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.

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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.

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.

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: Franklin Pierce #14

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth 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 Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills by Franklin Nichols.

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.

Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills by Franklin Nichols

Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills is, without a doubt, a phoenomenal biography. Originally published in 1931, with a second edition that adds a chapter evaluating Pierce’s legacy, it remains a stunning accomplishment. It gave me, as a reader, a sense of what it may have been like to be alongside Pierce at key moments, thinking about his inner decision making and motivations as well as his clear actions.

Pierce was born the son of a Revolutionary War Lieutenant in New Hampshire. His father wanted him to be educated, and he fought this at first, but after one particularly formative instance when his father took him halfway back to school and made him walk the rest in the rain, he decided he’d shape up. He also turned his grades around through determination, study, and taking partners to help him learn. Early on, these types of experiences helped shape him into who he would become. His father was hugely influential in his outlook on life, and, like his father, he hated the notion of a state being dominated by outsiders. He would be a staunch Democrat for his entire life.*

If there is one thing that characterizes Pierce’s political career, it is a consistent dual affirmation of the platform of the Democratic Party and a commitment to preserving the Union. It was these dual notions that one can consistently trace throughout his career. He rose to political power slowly, largely through his efforts in New Hampshire and keeping the Democratic Party unified there, ultimately ending up with him being called a “Dictator” who threw down opposition to his vision for the party in Concord. Throughout his life, he demonstrated a “hatred” (as Nichols calls it) for abolitionists, whom he saw as radicals stirring the pot for what could only end with war. Because of this hatred, he never took the abolitionists seriously enough, and this would plague him throughout his political career and particularly as President. As a Senator, he devoted his  efforts to securing better pensions for soldiers, for the United States had the “worst” pension system “on the face of the earth” (111). He faced down abolitionists in Senate and helped pass what could be referred to as a “gag order” on discussing slavery on the Senate floor (an effort John Quincy Adams would dedicate much of his late-in-life effort to overthrowing). The abolitionists may have gotten the last laugh on that, as they were then able to paint Pierce as opposed to the right to petition.

Pierce also became embroiled in battles over the railroads and what is now called imminent domain. Pierce had early on taken political allies who opposed the railroads and sided withe farmers or others with land interests, and he, as characterized most of his life, stayed consistent on this issue, even when it seems that siding with the railroads would have been politically expedient (or at least, could have made him wealthy). Temperance was another issue he faced, and Pierce was staunchly in favor of temperance and passing laws to that effect.

Once again, though, slavery reared its ugly head and Pierce as a Senator was led to call slavery a “great moral evil” even as he drafted a party platform that allowed for “squatter sovereignty”–allowing states to determine their own destinies as slave or free.

In the Mexican-American War, he learned a deep, personal antipathy for war, even though he attained the rank of brigadier general. It is perhaps his personal experience with war–he never distinguished himself as a hero, though he did his service dutifully–that would lead him, as President, to so vehemently work for compromise.

As President, he attempted to unite the Democratic Party by selecting a cabinet composed of the entire spectrum of Democrats, whether Northern or Southern. This led to some infighting, but Pierce had far less controversy in his cabinet than some other Presidents, including some who are inexplicably seen as far better administrators (here’s looking at you, Andrew Jackson). Andrew Jackson comparisons abounded, for Pierce was unafraid to use his power to veto, even on seemingly innocuous bills. He pushed hard for the Kansas-Nebraska Act that would lead directly to bleeding Kansas. This is perhaps the greatest blight upon his leadership, for this act would trigger bloody conflict and give rise to even greater tensions. Yet this apparent blunder was an attempt by Pierce to bring compromise, hoping to please the South with its allowing for slavery while letting northerners see hope for overthrowing things like the Fugitive Slave Act. This kind of dual purpose for legislation characterized Pierce’s Presidency, though he frequently simply managed to anger both sides rather than bring about reconciliation.

In foreign policy, Pierce probably ought to be seen largely as a failure. His attempts to annex Cuba failed–with great long term repercussions–though he did help open avenues for different areas of expansion. With Native Americans, he had difficulty selecting competent people to manage the territories and he failed to uphold or enforce treaties with Native peoples on multiple occasions. In conflict with Utah, he ultimately caved to Brigham Young’s stronghold in the state.

After his Presidency, he stayed loyal to the North but remained vehemently opposed to emancipation. He’d go on to claim that emancipation proclamation was unconstitutional and that it wiped out states while destroying “property” (read: slaves).

Pierce’s whole life was, again, characterized by a commitment to the principles of his party and attempts to keep the union. These efforts led to his attempts to pacify the south with compromises that would lead to a springboard for his most hated enemies, the abolitionists, to unite and make a serious effort to overthrow him. Ultimately, Pierce’s efforts undermined his goals, and this “Young Hickory” would have a tarnished legacy.

For all Pierce’s efforts, the critical eye of history has not shined brightly upon his legacy. Most recently, aggregate rankings of Presidential careers have placed Pierce in the bottom 5-10 Presidents to have ever held office in the United States. Such is the legacy of a man who gave his life, monumentally, to the effort to keep the country united and serve the principles he felt best. Whether an accident of birth, decisions made in his life, nurture, or some combination, it is the very fact that Pierce stuck to his principles and served some that were doomed to failure that led to the judgment of history. His attempts to placate the South while largely ignoring or downplaying the impact of new political players–most notably the abolitionists–were disastrous, ultimately leading at multiple points to a lose-lose scenario in which he angered both the North and South.

Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills is that rare biography that truly transcends itself, making the portrait of a person seem to become that person, as though the reader is living alongside and experiencing the life. It truly gave me a wonderful sense of Pierce’s life, and an admiration for his best qualities, while realizing his numerous faults. It’s an extraordinary work.

*In any historical analysis, it is important to see that some terms or their referents change over time. The Democratic Party of Pierce’s time was quite different from that of our time, as can be seen in even the simplest historical analysis, despite some claims to the contrary.

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

Franklin Pierce (14th President – Original Ranking #11) There is little historic doubt that Pierce’s Presidency agitated the fires of secession rather than calming them, though perhaps not directly. His hatred of abolitionists and general placation of the South certainly doesn’t improve with historical analysis, but it also led to the stirring up of those same abolitionists into a true, rival, political power. Pierce’s attempts to tow his party line and keep the country (and his party) unified at all costs ultimately failed, but it could also be argued that the wheels were already churning before Pierce came into the office. Surprisingly, he attempted a number of compromises which ended up simply exacerbating the two sides of several issues. Generally seen as among the worst Presidents on outcomes, I ended up coming out of reading on Pierce with an admiration for the man. He stuck to his values, even when it cost him political clout or other interest in himself. Though his values were frequently wrong, that he tried to navigate them in an increasingly difficult situation is admirable. Nevertheless, his favoring of Southern interests on slavery is particularly despicable, and his handling of Bleeding Kansas, the Native Americans associated with it, and many other issues was quite poorly done. Does he deserve a ranking in the bottom 5-10 Presidents? Possibly. But having him end up here–ranked beneath other, less principled or consistent persons who didn’t seek compromise, feels like an accident of history more than a reflection on his competence.

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: Millard Fillmore #13

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Millard Fillmore, the thirteenth 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 Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman.

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.

Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman

Millard Fillmore’s story may be seen in a number of ways: his story was a truly “American” story where someone rises from absolute poverty (his parents were tenant farmers) to the highest office in the United States; or perhaps the narrative is of one who sought above all else to preserve Union in a time when pressure was increasing to split it; perhaps, instead, the narrative is of one who, having Southern interests at heart, pursued them with all his strength. Regardless of one’s thoughts on his life, it is clear Fillmore left a mark upon our country, for better or ill.

Fillmore’s story is interesting because he did seemingly pull himself up by his bootstraps (again, the traditional narrative of what people say happens in the United States, but rarely does), educating himself and becoming a lawyer. He got involved in politics in Buffalo, New York, and became a Representative.

Millard Fillmore’s ascent to the Presidency was unexpected, to be sure. He was the second “Accidental President” to happen, upon the death of Zachary Taylor. Added to the ticket as the Vice President, the Whig Fillmore was expected to help carry some of the Southern vote, and he did. However, he was not expected to become President in a time where the Vice President was largely a placeholder office. Yet when Taylor died, the nation was in the throes of some enormous sectional battles, particular among them that “peculiar institution” of slavery.

Millard Fillmore expended an enormous amount of energy to defend slavery. Though he decried it repeatedly as an evil–or at least morally wrong–he used both federal resources and his own power as President to pursue the ends of slaveholders throughout the United States. The Compromise of 1850–something that may have been vetoed under Taylor–was rubber stamped and pushed by Fillmore, who spent the rest of his Presidency eagerly pursuing the cause of the expanded Fugitive Slave Act. He repeatedly used federal soldiers to aid in forcing people back into slavery and allowed interpretations of the Fugitive Slave Act that led to the kidnapping and forced entry into slavery of any number of black people. His Presidency was shaped by this constant use of federal power to impinge upon states’ rights. Of course, the false narrative of “States’ Rights” that persists to our time regarding what divided the North and South is shown here in stark relief. Southerners weren’t out in the streets demanding states’ rights when federal troops marched into major cities in the North to assist in the kidnapping of black people. Fillmore endorsed and pushed these events forward, and states’ rights were trampled.

Some have read Fillmore’s pursuit of the Fugitive Slave Act and other parts of his Presidency as showing his unflinching commitment to preservation of the Union. On this scheme, Fillmore was enforcing a law that, if left alone, would led to the secession of the South. This narrative, though it paints Fillmore in a more positive light, seems to go against the thrust of his Presidency, which was filled with explicitly racial bias and intentional thwarting of the rights even of American citizens in favor of Fillmore’s favored people.

Another example of this played out in foreign policy, as Fillmore’s pursuit of a treaty with the Swiss included compromising the rights of Jewish Americans. His pursuit of economic success of those whose interests he protected superseded his commitment to defending all Americans abroad. The Swiss treaty included provisions for allowing citizens of both Switzerland and the United States to travel freely between the countries, but it allowed for the Swiss cantons to prohibit Jews (including Jewish Americans) from conducting business in or visiting specific juridictions. Fillmore, commenting on this treaty, said he found “nothing to object to,” even after concerns were raised on the floor of the Senate. On the other side of the world, Fillmore pursued an America-first policy that eventually (under Pierce) forcibly opened Japanese ports to American trade. Though this certainly benefited some portions of the United States financially, it was an imperialist, expansionist move that was well in line with Fillmore’s apparent policy of putting white American interests above all else.

After his Presidency, Fillmore joined the Know-Nothing party and helped push their anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant nonsense on the national stage. It was as though the clear white-first ideals he demonstrated in office weren’t explicit enough: he simply made them clear in further actions.

Finkelman’s summary of Fillmore’s legacy is on point:

[O]n the central issues of the age his vision was myopic and his legacy is worse. He opened the West to slavery and destroyed the Missouri Compromise line. The total appeasement of the South only encouraged new demands for more land for slavery… He ran for president on a ticket that openly attacked foreigners, immigrants, and Catholics. In reteriment, Fillmore opposed emancipation and campaigned for a peace that would have left millions of African Americans in chains. In the end, Fillmore was always on the wrong side of the great moral and political issues of the age: immigration, religious toleration, equality, and, most of all, slavery. (137)

Fillmore was a terrible President.

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

Millard Fillmore (13th President- Original Ranking: 13)- Fillmore put into practice those horrors that Jackson set up, for the same reasoning. He protected the interests of those he cared about: nativist racist whites. He allowed for the stripping of Jewish American rights abroad. He pursued the Fugitive Slave Act with the vigor of one who saw it as the highest good. He used federal resources time and again in defense of slavery. After his Presidency, he joined the Know-Nothings so that he could let his nativism truly shine, with their anti-Catholic, anti-immigration rhetoric that spread fear in order to pass policies that favored wealthy white protestants. He was a tool of slaveowners and, when he had power, he used it to full effect in ways that demonstrably did not assist all Americans. He was a terrible President whose only interests were those of expanding the influence and economic success of the narrow sphere of people he felt deserved it.

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: Zachary Taylor #12 (1849-1850)

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Zacharay Taylor, the twelfth 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 Zachary Taylor by John S. D. Eisenhower.

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.

Zachary Taylor by John S. D. Eisenhower

Taylor’s life, as I reflect on the biography by Eisenhower, seems almost ho hum. It’s like what one would expect if one had fictionalized the rise of someone to the Presidency in the 1800s. He began as the son of a Virginia landowner who had himself been distinguished in the Revolutionary War. Unlike some of the other Presidents we have already looked into, it doesn’t seem Taylor ever needed to worry about monetary problems. He followed somewhat in his father’s footsteps by becoming an officer in the United States Army. He became a national hero during the Mexican-American War and leveraged that popularity, in part, to ascend to the White House. He was a gentleman farmer from Virginia, which is a rather kind way of putting the fact that he relied on people he’d enslaved for his wealth. Eisenhower notes an anecdote at the beginning of this biography that inspired him–he was speaking with someone who argued that Taylor, had he lived, may have been the person who could have prevented the Civil War. Why is that? Most simply, because it is likely he would have vetoed some things that led to greater national tension. Let’s explore that along with some other aspects of his life and Presidency below.

Taylor joined the army and moved up the ranks, eventually to become a Brigadier General. Due to his more genial relationship with Andrew Jackson and James Polk, he got the nod over more senior generals to command U.S. forces in the Mexican-American war, winning a series of unlikely victories (or at least victories where he was outnumbered) and skyrocketing to national fame. This national fame was enough to get him the nod as President. He viewed himself as somewhat independent, but garnered support from the South due to his own status as a slaveowner and from the North due to some of his statements about not expanding slavery into new territories. Taylor, later in life, would recommend his son purchase a new plantation, complete with slaves. It is clear however moderate his position on this was for the time, he was no abolitionist, and his own frustrations over abolitionist arguments was clear at some points in his life. Nevertheless, neither was he in a hurry to force slavery’s expansion over all new states.

Taylor’s foreign policy included trying to reach out to more countries to establish relations with the United States. A humorous aside is the fact that Taylor sent an “American minister to the German empire, only to discovery, on Donelson’s arrival, that the German empire did not exist” (105). I laughed out loud on reading this sentence, and think it has to be one of the foreign policy gaffes of history. No, it didn’t have a large impact, but it was a big “Oops!” Anyway, he did make contact with a few other countries and, minimally, didn’t damage our relationship in a huge way with Britain or any other major powers.

The question of California’s status in the Union was one that loomed large for Taylor. He would die before it would eventually get resolved, but his own attempts to come to a moderate position led to much vocal opposition from both North and South. Because he opposed things like the Fugitive Slave Act, he was criticized by the South and important figures like Henry Clay as one who wasn’t seeking compromise. The status of New Mexico was also hugely important when he came to office. Yet neither debate, nor the major question of the expansion of the Fugitive Slave Act, would be settled while he lived, for he died July 9, 1850, just over a year in office. President Fillmore would effectively rubber stamp whatever solutions Congress offered to these major issues, though it seemed clear Taylor would have vetoed some aspects.

Zachary Taylor was most interested in the preservation of the Union. It seems clear that he could, like others of the time, feel the tensions start to shift and cause fissures in the United States. Whether it was his military record, his upbringing, or something else, he seems to have had a somewhat moderate stance in an age in which there were few moderates. A Virginian, he saw the interests of the country at large as more important than those of his own section of land. A slaveowner, he opposed the expansion of the Fugitive Slave Act. He was an enigma, and it would be quite interesting to know what would have happened had he lived. But he didn’t live long enough to carry out some of the acts that he may have to secure the Union. As such, though he is an interesting play for alternate history buffs, he may remain a rather obscure President.

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

10. Zachary Taylor (12th President- Original Ranking #10)- Taylor had what one might envision as a “standard” story of a soldier rising to the Presidency. But he was also a “gentleman farmer” (read: Virginian slaveowner who used slave labor to bolster his wealth). Interestingly, he may be considered something of a moderate in a time when there were very few moderates. His opposition to things like the Fugitive Slave Act and prioritization of the Union over the interest of the State or region makes for an interesting “What if?” scenario had he survived his entire Presidency and changed more of the course of the country. His life was less interesting than other Presidents, and in death he opened the path for events that would lead to the Civil War–not that he had any control over his timing. The best that can be said for Taylor is that pondering what may have happened had he lived can occupy a great deal of time. He wasn’t particularly effective or country-shaping as President. He was a man of his time, but one who broke the trend by favoring the Union over his own interests.

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.

 

 

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: James Polk #11

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Polk, the eleventh 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 Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman.

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, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

Polk’s career seems to have been defined by destiny. Whether it was his destiny as a man mentored by Andrew Jackson to become President or his utter belief of and living out of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, Polk’s place in history seemed assured from a fairly young age. After studying law, he rose through the Tennessee legislature to get to Congress. Soon integrated into larger issues as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, his friendship with Andrew Jackson grew and he campaigned for the man to become President. Finally becoming President himself, he would expand the powers of the executive office more than perhaps any predecessor, with his eyes upon expanding the borders of the United States as well.

Polk was a firm believer in Manifest Destiny, perhaps one of the most damaging ideas in the history of the United States. The idea was that America was some kind of glorious city on a hill and the spread of American (read: white, largely Anglo-European) settlers across the vast expanse of the west was destiny–a destiny given by God. Though Borneman doesn’t explore the notion much (indeed, in the biography the term is only mentioned a few times, and never in much detail), it is clear through Polk’s actions that he fully bought into this perspective.

When he became President, Polk had four primary goals: “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (353). The first two were clearly goals related to Manifest Destiny, and he would go to war to gain California. The dispute over Oregon was eventually resolved as war loomed with Mexico. The United States wasn’t prepared for a two front war against two different opponents, and Polk fell back from his hardline stance over where the boundary for Oregon should be drawn, thus gaining agreement from the United Kingdom.

California was a different affair, and Polk seemed to realize quickly that Mexico would not easily cede California, and began looking for a way to take it from them. He was, he thought, given a gift when blood was spilled near the Rio Grande, though not on American soil. It did, however, become a rallying cry, and Polk moved to declare war. Rather than letting Congress initiate it, however, Polk presented Congress with a declaration of war and got their approval, a clear expansion of executive power. Even as he did this, and having already prepared for the conflict by moving American soldiers into the area, he moved to use the navy as well. These moves expanded the conflict but also helped get a victory for the United States.

There were a few times in Polk’s presidency when he made clear errors of judgment. Perhaps the most obvious time was with his claim about “American blood on American soil”–his claim that Mexico had attacked and killed apparently innocent American soldiers and killed them in American territory. The claim was false and would haunt Polk as his critics continually pointed out his error. Nevertheless, the claim burgeoned the popularity of war with Mexico and effectively got Polk what he wanted anyway. Another issue was his “54 40 or fight” slogan referring to demanding Oregon from the United Kingdom, apparently over threat of war. Those who took up the cry favored war rather vehemently, and Polk was forced to throttle back his claims a bit. Thankfully, it did not come to war, and P0lk had another victory from apparent error.

Polk owned slaves and wrote into his will to free them when he died–so long as his wife agreed. Some see wills like this as evidence of a kind of softening towards slavery, but I think this is clearly mistaken, as it really just shows people wanted to live by enslaving others and didn’t much care what happened once they died. It was a fairly common practice, but one that does nothing to mitigate the ills of slavery. Polk’s clearly expansionist attitude helped contribute to more atrocities being committed against native peoples as white settlers spread and used military might and deception to displace people who were already on the land they overtook.

Regarding the biography, Borneman writes well, and his outlining of the life of Polk is fascinating and enlightening. I had thought for some time that Polk was a rather forgettable President, but after reading this biography, it seems Polk’s influence–for good or ill–on later events in our country, and certainly upon its borders, is astounding. I recommend Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America highly.

Polk’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES

6. James K. Polk (11th President- original ranking- #6): James Polk achieved the goals that he set for himself as he entered the office of the President. As his biographer, Walter Borneman points out, those goals were “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (Polk, 353). Polk accomplished all of these goals, though it took a war to do so. Moreover, he expanded the power of the executive branch, including in the President’s powers regarding war, getting directly involved in helping order the conflict. His clear belief in Manifest Destiny, that doctrine that ought to be consigned to the trash heap of history, continues to influence nationalism today. The unspeakable atrocities that continued to be perpetrated on those peoples native to the land the United States would gain in international eyes though his Presidency must not be understated. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find many Presidents with greater impact on our country than Polk had.

 

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.