Rutherford B. Hayes by Hans L. Trefousse

President #19, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #33

He’s very big in Paraguay

Rutherford Birchard Hayes was, by all accounts, an intelligent and honest man who made his way to the White House in the most controversial fashion of any President until George W. Bush. Despite his personal integrity, his reputation from historians has taken a beating.

Hayes is viewed as the man who gave up on the idea of Federal enforcement of civil rights for blacks in the South for a period that lasted past World War II. He accomplished little in his one term as he faced a Congress that was hostile toward him. That was just the members of his own party. The Democrats in Congress hated him more.

Hans L. Trefousse, one of the foremost experts on the Reconstruction Era, tries to do his part to rehabilitate Hayes’ image. However, Trefousse did a better job making Andrew Johnson look like a racist monster, than he does in making Rutherford Hayes look like an underappreciated Chief Executive.

Rutherford Birchard Hayes was born on October 4, 1822 in Delaware. Delaware, Ohio, that is. His father died before he was born. (Three presidents were born after their fathers had died: Andrew Jackson, Hayes, and Bill Clinton.) Hayes’ uncle, Sardis Birchard, helped raise young Rutherford along with his mother, Sophia.

From an early age, Sardis Birchard exposed to young Rutherford to classic works of literature and taught him Latin and Greek. Hayes graduated from Kenyon College in 1842, and later would attend Harvard Law School. Hayes returned home to Ohio and started a law practice in Cincinnati.

In 1852, Hayes married Lucy Webb, who was the love of his life. The two of them had eight children together and would be married for 37 years. Lucy had graduated from what is now Ohio Wesleyan University, and would be the first First Lady to have a college degree.

Hayes’ law practice was successful and he became well known in political circles. When the Republican Party began in 1856, Hayes joined it immediately. Already leaning toward the side of abolition, Lucy’s strong religious beliefs pushed Rutherford firmly into that camp.

When the Civil War began, Hayes signed up for the Army. Hayes took command of a group of Northern Ohio volunteers, and, after a lot of reading up on military affairs, became a respected commander in the field. In the early part of the war, Hayes saw action in West Virginia. He was wounded in a battle that was a preliminary to the bloodbath of Antietam (about 22,000 people died on one day in that battle, the most casualties on any one day in U.S. history.)

Hayes returned to the battlefield in December of 1862 and was now a Brigadier General. Another future President, William McKinley, was under Hayes’ command.

Even before Hayes left the Army, the voters of Ohio elected him to the House of Representatives. He finally took office in December of 1865. Hayes would be a strong supporter of Civil Rights and a vehement opponent of President Andrew Johnson. Hayes resigned his seat in July of 1867 to run for governor of Ohio.

Hayes barely won the election as governor, but the Democrats controlled both houses of the Ohio Legislature. This would prove to be a problem as the governor of Ohio had no veto power at the time. With little to do the first two years except give speeches and make suggestions that no one heeded, Hayes became more involved with Republican politics at the national level.

In 1870, Hayes won a second two-year term, eking out a win by a little over 7500 votes. Hayes toyed with the idea of a Senate run in 1872, but decided against it, thinking it better to retire from politics with his reputation unsullied.

Hayes could not stay away. Or, perhaps, the Ohio Republican Party could not stay away from Hayes. In 1875, Hayes ran for a third term as Governor of Ohio. He won and took a Republican majority into both houses of the Legislature with him. Hayes was now discussed as Presidential material.

For much of the American history, Ohio has been a popular place to find Presidential candidates. The state is both Midwest and East. It is both industrial and agricultural. And, it has always had a healthy number of electoral votes.

Maine Senator James Blaine was the favorite for the nomination going into the Republican Convention. Cincinnati would be the site.

Blaine was well-known, but he had his enemies within the party. The anti-Blaine forces managed to keep the “plumed knight of the Senate” (as some called Blaine) from ever gaining a majority of the delegates. On the seventh ballot, the anti-Blaine forces coalesced around Hayes and got him the nomination. William Wheeler of New York was nominated as Vice President. The Democrats nominated New York Governor Samuel Tilden for President and Indiana Governor Thomas Hendricks for Vice President.

1876 was expected to be a Democratic year. Tilden was known as an honest, reform-minded candidate. The country was in the midst of a terrible economic crisis. The Republicans had held a 199-88 majority in the House in 1873. After the 1875 election, the Democrats held a 182-103 majority.

Hayes did not expect to win and there was not much he could do personally to help himself. 1876 was still a time when it was considered unseemly for candidates to personally go out and campaign. It would all be a matter of which party could find ways to get as many people to the polls. Or, in the case of the Democrats in the South, how many black voters they could keep away through intimidation or legal shenanigans.

When the results came out on Election Day, there was no clear winner. The New York Times (then a distinctly Republican leaning publication) reported the results as 184 electoral votes for Tilden and 181 for Hayes. 185 was the magic number. There was one state that had not yet been decided. It was … wait for it … Florida! (Florida had just four electoral votes in that era.)

But, the 181 total for Hayes was not entirely clear. Aside from Florida not reporting, there were conflicting returns from Louisiana and South Carolina. Also, there was one elector in Oregon that was being contested. The New York Times had already given Louisiana, South Carolina, and the lone vote from Oregon to Hayes. However, nobody knew which set of returns was correct. Tilden was going to prevail in the popular vote regardless.

In the end, all the disputed states ended up sending in TWO sets of electoral ballots. If Congress would count the Democratic votes (and not even all of them), Tilden would win. If Congress counted all the Republican votes, Hayes would win.

The Constitution stipulates that electoral votes are to be counted in front of a joint session of Congress with the President of the Senate presiding. But, there was no provision to handle a disputed set of returns. The House was in control of the Democrats and the Senate was controlled by Republicans. The President of the Senate was Republican Senator Thomas Ferry of Michigan, who was the President Pro Tem. (Vice President Henry Wilson had passed away in 1874.)

There were negotiations back and forth between the Democrats and Republicans about how to count the votes. In January of 1877, a joint committee recommended the establishment of special panel to look at the disputed returns. It would consist of 15 people, five from the Senate, five from the House, and five from the Supreme Court. The Senators would be three Republicans and two Democrats and the Representatives would be three Democrats and two Republicans. The Supreme Court justices would hold the balance as there would be two Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent, David Davis.

Davis was from Illinois. The legislature there, controlled by Democrats, tried to buy off Davis by electing him to a vacant Senate seat for Illinois. Davis responded to this by resigning his seat on the Supreme Court. The Democrats had to settle for a Republican justice, Joseph Bradley. Democrats thought Bradley was the least partisan member of the Supreme Court left to choose.

As Congress counted the votes, (I’ve watched the process on C-SPAN and it is scintillating action), when the first set of disputed results came up, Florida’s, the matter was referred to the special Electoral Commission (as it was so called). The Commission voted along partisan lines 8-7 to approve the Republican returns. This was the case in all the disputed results. The count was not finished until 4:10 a.m. on March 2, 1877, less than two full days before the new President would be inaugurated. (Congress would quickly get to work to pass a new law to handle situations like this. It took only 10 years and basically stated that whichever set of returns is approved by the governor of a state counts.)

Outgoing President Grant had Hayes secretly sworn in as President in the White House on March 3. Since March 4 was a Sunday, the public ceremony would not be until March 5. Grant did not wish to risk Democrats disrupting the swearing in or getting some sort of injunction to prevent it.

Hayes, who did not like the way the matter was handled, nevertheless accepted the result. He believed that if the Southern Democrats had not intimidated black voters and illegally suppressed the turnout, he would have won easily. But, Hayes was branded “His Fraudulency” and “Old 8 to 7” in the press.

One of the first fallouts from the election was the removal of Federal troops from Louisiana, which allowed the Democrats to reclaim the political machinery of the state. The military reconstruction of the South was over. Any hope that African Americans had in those states of achieving any semblance of equality would have to be deferred for generations.

Hayes also named a Southerner to his Cabinet. David Key of Tennessee became Postmaster General. Historians still dispute if these two events were part of a deal struck by the Republicans to allow the election of Hayes. Trefousse believes that the true victor of the 1876 election will never be known. There was too much corruption on both sides.

The first two years for Hayes were extremely rocky. Democrats wanted to hold hearings into the election results, with the possible aim of reversing the result. The Republican in charge of counting the votes in Louisiana was prosecuted for fraud. Hayes remarked that he felt that the man would not have charged with any crime if he had just said that the Democrats had won.

Hayes tried to take on the cause of civil service reform as one of his first tasks. The first Federal job Hayes went after was Collector of the Port of New York. The man in charge there was Chester Arthur, an ally of powerful New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, who wanted no part of civil service reform.

Following the recommendations of a report by a commission looking into the subject, Hayes ordered Arthur and two other Conkling allies to resign. All three men refused to resign, so Hayes suspended them. Theodore Roosevelt, father of the future President, replaced Arthur. Fewer than six months on the job, Hayes had managed to alienate himself from one of the most powerful men in his own party in Conkling.

While the tempest over the Port of New York was brewing, Hayes faced another major domestic problem: railroad strikes. In July, railroad workers throughout the country went on strike. In some areas, miners joined the strike. Riots sprung up throughout the country. Hayes called in Federal troops to restore order, and, ultimately, get the trains running again.

Before Hayes sent his annual message to Congress, he had already used Federal force to support corporate interests, but withheld Federal force to uphold civil rights. These two actions probably accounted for his recent drop in historians’ rankings of Presidents.

Rutherford and Lucy Hayes did manage to make the White House one of the livelier places in Washington for social gatherings, despite the fact that Lucy did not allow alcohol to be served in her home. She was dubbed “Lemonade Lucy.” The Hayes family were not prudes. They just did not drink alcohol.

In 1878, Argentina and Paraguay turned to Hayes to arbitrate a dispute between the two countries over the Gran Chaco region that bordered the two countries. Paraguay had been at war from 1864 through 1870 against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. The conflict was known as the War of the Triple Alliance. Paraguay suffered staggering losses in the conflict, with about 300,000 people (including civilians) killed. It is estimated that 90% of all adult males in Paraguay died in the war.

An area between two rivers, the Rio Verde and the Rio Pilcomayo was still in dispute between Argentina and Paraguay. Hayes decided to give the territory to Paraguay. The reason for this decision is still unclear. But, Paraguay was so pleased with the decision that a town was named in honor of Hayes, called Villa Hayes, and later an entire department (province) of Paraguay was named Presidente Hayes.

Hayes accomplished little else in office to overcome the controversy that surrounded his election. He had already promised before the election not to run for a second term. Hayes was a lame duck with the stain of fraud hanging over him. It was not a recipe for success.

Trefousse wants to make the point that Hayes was not a dishonest man. And, by all accounts, Hayes was one of the more honorable politicians around in one of the most corrupt eras in American politics. However, Hayes did not fully exercise all the powers of the Presidency. Perhaps he could not so because of political realities.

Hayes did leave office with the United States in better shape than he found it. The economic crisis of the Panic of 1873 had dissipated and Hayes had refused to solve the problem by simply printing more money. The United States had become a more important player on the world stage.

But, if you were a black citizen in the South, your situation would have gotten worse. The Federal government was not in the civil rights business anymore.

Hayes spent his retirement back in Ohio. He served on the Board of Trustees for Ohio State University, which opened when he was governor. He also spent time defending his record as President and his method of election. Hayes loved to point out that the Democratic Party did not renominate Tilden for the Presidency. (Nor would the Democrats renominate Al Gore in 2004.)

Rutherford Hayes passed away on January 17, 1893 in Fremont, Ohio, just six months after his wife Lucy passed away. His last words expressed happiness over going to rejoin her.

Overall, Rutherford Hayes was a good man who drew a bad hand as President. He was thrust into a political world seething with corruption, racial violence, and economic turmoil. Trefousse feels that Hayes did not get his due. Hayes may not have wanted to pull Federal troops from protecting blacks in the South, but, he had little choice in the matter. Nevertheless, the fact remains that under Hayes much of the gains in civil rights for African Americans gained from the Civil War disappeared for about 90 years.

At least the Election of 1876 and the trauma that the country went through ensured that the United States would never have to suffer from a questionable election result ever again. Or so I thought in 1999.

Other stuff: Rutherford Hayes’ birthplace in Delaware, Ohio was demolished in the 19th Century. He is buried in Fremont, Ohio. His grave is on the site of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center. The library on site has an extensive genealogical collection. Hayes was an avid genealogist himself.

Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time by Freeman Cleaves

President #9, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #39

Let Me Be Brief…

If you mention the name William Henry Harrison to most people, the initial reaction will be “I don’t know anyone by that name.” So, after you get past the people who are completely ignorant of the man, you might get the reaction of “Oh, the guy who died after a month in office as President.” And after you get past those people, you get the people who say, “Wasn’t his nickname ‘Tippecanoe’?”  Then you run into someone who is a direct descendant of Tecumseh, and you get punched in the face.

Finding a biography of William Henry Harrison was not an easy task. The book I found was published in 1939. And, it goes on for 343 pages, not counting the end notes, bibliography, and index. And Harrison does not get elected President until page 329. There was a  lot to slog through. In the end, I learned that perhaps one reason people do not write full-length biographies of William Henry Harrison is that is he was not very interesting.

Freeman Cleaves, who wrote mostly about the Civil War, penned a lengthy book that utters nary a bad word about William Henry Harrison. Either Harrison was beyond reproach, or he was incredibly boring. You could decide if you read the book, but you do not have to. I have read it for you as a public service. This public service does not extend to telling you if William Henry Harrison was a good person. But, I do know a lot about Indiana in the early 19th Century now.

The life of William Henry Harrison is somewhat interesting. It is not 343 pages worth of interest, but it is a little more interesting than reading about Millard Fillmore.

William Henry Harrison was the youngest child of Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Elizabeth Bassett. He was born on February 9, 1773 on the Berkeley Plantation in what is now Charles City, Virginia.

When he was 14, Harrison went off to Hampden-Sydney College. But, after two years, Harrison left when the college changed its religious affiliation from Episcopalian to Methodist.

Harrison then was going to try his hand at medicine and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, but he dropped out because his family told him that there was not enough money for him to stay in school. So, Harrison decided to join the Army. He received a commission as an ensign in the Army in 1791.

The United States Army was not a prestigious institution at the time. The country feared a large standing army. Almost all of the forces were stationed in what was then called the Northwest Territory (think Big Ten Conference.)  The Army posted Harrison to a fort outside of Cincinnati.

Harrison quickly moved up the ranks. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (near Toledo) in 1794. This battle, along with the subsequent Treaty of Greenville (negotiated by Harrison) brought some peace between American settlers and a confederation of Great Lakes area Indian nations.

In 1795, Harrison married Anna Symmes, daughter of a prominent judge in Ohio.  They would have 10 children together, nine of whom lived to adulthood.

Harrison settled down in 1797 and was appointed to the job of Secretary of the Northwest Territory. Two years later, Harrison won the election for the territory’s non-voting delegate in Congress. This job is similar to positions today held by people from exotic places like Guam and the District of Columbia.

In 1801, outgoing President John Adams appointed Harrison as the first territorial governor for the new territory of Indiana. Harrison moved his family to the bustling metropolis of Vincennes, the capital city.

Harrison tried to attract settlers to Indiana. He had two approaches. One was to relax prohibitions on slavery and indentured servitude in the territory. The other was to make sure that some of the Indian tribes that did not sign the Treaty of Greenville did not make any trouble.

By 1809, the Indiana Territory was allowed to choose its own legislature. This body had a pro-abolition majority that voted to prohibit slavery in the territory. In that same year, Harrison negotiated another treaty, this one with the Delaware, Wea, Kickapoo, and Potawatomi nations that allowed white settlement along the Wabash River.

This treaty, known as the Treaty of Fort Wayne, raised the ire of a Shawnee chief named Tecumseh. A charismatic leader, Tecumseh formed his own confederation of tribes to oppose the terms of the treaty. In 1811, Tecumseh, with 1100 men, visited Harrison at his home in Vincennes for a contentious meeting (not aided by the fact that neither men could speak directly to each other because neither spoke the other man’s language.) Tecumseh wanted the Treaty of Fort Wayne abrogated, or else he would side with the British. (The discussion between Harrison and Tecumseh also took longer because no one had a dictionary handy to find out what ‘abrogate’ meant.)

Tecumseh, along with his brother Tensketawa, ratcheted up the tension. Harrison and Tecumseh traded accusations and slurs against each other.

On November 6, 1811, Harrison decided to lead an expedition against Tecumseh’s forces at an encampment called Prophetstown (Tensketawa was also known as The Prophet.). This encampment was near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers. The forces led by Tensketawa made an attack on Harrison’s forces, but we were driven back, suffering heavy losses. Harrison received wide acclaim for this victory at what would be called the Battle of Tippecanoe. He also received criticism for not continuing the battle and capturing or killing Tecumseh and Tensketawa.

Harrison’s battle with Tecumseh became of the larger War of 1812. Harrison wanted to  command the American forces in the Northwest, but that command was given to General William Hull. Hull proved himself to be such a capable general that he had to surrender Detroit to a troop of British and Canadian soldiers. Tecumseh also was on the British side. (The Army court martialed Hull for the unpardonable crime of losing to Canadians.)

With Hull disgraced, Harrison was given command. He started a march up through Northern Ohio. His forces split in two, and a group of Kentucky militia under the command of General James Winchester, went well beyond the lines of communication to find supplies at a town called Frenchtown (which is now Monroe, Michigan.)

While Winchester and his men were well fed, they were also sitting ducks for a large force leaving from Detroit under the command of British General Henry Procter. Tecumseh’s men were also part of the contingent.

Winchester’s troops were caught by surprise. Nearly all of them were killed in an engagement known as the Massacre of the River Raisin. Nearly 400 men were killed, with the rest taken prisoner. Those taken prisoner were almost all subsequently killed.

Avenging this defeat became of primary importance to the United States. Harrison was able to marshal his forces, augmented by more Kentucky militia eager to avenge the deaths of their comrades. Aiding this cause was a spectacular naval victory on Lake Erie by Commodore Oliver Perry. Procter now faced a nearly impossible situation in trying to resupply his troops. So, Procter ordered a retreat.

Harrison and his men pursued Procter, along with Tecumseh, and finally engaged them near the Canadian city of Moraviantown on October 5, 1813. The American forces routed the British and Indian forces in what would become known as the Battle of the Thames. During this battle, someone killed Tecumseh. No one knows for certain who it was, although Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky would take credit for it in public, and parlay that into election as Vice-President in 1837.

Despite the victory, Harrison still received criticism from the Secretary of War, John Armstrong, over spending on supplies. Harrison resigned his commission and Andrew Jackson was given the command of the Army in the West. The War of 1812 would last into 1814 and most of Washington, D.C. would be burned to the ground by British troops.

In the aftermath of the war, Harrison decided to leave the world of the military behind. He won election to the House of Representatives from Ohio in 1816, riding in on a wave of anti-incumbency. Prior to the 1816 election, Congress had voted to change its pay scale from eight dollars a day to $1500 for an entire two-year term. Since Congress met for about five months a year at the time, this was a big salary boost. The public outcry was enormous.

When the new Congress convened in 1817, the salary reverted back to a per diem, at nine dollars per day. Harrison supported this measure, although he did not do much else of note in Congress. In 1820, Harrison ran for Governor of Ohio, but lost. In 1824, he was chosen to the United States Senate by the Ohio Legislature.

Harrison was facing financial problems at the same time. He actually wanted a diplomatic job (which paid around $9000 per year plus expenses). He wanted to go to Mexico, but President John Quincy Adams gave that appointment to Joel Poinsett. (Yes, the flower guy.)

In 1828, Harrison was given the title of Minister to Colombia. He ventured by ship through the Caribbean to Maracaibo in Venezuela. Eventually, he took a 10-day trip by mule to the Colombian capital of Bogotá. There he met Cololmbian President Simon Bolivar.

Bolivar, who had been the Great Liberator, was now bordering on becoming the Great Dictator. Harrison sent dispatches back to Washington, warning of Bolivar’s increasing paranoia and restrictions of personal liberties.

But, Harrison was not in Colombia long. In 1829, Andrew Jackson became President and appointed a new minister to Colombia. Harrison returned home to Ohio.

For several years, Harrison had little to do. He managed his estate (which was not overly profitable). He welcomed back veterans of his various campaigns. He wrote books, and had books written about him.

In 1836, the Whig Party decided on a unique strategy for the Presidential election. Instead of nominating one candidate, the Whigs would nominate several candidates, each of whom was supposed to be very popular in one part of the country. The hope was then to split the electoral vote and send the election to the House. This plan had several flaws. First, the Democrats controlled the House and would win any election there. Second, it is hard enough to find one good presidential nominee, let alone two or three. In 1836, the Whigs nominated four candidates: Daniel Webster, Hugh White, Willie Mangum, and Harrison. Harrison was chosen because of his military background and his popularity in the West.

In the end, Martin Van Buren won the election with 170 electoral votes and over 50% of the popular vote. Harrison polled the second most votes of any of the Whigs and won 73 electoral votes. Van Buren’s running mate, Richard Johnson, did not get a majority of the electoral vote, sending his election to the Senate. (Virginia Democrats would not vote for Johnson because he had a black mistress. Johnson prevailed in the Senate by a 33 to 16 margin.)

Harrison did not have to do much after the 1836 election to become popular. In 1837, the nation went into a scary depression known as the Panic of 1837. Credit markets dried up and tens of thousands of people were left in poverty. Van Buren could not solve the economic mess (or did not have enough time for the economy to right itself) and he was going to be an easy target in the Election of 1840.

Henry Clay saw 1840 as being his chance to finally win the Presidency. But, it was not to be. Clay had made too many enemies. Harrison was the choice of the Whig Convention. The congenial general from Ohio would run for President despite being a relatively elderly 67 years old at the time.

The presidential campaign of 1840 was groundbreaking. The campaign would not be about the issues, but about personalities. Van Buren was portrayed as an out of touch aristocrat. Harrison was the hard working military hero.

When a Democratic newspaper printed that “Harrison would like to retire to his log cabin and drink hard cider and contemplate moral philosophy,” the Whigs turned the dig into a campaign slogan. Harrison, along with running mate John Tyler, adopted the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” as a theme for the campaign. In 1840, it was hip to be a country bumpkin. (Not that Harrison was actually born in a log cabin or lived in one.)

The Whigs also adopted a campaign slogan of “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” to emphasize Harrison’s military background. A large paper ball was rolled through various cities after Whig candidates won local elections. The idea was “to get the ball rolling for Harrison!” After the victory, the names of the winning candidates would be written on the ball.

Harrison, contemptuously referred to by Clay as nothing more than “a Trajan”, beat Van Buren easily, winning 19 of 26 states for 234 electoral votes. Harrison won nearly 53% of the popular vote.

Not many people knew which issues Harrison campaigned on. They just liked him, and he seemed better than Van Buren.

Harrison believed in a national bank, the supremacy of Congress to the President (which meant almost no vetoes), Federal funding of internal improvements, reform of the spoils system, and a promise to serve one term.

When Harrison got to Washington, he was greeted as a hero. He was also besieged by job seekers. He picked a Cabinet and planned to have all major decisions ratified by its members. The stress of the transition quickly began to wear Harrison down.

Hundreds of people would see Harrison each day, begging for a job. The Whigs wanted to get rid of all the Democrats in office. Harrison wanted to take a more restrained approach. But, after eight years of  Jackson and four years of Van Buren, the Whigs wanted their share of Federal jobs.

Harrison was inaugurated on March 4, 1841 on a cold and wet day in Washington. He gave the longest inaugural address in history, over 8,000 words, and that was after Daniel Webster heavily edited it. With the poor weather and the long speech, many of the estimated 50,000 in attendance stopped paying attention and left.

History books tell us that Harrison picked up a cold during his inaugural address because of the poor weather. However, most doctors would tell you that cold weather itself will not make you sick. But, a 68-year old man, under a high amount of stress, living among many unfamiliar people in crowded conditions, is a good candidate to pick up a virus from someone.

Harrison’s cold turned into pneumonia. And, even today, you do not want to get that. His health quickly deteriorated. On April 4, 1841, William Henry Harrison became the first President to die in office.  William Henry Harrison went from President to historical footnote.

Other stuff: Harrison’s birthplace, the Berkeley Plantation is available for visits and run by a private foundation. William Henry Harrison was laid to rest in a tomb in North Bend, Ohio. The tomb is maintained by the Ohio Historical Society. Harrison’s estate in Vincennes, Indiana was called Grouseland, and it is available for visits. Tippecanoe Battlefield Park is a National Historic Landmark, although it is maintained by the state of Indiana.

Tecumseh’s final resting place is unknown. He does have a line of air conditioners named after him. And noted Civil War general William Sherman has the middle name of Tecumseh.

The battlefield for River Raisin was designated as a National Battlefield Park on March 30, 2009.

William Henry Harrison’s grandson, Benjamin, would become President in 1889. Benjamin was the son of John Scott Harrison, who served in the House of Representatives for Ohio. Harrison’s brother, Carter Bassett Harrison, was a member of the House for Virginia. Harrison’s great-great-grandson, also named William Henry Harrison, represented Wyoming in the House.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

Richard M. Nixon by Elizabeth Drew

President #37, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #27

I’m going to count to 10, if you don’t like this post, just stop reading before I get to 10

Richard Milhous Nixon was the first President I ever knew. He became President when I was three years old. He left office when I was all of eight. To me, he was the image of what the President of the United States is supposed to be. You can make of that what you will.

For a man who was not easy to like, he was elected President twice, once by a slim margin and the other time in a landslide. Nixon made himself into one of the towering figures in American foreign policy. But, his legacy is one of paranoia that fueled an unprecedented abuse of power by the Executive branch. In trying to be a statesman, Richard Nixon ended up a pathetic figure, even though history seems to be treating him better now.

One person not treating Richard Nixon better now is Elizabeth Drew, the longtime Washington correspondent for the New Yorker magazine. Nixon would likely be appalled that someone like Drew, an East Coast journalist and Wellesley alumna, is trying to write about his life. Drew paints a picture of Richard Nixon as a man who was deeply troubled. He was often depressed. He was often paranoid. He drank to excess. He could not form friendships or make small talk. And in Drew’s view, he was unfit to hold office and the nation was fortunate that Nixon did not steer the nation into a disaster.

Nixon’s childhood proved to be a key to understanding him as an adult. Even Henry Kissinger would say, “He would have been a great, great man if someone had loved him.”

Richard Nixon was born on January 9, 1913 in Yorba Linda, California. Today, Yorba Linda is a pleasant Orange County suburb that bills itself as “the Land of Gracious Living.” In 1913, Yorba Linda was a farming community. Nixon’s father tried to grow oranges, but was unsuccessful. The family moved to Whittier, which if you grew up in Southern California, you would know that it is the part of Los Angeles County that you just cannot seem to get to. Nixon’s parents were Quakers, although not the peace-loving, friendly types. Both Nixon’s father (Francis) and mother (Hannah) were rather demanding and often cruel to Richard. Two of Nixon’s brothers died of tuberculosis. (And there may have been an incident with a hobo. But you have to find this book. I’ve tried to read it. I have not succeeded in finishing it. Or making it through more than five or six pages.)

With good grades in high school, Harvard and Yale beckoned to Richard Nixon. But, financial concerns forced Nixon to attend nearby Whittier College. Nixon formed his own fraternity, called the Orhtogonian Society, to combat the influence of the fraternities on campus. (“Orthogonian” is not a real word.) Nixon played on the football team despite being small and unathletic. (During Nixon’s time in college, Whittier actually played USC twice, losing 51-0 in 1933 and 40-14 in 1934.)

Nixon hoped to attend an Ivy League law school after he graduated second in his class at Whittier. Finances again did not allow that. Nixon settled for going to Duke University Law School, which offered him a scholarship. After gaining his degree, Nixon returned home to Whittier to set up his own practice.

One of Nixon’s interests was community theater. He met a woman named Thelma Ryan, who went by Pat, after being cast in a play with her. Nixon pursued her, even to the point of driving her to dates with other men. Eventually, the two married in 1940. They had two daughters, Julie and Patricia.

When World War II started, Nixon served in the Navy. While not seeing any combat, Nixon did receive commendations for his work, which was almost all logistical.  When Nixon returned home, he set out on a career in politics.

Step one for Nixon was the House of Representatives. He challenged Democrat Jerry Voorhis in a district that covered a large portion of the suburbs east of Los Angeles. Nixon painted Voorhis as a tool of labor, and, by extension, possibly involved with Communism. (Nixon and Voorhis held a debate at South Pasadena Junior High, now South Pasadena Middle School, which is about four blocks from where I am presently typing this.) Nixon won the election by 15,000 votes.

Nixon immediately made a splash in Washington. He got a seat on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He took on a State Department official named Alger Hiss, who was accused of being a Communist spy.  Nixon eventually produced evidence (via Whittaker Chambers) that would lead to Hiss’ conviction for perjury charges for lying to the Committee. (While some at the time thought that Nixon and HUAC had railroaded Hiss, an examination of the archives of the KGB would later reveal that Hiss may have had some espionage activities. The matter is still hotly debated.)

In 1950, Nixon decided to run for the open California Senate seat. Nixon easily won the Republican primary. The Democratic candidate was Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas, who upset Los Angeles newspaper publisher Manchester Boddy.

The Senate campaign would be a nasty one. Nixon came after Douglas hard, describing her as “the Pink Lady” because of the similarities in her voting record with Socialist Representative Vito Marcantonio. Of course, if you look at the roll call votes on any two members of the House, there will be a lot of similarities since many issues voted are procedural or the result of a compromise. Nevertheless, Nixon would claim that Douglas was “pink right down to her underwear.” Nixon won with 59% of the vote. Drew claims that most of Nixon’s efforts (through his campaign manager Murray Chotiner) were overkill as Douglas had little chance of winning anyway as 1950 was a down year for Democrats throughout the country. Also, Douglas had lost a lot of support among California Democrats as she was viewed as being too liberal.

After just two years in the Senate, Nixon found himself on the national ticket as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate. Eisenhower agreed to Nixon to satisfy the party’s conservative wing. Nixon’s anti-Communist credentials were strong; and, he was not considered as divisive of a figure as Joseph McCarthy.

Nixon’s political career almost came to a sudden halt during the campaign when it was revealed that

At the Nixon Library, the "Checkers Speech" has an alternate name

wealthy supporters had established a slush fund for Nixon and his family. (Nixon was far from the only person in Washington with one.) However, Eisenhower was thinking of dropping Nixon from the ticket because of the furor. Nixon gave a public speech to address the problem. It went down in history as “The Checkers Speech” as Nixon insisted that the only gift he received that he did not give back was a dog named Checkers. (You can view the speech in two parts.) The speech was a big hit. Eisenhower publicly told Nixon that “You’re my boy!” And so, Richard Nixon was able to become Vice President.

Eisenhower did not have much use for Nixon, and did not particularly like him. There was little for Nixon to do, even with Eisenhower’s questionable health. Nixon would make headlines when survived a hostile reception on a visit to Venezuela. Nixon’s motorcade was pelted with rocks. However, Nixon remained cool under pressure. In 1959, Nixon held an impromptu debate with Nikita Khrushchev about capitalism and communism. This would be dubbed the “Kitchen Debate” as it took place in a sample kitchen at a trade show in the Soviet Union.

Nixon made his first run at the White House in 1960. Facing John F. Kennedy, Nixon narrowly lost. The 1960 campaign may be one of the most discussed in American history. And I already discussed it in the Kennedy review. So, go look over there.

Only 47 years old, Nixon did not want to leave politics. He went back to California, wrote a memoir called Six Crises, and took on incumbent governor Pat Brown. Nixon felt that these activities were needed the position to establish national credibility again. However, Brown clobbered Nixon by over 300,000 votes. After the election, Nixon gave a rambling speech to the press declaring “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

The losses to Kennedy and Brown reinforced for Nixon that the main reason he could not advance in politics was that the “Establishment” was out to stop him. This group consisted of Ivy Leaguers (like Kennedy) or the media (all forms of them whom Nixon felt were out to keep him from office and distort his views.) Later on, Nixon would begin to include Jews among his enemies.

Nixon then started one of the country’s most remarkable political comebacks. First, Nixon moved to New York to increase his earning potential as a senior partner in a law firm. Nixon endorsed Republican congressional candidates. Nixon targeted 1968 as the year to start his comeback.

With the country deeply divided over the Vietnam War, civil rights, and other social upheavals, the Republican nominee was going to have a good shot at winning the White House. Nixon’s principal competitors for the nomination were Michigan governor George Romney, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, and California governor Ronald Reagan. All the competitors had their shortcomings. Romney was too weak. Rockefeller had too much baggage. Reagan was too inexperienced.  Nixon won the nomination fairly easily.

Much to the surprise of political pundits of the day, Nixon chose Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate. Agnew had almost no national profile; but, Nixon liked some statements Agnew had made that made him appear to be tough on crime. Also, Nixon was trying for a “Southern Strategy” and hoped that Agnew would appeal to Southern conservatives.

The 1968 campaign saw Nixon not try to do too much since he had a substantial lead in the polls over Democratic challenger Hubert Humphrey. Nixon claimed he had a plan to end the war in Vietnam, but would not give its details. (It would be dubbed his “secret plan” even though it wasn’t secret or even a plan.) Nixon also stressed “law and order.” Nixon would “bring us together.”

Late in the campaign, Humphrey broke with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and publicly declared his intention to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Around this time, Nixon’s campaign, using Anna Chenault as a conduit, got word to the South Vietnamese negotiators in Paris that Johnson and Humphrey wanted to end the war. The South Vietnamese pulled out of the peace talks. The war in Vietnam would continue well past Election Day 1968.

Nixon won the election in 1968, but by a narrow margin, 43.4% to 42.7%. This worked out to a little over 500,000 votes nationwide. Nixon earned 301 electoral votes to 191 for Humphrey. George Wallace won the other 45.

Now that Nixon was in office, he had to face the task of running the country. The problem was that Nixon was more interested in the process of becoming President than actually being President. He appointed a Cabinet that was made up of lesser lights in the Republican Party. There were no Ivy Leaguers in the group with the exception of George Shultz, who was the Secretary of Labor. The Secretary of State, William Rogers, would be routinely ignored by Nixon. The Attorney General, John Mitchell, wanted to emphasize that the Justice Department was a law enforcement agency, even though he would turn out to be violating Federal laws in the process.

Early on, Nixon had the chance to appoint a new Chief Justice. He chose Warren Burger, a conservative from Minnesota, whom Nixon thought would start to reverse the more liberal decisions of his predecessor, Earl Warren. In 1970, Nixon tried to appoint two different Southerners to another vacant seat on the Supreme Court: Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell, but both were rejected for a combination of reasons, but primarily both of the men were considered incompetent. Nixon would finally appoint Harry Blackmun to the seat. And Blackmun would go on to write the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade.

Drew examines Nixon’s attitude toward domestic policies and found them lacking. Nixon’s policies were actually quite liberal. The Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration were created under Nixon and consumer protection laws were greatly expanded. Under the direction of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, welfare and poverty programs were revamped.

The economy was in a strong inflationary period and unemployment was rising. Nixon tried to respond to this by imposing wage and price controls. He took the dollar off of the gold standard.

Drew does not believe that Nixon actually thought much about domestic policy, except he just wanted to adopt plans that were politically popular. There was no overarching idea for what Nixon was trying to accomplish. She insists that Nixon’s domestic policy was the result of cynicism and political calculation and little else.

What Nixon cared more about domestically were his political enemies. The White House became obsessed with monitoring the activities of Vietnam War protesters and other political opponents. Some of the ideas that Nixon and his aides developed for monitoring the opposition were considered too invasive even for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s tastes.

The White House under Nixon was an odd place. The President would send formal memos to his wife about how to arrange the living quarters. The memos would be addressed to “Mrs. Nixon.” Drew relates that Nixon, through the assistance of some of his well-heeled supporters, used Dilantin, an anticonvulsant, as an anti-anxiety medication, washed down with helpings of Scotch. (Dilantin is not prescribed for anxiety and all anticonvulsants now come with warning labels telling you two or three times not to mix it with alcohol.) Nixon was showing signs of erratic behavior very quickly into his Administration.

Nixon always wanted to be viewed as a master of foreign policy. He relished the chance of negotiating with world leaders. And in this arena, Nixon tends to get the most praise from historians. Nixon also tended to give a lot of praise to himself in this field. Nearly all foreign policy initiatives from Nixon were orchestrated by National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, the only person Nixon trusted in this field.

The Vietnam War was far from over when Nixon was inaugurated. Nixon had promised to reduce troop levels in Vietnam in a process he described as “Vietnamization.” At the same time, Nixon ordered an expansion of the war into Cambodia. Protests over the expansion of the war into Cambodia turned into even more protests than during the Johnson Administration. A protest at Kent State University on May 4, 1970 resulted in the deaths of four people when Ohio National Guard troops fired on them. Ten days later, two student protesters were killed at Jackson State University in Mississippi.

Nixon would eventually end the military draft. Kissinger negotiated an end to American involvement in Vietnam that went into effect in early 1973. Kissinger and North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (Le Duc Tho declined the prize, the only person to ever do so with a Peace Prize.)

Other parts of the world were undergoing turmoil. Bangladesh was winning its independence from Pakistan in a bloody civil war that also involved India. Nixon, who did not like Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, sided with Pakistan. It turned out that America’s desire to help Pakistan stemmed from a desire to use that country as an entree to an even bigger goal: relations with China.

During a diplomatic trip to Pakistan, Kissinger disappeared from public view for a spell with what was called “stomach flu.” Actually, Kissinger was negotiating a trip by Nixon to China. Before Nixon visited, the Chinese invited an American table tennis team to come visit and participate in exhibitions. This would be dubbed “ping-pong diplomacy.” (Except by the International Table Tennis Federation perhaps.)

In February of 1972, Nixon traveled to China, where he conducted high level meetings almost entirely on his own. Nixon went as far to use the translators that the Chinese provided instead of State Department translators, whom he did not trust. The visit began the process of starting the normalization of relations between the U.S. and the world’s most populous country.

The visit to China also made the Soviet Union more eager to negotiate with the U.S. on nuclear arms control. In May of 1972, Nixon went to Moscow. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) would be the results of these trips.

Despite Nixon’s good standings in the polls, he was worried about domestic enemies. The leaking of the Pentagon Papers, an in depth examination of the Vietnam War during the Johnson Administration, seemed to set off Nixon. Nixon wanted to tighten up internal security procedures and identify people who leaked information to the press. To stop these leaks, a group was formed in the White House that would become known as “The Plumbers.”

The Plumbers talked a much bigger game than they actually performed. The group, led by men like E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, (to join the group you had to not like your original first name it seemed), fancied themselves to be world-class spies. However, their incompetence would be Nixon’s undoing.

One plan the Plumbers came up with was to firebomb the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank in Washington. The plan was to steal safes that were supposed to contain leaked information about the Vietnam War that scholars at the facility. However, the scholars neither had safes nor did they have any leaked confidential information.

Another plan involved breaking into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the former Pentagon employee responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers. That proved to be a fruitless endeavor.

On June 17, 1972, five men, including a White House official named Robert McCord were arrested at the Watergate Hotel trying to bug the office of Democratic National Party chairman Lawrence O’Brien. Six days after the break in, Nixon and aide H.R. Haldeman held the discussion linked here.

The Watergate Scandal is far too complicated for me to describe here (not that I don’t like to talk about.) It turned out to be more than just the break in at the hotel. It turned in to a major Constitutional crisis. Nixon, despite being reelected in a landslide in 1972 against George McGovern, would soon lose the confidence of the nation. A pattern of criminal behavior in the Executive Branch was revealed. (It probably wasn’t as cinematic as this though.)

A Senate Committee was set up to investigate the scandal and it seemed that new revelations turned up every week. Some geeky kids, like this seven-year old, enjoyed sitting in front of the TV set with his mother and grandmother listening to the testimony of John Dean and others. Ahh, good times. (At the same time as this was going on, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned after pleading no contest to income tax evasion charges on kickbacks he received while governor of Maryland. Gerald Ford replaced Agnew.)

In the summer of 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. After Nixon lost a Supreme Court battle to keep the tapes from being subpoenaed, a group of prominent Republicans in Congress visited Nixon and told him that he had to resign for the sake of the country. Hesitant at first to quit, Nixon relented. He announced his resignation on August 8, 1974, effective the next day.

Nixon’s final days in the White House were not pleasant. His drinking became more severe. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger told the Chiefs of Staff to run any orders from Nixon past him before enacting them. Schlesinger feared that an increasingly unstable Nixon could potentially involve the United States in a catastrophic war.

After leaving office, new President Gerald Ford would issue Nixon a pardon for any crimes he may have committed while in office. Nixon retreated for a time to his home in San Clemente, California.

Nixon had one more comeback of sorts left in him. After making a considerable sum of money for a series of interviews with David Frost, Nixon left California to move back to New York. Back in New York, Nixon would hold court and take on the role of the senior statesman. He wrote his memoirs and several other books on foreign policy.

In 1981, Nixon, along with former Presidents Ford and Carter, flew to Egypt for the funeral of the assassinated Anwar Sadat. Nixon would offer advice to Presidents Reagan and Bush.

Even when a Democrat, Bill Clinton, moved into the White House in 1993, Nixon was still trying to influence foreign policy. On April 18, 1994, Nixon suffered a severe stroke. Four days later, he passed away. He was buried on the grounds of his museum in Yorba Linda. President Clinton delivered a eulogy. Nixon could no longer see people kick him around.

Drew concludes her book with the examination of Nixon’s Presidency. She calls it the “Yes, but” question. Would Nixon have been a great President, if not for Watergate. According to Drew, the answer is no. Nixon’s mental instability and extreme paranoia almost destroyed the country. Nixon wanted his legacy to be his foreign policy success in China and Russia. But, Nixon’s legacy is mainly just an almost complete distrust in our leaders by the American public.

Nevertheless, Nixon’s historical profile is improving. The Ivy Leaguers that Nixon envied (or just hated) seem to be showing him more respect. Why this is so remains a puzzle to me.

Other stuff: Because of a dispute between Nixon and the National Archives, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum was originally run by a private foundation. The National Archives took over the facility in 2007. Many parts of the museum are being renovated, including the section on Watergate. The facility is in Yorba Linda.

Richard Nixon was considered to be a California resident when he was chosen Vice President; but, he was considered a New Yorker when he ran for President. In his three runs for the Presidency, Nixon received over 113 million popular votes, about 1 million more than George W. Bush had in his two successful runs for the White House.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

The Presidency of Franklin Pierce by Larry Gara

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

At least Nathaniel Hawthorne liked him

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

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.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

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.

Abraham Lincoln by George S. McGovern

President #16, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #1

The Standard

lincolnBack when I was in eighth grade, I entered an American history essay contest at a local prep school. The winner would receive a partial scholarship to the school. It was actually a timed test in a classroom setting and we didn’t know what the question would be.

I had barely made it to the school in time as I had to serve as an altar boy at my local church. As it turned out, the church was beginning a special prayer service called “Forty Hours Devotion.” (If you’re Catholic, you probably know what I’m talking about. If you’re not, you can read about it here.) The Mass that preceded the Forty Hours Devotion took an extra long time, so my classmates and I barely made it to the school in time for the test.

The essay question was: Name the greatest President and explain why. I opted to pick Abraham Lincoln, cranked out about eight paragraphs in an hour, and went home. A week later, I found out I had won the contest, which guaranteed me admission to the school for the next year. This turned out to be a mixed blessing as that school was awful, and I spent the most miserable year of my childhood there.

What’s my point here? I’m not sure. But, I hope I’m writing something more cogent on the man that I and nearly every historian considers to be America’s greatest President than I did back in eighth grade.

Abraham Lincoln biographies are not hard to find. He is the most popular figure in American history to write about. His life story almost defines America. He left an enormous amount of writing behind. He was one of the most intelligent men to hold the office, despite having just one year of formal education. He was, perhaps, the best speaker to be President. And to, top it off, he was also an incredibly shrewd politician.

George McGovern, the former Senator from South Dakota and failed Presidential candidate in 1972, added to the canon of Lincoln biographies with this slender work, released this year, the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. It is a good read about the life of the most famous President. Also, McGovern manages to add some new details about Lincoln’s political dealings that added to my understanding of the 16th President.

Abraham Lincoln, so closely identified with the state of Illinois, was actually born in then Hardin County, Kentucky on February 12, 1809. He shares his birthday with Charles Darwin. His parents were Thomas and Nancy. And, as we’ve learned from childhood, Lincoln was born in a log cabin.

Thomas Lincoln wasn’t extremely poor; but, due to some financial setbacks, he moved the family out of Kentucky to Indiana. Thomas also did not feel comfortable living in a state where slavery was legal. In Indiana, Nancy Lincoln passed away at age 34 after contracting a fever from drinking milk from diseased cows. Thomas would later remarry. Abraham’s stepmother, Sarah, was the one who saw that young Abraham was a special child. She gave him books and did her best to educate him. Lincoln would develop a formidable knowledge of literature and history. He also became an accomplished speaker and writer almost entirely of his own making. Few Presidents not named Thomas Jefferson were as well-read as Lincoln, and perhaps none was more eloquent as a writer and speaker.

In 1830, the family settled in Illinois, first in Macon County, and then later in Coles County. At age 22, Abraham Lincoln set out on his own and moved to New Salem, Illinois.

Lincoln was interested in politics early. He ran for a seat in the Illinois Legislature in 1832 at age 23. He finished in eighth place. But, in 1834, Lincoln won. He ran as a Whig Party candidate and favored Henry Clay’s (his political idol) platform of a national bank and Federally-funded internal improvements. At this time, Lincoln began to teach himself law. He would soon be admitted to the Illinois State Bar. He quickly gained a reputation as a formidable litigator.

During his time as a legislator, Lincoln saw other dramatic changes in his personal life. His first love, a woman named Ann Rutledge, passed away in 1835. Lincoln went into a deep depression, one that likely would have required hospitalization today. These bouts of depression would recur throughout Lincoln’s life even when he was President.

Lincoln eventually became engaged to a woman named Mary Todd. The relationship started and stopped due to each person’s delicate psychological conditions. They eventually married late in 1842. They would have four sons, but only one, the eldest Robert, lived past the age of 18.

In 1844, Lincoln decided to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. However, the district had three Whig party candidates, all of whom were friends. Lincoln hit upon the idea that each of the three should serve one term and then give the office to the next in line.

So, Lincoln was not elected to the House of Representatives until 1846. Lincoln was an outspoken opponent of President James Polk’s plans to declare war with Mexico. Lincoln opposed the war because he opposed giving the South more territory where it could expand slavery. At this point, Lincoln was not opposed to slavery, per se, just to its expansion in to new territories.

Lincoln looked forward to the election of a Whig President in 1848. Zachary Taylor turned his success on the battlefield into a home at the White House. However, Taylor died in office. His successor, Millard Fillmore, signed into law the Compromise of 1850, which divided up the new territories into free and slave areas. This had the effect of repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820, an act which Lincoln felt was essential to checking the growth of slavery in the United States. Back in Illinois, all Lincoln could do was rally Whig opposition to the measure. Although this was futile, Lincoln made important political connections in Illinois through his efforts.

The Whig Party died out after Winfield Scott lost to Franklin Pierce in the 1852 Presidential election. The party split along sectional lines. Northern Whigs formed a new party that was strongly opposed to the spread of slavery. They called themselves Republicans.

In 1854, Lincoln gave what McGovern described as his first great speech. Before a crowd in Peoria on October 16, 1854, Lincoln railed against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, another attempt to smooth out the slavery controversy. This act allowed for “popular sovereignty” (essentially plebiscites of the residents of the territories, although it never worked perfectly) to decide whether or not the Kansas and Nebraska territories would be organized as free or slave states.

Lincoln declared the measure to be contrary to earlier laws like the Missouri Compromise, as well as antithetical to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.

Repeal the Missouri compromise—repeal all compromises—repeal the declaration of independence—repeal all past history, you still can not repeal human nature. It still will be the abundance of man’s heart, that slavery extension is wrong; and out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will continue to speak.

The speech greatly raised Lincoln’s national profile in the slavery debate. According to McGovern, it also represented a turning point in Lincoln’s life. Slavery was becoming less of a political issue and more of a moral one to Lincoln.

In 1858, Lincoln was tabbed by the Republicans to run for the Senate against the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Stephen Douglas. Lincoln gave, in McGovern’s view, his second great speech in accepting the nomination. (Emphasis mine.)

If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.

Lincoln and Douglas would engage in a series of seven debates throughout Illinois. It turned out to compelling political theater (even though each debate lasted over three and a half hours) as the race drew national attention. Lincoln, who stood 6’4″ (tallest ever to become President), faced off against the 5’4″ Douglas. Both men could command the stage. In the end, the Democrats won  enough seats in the Illinois legislature to reelect Douglas to the Senate.

Nevertheless, the publicity generated from the debates further improved Lincoln’s position nationwide. In 1860, it was beginning to look increasingly like the Republicans could win the Presidency, as the Democrats started to tear apart on a sectional basis. In February of 1860, Lincoln gave what McGovern called “his third famous speech.” It was an address at the Cooper Union in New York City.

The speech laid out Lincoln’s idea that the Founding Fathers intended for slavery to disappear. He urged the Federal government to act and do the right thing. Slavery was too important of an issue to be used as a political bargaining chip.

Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man – such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care – such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance – such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.

At the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago, Lincoln’s supporters managed to get him nominated on the second ballot. There were backroom deals (Cabinet choices and patronage promises) made to help secure some delegates; but, ultimately, the Republicans knew that Lincoln had wide appeal to all Northerners.

The Democrats could not agree on a candidate. They held two conventions and nominated two different candidates, Douglas and John Breckinridge. John Bell of Tennessee was a fourth candidate, running under the Constitutional Union Party banner. Bell tried to appeal to the still strong nativist movement (think Lou Dobbs) that had once been called the Know-Nothing Party.

Even though Lincoln did not appear on the ballot in eight Southern states, he won the election easily. Lincoln picked up 39.9% of the popular vote. Douglas finished in second at 29.5%. In terms of electoral votes, Lincoln had 180 with Breckinridge in second at 72.

Southerners reacted to the election of Lincoln by threatening to secede. Lincoln did not believe that Southern states would go with through such a plan. It had been talked about for decades, dating back to the Jackson administration. But, this time, the South meant it. South Carolina voted to secede in December of 1860. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, eight states has passed acts of secession.

Due to threats made against his life, Lincoln sneaked into Washington in the middle of the night before the Inauguration. In his Inaugural Address, he held out an olive branch to the South.

Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that— I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

However, just a month later, Lincoln decided to send supplies to Fort Sumter, in Charleston, South Carolina. Southerners interpreted this action as hostile and opened fire on the fort. The Civil War had begun.

Lincoln’s actions during the beginning of the Civil War were controversial and remain so to this day. Believing that secession was unconstitutional, Lincoln refused to meet with any Southern leaders. He viewed their actions as acts of rebellion.

Soon after the Civil War began, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus rights. At first, the suspension was only in an area immediately surrounding the capital, although it would later extend to the whole country. Lincoln believed that he had to take drastic steps to keep the secessionists in check. However, the President has no authority to suspend the right of habeas corpus. That right is reserved to Congress (Congress would subsequently approve the suspension.) Despite an unfavorable court ruling, Lincoln maintained the suspension of habeas corpus. Even McGovern, who writes in a worshipful style, has a hard time defending Lincoln’s actions.

Later on, Lincoln would order newspapers that were sympathetic to the Confederacy to be shut down. He also authorized the Treasury to make direct cash payments to individuals, another unconstitutional action. (The Treasury can only make payments to people if Congress appropriates the money.)

DSCF0718Nevertheless, Lincoln believed that he had to take these drastic steps in order to preserve the union and the Constitution.

By 1862, Lincoln had finally moved into the camp that believed that slavery had to be totally abolished. Lincoln did not want to wait for the war to end. He believed that under his powers as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, that he could order the freedom of the slaves. In the summer of 1862, Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. He showed it to his Cabinet. Secretary of State William Seward, who would become Lincoln’s most trusted adviser, told him that the Proclamation should not be issued until after a major victory by Federal forces. Seward feared that if the Emancipation Proclamation were issued when the Confederacy was winning on the battlefield, it would look like a desperate maneuver to curry favor internationally.

However, early in the war, the Confederacy was winning more than its share of battles. The Union Army was hampered by poor leadership. Union generals were unwilling to confront the main portion of the Confederate Army.  But, after the horrifically bloody battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, a day that saw more Americans die on a battlefield than any other day ever (over 3,600 men on both sides), Lincoln felt that his military position was secure enough to issue the Proclamation.

On September 22, 1862, Lincoln’s proclamation read, in part:

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

While the Emancipation Proclamation did little in actually making any slave free immediately, it forever changed the terms of the engagement. The Civil War was no longer being fought over abstract concepts like Federal or State sovereignty. It was not fought over the concept of whether or not the Constitution was a voluntary pact. It was now a battle between two forces: one who believed that no one had the right to hold another person as property, and another that believed that it did.

Lincoln was an active Commander in Chief during the Civil War. He changed generals in charge of the Army as often as George Steinbrenner changed Yankees managers in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1863 that Lincoln finally found his man: Ulysses S. Grant. Grant agreed with Lincoln’s concept of fighting a total war against the South. No longer would the Union just try to wear down the South into surrender. Instead, the North would try to destroy the South completely.

The process would be a long and painful one. Hundreds of thousands died during the Civil War. Lincoln started conscripting soldiers, a plan that met with massive opposition in parts of the country. In New York City, riots in opposition to conscription lasted for a week and killed over 100 people. But, the Union Army kept getting its supply of soldiers. And the Union contingent would always remain numerically superior to the Confederacy.

On November 19, 1863, Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A cemetery for the soldiers who died in massive battle there earlier in July was to be dedicated. Lincoln spoke only briefly at the ceremony. But his words, the Gettysburg Address, are, perhaps, the most famous speech ever given by a President. Lincoln succinctly summarized everything that the United States was fighting for and what it hoped to be.

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Despite the war, there was still another election to be held in 1864. Lincoln believed that a Presidential election would be beneficial to the country. It would demonstrate that the nation’s democratic principles had not been compromised by the rebellion.

Lincoln took no chances during the election. He dropped his Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, from the ticket in favor of pro-Union Tennessee senator Andrew Johnson. Hamlin had been toying with the idea of replacing Lincoln with Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase. Lincoln decided to take both Hamlin and Chase out of the picture. Chase would become Chief Justice. Other Republicans wanted Grant to run in 1864, but the general declined.

The Democrats ran one of Lincoln’s fired commanders, George McClellan. Although McClellan had shown to be mostly incompetent on the battlefield, the soldiers he commanded had mostly loved him. The election of 1864 was expected to be close. McClellan’s hope rested on the belief that the North was tired of the war and would accept peace at any terms. Lincoln even believed that he was going to lose.

But, in the fall of 1864, the war began to turn decisively in the Union’s favor. On September 2, 1864, Union forces under the command of General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta and burnt it to the ground. Grant’s troops won a series of bloody conflicts in Virginia.

Lincoln, a master politician at any time, arranged for soldiers to get leaves to go home to vote, or, to vote absentee from the battlefields. Soldiers became fundraisers for Lincoln in some cases. The election of 1864 was a huge victory for Lincoln. Lincoln won all but three states (Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey) and over 55% of the vote.

After the election, Sherman led his army on a march through the state of Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah, laying waste to nearly everything in its path. The South was being brought to its knees by the onslaught of power from the North.

With victory seemingly at hand, Lincoln again struck a conciliatory tone during his Second Inaugural. The brief address (the shortest Inaugural Address ever given) contained these words:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Although it may have seemed that all of Lincoln’s activities as President involved the war, he made three other notable contributions to the United States. The first was the income tax, which was implemented as a wartime measure to raise funds. The second was the Homestead Act, which gave away land in the territories to people who would improve it. The third was the Morrill Act, which set up the Land Grant College system, which established many of the nation’s largest and most prestigious state universities. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which formally banned slavery in the United States, was passed by Congress during Lincoln’s time, although it would be ratified later.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee finally surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865. The war was over. Five days later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Washington. Lincoln had now become a martyr. He passed almost instantly from politician to legend.

McGovern asks if anything can be learned from rehashing the life of Abraham Lincoln so many times. Perhaps, we don’t think about Lincoln’s life enough. As McGovern writes:

Abraham Lincoln holds the highest place in American history.  General William T. Sherman said, “Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.” He was our greatest president, against whom all others will forever be measured. We wish our leaders could be more like him; we wish we all could be. There has never been an American story like Abraham Lincoln’s.

Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency was far from perfect. But if you compare him to the men who came before and after him in the office, he was indispensable. One adage goes “History is written by the winners.” Thankfully for the United States, I wrote about Abraham Lincoln the way I did.

Other stuff: Abraham Lincoln is memorialized seemingly everywhere. He is buried in Springfield, Illinois, which is also the site of the Abraham Lincoln Home. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the capital. If you can’t find something that bears Abraham Lincoln’s image on it, you are either someone who doesn’t like pennies, or you are a person who believes that the South will rise again. If you’re the latter, you’re wrong. All the South gets now is exaggerated love of its college football teams from ESPN.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine