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

President #9, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #39

Let Me Be Brief…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

William Howard Taft: An Intimate History by Judith Icke Anderson

President #27, C-SPAN historians’ ranking #24

Why Am I President? It Was On My Wife’s To Do List.

taftWhen it came time to find a biography of President William Taft, it wasn’t easy. Despite holding office during a time when Constitutional Amendments introducing the income tax and the direct election of senators, the admission of two states (New Mexico and Arizona), and running in an election against two of the 20th Century’s most famous presidents (Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson), Taft hasn’t received much interest from historians.

This left me finding this book, which was published commercially in 1981, but was actually a more commercial version of a UCLA dissertation by a woman for whom I can find no trace further trace of.

“An Intimate History” is the same subtitle that Jefferson biographer Fawn Brodie used for his study of our third president. That book was published in 1974. Brodie was Anderson’s adviser at UCLA and she followed in her footsteps. And in this book, the reader learns about William Taft, the man, and why he did what he did. And in Anderson’s view, Taft’s actions in all aspects of life were mostly an attempt to please his mother, and, then later, his wife.

And Anderson goes on at length about Taft’s weight. It is not something that can be ignored, especially since Taft tipped the scales at up to 355 pounds while he served as President.

Why was Taft so heavy? According to Anderson, Taft was someone who took solace in eating when he was either stressed out or felt a need to please someone. And when Taft was in the White House, he was stressed out. His enormous weight likely gave Taft a case of apnea as he often dozed off at inappropriate times and snored loudly during public gatherings.

Taft’s career path to the White House was not a normal one. The son of a former Secretary of War, Alphonso Taft, William went to college at Yale and then to law school at the University of Cincinnati. His mother assumed that William, like all Tafts would achieve greatness.

But first, Taft needed to find a wife. And he eventually met Helen “Nellie” Herron at a sledding party in Cincinnati. Taft courted Nellie for years before she agreed to marry him. Nellie’s hesitancy stemmed from the fact that she considered herself to be fairly independent. However, she also wanted to be attached to important people. And she sensed that William Taft was someone who could bring up her to the highest circles of power, even the White House.

But, Taft’s ambition was to be a judge. He served in a local court in Ohio and loved it. However, he was picked to go to Washington by President Benjamin Harrison to serve as Solicitor General.  Nellie loved the change of scenery. Although Taft was a good judge, he was a lousy litigator. He did not have an adversarial nature. He wanted to be everyone’s friend. Although I am not a lawyer, I’m guessing being conciliatory and jovial isn’t the tone you’re looking for.

In Washington, Taft became friends with a young man who was serving as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. His name was Theodore Roosevelt.

President William McKinley offered Taft a position on the Federal District Court back in Ohio, so Taft returned there to a job he loved above all other.  Later, McKinley asked Taft back when he needed someone to serve as the first civil governor of the newest United States territories, the Philippines.

The people of the Philippines didn’t particularly enjoy being under Spanish control, and they didn’t particularly like having Americans tell them what to do either. The American military governor, General Arthur MacArthur (who had a son named Douglas), had to suppress an insurrection. MacArthur did so, but in a brutal fashion that often involved torture.

Taft had to work to repair America’s image both in the Philippines and the world while building up a system of government for the people of the Philippines. Anderson describes Taft as being well regarded by the Filipinos, although coming after MacArthur, that’s not much of a surprise.

By 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt needed a new Secretary of War and he asked his old friend William Taft to take over that post. Taft didn’t know much about running the Army, but Roosevelt thought well of him. Taft actually spent much of his time travelling on diplomatic missions as Roosevelt had stretched U.S. interests to all parts of the globe.

Roosevelt had promised Taft that he would get him a seat on the Supreme Court, preferably Chief Justice, if one ever came up. But the time was never right, so Taft remained in Roosevelt’s Cabinet.

When Roosevelt was elected to a full term in 1904, he promised he wouldn’t run again. This was a bit of a problem for him in 1908 because he was still relatively young (50 on Election Day) and extremely popular. But Roosevelt felt he couldn’t go back on his promise, so he designated Taft to be his successor.

Taft was not particularly interested in becoming President, but Nellie was quite interested in being First Lady. And in most discussions between William and Nellie, Nellie won. Taft was elected easily over Democratic nominee, and three-time loser, Wililam Jennings Bryan.

Almost as soon as the election was over, things went wrong for Taft. The President-elect had sent a telegram to supporters thanking two people for his election: Roosevelt (for his popularity that made it easy for another Republican to win) and his brother Charles Taft (for extensive financial support). Roosevelt was appalled to be lumped in with someone who just wrote checks.

One of the first major pieces of legislation Taft wanted to get passed was a tariff reform bill. Roosevelt advised Taft that tariffs needed to be lowered, but he didn’t do while he was in office because he knew the issue was too sensitive with an election coming up.

In 1909, the Republicans were the party of high tariffs. And the more conservative Republicans liked the tariffs to be as high as possible. The bill that passed Congress, the Payne-Aldrich Tariff ended up raising duties on nearly every type of imported goods. Conservatives were happy, but Progressive Republicans (who were Roosevelt supporters) were appalled. Taft was immediately branded as a weak leader.

Also in 1909, Taft faced a major political crisis in the Interior Department. Taft had appointed former Seattle mayor Richard Ballinger as his new Secretary of the Interior. However, Taft kept on in the Forestry Service, a Roosevelt loyalist named Gifford Pinchot.

Pinchot, who would likely be called an environmentalist now, although “conservation” was the term used in the day, accused Ballinger of leasing public lands in Alaska to large corporations for mining and other ways to tap their natural resources. Charges flew back and forth between the two men. Pinchot was eventually fired by Taft, an action that Roosevelt’s supporters could not abide. Eventually, Ballinger resigned as well. Taft bungled the matter every way possible. And mostly this happened because Taft didn’t want to take command of the situation, but rather just try to make everybody happy.

Another problem for Taft was one that was not of his own making. Roosevelt had established himself as a Progressive Republican, with a penchant for going after big business. Taft was a conservative. Roosevelt had to know this. Yet, Roosevelt backed a man for President whom he had to believe was going to reverse some of his policies.

In the midterm elections, the Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress. Soon after, Roosevelt returned from a long trip to Africa to great national acclaim. And soon set into his old friend Taft and started to position himself for another run at the White House.

Taft pretty much knew that he couldn’t get reelected in 1912. He just didn’t have the national support. His only reason for being elected in the first place was that he was Theodore Roosevelt’s friend. And now Roosevelt hated him. That left Taft without much to go on.

But Nellie was determined that her husband at least not lose the Republican nomination to Roosevelt. And Taft agreed with his wife. He decided he wanted to make Roosevelt run as a third party candidate.

Fortunately for Taft, there were only a handful of these newfangled things called primaries during the nominating season. Roosevelt won the majority of those, but Taft, through the power of patronage, was able to control enough delegates to win the nomination. Roosevelt was left to run on his own as the Progressive Party Candidate. Meanwhile, the Democrats nominated the nerdy, yet popular, governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson.

Almost nothing went write right for Taft during the campaign. His trusted confidante and personal aide, Archie Butt, had left him because of personal issues in 1912. Butt had served as Roosevelt’s personal aide as well and he couldn’t decide whom to work for. So, he went to Europe to think about it. Butt booked passage on the Titanic for the trip home. He didn’t make it.

Taft’s Vice President, James “Sunny Jim” Sherman, died a few weeks before Election Day as well. Taft made odd statements to the press, including one where he said he would campaign “like a cornered rat.”

When the counting was done, Wilson was an easy winner. Taft won just two states, the worst showing of any incumbent President ever. And Taft won one of the states, Vermont, by just 923 votes. In 1912, Vermont was not yet run by the Ben & Jerry’s types, and was one of the most conservative states in the country.

Losing the election relieved a great burden from Taft. He no longer had to be the bad guy who told people “no.” Not that Taft said “no” all that often.

Once leaving office, Taft taught law at Yale, but finally got his dream job in 1921 when President Warren Harding appointed him to be Chief Justice of the United States. Taft loved this job more than any other. And according to Anderson, his weight dropped into the 260 lb range. He no longer had to eat his way through stress. He had found his dream job, the one he had thought about since he came to Washington in 1886.

William Taft passed away in 1930 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, the first President to be so honored. His wife Nellie wanted that honor. However, few people wander over to the section of Arlington to see Taft’s grave. Just like finding a biography of Taft, it’s something you have to seek out. Perhaps a better story of Taft’s life is still to be written.

But the life of Willam Howard Taft teaches us one thing: if you want to be remembered by historians as president, don’t have your term fall in between those of two far more famous presidents.

Psychobiography was a popular discipline in the 1970s, but it isn’t used now. Brodie was able to apply it to it someone like Jefferson because there was quite a bit to work on. The inner workings of the psyche of William Howard Taft may not be that be interesting. Especially since Anderson spells it all out very early in the book. The final 200 or so pages are more repetitions of the theme of “Taft tries to please wife, eats too much, becomes less happy, repeat.” Perhaps there is more to Taft than just a domineering wife and a battle with obesity. However, that book hasn’t been written yet.

But Nellie Taft got a major biography written about her just three years ago. Sorry Bill, you can’t win this game.

Other stuff: Taft, despite his great size, was an avid sportsman and he tried to play a round of golf nearly everyday. Taft was also the first U.S. President to throw out the ceremonial first pitch to mark the beginning of baseball season. This started in 1910.

The National Park service operates the William Howard Taft National Historic Site in Cincinnati.

Taft’s son, Robert, served as a Senator from Ohio and ran for the Republican nomination for President in 1940, 1944, and 1952. A William Howard Taft IV (great-grandson of the president) worked for a time in the George W. Bush Administration. Robert Taft III, who went by Bob Taft, served as governor of Ohio. Generally, if you run into something in the U.S. with the name “Taft” in it, it’s probably this president’s family.