Andrew Johnson: A Biography by Hans L. Trefousse

President #17, C-SPAN Historians’ ranking #41

You Cannot Stop Reading This Unless You Have Prior Approval of the U.S. Senate

ajohnsonAndrew Johnson’s story could have been one of the most inspiring in American history. Here was a man born in to extreme poverty, with no formal education at all, and, through very hard work and dedicated service to his country,  he ended up as President.

And once he became President, Andrew Johnson was a colossal failure. He accomplished almost nothing in office (well, we got Alaska!) He claimed to care deeply about the U.S. Constitution, but those feelings somehow manifested itself in overt racism.

Johnson would become most famous for surviving an impeachment trial by a margin of one vote. But, even though Johnson managed to stay in office, it did little to enhance Johnson’s historical reputation. Johnson ranks just one notch above James Buchanan. And it does not help Johnson’s reputation that he succeeded Abraham Lincoln.

Hans L. Trefousse, who will appear again on this blog, gives one of the fairest portrayals of Johnson that any modern historian could. And you can tell very quickly that Trefousse has little regard for our 17th President.

Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina on December 29, 1808. His father, who was very likely illiterate, died when Andrew was three. His mother, unable to properly provide for her children, had Andrew serve as an apprentice tailor. While working as an apprentice, young Andrew was taught to read and write. (To this day, there are books that state that Johnson’s wife Eliza taught him how to read and write, but Trefousse insists that Johnson was already literate by the time he married.)

The life of an apprentice tailor was arduous. Johnson toiled for long hours for no pay. He was supposed to serve as an apprentice until he was 21. By the time he was around 16, Johnson decided to head out on his own. But, because he was breaking an apprentice contract, Johnson had to leave North Carolina to work on his own. Johnson ended up in Greeneville, Tennessee.

In Greeneville, Johnson quickly made a name for himself. He proved to be an excellent tailor, and this provided him with a steady income. This, in turn, made him acceptable to women as marriage material. Johnson’s wife, Eliza, would be one of his strongest supporters; although, she was plagued by illness much of her life.

Andrew Johnson quickly learned that he had an excellent speaking voice. And, he proved quite adept at using it to convince other people to do things. Naturally, he went into politics.

Johnson started out as an alderman in Greeneville, worked his way up to mayor, and then to a seat in the Tennessee Legislature. After losing his first reelection bid, Johnson returned two years later to Nashville and wouldn’t lose another election again until after his term in the White House was over.

From the Tennessee Legislature, Johnson made his way to the United States House of Representatives. Johnson’s heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson and his political philosophies would always be based on their philosophies. Johnson believed in an agrarian America, hard currency payments for debts, and a small government.

Since Johnson had come from such poor origins, he wanted others to have a chance to better themselves. His idea for this was homesteading. Johnson repeatedly pushed for a Homestead Act that would grant every white male (being white helped a lot in Andrew Johnson’s world) 160 acres of land free of charge from the Federal Government, provided that improvements were made to the land within one year.

Homestead laws, however, were not popular among Johnson’s fellow Southerners. For starters, most land in the West was not suitable for plantation slavery. Also, Southerners feared increased tariffs, feeling that the Federal government would have to recoup lost income from land sales. (The Homestead Act would not be passed until 1862 when there weren’t any Southerners around to vote against it. That also helped in the creation of the states of Nevada and West Virginia.)

Johnson left the House in 1853 after his district was reapportioned, making it far less inviting for him to run. So, Johnson decided to run for Governor of Tennessee.

Running a populist campaign, Johnson triumphed and moved into the highest office in the state of Tennessee. This was quite an accomplishment for an unschooled apprentice tailor. But, Johnson was not satisfied.

During Johnson’s time, the governor of Tennessee had little real power. He couldn’t veto legislation, and could only appoint officials in a few parts of the government. But, the job carried a great deal of prestige. And it thrust Johnson into the national spotlight.

Johnson hoped that he could garner the Democratic nomination for President in 1856. But, he had little support. Instead, Johnson decided to run for the Senate, which he entered in 1857.

To say that matters were contentious in Congress in 1857 would be understating the matter. Johnson took an unusual approach in the Senate. He was a Southerner (and a slave owner) who wanted to maintain slavery, but refused to back the idea of secession. In fact, Johnson was stridently opposed to secession.

Johnson’s opposition to secession came from several factors. First, Johnson had no regard for the rich Southern aristocrats who owned large amounts of slaves and prospered greatly from their work. Second, Johnson was an ardent admirer of Andrew Jackson and wanted to emulate his stand on the South Carolina Nullification Crisis. Third, Johnson was fanatically devoted to the wording of the Constitution. Johnson found no words in the Constitution that would allow a state to secede.

Andrew Johnson was the only Senator from a state in the Confederacy who refused to join up with the secessionists.  Unpopular (to put it mildly) back  home in Tennessee, Johnson spent the early days of the Civil War in Washington.

But by 1862, Union troops had made inroads in Tennessee, controlling enough territory that President Lincoln felt that there was a need to have a Union leader in control of the politics of the area. Johnson, who was widely heralded in the North for his anti-secessionist stance, was appointed the military governor of Tennessee.

While in the job, Johnson took a firm hand against secessionists. He also vowed not to surrender Nashville when Confederate troops tried to reclaim, going as far as to threaten to burn the city down rather than surrender it. (Union troops intervened in time.) Johnson  swung over to the abolitionist side in 1863. Although, he did not embrace any sort of equality for blacks, especially voting rights.

Johnson was now one of the most popular Southerners in the North. And with the election of 1864 looming, Lincoln decided to add Johnson to the ticket. Although it may seem hard to believe, Lincoln was worried that he would lose his bid for reelection. So, he got rid of his Radical Republican Vice President Hannibal Hamlin in favor of Johnson, whom he felt would present a more conciliatory tone. (Lincoln also wanted to remove Johnson as a potential rival from the Democratic side.) For the 1864 election, the Republican Party became the Union Party. Once the war started to turn decisively in the Union’s favor, Lincoln won reelection easily.

Now, we skip ahead to the fateful day of March 4, 1865. At that time, Vice Presidents were inaugurated before a joint session of Congress in a smaller ceremony than the Presidential inauguration. Johnson was not feeling well that day (he likely was suffering from typhoid fever.) To make himself feel better, Johnson had a belt of whiskey. No change. He had another and decided to proceed into the Capitol for the ceremony. However, he decided to have one more glass of whiskey just to make sure.

In 1865, there were no food labeling laws like we have today. Because today, Johnson would likely have found his bottle of whiskey to have this advice: “WARNING: EXCESSIVE CONSUMPTION OF THIS BEVERAGE MAY LEAD TO EMBARRASSING DISPLAYS WHEN ADDRESSING A JOINT SESSION OF CONGRESS.”

Johnson stumbled his way through the oath of office, and then gave a speech that was about as coherent as you would expect from someone who had just downed three shots. He may have been the first Vice President to be given the hook (metaphorically) on stage to keep him from further embarrassing himself. The American public now had one image of Johnson: a stupid, bumbling drunk. (I can’t find a transcript of the speech online, but it’s probably something like this.)

Although Johnson had two sons who succumbed to alcoholism, Trefousse insists that Andrew Johnson did not have a drinking problem. There are no other reports of him appearing drunk in public. Johnson just picked the worst time ever to be drunk in front of a crowd.

Johnson’s term as Vice President was short. Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. Johnson was now thrust in to the highest office in the land and charged with the duty of sorting out the aftermath of the Civil War. Johnson initially took a hard line against the South and vowed numerous trials for treason. Quickly, he backed off that idea.

Before his death, Lincoln had proposed the “10 per cent plan” for the Confederate states. If 10% of the voters took a loyalty oath, a state would be readmitted to full status in Congress. Also, the defeated states would have to agree to abolish slavery.

Johnson adopted this plan, but immediately ran into objections from the Radical Republicans in Congress. This was a term used to describe the wing of the Republican Party that wanted to punish the South for the war, as well as give all of the recently freed slaves full voting rights.

To further infuriate the Radicals, Johnson appointed governors for all the Confederate states. Johnson picked several men who were strongly opposed by the Radicals, who felt that Johnson was just putting the Confederates back in charge. Johnson had even pardoned Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy.

The new state governments in turn chose new representatives for Congress, none of them allowing blacks to vote. When these Representatives and Senators came to Washington to be seated in Congress, they were turned away. Johnson could do nothing but complain.

A showdown was looming. First, Congress passed a law extending the Freedmen’s Bureau, a Federal agency that helped the newly freed slaves. Johnson vetoed it as being unconstitutional. Johnson believed that there were state governments in place to handle this matter. Congress quickly overrode Johnson’s veto.

Then, an even more ambitious bill, called the Reconstruction Bill was passed by Congress. This divided 10 of the 11 former Confederate states into five military districts that would be run by Army generals. (Tennessee was left out of this plan and Johnson insisted that Tennessee had never left the Union.) Johnson vetoed this bill, and Congress overrode it.

And so it would continue. Congress would pass a measure, Johnson would veto it, and Congress would override it. Johnson would veto 29 different bills and be overriden 15 times, more than any U.S. President. (One of the vetoes that was overridden made Nebraska a state.)

Johnson was most strongly opposed to something that he could not veto, the Fourteenth Amendment. Congress had made ratification of this amendment necessary for any state to be readmitted to Congress. Johnson could not tolerate an amendment that would allow equal rights for whites and blacks. Throughout his political career, Johnson made numerous speeches that showed he was overtly racist. Johnson did not believe that the United States could survive with the votes of black citizens.

In his veto message of the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 (which later was turned into the Fourteenth Amendment), you can read how Johnson is appalled at the idea of the freed slaves becoming citizens. They lacked the “requisite qualifications to entitle them to the privileges and immunities of United States citizenship.”

So, Johnson decided to go around the country by train campaigning against the Fourteenth Amendment. This trip, known as the “Swing Round the Circle”, was a disaster. Johnson spoke to crowds of hecklers from the back of his train, deriding any civil rights legislation, while holding himself up as the lone defender of the Constitution. By the time of the 1866 off-year elections, the Radical Republicans won major gains in Congress, isolating Johnson politically.

But, the Radicals were not satisfied with just isolating Johnson politically. They wanted to finish him off for good by impeaching him. The first attempt, in 1867, did not get out of the House, as there were really no charges to bring against Johnson, except for being a jerk.

Congress then set a trap for Johnson with the passage of the Tenure of Office Act. This required that any officer appointed by the President with Senate approval could only be removed with Senate approval. Johnson knew that this act was unconstitutional and was hoping to test it in court.

Johnson decided that he wanted to remove his Secretary of War, William Stanton, whom he felt was disloyal to him (and he was.) Stanton, interestingly supported Johnson’s veto of the Tenure of Office Act. Johnson decided he wanted to replace Stanton with Ulysses Grant. But, Grant refused for a variety of reasons, most of them political. Johnson then asked William T. Sherman to take over.   Sherman refused because he didn’t want to move to Washington and get involved with politics. Finally, Johnson turned to General Lorenzo Thomas to tell Stanton that he was suspended and that he, Thomas, was taking over as Secretary of War on an interim basis.

When Thomas got to Stanton’s office on February 21, 1868 to tell him to leave, Stanton balked because he knew that Thomas did not have Senate approval to remove him from his post. So, Stanton had Thomas arrested on charges of violating the Tenure of Office Act and remained in his office. Although Stanton would drop the charges to avoid giving Johnson the chance to test the legality of the Tenure of Office Act, Radical Republicans saw this as their chance to be rid of Johnson.

The House quickly convened and voted to impeach Johnson, just three days after Stanton’s attempted ouster.  A trial in the Senate was quickly set up. And it appeared that Johnson was a dead duck.

However, Johnson’s attorneys felt that they had a good strategy to get an acquittal. First, they told Johnson, who wanted to appear in front of Congress to defend himself, to stay in the White House for the trial and keep his mouth shut, which he did. Second, the defense team knew that there wasn’t much of a case against Johnson and the charges were mainly political in nature.

Further helping out Johnson was the fact that the man who would have succeeded Johnson, Senate President pro tem Ben Wade of Ohio, was widely disliked by New York financiers. Wade favored an inflationary scheme to pay off Civil War debts. That is, Wade wanted the government to print a bunch of money, hand it out, and pay off the debt that way. Wade had also been defeated in his attempt to win reelection to the Senate, so he was a lame duck. Wade was also in favor of women’s suffrage and the right of labor to organize. Despite these stances, Wade was viewed foremost as a demagogue.

Finally, the case against Johnson didn’t get started in earnest until the end of March 1868. The trial finished in May, so even with a conviction, Johnson would only be out of office for eight or nine months.

The Republican prosecution team was also not the sharpest group around. Benjamin Butler was appointed chief prosecutor and he proved to be no match for Johnson’s lawyers, especially Henry Stanbery, who resigned his position as Attorney General to defend Johnson.

Yet another factor in Johnson’s favor was politics. Johnson still was able to wield patronage power. Johnson was not afraid to tell senators who were leaning toward acquittal that he could make it worth their while. One such Senator who was willing to listen to such a deal from Johnson was Edmund Ross of Kansas, who would later be one of the subjects in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.

Johnson managed to survive by the narrowest of margins, one vote. There were 27 states represented in Congress at the time. A 2/3 vote was neccessary for conviction, so 36 votes were needed. The vote ended up being 35 for guilty and 19 for not guilty. Seven Republicans broke ranks to vote to acquit. Some did it because they believed Johnson was innocent, and perhaps some were convinced by other means.

Regardless of how bad Johnson was as a President, the country was better served not to have him removed from office by impeachment. The impeachment process was put in place so Congress could remove a President or judge who was corrupt, not one who was merely unpopular.

Johnson served out the rest of his term in relative quiet. He still believed that he had done his best to preserve the Constitution. He believed that the Fourteenth Amendment would ruin the country. But, he was powerless to stop that amendment. General John Schofield took over as Secretary of War.

Despite the impeachment trial, Johnson entertained hopes of getting the Democratic nomination to run for President in 1868. But, the Democrats didn’t want him, still remembering him abandoning the party to run with Lincoln four years earlier. New York Governor Horatio Seymour ended up with the nomination. Grant and the Republicans won the election.

Although he did not attend Grant’s inauguration, Johnson was still in Washington on March 4, 1869. He conducted business at the White House and then moved out while the ceremony was going on. Johnson felt that Grant had betrayed him. He had no desire to wish him well.

Johnson went back home to Tennessee, where he was warmly received. He tried to get back into politics almost immediately, but was thwarted in a bid to win a Senate seat. A few years later, Johnson tried to win a House seat, but failed. Finally, in 1875, he won a seat in the Senate.

After being out of the spotlight, Johnson got a chance to go back to Congress and speak his mind. An unexpected special session afforded him an opportunity to be sworn in early and to give a speech. Johnson denounced Federal Reconstruction efforts in Louisiana. He had not lost his zeal for politics.

And there the story ends, Congress adjourned and Johnson went back home. On July 31, 1875, Andrew Johnson passed away at his daughter’s home in Carter Station, Tennessee of a stroke.

Trefousse’s biography does not try to look at Johnson sympathetically. Andrew Johnson’s selection as Vice President may have been one of Abraham Lincoln’s worst ideas. Johnson, as Trefousse points out, was a man of the Jacksonian Era. But, America was no longer in Andrew Jackson’s time. The country had been through a civil war. It had become industrialized. It had a growing population of people from all over the world. Andrew Johnson was ill-suited to be a leader in this time. Reconstruction was an awful time in American history. It’s hard not to see how a racist, backward-looking man only made matters worse.

Other stuff: Johnson is buried in the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in Greeneville, Tennessee. It is part of the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site.

Andrew Johnson’s life was the subject of a 1942 film from MGM called “Tennessee Johnson.” Van Heflin played Johnson. It will air on Turner Classic Movies on Wednesday, July 15 at 9:30 am PT.

If you want more details on the impeachment trial, you can try Impeach Andrew Johnson, or this more legalistic one.

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James Monroe by Gary Hart

President #5, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #14

What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?

jamesmonroe

James Monroe was the last of a series of three Virginia presidents, following Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. And, since he didn’t write the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, Monroe is remembered mainly for his eponymous foreign policy doctrine. And, some people think that John Quincy Adams wrote that. But, former Senator Gary Hart does his best to stick up for James Monroe, whom he describes as the first “national security president.”

Hart devotes most of this biography of Monroe to his foreign policy efforts. The Panic of 1819, America’s first recession borne out of business cycles is glossed over. The Missouri Compromise is discussed mainly to show how little Monroe had to do with it. The fact that Monroe faced only token opposition in his run for the Presidency in 1816 and then none at all in 1820 gets a page.

But, it is Monroe’s ability to establish one of the cornerstones of American foreign policy that Hart concentrates on. Monroe, who suffered through some unfortunate experiences as a diplomat in Europe, ended up being one of the most effective Presidents in dealing with Europe and preserving the security of the nation.

James Monroe was born on April 28, 1758 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. When he was a 17-year old student at William and Mary, Monroe and a group of older students, after hearing about the battles of Lexington and Concord, led a raid on an armory. The weapons they took would be used to form a regiment in the Virginia Militia.

When he was just 18, Monroe accompanied George Washington’s troops for their fateful crossing of the Delaware. Monroe would fight in the Battle of Trenton. In 1851, artist Emmanuel Leutze would insert Monroe into his painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. (He is the man holding the flag.)

In 1780, Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson asked Monroe to come back home to help with the militia there. Jefferson also tutored Monroe in law, seeing Monroe as a future political leader.

In 1782, Monroe was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. One year later, Monroe was elected to the Confederation Congress. However, Monroe was not asked to participate in the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Monroe originally opposed the Constitution, but made his peace with it. He ran for a seat in the House in the 1st Congress, but he lost to Madison. (This is the only time two future Presidents ever ran against each other for a seat in Congress.)

In 1790, Monroe won a seat in the Senate. It’s hard to judge Monroe’s Senate career since all activities of the Senate during his term (1790-1794) were not made public. Monroe was known to be an advocate of opening the Senate’s business to the public as the House was. However, this would not happen until after Monroe left office.

In 1794, President George Washington found himself in need of a new Minister to France. The Revolutionary Government of France had asked for the old Minister, Gouverneur Morris, to be recalled as they felt he was too pro-British.

Washington turned to Monroe, who was both sympathetic to the French Revolution, but also somewhat levelheaded. Washington was not afraid (at this time) to appoint people to high office even if they were opposed to his policies.

Monroe’s service in France didn’t go well. Washington’s administration remained strongly pro-British. Chief Justice John Jay had been dispatched to London to negotiate a treaty to alleviate tensions between Britain and the U.S. Monroe assured the French that they had nothing to fear from the treaty. Monroe believed that the U.S. would still back the terms of the Alliance signed back in 1777.

But, Jay was not forthcoming to Monroe about what he intended to negotiate. The treaty ended up being pro-British. The French, naturally, hated it. Monroe ended up looking foolish. In 1796, Washington recalled Monroe.

Monroe returned home, but wasn’t out of public life for too long. He was elected Governor of Virginia in 1799 and served for three years. In 1803, President Jefferson asked Monroe to go overseas again.

The first job for Monroe would be to assist Robert Livingston in negotiations with Napoleon for the purchase of New Orleans. Monroe had long made free navigation of the rivers of the West one of his pet projects and was eager to help.

When Monroe joined Livingston in Paris, he soon found out that Napoleon just didn’t want to sell New Orleans. He wanted to sell the whole Louisiana Territory. This turned out to be a deal that Monroe, Livingston, and Jefferson couldn’t refuse. The Louisiana Purchase added over 800,000 square miles of territory to the U.S. for just $15 million. (That’s about $ 200 million in today’s dollars.) Even better, Monroe decided not to buy the extended warranty that Napoleon was offering on the deal. He might have gone for rust proofing, but Livingston told Monroe to walk away.

After concluding this business, Jefferson sent Monroe to London to serve as the U.S. Minister there. (The U.S. didn’t use the title of ambassador until the late 19th Century.) Monroe’s tenure in London often brought him in conflict with Jefferson.

Monroe negotiated a commercial treaty with the British that he thought would relieve the tensions between the two nations. However, Jefferson rejected the treaty because it did not contain any prohibitions against the impressments of sailors, which was the hot button issue of the day.

When Monroe came home, he was elected Governor of Virginia again in 1811, but he resigned that post to serve as Secretary of State for President Madison. Monroe also served as interim Secretary of War. And, then just as Secretary of State. And then both offices again.

During the War of 1812, Monroe visited soldiers on the front lines in Baltimore, and did some scouting of his own. Monroe is likely the only serving Secretary of State to ever actively participate in a military action.

When Madison’s left the White House (or what was left it after the British burning Washington in 1814) in 1817, Monroe took over. Monroe faced very little opposition from the Federalist Party, which was nearing extinction. Monroe won 183 electoral votes to just 34 for Rufus King.

Monroe, although he was a Republican (now Democrat) and learned from Jefferson and Madison, governed in a much different style. In many respects, Monroe was a “New Republican” similar to Bill Clinton being a “New Democrat.”

Jefferson and Madison feared standing armies. Monroe thought a standing army was vital to the security of the nation. Jefferson feared a central bank, and Madison only grudgingly approved a new one. Monroe embraced the idea of a central bank. Monroe did veto a bill that would have allowed the Federal government to collect tolls on the interstate Cumberland Road.  (It would be the only veto by Monroe in his eight years in office.)

Monroe’s background as a soldier in the Revolutionary War gave him a much different perspective on the United States than Jefferson and Madison had. Soon after taking office, Monroe toured the country. This was partly to increase his visibility and partly to drum up support for increased military spending.

While on this tour, Andrew Jackson, ostensibly defending Georgia against pirates, ended up occupying parts of Florida. Jackson also executed two British subjects and he and his troops killed thousands of Indians.  Jackson managed to upset the Spanish, British, and a good chunk of the American population. However, Jackson’s occupation of Florida eventually led to diplomatic negotiations with Spain and the eventual purchase of Florida in the Adams-Onis Treaty.

Even though the America economy went into a deep recession in 1819, Monroe faced no opposition when he ran for reelection in 1820. The Federalist Party had few good ideas left and the Republicans co-opted those. No opposition party had yet formed. This caused this era to be called “The Era of Good Feelings.”

Monroe received all but one electoral vote in 1820. A New Hampshire elector named William Plumer voted for John Quincy Adams. Plumer felt that Monroe was not as smart as Adams (which was likely true), and he also wanted to preserve Washington’s distinction for being the only President to be unanimously selected. John Adams, an elector from Massachusetts, didn’t even vote for his own son.

During his second term, Monroe encountered more foreign policy challenges. The South American countries were winning their independence from Spain. Congressional leaders such as Henry Clay demanded that Monroe extend diplomatic recognition immediately. (Clay didn’t dislike Monroe; he just thought he was a nonentity.)

However, Monroe had to wait for Spain to complete its ratification of the treaty on Florida. Once this was accomplished, Monroe extended diplomatic recognition to new countries like Argentina and Colombia. But, this led to another issue.

Russia was refusing to accept any diplomatic representatives from the South American countries. This was because Russia, along with Prussia and Austria, had formed something called The Holy Alliance. These three nations had ideas on recolonizing the South American nations and giving them back to Spain. Or perhaps keeping them for themselves.

For Monroe, this was unacceptable. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams entered into discussions with British Foreign Minister George Canning to come up with a solution.

Canning said the British would be willing to go along with an American proposal to declare that the Western Hemisphere was off limits for further colonization. Adams relayed the information to Monroe, who decided to include language outlining this in his Annual Message to Congress in December of 1823.

In his message, Monroe issued this famous statement:

In the discussions to which this interest has given rise and in the arrangements by which they may terminate the occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers. . .

Hart spends a whole chapter giving Monroe credit for “The Monroe Doctrine.” Many historians have said it was mostly the work of Adams. British historians tend to give credit to Canning. But, Hart asserts, Monroe was the one who drafted the language. And, it was Monroe’s idea just as much as it was Adams.

In addition to the language about the Western Hemisphere, Monroe included statements indicating that the United States would stay out of any European issues. This part of the Monroe Doctrine would later sound quaint as history showed us.

Adams benefits from leaving voluminous notes behind of his work as Secretary of State (and just about everything else). Monroe was not the most organized of men. Also, he was not as learned as Adams, so it is natural to think that the Harvard grad was the actual author instead of the William and Mary dropout.

Originally, the Monroe Doctrine was called “The Principles of 1823.” But, as time went on, Monroe ended up with the writing credit. The net effect of this was to make the question on your history test in high school to be “When was the Monroe Doctrine written?” rather than “Who wrote the Principles of 1823?”

“The Era of Good Feelings” didn’t last until the next election in 1824, when Monroe’s successor would be chosen. The country was starting to divide itself over the issue of slavery. The Missouri Compromise, signed by Monroe in 1820, admitted Missouri into the Union as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and then prohibited slavery north of 36 degrees, 30 minutes. Monroe had little to do with the passage of the Missouri Compromise, although he feared that it was a sign that the country would eventually be torn apart by the issue of slavery.

Adams prevailed in the turbulent 1824 election. This turned out to be very bad for Monroe’s retirement plans, according to Hart.

During his diplomatic tours in Europe, Monroe had borrowed against much of his landholdings to pay his expenses. Monroe expected to be reimbursed when he returned to the U.S. But, Congress never got around to paying Monroe. Then, Monroe decided not to pursue the matter while he was serving in Madison’s Cabinet or as President.

Once out of office, Monroe realized that he was going to be desperately short of money. He sent reams of papers to Congress asking to be reimbursed and even asked Jefferson and Madison to intervene for him. However, Monroe’s expense account payments got caught in politics. Andrew Jackson’s supporters, upset over Monroe failing to back him in the 1824 election, blocked any action on the matter.

Monroe had to sell his home in Virginia and move in with a daughter in New York City. He had to accept private charity. He died, mostly forgotten just six years after leaving the White House, on July 4, 1831.

James Monroe may only be remembered for one foreign policy statement he made in 1823. But, Monroe, in the view of Hart, was crucial in bringing America along from its adolescence to young adulthood. In many ways, he was the right man for the era. He wasn’t Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. But, Monroe didn’t need to be like those two men. His Presidency may not have been memorable, but it certainly wasn’t a bad time for the country.

Other stuff: Monroe was originally buried in the New York Marble Cemetery, but was later reinterred at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. John Tyler is also buried there. A grandson of Alexander Hamilton, Laurens Hamilton, died after falling overboard on the ship that was carrying Monroe’s body from New York to Richmond.

The James Monroe Foundation has tried building a museum around Monroe’s birthplace, but it still appears to be in the planning stages. You can visit one of James Monroe’s homes, Ash Lawn-Highland, in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is run by William and Mary University.

I took the SATs at James Monroe High in North Hills, California. The school newspaper is called “The Doctrine.” The sports teams are, naturally, the Vikings.

Monroe’s Vice President, Daniel Tompkins, served two full terms for him. No other Vice President would serve two full terms for the same President until Thomas Marshall did so for Woodrow Wilson from 1913-1921. Tompkins died three months after leaving office, most likely from the effects of alcoholism.

And yes, I’m on vacation. I wrote this before I left and scheduled it to appear later.

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James Buchanan by Jean Baker

President #15, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andrew Jackson by Sean Wilentz

President #7, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #13

Coming soon to an ATM near you!

andrewjacksonJust who was Andrew Jackson? Was he the first president to create a political following among the masses and ride that to power? Was he a shameless opportunist who pandered to the lowest common denominator? Was he a war hero? Was he a man who set into place a policy that turned out to be genocidal? Was he devoutly loyal to the United States and its Constitution? Did he interpret the Constitution as he saw fit?

According to Sean Wilentz, the answer to all these questions is “yes.” However, in Wilentz’s view, there was an explanation for all of Jackson’s actions, and, ultimately, they served to benefit the United States.

Andrew Jackson’s stock among historians has risen and fallen throughout the years like the Dow Jones 30 on a day when Timothy Geithner coughs. Wilentz traces these changes in the introduction to his book and then sets out, as best you can in 170 pages, to explain the complicated life of Andrew Jackson.

The future President was born near the South Carolina/North Carolina border in 1767 and was caught up in the tail end of the Revolutionary War, when he and his brothers were captured by British soldiers. The young Jackson refused to shine a British officer’s boots, claiming he was a prisoner of war, and for his insolence, Jackson received a gash in his head with a sword that never left him. That wound would be a constant reminder of Jackson’s distaste for Britain, aristocracy, and privilege.

Jackson’s father died before he was born, and his mother died when he was still in his teens.  So, Andrew Jackson was very much a self-made man. In 1791, he married a woman named Rachel Donelson, who provided both love and some financial security for him. However, Rachel was not completely divorced from her husband. After a period, the two would marry again to make it official. This would end up being a significant event in American politics later. Jackson would also fight several duels to uphold his wife’s honor, and killed one person during one.

By 1796, Jackson, who had moved west to Tennessee, used his political connections to become that state’s first member of the House of Representatives, and, a few months later, moved on to the Senate. Jackson resigned from the Senate in 1798 to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court, and later took up farming at his plantation, the Hermitage.

However, Jackson was not bound for a quiet life. The War of 1812 gave Jackson the chance to serve in the military, and get some measure of revenge against the British who treated him so shamelessly during the Revolution.

Jackson’s first military encounters, however, were against the Creek Indians in Alabama. Responding to a massacre by a group of Creeks called the Red Sticks at Fort Mims in 1813, Jackson led his troops to extract vengeance. In two engagements, Jackson’s troops killed nearly every Red Stick Creek male and took all the women and children as prisoners. Additionally, Jackson was able to get a treaty ceding Creek land in Georgia and Alabama to the U.S. Jackson was prepared to do whatever it took to keep whites and Indians separate. He firmly believed that the two groups could not coexist peacefully.

After his success in Alabama (at least in the eyes of President Madison), Jackson moved on to New Orleans to defend that crucial port city against the British. On January 8, 1815, Jackson famously routed the British in what would be the last battle of the War of 1812, which was technically already over since a peace treaty had been signed about 10 days earlier. However, Jackson failed to receive a Tweet from @ghentytreaty in time that read “USA and UK say war over! Woo hoo! Henry Clay is totally wasted!”

Wilentz points out that Jackson’s victory at New Orleans was just as much the product of British bungling (there were numerous logisticial problems), but history judged that from then on, Jackson would be “The Hero of New Orleans.” And Jackson didn’t take kindly to anyone saying otherwise.

With the War of 1812 over, Jackson kept up his military adventures, moving on to Florida, which was still part of Spain. Jackson ostensibly had moved his troops to Georgia to deal with the Seminoles, but that soon morphed into a mission to take control of Florida. And with a few military victories and the executions of two British subjects, the United States was able to parlay this into buying Florida from Spain. Jackson became its first territorial governor.

In 1822, Jackson was nominated for President by the Tennessee legislature, which also elected him to the Senate. But in the election of 1824, Jackson, despite winning the most popular votes AND electoral votes, lost the election. With four candidates running, no one had a majority, and the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams as President. Jackson made Adams his enemy. And if you were an enemy of Andrew Jackson, that was a lifetime job. (Jackson would continually advocate for the direct election of the President. That has not worked so far.)

Adams turned out to be ill-suited for the presidency, and Jackson exacted his revenge with an easy win in 1828. However, the campaign was ugly, with numerous slurs brought up about Rachel Jackson, and her questionable first marriage. Rachel Jackson died of a heart attack in December of 1828. Andrew Jackson never forgave anyone for the slights on her reputation.

Crises hit Jackson almost immediately after his inauguration. Jackson, like most Presidents, removed many Adams supporters from their officers and replaced them with people loyal to him. Jackson referred to this as “rotation in office,” but it soon was dubbed “the spoils system.” While Jackson was not the first, or last, President to use the power of patronage, he became the most closely identified with it.

Jackson also faced a crisis within his own Cabinet. Secretary of War John Eaton, one of his closest friends, had married a woman named Margaret Eaton, who was not from upper crust society in Washington. Her first husband had reportedly killed himself while at sea. She was snubbed by many of the wives of the other Cabinet members along with the wife of Jackson’s Vice President, John Calhoun. Jackson backed Eaton, although by 1831, five members of Jackson’s cabinet had resigned in the fallout.

After this, three major domestic events defined Jackson’s presidency.

First, Jackson, in agreement with Georgia’s government, ordered the removal of Cherokees from that state to western territories, such as Arkansas. The removal was not voluntary, and the Seminoles would be subject to attacks by settlers along the way. Approximately 8,000 Cherokees died on the journey west (called “The Trail of Tears”). However, Jackson stood by his decision. He believed that it was better for all parties if Native Americans lived in Federal territories where they would receive more protection than they did from local authorities. This turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes of the Jackson administration.

Jackson’s second major crisis was the Rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson greatly distrusted banks and paper money. Jackson especially disliked the way the Bank of the United States was run. He felt that it’s director, Nicholas Biddle, was creating an aristocracy who made money from the hard work of people who needed to use the bank to buy land or get credit.

In 1831, Henry Clay pushed forth a bill that would extend the bank’s charter for another 20 years. This was done four years before the charter expired for two reasons: 1) to remove the issue from the upcoming election, and 2) to make the bank an issue in the upcoming election. Clay assumed that the Bank, which was well run, would get its recharter.

However, Jackson shocked the political establishment by vetoing the bill rechartering the bank. His veto message used populist themes to explain why he took his action. Jackson felt that the bank was unconstitutional (although the Supreme Court had already said otherwise), and in his duty as President, he couldn’t allow it to continue. He did not want the Federal Government to sponsor an institution that benefited a group of wealthy Easterners.

The third crisis Jackson faced was the Nullification Crisis. The state of South Carolina believed that tariffs were too high (one bill was named “The Tariff of Abominations”), preventing residents from buying cheap goods from Europe, instead having to rely on more expensive goods made in other parts of the country. Also, South Carolina felt that too much of the revenue from tariffs was being used to build canals and roads in the North and East.

South Carolina believed that that the Constitution was a contract among the states. And if a state believed that a law was too onerous to uphold, the state had the right to declare it null and void within its borders. Or, if it was really offended, the state could secede all together.

Jackson was not going to allow one state to opt out of the country that he believed in so much. He used a two pronged approach to the crisis. In a message to Congress, Jackson offered to work with South Carolina to adjust the tariffs to more appropriate levels. And in another bill, Jackson authorized the use of force to collect tariffs. Jackson began sending ships out to sea to meet ships and collect tariffs there before the ships would dock in Charleston.

South Carolina eventually backed down as a compromise tariff was reached. But the crisis would be revisited again,  with more deadly implications over the issue of slavery in 1860.

Jackson campaigned for reelection in 1832 using the Bank Veto as something of a campaign platform. His opponent, Clay, tried to use the Veto against Jackson. But the people loved Jackson, and he was easily reelected. Jackson also had a new Vice President in Martin Van Buren.

Jackson’s second term saw him put the finishing touches on the Bank of the United States. Not content to wait for the charter to expire, Jackson ordered all Government deposits to be withdrawn from the Bank of the United States and redistributed to a series of state chartered banks. Biddle reacted to this by greatly curtailing credit, creating a brief financial panic. However, Jackson won the battle of popular opinion over Biddle. Credit markets loosened up, and the economy grew.

Wilentz spends a chapter examining Jackson’s views on slavery. And Jackson doesn’t come out well here. Jackson was a slave owner and profited greatly from having slaves. But during Jackson’s Presidency, the nascent Abolitionist movement was starting to grow from fringe level into a major political force. Abolitionists attempted to send through the mail to nearly everyone in South Carolina, political materials advocating their side. Jackson had to figure out which was more important: maintaing the Federal Government’s duty to deliver the mail, or to keep South Carolina happy by not delivering “objectionable materials.” Jackson ultimately sided with South Carolina on this point, allowing local postal officials to skirt any obligation to deliver all the mail.

At the end of Jackson’s administration, Texas split away from Mexico. Texas had been settled by many slaveholding Americans. Jackson saw Texas as a natural part of the United States, believing that John Quincy Adams had negotiated it away in 1819. However, Jackson was not able to negotiate any method to annex Texas. That would wait until 1845.

What stands out the most for Wilentz in his view of Jackson is that Jackson was a champion of democracy. He firmly believed in democratic ideals. Wilentz acknowledges that, according to today’s standards, Jackson can look like a monster. However, Jackson was a product of his time. And in many ways, Jackson was ahead of his time in his reliance on the people to make the right choices in a democracy. Jackson believed that the President had a job to lead the country. And leadership was not something he was afraid of.

Does America need another Andrew Jackson? Probably not. Did America need Andrew Jackson in its past? It’s hard to envision the country otherwise.

Other stuff: Jackson’s home, the Hermitage, is run by a private foundation. Jackson and his wife Rachel are buried there. It is about 12 miles east of Downtown Nashville. It is not this Hermitage.

Jackson’s portrait has appeared on the $20 bill since 1928 (the year of a major redesign of American currency). He replaced Grover Cleveland. Of course, in 1928, not many people had $20 bills.

Andrew Jackson was the first President to be subject to an assassination attempt. A man named Richard Lawrence tried to shoot Jackson with a pistol at close range in January of 1835. Both of Lawrence’s pistols failed to fire and Jackson subdued Lawrence by hitting him with his walking stick. Lawrence was sent to an asylum for the mentally ill.

Warren G. Harding by John W. Dean

President #29, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #38

Getting back to normalcy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

were considered brilliant oratory.

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

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

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

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

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

John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek

So what can I do for you?

President #35, C-SPAN Historians ranking #6

kennedyFor a man who had a shorter term in office than all but six other presidents (Barack Obama not included), John Kennedy might be studied and written about more than any other 20th Century president. Robert Dallek, who also has written biographies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, produced a scholarly biography of a man who was at times heroic, at times hesitant, often sick, and almost always on the prowl for another sexual conquest. It’s a unique combination of detailed policy analysis with generous helpings of tawdry (yet, true) details of Kennedy’s life.

Dallek was given unprecedented access to Kennedy’s medical history and what he uncovered there turned out to be what this book will be most remembered for. For all the romance of “Camelot” or “The New Frontier,” underneath it all was a man, who was elected at at the age of 43 (the youngest ever elected), who was beset by numerous serious health problems and was treated by physicians in such a way that most of us would rather just take our chances with the local HMO.

So alongside the Cuban Missile Crisis, there are descriptions of crippling back pain relieved mostly by a series of painkilling injections by doctors with questionable credentials. We find out that Kennedy took, at times, sleeping pills, antidepressants, amphetamines, testosterone, and probably a few other drugs that most of us would blanch at taking. Yet through it all, according to Dallek, Kennedy remained lucid and clear in his decision-making.
For someone who was President during the lifespan of a lot of people reading this (I missed by two years), it is surprising to me how much mythology has built up around Kennedy. Dallek tries to strip away the mythology and show how Kennedy was able to propel himself so quickly to the highest office in the U.S.

John Kennedy was born into a wealthy Irish Catholic family in Boston. His older brother, Joseph Jr., was expected to be the political star of the family, but he died in a plane crash during World War II and it was left for the second son, John (called Jack throughout the book, there’s a lot of first name reference in the book so you can keep people straight), to fulfill the wishes of his father, Joseph Sr., to become America’s first Catholic president.

Dallek details the medical problems that hit young Jack when he’s in prep school and set him on a course for lifelong illness. Kennedy was beset by intestinal problems early on and Dallek goes into quite a bit of detail on this.

The problem, as best as I could figure out, was that Kennedy’s intestinal problems were treated with a strong regimen of steroids. The problem was that doctors didn’t quite know how much to prescribe. Or when to take it. Or when to stop. And the longtime use of these steroids (not the anabolic kind, but Kennedy would take those later), led to osteoporosis (and chronic back pain that required surgery) and Addison’s disease (a deficiency in the adrenal glands that was potentially life-threatening). And then there were also chronic problems with the prostate, which probably wasn’t helped by Kennedy’s promiscuity.

John Kennedy became a war hero for his efforts to save his crew aboard PT-109, although he had to have several strings pulled for him to get into the military. Most people with Kennedy’s maladies would have spent World War II behind a desk, but Kennedy knew the importance of having a combat background if he wanted to go into politics.

Back from the war, Kennedy ran for the House in 1946 and then moved on the Senate in 1952. Despite numerous hospitalizations in 1954 and 1955 for spinal surgeries, Kennedy still had a high enough profile to get himself considered as possible running mate to Adlai Stevenson in 1956. Joseph Kennedy actually tried to get Lyndon Johnson to run for President and have his son be his running mate, but Johnson did not think that the Democrats had much chance to win in 1956.

Soon after Stevenson’s loss to Eisenhower, Kennedy started positioning himself to run for President in 1960. Few campaigns have received more attention as they were multiple story lines.

There was the young, rich, attractive Senator from Massachusetts trying to overcome religious prejudice. There were Cold War overtones throughout. The Kennedy-Nixon television debates changed the way presidential campaigns were conducted. In the end, Kennedy won by a narrow margin over Nixon, thanks in part to some “interesting” vote counting in Illinois and Texas. Dallek attributes the closeness of the election to the hesitancy of many Southern Protestant voters to elect a Catholic. The 1960 election was set up nicely for the Democrats as there was a recession and Kennedy was able to outspend Nixon. (In general, Kennedys outspend everyone in elections. It’s a family tradition.)

After Kennedy’s famous inaugural address, Dallek starts to dissect the Kennedy presidency. There were many doubts if someone so young could handle such a big job. And at the outset, Kennedy definitely looked not up to the task.

Kennedy was faced with crises external, in Laos (where he chose not to intervene), and internally, with a civil rights issue with the Freedom Riders. And in April of 1961, Kennedy gave the go ahead to the CIA plan to remove Castro from power with a paramilitary force. That turned out to be what is known as The Bay of Pigs. And it was an utter failure.

Soon after, Kennedy ventured to Vienna for a summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev. Kennedy’s performance at this was widely criticized as the young president was not prepared for Khruschev’s belligerence regarding East Germany and Berlin.

On the domestic front, which Kennedy didn’t seem to care about as much as foreign policy, there were problems. The Kennedy administration was slow to take action on civil rights legislation because the Congress was still dominated by conservative Southerners in important positions, and Kennedy didn’t want to alienate an important part of his party that he needed if he wanted to be reelected in 1964.

Economically, the country was in a recession and Kennedy wanted to push through a large income tax cut, although opposition from conservatives (both Democratic and Republican) kept Kennedy from getting the complete package of reforms he wanted. Plans to increase Federal funding for education also went nowhere.

The biggest crisis of Kennedy’s administration was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October of 1962. It was perhaps the closest time ever that the US and Soviet Union ever came to a full-scale nuclear exchange. But, fortunately, Khruschev backed down from placing offensive weapons in Cuba and Kennedy opted not to follow the advice of his military advisers, who wanted an armed invasion of Cuba. This event, probably more than any other, secured Kennedy’s legacy, even though all he was doing was reacting to posturing by the Soviet Union. Of course, Kennedy and his advisers didn’t know if all Khruschev was doing was posturing or was really intent on war.

By 1963, Kennedy’s popularity was steadily increasing. He gave a speech at American University in June of 1963 where he made his case for nuclear disarmament to the Soviet Union. Soon after the speech, the first comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty was agreed to between the Americans and Soviets.

Later in 1963, Kennedy had a triumphant trip to Berlin, where he rallied the hopes of West  Berlin residents with his famous (although semantically incorrect) statement of “Ich bin ein Berliner!

The final months of the the Kennedy administration (not that he was expecting them to be the final months) brought up one of the most troubling parts of that era: Vietnam. On November 1, 1963 Kennedy authorized the CIA to start a coup to overthrow South Vietnamese leader Diem, who was killed during the the military takeover. Dallek portrays Kennedy as being deeply troubled by the violence of the coup and whether or not U.S. involvement in that region would ever work. But would Kennedy have increased the military buildup in Vietnam to the point where it became what we know as the Vietnam War?

Before that question could be answered, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. And the answer to that question (along with many others) is still hotly debated.

So just what did John F. Kennedy do as President? What did he accomplish? In Dallek’s view, his primary accomplishments were: 1) standing up to Khruschev and the Soviets in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the negotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, 2) the development of the space program, which Dallek felt greatly improved America’s international standing, and 3) the establishment of the Peace Corps. Despite Dallek’s admiration for Kennedy, I doubt he would have rated Kennedy as high as the panel of historians C-SPAN assembled.

Obviously, some people are going to disagree with this assessment. For some, Kennedy will be the man who was more show than substance. He was a man who, in many ways, bought his way to the top. Kennedy didn’t get any major civil rights legislation passed (that happened in the Johnson Administration). He was a man who presented an image of a loving family man who was physically fit, when in reality he was very ill and cheated on his wife with women who were connected to mobsters.

It’s almost like John F. Kennedy is whomever people want him to be. If you’ve got the time to plow through an 830 page biography (it’s only about 700 pages of text, the rest of it is notes and an index), then Robert Dallek’s book is for you. It is not hagiography. It is not a hatchet job either. But like Kennedy, the book will ultimately reflect what you want it to be.

Other stuff: As you would expect, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library is in Boston.

I attended John F. Kennedy High in Granada Hills, California. The 1994 Northridge Earthquake destroyed a couple buildings on campus and allowed ones that were slightly less ugly to be put in their place.

Kennedy is unique among Presidents in that he is the only one widely commemorated on the day he died, November 22, rather than on his birthday, May 29.

John Kennedy’s seat in the House was filled by future Speaker Tip O’Neill. His Senate seat was filled by Benjamin Smith, who held it for two years before John Kennedy’s youngest brother,  Edward, was elected in 1962.

Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia is the only current member of the Senate to have served alongside John Kennedy in that body. Representative John Dingell of Michigan served alongside Kennedy in the House.

There are now two Senators who were born after John Kennedy’s death: Michael Bennett of Colorado and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

The New York Times review of this book was written by Ted Widmer, who wrote the Martin Van Buren bio that I had reviewed earlier. Van Buren and Kennedy remain the only two Presidents who were not partially English.

Although Kennedy was the first Catholic president, there was not a Catholic Vice President until Joe Biden. The first Catholic Chief Justice was Roger Taney, way back  in 1836.

The next bio I will review will be shorter. So there may not be as long of a gap before the next review.

Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer

Don’t Panic!

President #8, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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