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Presidential Review: Chester A Arthur

6 Oct

chester a arthur


Well, there’s one thing that’s certain–Chester A Arthur wins the presidential facial hair award.   Actually, he’s quite topical these days, and not just because beards are a hipster thing lately (Arthur would be the coolest!)  but because his story is one of a Republican party that was split into two factions, the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds.   The division was over the question of the spoils system–the Stalwarts felt that they should have the right to position their political allies and reward supporters whatever way they saw fit, while the Half-Breeds were against this.   Democrats were against this too, however since the Civil War Democrats hadn’t exactly been able to be a threat to the presidency.

Garfield was technically neither, he was an outsider, but he put Chester A Arthur as his vice president because the stalwarts had most of the money.    Garfield and Arthur did not get on very well–in fact their relationship was rather chilly to say the least.   But Garfield got shot, and Arthur became president.

And because of the whole Guiteau incident, Arthur, a complete supporter of the spoils system, ended up being the man who ended it.   To give you an idea how knee deep he was in the political machine, years earlier, Rutherford B Hayes fired Chester A Arthur from his post for allowing civil service members to be involved with political activities, even though Hayes had expressly forbidden it.

However, after the whole Guiteau affair, the country was very sick of machine politics, and were crying for change.   Also, it didn’t help that Guiteau initially implicated Arthur in Garfield’s death over the whole spoils system issue.   While it was very clearly untrue, Arthur could hardly just pack his cabinet with stalwarts.   In fact he begged the members of Garfield’s cabinet to stay at least until congress reconvened in the fall.   Most didn’t.

In any case, he (with Congress) ended up passing the Pendleton Act, which requires people pass tests to show that they are capable to hold their positions, and be hired by an independent group that holds no political positions themselves.   The system is not perfect, but it was enough to end patronage on a national level at any rate.

Unfortunately, other than the Pendleton Act which Arthur had no choice but to back, he didn’t do all that much as president.   He tried to grow the Republican party in the south by diverting funds to independent parties, but it didn’t work, and ended up disenfranchising black Americans even more.  As for Native Americans–he started switching them to private land ownership rather than reservations, which ended up getting sold to white developers and disenfranchising them even more.

At any rate Hayes was only a one term president–the political machines weren’t keen on picking him up again, and Hayes was very ill anyway with Kidney disease.  In fact he died just a year after leaving.  It wouldn’t have mattered anyway as the Republican’s internal conflicts caused them to lose power for the next couple of rounds.

Next we get the best president of the Guilded Age (which is sort of like being the prettiest girl in the leper colony, but whatever) Grover Cleveland!

Presidential Review: James Garfield

28 Sep

james garfield


Garfield is our second assassinated president, who died of gunshot wounds just 200 days after election.   There’s almost nothing to say about his accomplishments, because much of his presidency he was incapacitated.   Because of this, I’m not really going to look at his presidential legacy.  I do have an interesting question however–our country has had 4 assassinations in our history, two (Kennedy and Lincoln) have become huge American stories that nearly everyone knows and the other two (McKinley and Garfield) remaining obscure.   Why is that?   I’m going through the reasons why Garfield’s story has ended up in our history’s back pages.

1)   Garfield didn’t have time to endear himself to Americans.    Lincoln and Kennedy have very strong personalities that everybody knows.   Lincoln is noble and sad; Kennedy is young and glamorous.   While any president dying is a shame, Lincoln and Kennedy’s deaths have a ring of tragedy to them–both of these men were at the peak of their powers at the time of their deaths while Garfield hadn’t done anything but get himself elected.   Also, both Lincoln and Kennedy have big historic speeches and iconic imagery that precedes them, Garfield does not, in fact it’s very hard to find very many pictures of the man other than pretty simple portraits.

2)   Garfield doesn’t represent anything.   Lincoln and Kennedy both have a bunch of ideas that they represent.  Lincoln is connected to our ideas of freedom and equality, while Kennedy is of the innocence of a bygone age.   Also, people mark both deaths as the end of an era.   Garfield, however, doesn’t connect so well with any particular issue or feeling.  His campaign focused on the gold standard (hardly an emotional subject) and civil service reform.   He believed in racial equality, but considering the track record of other politicians of his era, you can’t really say he would have done anything on that topic at all.   He did have a long political record before his presidency which reveals him to be an average politician of his times–a bit more honest than most perhaps, but not strikingly so.

3)  Garfield’s Assassination was less dramatic.   Lincoln and Kennedy were both killed in public.  The first in a theatre, the second on a filmed motorcade.   Garfield was shot in the back at close range in a train station waiting room.   In fact, Guiteau–the assassin almost got away before the crowd knew what was going on.  Also while Lincoln and Kennedy died instantly, Garfield held on for months.    Guiteau peacefully went to jail, the court case being held until Garfield either recovered or died.   

4)  Garfield’s Assassination was not politically motivated.   Well, not in the sense of being connected to any social issue.   Guiteau was insane and thought he had earned a place in Garfield’s cabinet.    (He literally thought he had gotten Garfield elected even all he did was print out a speech in Garfield’s favor and handed them around, roughly equivalent to an ordinary person writing in favor of a nominee on their blog.)   After being refused, he killed the president.   He also said that God told him to kill the president.    

5) Garfield’s assassination has no mystery.  Lincoln and Kennedy’s assassins both died before coming to trial.   Guiteau not only lived but had a well publicized trial which showed him to be quite clearly insane, and also seeking notoriety.  Guiteau made little secret of his intentions before the assassination, sending letters to the white house, renting a cab to take him to jail afterwards, and taking a tour of the jailhouse to see where he would be staying days before the assassination.  He even chose to buy a pistol with ivory handles because they “would look better” in a museum.   There didn’t need to be any investigation to figure out who did it.    It says a lot that conspiracy theorists will look at Zackary Taylor’s death of illness before going to Garfield.

6)  Garfield’s assassination is marked by bumbling on almost all levels.   Garfield was shot just 14 years after Lincoln, so the idea of an assassination happening wasn’t unthinkable.     Guiteau had made multiple threats to many political figures.  His family was actively trying to get him locked up for insanity.   He let everybody around him know of his intentions, wrote letters ahead of time particularly one to General Sherman asking for protection from the mobs after the assassination.   He even stalked Garfield on at least one other occasion, but chose not to kill him because his wife was upset.   After Guiteau shot Garfield, he was apprehended by police who forgot to take away the gun away from him.   Beyond that, many historians think that Garfield could have survived the shooting if it hadn’t been for the doctors treating him.   They used no sterilization techniques in inspecting the wound, and went searching for the bullet where it wasn’t opening a second wound.   Alexander Graham Bell came in with a metal detector, however it didn’t work because it detected the metal springs in the bed.   In fact, Garfield was recovering up until the doctors started caring for him, and died of infection months later.     Such incompetence does not make for an inspiring story.

7)  Guiteau’s Trial was a circus.   If you think media firestorms over some trial is a new thing, Guiteau’s trial was all that and more.   Charles Guiteau got plenty of time to say his side of the story, and made it as attention seeking as possible, reciting poetry from the stand, sending out advertisements for a wife, fighting with his own lawyers, and generally ranting and raving.   Even at his execution Guiteau read a poem “Going to the Lordy” and performed a cakewalk.    The mood surrounding this was less of grief and more of hatred and morbid fascination.   Guiteau even published a book.    Guiteau seemed to get off on all this attention, and as the trial drew out his actions became bigger and more theatrical.   He wrote a play that had prominent members of politics and members of the trial and jury get sent to hell by God.    Because Guiteau was looking for fame, the tale tellers and movie makers are a bit hesitant to use this material, because it seems to be doing what he wanted (he had things saved for posterity for later, to be shown in museums and such.)  At the end, you get the impression reading all the documentation that Guiteau would have shot somebody, and this somebody just happened to be the president.

So there’s Garfield.  Of all our presidents, I can say he had the most painful death, slow with fevers, unable to take food, covered with abscesses.   The whole thing is just a touch too morbid and disturbing.    Next up:  Chester Arthur–the milquetoast president.

Presidential Review: Ulysses S. Grant

4 Aug

U.S. Grant was a great general, no doubt about that, but his presidency was quite problematic.  While he didn’t have the problems that Johnson and Buchanan did in terms of capability, he has one of the most scandal-prone administrations ever in U.S. History, only Nixon could possibly beat him, and Nixon had one HUGE scandal, while Grant had a never-ending chain of pretty major ones.

There’s two kinds of scandals for presidents:  the ones that are scandals because of public opinion, and the ones that seriously endanger the United States and usually involve somebody breaking the law to some degree.  Grant’s were uniformly the second.

The thing is, Grant didn’t actively participate in most of the scandals during his administration–they were mostly performed by members of his cabinet, and so what kind of culpability should he have considering he didn’t personally do anything wrong?  I think quite a bit.  First, he put people completely unsuited for their jobs in government posts, and second, he seemed to lack a significant amount of follow-through to catch these guys at the act before disaster struck.

The first one was the Gold Panic of 1869.  The short version of this scandal was that Grant’s brother-in-law was involved with some bankers that wanted to have the US government hold on to their gold so that the gold prices would climb, thus they would make money off of it.  At the same time, Grant’s secretary of treasury was selling gold on the side without proper notification.  When Grant found out about all this, he flooded the market with gold, the stock market crash, money lost value, and Americans suffered a particularly bleak depression.   Unlike most recessionary periods, this one was completely started because of government intervention.

The New York Customs house Ring–two of Grant’s customs collectors allowed people to bring unclaimed goods into the country if they used certain warehouses that they owned for a very high price.  Basically they were lining their pockets.

The Star Route Scandal—Another case of federal appointees lining their pockets.  The US postal service called routes that were in hard to access places star routes, there’s no problem with that, but when the US Postal Service started putting people on payrolls for imaginary star routes, there was the rub.  There was a congressional investigation that exonerated  the Star Route scandal–after the Post Office bribed a number of Congressmen.

The Salary Hike Scandal–Congress and the President secretly signed a law giving them all a raise.  Secretly until the newspapers found out.  Nothing happened here against the law but it certainly added to the air of corruption under Grant’s watch.

The Sanborn Incident–Sanborn was an IRS collector who handled delinquent accounts.  At that time the practice was that in getting these delinquent accounts Sanford could pocket a 50% collections fee.  The IRS had started funneling all the high paying delinquencies to Sanford who shared the profits with unnamed silent partners.  Also, the IRS was labeling certain cases delinquent so the money could be skimmed, as well as keeping no paper trail regarding all this money.

The scandals just continued, I won’t list them all, but they include the Attorney General accepting bribes to not prosecute certain cases,  Framing innocent citizens that were threatening to make public different frauds, paying people to be Native American government representatives who had no connection to the tribes they represented and took the grant money offered for themselves, government officials making money off of phony land grants, extortion and embezzlement of Navy Funds, and I’m just getting started.

So the general consensus that US Grant was a good man who trusted people too much is wildly understated, he was more akin to an incompetant administrator who delegated far too much to people who have proven themselves to be untrustworthy.  On top of that besides army buddies, Grant put 40 different relatives in government positions, relatives who did not usually hold the credentials for their posts.   This run of scandals were a serious threat to people’s trust in democracy.

Beyond this, Grant has a mixed record with reconstruction (he worked very hard at equal rights at first, but threw it all away over the election deal of 1876), and his Native American policies were disastrous, coming to a head on the battle of Wounded Knee.

Grant was a great general–he won a war that seemed unwinnable at the time.  However he was a pretty bad president.  Perhaps that’s why historians tend to be apologetic over him.

Presidential Review: Andrew Johnson

23 Jun



Andrew Johnson was precisely the wrong man to be president after Lincoln.   While Lincoln had incredible political acumen, Johnson had none.  As a symbolic vice-presidential candidate, he was mostly put on the ticket as a show of unity, however Johnson managed to be distrusted by both northerners and southerners at the same time.  On top of that he took on the republican congress at a time where they were completely unified, and thus nearly got himself impeached.

The whole issue was over suffrage for the ex-slaves.  Congress, as part of reconstruction, wanted full suffrage–Johnson, who saw a great deal of power at stake, did not.  His first act as president was setting up a hasty reconstruction for the south before congress had a chance to convene, awarding amnesty, and allowing states to join the union if 10% of the citizens swore a loyalty oath.  Congress would have none of it.    At Congress’s opening, they refused to admit the southern representatives, some of whom were ex-confederate office holders.  Also, the south had made a number of laws, called black codes, which basically kept slavery intact, albeit under another name.

The tipping point was over the Freedmen’s Bureau.  This was a national organization that was intended to help ex-slaves adapt to a life of freedom.  The Bureau was not perfectly run, however it provided education, job training, tracked down family members, as well as helped feed and clothe the ex-slaves who suddenly were out of a job.  They also were in charge of making sure that ex-slaves weren’t taken advantage of, and that they got fair contracts for their jobs.  Johnson felt like the Bureau had too much power, and vetoed the bill.  Congress overrode his veto.

Shortly afterward Johnson during a speech on Washington’s birthday, wandered off topic and mentioned that members of congress were trying to assassinate him.  This particularly bizarre gaffe really worked against him, because not only were they not, but it was considered in exceptional bad taste so shortly after a presidential assassination.

After this, Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights act, which was a set of laws that indicated that members of the United States would have equal treatment in law and employment regardless of race.  Johnson felt the states should decide civil rights for themselves.  The problem with this is that it was completely out of tune with the times, where Congress and most Americans wanted to get away from the very concept of state rights, feeling that that idea started the war in the first place.  Congress overrode his veto and stopped attempting to work with him to pass laws.

Congress placed the Civil Rights act directly in the Constitution, partially because ratifying a constitutional amendment bypassed the president entirely.  Johnson did a tour during the mid-term elections to try to turn congress in his favor–it failed disastrously, filled with hecklers and on multiple occasions Johnson compared himself with Jesus Christ.

Congress passed a law forbidding Johnson to fire someone on his cabinet without Congress’s approval after hearing his intentions to do so.  Johnson, who did not get along with some members of the Lincoln cabinet fired secretary of war Edward Stanton anyway.  Congress began impeachment proceedings.

Johnson did some back room wrangling, but made no public response to the impeachment process.  The senate acquitted him by only one vote.

Johnson was racist, ill-tempered, unable to compromise, mulish, and thought a lot of himself.  His stance on state rights was firmly not in accord with the times or congress either, and by trying to block congress’s reconstruction policies he inadvertently opened the door to a much harsher reconstruction than probably would have happened had Johnson simply made deals with congress in the first place.    Also there’s a huge sense of a wasted chance–Johnson was the only southern voice in government in post-reconstruction America, he certainly could have used that to not only his own advantage but also to the advantage of all Americans, instead he got into a political war and basically cut himself out from the dealmaking process entirely.

Despite all this, I have a small measure of empathy for him–after all, rebuilding a country after a war is no easy task.  Don’t get me wrong, I completely disagree with his aims, in fact, Johnson is a big reason that racism continued in the south after reconstruction, providing pardons for all ex-confederates, which allowed them to pretty much move back into the same realms of power that they held before the war.    Johnson was held as a laughingstock and an embarrassment to the post, with rumors of drunkenness and poor speaking abilities.  The thing is, he wasn’t an idiot, though people saw him as such.

That being said, Johnson wasn’t pro-slavery–in fact he was for ending it while the war was still on, and even recruited black men to fight in the war when he was Union governor of Tennessee.  Johnson also loathed the southern upper class who he blamed the whole war on in the first place.

As it is, Johnson is one of the worst presidents we’ve had, the only good thing he did as president was buy Alaska, but he was even made fun of for that.  Oh well, next up is Grant, who managed to do only slightly better.

Presidential Review: Abraham Lincoln

16 Jun



Reviewing Lincoln is a little like reviewing Moses or Shakespeare–he’s so much above all the others it’s really hard to find things to say.  You all know his story, never have we had a president who had so much to lose and managed to gain so much in the absolute worst of times our country has ever seen.  He is our president of the civil war–a war of terrible proportions, and he is our president of emancipation–slavery being the divisive issue that was the fly in the ointment for the first century of the United States.  He defined what the United States means more than any president, and I include Washington on this list.  He is a master of speeches, politically savvy, and is something of a modern martyr.  Without Lincoln, the United States would be an entirely different country, if it even existed as an independent country at all–that’s how important he is.

Unlike Washington, Lincoln was not surrounded by brilliant minds during his tenure.  His cabinet was contentious, congress didn’t really fully support him, his generals were largely incompetent (until Grant).   He had to constantly work to keep people moving forward rather than back.  He suffered the death of his younger son, the insanity of his wife, as well as nearly everybody thinking they could do a better job than him.  Let’s make this clear, before he died, Lincoln was not an exceptionally popular president at the time.   He really was at risk to lose his second election, and had a couple of successful battles not happened just before election day, his story would have been much different.

The most impressive part of Lincoln is how his philosophy and the policies that developed continuously evolved.  He started running on a ticket that was against the spread of slavery, but not in favor of abolishing it.  As the states seceded one by one, he remained cautious on the subject–he was worried about pushing border states over the edge.   Then he privately announced his idea about an emancipation proclamation, but he had to wait until there was a battlefield success, otherwise the statement would seem hollow.  Even with the proclamation–he only freed slaves in rebel states, so any state that remained in the union were allowed to keep them.  Realistically, Lincoln  probably knew that slavery would be abolished if the war was won, but he didn’t perform that act.  He eventually allowed black regiments in the army, and joined the Civil war to a cause for freedom, and what that meant for all the future.  Whenever we talk about freedom today, we’re talking about Lincoln’s version of freedom which is much broader than the ideas that the founding fathers had.

Besides preserving the union and ending slavery, he also kept the idea of Democracy alive–because had the United States fallen, most certainly the idea of Democracy would have died with it.  Around Lincoln’s time there was much skepticism about Democracy, after all it was only a half century after the French Revolution which started as an idealistic movement and ended as a mob ruled bloodbath.  Other Democracies in the world also fared poorly, falling into their own infighting and civil wars in short order.  In the eyes of Europeans, you can’t simply have people vote on things, there must be someone or a class of someones who manage things to ensure social harmony.  While the Civil War certainly was brutal, Lincoln showed that a democratic society could survive through the worst kind of conflict.

You know his speeches, you know the war, but the thing that makes him loved to this day is his compassion and humanity.  Just looking at his images, whether for a presidential portrait, or walking through the army camps, he possessed an image of incomparable personality–ultimately, all his talk about freedom would not be worth a stick if he wasn’t relatable.    The man wasn’t perfect, but he managed to be great in spite of his imperfections, not because of a lack of them.

In the end, Lincoln proves that one person (he really did come from humble beginnings) can really have an enormous amount of power to change the world for good.   In this day of corporate mush and the general feel that the voice of the individual is getting drowned out by the forces that drive the masses, he’s the perfect life to study.

Presidential Review–James Buchanan

9 Jun

James Buchanan

Poor James Buchanan–he had, in my opinion, the most disastrous presidency in American history and that’s saying a lot.   He is consistently put down at the bottom of ratings lists by historians.  During his lifetime he grew to be so hated that he would receive in the mail pictures of himself with the word traitor on it and a noose around his neck.  At that time, many quarters blamed him for the start of the Civil War.

Now I’m not going to heap that responsibility on his shoulders, the issues that started the Civil War had been a powderkeg since the United States began, real friction started–particularly around the issue of slavery, once the founding fathers passed on.  Personally I think that by the time Buchanan became president the Civil War was inevitable.

That being said, Buchanan had the negligible talents for saying the worst possible thing at the worst possible time, not taking action when it’s clearly called for, and once he does take action it’s either too harsh or too late for it to be effective.

First Item–The Dred Scott case–just after he was inaugurated the supreme court ruled on the Dred Scott case that the national government cannot constitutionally ban slavery in any state.   Buchanan was knee deep in the politics of this decision, talking closely to supreme court justices and even putting a little pressure on one of the Northern Justices to go with the southern majority to make this ruling.  The ruling was a disaster–I can see the thinking behind it–if you take some divisive issue and send it down to the states, then the National Government can be seen as a unifying force.  However, we’re not talking about road building–the reason slavery was such a divisive issue was not just because of human rights, but also even the states that did not have slavery ended up having to make concessions to support it.

Second Item–Bleeding Kansas–So, the fighting in Kansas still raged on with two state governments and no resolution in sight.  Buchanan instituted a pro-slavery governor to try to bridge the divide.  What happened instead is that the pro-slavery rigged the vote to such a degree that even the pro-slavery governor quit in disgust.  (Incidentally, most people at that time thought that Kansas was mostly settled by free-soilers). Despite this, Buchanan accepted the vote as real, pushed it through the House,  and almost got away with it, until Stephen Douglass stopped it dead in the senate.  Buchanan made a personal enemy of Douglass and tried to get him pushed out of congress by getting the Republican nominee from Illinois–a Mr. Abraham Lincoln, elected instead.   Lincoln lost–but the split that Buchanan started here would continue through the next presidential election–and eventually give Lincoln the presidency.

Third Item–John Brown’s Raid at Harper’s Ferry–To gloss over a very complicated set of happenings, John Brown had taken over an armory at Harper’s Ferry, with the intentions of starting a slave revolt to end slavery.    The government’s initial response, I think was pretty sensible–they sent Lee in to break it up.  (Keep in mind, however you feel about slavery, John Brown had already killed a number of townspeople and was basically sitting on a stockpile of weapons.)   However, Buchanan saying a speech right after the raid was over blaming the North for deifying him did not help the tensions that this raid brought up.

Fourth Item–The Panic of 1857–Buchanan’s response towards the panic were decidedly odd.  He advocated reform but not relief, which I’m sure really made the public feel better.  He also wanted to get away from paper money, which clearly in the long term was not the answer.  Beyond this the panic, which hurt the north but not the mostly agrarian south, made the south think that they didn’t need the north to survive.

Fifth Item–The Utah War–While basically doing nothing about the slavery issue, Buchanan instigated a federal military action against Utah over rumors that Utah officials were resisting federal officials in their duties.  The rumors were never substantiated beyond a general distrust of the Mormon powers that ruled there.   I do not know whether Buchanan intended this to be a message to the slave states (who were talking about secession already) by having a conflict that had nothing to do with slavery.      The troops were sent too late in the season to do much, were inadequately fortified, and ended up taking two years to secure land that the Mormons defended using mostly passive resistance techniques.  The result was a farce–and also bolstered the south’s idea that resisting the Union might be possible.

Sixth item–Finally, after Abraham Lincoln had one the election of 1860, several states seceded.  Buchanan did nothing–he did not send out troops, did not try to secure government holdings, even in his speeches he spoke about how the federal government was not constitutionally allowed to stop secession.    With Fort Sumter, Buchanan did attempt to send supplies down to reinforce the troops holed up there, but at the first sign of shooting the ship retreated.  Outside some minor attempts at negotiation (all failed)–the only other thing he did was blame northern abolitionists for causing the secession in the first place.

And that’s the worst part, while I don’t think that Buchanan could have averted the war, I do think had he made some swift decisive action as soon as secession started the war could have been shorter, much less bloody, and smaller scale.

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the possible homosexuality of Buchanan.  The question “was he, or wasn’t he?” is a question that always pops up when Buchanan gets discussed.  Here’s the facts:  he did have an engagement with a woman, Anne Caroline Coleman which he broke off abruptly.  She died immediately after with rumors of suicide.  There were also rumors that Buchanan had an affair with another woman which was the whole reason for the break-up.  In any case Buchanan claimed that this situation put him off of romantic interests forever, and he never courted another woman again.

He did, however, start some very close relationships with men, having Rufus King as a companion for 13 years, living with him, sharing a bedroom, and even having rumors follow him about the matter.  The relationship will always be in that grey area though, because though they were certainly very close, the line between close companions and romantic relationship is extremely subjective, and there’s no way to know from those times what those men thought of the relationship themselves.   When King died, Buchanan mourned and sought in vain for a replacement.

In any case, Buchanan was the worst possible president at the worst possible time, and though blaming him for the civil is too harsh, his actions did spur it on as much as anybody on either side.

Well, next up–Lincoln.  Our greatest president right after the worst.  Get ready!

Presidential Review: Franklin Pierce

1 Jun


The three presidents that preceded Abraham Lincoln was a massive game of deja-vu.  Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan were all one-term presidents that came from the north but were pro-slavery.  All three set as the central lynchpin of their respective candidacies as compromise, and that they were the ideal leaders to foster an agreement that will work for all sections of the country.  All three failed, each more miserably than the last.

Pierce was the most tragic of the three–his son died just before he was inaugurated and his wife took it as a sign of judgement that they should not be involved with politics at this high level.  She locked herself in private quarters and wrote letters to her son wearing only black.  Her nickname–the shadow in the whitehouse.  Though I don’t talk about the president’s personal lives very often, in this case, a pall seemed to fall over Pierce’s presidency that got deeper and deeper as things continued to go wrong.

He was elected based on his support of the Compromise of 1850, and when it came to Kansas and Nebraska, he backed a similar compromise that would grant slavery to either state based on popular sovereignty.    What happened in Kansas was chaos–two groups of people ratifying two separate constitutions, one slave and one free, arguments turning into brawls turning into armed conflict, finally escalating into a range war that Pierce could not find a way to stop, both abolitionists and southern extremists sending in groups of people and guns to fight for their respective causes.    The compromise that was supposed to bring the country together ended up pushing them further apart, and also kept the move on both sides to go further extreme.

The fall was so bad that by the end of his term Pierce was refused renomination by the Democratic party–a first in American history for a sitting president to be refused in such a manner, and though the North and the South had some serious problems with each other, both agreed that Pierce was not the man to solve their rift.

Very little happened outside this issue during his term–he had a couple of international snafus that didn’t help him–the Ostend Manifesto being an underhanded attempt to gain Cuba (and if we had somehow gotten control of Cuba, the whole North/South thing would have gotten so much worse), and confusion over William Walker becoming dictator over Nicaragua–a newspaper man backed by the robber-baron magnates (oh we’ll get back to them–after the civil war) to set up a republic similar to Texas that would eventually become a slave state in the United States.  Pierce eventually legitimized this man’s dictatorship.  Both these actions made the U.S. look like greedy landgrabbers that caused suspicion in Europe and Latin America for another half-century at least.

In the end, I want to give “Handsome Frank” as he was known, a little bit of credit–short of allowing war to happen there was very little he could do to bring people together, Bleeding Kansas was not entirely his fault, though his failure to bring things to any kind of peaceful resolution was.   His personal tragedy plus his personality made him an ineffective leader at a time when we needed it most.  I can’t really give him a passing grade, but he’s like the kid at school that is failing but everybody feels bad about it because he tries so hard.

Well, Buchanan’s up for the next round, and unlike Pierce, Buchanan is very hard to feel sorry for–you’ll see.


Presidential review–Millard Fillmore

27 May

Millard FIllmore


Good lord, there’s something about Millard Fillmore’s images around the time he was president that always comes off as mildly pissed/constipated.   I can give him some leeway because you can’t exactly be looking cheerful after a President’s death, but all of his pictures are like that, so don’t tell me.

One thing I want to say to America of yesteryear (and now) is make sure that when you have an election to vote in someone as vice-president that you’d like to see the job because though it seems unimaginable the President might eat some tainted milk or something and then you’re stuck with him.  Millard Fillmore was not meant to be president.  The reason he was on the ticket at all was because Boss Weed, a shady proto-gangster in New York at the time, was wanting to move his empire from being just New York city to the whole country, he had one of his guys all tabbed up to be Vice-President, and Fillmore was an effective block on that move, also being from New York.   Unfortunately his politics had nothing to do with any of this set-up and he didn’t have any beliefs that backed his own party.

Yes, Fillmore was from the north, but he was also pro-slavery, and at a time when the compromise of 1850 was the major issue this was a huge setback.  The oddest part is that Zachary Taylor–the last slave-owning president, was against the compromise because he didn’t want slavery to spread into the west, as well as finding the whole compromise thing incredibly divisive.  Fillmore was for it.  His entire cabinet resigned, but he was still for it.

Here’s the down-and-dirty of the compromise–1) California would be admitted as a free state (yay!)  2) Texas would be admitted as a slave state (boo!)  3) The rest of the territories would be able to choose by popular sovereignty when it came the time for them to apply for statehood.  4) Slave trade illegal in Washington DC (yay) 5)A stronger fugitive slave act (triple boo!)  There were a few other bits allowing Utah essential self-rule and defining Texas boundaries, but that’s all chicken scratch compared to these things.

The Fugitive slave act was the worst part of this compromise, because now federal marshals were required to aggressively hunt down and jail anybody even suspected of being a runaway slave.  All it took was any kind of accusation from anybody and the feds were to swoop in, take them, and send them back.  This was in response to a lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court that ruled that states aren’t required to take action to uphold other states laws on a fugitive slave lawsuit.  (Though another effect of this ruling, to the curious, is that is why in movies the cops have to stop at the state line–they have no outside jurisdiction.)  Oh, by the way, this also took the right of any suspected slave to a trial (so the Supreme Court can’t intervene again.)

This was when escaped slaves started having to go to Canada rather than simply above the mason-dixon line to be truly free.  This also started the Underground Railroad and a massive cultural change that sets us in strictly pre-Civil war territory.  This compromise pleased nobody–the North in particular was outraged to have to submit to a system they wanted no part of–abolitionism took off.  Because of this the South got more defensive and unwilling to compromise at all.

Also, a secondary thing this compromise brought in was the idea of popular sovereignty being a good idea for the slavery issue.  For most non-touchy issues I think this is a great idea, but for slavery–no way.  In the territories eventually this would rear its head in bloody Kansas where the territory burst out into a shadow war over the issue a few years later–unrest that would not simmer down until the Civil War was over.

In international affairs Millard Fillmore has a slightly better time–he was the one who sent the great white fleet with Commodore Perry around the world to open trade.  This eventually opened up Japan (among other places) to U.S. trade–a very big accomplishment…but he didn’t arrive in Japan until Fillmore was out of office, so he didn’t really get credit for it.

Outside of that, he had an embarrassing episode in Cuba, where a Venezualan revolutionary tried to invade Cuba to liberate it.   Southerners wanted to get Cuba next after the Spanish American war, as the Caribbean proved ideal for a slavery based economy.  Fillmore tried (unsuccessfully) to block the invasion (twice), the Venezualan did not succeed, and France and Britain sent ships over to “keep an eye on things.”  Fillmore ended up having to apologize to Spain and unable to support independance because if Cuba pushed off Spain (who was not as strong as they used to be) either the United States would have to take it, and then it would cause political upheaval, or some stronger European country would take it.

Fillmore’s actions directly lead to the death of the Whig party–a party that for all its faults had a broad ideology (strong central government, work towards the end of slavery as an institution, national institutions).  Never again would they have the strong national impact they once had.  Also, from Fillmore until the Civil War ended slavery was the issue that mattered–no more philosophic discussions about the role of government or fair leadership.  Unfortunately, until war broke out, we did not have a president capable of leading the slavery issue into a fruitful discussion at all.

Presidential Review: Zachary Taylor

19 May

Zachary Taylor


Old Rough and Ready–Zachary Taylor, while not serving very long before his untimely death, was the prototype of the fierce independent.   He didn’t even vote until his own election, if that gives you any idea as to how little he thought of politics.  In fact, I’m uncertain why he ran at all.

Taylor was very popular not only because he was a war hero (though that was significant) but also because he seemed to find a way around the sectionalism that had really started creating strain in the country.  After the Mexican American War ended, the United States had suddenly all this land to divvy up, which really started up the whole hornets nest of whether the new states and territories would be slave states or not.  Taylor did not feel like having the eastern states demand the western ones after one side or the other as ludicrous, and wanted each state to decide for itself what it wanted without the national government interfering too much.

In general, Taylor was for letting congress dealing with issues through compromise, the president’s role being to veto laws based on Constitutionality, and to be a steam valve for divisive issues.   While Congress was busy setting up the compromise of 1850 (which Taylor didn’t really have much to do with), Taylor did manage a bit of political maneuvering in setting up the western territories so that they could become part of the country with as little congressional fuss as possible.  His plan was for California to come into the union straight up as a state, so that congress wouldn’t have the chance to get into a frenzy over the slavery issue.  He wanted Texas to enter as a state directly as well, though there was the issue of Oklahoma territory, which Texas claimed.  Taylor denied that, as the territory was very lightly settled and might endanger his direct to statehood clause.  Oklahoma would remain separate  and be set off as a giant reservation for Native Americans (for a little while that is.)    Utah would remain a territory, with some special provisions for the Mormon population who wanted to remain separate from national politics.

Taylor had no real interest in spreading slavery, though he was a slave-owner.  I don’t think it was because he was particularly interested in equality or anything, just that he thought that slaves would not work very well in areas that couldn’t support a plantation system.  Also, he was wanting the new states to have identities that were not aligned with either the North or the South.

Internationally he had one big plum which would pay off years later, he managed to make an agreement about a canal possibly being built in Central America with Britain, where neither country would own or run any canal or railway running over Central America.   This would open up the possibility of the Panama Canal in half a century, and though Britain did try to sidestep this treaty a couple of times, effectively ended Britain’s attempts to settle the Americas beyond Canada.  Britain’s gaze would move to Australia, the Far East, and Africa, but largely left the Americas alone.   This also could be said to mark the start of friendly American/British relations, as Britain did not treat the United States as an inferior, but an equal and separate entity.  These relations would gradually evolve (bypassing certain tensions in the Civil War)  into the informal alliance we have today.

I can’t say much more about Taylor–always suffering from GI problems, he caught a form of cholera and died after serving only 16 months.  Historians tend to stress his outsiderness and how he didn’t tend to get along with prominent politicians very well, however, it did seem like he was able to get things done and be above all the sectionalistic claptrap that was going on at the time.  Also considering he got quite a bit done in a little more than a year, I can say he was a promising president if nothing else.

I would say that I don’t really agree with Taylor philosophically, however I don’t think he was a very philosophic president in the first place.    At any rate, he did what he could.  Next up, Millard Fillmore!

Presidential Review–James K Polk

5 May


Polk–also known as Little Hickory (because he was modelling himself after Jackson)  and Napoleon of the Stump (because he was apparently a very good speaker.)  I would also nickname him the manifest destiny president, the darkest horse, and the mullet (my gosh, look at that hair, he’s like an aging 80’s rock star!)

The Darkest Horse–Polk broke nearly every rule that traditionally guides election cycles and running an effective presidency.  The big issue of the day was slavery, which was being fought through the Texas annexation situation.  Texas wanted to join the union as a slave state.  Abolitionists were directly against this, as there was a chance that Texas would be forced, through diplomatic relations, to end slavery if they just waited a little while longer.    In the primarys, Van Buren was running again and had a majority for the Democratic nomination–however Van Buren was against expansion, Jackson was against Van Buren, so the convention got deadlocked (Van Buren had a majority, but not the 2/3 majority he needed.)  Polk instructed his supporters to vote for Van Buren to keep the convention stalled until the powers that be had to broker an agreeable alternative–and they decided on Polk.  In the election, President Tyler got kicked out of his own party for being his disagreeable self, so it was between Polk and Clay.  Clay was expected to win, and probably would have, if there wasn’t a big abolitionist push due to Polk’s pro-slavery views, thus making a spoiler candidate of James G Birney.  Birney just got 2% of American votes, but had Clay taken that 2% he would have won.

That’s the thing with Polk–usually this level of triangulation does not work, there’s too many unpredictable elements at work, but he got away with it.    Also in becoming president he announced he would only serve one term.  Normally when it’s clear a president will have only one term, they lose power–congress just works around them, or waits them out–however with Polk, he somehow got more powerful and effective, because he was out of contention for the next election cycle.

No president exemplifies the manifest destiny more than Polk.  He wanted to increase America’s size, pure and simple.  While it would do very little to help with the slavery issue, Polk saw the west as a place that could balance out all the other issues that divided the North and South, making them a tiebreaker in issues like tariffs, land development, and domestic policy, thus making the country move more smoothly on divisive issues.   Whether or not this worked in practice in questionable, but it is an idea.

Polk engaged in a series of land-grabs that expanded the country by 1/3.  I’ll get into the Mexican-American war situation second–but the other big land increase was with Oregon.  The United States had a dispute with Britain over Oregon territory–how much was really included in the Louisiana purchase, who discovered what.  There even were some (frankly insane considering we had one war already) people who wanted to go to war over this.  In the end, Polk came to a mutually acceptable agreement which basically cut the Oregon territory in half.  Polk gets some credit for practicing restraint here.

I’m separating the Texas annexation from the Spanish American war because I feel differently about the two.  I actually have little problem with the Texas annexation–Texas was supposed to be an independent country,  they overwhelmingly wanted to be part of the United States, and really it wasn’t Mexico’s business.     If everything had stopped here, I would call it a very good exchange.  However, we also have–

The Mexican-American war–I have said that Polk is a very strong president, however, that does not mean I always agree with him.  The Mexican-American War is a definite candidate for dubious wars in history.  During the Texas annexation process, Polk sent ambassadors to Mexico to firm up what was supposed to be Texas borders and to  negotiate a sale of California and the south-west.  Mexican leadership made some really bad choices in all this–because they were angry about the Texas situation they basically found every excuse not to deal with the ambassadors, and then sent some troops over the Rio Grande into disputed territory.   This is bad bad stuff, but had the United States not been basically trying to have a war in the first place, there probably could have been some diplomatic answer to this stand-off.  The U.S. wanted war though, considered the crossing an invasion, and sent troops into Mexico.

The biggest problem with this war is that Mexico was nowhere near an equal to the United States militarily. They were close to a civil war without American intervention, with multiple factions vying for power.  Their military equipment was severely outdated (to give you an idea, they were still using muskets–which would be similar to a war being faught with tommy-guns today).   The military couldn’t even handle rebellions by private citizens (like in Texas, or the Yucatan, both places which started their own republics.)   Also, I believe that  by this point in his career, Santa Anna was practically out of his mind with megalomania and Napoleonic posturing.  In any case the United States cleanly won this war hands down.  In the end the U.S. got huge amounts of land for a fraction of the price it was worth.     I can give Polk some credit for not taking over all of Mexico (which some Americans apparently wanted–considering the stormy socio-political environment in Mexico, would have been considerable trouble).

While I don’t agree with the war, and I think the dealings around the war are somewhat sleazy, it was a very popular war, and Polk really was doing what most Americans wanted.   Also, when I think going to war to basically claim the California territory is extremely morally dubious, I can make a case that Polk resisted the land-greediness to a degree that was prevalent at the time.  He wasn’t willing to take over any and all territory at any cost–he made specific goals and went for them, and mostly succeeded.

For social issues, Polk gets a couple more plaudits.  He started the National Treasury System, so that the governments money wouldn’t be invested in banks, thus making a clear division between American finances and private commercial interests.  While modern politicians do not generally care too much about that division, I believe that keeping government money out of private industry makes for better political decisions.

He also vetoed any bill that was for land development.  I think there’s a case for the national government developing land, but I really see his point.  The national government really should be only investing in projects that benefit everybody, allowing the state and local governments to handle the more local issues.

Unfortunately, Polk is also more on the pro-slavery side than not, and so there’s a big minus for him.  However, he mostly side-stepped the issue as president, and left most things unchanged.

In the end I have to give Polk a lot of credit.  Yes the Mexican-American war was pretty sketchy, but if the United States had to be in a war like that Polk was a pretty good leader for it.  Also, the man was a near genius at achieving the goals he set, considering he only had 4 years to do that sets the bar even higher.   Of all the presidents between the founding fathers and the Civil War I think he’s probably the best, though that’s taking into account that I’m not as fond of Jackson as many are.

Well, next week we get Taylor, the president that conspiracy theorists talk about when they get bored of Kennedy and Lincoln.  Until then!