel

President #40, C-SPAN Historians ranking #10

40 is the new -30-

Of the nine Presidents who have been in office in my lifetime, none had the impact that Ronald Reagan has had. Ronald Reagan succeeded in transforming not just the office of the Presidency, but also the nature of how politics and government is viewed by the country overall. To the Republicans of today, he is revered like no one else in the party, at times outstripping Abraham Lincoln in fame. To the Democrats of today, he is mostly reviled, although sometimes begrudgingly respected.

For historians and biographers, Ronald Reagan is a popular, yet somewhat difficult subject. Edmund Morris lived with Reagan during almost all of his eight years in office. And yet, he could not truly figure out who Reagan was. So, Morris created a fictional character as the narrator for his biography of Reagan called Dutch.

Lou Cannon, a longtime reporter in Sacramento, had a career of covering Ronald Reagan. He wrote a twovolume biography of Reagan. And Cannon never came close to figuring just who Ronald Reagan was.

I opted for a shorter tome, written by San Francisco State University professor Jules Tygiel. Tygiel, who passed away in 2008, is best known for writing a history of Jackie Robinson’s experience with the Brooklyn Dodgers called Baseball’s Great Experiment. Tygiel also wrote a book on the Julian Oil scandal called The Great Los Angeles Swindle.

One of the reasons for choosing this book is that I actually had corresponded several times with Tygiel about baseball history, and found that he was very generous and giving of his time. He was always willing to help out a researcher if he could. So, since I had a gift card to a bookstore, I picked up his book, figuring that his family would get some royalties for this. (Also, I would finish this series a lot sooner.)

Tygiel’s book is, like nearly all of the others I’ve read for this blog, a synthesis of many other writers works. The book is actually intended to be used as a college textbook. Nevertheless, Tygiel injects his opinion of Reagan’s time as President frequently. To Tygiel, Reagan’s biggest contributions (as the title would indicate) were ideological, but his actual achievements may have been less than what his reputation merits. As an aside, I have found this to be the case with every President from George Washington on. The better job that a President did, the more people expect more to have been achieved.

The book takes a while to get to Reagan’s Presidency, but that is hard not to do for someone who was not inaugurated until he was 70. And Reagan’s journey through life gives insight into how he made what was an unlikely career path from studio contract actor to conservative political icon. Continue reading

Theodore Roosevelt by Louis Auchincloss

President #26, C-SPAN historians’ ranking #4

Bullfeathers!!!!

There is no person whose has been President who led a life that seems like it came out of a work of fiction more than Theodore Roosevelt. It seemed apropos that a novelist, Louis Auchincloss (The Rector of Justin among many other titles) wrote this biography of a larger than life figure.

Theodore Roosevelt was a President that America seemed to need. After Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865, the Presidency had passed through the hands of men who ranged from highly capable to grossly incompetent. Even a Civil War hero like Ulysses Grant could not elevate the office to the same stature that it had in Lincoln’s time.

It took a man, born of privilege, but who still took nothing for granted in life, to bring the United States fully up to the level of a world power on par with the British and French. It took a man who could bring together upper crust New Yorkers and rough-edged Westerners into a cohesive fighting unit, for one day of military success. A triumph that would propel him to the White House.

Theodore Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858 in New York City. His father, also named Theodore (as an adult, President Theodore Roosevelt did not use the “Junior” suffix), did not serve in the Union Army in the Civil War, instead buying a replacement. This was a source of great embarrassment to young Theodore, who felt his father, whom he idolized, displayed cowardice.

As a child, Roosevelt was plagued with debilitating asthma attacks. There was no effective treatment for that condition at that time, aside from just being propped up in a chair. The condition made it difficult for Roosevelt to attend school on a regular basis.

In an effort to improve his physical condition, young Theodore Roosevelt took up boxing. This led to a lifelong interest in physical fitness, as well as a love of the outdoors. Roosevelt called this “the vigorous life.”

Through home schooling, Roosevelt was able to develop a sufficient background to get himself admitted to Harvard in 1876. He proved to be an excellent student, devouring knowledge in seemingly every field. Roosevelt had an encyclopedic knowledge of literature, and was also well-versed in geography, the natural sciences, and history. After graduating from Harvard, Roosevelt would write a book, the Naval War of 1812.

In 1878, while at Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt’s father passed away at age 47 from a form of colon cancer. Young Theodore missed seeing his father before he passed away, and always regretted it. As it would turn out, tragedy would stalk him much of his life. It is amazing that he was able to overcome it.

Theodore Roosevelt married Alice Lee in 1880 and seemed to be a happy couple. Roosevelt had carefully picked out his wife, wanting only a woman of the finest breeding, as well as one who was a virgin. He was strongly opposed to sex outside of a marriage. However, he was a big supporter of sex in marriage and believed it was every person’s duty to have as many children as possible.

Alice became pregnant in 1883 and gave birth to a daughter, also named Alice, on February 12, 1884. Two days later, the new mother passed away from kidney failure. On the same day, Roosevelt’s mother passed away as well as from typhoid fever. Roosevelt never spoke about his first wife to anyone ever again, even to his daughter.

In response to these tragedies, Roosevelt decided not to run for reelection to the New York State Assembly (where he had begun to build his resume as a reformer) and moved out to his ranch, Elk Horn, in the Dakota Territory. He spent time living a life that would seem to be too fantastic for even a Hollywood Western.  Roosevelt caught a group of thieves and marched them back through the wilderness for a week until he could turn them over to the nearest law enforcement authority.

Roosevelt returned to the political arena later in 1884, making an appearance at the Republican National Convention. He held his nose and endorsed James Blaine for the nomination, even though he could not stand Blaine’s policies. Roosevelt felt that politically, he could not go out on a limb just yet.

In 1886, Roosevelt had his ups and downs. He ran for mayor of New York, but lost. But, he also remarried. Edith Carow was a childhood acquaintance of Roosevelt. The two married in London. They would have five children together.

Roosevelt then served in a series of political jobs that burnished his image as a reformer. He also was a member of the Federal Civil Service Commission from 1888 through 1895. He then moved on to become the Police Commissioner of New York. Roosevelt would walk the beats of officers and often find them asleep. He completely revamped the police force. (It is not known if alarm clocks were part of the revamping.)

The election of William McKinley as President in 1896 would give Roosevelt his chance to shine. He was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The Secretary of the Navy, John T. Long, was getting on in years and not an active manager of the department. Roosevelt took this opportunity to push across a plan to improve the Navy. He knew that a war with Spain over Cuba was likely. Roosevelt, when Long was on vacation, ordered the Pacific fleet to Manila Bay in the Philippines in preparation for the war. When war was declared, the Navy, under Admiral George Dewey, immediately scored a major victory over the Spanish fleet and kept other European powers from joining the fray.

Roosevelt did not want to sit out of the fighting in the Spanish-American War. So, he managed to get the Army to let him create his regiment, which would be known as the Rough Riders. The unit was a mixture of Western cowboys and wealthy New York scions. Although they trained to fight on horseback, they could not bring the horses to Cuba.

In what turned out to be the single biggest ground action of the war, Roosevelt led his men in a charge up San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898. Going up against heavy Spanish fire, Roosevelt and his men captured the hill. And, in turn, captured the imagination of the American public.

Roosevelt knew that malaria was an even bigger enemy than the Spanish. He quickly got his men sent back to the United States. Roosevelt came back and was elected governor of New York later in the year. Two years later, Roosevelt was elected Vice-President alongside McKinley. And on September 13, 1901, McKinley died from his gunshot wound seven days earlier. At age 42, Roosevelt was now the youngest President in American history. In the words of Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, a conservative Republican, “that damned cowboy is in the White House.”

After five years of solid, although perhaps not awe-inspiring, leadership from McKinley, America now had a dynamic man in the White House who wanted to get things done. And, he would do so.

Roosevelt soon faced a major strike by coal miners. Labor relations at this time were summed up by one coal corporation executive, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by labor agitators but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country.” Roosevelt ended up threatening to have the Army to operate the mines if a settlement could not be reached.  The mine operators agreed to binding arbitration.

The hot button political issue of Roosevelt’s time was the influence of corporations. Antitrust laws were routinely skirted by railroads, oil companies, and financiers. Roosevelt decided to go after one trust, known as the Northern Securities Company. It was a holding company that controlled two railways (the Northern Pacific and the Union Pacific) along with J.P. Morgan’s investment house. The company had a value, in 1902 dollars of $400 million. That would be about $9.5 billion today.

Roosevelt had the Justice Department prosecute Northern Securities for violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Morgan was outraged. He felt that Roosevelt should have just negotiated with him personally. Roosevelt was having none of that.

Ultimately, the government prevailed in the Supreme Court, although Roosevelt did not get the broad interpretation of the Sherman Act that he wanted. Nevertheless, the days of corporate mergers on a grand scale were over. So says, the guy who has a checking account at a bank that is owned by the House of Morgan. Roosevelt would pick up the nickname “The Trust Buster.”

In 1903, Roosevelt sent Secretary of State John Hay to Colombia to negotiate a treaty that would allow the United States to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The Colombian Senate would not ratify the deal, upsetting Roosevelt.

Around this same time, French engineer Philippe Bunau-Varilla was still trying to push the idea of a Panama Canal in the United States. But without Colombia’s cooperation, the United States and Bunau-Varilla had to take a different approach. So, an independence movement in Panama sprung up. The United States backed the Panamanians with a naval force. The Republic of Panama came into existence on November 3, 1903. Bunau-Varilla offered himself up to the Panamanians to serve as their minister to the United States. On November 6, 1903, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty granted the United States the right to build a canal.

Construction on the canal would begin in 1907. Roosevelt would become the first sitting President to leave the United States when he made a visit to the site. In his usual style, he asked to operate a large steam shovel to help do some excavation. The Panama Canal would not open until 1914.

Roosevelt ran for election in his own right in 1904. Prior to that time, no Vice President who had assumed the Presidency because of a death had been elected. Usually, the former VPs were not even considered. Roosevelt was different. He had become the most popular man in the country.

The Democrats had little to offer in opposition to Roosevelt. New York Appellate Judge Alton Parker was given the unenviable task of taking on Roosevelt. It was no contest. Roosevelt won with 56% of the vote and 336 electoral votes. Upon his election, Roosevelt pledged to not run for another term in office. That statement would come back to haunt him.

In his one full term, Roosevelt was still a whirlwind of activity. In 1905, Roosevelt brokered a peace treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War. For his efforts, Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1906, Roosevelt had the United States participate in a multinational conference in Algeciras, Spain to sort out how the European colonies in North Africa would be governed. The Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, made a personal appeal to Roosevelt to help reduce tensions. The conference only ended up delaying the onset of World War I.

Some of the territories that the United States occupied after the war with Spain were granted independence or autonomy in Roosevelt’s time, in particular, Cuba. However, the Philippines remained a troublesome spot. A bloody insurgency, which the United States tried to stem with often brutal methods, persisted throughout Roosevelt’s Administration.

Roosevelt also oversaw a major buildup in American naval forces. To demonstrate this, Roosevelt dispatched a fleet of newly constructed battleships (“The Great White Fleet”) to take an around the world journey to show that America was now a world power on a par with Britain, France, Russia, and Japan.

On the domestic front, Roosevelt brought the issue of conservation to the forefront. Roosevelt established the United States Forest Service, created five National Parks, and 18 National Monuments. Roosevelt’s attitude toward forests was that they were a resource that could be managed and preserved.

In response to the publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which exposed unsanitary practices in the food industry (even if that was not Sinclair’s main point in writing the book), Roosevelt pushed for the Pure Food and Drug Act to regulate the industry.

Roosevelt had pushed the Republican Party farther to the left than many in the party felt comfortable with. However, Roosevelt’s enormous popularity made it hard to stop him.

When Roosevelt left office in 1908, he anointed William Howard Taft as his successor. Roosevelt and Taft were good friends and the former hoped the latter would further extend his policies. But, William Taft was not Theodore Roosevelt. He was far more conservative. Friction between the two men began almost as soon as the election of 1908 was over.

Roosevelt departed the political scene for a period. He went on safari in Africa. He toured Europe. He thought he would be happy being a respected world figure.

But, it was not enough. By 1912, Roosevelt had completely broken with Taft and decided to run against his successor for the Republican nomination. However, Roosevelt made his decision too late. Taft was able to secure enough delegates to win the nomination. Roosevelt would not quit. His supporters bolted the Republican Party and formed the Progressive Party.

During the campaign, Roosevelt was shot in an assassination attempt in Milwaukee. The bullet was slowed down by the papers that Roosevelt had in his jacket to use for a speech. Despite his wound, Roosevelt insisted on delivering his speech. During the speech, Roosevelt said “it takes more than that [a bullet] to kill a bull moose.” And so, Roosevelt’s supporters became known as the Bull Moose Party. (The bullet was not removed from Roosevelt’s body, but he had to shut down his campaign for the final few weeks.)

The split in the Republican Party handed the 1912 election to the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt’s 27.4% of the popular vote was the best showing by a third party candidate in the 20th Century. Wilson was everything Roosevelt was not. Wilson was not an advocate of the “vigorous life.” Wilson was dour. Wilson worked in academia. Roosevelt was a man of action. He fought in a war. He inspired men to do great things. Roosevelt never respected Wilson.

With politics closed off to him, Roosevelt went on another journey. He led an expedition to explore a Brazilian river called The River of Doubt (it’s now called Rio Roosevelt.) During the expedition, Roosevelt almost died from an infection in one of his legs. His health would never be good again after the trip.

When World War I began in 1914, Roosevelt cajoled Wilson into getting America involved on the side of the Allies. He could not tolerate Wilson’s cautious plan of neutrality. Once the United States finally did enter the war in 1917, Roosevelt asked Wilson if he could form his own unit like he did in the Spanish-American War. Wilson declined the offer. Wilson did not want to run the risk of having someone like Roosevelt criticizing him in the field. Also, Wilson could tell that Roosevelt was not in the best of health.

Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial in Washington, DC

Some of Roosevelt’s sons fought in the war. His youngest son, Quentin, served as a pilot and died when he was shot down behind German lines. Roosevelt was crushed both emotionally and physically by this.

Roosevelt still hoped to run for the White House one more time in 1920. But, on January 6, 1919, Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep of a heart attack. His health had been compromised by rheumatism, malaria, and the leg infection he picked up in Brazil. Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest man ever to be President, died at the age of 60.

It is hard not to find a good biography of Theodore Roosevelt. His life is so rich that historians constantly write about him. If Theodore Roosevelt lived today, there would probably be a “Facts of Theodore Roosevelt” website along the lines of “Chuck Norris Facts.”

Auchincloss starts off his biography of Roosevelt by trying to immediately present him as a flawed individual. This serves to make Roosevelt’s life seem even more remarkable because you realize that he was just a regular person like each one of us. Auchincloss has a portrait of Roosevelt that is respectful, not fantastic.

Theodore Roosevelt, more so than any other President, transformed the office of President. He transformed the nation. Was he a perfect man? No, but none of us are.

For nearly all of us, Theodore Roosevelt is almost a mythical figure. And he very well may have been the last President to achieve that status.

Other stuff: There is a Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota in the area where he had his ranch. There is a Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial in Washington, DC. Theodore Roosevelt’s home, Sagamore Hill, is a National Historic Site. Roosevelt is buried at Youngs Memorial Cemetery in Oyster Bay, New York. Roosevelt’s birth place is a National Historic Site.

Since Roosevelt passed away in 1919, the only President to die of natural causes who was younger than Roosevelt (60 years and 71 days) was Warren Harding, who was 57 years and 273 days old, when he passed away in 1923.

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George W. Bush by TBA

President #43, C-SPAN Historians ranking #36

… and of the Son

My goal in this blog was to review a biography of every former President. I also wanted to do it in a random order.

At first, I assumed I would have a more leisurely stroll through the biographies of the 42ish men who served in the White House. But, I discovered that a lot of the books I was reading were only 150 pages or so and I could devour them quickly. Sometimes books weren’t in that series and I had to read very long tomes (such as with Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.)

And although the order was random, it happened that George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush happened to fall right after each other in line.

This helped me in terms of finding a tag line at the beginning, but it left me with another problem. That is, there is no adequate biography of George W. Bush to read.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a LOT of books about our newest former President. However, they were either written before he was in office, or while he was in office, or just examine particular aspects of his Presidency. (Did you know there was a war in the Middle East the last few years? I need to read about this. I hope I can find a book.)

George W. Bush has just been out of office for about 11 months (depending upon when you read this, I’m hedging.) Historical perspective on the Bush 43 Administration will take a few more years to come in to focus.

As for now, there are a lot of books available which portray George W. Bush as a saint, a sinner, a hero, a villain, a statesman, a war criminal, etc.  If you are a regular reader of this blog, I am fairly certain you are fairly familiar with what happened between January 20, 2001 and January 20, 2009. If not, I applaud you for making a rapid recovery from your long coma or being a very precocious child.

Presumably, George W. Bush will publish memoirs in the next couple of years. And they will be dissected by political pundits for a few months. People on Fox News will say how good they are. People on MSNBC will say how bad they are.

When Bush left office, historians were not kind to him in their rankings. But that may be expected for a President who leaves office with an approval rating of 22%, which is Nixonian. In contrast, George H.W. Bush left office with a 54% approval rating. It helps not to have a major recession start while you are finishing up your Presidency.

I do not think I can add too much to the past eight years, except for this.

I think it was sometime in 1997 when I was talking to someone about how the Electoral College worked and I explained that three Presidents had won despite not getting the most popular votes (John Quincy Adams, Rutherford Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison.) I predicted that such an event would never happen again in our lifetime because there would have to either be a significant third party vote (like in 1824) or a huge sectional divide (1876, 1888.)

The 2000 election put me in my place. (Lots of things put me in my place. I should be put in my place more often. Perhaps I need a new place to be put.) As it turned out, there was enough of a sectional divide in 2000 to propel George W. Bush to the White House. But, it was not exactly the same divide as those after the Civil War. And no other election has ended with the two major nominees listed in a Supreme Court opinion to decide the election.

In time (and that time has not yet come), we can look back at 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Patriot Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, the Wall Street bailout, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (I’m waiting for Kanye West’s book with a befuddled foreword from Mike Myers), and the influence of Vice President Dick Cheney and see what has become of the United States. Perhaps more will be written when the George W. Bush Presidential Center opens in Dallas on the campus of Southern Methodist University (sometime in 2013.) It is temporarily located in Lewisville, Texas.

And maybe, just maybe, someone will write the definitive biography of George W. Bush. But, there is not one now. So, I will just move on to the next President in line.

Feel free to boo this decision below.

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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William McKinley by Kevin Phillips

President #25, C-SPAN Historians’ Ranking #16

The War With Spain Starts Mainly With the Maine

mckinleyWhile many kids grew up with toy soldiers, my childhood featured a set of plastic toy Presidents. (And much to my glee, a complete set is on display at the Smithsonian now. It includes an intact Lyndon Johnson. Our LBJ was missing part of his right arm. The family set remains, as it has since 1970, in a Pangburn’s Frappe Creams box. It is presently at my brother’s home in Clayton, Missouri. You can make an appointment to see them.) While these should have been educational toys for my brothers and I, we tended to use them to set up football plays. When forming teams, Taft and Cleveland were almost always used as linemen, but so was William McKinley. He just looked so big.

As it turned out, McKinley wasn’t a big guy. He was actually just 5’7″ and probably didn’t weigh all that much. I really should have been using McKinley as a wide receiver or a running back.

So, what is the point of this introductory story? After reading Kevin Phillips’ biography of McKinley, it seems that there was a lot I didn’t know about our 25th President. Have I spent my whole life completely misunderstanding the life of William McKinley? And if I have, does anyone care? If you don’t care, presumably you’ll stop reading.

OK. Now, I’ll continue for those who might care or just aren’t reading carefully.

I had been taught that McKinley was little more than a tool of Big Business, who used him as a puppet to line their pockets. I was also led to believe that McKinley also started the United States on an imperialist path because he was cowed into it by a sensationalist press. Finally, I knew McKinley had been assassinated in 1901, and a young Theodore Roosevelt took over and brought America to true greatness.

However, Phillips thinks that McKinley has been greatly underestimated by historians. He argues that McKinley was much more independent minded than people gave him credit for. McKinley was not the last President before the Progressive movement swept the country; rather, he was the first Progressive President, according to Phillips. Only an untimely assassination early in his second term prevented McKinley from taking his place alongside the likes of Jefferson, Jackson, and the two Roosevelts.

William McKinley was born on January 29, 1843 in Niles, Ohio. He attended both Mount Union and Allegheny Colleges, but did not receive a degree from either institution. When the Civil War began, McKinley enlisted. One of the officers McKinley served under was future president Rutherford Hayes. By the time war ended, McKinley had been promoted from private all the way to brevet major. McKinley’s Civil War experiences would help to shape his future.

During the war, McKinley became well-known among Ohio Republicans. McKinley attended law school in Albany, New York and started up a practice back home in Canton, Ohio.

While in Canton, McKinley met and married a wealthy woman, Ida Saxton. The couple had two children who died young. These deaths, combined with the death of Ida’s mother, turned out to be both a physical and mental strain on Ida. She developed a form of epilepsy and was bed-ridden for most of the rest of her life. When she would venture out in public, she would frequently have a seizure. William would cover her face with a napkin and carry her out of the room. William would be intensely, yet quietly devoted to Ida for the rest of his life.

By 1877, McKinley had won a seat in the House of Representatives. He served until 1891; although, he was out of office for one term starting in 1883.

In his final term in the House, McKinley was chairman of the House Ways and Mean Committee. He authored a protective tariff bill that bore his name in 1890. McKinley actually didn’t like the finished product all that much. But, McKinley supported the bill anyway. However, the high tariffs in the bill proved unpopular at the ballot box. In the 1891 election, McKinley was voted out of office.

However, McKinley wasn’t out of politics for long as he was quickly elected Governor of Ohio later in the year. He was sworn into office in 1892.

McKinley surprised some in office with his support for the plight of a group of starving coal miners. They had sent a telegram to him describing their plight. McKinley was moved and marshaled State resources to help the miners and their families. McKinley also started a statewide charity drive to help others in need.

Around the same time, McKinley was also in dire financial straits personally. A loan he had given a friend had gone bad, and McKinley was now facing a debt of over $100,000. However, thanks to the financial resources of Ida (whose money was tied up in a trust) and the help of many of Ohio’s major businessmen, including Marcus Hanna, McKinley was able to avoid bankruptcy.

Some had already thought of McKinley as a Presidential candidate back in 1892; but, McKinley knew that 1896 would be a better time to run. Also, McKinley did not want to look disloyal to Republican party faithfuls by unseating a Republican incumbent, Benjamin Harrison.

1896 would be a good year for Republicans. The main reason for this was that the country had entered into a deep recession starting in 1893 (the Panic of 1893 as it was called.) The Democratic party was being taken over by candidates who wanted to increase the use of silver over gold as currency. However, at the time, silver was far more plentiful than gold and the Democratic plan would have led to a high rate of inflation.

The Democrats nominated a previously little known Nebraska Representative named William Jennings Bryan as their candidate for President. Bryan had delivered a stirring address where he said, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

Bryan was the first nominee of either major party in the United States to run a campaign that was targeted almost exclusively at the lower classes. He viewed the election as a battle between the forces of good in rural areas against those of evil in the cities. “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

McKinley won the Republican nomination easily. He and his advisors decided not to try to match Bryan’s oratorical feats on the campaign trail. Instead, McKinley ran a “front porch” campaign. Crowds of supporters trained into Canton to listen to the Republican nominee.

The Election of 1896 would be a pivotal one in American history. McKinley triumphed with 51.1% of the popular vote, and winning in the Electoral College by a margin of 271-176. McKinley was able to hold on to a few key states in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and North Dakota) and the West (California and Oregon) to win the election. The United States was not going down a populist path.

Soon after taking office, McKinley began to firm up American support for the gold standard. The economy began to improve. The growing economy needed markets to sell its goods. The United States was going to need foreign markets to take more exports.

The popular way of achieving this at the time was to take over some distant point on the globe. European powers were carving up Africa and parts of Asia. The United States needed to get into the act.

The first place the United States aimed to add was Hawai’i. The island group had overthrown its monarchy during the second Grover Cleveland administration and wanted to be annexed by the U.S. Cleveland did not feel this was right; but, McKinley had no reservations. By 1898, Hawai’i had become a U.S. territory.

Closer to home, there were rumblings in Cuba. An insurgency by Cubans against the ruling Spanish authority had gathered sympathy in the United States. The Spanish began to gather Cubans from the countryside and put them into what were called “concentration camps.” (At the time, this phrase did not have the same implication as it would during World War II. It just meant that there were a lot of people in one place.)

McKinley had ordered the Navy to protect U.S. interests in Cuba. The battleship Maine was in the harbor in Havana on February 15, 1898, when it exploded. The ship was destroyed and 267 men were killed.

American public opinion blamed Spain for the loss of life. Whether or not this was true is still hotly debated. However, McKinley was put into a position where he could no longer ignore Spanish atrocities in Cuba once they were combined with the deaths of American sailors.

Some wanted McKinley to ask for a declaration of war immediately. But, McKinley waited until April before asking Congress to declare war. This allowed American forces to gather themselves and prepare for war. McKinley feared that other European powers, namely Germany, would come to Spain’s aid.

However, that was not the case. The Navy was already in position in Manila to wipe out the Spanish fleet there when war was finally declared. Spanish troops in Cuba were easily beaten by a small American force. The war began on April 25, 1898 and was over on August 12. The United States ended up with control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.

More importantly, the United States Navy had grown from being the 12th largest in the world to the second largest, behind only Great Britain. The United States had served notice that it was a world power.

The popular view of the Spanish-American War was that McKinley vacillated before declaring war, and only overwhelming public opinion, and the influence of pro-war Cabinet members, such as Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, pushed McKinley into going to war. Phillips argues that McKinley was well aware of the situation, but only wanted war as a last resort. His Civil War experience had stayed with him. McKinley was greatly relieved that there were few casualties in this war.

In the 1898 midterm elections, McKinley and the Republicans lost just 19 seats, a good mark for that era. The Republicans still enjoyed a healthy 187-161 majority in the House. (There were nine Representatives from other parties.)

McKinley was personally popular. He pushed for higher tariffs, but on a more scientific basis. He wanted high tariffs only in areas that would help promote American business. In some areas, he wanted lower tariffs in order to help Americans buy cheaper goods. He also pushed to set up a series of reciprocal trade agreements with other countries. The last goal would not be achieved during his time in office, however.

After the war, McKinley made two key changes to his Cabinet.  John Hay took over as Secretary of State and Elihu Root became Secretary of War. Both men were capable diplomats and administrators. McKinley had originally staffed the job with political appointees, John Sherman and Russell Alger. When McKinley saw that neither man was up to the job, he eased them out. Hay and Root’s influences on American foreign policy would persist into the 1950s.

By the time the 1900 Election rolled around, it was evident that it was going to be a rematch of 1896. Bryan was still the Democratic nominee. McKinley had to find a new running mate. Garret Hobart, his Vice President, had passed away in 1899.

The Republican leaders wanted McKinley to choose Secretary of the Navy John Long. But, McKinley had his eye on New York Governor Thedore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, after famously serving in the Spanish-American War, had made enemies in New York with a property tax plan that many thought was just a scheme to redistribute wealth. However, the plan was popular among most New Yorkers. McKinley told the Republican Convention that he didn’t want Long as his running mate. Instead, he hinted that it should be Roosevelt. And so it was.

McKinley won about the same percentage of the popular vote in 1900, but his electoral lead was slightly larger (292-155). The Republican House contingent moved back up to 200 seats, a gain of 13.

With a healthy amount of political capital gained from a successful war, a booming economy, and a friendly Congress, McKinley likely had big plans for his second term, according to Phillips. McKinley was preparing a plan to go after business trusts, which he felt were undemocratic and anti-competitive. McKinley also was hoping to ease tensions between management and labor.

At the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, McKinley made a speech pushing for reciprocal trade agreements, one of his favorite issues. The day after the speech, September 6, 1901, McKinley went to shake hands with the crowd. One of the people in the crowd was a man named Leon Czolgosz, a Michigan native with anarchist sympathies. Czolgosz had concealed a revolver under a handkerchief. He fired twice at McKinley. The second bullet lodged deeply in McKinley, hitting several vital organs.

Although there was an X-ray machine available at the site, the device was in its infancy and no one knew if using it to find the bullet would cause more harm than good. McKinley lingered for eight days, passing away on September 14, 1901. Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the 26th President, the youngest man (42 years old) to ever hold the office.

Phillips argues that if McKinley had not been assassinated, he would have accomplished just as much as Roosevelt did during his administration. McKinley’s problem was that he left a very short paper trail of his plans. McKinley’s thoughts about what he planned to do in his second term are very sketchy. Theodore Roosevelt followed most of McKinley’s policies, except that he was a far more charismatic figure. Phillips also asserts that Roosevelt did not push for any reciprocal trade agreements because he didn’t understand the issue as well as McKinley did.

The issue of America becoming a colonial power is one that is even more problematic. Phillips believes that it was a necessity for the U.S. to become one, both for strategic and economic reasons. Phillips asserts that McKinley tried his best to make the move as peacefully as possible. However, a bloody insurrection in the Philippines that would last for years past McKinley’s death may be evidence against that. Nevertheless, both Democratic (Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman) and Republican (Theodore Roosevelt) made the U.S. a world power. McKinley was the President who started the country on that path.

The best evidence for McKinley’s influence on American history is the legacy of his appointees. In an appendix, Phillips lists people appointed by or associated with McKinley who went on to greater fame. Besides Roosevelt, Hay, and Root, there was also McKinley’s secretary, George Corteylou, who would serve as the first Secretary of Commerce and Labor. Charles Dawes was Comptroller of the Currency under McKinley and would later win a Nobel Peace Prize for his plan to restructure Europe’s World War I debts and serve as Vice President under Calvin Coolidge. (There are 12 total listed by Phillips.)

However, McKinley has never been ascribed the fame in history that Phillips wish he had earned. The bright light of Theodore Roosevelt makes it difficult to appreciate William McKinley. This was even true during McKinley’s time as the linked cartoon seems to indicate. Also, the biggest political issue of McKinley’s era, the primacy of the gold standard, was made a nonissue after the Great Depression.

Phillips tries to make McKinley’s accomplishments out to be earth shattering, but not everyone might believe it. It’s hard to look back at McKinley and see if he had, in the words of George H.W. Bush, “the vision thing.” Theodore Roosevelt definitely did. McKinley worked quietly and often behind the scenes. And no matter what Phillips writes, McKinley will likely remain behind the scenes for most of us.

Theodore Roosevelt ended up on Mount Rushmore. William McKinley perhaps should have had a better fate than ending up as an offensive lineman in a game of toy presidents played by nerdy kids growing up in the San Fernando Valley.

Other stuff: The William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum is in Canton, Ohio. It is operated by the Stark County Historical Association. It is also McKinley’s burial spot.

The highest point in the United States is often referred to as Mount McKinley, although the native Athabaskan name of Denali is now also used to describe the 20,320 feet high peak in Alaska.

William McKinley was the first incumbent U.S. president to visit California. He was making plans to become the first president to visit outside the country before he died. Thedore Roosevelt would be the first U.S. President to visit a foreign country, Panama.

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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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