Presidential Biographies: Benjamin Harrison #23

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Benjamin Harrison, the twenty-third 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) is Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun.

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.

Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun 

Benjamin Harrison’s Presidency, argues Calhoun, ought to be seen as one of the primary stepping stones to the modern Presidency. Why? Chiefly, because Harrison took the reins of leadership and did not let go, putting himself squarely in the middle of the nation’s domestic and foreign policy, becoming essentially the mover and shaker in the country. How did that play out in his Presidency? Honestly, in a kind of surprising fashion, but one tied to a debate that seems kind of silly from afar until one looks at the complexity of the issues. Calhoun does a great job in this biography of showing us what Harrison did as President and why he should be considered a “modern” President, but nothing can make endless bickering over silver or gold as the standard for the dollar more interesting than it is. It is with that silver/gold standard question we must begin, before getting into other aspects of Harrison’s Presidency.

Silver or gold? Why does it matter? Can’t we just sing the Burl Ives song and say silver and gold? Okay, forgive the joke. Really, it was more a question of whether the dollar would be backed by silver and gold or whether it would just be gold. It mattered so much for a number of reasons, such as the heavy influence some of the silver mining lobbyists had with various voting blocs. Another reason it mattered is because silver is not worth as much, so by having both silver- and gold-backed currency, it allowed a kind of inflation of value of the silver-backed dollars, thus allowing people to pay back government debts in silver and increasing the spending power of the poor. Internationally, countries demanded payment in gold because that was the higher value currency. Harrison favored a system that set the value of silver on its own rather than against the value of gold, thus essentially giving a possible compromise to both sides of this debate. That was important, because the debate wasn’t on party lines; instead, Democrats and Republicans united in different regions based on preference for one or the other option. Harrison ultimately signed into law a bill that he thought would end the debate by being this kind of compromise, but it basically just led to another financial crisis that wouldn’t be resolved in his Presidency.

If the foregoing discussion about gold and silver sounds complex, it is, and that meant that it absorbed much of Harrison’s time and energy as President, which is unfortunate, because other things were happening. In Hawaii, American businessmen effectively recognized a coup as the de facto government and insisted on its recognition (as far as I can tell, because it meant they could do business more cheaply). Native Americans suffered immense horrors under Harrison’s regime, not because Harrison intentionally targeted them (so far as I can tell), but Harrison’s somewhat distracted dealings with various groups led to perpetuation of violence. Most notable is his (mis)handling of Wounded Knee and the Ghost Dance. Basically, the Lakota Sioux were targeted because white settlers were spreading fear about their alleged militarization as the Sioux rallied around Wovoka and the Ghost Dance. The US Military then massacred 146 (or more) Sioux, including women and children, at Wounded Knee. Harrison’s response was to send in thousands of soldiers and try to launch an investigation, but as Calhoun describes it, Harrison was quickly distracted by crises related to the silver/gold standard and the investigation was not nearly as thorough as it should have been. Harrison’s favoring of “assimilation” of Native Americans (at the time, the moderate or reforming policy–as opposed to outright genocide) can be seen historically as an attempt to prevent violence against Native groups, but ultimately resulted in misunderstanding and more violence, as well as displacement.

One of Harrison’s goals as President was to modernize the Navy, and during his tenure in office, he largely succeeded in that regard. In Chile, a brawl that left some American personnel dead lead to much political maneuvering as tension rose and fell, ultimately resulting in Harrison’s preferred outcome of Chile apologizing and giving concessions, backing off war.

Charles W. Calhoun’s biography, Benjamin Harrison, does a fine job introducing us to this President, as well as defending his place in history as the first modern President (a title often given to someone later). Harrison’s Presidency had its share of ups and downs, and it is hard to say his heart was in the wrong place.

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

Benjamin Harrison (23rd President – Original Ranking #12)- Benjamin Harrison was an important stepping stone on the path to the modern presidency, for better or worse. He took it upon himself to increase the authority of that position, but he did so in a frankly rather boring fashion, particularly related to extensive debates back and forth about gold and silver standards. During his tenure, foreign affairs in the Aleutian Islands, Hawaii, and Chile were dealt with in a sometimes deft, sometimes blundering manner. His policy towards Native Americans was that of assimilation, and despite massacres on his watch, he apparently felt himself successful. He wasn’t the most exciting President, and certainly not the best, but for whatever faults he had, he can be endorsed by the underwhelming stamp of approval called “not the worst.”

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: Grover Cleveland #22 and #24

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Grover Cleveland, the twenty-second and (!!) twenty-fourth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selectio n process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) is The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland by Richard E. Welch, 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.

The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland by Richard E. Welch, Jr.

The Presidenceis of Grover Cleveland is a dry, condensed look specifically at Cleveland’s presidencies. It doesn’t give a fuller account of his life beyond a few details of his early life, so, like the biography, we’ll focus here on his actual presidencies.

Cleveland was essentially an example of political conservatism of his time writ large. How this was applied, however, can appear somewhat inconsistent and even callous from the outside. Perhaps the most extreme example of the latter is his veto of a bill to provide starving Texas farmers with free seed to replant after a severe drought. Welch, Jr. notes that the reason for this was Cleveland consistently held to blocking any use of the government and its money for private gains. He was worried about the possibility of the government becoming something for individuals to rely on rather than pulling themselves up by their bootstrings (80-81, see also 14). So whether it was big lumber barons trying to get tax subsidies or private farmers trying to avoid starvation or bankruptcy, Cleveland blocked all assistance. It is difficult to see how this is a decent or laudable policy, though some today would hold it is, but it is one of the consistencies of Cleveland throughout his career.

There is no question Cleveland was a racist when it came to his feelings and dealings with both the newly freed African Americans and the Native Americans. Regarding the former, he made numerous racist comments in which he reveals his (common at the time) belief that Afircan Americans would not be efficient or effective. He did appoint a few black Americans to public offices, but did so in a condescending and inconsistent fashion, and even held the belief that it was the former enslavers who would “take care of” the freed black Americans rather than having the government intervene to do so. He did the bare minimum to defend African Americans in voting rights or getting appointments, and no more. Regarding Native Americans, Cleveland heavily favored an assimilation which would force Native peoples to give up their rights and practices in favor of conforming to the cultural standards of the white Americans. Though this was a more moderate approach than direct, active genocide, nonetheless it was an attempt to continue cultural genocide and forced assimilation–a policy that would continue well beyond Cleveland.

Cleveland also demonstrated the tendency of virtually everyone who claims to affirm “state’s rights” to do so inconsistently. Though he gave lip service to state’s rights, he also ignored state governments when it came to strike breaking, unsurprisingly sending federal troops in to force strikes to end, taking the side of the corporations and train industries over the workers and even over the protests of state governors (147).  This and other examples (such as his fight over the silver/gold standard) demonstrate Cleveland’s strange legacy of disavowing the power of the government while actively expanding it beyond what it had been.

Regarding foreign policy, Cleveland approached it with the same attitude he felt in other areas, essentially seeing the United States as morally superior to other countries, which then meant that he distrusted the representatives of other, less ethically superior countries (199). This led to any number of poor policy decisions in foreign policy as well as alienating people in South America and beyond (see, eg, 67).

Cleveland’s legacy is somewhat difficult to evaluate due to the radical divergence in historical analysis of his Presidencies. Welch, Jr. manages to sort through some of the fog surrounding his legacy in his The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland, which I would rate as a fair, but not excellent biography.

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

Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th President – Original Ranking #12)- Grover Cleveland was an ambitious politician who largely stuck to his conservatism, despite his apparent inconsistency looking in from the outside. His apparent callousness might be seen by some as consistency of conservative principles. His attempts to continue reform of the public offices stirred up vicious opposition to his presidencies. Ever a friend of the status quo, it is difficult to see how this may have harmed or benefited the United States even more than a hundred years later. His legacy is uneven, but also largely free of the worst of all moral failings, despite some examples. His intense belief in the superiority of America and Americanism is another part of his legacy, whether that includes the attempts to forcibly assimilate Native Americans (seen by many at the time as a reform–and it was, compared to actively genocidal policies) or his relations with other countries, Cleveland was an example of a President who truly tried to put America First, for better or ill, and to do so in a way that left each person to themselves. Additionally, Cleveland essentially expanded government authority despite his disavowal of the same.

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: Chester Arthur #21

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Chester Arthur, the twenty-first President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selectio n process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) is The Unexpected President by Scott S. Greenberger.

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.

The Unexpected President: Chester A. Arthur by Scott S. Greenberger

Chester Arthur is one of those Presidents I knew very, very little about going in. To be honest, I’m not sure I would have recognized his face, let alone been able to name any achievements (or, as we will see, his infamy). I thought Greenberger’s biography was fascinating. In part, it was fascinating because it seemed partially an apologetic for Arthur while also denoting in detail the corruption and abuse of power he used throughout his life.

I have to admit something of a chip on my shoulder when I talk about Arthur’s scandals throughout his career. Grant is often spoken of as the most corrupt of Presidents, and Greenberger certainly rakes him over the coals as he gives context to the political career of Chester Arthur. It is true Grant’s administration was filled with corruption and scandal, largely due to his trusting and being quite loyal to those who followed him. Grant’s achievements, in my opinion, vastly outshine the scandals. Arthur, however, was mired in unscrupulous activity throughout his life, and only as President did he do anything about any of it.

Born in a highly religious and conservative family, Arthur seemed to depart somewhat swiftly from his upbringing when he first had the chance to gain reins of power. He went into practicing law. When the Civil War broke out, he became quartermaster general for New York, and quickly capitalized on his position to help a shifty friend sell more poor quality hats and other supplies to the Union army, taking a side cut along the way. He became opposed to the war over time and favored making peace with the South, but that didn’t stop him from using his position as quartermaster to line his own pockets by selecting sellers who’d give him a take on the side.

Arthur became involved in Roscoe Conkling’s political machine, supporting a system which effectively utilized bribes by other names for appointees to keep their jobs and for political offices to be entirely based upon political beliefs and/or how much money one could contribute to “campaigns” (eg. the pocketbooks) of higher officials. Time and again, Arthur profited on political appointments as well as siphoning funds into his own and friends’ pockets through government contracts and even more questionable means like supporting the seizure of property in order to extort additional fees from companies shipping product through New York and other areas. He was corrupt through-and-through, and made wealthy through the public dollar.

Ascending to the Vice Presidency was something of a coup for Arthur, but the political machine he’d joined with Conkling helped assure that he could do so. Garfield was shot, and as his dying moments drew on from hours to days to weeks to more than a month, Arthur seemed to undergo a change in political policy, envisioning himself as President. When Garfield died, Arthur took up the Presidency in a nation doubting of his ability and morals, but Arthur quickly ingratiated himself both with his humble attitude by mourning Garfield for at least six months officially as well as vowing to take up Garfield’s policies as his own. Apparently deciding that the President should represent the will of the people, which would mean Garfield’s policies would have been that same will, he worked to support policies that went against his own greatest supporters, alienating much of the political machines as he did so and even opposing the systems that helped him rise in power.

I admit the reasoning behind this seemed somewhat unclear reading Greenberger’s biography; it all seemed very abrupt. Greenberger, for his part, argues a large part of it was from the influence of Julia Sand, who had decided to take it upon herself to try to be the “dwarf” in the President’s court, someone unafraid to tell the truth. Lending credence to the influence of Sand’s letters on Arthur was a surprise visit the President made to her home, which concluded in somewhat startling fashion when he left her unknowing of whether he felt she’d been too harsh on him or not. Nevertheless, this interesting relationship–of which very little details can truly be known–may have helped influence Arthur away from his own interests.

Arthur also helped pave the way for the modernization of the American Navy, including starting the construction of the first steel warships in the United States. Though at this point the USA was lagging behind world powers in the navy, this move helped pave the way for the rise of the US Navy as a major power. Arthur vetoed the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act, and Congress promptly overrode his veto, creating a law that regulated immigration purely based on country of origin, a highly racist law with motivations founded upon worries about labor markets. The similarity between this Act and various ideas about immigration today cannot be denied. Arthur also tried different methods of securing rights of both African Americans and Native Americans during his Presidency, though each failed. He tried to find a new type of coalition with a “Readjuster” Party that Arthur thought might help give African Americans their voting rights back (a strategy that even Frederick Douglass ultimately endorsed). This policy failed when the Readjuster Party failed to gain a following. Arthur wanted to push for education of Native Americans, which shows his own imperialist views (which were not dissimilar from many of his time) in which the idea that the Native American peoples needed to be adjusted to white society. He ultimately sided with “settlers” who encroached on protected Native American lands after being assured the land was not protected, even though the treaty was found that gave the land to the Native Americans after his Presidency.

After his Presidency, Arthur died in less than a year. His legacy remains one that is difficult to pin down. Undoubtedly corrupt and willing to backstab anyone and play any political game to rise to power, once he’d finally gained the highest power in the nation, he seemed to moderate himself and work for at least a few good causes. How does one truly evaluate such a legacy? He died so soon after his Presidency, it is hard to evaluate what changes he made to himself during the tenure in office and how they came about. An enigmatic President, but not, necessarily, a bad one.

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

Chester Arthur (21st President – Original Ranking #11)- Overall, Arthur as President was very, very different from Arthur as political machine proponent, and, again, it’s difficult to evaluate him because of that. He pushed for reform of the appointment system as well as disenfranchising political machines in Washington while doing what he thought was right regarding people of non-white backgrounds. Though many of his efforts failed, this was in part due to the opposition from the very political machines he’d used to rise to power. How does one evaluate such a man, who seemed a despot hungry for money and power one moment, and a reasonable, even-handed person once in power? The test of time has shown us little of his impact directly, though our Naval power is one tangible evidence. Arthur was a corrupt man who, strangely, turned towards a more moral rule once he gained the Presidency.

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 Garfield #20

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Garfield, the twentieth 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) is Garfield: A Biography by Allan Peskin.

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.

James Garfield, #20

Garfield, A Biography

James Garfield is another President whose path to the office seems to be the quintessential American Dream story, wherein he rose to power from extremely humble beginnings in a log cabin in Ohio. His religious background was opposed to seeking office, but the draw of leadership and his innate ability proved too strong for his upbringing and he soon rose through various offices, ultimately becoming the first and only (so far) sitting member of the House elected President.

During the Civil War, he rose to the rank of Major General. He proved himself a capable leader, but resigned for a seat in the House. In the House, he was a member of the Radicals for some time, opposing leniency in Reconstruction. But over time his radicalism cooled down and he even opposed the passage of the Ku Klux Klan bill, which Grant favored heavily in order to oppose the KKK with federal power. Garfield opposed this bill, thinking it gave too much authority to the Federal Government. His conflicting attitude towards freed African Americans was indicative of many political authorities of his time, but makes it no less alarming, given the real existence of people with whom he rubbed shoulders who favored full equality of all people. He was also involved in corruption surrounding the Trans-Continental Railroad, though he denied his involvement in this corruption.

As President, he expanded the power of the President, including continuing the fight with the Senate over nominations. He worked for civil service reforms, but did not have a chance to see most of the outcomes of his work, because he was assassinated less than a year into his Presidency.

Peskin’s biography , Garfield: A Biography, is a bit disappointing. It’s huge, and gives a detailed account of Garfield’s life, but seems to be a purely fact-based account with little reflection on Garfield. I was most interested in the lengthy account of Garfield’s death, in which Peskin’s tone shifted somewhat to a sympathetic tone.

Garfield’s Presidency is difficult to judge, but what he accomplished in the short time he had in office is enough to lead to serious and lingering questions about what he may have accomplished had he not been assassinated.

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

James Garfield (20th President – Original Ranking #15)- James Garfield didn’t accomplish much as a President due to the violent act of assassination against him, but what he did has impacts into today. He worked against corruption and continued to undermine the system that led to a “good ol’ boys club” in regards to the appointment of nominations for certain offices. He worked for rights for African Americans, but did so in an extremely inconsistent way. He also favored civil service reforms. Assassinated less than a year into his Presidency, it is an interesting question of what he may have accomplished if he had a whole term.

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: 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.

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.