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.

John Quincy Adams by Robert V. Remini

All Three Names Please!

President #6, C-SPAN historians ranking #19

jqadamsJohn Quincy Adams had one of the most distinguished careers in service to the United States that any person may have had. However, the four years he was president, from 1825 through 1829, were a series of political missteps compounded by the fact that he was the only president ever to be elected despite not getting the most ELECTORAL votes.

JQA, as he styled himself in correspondence, was the son of the second president, John Adams. He accompanied his father to Europe during the Revolution and learned French and German along the way. At the age of 14, he accompanied the American minister to St. Petersburg, Richard Dana, because French was spoken among diplomats at the time.

When Adams returned home to the U.S., he attended Harvard (however his admission was delayed because it was felt he didn’t speak Greek or Latin well enough) and graduated with honors and set up a law practice.

Adams fell in love with a Massachusetts woman, but neither her family nor Adams’ parents could ever agree on when or if the marriage should take place, and Adams never married the only woman he apparently ever truly loved. Adams eventually married a British woman and started a family, but he never seemed to truly love his wife.

Eventually, Adams was given a diplomatic post in Europe, first in the Netherlands and then later in Russia, and moved up to the post of Secretary of State under President James Monroe in 1817. And according to author Robert V. Remini, one of the foremost authorities on Adams’ era and a biographer of Andrew Jackson, Adams may have been the greatest Secretary of State ever.

Adams acquired Florida from Spain and in the same negotiation managed to get Spain to acknowledge that the Louisiana Territory extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean. There was also a successful treaty signed with the British in 1818 that settled part of what is now the U.S.-Canada border and also helped U.S. commercial interests greatly. And Adams was the man who wrote what would become known as “The Monroe Doctrine,” a cornerstone of American foreign policy that stated that any further attempts by European powers to colonize any country in the Western Hemisphere would be opposed by the United States.

With a pedigree and a list of accomplishments like Adams, it would seem that his elevation to the White House would have been a cinch. But it most certainly wasn’t.

In 1824, American politics was nominally a one-party system as the Federalists had gone the way of the tricorn hat. But this “one party” had numerous factions and little or no formal structure. Four people were nominated for president: Adams, Andrew Jackson (the extremely popular military hero of the War of 1812), William Crawford (the Secretary of the Treasury and the favored candidates of what would be considered the party regulars in Congress), and Henry Clay (who thought he was the best equipped man for the job because he had an ego the size of his home state of Kentucky.)

1824 was the first year that popular vote totals were recorded in a Presidential election. Jackson came out on top with about 152,000 votes and Adams had about 113,000. Jackson won 99 electoral votes, Adams won 84, Crawford won 41, and Clay finished in 37. Under the terms of the Twelfth Amendment, the top three in the Electoral College vote would be eligible for selection by the House.

This put Clay in the position of kingmaker as he could instruct the states that voted for him to vote a particular way. According to Remini, Clay didn’t hesitate to make his choice. Clay didn’t want Crawford to become President because that man had recently had a stroke and was nearly blind and couldn’t talk.  And Clay despised Jackson and didn’t want to see a military man as President. So that left Adams.

But what would Adams do to make it worth while for Clay to support him? It was pretty clear. Adams had to make Clay his Secretary of State. And in doing so, Adams prevailed in the House, winning 13 of the 23 state delegations. And as an added “prize,” Adams pretty much destroyed any chance of accomplishing anything as President because now Jackson and his supporters were, to put it mildly, pissed off.

To make matters worse, in Adams’ first message to Congress (presidents did not directly address Congress at the time, but rather sent over messages to be read), he laid out an ambitious legislative agenda. Adams wanted numerous internal improvements with roads and canals built all over the country. Adams wanted a national university and a national observatory. He wanted to go on the metric system. He wanted to send representatives to a Pan American Congress that was convening in Panama.

Adams ended up getting none of these and was widely ridiculed in the press. It didn’t help that Adams felt it was unseemly for a President to answer any criticism publicly. It also didn’t help that his Secretary of State, Clay, was even more disliked. And the Vice President, John Calhoun, didn’t like Adams.

And to be fair, Adams was hard to love. He didn’t exude a lot of warmth. He was the product of an unhappy childhood. Despite the way HBO had Laura Linney portray Abigail Adams, JQA’s mother, on TV, she was never going to win Mother of the Year. She was a parent, according to Remini’s description of her, who withheld affection and gave out a lot of criticism. JQA didn’t attend his own mother’s funeral and didn’t seem too broken up about it.  And Adams in turn was a bad father and had one son kill himself and another drink himself to death.

The John Quincy Adams Presidency was a four-year long trainwreck and in 1828, Jackson won the rematch easily despite a bitter campaign where Jackson’s people accused Adams of pimping out his own son to the Prussian court and Adams’ people accusing Jackson’s wife of bigamy.

After leaving the White House (Adams, like his father, didn’t stick around for the inauguration of his successor), JQA wanted to retire to Massachusetts, but eventually he was asked to run for a House seat and took his seat in 1831. Adams found his true calling in the House of Representatives.

While serving in Congress, Adams argued against the “gag rule” which prevented any discussion of the abolition of slavery. Adams also would represent the Africans on the Amistad, who had taken over the ship that was taking them to America and slavery and tried to return home. Adams won that case and the Africans were free men. It was a sign of the times though that it took a Supreme Court ruling for human beings to actually be given human rights.

Remini’s book on JQA’s presidency tried to highlight four years of John Quincy Adams’ distinguished career. But Adams’ life was much more than four bad years in the 1820s. And Remini reminds us of that. Some great men aren’t necessarily great presidents. And even Adams knew this about himself.

Other stuff: If you want to visit parts of John Quincy Adams’ history, you should visit the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. Adams had a granchild born in the White House, the first child ever to be born there. He passed away in the U.S. Capitol.