Presidential Biographies: Ulysses S. Grant #18

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Ulysses S. Grant, the Eighteenth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was Grant by Ron Chernow.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Grant by Ron Chernow

Ulysses S. Grant is one of those Presidents that I only knew for his Civil War service and drinking problems. Indeed, as I have discussed my reading of the Presidential Biographies, I was often told Grant was one who would be ranked low due to the corruption on his cabinet and his drinking. Yet, as I discovered in this truly excellent biography by Ron Chernow, the story is much deeper and complex than that. Indeed, I don’t think I’m mistaken to say that Grant is certainly one of the most underrated Presidents we’ve had. Moreover, he was an altogether decent man.

Grant was born in Ohio. His father had a tannery business, among other businesses, and Grant detested the smell and sights of he gruesome business. Instead, he joined the military where he distinguished himself as a marvelous equestrian. He distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War, though he was personally opposed to what he felt was a poor decision to go to war. He made enemies in the military, and they sought to undermine him by spreading rumors about his drunkenness. These rumors would dog him his entire life, and into the modern era. They were not unfounded. Chernow dedicates no small amount of time discussing both the reality of Grant’s alcoholism and the myth that developed around it. For one, in Grant’s time, alcoholism was seen as a moral failing rather than an addiction that needed treatment to overcome. That misunderstanding continues in part to this day. Due to this view of alcoholism as moral failing, the rumor mill that surrounded Grant about alcohol came up again and again, fed by his political and military enemies in order to undermine his moral and other status. Grant did binge drink. He tended to do so in certain situations: after battles, for example. Yet he also worked hard to fight alcoholism in himself and others, making a pact with his longtime friend and adviser, John Rawlins, to help him keep from drinking. It is also likely he promised his wife he would not drink, and she defended his character to the end of her life. Moreover, he was free of scandal regarding women, and, though a few unsubstantiated rumors arose about this as well, it seems clear Grant was quite loyal to his wife throughout his life. The rumors of alcohol, though, did get him out of the military.

Then, the Civil War began, and Grant was called to defend the Union, which he did with gusto. His political views had, in part, formed in response to his wife (a Southerner who owned slaves) and against his father, with whom he had a strained relationship. The Civil War changed these views as well. He had leaned towards abolition, but through the war this conviction solidified. As he continued to rise in power in the Western Theater of the Civil War, he became agitated by setbacks surrounding logistics. This led to him issuing General Orders No. 11, what Chernow calls the “most sweeping anti-Semitic action undertaken in American history.” These orders stipulated that Jews would be expelled from his military district, which included parts of Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. He blamed certain Jewish traders as source of black market goods and transactions, and he felt his actions were justified, not to mention going along with the general anti-Semitism of the time. Grant’s story of interactions with the Jewish people was not over, though, as we’ll see in his Presidency.

Grant continued to thrive in war, and won many hard-fought victories against sometimes larger armies and fortifications. His victory over Vicksburg catapulted his fame, and Lincoln ultimately placed him in charge of the armies fighting Lee. Grant’s reputation as a butcher is unsupported by his actual actions on the battlefield and after. In victory, he was cordial and even kind towards the defeated enemy. He was a grand strategist who burst fortresses with tactics rather than a sea of bodies, though the latter was often the result of the type of battles that were being fought. Grant ultimately defeated Lee and the South, of course, leading to a Union victory.

Next, Grant dedicated himself to healing tensions in the country, though he also felt that the rights of the newly freed slaves would need military protection. He and Andrew Johnson repeatedly clashed as the latter’s policies undermined what Lincoln had done and what Grant hoped Reconstruction would accomplish. Grant ultimately decided to run for President and won against Horatio Seymour. Several states were still ineligible to vote in this election.

Grant’s Presidency was certainly not perfect. It is true that his administration was marred by several scandals. Many of these were due to Grant’s nature as a person: he simply trusted his associates far more than he should have, and this would come back to truly bite him in later years. The list of scandals is long, ranging from monopolies on gold, to custom houses, to tax evasion scams. Almost all of these were done by appointees of Grant, his cabinet, or people he trusted. Lingering attacks on Grant about his alcohol use continued throughout both of his terms, as well.

Moreover, Grant’s attempts to deal fairly with Native Americans failed badly. He attempted a policy he called the “Peace Policy” in which he would honor treaties the United States had made with Native American groups. He even worked to get citizenship for Native Americans. He believed that Native Americans were largely provoked by whites who then attributed any conflict to the Native Americans (658). He appointed Ely Parker, a Seneca, as the Commisioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold that position. Grant and Parker planned for a gradual granting of citizenship to Native Americans. Of course, part of this plan was absorption of Native Americans and this would involve effectively “robbing Indians of their rightful culture” (as Chernow puts it, 659). Native Americans largely rebuffed Grant’s plan for them, not wishing to be made into white people’s idealization of “civilized.” Unfortunately, during this time period, the slaughter of buffalo herds by white men, in addition to continual incursions by white people on Native lands, and the greed of people for gold in Native lands led to conflict. The Peace Policy devolved into a series of raids and wars against Native Americans, including the infamous “Battle of Little Bighorn” in which Custer, whom Grant had dispatched, was killed and made into a folk hero–a status undeserved, to say the last. Grant’s Peace Policy was perhaps well-intentioned, but it was also a failure. He wished to see Native Americans integrated into the United States, not particularly aware of whether this was something they desired or not; and he ultimately dispatched troops to fight those same people. It is tragic in a number of ways, because Grant, unlike many of the Presidents we have already looked at in this series, truly did seem to view all people as… people.

In the South, the Ku Klux Klan rapidly arose to try to suppress black voters and power in these states. Unlike Andrew Johnson, who practically encouraged such violent terrorism, Grant responded to these militaristic racists by fighting them. He and his attorney generals–though largely the first, formed a Justice Department that would expand federal powers to prosecute criminals in states. As part of his enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments, Grant charged his attorney general, Amos T. Akerman, to vigorously defend black voters. Grant worked to pass additional enforcement acts specifically targeting the KKK and other groups that were terrorizing blacks trying to vote. This gained him praise from such luminaries as Frederick Douglass. Grant then went to the length of suspending Habeas Corpus when he was told that the KKK was murdering people before they could testify against them. He and Akerman managed to convict more than 1000 members of the Klan, ultimately leading to what was truly a massive, militaristic, terror organization to losing much of its power. After the Colfax Massacre, Grant worked to try to bring the perpetrators to justice. When the Supreme Court overturned the few convictions Grant managed to get, he was enraged and, in an eloquent condemnation of the moral state of the country, said:

Fierce denunciations ring through the country about office-holding and election matters in Louisiana, while every one of the Colfax miscreants goes unwhipped of justice, and no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous crime. (quoted on p. 759-760)
Grant saw this and many other instances as evidence the Federal Government needed the power to intervene in the states in order to enforce the law. Just as they’d done before the Civil War and into certain issues today, people cried out for “states’ rights” in response. Grant oversaw the passage and signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1875, helping ensure this federal intervention, but the Supreme Court would ultimately strike this Act down. In short, Grant’s Presidency was characterized by the fight for civil rights of the newly freed African American population. It was a battle that gave him many victories, though also some defeats. And, ultimately, that battle continues to this day. We do have to thank Grant, though, for his effort to undo much of the damage Johnson did to black civil rights.
Grant also worked to heal his schisms with Jewish people. He became the first President to attend a synagogue congregation, following the traditions of those in attendance despite being told he did not have to. Moreover, “Mortified at memories of General Orders No. 11, Grant compiled an outstanding record of incorporating Jews into his administration…” He nominated Jews to numerous positions, leading to contemporary Jewish leaders o state that he had overcome the blight on his name from his General Orders (642-643). Moreover, he worked to protect Jewish citizens abroad. When Russia was revealed to be relocating Jews, Grant spoke with some American Jewish leaders, telling them “It is too late, in this age of enlightement, to persecute any one on account of race, color, or religion” (quoted on 643). He then made a formal protest to the czar and directed the American ambassador in Russia to make a state paper to document coercion against Russian Jews (here I largely paraphrase Chernow on p. 643). Chernow notes, quoting a scholar writing in Woodrow Wilson’s era, that Grant did more for the Jewish people in the United States than any other President before or since (836).
Grant’s Presidency ended, but he continued to have influence in the political arena, including working actively for Garfield in particular. His tendency to trust others would have one more disastrous consequence late in life, though, as he trusted a young Ferdinand Ward with all his fortune and that of many family members. Ward, however, was running nothing but a Ponzi scheme, and ultimately left Grant and many others effectively penniless. This would lead, however, to Grant finally deciding to put pen to paper and write his memoir, which Mark Twain eventually purchased to publish. Grant had gone from thinking he was next to a millionaire to seeing Twain’s advance check of $1000 as a massive windfall. It was a miserable state for such a man to fall to, and Twain recognized it as well. Moreover, Grant was horribly ill as he wrote his recollections, but as through his life, he soldiered through and completed them at cost to himself. The memoir would become a massive commercial success and go down as a major event in American history. Grant used the last months of his life to speak with friends and even enemies, making amends with several. He died, surrounded by friends and family. His casket bearers included soldiers from both the North and South, signifying his lifelong battle for Union.
Truly, Grant was a phenomenal man and President. He is massively underrated on the latter score. Chernow’s biography, Grant, is a fantastic work as well. I highly recommend it, and I recommend learning more about this President.
Ulysses S. Grant’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Ulysses S. Grant (18th President – Original Ranking #3)- Often dismissed as a footnote for his Presidency and talked up as a General instead, Grant was, in fact, one of the more effective Presidents when it came to some areas where it mattered most. A principled man, when he identified an evil, he worked vociferously to attack it. His war on the KKK was effective and waged with as much acumen as he dealt with troops on the battlefield, helping to end at least some of the terror levied against black citizens. He worked to rebuild relationships with Jewish citizens after making a poor choice earlier in his career. He tried (but failed) to walk a line between honoring treaties with Native Americans, bringing peace, and pleasing whites intent on expansion.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

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Learning about LGBT+ history- Everyone Should Do So

I’ve been trying to learn more and more about the history of the United States for a number of reasons (being more informed on the history of policies that are proposed; reflecting on the history of our country; seeing how current problems or triumphs are grounded in the past; etc.) and am reading Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer.

I have to admit I was shocked, though I shouldn’t have been, by the history presented so far regarding our country’s treatment of marginalized groups.

I thought of myself as decently cognizant of the history of the United States, but in no history class I took was there even the briefest survey or mention that I can remember of some of the acts our country has taken against people identifying as LGBT+. It is important to be informed on the history so that you can approach the topic with a better understanding. I’m trying to do that for myself, and have a long ways to go. It’s clear that I’ve enjoyed the privilege of not having the stigma and hate that is directed at LGBT+ people, and that privilege has left me woefully ignorant. Here are just a few shocking things I learned (citations from the book mentioned above):

It was during World War II that the US Army psychiatrists identified gays and lesbians as “a personality type unfit for service” and discharged thousands of gay soldiers and sailors from the military with the label of “psycopathic undesirables” which led to serious difficulties in civilian life finding jobs and stability as well (80).

The FBI in the 1950s increased surveillance on gays and lesbians, leading to thousands of arrests. Philadelphia had more than 100 a month, while DC topped 1000 in a year. “Newspaper editors… often print[ed] the names, addresses, and places of employment of those arrested” (80), attaching increasing stigma, loss of jobs, and potential violence.

Executive order 10450 in 1953, issued by Dwight D. Eisenhower, expanded the potential for finding security risks in potential government employees and banned lesbian and gay applicants from federal employment while also leading to the termination of more than 5,000 federal employees under suspicion of being homosexual.

Anita Bryant, famous for her career as a singer, opposed recognition of civil rights for gay and lesbian people and called them “human garbage” (82). She led a charge to undo multiple ordinances that were put in place to protect LGBT people. Later, her name would be invoked when four straight men shouted things like “Here’s one for Anita!” as they stabbed Robert Hillsborough, a gay man, to death (85).

These are just a few examples, and I’m sure there are many more. What alarms me about this is how little we learn about it in our schools and how little it is discussed in public policy discussions today. I hope we can work to continue to ensure that these violations of life, dignity, and rights do not happen ever again in our country.

Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 has been a fascinating read so far. I think everyone should read books that open their eyes to concerns of which they might not have been otherwise aware.

SDG.

 

 

Presidential Biographies: Andrew Johnson #17

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Andrew Johnson, the Seventeenth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) actually turned into me reading two books: Andrew Johnson by Annette Gordon-Reed and Impeached by David Stewart.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Andrew Johnson, #17

Andrew Johnson frequently ends up on lists as the worst or, minimally, one of the bottom 5 Presidents. Is that evaluation justified? Or is it as strange as ranking Andrew Jackson in the top 10 Presidents (he manifestly was not)? Having read this pair of books on Andrew Johnson, and some related works about Reconstruction, I think it is almost certain Andrew Johnson ought to be ranked as the worst or one of the worst Presidents we have ever had.

Andrew Johnson is another president who might be said to be a picture of the American Dream–and what he did with his success might be a lesson to us about how we ought to qualify that Dream. Born in a log cabin in poverty, he learned to be a tailor but left his apprenticeship to find his own fortune. Abandoning an apprenticeship was something that the master could find you and put you back into service for, and this shaped Johnson’s perceptions of race and poverty going forward. Many white people who were in these kind of poverty-reinforced relationships saw slavery as a way to at least say someone was worse off than them. Their felt entitled to having lives that were better than that of slaves, who were considered lesser persons. Though Gordon-Reed notes that not every white person felt this way, it was indicative of a general sentiment and background belief that Johnson grew up with (24).

Johnson rose to political power as a self-motivated man seeking to push his own agenda. He often stood against popular positions, as his stand against railroad companies indicated in Tennessee. He rose to the House of Representatives where he fought for the Homestead Act and giving money to poor whites to help get them land. Then, he became the Governor of Tennessee and a United States Senator. His policies continued to favor slaveowners and poor whites. As Senator, Johnson argued that it was the North who was pushing for conflict, not Southern slaveowners. Though he did go on to call the secessionists treasonous, he also supported policies that were concessions to Southern interests.

After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson became President, and this was a horrific tragedy. Though he initially seemed to take a hardline stance, he quickly pushed for concessions. He was determined to avoid offering protections for or endorsements of black votes, he did not believe the Constitution meant he had to allow blacks to vote, and so he allowed Southern states to oppress these votes. When picking political appointments, he favored loyalty to himself and alliances that would benefit him personally to those that would help the party or country. Moreover, he moved to gut the Freedman’s Bureau of federal authority and backing, thus removing protections for newly freed slaves and preventing them from getting the land that was initially promised to them.

Johnson was famously impeached, and the circumstances surrounding this seems to demonstrate a growing frustration of Republican Congressional members with the President they got stuck with. The definitions of terms related to impeachment, such as “high crime” or “high misdemeanor” remain unclear to this day, and the articles of impeachment for Johnson are famously confusing regarding what exact charges were brought forward. Interestingly, numerous people involved in standing against the impeachment were mired in possible payoffs and other political debts which Johnson paid (such as granting positions to apparent enemies). These are covered in detail in Stewart’s Impeached. Though difficult to confirm so long after the fact, it seems plausible that, given Johnson’s predilection for appointments to benefit himself, this may have been what happened. Yet another chapter in a terrible presidency.

Andrew Johnson’s beliefs can only be characterized as extreme, entrenched racism. He stated in private that “I am for a white man’s government in America” (quoted in Stewart, 14) and believed that black political power was a greater evil than the Civil War (ibid, 16). He actively worked to limit the power of freed blacks after the Civil War. He colluded with Southern governments to usher in the Jim Crow era, along with the continuation of slavery by another name (the use of inmates for forced labor). He withdrew federal troops and protections for freed blacks in the south, callously standing aside while thousands of black people were murdered for such “offenses” as looking at a white man.

The amount of damage that Andrew Johnson did to our country cannot truly be measured. Had he not been at the reins after Lincoln was assassinated, we may have been able to unify the country and unite against racism–or at least enforce a lasting peace. Instead, the Jim Crow era was ushered in and it would be decades before the Civil Rights movement began to correct some of the wrongs that continue into today. Andrew Johnson was a terrible President.

Andrew Johnson’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Andrew Johnson (17th President – Original Ranking #17)- Andrew Johnson was an unapologetic racist whose opposition to Radical Reconstruction policies damaged our country in ways that continue to have negative impact to this day. His completely capitulation to Southern interests, including allowing Southern whites to murder black people at will, is totally disgusting. His ineptitude at command contributes to his low ranking, as he totally failed to do anything but push for the policies he favored instead of attempting any kind of compromise whatsoever. He was a racist brute who is a disgrace to our country’s history.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Presidential Biographies: Abraham Lincoln #16

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Abraham Lincoln, the Sixteenth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White, Jr.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White, Jr.

It feels a little daunting beginning this look at Lincoln’s life. So much of what we “know” about this President comes from a kind of populist vision of him. Ronald C. White, Jr.’s book is a deep, cradle-to-grave look at the life of Lincoln that clued me in to much more about one of our country’s most famous persons.

Lincoln’s story is truly one of the small farm boy growing up to become President, the kind of story that seems almost quintessential to our rose-tinted look at history but a near impossibility in today’s politics. He grew up in poverty between Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. In his childhood his neighbors were miles away through dense forests, making it a fairly lonely life. He eventually educated himself by studying law by reading books. He became a rather renowned lawyer due to his success in a few cases, ultimately becoming a Representative from Illinois. It was these early years of his political life that formed his demeanor going forwards. First, he already demonstrated that he was an abolitionist, condemning slavery not merely with words, as so many previous leaders of the United States had done, but with deeds. Even when it was unpopular, he stood against slavery. Second, though he is often lauded as being an astute politician–which is true–perhaps not enough credit is given to his advisers and staff, whom he picked well. Third, he was willing to compromise on principles so long as they did not contradict his absolutes.

Lincoln was one of those who opposed war with Mexico when Polk was President, and he carefully made the distinction between supporting soldiers and supporting wars. This is a lesson that we can take into today–being against a specific war doesn’t make one anti-military. Lincoln, of course, was castigated for his stance, even to the point of one Illinois newspaper hoping his political epitaph would read “Died of Spotted Fever” (151-153). Lincoln supported Zachary Taylor for the presidential nomination not because he particularly favored Taylor’s stance on many issues but because he saw it as more politically expedient to support one who would win than to stand against them (154-156). Though this could be seen as a kind of callous political act, for Lincoln it seems that the choice was to try to go for a “lesser of two evils”–something popular in our own day.

Lincoln’s famous debates with Stephen Douglas is given due diligence by White, Jr. For one thing, Douglas is often dismissed as a nobody, when in reality he was a giant of political power at the time–and did win the election, ultimately. These debates help clarify Lincoln’s stance on a number of issues. White Jr. points out that these debates did not occur in a vacuum–they came successively. Douglas spent many of the early debates engaging in race baiting, for though abolition was relatively popular in some of Illinois, racism was quite strong. Douglas, therefore, went on the attack, saying Lincoln was a “Black Republican” who wished to have whites and blacks as total equals, voting, marrying, and the like. This incensed the racist elements in the crowds and became effective enough that Lincoln perhaps attempted to counter them by beginning later debates with a denial of these accusations. Intriguingly, it seems that in his private writings and reflections on the Constitution, Lincoln did indeed embrace a kind of overall equality before the Creator of white and black, though he seemed to deny that this would be a real possibility in his own lifetime.

Lincoln leveraged these famous debates–despite his loss to Douglas in the election–to get catapulted to the Presidency. Before he even managed to get inaugurated, South Carolina seceded, and others followed suit. Lincoln was immediately faced with a major crisis in which he had to try to use policy to sway border states towards Union rather than rebellion. This included a round condemnation of abolition of rebel slaves in Missouri, for example, even as Lincoln began drafting his own emancipation decree. Frederick Douglass, one of our nations greatest thinkers and staunch abolitionist, is a good foil for understanding Lincoln here. Early on in Lincoln’s Presidency, he was quite critical, but after meeting with Lincoln and seeing him carry out the Emancipation Proclamation, he became more favorable. The two stayed in correspondence. Lincoln’s attitude towards African Americans continued to develop through his life. It seems he favored colonization–the movement of freed slaves to other countries through colonies–a policy that had racist roots and perhaps reflected Lincoln’s own biases about whether African Americans and white people could live side by side. He made several disparaging remarks about the equality of black people in his life, though the author of this biography seems to couch them in his strategy for not totally alienating the support of those who felt that way. Nevertheless, such an act is itself capitulation to racism, and Lincoln’s record regarding African Americans, while certainly superior to many, is not unblemished.

Lincoln made it clear that he did not believe slavery could exist alongside the Union, but he also argued that if there were to be war, the South would have to be the aggressor. His actions surrounding Fort Sumter may have been intended to force the South into just that, hoping that when push came to shove, they’d be the ones who started it. Whatever the case, the first shots of the Civil War were fired and Lincoln quickly took the reins, becoming one of the most powerful Presidents in history.

The Civil War was as large a test as possible for any President of our country, and Lincoln made his share of mistakes. From the revolving door for the top General in the Union to his perhaps overly strong hand in the suspension of habeas corpus, Lincoln was not perfect. But his political genius did show in his choices for his cabinet, particularly in favoring people who were rivals before to sit as his Secretary of State and War. He chose based both on political appeal and ability, which gave him capable people in the most important places. His heavy hand in guiding the war effort is understandable and, arguably, helped the success of the Union.

One area that White, Jr. didn’t focus on much at all was how Lincoln impacted Native Americans. Though he condemned the kind of nationalism found in the Know Nothing Party, Lincoln enacted laws that helped set up for things like the Transcontinental Railroad. This would largely be seen as a positive by many, but it set up yet another excuse for violating treaty obligations with Native peoples. His administration continued to displace Native peoples in favor of “Americans” as well, causing further suffering, and he oversaw the largest mass execution in United States history when he allowed 38 Native Americans to be hanged as part of the Dakota War of 1862.

It is interesting to speculate what Lincoln’s policy for Reconstruction would have been, had he not been assassinated. It seems clear that Lincoln probably could have done better than what ended up happening, though in what ways we can only guess. What is clear, however, is that Lincoln, warts and all, was perhaps the best leader we could have asked for during the Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln is certainly one of the most able, principled people we’ve had leading our country. He wasn’t flawless, by any stretch, but he was the leader we needed and one who defined our country to this day to come. A. Lincoln: A Biography is an excellent biography of this monumental man.

Abraham Lincoln’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Abraham Lincoln (16th President – Original Ranking #1)- Abraham Lincoln is certainly one of the best leaders our country has ever had. Though he was not perfect, he managed to lead our country through an incredibly difficult time and reunite what was torn asunder. His story of going from rural farmboy to President is about as much the American Dream as one could ask for. He helped to usher in the possibility of that American Dream through his anti-slavery actions, though it is not entirely clear how much he favored equality of all people. His fingerprints are on much of what our country is and has become to this day.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight- A prophet for then and now

[H]e is the lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins. –Frederick Douglass (quoted on p. 361)

Frederick Douglass is one of the most important thinkers in the history of the United States. David W. Blight’s fantastic biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom shows the man in a way I hadn’t met him before, despite reading one of his three (!) autobiographies. I write in this post that he is a prophet for then and now because much of what Douglass had to say can still apply to today. His philosophical insight, his way of speaking, and his life’s devotion to a cause are things we can think on and emulate to this day.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, took help where he could, taught himself to read and write, and escaped from slavery. He became one of the most traveled people of his century, a prolific speaker, writer, abolitionist, and philosopher. Blight uses the term “prophet” in the way that highlights Douglass’s words to moral persuasion, just as so many of the Old Testament prophets did. And Douglass was a deeply Christian man who saw two faiths that were incompatible co-existing in the United States: the religion of slaveholding and the religion of Christ.

Douglass existed in a place where few others did. A former slave, he told firsthand accounts of the brutality of that horrific system and its injustice. Working with white abolitionists, he favored more radical views and even, at times, the perfectionism of some aspects of the abolitionist movement, while also moderating some of his positions depending upon the crowd to which he spoke. An insightful, lucid thinker, he called injustice to account and pointed out the true hypocrisy of people calling themselves Christians while perpetrating awful deeds. One example of the clarity of thought he provided united with his “radical” persuasions about antislavery can be found in his philosophical argument about the morality of the slaveholder and slave: “The morality of a free society can have no application to slave society. Slaveholders have made it almost impossible for the slave to commit any crime, known either to the laws of God or to the laws of man. If he steals, he takes his own; if he kills his master, he imitates only the heroes of the revolution” (quoted on page 57). This kind of sharp logic is revolutionary and world-changing, and many saw it as such.

Douglass’s life would be impossible to summarize here. Blight’s biography is one of those which goes for a fairly comprehensive look at the life of its subject. A few notes along the way: Douglass reacted to and changed his view on some things over time. His bootstrap-type thinking for African Americans was moderated in later years as he saw how inequality could be enforced through Jim Crow laws and the like. He married a white woman after his first wife died, causing no small amount of controversy and showing his–and Helen Pitts’s–commitment to the equality of all people regardless of skin color. He leveled vicious attacks on slaveholders and their cruelty but later in life moderated some of these claims, perhaps in order to try to assist with the reunification of a country he saw as died and resurrected after the Civil War. There is no shortage of rich detail to his life. Blight points out how Douglass was, as any would be, prone to shaping his personal narrative to fit current needs. He was also one who enjoyed the spotlight and did not wish to cede it to other rising stars, though he did help mentor many African Americans and was generous with his often overestimated wealth.

Though Blight does little reflection on Douglass’s application to our day, the parallels could be drawn out. For one, racism continues to exist to this day. Organizations that are white nationalist, KKK, and the like continue to exist. Less overt racism continues in supposed color-blind laws that are unequally applied. Moreover, the co-existence of true faith–the faith in Christ–with radical heresy and anti-Christian beliefs continues to this day in movements like the Prosperity Gospel. Any Christianity which tears people down rather than freeing them with grace, which divides rather than unites (as in Galatians 3:28) is a Christianity without Christ. Let us allow Douglass to continue to be our prophet of freedom and listen to his words today.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is a truly monumental work on the life of a monumental human being. Douglass is a name that every American ought to be familiar with. He was a prophet of our country and one whose words should continue to stir us to fight inequality on every level. Biographies that truly shake and shape the reader are few and far between, but this is one that did so for me.

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SDG.

Presidential Biographies: James Buchanan #15

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Buchanan, the Fifteenth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was President James Buchanan: A Biography by Philip Shriver Klein.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

President James Buchanan: A Biography by Philip Shriver Klein

Klein’s biography of Buchanan begins with some rather poignant words:

The man who elects to play the role of peacemaker may, if he succeeds, be soon buried in historical oblivion… A peacemaker who fails, on the other hand, is likely to receive for his efforts only resounding curses from both the warring camps. Such was the fate of James Buchanan.

Klein, in other words, is keen to show readers how Buchanan tirelessly worked to preserve the Union for war and, because he failed, has been cast into the bottoms of Presidential rankings for over a century. Is that the case? Was Buchanan’s cause worthy? Were his efforts, though ultimately in vain, laudable? These are questions that are definitional to how one will view the legacy of Buchanan.

Buchanan was largely a self-made man who spent his life as a bachelor. He grew up to become a lawyer and was rather successful at it, ultimately amassing enough reputation to begin transferring it to greater wealth. He managed his family’s household affairs, including using his own money when needed to loan to those in his family with needs. This, needless to say, did not make him the mot popular member of the family. Though, later in his life he encountered an almost Jane Austen-like affair where a former supporter became a bitter enemy and he settled it with all the aplomb and skill of one of her heroes. He embarked on a lengthy and highly successful political career even though he shared Andrew Jackson’s belief that the Presidency is something the nation ought to call one to rather than something one ought to strive for. His striving for this office is clear throughout his life. Though he spoke about the evils of slavery, he spent much of his political career placating and even enforcing laws favorable to the enslavers. He was an entirely mixed bag, and this makes it difficult to fully get at the man behind the layers.

Buchanan was firmly of the belief that Providence–that term so often assigned to the actions or determinations of the Divine–had given America to the Americans–by which he meant white men, of course. There were, after all, people living in those “unclaimed” parts of the country, but like many who had gone before him and too many afterwards, he didn’t value their lives. His attitudes on race were made clear by his comments about freed slaves, whom he joked should go live in Mexico where there would be “no prejudice” against them for their skin color. The message was loud and clear: white people mattered; others did not.

This is made even more clear in Buchanan’s peacemaking, which is at the center of Klein’s depiction of the man’s personality. For Buchanan, the way to peace was to utterly placate and give in to the demands of the South. Unlike Pierce, who put his every effort into compromise after compromise which ultimately failed to satisfy either party, Buchanan simply caved in to the demands of the South and supported many of their initiatives. For example, he advocated allowing postmasters to refuse to deliver abolitionist literature, arguing that such literature would encourage rising up against the government. In this, he was similar to Andrew Jackson, his occasional inspiration (though the latter simply looked the other way as postmasters did his illegally). Another example was Buchanan’s activity as a Senator to effectively end “agitation” for abolition in the Senate, basically ensuring a gag order on slavery therein.

As President, he continued his forebears policy of vigorously pursuing the Fugitive Slave Act, using the power of the government to re-enslave or sometimes even enslave free people (the laws were notoriously difficult to argue against even as someone who wasn’t the genuine “fugitive”).

Buchanan’s foreign policy is an interesting tell of his character. For one thing, he advocated for foreign leaders to free slaves in their countries, which apparently means Buchanan had almost no sense of irony whatsoever. As Senator, he helped negotiate a satisfactory commercial treaty with Great Britain for postal rates going across the ocean and helped bring a stop to illegal seizures on both sides of the ocean as well. He consistently pursued the acquisition of Cuba, even after it became extremely unpopular in the North. Buchanan saw Cuba as a land that could bring additional wealth and resources to the United States, while most Northerners and virtually all Southerners saw it as an opportunity for slavery to expand. Buchanan helped soften relations between Hawaii and the United States by rebuking a minister to Hawaii who effectively encouraged military action against the people of Hawaii.

For all of Buchanan’s political acumen, he and many of his ilk (Franklin Pierce, for example) who desired the perseverance of the Union over all else failed to take the abolitionists seriously. It was ultimately those pesky nuisances who swung the election and the tides of the country to Lincoln and, ultimately, to war. Buchanan encouraged Lincoln to maintain the Union and attempted 11th hour negotiations to preserve the Union even to the end.

What are we to make of this man, with all his rugged look and astute mind? A friend of mine made the comparison to Neville Chamberlain- was he wise for attempting peace? Could Hitler truly be pacified? Similarly, for Buchanan, is it wise to strive for peace with those who support an institution you personally believe is evil? Should you allow yourself to even become a belligerent in favor of said institution, enforcing laws that would bring people into slavery? Is that a price worth paying for a “peace” for your favored people? I think not. Though history may have judged Buchanan too harshly in some respects, it also seems to me there is a peace that is not worth having. When peace costs fellow humans a life of slavery leading too often to a harsh death, is it true peace? No.

Buchanan’s efforts were in vain, and they were arguably made in favor of something he ought not to have striven for anyway. Nevertheless, it is clear that new evaluations and insights into Buchanan’s life–and the period surrounding it–are needed, and fruitful research could continue in this era. Klein’s biography is fascinating, if decidedly tilted in favor of the man we learn about therein. The biography seems exhaustive, though Klein himself states he initially desired a multi-volume treatise, only narrowing its focus to try to appeal to a larger audience (the book is still over 400 pages). I recommend  President James Buchanan: A Biography to you.

James Buchanan’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

James Buchanan (15th President – Original Ranking #13)- Often ranked as the worst overall President, Buchanan’s legacy was demolished by the Civil War. He made every effort to preserve the Union, sometimes changing his position with the mood of the times, sometimes not. But always, he bowed to the interests of Southern states. The preservation of the Union was something he prized far more than the equality of people or the abolition of slavery, an institution he said he deplored and found evil but made every effort to preserve from the abolitionists. His biographer entitled a chapter “Cursed are the Peacemakers” in an attempt to point to his work for peace, but is peace a worthy goal with slavery? One’s answer to that question will largely determine what one thinks of Buchanan’s legacy.

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SDG.

“Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal” by Aviva Chomsky- immigration, legal status, and personhood

Immigration is an extremely messy issue. Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, “law and order” has been a cover for making the “other” unwanted and “illegal.” Every human being has basic human rights. Those do not need to be earned. Aviva Chomsky’s book, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal provides both historical background to how immigration came to be viewed in such a negative light as it now is as well as arguments for the basic human rights and dignity of all.

Chomsky provides historical data to understand how immigration became illegal. This is extremely valuable and important because too often, people just say that their ancestors came to the United States the “right way” and make the assumption the process was similar to what it is today. However, there was very little regulation of immigration whatsoever until racial bias began to lead to quotas for people coming in. The Chinese were some of the earliest people targeted, as exceptions and quotas were made to prevent Chinese from becoming citizens. Mexicans were, historically, another national group that was seen either as non-immigrants (not because they were here illegally–no laws governed such migration until relatively recently–but because it was simply taken as a given Mexicans would not stay in the United States) or as a group to be suppressed in its immigration status. Nationality was used to allow for colorblind laws that would simply restrict immigration on one’s nation. As Chomsky writes, “Once status is inscribed in the law, this becomes an automatic justification for inequality: ‘it’s the law!'” (25). The movement to national exclusion of immigrants allowed racist policies to be enshrined in law. After all, countries are not races. Once race could no longer be allowed to deny citizenship, “nationality stood in for it, and citizens of countries like China lost their right to immigrate” (35).

Laws had to be made in order to restrict immigration. Chomsky notes the inequality of movement of people: a United States citizen can, generally, get their passport and unlock travel to virtually any country in the world. Some travel may require a visa with an extra fee, but there aren’t many total restrictions on travel. Contrast this with attempting to enter the United States: here, we have laws that restrict people of other nationalities from entering our country. Similarly, though Chomsky’s book was written before the current administration under President Trump, there have been arguments for and actions banning travel to the United States purely based upon one’s religion. Such restrictions are social, legal constructs that allow the definition of human beings to be tied to national or religious affiliation. Feasibly, this could be expanded almost indefinitely. Thus, immigration law is not an unchanging, immutable thing but rather something that has changed and continues to change. It is mistaken simply to write off the “other” as illegal or even as “other” purely based on laws that have not even been in effect for more than a few decades.

Chomsky delves into the questions related to undocumented status and alleged eligibility for various benefits (it is almost certainly more complex than any reader may think). Then, she moves into undocumented status and working. What is of interest is that labor laws that target undocumented immigrants has, in several cases, led to economic hardship. The exploitation of undocumented laborers helps drive the standard of living citizens of the United States have become used to. One example is in agriculture. “Farm work is so marginal, strenuous, and low paid, that if workers achieve legal status, they quickly move to other sectors… True, for many Mexicans… low-wage, temporary, migrant labor in the United States offers a viable or even hopeful alternative to poverty at home. But this merely means that the US agricultural system depends upon the existence of a lot of extremely poor people in Mexico” (127-128). Furthermore, by making migrant workers “illegal,” this allows citizens of the United States to benefit from their low-cost labor while also not having to provide them with any benefits in turn. “Although the current system benefits many people in the United States, we must also recognize its fundamental injustice and think seriously about how it works and what steps could make it more just. If immigrants are being exploited by the current system, and if undocumentedness is one of the concepts that sustains inequality and unjust treatment, then we need to question undocumentedness itself” (150).

The impact of immigration laws and changing ideals about documentation has tremendous impact on families as well, dividing families and forcing cruelty upon some of the people in the greatest need. The laws that exist in our present situation have come from both Republicans and Democrats, so neither party can claim a high moral ground when it comes to immigration reform. However, such reform is needed, and Chomsky provides several suggestions. Comprehensive reform is a difficult goal to aim for, but Chomsky suggests we ought to instead perhaps question the very basis for immigration law to begin with. A longer quote helps illustrate her points:

[W]e have become accustomed to the notion that controlling the border is a basic prerequisite for security, safety, and sovereignty… The entire immigration apparatus is based on the presumption that we know where people belong and we need to legislate their mobility.
It’s also based on some unquestioned assumptions about countries. It is not OK for a public park… to discriminate regarding who is allowed to enter its space. But it’s OK for a country to do that… US immigration laws do just that: discriminate, on the basis of nationality, regarding who is allowed to be where.
If we really want to address the problem of undocumentedness, or so-called “illegal” immgiration, we need to look more in depth at why the United States made some immigration illegal to begin with… It’s just the latest stage in a centuries-long process of legislated inequality, a process both global and domestic. (205-206)

That is, we need to question the very basis for the need for such strong immigration laws rather than accept public assumptions about them. Reform includes a reformation of our minds and thoughts: a questioning of assumptions and looking at facts instead. Since immigration does contribute to our economy in numerous ways (some of which Chomsky documents), we ought to question why there is such a push to restrict it. “In the most immediate terms, we as a society created illegal immigration by making immigration illegal” (208). Is such a move actually something that is necessary? If so, why? These questions need to be answered not by knee-jerk reactions or platitudes such as “a nation without borders is no nation.” After all, nations may still have borders while allowing for immigration. The United States managed to do so all the way until 1882 when immigration laws targeted Chinese people!

Undocumented is a book that is worth reading no matter your political persuasion. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have offered a holistic view of personhood that allows us to adequately view the rights of all humans as equal. This is something we ought to address. Particularly for Christians, there is no question that all people are equal and deserving of our protection. Chomsky has provided historical perspective and even a way forward in thinking on this complex issue.

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SDG.