Milllard Fillmore by Robert J. Scarry

President #13, C-SPAN historians ranking #37

Yes, I Was President

fillmoreFor a job that has only had 43 different men in it, it seems to hard to believe that some people to hold the office could be as obscure as Millard Fillmore. America’s 13th President, an amiable politician from Buffalo, somehow managed to work his way up to the highest office in the land. Yet, he failed to make much an impression. For some people, he’s just a joke. He’s the namesake of a conservative cartoon duck.

However, Robert J. Scarry, a retired high school history teacher from Moravia, New York, dedicated much of his life to the rehabilitation of Fillmore’s image. He tried to chronicle all aspects of Fillmore’s life. His 2001 book, published near the time of his death, can be quite a chore to read. The book goes on and on and on about just about everything in Fillmore’s life, but doesn’t really explain much. Scarry wants us to come to respect what Fillmore accomplished. But, in the end, you don’t really learn much of anything about Fillmore.

Millard Fillmore was born on January 7, 1800 in a log cabin in Moravia, New York. He had little formal education growing up. When the War of 1812 started, young Millard wanted to serve in the Navy, but his father prevented him from signing up. Instead, Millard Fillmore was hired out as an apprentice and eventually learned the trade of wool carding.

In addition to earning some money, Fillmore received an education. It wasn’t much of one, but he managed to get a job when he was 18 as a school teacher. Such was the state of American education at the time, that a young man with little education and who could barely read or write better than the students was the teacher. Nevertheless, Fillmore worked hard at the job and also learned how to read and write better on his own.

At age 19, Fillmore met his future wife, Abigail, who was also a school teacher. Abigail was far more learned than Millard and she would help round out his education. Around the same time, Fillmore met a local judge, Walter Wood, and learned the law from him. Eventually, Fillmore moved to East Aurora where he set up a practice.

In 1826, Millard and Abigail finally married. They had two children, a son Millard Powers, and a daughter, Mary Abigail. Fillmore also began to develop political connections in the area. He moved to the biggest city in the area, Buffalo, in 1830.

In 1828, Fillmore ran for the New York State Legislature as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party. As you might guess from the name, this party was opposed to the practice of Freemasonry. This was actually a potent political force at the time. The Anti-Masonic Party is credited with being the first party to nominate a Presidential candidate by convention.

Fillmore worked his way up in notoriety in the New York legislature, becoming an expert on bankruptcy law. In 1833, Fillmore was elected to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He eventually aligned himself with Henry Clay’s supporters, who would become the Whig Party in 1836.

When William Henry Harrison was elected President in 1840, the Whigs took control of the House. Fillmore was a candidate for Speaker, but lost the race. As a consolation prize, he was made Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Outside of one tariff bill, Fillmore did not seem to accomplish much during his time in the House. But, people seemed to like him. In 1844, he was considered for the Vice Presidential slot alongside Clay, but lost out to Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey. Frelinghuysen was serving as chancellor of NYU at the time. Frelinghuysen’s father was a Senator, his nephew and adopted son became a Senator and Secretary of State, his great-great nephew served in the House, and his great-great-great nephew currently serves in the House. Another Frelinghuysen was also a Senator from New Jersey.

Fillmore decided to run for governor of New York. However, 1844 was not a good year for the Whigs. Democrat James Polk won the Presidency and Silas Wright was elected Governor of New York. It seemed that Fillmore’s political career was over.

But, you can’t keep a good man down. Or, in this case, you can’t keep a guy who doesn’t seem to get anybody angry down. In 1847, the state of New York made the office of comptroller elected. Fillmore won that race. The job served to keep Fillmore in the public eye.

DSCF0887In 1848, on the heels of the Mexican War, the Whigs nominated war hero Zachary Taylor for President. Taylor was an unknown politically, but the Whigs figured that a popular candidate was better than having a three-time loser in Clay running again. Fillmore was tabbed as the running mate to bring sectional balance to the ticket. (Taylor was born in Virginia, but lived in Louisiana.)

Taylor and Fillmore beat the Democratic ticket of Lewis Cass and William Butler by a margin of 5%. Former President Martin Van Buren ran as a third party candidate for the Free Soil Party and won 10% of the vote, but no states.

Fillmore and Taylor didn’t meet each other until shortly before the Inauguration. Fillmore’s political enemies in New York, Whig party bosses Thurlow Weed and William Seward, had managed to isolate Fillmore from Taylor, and controlled the patronage for the state. Fillmore had little to do but sit around in the Senate and listen to debates.

This wasn’t a bad thing. Fillmore got the best seat in the Senate chamber for some of the greatest orations in the nation’s history. The biggest political issue of the day was an Omnibus Compromise Bill proposed by Clay to solve the problem of how to incorporate the new territories won from Mexico into the United States as either free or slave states.

The proposed compromise would:

  • admit California as a free state
  • create the territories of Utah and New Mexico with no prohibitions against slavery
  • force Texas to accept the border that exists today between it and New Mexico
  • abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia
  • strenghten the laws regarding the return of fugitive slaves

Antislavery Senators like Seward denounced the Compromise as being against a “higher law.” On March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster gave a speech in favor of the Compromise. That speech became known as the “Seventh of March Speech.”

However, some of the debate was quite heated. Fillmore wanted to be able to rule Senators out of order for using impolite speech, but the Vice President had lost this power back in 1828. Fillmore tried to get the Senate to amend its rules to restore this power to him.

On April 3, 1850, Fillmore tried to rule that Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton was out of order. Clay was furious. Words were spoken. Eventually, Mississippi Senator Henry Foote pulled a gun on Benton. Fortunately, Foote didn’t fire.

The Omnibus Bill was too big for Congress to act on before it adjourned for the summer. While Congress was away, President Taylor stayed in Washington in the summer of 1850. President Taylor contracted cholera and died on July 10, 1850. Millard Fillmore became the 13th President of the United States.

Taylor had indicated that he would veto the Compromise bill, but Fillmore was inclined to support it. However, it was still having trouble getting through Congress. Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas hit upon the idea of separating the bill into several parts and having them passed separately. This allowed different coalitions to support each bill. The plan worked. Fillmore signed into law all the parts of the Compromise of 1850.

The most controversial part of the Compromise of 1850 turned out to be the Fugitive Slave Act. The return of runaway slaves had now become a Federal matter. Slaves could be hunted down by special marshals and returned to their owners without any court hearing. The measure was bitterly opposed in some parts of the North. Fillmore believed that the Act was necessary to keep the Union intact.

For the rest of his term in office, Fillmore did not accomplish much of note. He did threaten South Carolina with force to keep that state’s governor from calling for a secession vote. (And the governor did not go to Argentina either.) Fillmore also had to send in troops to keep Texas redrawing the New Mexico border line.

There wasn’t much for Fillmore to do legislatively. Congress was too deeply divided to accomplish much of anything.

Fillmore did try his hand in foreign affairs. He sent a fleet of ships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan in an attempt to open trade with that mysterious nation. However, the ships didn’t arrive until Fillmore’s term in office ended. Also, Fillmore managed to avoid going to war with Peru over some uninhabited islands in the Pacific that were rich in guano deposits.

In 1852, Fillmore hoped that the Whigs would renominate him. But, he couldn’t run away from the Compromise of 1850. Even though it managed to keep the Civil War at bay for 10 years, it managed to anger enough people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line to make Fillmore’s name mud.

Fillmore hoped that his Secretary of State, Webster, would get the nomination. But, the Whigs nominated another Mexican War hero, Winfield Scott. This might have been a good thing as Webster died before the election was held anyway. Also, Webster was likely an alcoholic. But aside from being a dying alcoholic, Webster was Presidential material! Democrat Franklin Pierce won the election.

Abigail Fillmore died soon after Pierce’s inauguration. In 1854, Fillmore’s daughter Mary Abigail died at age 22 of cholera.

To get over the grief of losing his wife and daughter so soon, Fillmore went on the grand tour of Europe. While he may have appeared to have been out of politics, Fillmore was still in the game.

There was a new political movement in the country called the Know Nothings. This political party, which swore its members to secrecy about its platform (hence the name), was the Lou Dobbs Party of its time. The party opposed increased immigration into the United States for fear of losing jobs to lower paid immigrants. (And you thought this was a new issue.) The Know Nothings were also anti-Catholic, primarily because many Catholics were Irish immigrants.

The Know Nothings (officially called the American Party) nominated Fillmore for President while he was in Europe. Fillmore didn’t get back to the U.S. until June 22, 1856.

Why did Fillmore decide to join the Know Nothings. Scarry thinks that Fillmore didn’t identify closely with the Know Nothings nativist platform, but felt that they were better equipped to run the country than either the deeply divided Democratic party, or the new antislavery party, the Republicans. There was also the matter that Fillmore might have wanted to become President again because he needed the money. Ex-Presidents received no pension at this time.

One of the paradoxes of Fillmore running as a Know Nothing was that he started out as an Anti-Mason. So his political career began with him being opposed to secret societies. And being opposed to anti-Catholic groups. And as a Know Nothing, Fillmore had to join a secret organization and become anti-Catholic.

Fillmore finished third in the 1856 election with 21.7% of the vote and eight electoral votes from Maryland. Fillmore realized that he was through as a politician.

He remarried in 1858 and spent the rest of his retirement acting like a former President with very little to do. Fillmore gave speeches. He took vacations. Sometimes people would ask him his opinion on important matters.

Right before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, the United States was going to have its greatest glut of former Presidents living. Van Buren, John Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce, and James Buchanan were all still alive when Lincoln was inaugurated. There was talk of asking the five former Presidents to come up with some plan to save the union, but Lincoln wasn’t interested. Also, it’s doubtful that those five men could have agreed on anything. It probably didn’t help that Tyler had been elected to the Confederate Congress either.

Millard Fillmore passed away at his home in Buffalo on March 8, 1874. It was a big event in Buffalo, but not much of a news event in the rest of the country.

In Scarry’s book, many, many, many words are written to try to convince you that Millard Fillmore is worthy of greater respect. But I don’t buy it. Fillmore’s greatest trait was his honesty. However, he didn’t seem to have enough backbone to go with his honesty. Millard Fillmore was a guy who seemed to get ahead in life by keeping his nose clean and not causing trouble. But, like a President who would be in office over 130 years later, Fillmore didn’t have “the vision thing.”

After about 350 pages (I skipped some parts where the author just reprinted the full text of some rather uninteresting letters) about Millard Fillmore, I can only think that Millard Fillmore’s principal accomplishment as President was just showing up for work.

Other stuff: The Millard and Abigail Fillmore House and Museum is in East Aurora, New York. A replica of the log cabin where Fillmore was born is part of Fillmore Glen State ParkForest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo. The University of Buffalo’s school for distance learning and adult education is named for Millard Fillmore, one of the school’s founders.

H.L. Mencken, as a gag, wrote that Millard Fillmore installed the first bath tub in the White House. This was not the case, although the story has been perpetuated until this day. Scarry spends a couple pages on the story and determines that it was likely James Madison who installed the first bath tub. Hot and cold running water took longer to install. I am trying to contemplate Thomas Jefferson spending eight years in Washington without a bath. Good thing he was single at the time.

Millard Fillmore’s father, Nathaniel, lived to be 91, which was the oldest age of any Presidential father to date. John Adams had held the record by living to be 90. George H.W. Bush is the only person alive now with a chance to break the record.

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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Grover Cleveland by Henry F. Graff

President #22 and #24, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #21

I’m only telling you this once!

clevelandOften just regarded as a numerical oddity, Grover Cleveland served eight years as President during one of the most turbulent times in American history. America was still recovering from the Civil War. The nation was beset with violent labor strife. The economy  teetered on the brink of collapse. European powers were stretching out their empires and there was pressure for the U.S. to join in the fun.

And the man in the middle of much of this change was Grover Cleveland, a man who had vaulted from being mayor of Buffalo in 1881 to the White House in 1885. And is the story of this man an inspirational one for all of us?

From reading Henry F. Graff’s slim (only 138 pages if you don’t count the notes or index) book about Cleveland, the answer is no. Graff, a former professor at Columbia, tries his best to make us believe that Grover Cleveland had some special attributes that made him an especially great president. But, for the most part, Graff writes about a man who moved up the political ladder, mostly because he appeared to be more honest than most politicians of the era. This is a very low standard considering the state of American politics at the time.

Stephen Grover Cleveland (he dropped Stephen when he was young) was born in Caldwell, New Jersey in 1837, but spent most of his formative years in upstate New York. In 1854, after his father’s death, Cleveland decided it was time to go off and start a career. He was going to go to Cleveland, Ohio (my law career has been stymied by having no city named Timmermann) to study law as an apprentice to another lawyer. However, Cleveland ended up going to Buffalo to study after an uncle there gave him some financial help.

Cleveland was set up with a position in Buffalo’s most prestigious firm: Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers. The firm was famous because former president Millard Fillmore used to be a partner in it. And to this day, it is the only law firm to produce two presidents.

After passing the bar, Cleveland worked as an assistant district attorney for Erie County, but lost an election for the D.A. job. During the Civil War, Cleveland hired a substitute to take his place in the Union Army (which was perfectly legal and above board at the time).

In 1870, Cleveland won his first race when he was elected sheriff of Erie County. Cleveland presided over two executions, throwing open the trap door for two different men who were hanged. At the end of his term, Cleveland started a successful private law practice.

In 1881, Cleveland was elected mayor of Buffalo. And one year later, New York Democrats, soured by scandals among Tammany Hall Democrats in New York City, nominated Cleveland to run for governor. And Cleveland won that race.

Suddenly, Cleveland was placed in one of the most high profile state government jobs in the nation. It made him a contender for the White House in 1884.

However, it didn’t take much to be a Presidential contender in 1884. American politics was not producing its finer candidates at the time. Cleveland’s opponents at the Democratic convention were Thomas Bayard, Allen Thurman, and Benjamin Butler. Cleveland won on the second ballot.

The 1884 election would be fought on many topics. None of them were particularly germane to the problems of the country, however.

The Republican nominee was former Speaker of the House and Secretary of State James Blaine. The Republicans still liked to use the Civil War as a campaign issue (it was known as “waving the bloody shirt”). This time out, they were thwarted in an attempt to capitalize on that issue. First, Blaine, like Cleveland, had not served in the Civil War. Second, Civil War veterans were starting to age and die off and no longer as powerful as a voting bloc for the Republicans. A spike in immigration added new voters with no memory of the Civil War.

The Republicans did turn up a potential problem for Cleveland. Namely, Cleveland was suspected of fathering an illegitimate child, and then taking that child from his mother. Cleveland was prepared for this issue, and had told Democratic party officials about it. When asked for advice about what to do, Cleveland famously replied, “Tell the truth.”

And in this case, honesty was the best policy. The child was likely not Cleveland’s, but the offspring of a married friend of his, Oscar Folsom. Cleveland, as a bachelor, let his name be used as the father to avoid scandal. Cleveland also had provided for the child’s upbringing, and also made sure that the child was adopted into a good home. (The mother likely suffered from mental illness or an addiciton.)

The Democrats countered the Republicans bastard charges by accusing Blaine of corruption for receiving kickbacks from an Arkansas railroad in 1876 in exchange for political favors. There were incriminating letters to back this up, one of which was marked “Burn this letter.” The Democrats would derisively chant that phrase during any Republican rally.

Finally, a few days before the election, Blaine was being introduced at a rally in New York by a Presbyterian minister who described the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Blaine quickly tried to dissociate himself from the comments, but it was too late. The large number of Irish voters in New York were incensed, and they swung in favor of Cleveland.

Cleveland carried New York by a little over 1,000 votes. He won nationwide by 32,000 votes, with a healthy lead in the Electoral College, 219 to 182.

Cleveland was the first Democrat to assume the Presidency since the Civil War (if you count Andrew Johnson as a Republican, which he sort of was.) There were going to be changes.

However, the Democrats expected Cleveland to engage in wide scale firings of Republicans in government jobs. But Cleveland eased up a bit, angering many supporters who were hoping to have favors cashed in. Cleveland, following the lead of Presidents Hayes and Arthur, tried to continue to reform the Federal Civil Service, although such reforms were hard to get through a Congress used to dealing in political patronage mixed with a dash of corruption and a pinch of graft.

Cleveland angered veterans groups by vetoing numerous pension bills, many of which were pushed through Congress as political favors for men who did little or no fighting during the Civil War. Cleveland also ordered the Army to return all captured Confederate battle flags (to whom is unclear to me.)

In May of 1886, a bomb thrown into the crowd at a labor rally in the Haymarket section of Chicago killed seven police officers. This event would presage other violence surrounding attempts by workers to organize for the next 50 years.

Although he was a bachelor when he entered the White House, Cleveland wouldn’t remain one for long. He had developed a fondness for the daughter of his friend Oscar Folsom. This young woman was born with the name Frank, which she changed to Frances, because life is hard for a girl named Frank. Cleveland had known this woman since birth. He bought Frank  her first crib.  When she was 21, Cleveland married Frank. And in the White House no less.

Perhaps today if there were a 49-year old bachelor president marrying a 21-year old woman that he had known since she was an infant, people might be a bit put off. But in 1886, this wasn’t considered that unusual. And the Clevelands went on to have a long and happy marriage that produced five children. Cleveland would always call his wife Frank also.

Toward the end of his first term, Cleveland pushed for a lower tariff. He felt that the system in place was hampering trade (tariffs tend to do that.) And the current tariff was making more than enough money for the country as the Treasury actually had a surplus.

Although Cleveland didn’t exactly negotiate anything remotely like today’s NAFTA, the tariff dropped enough to anger the American business establishment. And that, in turn, caused a flood of money to pour into Republican campaign coffers.

In 1888, Cleveland would win the popular vote over Republican Benjamin Harrison by 90,000 votes. But, he lost the electoral vote by a 233-168 margin. New York proved to be the key state, as Harrison won it by 15,000 votes.

The election of 1888 was also marred by some political chicanery. A California Republican wrote a letter, using the pseudonym “Murchison”, to the British minister to the U.S., Lord Lionel Sackville-West, asking him who he thought would be the best candidate for British interests in the upcoming election. Sackville-West wrote back saying that he thought Cleveland would better serve England.

When this news (The Murchison Letter) hit the papers, Cleveland, who had prided himself on his independence, looked like a tool of the British. And his Irish supporters in New York moved over to the Republican side.

Historical legend says that Frances Cleveland told the White House staff  in 1889 not to move around the furniture. Frances Cleveland said that she and her husband would be back in four years. Whether this was true is unclear, but the Clevelands did indeed return in 1893.

Harrison’s presidency was marred by a Populist uprising from rural interests, who demanded that the Federal Government start issuing more currency backed by silver* (which was being produced in mass quantities compared to gold.) This was combined with the Republicans imposing a very high tariff. So, there were fewer cheap goods coming into the country, and there was a lot of inflated currency around to spend (silver certificates). Hilarity did not ensue.

* To give you an idea of the problem, silver advocates wanted to maintain the arbitrary ratio of the price of gold being 16 times the price of silver. In 2009, the price of gold is about 65 times the price of silver. The disparity wasn’t as great in the 1890s, but it was still substantial. I’d explain this better, but I’m not paid to be an economist.

Another major labor action marred by violence, the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, occurred a few months before the election. The Carnegie Steel Corporation hired Pinkerton detectives (Graff calls them “detectives”) as strikebreakers. Striking workers fired on the Pinkertons, killing ten of them.

The Democrats, with few other prospects on the horizon, trotted out Cleveland again in 1892. He was still popular, and he had still won the most popular votes the last time out. In the rematch, Cleveland bested Harrison by over 400,ooo votes, and won 277 electoral votes to 145 for Harrison and 22 for Populist Party candidate James Weaver. Cleveland became just the second president to win the popular vote three straight times, joining Andrew Jackson.

Cleveland’s second term began inauspiciously. The weather was bitterly cold on Inauguration Day and a small crowd came out to watch the ceremonies and parade.

Soon after taking office, a major financial crisis, the Panic of 1893, set in. All of the silver currency that was floating around was wreaking havoc with the financial system. Foreign creditors were demanding payment in gold. But, Western interests didn’t want to give up their silver. There wasn’t enough gold to pay foreign creditors.

To further complicate matters, Cleveland was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his soft palate. Since Cleveland’s vice president, Adlai Stevenson (grandfather of this guy), was a silver money supporter (unlike Cleveland who backed the gold standard), there were grave concerns that the financial markets would collapse further upon the news of Cleveland’s illness.

Cleveland had his surgery done in secret, on a yacht that was floating up and down the Hudson River. First, surgeons removed the tumor, and then later a dental appliance was formed so that Cleveland’s mouth looked normal. His speech would be unaffected. News of Cleveland’s illness would not be made public until 1917.

The economy did recover. However, Cleveland used a method that would not be associated with the Democratic Party of today. Cleveland asked New York bankers, principally J.P. Morgan, to supply the government with enough gold (3.5 million ounces) to build up its reserves and help ease the credit markets. Morgan likely made millions of dollars from deals he negotiated with foreign suppliers. Morgan would later be asked by Congress to reveal how much he made on the deal. Morgan wouldn’t say.

Cleveland faced two major foreign policy crises in his second term:

The first was a border dispute between Britain and Venezuela. The British argued that the border of their colony, British Guyana, stretched much further west than what Venezuela thought. This would have given Britain a considerable chunk of the Orinoco Valley.  Ships and soldiers prepared to fight before the two sides apparently realized that no one really cared about this border (and Britain was caught up in the Boer War).

The second problem was with Hawai’i. In 1893, a group of American plantation owners dethroned Queen Liliuokalani and established a provisional government, hoping for annexation by the United States. However, Cleveland refused to annex the islands. He rejected the idea that the U.S. Government would sponsor the overthrow of a legitimate government. Cleveland’s objections only served to postpone annexation until 1898, when he was out of office.

Cleveland faced another labor problem in 1894 when Pullman workers went on strike. This led to a strike by nearly all railroad workers in the country, crippling the transportation system.

The center of the crisis was in Chicago, where union leader Eugene Debs promised that the strike would prevent all trains, even those carrying the mail, from travelling through Chicago. Cleveland reacted by sending in soldiers to operate the train. His Attorney General, Richard Olney, received an injunction against the strikers. Once Debs violated the injunction, he was arrested and the strike was crushed.

The kindly mayor from Buffalo now appeared to be nothing more than a tool of Eastern capitalists. He was no longer the honest reformer of government.

In 1896, Cleveland toyed with the idea of another term. This time, the Democrats tried to tap into the Populist movement, nominating William Jennings Bryan, who made “free silver” (aka inflated currency), his platform. Cleveland watched his party go down to defeat, although he wasn’t broken up by it, as he thought Bryan would have ruined the country.

Cleveland retired to Princeton, New Jersey and did typical ex-president jobs, such as writing his memoirs, giving speeches, and picking up a lot of cash. He passed away in 1908.

Grover Cleveland’s time is a fascinating era in American history, with many different sociological and political changes. But from reading Graff’s book, it doesn’t seem that Grover Cleveland was nearly as interesting as the time he lived in. He was a man who was along for the ride. Graff describes Cleveland as man without charisma and without any knowledge of handling public relations (Cleveland made White House reporters wait outside for stories.). Grover Cleveland was not a person who defined his era. He just tried his best to get through it.

Other stuff: The Grover Cleveland Birthplace is located in Caldwell, Jersey. It is operated by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Cleveland’s unique status as the 22nd and 24th Presidents wasn’t decided officially until the 1950s. According to a New York Times article from January 10, 1950, the Congressional Directory identified Cleveland as both the 22nd and 24th President for the first time, changing Harry Truman from being the 32nd President to the 33rd. Truman believed he was the 32nd President, however. But, when Dwight Eisenhower was inaugurated in 1953, he identified himself as the 34th President. The 1950 article cites an opinion by an anonymous “State Department legal adviser” in 1945 that said that Cleveland had to be the 24th President as well as the 22nd because, logically, you couldn’t have the 22nd President serving in office after the 23rd.

Cleveland had a different running mate in each of his three presidential campaigns. Thomas Hendricks was his first Vice President (he also ran as Samuel Tilden’s running mate in 1876), but he passed away in 1885. Thurman was Cleveland’s running mate in 1888. Stevenson was his running mate in 1892. Stevenson would run for Vice President again in 1900 alongside Bryan.

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Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer

Don’t Panic!

President #8, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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