Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun

President #23, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #30

Benjamin in the middle

Benjamin Harrison ran for President twice and never got the most popular votes. Republicans chose him to run because he both a famous name (his grandfather was William Henry Harrison) and he came from an important swing state at the time (Indiana). Few of us would likely be able to name any of his accomplishments.

Charles W. Calhoun, a professor at East Carolina University (which is in North Carolina, unlike Coastal Carolina University which is in South Carolina) who is one of the most prominent historians who study the Gilded Age, manages to both humanize Harrison while also elevating his place in history.

Benjamin Harrison was President in a time when power shifted between Republicans and Democrats often. Populist political movements threatened to take down the establishments of both parties. There were violent strikes affecting crucial industries and widespread dissatisfaction with the nature of the economy. Harrison’s four years in office were far from tranquil.

The man in charge of the country during this time was a Born Again Christian Republican who favored a big government, a high tariff, and increased civil rights for African-Americans. He had majorities to work with in Congress for his first two years, but could only pass a portion of what he wanted. Harrison’s boldest ideas (in the area of civil rights) fell victim to Senate filibusters and political horse trading.

Benjamin Harrison was born on August 20, 1833 in North Bend, Ohio, the same city where his grandfather would be buried after a just a month as President in 1841. Harrison’s father, John Scott Harrison, was a member of the House of Representatives. After two years at Farmers College in Cincinnati (which is no longer in existence), Harrison enrolled at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. (Graduates of this university do not like you to call it “Miami of Ohio” as they feel, quite rightly, that their school is far more distinguished than the University of Miami in Florida. It would help the case of the Ohioans if they had bothered to get the correct URL.)

After graduating in 1852, Harrison apprenticed with an another attorney to learn the law. He married Caroline Scott in 1853, passed the bar in 1854, and moved to Indianapolis to seek his fortune. Harrison wanted to move out of Ohio because he did not want to trade on his family name to get ahead.

Harrison quickly built a reputation as an excellent attorney, especially in criminal trials. In 1857, the people of Indianapolis chose him as the city attorney. In 1860, Harrison won the office of reporter of the Indiana Supreme Court. This job, which paid well, required Harrison to print, publish, and sell all the opinions of the state courts.

When the Civil War began, Harrison first declined to join the Union Army because of family obligations. But, in 1862, Harrison decided to enlist and he became a colonel in command of a regiment of Indiana volunteers. Harrison did not see much action until 1864 when his regiment joined in General William Sherman’s Georgia campaign. Calhoun believed that Harrison saw more battles during that Georgia campaign than his grandfather did in his nearly 30 years in the Army. Harrison was a Brigadier General when the war ended.

Harrison won another term as Supreme Court reporter for Indiana in 1864, despite his military obligations. While he received offers to run for higher office, Harrison declined them until 1872, when he tried to win the Republican nomination for governor of Indiana. However, Harrison did not prevail at the state convention.

In 1876, Harrison did get the nomination after the first nominee dropped out of the race. Harrison lost to the Democratic candidate, James Williams, by about 5,000 votes.

Harrison’s strong showing in the governor’s race started to get people talking about him as a Presidential candidate in 1880. Harrison’s time had not come though. James Garfield won the Republican nomination as a dark horse choice and, ultimately, the Presidency.

In 1881, Harrison finally got a chance to shine when he won a Senate seat. Harrison did not compile a distinguished legislative record, but he was still regarded as a possible contender in the 1884 Presidential race.

But, in 1884, perennial contender James G. Blaine of Maine won the nomination. Harrison and fellow Hoosier, Postmaster General Walter Q. Gresham, ended up in a bitter feud over whom the Indiana delegation should support. This ultimately took away any chance either man had of winning nomination as President or Vice President. Blaine lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland, the first Republican to lose a Presidential election since John C. Fremont in 1856.

Back in Indiana, the Democrats had managed to gain control of the Legislature through a redistricting measure. The Indiana legislature did not reelect Harrison in 1887, choosing Democrat David Turpie by one vote.

In 1888, President Cleveland appeared to be a vulnerable incumbent. Cleveland had shepherded a tariff reduction act that was extremely unpopular in the Northern states, which were dependent upon protective tariffs for their industries.

The Republican race for the nomination in 1888 was wide open after Blaine announced he would not run.  Harrison and Ohio Senator John Sherman were the front-runners, but no one had a wide base of support.

Although Blaine was not running, it did not mean he was not working behind the scenes to pick a nominee he liked. Blaine decided that Harrison’s policies were the most in line with his, and after several ballots, Harrison won the nomination. New York banker Levi Morton was chosen as his running mate. Cleveland was renominated with a new running mate, Allen Thurman. (Vice President Thomas Hendricks had passed away after eight months on the job.)

Interest in the election was huge. The tariff was the main issue and that was causing the North and South to dig in deeply along partisan lines. It was likely that a few key swing states, such as Indiana, would be crucial.

The election had its seamy sides to it. A Republican partisan in California wrote a letter to the British minister to the United States, Sir Lionel Sackville-West, pretending to be a British subject with the name of Murchison. “Murchison” asked Sackville-West which candidate would be better for England. Sackville-West wrote back that Cleveland would be preferable. The letter was made public, stirring up a fury among Irish-Americans.

The Republicans would also be caught in a scandal known as the “Blocks of Five.” A Republican Party official instructed Indiana precinct captains to divide all undeclared voters into “blocks of five” and use an appropriate amount of money to buy their votes. It is generally believed that Harrison was ignorant of this scheme.

When the votes were all counted, Cleveland had won the most popular votes by a margin of 90,000 (48.6% to 47.8%). But, Harrison prevailed in the electoral vote by a margin of 233-168. Harrison won the crucial states of New York (36 electoral votes) and Indiana (15) by less than 1%. The vote broke along almost completely along sectional lines.

When Harrison formed his Cabinet, he made Blaine his Secretary of State and William Windom his Secretary of Treasury. Both men had held these positions while James Garfield was President, but had stepped down after Garfield’s assassination.

The Republicans in the new 51st Congress did not waste much time in trying to enact much of Harrison’s agenda. The government was running a large surplus at the time (about $100 million) and there was plenty of spending to go around. Civil War veterans pensions were extended. Tariffs were raised. In 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Law went into effect, the first Federal law enacted that to prohibit unfair business cartels and monopolies. Although Harrison’s Administration would not do much to enforce the act during his time in office, the Sherman Antitrust Law is the cornerstone of all antitrust law in the United States today.

John Sherman, besides the antitrust law, also gave his name to another important law dealing with the economy, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Western farmers wanted to increase the amount of silver used as legal tender because: 1) they were in debt and needed more money and 2) there was a lot of silver around in the West. Eastern financiers did not want silver in circulation for fear of it hurting the price of gold and creating inflation. Farmers did not mind inflation because their debts were not going to going up because of them.

The Silver Purchase Act required the government to buy some silver every year and issue bank certificates that could be exchanged for either gold or silver. This compromise was supposed to give Harrison and the Republicans some breathing room from a growing populist movement in the West. Ultimately, the plan would not work in any way.

Another law Harrison tried to get through Congress in 1890 was a Civil Rights Bill. Sponsored by Representative Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the bill would have allowed the Federal government to supervise any Congressional election after receiving a petition from a specified number of citizens. Southern Democrats filibustered this bill and threatened to do the same to the Silver Purchase Act. The Republicans decided that silver trumped civil rights and backed off on the legislation.

The 51st Congress became known as the Billion Dollar Congress for the amount of spending it authorized. In the 1890 off-year elections, Democrats hammered the Republicans for the excessive spending. The Republicans, who had controlled the House by a 172-159 margin, found themselves in a 236-88 hole after the 1890 election. Because of new states joining the union (North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming), the Republicans did maintain a majority in the Senate.

With a hostile Congress making it impossible to accomplish anything on his domestic agenda, Harrison spent much of his final two years concentrating on foreign affairs. The United States ran into problems with Canada (and, by extension, Great Britain), Italy, and Chile.

The problem with Canada was the hot button issue of pelagic sealing. The United States had granted a company a limited license to hunt seals on the Pribilof Islands of Alaska. The company was not allowed to hunt the seals in the open ocean (pelagic sealing.) Canadian sealers believed that once the seals reached international waters, they were fair game, and part of the unique Canadian right to beat up baby seals.

In the 1890s, Canada’s foreign affairs were handled by Great Britain. Harrison used the pelagic sealing dispute to show the British that the United States was not going to back down to a European power. Harrison threatened military action to protect the seals. Eventually, the Canadians backed down and agreed to arbitration. And, in 1893, the Canadians prevailed and won the right to hunt seals to their hearts’ content. (Well, almost.)

The dispute with Italy involved a lynch mob in New Orleans. In 1891, some Mafia-connected men were acquitted of the murder of a New Orleans police lieutenant. A mob, led by the mayor of New Orleans himself, killed 11 Italian-Americans, three of  them Italian nationals. (In New Orleans, there’s no better justice than mob justice.)  Italy recalled its minister from the U.S., prohibited beef imports from the U.S., and demanded an indemnity. Harrison held the line and only gave the Italians a profound apology. (Harrison believed that the Federal government had no role to play in eliminating lynchings.)

The dispute with Chile was also in 1891 when some sailors from the U.S.S. Baltimore were attacked by a mob in Valparaiso while on shore leaves. Two sailors were killed. Harrison did get Chile to apologize and pay a small indemnity ($75,000).

Harrison ended up doing much of the work of Secretary of State James Blaine. The former Maine Senator was not a hard-worker, which rankled the industrious Harrison. Further complicating matters, Blaine was suffering from kidney disease. Blaine was openly contemptuous of Harrison’s performance as President, while Harrison found Blaine to be a lazy slugabed.

In June of 1892, Blaine resigned as Secretary of State to make one final run for President. However, there was little or no support for Blaine among Republican regulars. No one wanted to dump the incumbent Harrison from the ticket. (Blaine passed away in January of 1893.)

Harrison did want to dump his Vice President, Levi Morton. Morton had done little to advance Harrison’s legislative agenda in the Senate, especially the Civil Rights Bill. So, Morton was sent packing and New York newspaper publisher Whitelaw Reid was put on the ticket.

The Democrats decided to go with former President Grover Cleveland. He had won the popular vote in both of his earlier runs, so why mess with success? Adlai Stevenson was nominated for Vice President.

1892 was a turbulent year in the United States. A strike at an Andrew Carnegie-owned steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, turned deadly when striking workers fired on Pinkerston agents hired as strikebreakers. Four people died in an exchange of gunfire. The Pennsylvania National Guard had to come to Homestead to restore order.

The growing populist movement among Western farmers had finally coalesced into an actual third party. The group named itself the People’s Party, but was more commonly called the Populist Party. James B. Weaver of Iowa would be its standard bearer in the Presidential Election of 1892.

The Silver Purchase Act was not having its desired effect. Nearly everyone given a greenback that they could exchange for either silver or gold, opted to take gold. This created a serious drain on gold reserves, as well as concentrating more wealth in the East.

Amidst the Presidential campaign and economic crises, Harrison’s wife, Caroline, was dying. At first doctors did not know what was causing her general weakness. Tuberculosis turned out to be the culprit. On October 25, 1892, two weeks before Election Day, Caroline Harrison passed away.

Out of respect, Cleveland ceased campaigning, so as not to take advantage of Harrison’s grief. The final days before the election were grim as Harrison faced a likely defeat to go along with his wife’s passing.

Cleveland won his rematch with Harrison. He edged him in the popular vote by about 400,000 votes nationwide. Cleveland won 277 electoral votes. Harrison won 145. Weaver won four Western states worth 22 electoral votes.

Soon after Cleveland took office, the economy collapsed. Cleveland’s economic policies were not much different from Harrison’s however. It would take the better part of four years for the economy to regain its strength.

In retirement, Harrison worked as a trustee for Purdue University. He also resumed his law practice on a limited basis. In 1896, Harrison remarried. His late wife’s niece, Mame Dinnick, was a 38-year old widow, who had long been a close family friend of both Benjamin and Caroline Harrison. Harrison’s daughter and son refused to attend the wedding of their father, accusing Mame Dinnick of carrying on an affair with their father while their mother was dying. (Calhoun does not put much stock in that accusation.) In 1897, Harrison fathered a child at the age of 63.

In 1900, Harrison traveled to The Hague to argue a border dispute for Venezuela against Great Britain. Harrison brought his new family along with him. The job was taxing. Harrison wrote nearly all of an 800-page brief for the arbitrators. Harrison and the Venezuelans lost the case.

In February of 1901, Harrison developed a cold. This turned into pneumonia, which proved fatal to him on March 13, 1901.

Benjamin Harrison’s story is one not often mentioned in history books. He is remembered more for being the last President to wear a beard. Harrison, like many politicians of the Gilded Age, owed much of his success to friends in high places. Politicans from this era are rarely judged on their ideas, but mostly on the company they kept.

Harrison was an honest man (especially by Gilded Age standards) who never had broad appeal to the rest of the United States. The nation was still not completely over the effects of the Civil War. Harrison made some effort to edge the United States into a more modern era of politics. But, it would take the next two Republican Presidents, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, to revamp the American political system.

Other stuff: Benjamin Harrison’s birthplace was also the home of William Henry Harrison at the time. The home is not there anymore, but there is a marker. Harrison’s home in Indianapolis is now a museum run by the President Benjamin Harrison Foundation. Harrison is buried next to both of his wives at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Harrison’s White House was the first to have electric lighting. In general, the Harrisons were afraid to touch any switches as they thought they would be electrocuted. They tended to leave the lights on.

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Chester Alan Arthur by Zachary Karabell

President #21, C-SPAN Historians ranking #32

Muttonchops to the Rescue!

chesterarthurChester Alan Arthur, perhaps more than any other person to hold the job, never wanted to be President. He seemed stunned that he was put in that position. Then again, he accepted the job as Vice President, which does make you likely to become President. Ultimately, Arthur did about as well as you could expect for someone who had no previous experience in elected office and was suffering from a terminal disease.

Zachary Karabell, who has written about the 1948 Truman campaign, along with many other essays, drew the task of trying to make one of the lesser-known Presidents in one of the lesser-known periods of American history (the Gilded Age), and tries to show how Arthur was able to stumble his way to the Presidency, and, fortunately, stumble his way out without causing too much trouble, and even doing some good.

The backstory for Chester Arthur is one that is far from exciting. He was born on October 5, 1829 in North Fairfield, Vermont. At some point in his life, he started telling people he was born in 1830 (perhaps he was bad at math) and that was the year that the New York Times reported in his obituary and what was put on his gravestone.

Arthur’s father was a minister, and he eventually moved the family to New York. Chester Arthur ended up attending Union College in Schenectady. Like many educated men of his time, he gravitated toward a law practice. He learned the law through an apprenticeship with a law firm headed by abolitionists. Arthur became a strident opponent of slavery and  gravitated to the newly formed Republican Party in 1856.

In 1859, Arthur married his wife Nell and started a lucrative law practice in New York City. When the Civil War started, Arthur stayed out of the military in defence to Nell, who had family in Virginia. However, Arthur did get a job as a quartermaster, where he brough his considerable organizational skills to bear. Arthur became friends with the elite Republicans of New York.

After the Civil War, the American political system was not a pretty sight. Political machines dominated the landscape. The principal method of control was patronage. One group would get in a position to dole out jobs to friends, those friends would appoint more friends, and all of the people who got these jobs were expected to kick back a contribution (called “assessment”) to the party boss.

Very little in the way of issues was ever discussed in any election at this time. All that mattered were personalities and the sheer raw number of voters needed to get someone elected. Chester Arthur found himself to be an important of one machine, the Roscoe Conkling machine of New York.

Conkling was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1868. He quickly established himself as formidable party boss for New York. Federal jobs throughout the state were given to Conkling’s friends. Nominally, the President (in this case Ulysses Grant) would nominate the person, but it was almost always Conkling pulling the strings.

Arthur had been a loyal fundraiser for Conkling and the Republicans. In 1871, Arthur was appointed to one of the most lucrative Federal jobs at the time: Customs Collector of the Port of New York.

While this may have seemed like a dreary job, it was actually quite powerful. New York had, by far, the busiest port in the nation. Arthur was in a position to hand out hundreds of jobs (there were over 1300 people at the facility.) Also, under Federal moiety laws, if a Collector discovered that someone  had failed to pay a sufficient duty on goods that were being brought into the Port of New York, the Collector was entitled to a portion of the discrepancy. Through the moiety law, Arthur’s annual income went up from its stated $12,000 a year to close to $50,000 per year. (Adjusted for inflation, Arthur was pulling in a little under $900,000 in today’s dollars.)

The extraordinarily contentious election of Rutherford Hayes in 1876 (the election wasn’t decided until shortly before the inauguration) brought the idea of political reform to the forefront.  Although as Karabell points out, the concept of reform wasn’t much at the time. Only the worst excesses were talked about. But one of those places talked about was the Port of New York.

Treasury Secretary John Sherman appointed John Jay (grandson of the first Chief Justice) to investigate possible wrongdoing in the New York Customhouse. Jay’s report gave evidence of people having no-show jobs, or ones involving little or no work for rather high pay. The hiring process was pretty much just “So who do you know?” Arthur was singled out for rarely showing up for work before noon. This was because Arthur rarely showed up before  noon.

Hayes decided that he should remove Arthur from office. This wasn’t easy. Conkling, who wanted to keep the reliable Arthur in a position of power, fought the dismissal at every turn.

The first nominee to replace Arthur was a man named Theodore Roosevelt. (You might know his son of the same name.) His nomination was rejected by the Senate in 1877.  In 1878, Hayes suspended Arthur from his job during a Congressional recess and put in a replacement.

Arthur’s suspension (which turned into a dismissal) made him one of the most talked about men in America for period. Conkling’s supporters (known as the Stalwarts for their strong belief that Ulysses Grant should be elected a third time no matter what the cost) portrayed Arthur as a martyr. Conkling wanted to show how misguided reformers were for wanting to remove from office a dedicated public servant like Chester Arthur.

During this time, Arthur was raising money for Conkling. Arthur also became an important society figure, hosting numerous lavish dinners at New York’s famous Delmonico’s restaurant.

Early in 1880, Arthur’s wife Nell passed away at the age of 42 from pneumonia. Arthur was depressed for months over the loss of his beloved wife. But, he seemed to rebound in time to help out at the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago.

The convention was deadlocked between Grant and James Blaine of Maine. Blaine’s supporters were called “Half-Breeds.” Originally this was supposed to be derisive because Blaine’s supporters were considered Half-Republican and Half-Democrat, but the term became a badge of honor.

On the 36th ballot, the Convention decided on a compromise choice, Ohio Representative James Garfield. Garfield was not identified with either the Stalwarts of the Half-Breeds. Garfield would be in favor of reform, but wouldn’t do anything too rash.

Garfield needed to choose a running mate. He felt he needed a Stalwart and a New Yorker. It was nearly impossible to win the election in 1880 without carrying New York. So, Garfield asked Arthur, who met the minimum qualifications.

History does not know for sure if Garfield actually thought that Arthur, who had never run for any office in his life, would take the job. Perhaps Garfield was just asking Arthur to be polite and to placate Conkling. However, Arthur accepted the offer.

Conkling was livid that his friend would betray him. But, Arthur pointed out that for someone like him, being Vice President was about the best he could hope for in life. It wasn’t like Arthur ever thought he would become President.

Garfield squeaked out a win over Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880 in an election decided on a variety of issues, none of them important then or even now. Arthur was sworn in to office on March 4, 1881, and became President of a Senate that was divided equally between Republicans and Democrats.

Early on in Garfield’s administration, there was high drama. Garfield, upon the advice of Secretary of State James Blaine, decided to not appoint any of Conkling’s suggested candidates for office in New York. Garfield appointed people who were opposed to Conkling. Conkling resigned his office to show his displeasure. New York’s other senator, Thomas Platt, resigned as well. Arthur, who was never close to Garfield, became even more isolated as his political patron was now out of power. (Conkling and Platt hoped to be reelected to their seats by the New York state legislature, but they weren’t.)

Arthur’s world changed on July 2, 1881. A crazed man named Charles Guiteau fired a shot into Garfield’s back at a train station in Washington. Garfield lingered near death for the entire summer and passed away (almost entirely the result of horrendous medical care discussed here) on September 19, 1881. Chester Arthur, the amiable party loyalist, was now President.

DSCF0857

Arthur being sworn in

The country didn’t know what to make of the new President. Most thought he was just a party hack. Arthur likely didn’t think that he was the sort of man who would become President. But, we don’t know. Arthur had most of his papers destroyed shortly before his death. Even if he hadn’t, he wasn’t the type to keep a detailed diary of his thoughts or works.

Arthur didn’t move in to the White House for three months. He allowed Garfield’s widow time to move out. He also had the White House redecorated, hiring a young designer named Louis Tiffany. Arthur may not have known exactly what he was going to do as President, but he knew that he was going to make his home look stylish. In doing so, Arthur tossed out over 80 years worth of furnishings dating back to John Adams’ time.

Garfield’s Cabinet appointees resigned to allow Arthur could choose his own. Only the Secretary of War, Robert Lincoln, stayed on. Blaine was replaced by Frederick Frelinghuysen, much to the dismay of copy editors throughout the United States.

Arthur did not enjoy having his home and office being in the same place. He realized that his job was not one he could ever take time off from. He was now no longer everybody’s friend. He was everybody’s boss.

Complicating matters was Arthur developing Bright’s Disease. For many years, a variety of kidney ailments were grouped under this name. Arthur had what would be called today glomerulonephritis. Today, Arthur would have received blood pressure medication, kidney dialysis, or even a transplant. But, in the 1880s, all Arthur could do was watch his diet and hope for the best. However, he was living on borrowed time. He was often sluggish and lost his appetite. For Arthur, one of America’s most notable gourmands, not being able to eat was a crushing blow.

Despite Arthur’s illness (which he did not reveal until he left office) and his lack of experience, the new President did a respectable job in office. Arthur does not have a lot of accomplishments attached to his name because Congress was too closely divided, with even both parties being split over a variety of issues.

One of the first major pieces of legislation that Arthur had to deal with was the Chinese Exclusion Act. California politicians decided that the growing Chinese population in the state was a dangerous thing and something had to be done about it. The danger was that the Chinese were arriving in large numbers. And they were becoming economically successful.

If there’s one thing Americans don’t like, it’s immigrants arriving and doing well. It’s been an undercurrent in American politics from the establishment of the Jamestown colony to today. In 1882, the Chinese became the immigrant group that Americans chose to distrust.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, in its first form, prohibited the entry of any more Chinese into the United States, unless they could prove special circumstances. (These circumstances usually involved not wanting to get a job in California.) This prohibition was supposed to last 20 years.

Arthur, much to the surprise of everyone, vetoed the bill. Arthur felt that: 1) the law was fundamentally unjust because it singled out a group of people to prevent them from entering the United States. Arthur found this to be contrary to the spirit of what the Civil War was fought for. 2) Arthur believed that the law would violate a commercial treaty that the U.S. had with China. Arthur knew it was in the U.S. interest to maintain good relations with the lucrative Chinese market.

Stalwart Republicans couldn’t believe that Arthur didn’t rubber stamp their bill. The bill was reworked to lower the exclusion period to just ten years. Arthur, realizing that he had to approve some bill of this type or else completely lose any Republican support, signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. Restrictions on Chinese immigration would not be lifted until 1943.

In 1883, Arthur was handed a setback from the Supreme Court. Five civil rights cases were decided at the same time by the Court and were called The Civil Rights Cases. The net effect of them was to invalidate the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The Court ruled that Congress did not have the right to legislate private acts, even if those acts were in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

..it would be running the slavery argument into the ground to make it apply to every act of discrimination which a person may see fit to make as to guests he will entertain, or as to the people he will take into his coach or cab or car; or admit to his concert or theatre, or deal with in other matters of intercourse or business….

Arthur spoke out against the Court, but he was powerless to change the decision. Nor did he ask for Congress to pass a different law.

In the mid-term elections in 1882, the Republicans suffered severe losses at the polls, losing control of the House. The biggest issue of the campaign was government reform. This happened, in part, because Garfield’s assassin, Guiteau, was described as a disgruntled job seeker. Guiteau became an emblem for excesses in the patronage system. (The fact that Guiteau was never seriously considered for a job by anyone was unimportant.)

During Congress’s lame duck session at the end of 1882, the Republicans decided that they had to push through a civil service bill of some kind, so they could recover in time for 1884. And so, the Pendleton Act (proposed by a Democrat) was rushed through Congress. It established the first set of Federal jobs that would be decided through competitive examinations instead of “just knowing the right guy.” Also, once people moved into these positions, they were much harder to remove. It was the first baby step to creating a Federal civil service. Whether that is good or bad depends upon where you get your paycheck I suppose.

In his final two years in the White House, Arthur spent most of his time on foreign affairs. A Pan American Congress tried to foster cooperation among Western Hemisphere nations. Also, the United States established diplomatic relations with Korea. Arthur got to see the dedication of the Brooklyn Bridge, considered the greatest engineering feat of its time.

However, Arthur was a man almost without a party. The man who had spent his time helping out his friends, found out he didn’t have as many once he was in charge. His wife was dead. He was dying of kidney disease. Chester Arthur might have been the most powerful man in America, and perhaps the least happy. (Karabell suggests that Arthur would have been considered to have been clinically depressed.)

Arthur, even though he knew he wouldn’t live long, let his name be put into nomination for President by the Republicans in 1884. Arthur, mostly as a courtesy to an incumbent President, but also a way to make Blaine suffer, got enough votes to force the nomination to a fourth ballot. Blaine won the nomination, but would lose the election to Democrat Grover Cleveland.

After leaving the White House, Arthur moved back to New York and tried to resume his law practice. But, his health went downhill quickly. On November 16, 1886, Arthur passed away from a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was just 57 (although news reports of the time said he was 56 using the erroneous birthday.)

It’s not an easy job to make Chester Arthur interesting. Karabell gives it a good shot, but he even recognizes that he has an uphill battle. As Henry Wiggen says about Bruce Pearson at the end of Bang the Drum Slowly, “He wasn’t a bad fellow. No worse than most and better than some.”

Chester Arthur didn’t want to be President. But, he had to do it. Under the circumstances, with almost no preparation, he did a far better job than anyone could have hoped for.

Other stuff: During the election of 1880, opponents of Garfield and Arthur claimed that Arthur was born in either Ireland or Canada and was ineligible for office. The charges were proven to be unfounded. However, the cottage where Arthur’s Irish ancestors lived in Cullybackey in County Antrim is an historic site run by the British Government.

Arthur’s birthplace in Vermont is a state historic site. He is buried alongside his wife in the Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, New York.

Woodrow Wilson by H.W. Brands

President #28, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #9

Take Princeton and give Fourteen Points

wwilsonI. Introduction

Woodrow Wilson was a President so full of promise to many in America, that it seemed shocking how dismally his eight years in office ended. The United States went from being a Great Power to being the Greatest Power while he was in office. But, despite all the lofty ambitions Wilson brought with him, his time as President was also marked by violent upheavals in all parts of society. The United States was a drastically different place from the time Wilson was inaugurated in 1913 than it was when he left in 1921.

II. Growing Up

The 28th President was born Thomas Woodrow Wilson on December 28, 1858 in Staunton, Virginia. His father was a Presbyterian minister who moved his family throughout various cities in the South.  Young Thomas struggled with dyslexia through much of his childhood. Wilson originally attended college at Davidson, but didn’t like it there and dropped out. His father then pulled some strings and got his son admitted to the College of New Jersey (which would eventually become Princeton University). Wilson concentrated on the study of politics and wrote a senior thesis arguing that the President’s Cabinet should be responsible to Congress, as is the case in Britain.

Upon graduation from Princeton, Wilson enrolled in the University of Virginia to study law. Wilson didn’t like the study of law much and dropped out before finishing his studies; although, he would open a law practice for a brief period. Ultimately, Wilson opted to go back to school, enrolling in Johns Hopkins University’s relatively new doctorate program. He earned a Ph.D. in 1886. While in the process of earning that degree (the only President to hold such a degree), Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr College. He also authored Congressional Government, which would become an influential book in political science in its time. Wilson managed to write his book on Congress without ever once visiting Washington and observing Congress in action. But, he became an expert nonetheless.

III. From Ph.D. to the Presidency

Wilson, who dropped the name Thomas and just went by Woodrow sometime in the 1880s, moved on to Princeton to teach. He was one of the most popular lecturers on campus. His class on American government was THE class to take for upperclassmen. Wilson’s popularity among both students and faculty eventually got him promoted all the way to university president in 1902. Wilson, although a poor fundraiser, still managed to raise the profile of Princeton nationally. He became one of the most respected men in America. And, the Democratic party saw him as a Presidential material. He was sympathetic to the Progressive movement; but, he also would appeal to the Democrat’s base in the South because of his upbringing.

There was one problem, though. Wilson had never held elective office. To remedy that situation, Wilson stepped down from his Princeton job to run for governor of New Jersey in 1910. He won that election easily, and almost immediately began campaigning for President in 1912. The Republican party split in 1912 between the conservatives, led by President William Howard Taft, and the Progressives, led by former President Theodore Roosevelt. Taft won the Republican nomination.  So, Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate. The beneficiary of all this was Wilson, who won the election fairly easily. Although Wilson won just 41.8% of the popular vote, he ended up with 435 electoral votes, the highest total recorded up to that time.

IV. Shaking Things Up

Calling his domestic policies “The New Freedom,” Wilson shook up the establishment in Washington. He ended the tradition of Presidents not addressing Congress in person. Since Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, Presidents had communicated with Congress by sending a written message. But, Wilson presented himself to a joint session of Congress in April of 1913 to tell that body that he was ready to work with them to get things done. And, he felt it would be easier if they could talk to him face to face.

Wilson wanted to lower tariffs, feeling that high ones served only to protect corporate interests. To make up for the lost revenue from the tariffs, Wilson instituted an income tax (made possible by the 16th Amendment, which the Republicans had pushed through prior to Wilson taking office).

Additionally, Wilson started two government agencies that would have long lasting effect on the country. To help administer antitrust law, Wilson signed a bill establishing the Federal Trade Commission. And, to help bring more regulation and order to the banking industry, Wilson created the Federal Reserve System.

Wilson knew little about banking, but received a crash course from adviser Louis Brandeis. The Federal Reserve System established a series of regional banks, guided by a Board of Governors in Washington, that controlled the money supply, and oversaw banking regulations.

V. Jim Crow, Suffragettes, and Demon Rum

As a child of the Confederacy, Wilson didn’t forget his roots. Unfortunately, this meant that Wilson allowed Federal departments, most notably the Post Office, to segregate its workers. Wilson would oppose any type of civil rights legislation while President.

Wilson also faced an increasingly hostile women’s suffrage movement. Although Wilson never backed women’s suffrage, the 19th Amendment would eventually be ratified in 1920 toward the end of Wilson’s time in office, granting women the vote in all of the states.

Also, the Prohibition movement succeeded in getting the 18th Amendment ratified in 1920. Wilson was not a supporter of Prohibition. He vetoed the Volstead Act, which set up enforcement of Prohibition. This veto was subsequently overriden by Congress.

VI. Love Lost, Love Found

Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, passed away from kidney disease on August 6, 1914. The President’s grief was almost inconsolable. Wilson’s staff kept close tabs on him to make sure he didn’t try to hurt himself.

However, Wilson would meet someone new just six months after Ellen’s death. This woman, Edith Bolling Galt, was a widow who was prominent in Washington society. Wilson was quickly smitten with her. They would marry on December 18, 1915. Edith would become one of Woodrow Wilson’s most trusted advisers. Her role would be even more important in the final years of the Wilson administration. But, that would be getting ahead of the story.

VII. Trouble Brewing South Of The Border

One glaring gap in Wilson’s resume was foreign policy experience. Wilson knew little about the ways of diplomacy. His choice for Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, was a political appointment to keep Bryan’s wing of the Democratic Party happy.

Wilson soon faced a foreign policy crisis in his own neighborhood. Mexico was in a state of upheaval after longtime president Porfiro Diaz was overthrown in 1911. By 1913, Victoranio Huerta had managed to get himself installed as president.

However, Huerta refused to call for democratic elections. Wilson sent a series of emissaries to convince Huerta otherwise, but eventually gave up. Wilson sent in Army troops instead. General John Pershing led a force that landed at Veracruz that ended up leading to Huerta’s resignation. Wilson even tried forming alliances with Mexican Revolutionary figures such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. The former ended up splitting with the Carranza government (that was backed by the U.S.). Villa and his men would cause more headaches for Wilson.

VIII. Danger from Beneath

Although World War I began in August of 1914, Wilson didn’t think the United States would have much of a role in it at first, and that it would end quickly. This was either naive, or extremely wishful thinking on Wilson’s part.

As the two sides settled in to a long and bloody conflict, it was clear that the winner would be the side that either ran out of soldiers or money first. The United States had plenty of both at the time. Both sides needed U.S. goods to help them through the war. Since it was easier for the U.S. to ship goods to Britain rather than to Germany, the Allied Forces ended up getting the lion’s share of U.S. exports. Germany tried to get more money by asking the Wall Street firm of J.P. Morgan to help sell its war bonds; but, Wilson blocked that action.

Germany now felt that it had to stop the flow of U.S. goods into Great Britain by declaring the area around the island as a war zone. Any merchant ship suspected of carrying war materiel to Britain was subject to being sunk by German submarines.

This action by Germany represented a change in the way war had been conducted. People on ships that were sunk by submarines had little or no hope of rescue. The threat of a sudden attack made Atlantic crossings terrifying.

Hundreds of American lives were lost this way. Wilson’s first response was to issue a series of diplomatic notes to Germany, threatening all sorts of economic sanctions if it continued. Wilson did not wish to commit the U.S. to war as his reelection campaign was coming up in 1916.

IX. “He Kept Us Out of War”

Wilson’s opponent in 1916 was former Supreme Court justice Charles Evans Hughes. Although Theodore Roosevelt wished to run again, the Republicans felt that Hughes would present a slightly more moderate image than the bellicose Roosevelt, who was pushing for American entry into the war. One of Wilson’s campaign slogans was “He Kept Us Out of War.”

Hughes and the Republicans ran an especially poor campaign, rife with internal struggles over ideology. Wilson refused to attack Hughes during the campaign, remarking “One should not murder a man bent on committing suicide.” Nevertheless, Wilson won by a narrow margin in the popular vote (52-47) and by 23 in the Electoral vote (277-254). If Hughes had been able to carry California, which he lost by about 3,000 votes, he would have won.

X. About that war …

The British mounted an effective propaganda campaign against Germany in an attempt to rally American public opinion in favor of joining the war. British agents intercepted a message from German ambassador to the U.S., Arthur Zimmermann, that indicated that Germany hoped to get Mexico to join the war on the German side with the hope of reclaiming much of the American Southwest for Mexico.

Also, the Germans stepped up their submarine warfare, sinking several more American ships. By April of 1917, Wilson had come to the conclusion that the U.S. had to enter the war on the Allied side. Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on April 2, 1917. It was approved four days later.

It took several months for the Americans to be able to send any troops to Europe. The Army was relatively small, with most of the fulltime soldiers occupied with matters in Mexico. Wilson asked Congress to allow conscription to swell the ranks. This was the first time conscription had been used since the Civil War.

There were many protests against conscription. Wilson and the Justice Department did not hesitate to prosecute anyone opposing the war effort. The nascent Communist Party was a favorite target of the Federal government.

Wilson also sent some troops to Russia in 1917 in an attempt to reverse the course of the Russian Revolution. That was … not successful.

XI. Why I’m Using These Numbers

Wilson was confident that the Allies (officially, Wilson said that the U.S. was not part of the Allies. He preferred the term “associate”) would win the war. And, before the bulk of the American forces arrived, Wilson issued his famous “Fourteen Points.” The two most important points were that secret treaties should be prohibited and that a permanent multinational peacekeeping organization (call it a “League of Nations”) should be established to maintain the peace.

French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau famously remarked (repeated in various forms) “Mr. Wilson bores me with his Fourteen Points; why, God Almighty has only Ten!”

Wilson was correct in thinking that the war would be over. American troops proved to be fresh enough to be allow the Allies to break the German lines. The war ended on November 11, 1918. Now all that was left to do was negotiate a peace treaty. What could possibly go wrong with that?

XII. It All Went Wrong

The Palace of Versailles would be the site of the peace negotiations. Wilson decided to travel there himself, an unprecedented move for an American president. Normally, such matters were reserved for Secretaries of State or specially appointed ministers. But, Wilson wasn’t going to allow such important business to be handled by his underlings. Wilson was received by huge throngs in Europe. He was, at the time, the most popular man on the planet.

But, Wilson could not translate his popularity into negotiating skill. He was not open to compromise. But, Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George weren’t open to compromise either. Wilson wanted relatively generous conditions for peace with Germany. The French and British wanted Germany to pay. And pay. And pay some more. And to give up territory. And then pay some more.

Eventually, Wilson would get his League of Nations, with a promise of collective security for all members, but he gave in on reparations. Wilson sailed back home to the U.S. expecting the treaty to be warmly received.

XIII. Irreconcilable Differences

Wilson presented his treaty to the Senate, expecting quick ratification. That was not to be. Senate Republicans, led by Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, knew they had enough votes to block the treaty. The League of Nations horrified many Americans, who had no desire to see the country get involved in world disputes to which it was not a party.

Lodge delayed the vote on the treaty through the spring of 1919. (He started off by reading the entire treaty aloud into the record. That took two weeks.) Public opinion began to grow against the treaty. So, Wilson decided to take his plea to the people and embarked on a whistlestop campaign throughout the country. Republican senators, known as the “Irreconcilables,” dogged Wilson giving speeches counter to his position.

During the strenouous tour, Wilson took ill. Plagued much of his life by high blood pressure, Wilson suffered a massive stroke. He had to cancel the rest of the tour. Wilson had had several small strokes during his lifetime which had resulted in temporary paralysis of one of his hands. When he was in France for the treaty negotiations, on one day, Wilson suddenly asked an aid to help him rearrange the furniture in a particular room because he thought the green and red furniture were fighting with each other. It’s quite possible that Wilson may have been in a compromised state of health during the negotiations.

XIV. An Unhappy Ending

Wilson was left almost totally incapicitated by his stroke. Edith Wilson, along with personal aid Joseph Tumulty and physician Cary Grayson, kept Wilson’s condition hidden from almost everyone. Vice President Thomas Marshall was kept away from Wilson. Secretary of State Robert Lansing (who had succeeded Bryan in 1915) publicly asked if the President was competent.

Although no one knows for certain what was going on, there is enough evidence to think that Edith Wilson made many of the day-to-day decisions of the President. Tumulty also assisted in the decision making. Wilson was well enough to get messages to the Senate demanding that the Treaty of Versailles be approved as is, without any reservations or amendments. Wilson did not wish to see his beloved League of Nations be tossed aside.

However, the treaty would never gather enough votes for ratification, not even earning a majority, let alone the necessary 2/3 vote. Wilson entertained the idea of submitting the treaty to the people as part of a national referendum, but that proved Constitutionally impossible.

Wilson served out his term in isolation. He was not well enough to attend the inauguration of his successor, Warren Harding. Surprisingly, Wilson outlived Harding. Harding passed away on August 2, 1923. Wilson died in Washington, DC on February 3, 1924.

Other stuff: The author of this book is a professor at Texas A&M University; but, he lives in Austin.

Woodrow Wilson has a plethora of places named after him. The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library is located in Staunton, Virginia. The Woodrow Wilson House is a museum in Washington, DC run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. There is also the Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home in Augusta, Georgia. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is a think tank in Washington, DC. Lots of people run into traffic on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge connecting Maryland and Virginia just south of the District of Columbia. The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy is part of Princeton University.

Wilson is buried at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. He is the only President to be buried in Washington.

Wilson was also the subject of a 1944 biopic called “Wilson.” It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and won 5. It was also a box office flop.

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Thomas Jefferson by Joyce Appleby

President #3, C-SPAN Historians ranking #7

Embargo! O grab me!

jeffersonIn this biography of the Third President, UCLA professor Joyce Appleby begins the seventh chapter of the book with this sentence: “Americans’ most pressing history assignment is coming to terms with Thomas Jefferson.”

And speaking as someone who was taught by Professor Appleby at UCLA, this woman can give out tough assignments. (Do you want to read a good paper on the importance of mob action prior to the American Revolution? If so, don’t read the one I wrote for her class.)

Thomas Jefferson is someone that nearly everyone would like to be. For starters, he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He also designed his own home, Monticello, one of the nation’s architectural jewels (and for many years on the back of the nickel.) He was an inventor. He was an author. He was an intellectual. He was a civil libertarian. And he was tall (reportedly 6’3″, making him something of a Yao Ming of that era.)

But, there is also the Thomas Jefferson who owned slaves. The Thomas Jefferson who quite likely fathered a child or children from one of his slaves, and still kept them as slaves. There is the Thomas Jefferson who believed in liberty for all, as long as you were a white male. There is the Thomas Jefferson who believed in the sanctity of the Constitution, unless it got in the way of something he really wanted to do. There is the Thomas Jefferson who was not afraid to get revenge on his political enemies.

Thomas Jefferson was a definitely a man of his time. But is he a man for our time? Appleby tries to make the case for Jefferson. Her task is difficult because her book concentrates almost exclusively on the eight years Jefferson served as President, which were not his best years. However, this is a presidential biography series, so it’s those eight years we have to look at.

Jefferson had been one of the major political figures in the U.S. since 1776 because of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Later, Jefferson served as governor of Virginia, although he was accused of cowardice after fleeing into the Virginia hills in the face of oncoming British troops.

In 1782, Jefferson’s wife, Martha, passed away, likely of complications from the numerous pregnancies (seven) she went through in their 10 years of marriage. Martha gave her husband two daughters before she passed away. Thomas Jefferson would destroy all his correspondence with his wife, which is about all the writings of his that he didn’t save. Jefferson’s complete papers still have not been completely published and may not be for another 40-50 years.

After the Revolutionary War ended, Jefferson served for a time in the Continental Congress, where he helped to draft the Northwest Ordinance, one of the few accomplishments of the pre-Constitution version of Congress. In 1784, Jefferson was sent to Paris as a U.S. representative, serving alongside John Adams for a period.

While Jefferson was in Europe, the United States adopted the Constitution. While Jefferson was returning home in 1789, George Washington appointed him to be the first Secretary of State.

Soon after joining the new government, Jefferson realized that Washington’s ear and mind belonged to Alexander Hamilton, a man whom Jefferson disagreed with. A government that was not supposed to have parties or factions quickly devolved into one with two of them: Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans. The battle between the two men would be over the nature of American politics. Would it be a government run by an aristocracy or a government dominated by “the common man.”

The party structure first showed up in the election of 1796, which John Adams won by just three electoral votes over Jefferson. Under the terms of the Constitution at the time, Jefferson became Vice President as the second place finisher.

The political climate grew even more rancorous during the Adams administration. Tensions from the French Revolution spilled over to the United States. Jefferson and his supporters backed France, while Adams and the Federalists feared the radical ideas of the French government.

By 1800, the political tide of the country had shifted just enough to give Jefferson the presidency. Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for the most electoral votes with 73 and Adams finished in third place with 68.

With a tie in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives had to choose between Jefferson and Burr. However, the House was still controlled by Federalists. And they were in no hurry to choose a President. It took five days and 35 ballots before the deadlock was broken. Hamilton ended up being the kingmaker. While Hamilton despised Jefferson, he despised Burr twice as much.

Jefferson was upset that Burr, whom he had considered an ally, did not concede the Presidency to him. For the rest of his political career, Burr was shut out by Jefferson. Burr would eventually end up killing Hamilton in a duel. Although, he avoided prosecution for that crime. Also, Burr would be tried for treason in 1807 for trying to foment a separatist rebellion in the West. However, Burr was acquitted.

In his Inaugural Address in 1801, Jefferson struck a conciliatory tone by stating, “We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.” The spirit of bipartisan cooperation lasted about as long as the speech. As soon as he got to work, Jefferson appointed a new Cabinet, and also began to replace Federalists who held various government jobs through the country.

Jefferson also had one Federalist judge impeached, and then took aim on a Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Chase, for another impeachment. While the first judge was often drunk and possibly insane, Chase had committed no crime bigger than being obnoxious.

Chase’s impeachment trial ended with the Republicans failing to get the necessary 2/3 majority to remove Chase from the bench. The Supreme Court, under the leadership of John Marshall, would remain as the last Federalist bastion in American government.

Appleby writes that Jefferson had a hard time finding people to serve in government. Most people with an inclination toward serving in government at the time were Federalists. Jefferson’s supporters didn’t want to leave their current ways of life to work in Washington. Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin, suggested that Jefferson appoint women to some of the offices. Jefferson nixed that idea, as his world view didn’t include women working in government. (Or voting. Or doing much of anything other than having children. The only state where women could vote in Jefferson’s time was New Jersey, and that was only for single, white women who owned property. That law was repealed in 1807.)

Not long after taking office, Jefferson lucked into his greatest accomplishment as President: the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson had found out that Napoleon had reacquired the Louisiana Territory for France from Spain in a secret treaty. He dispatched ministers to France to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans. Napoleon counteroffered with the whole territory, which proved to be difficult to govern. Jefferson, who at first was worried that there was no provision in the Constitution for a President to acquire new territory, decided that he could live with the idea of doubling the size of the country. Ultimately, Jefferson decided the Louisiana Purchase was a “treaty revision.”

Jefferson was incredibly popular during his first term. He was sent a 1,235 pound wheel of cheese in his honor. At the time, it was the biggest wheel of cheese ever made. (Subsequent wheels of cheese have been bigger.)

The clergy feared Jefferson because they assumed he would completely remove religion from public life in the United States. Jefferson was asked to speak to a group of Baptists in Connecticut in 1802 or, alternatively, to declare a national day of fasting. Jefferson’s reply was famous (emphasis mine and if you count the ampersands as words, the first sentence has 83 words in it):

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

It seemed that for Thomas Jefferson, his political philosophy had caught on. His approval ratings, if such a thing had existed in 1804 when he was up for reelection, were through the roof. But, the good times would not last.

In 1802, Scottish immigrant James Callender, who had run afoul of the government under the Alien and Sedition Acts of the Adams Administration, printed a story that Jefferson had fathered a child with one of his slaves. While the story may have seemed to have been nothing more than a scurrilous acussation, it was also not entirely dismissed. And Jefferson did not deny the allegation. Nor did he confirm it.

Callender was not the first person to notice that Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, seemed to have close relationship. Abigail Adams had noted a closeness between Hemings and Jefferson back in 1787 in Paris.

Appleby gives a balanced presentation of the evidence that would link Hemings to Jefferson. First, Jefferson did not list the names of the fathers of any of Hemings’ children in his ledger, which was unusual for a fastidious recordkeeper like Jefferson. Second, DNA evidence from 1998 confirmed that there was some male from the Jefferson family who fathered a child with Hemings. However, because Jefferson had no sons (only two daughters, one of whom passed away in 1804), there is not enough evidence to positively assert whose DNA it is in the Hemings gene pool.

There is no “smoking gun” that conclusively links Jefferson and Hemings, but Appleby leans to the side of Jefferson being the father of at least some of Hemings’ children. Appleby notes that Jefferson petitioned the Virginia Legislature to allow the Hemings family (who were received their manumission after Jefferson’s death) to remain in the state. Virginia law at the time, which Jefferson supported, did not allow free blacks to live in the state for more than one year.

The Federalists would try to use the Hemings story as a campaign issue in 1804, but it didn’t have much effect. The Federalists had few good candidates available, especially since Burr had murdered the party’s leader, Hamilton. Jefferson won all but two states, besting Charles Pinckney by a 162-14 margin in the Electoral College. The Vice President was elected separately and George  Clinton took over that task.

Jefferson’s second term was marred by international problems. In particular, the Napoleonic Wars slopped over on to the shores of the U.S. British ships preyed on American merchant ships looking for deserters from the Royal Navy. France wouldn’t allow American ships to trade with Britain. Britain wouldn’t let American ships trade with France.

What was Jefferson’s solution to this? An embargo. Jefferson, hampered by a greatly reduced navy and a reluctance to take on either Britain or France, ordered a complete cessation of overseas trade. Jefferson hoped that Britain and France would feel the pain of not receiving American goods.

However, the result was that the British and French continued what they were doing. Furthermore, American port cities lost millions of dollars in revenues. Enforcement of the ban was a nightmare and was about as successful as Prohibition would be over 100 years later.

Jefferson could have run for a third term in 1808, but opted not to, following the example set by Washington. He seemed quite burnt out by the job. After James Madison was elected in December of 1808, Jefferson did almost no government work. He spent the time boxing up materials to send home to Monticello. The Federal Government was essentially paralyzed.

In his retirement, Jefferson spent his time with various tasks. He founded the University of Virginia, primarily to establish a college for Virginians that would not be dominated by the Presbyterian Church. He also spent much of his time writing letters to his old adversary, Adams. And, he spent time trying to avoid creditors, as he lost much of his money in the Panic of 1819. Jefferson, who was a profligate spender, understood government finance much better than his own finances.

One major problem remains though in evaluating Jefferson: slavery. How could a man who wrote such eloquent words about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” spend his life owning slaves. And not just owning slaves, but most likely using them for his own sexual gratification. And buying and selling them like they were livestock.

Jefferson had his view of the world. And it was a view born out of growing up in comfortable surroundings in Piedmont Virginia, where his wealth derived from slaves. Jefferson could not escape his heritage. His racial attitudes were instilled in him from birth.

But why didn’t he change as he got older? American history is filled with people who changed their attitudes about slavery or racial equality through time. But, Jefferson is not one of those men. It is an unescapable fact.

Also, did Jefferson, a firm believer in states rights, lay the foundation for the secessionist movement in the South? That too seems to be true.

Is Jefferson still an admirable figure? In Appleby’s view, the answer is yes. Jefferson was responsible for carrying out the first peaceful change in power in world history in 1801, when his Republicans took over control of the government. Jefferson and his followers would hold on to the Presidency for all but eight years from 1801 through 1861.

Jefferson believed in a government where the common people ruled, not the aristocracy. However, Jefferson’s common people were just white males. He hadn’t been able to make the mental leap to include all parts of society. Was it that Jefferson was not ready, or was America not ready? There lies the dilemma in evaluating the life of Thomas Jefferson.

Appleby concludes that Jefferson’s greatest contribution to American history is his belief that an aristocracy was not preordained. Jefferson believed that the people could make themselves better.

If you look at Jefferson’s presidency from what the country was like when he assumed office in 1801, the changes were dramatic. But over 200 years have passed, and the country has changed even more dramatically, and, perhaps, Thomas Jefferson is not all what he thought he may have been. But for his time, he was a giant, both physically and metaphorically.

Other stuff: Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, is run by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and is located in Charlottesville, Virginia. The National Park Service operates two facilities dedicated to Jefferson. One is the Thomas Jefferson National Memorial in Washington. The other is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which is underneath the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Jefferson is buried at Monticello, with a small obelisk on his grave.

Jefferson’s portrait has been on the rarely-used $2 bill since 1929. Jefferson has appeared on the nickel since 1938 and, in 2006, his portrait was changed so he faced forward instead of in profile.

For those not scoring at home, this is biography #13.

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.

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 Tyler by Gary May

Him too!
10th President. C-Span historians rank: 35

My chaotic journey through the history of the U.S. Presidency begins with a book about the first vice-president to succeed a president who passed away while in office. Gary May, a professor at the University of Delaware, penned this surprisingly sympathetic look at one of America’s lesser presidents.

John Tyler was tacked on to the Whig Party’s ticket in 1840 because he had a recognizable name and could help the party out in Virginia, which was still a big player in national politics at the time, as it had 23 electoral votes. The two problems with this were: 1) Tyler had until very recently before the election been a Democrat and had only switched over to the Whigs more or less out of spite and 2) the Whigs, with William Henry (“I died in 30 days”) Harrison leading the way, won the election by a large margin (234-60) and still lost Viriginia.

Harrison, who was 68 when elected and not in the best of health to begin with, died a month into office. So it was time for Tyler to take over. Tyler hadn’t even been living in Washington since the inauguration as he really had nothing to do. But he comes back, tells everyone he’s the boss, vetoes Henry Clay’s favorite legislation, the chartering of a national bank, and almost his entire Cabinet resigns on the spot.

It didn’t get much better for Tyler. He couldn’t get any legislation passed. He couldn’t appoint judges. His wife died. And in 1844, while he and his Cabinet were cruising the Potomac on the U.S.S. Princeton, a cannon exploded on deck and killed his Secretary of State, Secretary of Navy, and dozens more. The gory details are here. For a traumatic event that wiped out many high ranking members of government, very few people know about it. Tyler was below deck at the time and unhurt by the explosion. (For those not scoring at home, Senate President Pro Tem Willie Mangum would have been next in line to become president at the time.)

But Tyler eventually remarried while in office and ended up fathering 14 15!! children in all. And he still has grandchildren (or least a grandchild) alive. Think of when your grandfathers were born. John Tyler was born in 1790!

Tyler’s biggest accomplishment was the annexation of Texas. Tyler had made it his quest to get at least that done before he left office. Thanks to the lobbying of his second wife, Julia, who by all reports was one of the best looking women in Washington, but she was also not afraid to throw herself into the political arena to help her husband.

Since both parties didn’t like Tyler, he didn’t run for reelection. James Polk, the Democratic candidate in 1844 and the eventual victor, campaigned on adding Texas to the United States. But Tyler managed to get Texas added to the U.S. on his watch when he signed a Congressional resolution the day before he left office annexing Texas. Perhaps Tyler knew that there was a city there named after him.

When Tyler passed away in 1862, he was about to start serving in the Confederate Congress. So his passing was not exactly mourned throughout the land.

However, Tyler should be remembered mostly for setting the precedent that when the President dies, the Vice-President becomes president. Some (read “Henry Clay”) wanted to call Tyler the “Acting President.” But Tyler called himself “President” and insisted that he had all the rights and privileges of the office. This principle didn’t become a formal part of the Constitution until 1967.

May wants us to believe that Tyler, a man who financed his first trip to Washington to serve in Congress by auctioning off his most beloved household slave, is not as bad as most historians view him. He believes that Tyler worked as well as he could in such an impossible situation. It’s not easy to govern when you have no constituency. But Tyler didn’t quit. You can’t blame a President for trying I guess.

(Postscript: From the introduction to this book, I have the impression that William Henry Harrison will get his own book, which will be an interesting task. If you’re ever in the Charles City, Virginia area, you can visit Tyler’s home, called Sherwood Forest.)