Friday, October 19, 2012

The Great One

I've managed exactly two posts in two years, and even that's stretching it--today is the two year anniversary of my post on Franklin Pierce. But there's nothing I hate more than an abandoned blog, so I'm writing again to tackle the big one, the Great Emancipator, Number 16: Abraham Lincoln. There are so many words written about Lincoln that adding more feels extravagant, like I'm assuming my place in some pantheon of biographers of the man--not my goal at all, I hasten to add. But I do think Lincoln is one of the greatest humans of all time, and the fact that he becomes president is--like Washington's presidency--an example of exactly the right thing happening for America at exactly the right time.
From the slew of books published in time for the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth in 2009, I chose Ronald C. White's A. Lincoln: a Biography. I can't recommend it enough. White as a biographer is tremendous interested in Lincoln as a writer, and he analyzes Lincoln's writing as a means of illuminating the man's character. But the most surprising thing from this biography was discovering that Lincoln's voice--the voice which delivered some of the finest speeches in American history (I'm quite fond of the Second Inaugural, personally, although I love the fact that the marker in Gettysburg marking the site of his Address is covered in pennies)--Lincoln's voice was high-pitched, and that he had a habit of flapping his arms when he got worked up. A really wonderful contrast to the Icon of American History that we see so often. Much of my life seems to have intersected with Lincoln. In Ames, Iowa, I lived on Lincoln Way, part of the old Lincoln Highway, the first auto road to cross America. I've been to the Lincoln Birthplace, the Lincoln Boyhood Home, Ford's Theater, and Lincoln's Tomb. I bank in a building where he delivered a speech while visiting Union-occupied Fredericksburg in 1862, and every time I come home, I cross paths with Lincoln--my exit from I-95 drops me off at 17th and Main, the same intersection where Lincoln walked through the just-fallen Richmond, just ten days before Booth shoots him. Perhaps more than with any other president, with Lincoln I feel something very close to love. Lincoln, of course, is notable for being the first Republican president, and one of the things I'm fascinated by is how the Republican Party of 1860 ("We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection") becomes the Republican Party of 2012 ("My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives"). Look for my Andrew Johnson post in 2013!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Worst. President. Ever.

Just how bad of a president is James Buchanan? So bad that during his term in office, John F. Kennedy said that only those who had been president--"even poor James Buchanan"-- could understand the pressure the office placed upon its occupants. Even the other presidents use James Buchanan as shorthand for terrible.
So writing a biography of him is an overwhelming task--you have very little in the way of the traditional narrative. Buchanan follows the path of other presidents--he's a representative, then a senator, then a minister, then Secretary of State (in fact, he's the last Secretary of State to become President, unless Hillary has something to say in 2016). But then he becomes President, and he's terrible. Two days after he's inaugurated, the Supreme Court hands down the Dred Scott decision, meaning that the federal government has no authority to limit or abolish slavery in the territories. This means that Buchanan throws his support behind the pro-slavery government of the Kansas Territory (which at the time has two governments battling it out for legitimacy). He's what's called a "doughface," a Northerner (still the only President from Pennsylvania) with Southern sympathies.
He sends troops to Utah to fight the Mormons. He proclaims "reform, not relief" during the financial Panic of 1857. Like Pierce, he's so paralyzed by respect for the law that he fails to protect the Union, which is in full collapse when he leaves office in 1861.

Even in the summer of 2010, when I read Philip S. Klein's James Buchanan: a Biography, the 15th president was still difficult. This was the first book that took me two months to read. And Buchanan threw a wrench into my blogging plans, keeping me from it for over a year; I just didn't want to write about the guy. There's something in that stretch of Fillmore-Pierce-Buchanan that's like 2 PM on a Friday. You know something good is coming, but it's so long until it gets there.

All the action in Buchanan's bio happens when Lincoln's elected. The Union is dissolved, as the famous headline put it. And we know the answer to what happens next, but the process is well worth watching. Lincoln's Buchanan's opposite in many ways, but most decisively is his willingness to act.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Franklin Pierce AAAARRRRGH.

On the list of things no one ever says, you can add "Why isn't there a new biography of Franklin Pierce?" And on my list of things I never say, I've added, "Boy, I'm sure looking forward to blogging about Franklin Pierce." Just doesn't happen.

Even with a truncated schedule, I'm still thrown for a loop by Franklin Pierce, New Hampshire's only president and number 14 on the list of Chief Executives. He's bad, horribly so, and while Roy F. Nichols does his best to laud him in Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills, it's like putting a fresh coat of wax on a rusty heap (and not even that fresh a coat: Nichols's book was first published in 1931). I love that one of the reviewers on Amazon states that this is the definitive biography of Pierce, which is a little like saying you're the best breakdancer in Monaco; there's a lot less competition.

Nichols's book is an artifact of its time, written in a manner that only a few biographers might attempt now. Here's a representative selection, taken from the chapter on Pierce's days at Bowdoin: "For no matter where a college may be, whether in the heart of life or upon remote borders youth creates a pleasure world of its own in which to take its ease. Franklin had soon discovered his. There was the forest with its sweet-smelling shade, its miles of winding paths, its whispering pines with all that charm and mystery which have ever called men to the groves. There was the river with its moods. In the spring it was a furious freshet, often carrying giant tree trunks in its swift course and tossing them like chips over the falls. Always it was fascinating by day and filled the nights with a slow continuous roar which gradually sank into silence in the last few seconds before the boy was completely lost to the war in sleep."

That's only about half the paragraph, by the way. No wonder this book is 546 pages. But there's something lovely and missing now about the way Nichols writes, a florid, over-written prose that's lush to wander in for a while. But only for a while.

Maybe we shouldn't pick on Pierce; the man's obscurity is obscure. While Millard Fillmore has his funny name and James Buchanan has the rumors of homosexuality to keep them in vague public memory, Pierce is just Pierce, one of the caretaker presidents, Northerners who made concession after concession to the South in order to preserve an increasingly cobbled-together Union. Pierce had a hard life, too; at one point, he's the lowest in his class at Bowdoin, he maintains a drinking problem that affected his ability to work, and three of his sons die early deaths.

The most significant of these is his son Benjamin, Bennie, who dies in January of 1853. The President-Elect, his wife, and his son were on a train which derailed; the parents were uninjured, but Bennie Pierce was killed instantly, before his parents' eyes. "It is difficult to express adequately the effect which this...tragedy worked upon the President-Elect," writes Nichols, and I can't help but agree. Perhaps a Pierce not consumed with grief and regret and guilt would have made a difference in the final years before the Civil War; perhaps he would have moved away from strict Constitutionalism to an understanding of what America was supposed to be; perhaps all of our history might have been different.

But it wasn't. Pierce was Pierce, a man forgotten by history.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mr. Double Hockey Sticks

There are always attempts to rank the presidents, according to any number of criteria: effectiveness, legacy, corruptness, efficiency. And while every historian brings his or her own set of biases to the table, and public opinion polls reveal more about the present than they do history (I recall one a few years ago that had both Clinton and Bush II in the top ten, an indicator of partisan battle if ever one existed), surely we can all agree on one thing:

The next three presidents were awful.

To this point, I'd managed to find copies of each biography in my public library. Since I'd relied on them for the Madison and Monroe biographies (and been unimpressed by them), I've tried to steer away from the Schlesinger series. Up until Taylor, that hadn't been a problem. But Millard Fillmore? Apart from the Schlesinger, the only other biography of the 13th President was a half-joking one.

So it was off to the university's library to find a suitable book, which turned out to be Robert Rayback's Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President, published in 1959. Is it a good biography of Fillmore? I suppose so. I finished it with a pretty decent idea of who Fillmore was, why he acted the way he did, and what effect the New York political system had on both the Democrats and Whigs. But is it a good biography, compulsively readable in the way that John Adams was? No. And yet, it was to be the best presidential biography I would read in the next three months.

Here's the problem with Presidents 13-15: they're so dedicated to keeping the Union together that they do anything it takes to appease everyone. They're called 'doughfaces," because they change their countenances to suit everyone. They hold back the dam of the Union, trying to avoid a flood of secession from bursting out; when it does, ten years after Fillmore takes office, he and his successors are swept away in it.

As a result, the histories of this time are one of compromises, and it's Fillmore who's in office when the 1850 Compromise is made into law. In fact, it's Fillmore's presidency that makes the 1850 Compromise easier to pass, as the slave-holding Taylor was, oddly, against extending slavery into the southwest. Fillmore, however, has no compunctions against appeasing the South by extending slavery.

Five things happen in the Compromise of 1850:

1. California joins the Union as a free state.
2. The slave trade (but not slavery) is abolished in the District of Columbia.
3. Utah and New Mexico Territories are organized under the rule of popular sovereignty, meaning that they'd get to decide about slavery themselves.
4. Texas gives up its claim to some western lands in exchange for $10,000,000 with which to pay off its national debt, accrued while it was an independent nation.
5. The Fugitive Slave Act is passed.

If you know about the Compromise of 1850, it's probably this last part, which polarizes the nation further, and ties James Buchanan's hands when the South secedes in 1860. If you're pro-Fillmore, you argue that he managed to stave off war for ten more years. If you're anti-Fillmore, you argue that he didn't do anything but manage to stave off war for another ten years. It's a rough time to be president.

So rough, in fact, that in 1852, Fillmore can't even get nominated for a second term as president--northern Whigs block him for signing the Fugitive Slave Act and Winfield Scott runs instead. But like Martin van Buren, Fillmore takes one more shot at being president; in 1856, he runs on the Know-Nothing ticket as the candidate of a nativist party that's staunchly against the influx of immigrants, mostly Irish and German, who are coming into the country. He loses.

I have no idea why you'd ever talk about Fillmore at a party, but here's something:

"Millard Fillmore? Well, he's the only president who has double consonants in both his first and last name. Beyond that, he serves as a good warning for parties that campaign on fear, as Fillmore did, warning the populace against Irish immigrants who would take their orders from Rome instead of DC. You can't just be against something--you have to do something, too."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Flipping the Whigs

You have to feel a little sorry for the Whigs when it comes to their presidents. They win two elections (in 1840 and 1848) by putting forward popular military heroes; not one, but both of those General-Presidents die in their first terms, leaving behind Vice-Presidents who are less than faithful to the Whig cause. William Henry Harrison's the first Whig President; his successor, John Tyler, is literally expelled from the Whig Party. And Zachary Taylor, Old Rough and Ready, is the second, and K. Jack Bauer chronicles his life in Zachary Taylor: Solder, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest.

Unlike Harrison, who had significant government experience as the governor of Indiana Territory, Taylor has no experience in the world of politics until he moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In a time when the Presidency is still something that no candidate claims to want (although reading these biographies, one realizes that they all wanted it so very badly), Taylor manages to be so tight-lipped about his beliefs that both the Whigs and the Democrats think he'd be a viable candidate for their party. Hell, until the election he's in, he doesn't even vote.

Taylor's famous because of his experience in the recently finished and wildly successful Mexican-American War. While it's Winfield Scott who manages to capture Mexico City, Taylor leads the American forces at Buena Vista and routs Santa Anna's 25,000 strong force with a mostly volunteer force of about 4,500. It's the last major victory in northern Mexico, and afterwards, Taylor leaves the war to pursue a political career.

As far as his presidency, goes...well. He's more notable for certain facts more than anything: last Southern President until Lyndon Johnson (!!!), last President to own slaves while in office. He's President when the Compromise of 1850 is being worked out under Henry Clay's leadership, but he dies before it's passed (accordingly, we'll save the Compromise for Millard Fillmore).

There's an interesting postscript to Taylor's story. He's killed by some cherries and milk that he eats during a Fourth of July celebration in DC; it's hot, and he gets cholera from them, dying five days later. But some historians dispute this, and think he was poisoned with arsenic because, most likely, of his moderate stance on slavery. In 1991, with the approval of his descendants and the Jefferson County (Kentucky) coroner, Taylor's body was exhumed and samples taken of hair, fingernails, and tissue. The results showed arsenic levels far too low to have poisoned the President.

Bauer's book is published in 1985, and that's the most recent of the next four books. There's a distinct lack of contemporary biographies about the presidents between Polk and Lincoln. There might be a reason for that.

Here's your party speech about Taylor: "America has often looked to military success for its presidents, and often, they've been successful: Washington, Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower. But Zachary Taylor? Well, he might have managed to use artillery to overcome a massive Mexican force, but he couldn't use grapeshot on Senators like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Stephen Douglas. I get the feeling that had he been a more successful president, more of a fuss would have been raised over exhuming him, but, as it were, no one gave too much of a damn about one of our least successful presidents, a man felled by bad fruit."

And something to file under "Encounters with Future Leaders": During the Mexican-American War, Taylor is frequently escorted by the Mississippi Rifles, a group of soldiers led by Colonel Jefferson Davis. Davis marries Taylor's daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, despite ZT's wishes, but she dies just three months later (what is it with the Taylor family and dying unexpectedly?). Davis goes on to be Pierce's Secretary of War, and then, as far as I can tell, he disappears from politics.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Polk Salad

Walter Borneman's biography of James K. Polk,
Polk: the Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, is so well-done and such an effusive biography of #11 that by the end, I was outraged that Polk wasn't on some sort of American money. Surely, a man who pledged himself to four main goals and completed each one in his single term as President, a man who defined the boundaries of America as we know them today (statement valid in continental US only, and let's just ignore the Gadsden Purchase, which isn't that big anyhow), a man who leads America through its first war since the War of 1812, a man who dies 103 days after leaving office having basically worked himself to death--well, that's a man who should be on a $40 bill at least.

Polk's four goals, set out by him at the beginning of his term (March, 1845):

1. Resolve the border dispute with Britain over Oregon.
2. Get California.
3. Lower the tariff.
4. Create an independent treasury.

Here's when he gets these things done:

1. 1846.
2. 1848.
3. 1846.
4. 1846.

To be fair, he does essentially start a war to achieve the second objective. There's a lot of fuss over whether or not American troops are on Texas soil or Mexican soil when they're attacked by the Mexicans. If the former, then it's an aggression; the latter, an invasion on our part. A first-term Whig congressman by the name of Abraham Lincoln makes bold speeches against Polk's war, although the Whigs are generally hamstrung the way the Democrats were when Bush invaded Iraq: how do you argue against the war without seeming like you don't support the troops? Lincoln, in fact, suffers back in Illinois when his constituency sees his arguments against the war as evidence of a lack of patriotism (this should sound really familiar).

Polk's hair is spectacular, surpassed perhaps only by Pierce. The cover of Borneman's book doesn't really do it justice. Here's a photo:

Polk's considered by most (though not Borneman, who seems offended by the idea) to be the first dark horse candidate. In 1844, everyone expects Martin van Buren, the former president, to get the nomination. But the Democrats institute a 2/3 majority rule at the convention, and van Buren's stance against annexing Texas puts too many in opposition to him. Seven ballots go by, and Lewis Cass, pro-Texas, steadily gains votes, but even though their candidate is done, the van Buren voters won't switch. On the 8th ballot, Polk's name is put forward, and he picks up 44 votes. On the 9th, with a little finagling, he gets the unanimous nod.

Here's your party talk on Polk:

"You know, it's interesting how many things we recall from grade school without actually remembering what they mean--like the phrase '54'40" or Fight!' You know it's somewhere in American history, right? It actually refers to the border dispute with Britain over Oregon Territory, which at that time encompassed Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. The Treaty of 1818, negotiated for America by John Quincy Adams, established the border at 49 degrees, but only east of the Continental Divide. Everyone wanted Oregon--America, Britain, Russia, even Spain for a while. In 1827, Britain and America agree to jointly occupy the place, but Polk comes into office in 1845 ready to settle the matter. If we'd gone for 54'40", then the last winter Olympics would have taken place in America, and you'd be able to drive to Alaska without leaving the US. But Polk and his Secretary of State, James Buchanan, negotiate to extend the 49 parallel to the Pacific Ocean, with a little hitch so all of Vancouver Island stays British. It's settled without a war--which is more than he could do with California."

Polk should be better known. If you're reading along and feel like skipping a few from these years, don't skip this one.

And this is connected to Polk in only the most sonic of ways, but I'm posting it nonetheless.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A 24 Year Party

I've lived two lives with this project. The first, visible to you, is that of lazy blogger, stuck in 1841 at the beginning of the Tyler Presidency. The second, which you haven't seen, is dedicated reader, 176 pages into this month's biography of Abraham Lincoln. And I've got to tell you, starting the Abraham Lincoln biography was a relief. I knew that something would be up with this project when I realized that between Andrew Jackson (#7) leaving office in 1837 and Abraham Lincoln (#16) taking off in 1861, we went through eight presidents in 24 years: that's a prescription for mediocrity. The last eight biographies--Tyler through Buchanan--have been like being a terrible cocktail party, having to make small talk with people you'd rather avoid: "oh, you went to Bowdoin? With Nathanial Hawthorne? And he later wrote your campaign biography? That's interesting."

And then Lincoln shows up, and it's like your friend just came in the door: "Man, am I glad to see you--these guys are duds. Let's get a beer and talk."

So: I still owe you posts on #10-#16. And while I'm not going to get three posts per president, as I've tried for in the past, I'll give you enough to make small talk at any cocktail party you might go to in the future.

John Tyler, then.

Tyler's the reason the Vice-President becomes President upon the latter's death. When William Henry Harrison dies not long after taking office in 1841 (and pretty much everyone knows he's going to die once he gets sick after the Inaugural), Tyler steps up and asserts his right to the Presidency. Up to that point, no one was really sure if he'd be an Acting President, an Interim President, or still Vice-President performing the President's role. Tyler's foes called him "His Accidency."

Tyler hates Britain so much that when he visits Niagara Falls, he refuses to go see it from the Canadian side.

Tyler's the guy who annexes Texas, as one of the last acts of his presidency. It's the main thing he's remembered for, and he totally swipes his successor's campaign promise to do so. He also sends Americans to China, gets us involved with Hawai'i, and his Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, negotiates a treaty with Britain to fix the border between Maine and Canada.

Henry Clay's convinced that Tyler will be the puppet of the Whigs in Congress, but when the National Bank comes up for re-chartering, Tyler vetoes it, much to the ire of Clay, who leads a movement to expel Tyler from the party. Tyler spends the next four years as a president without a party, and in fact, named his Virginia estate "Sherwood Forest" to signify that he had been outlawed by the Whigs. You can visit Sherwood Forest; in fact, Tyler's descendants still live there.

OK, here's your chat for the party: "You know, the Tea Partiers can talk as much as they like about Obama destroying the United States, but John Tyler actually worked to dissolve the Union. See, when Lincoln was elected in 1860 and South Carolina led the move to secede from the Union, Tyler actually led a Peace Commission to try to prevent war--several Northern states and the Southern states which had not yet seceded attended, and while they put forth a package of resolutions at the end of their meetings, Congress rejected them. Then, after war broke out, Tyler sided with his home state of Virginia, and was even elected to the Confederate Congress, although he died before he could take his seat. He's still the only president not to be officially mourned in Washington."

Up next: James K. Polk, who is actually cooler than anyone else at the party (until Honest Abe shows up, of course).