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.

The Definitive Ranking of the Presidents of the United States

I continue to read through Presidential biographies, but it has become clear that posting the ranking on the bottom of each post is getting unsustainable. It’s already over 1500 words, so I decided to break it off onto its own post. I’ll update this as I continue through the Presidents, so this is my catch-all page for the ranking. It will also have links to my look more closely at each President.

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. But unlike those scholar surveys and others, I don’t cover up clear biases with words like “objective” and the like. You’ll probably end up disagreeing with me at some points. I look forward to your comments!

1. 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.

2. Theodore Roosevelt (26th President – Original Ranking #2)- Theodore Roosevelt exemplified what it ought to mean to be President. He put the needs of the people–all people–first and fought against any who would attempt to take away votes, privileges, or rights from citizens of the United States. He allowed himself to be guided both by his Christian faith and by modern (for him) science, which did lead to the occasional mistake, but largely allowed him to correct himself on several positions. His immense strides for conservation helped usher in an appreciation for nature and science that grew with his efforts. He could have been better on many counts–his imperialism was only occasionally reigned in by his inconsistency of foreign policy–but he constantly tried to be better. He was a man of fine principles who stuck to them, even when it was difficult. Not only that, but he was an excellent, immensely successful President. It is difficult to understate how important and great Roosevelt was.

3. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

4. 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.

5. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.

6. Rutherford B. Hayes (19th President – Original Ranking #5)- Rutherford B. Hayes was a reform-minded President in an era that needed it. He actively worked to thwart racism against Chinese, Native Americans, and African Americans, but in the long-term, his efforts failed. He naively believed that the Southern elites would hold true to their promises to defend black voters, while also taking the pragmatic path in withdrawing federal oversight from the governance of southern states. Despite these failures, Hayes also had much success. He did manage to thwart some of the rising racist sentiment, going directly to the Chinese government to negotiate a mutually agreeable treaty regarding immigration (despite this being guided by racial bias, Hayes managed to secure a lesser of two evils). He wielded his power to veto with authority to smack down southern congresspeople who tried to gut the 15th Amendment. He worked for prison and education reform and succeeded in bringing at least some of the change he saw as necessary. His administration stopped the depression by backing the dollar while also backing a moderate policy about labor that ultimately secured some small modicum of rights for the laborers. Hayes has undeservedly been forgotten in most surveys of United States history, but his impact is bigger than may be thought. His active work to curtail many of the evils of our country, though not saving it, did manage to salvage it from some of the worst possible turns. Thrust into an unenviable time, he succeeded in at least finding some of the light in the darkness, and doing so in a commendable way.

7. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.

8. John Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.

9. Woodrow Wilson (28th President – Original Ranking #7)- There is no question that Wilson’s impact on the United States outlived the man himself, even into today. This impact is both for good and ill. Wilson’s willingness to compromise on racial integration helped underline systems that continue to this day to exclude others. However, his willingness to do so also was probably the only way he was able to pass legislation that would help many Americans stay on their feet through financial hardship. His legislative legacy also helped break up monopolies and usher in a more beneficial–and regulated–free trade in the United States that would ultimately benefit all Americans. Wilson’s legacy is incredibly complex due to the long term intended and unintended consequences of his decisions. Nevertheless, he almost must rank highly because he, unlike many, many previous Presidents, actually made some strides against inequality while also benefiting the United States directly. These strides weren’t intended to help all Americans, but they do now. His legacy is one that should lead us today to wonder: how do we judge figures of the past?

10. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.

11. 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.

12.William McKinley (25th President – Original Ranking #10)– William McKinley used the powers of the President in ways that few before him had imagined. Deeply involved in foreign policy, he wrestled the Caribbean from Spain, took over the Philippines, added Hawaii as a state, forced access to China open, increased ties with Britain, and developed concepts of international trade in ways that hadn’t been done before. Of course, almost all of these were a kind of Imperialist America that did, oftentimes, as much or more harm as good. Domestically, he solidified the gold standard. He failed to be a strong advocate for civil rights, working to thwart sectionalism more than working to guarantee the rights and protections all people deserve. His enduring legacy was cut short by assassination, but he helped usher in an era of economic prosperity and international influence for the United States from which many continue to benefit to this day.

13. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.

14. 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.

15. William Howard Taft (27th President – Original Ranking #14)- Taft’s long-term impact is not difficult to judge, but it is difficult to qualify it within terms of his Presidency. Much of his impact comes from his acts as a judge, including as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. His history of antitrust regulation helped usher in regulations of industries that continue to be challenged and sometimes held to this day. Later in life, as Chief Justice, many of the decisions his court would make deviated from industry regulation, though he remained seemingly antitrust his whole life. Taft was arguable one of the more amiable Presidents in U.S. history, assuming much about one’s status alongside his. On a personal note, his devotion to his wife and family is touching and a good example among many poor examples in the Presidency. As President, Taft would help reform foreign policy in ways that favored skill over nepotism, while also effectively maintaining and somewhat expanding the more imperial aspects of Roosevelt’s Presidency. Domestically, Taft’s refusal to appoint African Americans to posts undercut any kind of progression on civil rights issues and set back the progress Roosevelt made in that sphere. He also pushed to reform Tariffs and try to end some aspects of protectionism, which he met with mixed success. Overall, Taft was a President with both good and bad in policy, and his successes were about even with his failures.

16. 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.”

17. 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.

18. Martin Van Buren (8th President- original ranking- #7): How do you analyze a man who was perhaps first and foremost a politician? Though that word has become something of a pejorative depending on its usage now, Van Buren didn’t play the system so much as he created one. He created what would develop into the modern day political party, taking what Andrew Jackson had started and running with it. He did so on a local and then national level, leveraging it to eventually become President of the United States. His continuation of Jackson’s policies towards Native groups caused enormous harm. His outright support of slavery may be baffling in light of his being remembered by contemporaries as a voracious abolitionist, but this change in policy was later in life and cynics may argue that it was a policy of convenience. He struggled as President to get much passed, largely due to his shouldering the blame for the economic crisis that greeted the beginning of his Presidency. His political skill helped create our modern political system, for better or ill. No matter what you think of him, he does at least give me the chance to use my new favorite phrase of this list: “He’s still a better President than Andrew Jackson.”

19. John Tyler (10th President- Original ranking- #8): The Accidental President helped to solidify the role of the President while also balancing concerns for his party and his own political beliefs. As a Congress member and as President he remained adamantly allied to slavery and a slaveholder. He strengthened the position of the President and helped clarify the office’s role in our three party system. He was a major supporter of states’ rights, but again this was largely due to his support of slavery over and against any move by the federal government to oppose it. An enigmatic, oft-forgotten President who may have had more influence than we would think.

20. 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.

21. 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.

22. James Garfield (20th President – Original Ranking #14)- 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.

23. William Henry Harrison (9th President- Original ranking- #8): I know the immediate complaint for not having Harrison at the bottom would be something like “He was barely President for a month! How can he outrank… anyone?” First, the sheer amount of damage that the/those President(s) ranked beneath Harrison did to our country and people moves them lower. As my new saying goes, “Still a better President than Andrew Jackson.” Second, Harrison’s own potential damage to our country was limited as President, but he still deserves a rank quite low not just because he did very little as President but because his whole body of work is a testament to how poorly the U.S. has treated those it considers “other.”

24. 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.

25. Andrew Jackson (7th President- original ranking- #7): I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how Jackson manages to get ranked so highly on so many lists of Presidents. On the positive side, he did help prevent an earlier Civil War by, eventually, ending the nullification crisis. He defined the office of President as representative of the people. He also was the first to truly form up a political party around himself and help use it to shape the dynamics of policy. Not an unimpressive list of accomplishments. Yet he was also an extremely staunch defender of slavery, to the point of failing in his office to enforce the law by allowing freedom of speech to be impeded by federal postmasters through the south. He personally oversaw slaughters of Native groups and set up and endorsed policies that would lead to countless thousands of deaths and atrocities against Native Americans. He callously saw only white people as worthy of the words of the Constitution, as demonstrated in both of these actions. Moreover, he used federal power and authority only when it suited him–if he wanted something to happen, he had no qualms about using federal authority; if he did not, he shamelessly looked the other way. He was concerned primarily with himself and ensuring his own success. He is vastly overrated.

26. 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.

27. 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.

*Rankings not definitive

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: John Tyler #10

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with John Tyler, the tenth 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 John Tyler by Gary May.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

John Tyler by Gary May

John Tyler was a man of many firsts for the United States. Often nicknamed “The Accidental President,” he was the first President to succeed a former one because William Henry Harrison died while in office–only 31 days in! He also was the first to have his Veto overturned by Congress. Tyler was a Whig, but one who was a strict constructionist who felt the President should guide policy. It was an interesting balance, and it was somewhat clear his party never really intended for him to be President.

Tyler was born to a powerful Viriginia family that owned slaves and he spent much of his life in positions of power. His upbringing made him an ally of those who enslaved others, and this came through in his Presidency as well. He almost always framed this support in terms of states’ rights, a kind of historical lie that has continued into this day. Tyler, however, was more consistent with his application of this than some of his contemporaries *casts meaningful glances towards Andrew Jackson.* His opposition to Jackson during the nullification crisis is one example of this–though a cynical person might simply argue he was just favoring the South yet again. He was also critical of Jackson during the Bank crisis. Strangely, once he attained the highest office in the land, he worked to expand the power of the President himself, liberally using the power to veto and working to define the Presidency’s role alongside other powers. Internationally, Tyler oversaw treaties with Britain and China, each of which strengthened our relations with foreign powers.

At the start of the Civil War, Tyler was nominated to the Congress of the Confederate States, sealing his position as a treasonous President.

May’s analysis of Tyler is particularly intriguing, because he points out that while Tyler is often seen as one of the “footnote” type Presidents, he actually did quite a bit to solidify the strengthening of the office of the President that Andrew Jackson had really begun to expand. Through his repeated use of the veto, he exercised his Constitutional rights in ways that may not have been fully anticipated by the authors of that document. Moreover, he showed that the office of the President can be interpreted–as Jackson did–as a kind of will of the people. Tyler was an intriguing President, even if he was accidental.

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.

3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.

4. John Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.

5. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.

6. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.

7. Martin Van Buren (8th President- original ranking- #7): How do you analyze a man who was perhaps first and foremost a politician? Though that word has become something of a pejorative depending on its usage now, Van Buren didn’t play the system so much as he created one. He created what would develop into the modern day political party, taking what Andrew Jackson had started and running with it. He did so on a local and then national level, leveraging it to eventually become President of the United States. His continuation of Jackson’s policies towards Native groups caused enormous harm. His outright support of slavery may be baffling in light of his being remembered by contemporaries as a voracious abolitionist, but this change in policy was later in life and cynics may argue that it was a policy of convenience. He struggled as President to get much passed, largely due to his shouldering the blame for the economic crisis that greeted the beginning of his Presidency. His political skill helped create our modern political system, for better or ill. No matter what you think of him, he does at least give me the chance to use my new favorite phrase of this list: “He’s still a better President than Andrew Jackson.”

8. John Tyler (10th President- Original ranking- #8): The Accidental President helped to solidify the role of the President while also balancing concerns for his party and his own political beliefs. As a Congress member and as President he remained adamantly allied to slavery and a slaveholder. He strengthened the position of the President and helped clarify the office’s role in our three party system. He was a major supporter of states’ rights, but again this was largely due to his support of slavery over and against any move by the federal government to oppose it. An enigmatic, oft-forgotten President who may have had more influence than we would think.

9. William Henry Harrison (9th President- Original ranking- #8): I know the immediate complaint for not having Harrison at the bottom would be something like “He was barely President for a month! How can he outrank… anyone?” First, the sheer amount of damage that the/those President(s) ranked beneath Harrison did to our country and people moves them lower. As my new saying goes, “Still a better President than Andrew Jackson.” Second, Harrison’s own potential damage to our country was limited as President, but he still deserves a rank quite low not just because he did very little as President but because his whole body of work is a testament to how poorly the U.S. has treated those it considers “other.”

10. Andrew Jackson (7th President- original ranking- #7): I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how Jackson manages to get ranked so highly on so many lists of Presidents. On the positive side, he did help prevent an earlier Civil War by, eventually, ending the nullification crisis. He defined the office of President as representative of the people. He also was the first to truly form up a political party around himself and help use it to shape the dynamics of policy. Not an unimpressive list of accomplishments. Yet he was also an extremely staunch defender of slavery, to the point of failing in his office to enforce the law by allowing freedom of speech to be impeded by federal postmasters through the south. He personally oversaw slaughters of Native groups and set up and endorsed policies that would lead to countless thousands of deaths and atrocities against Native Americans. He callously saw only white people as worthy of the words of the Constitution, as demonstrated in both of these actions. Moreover, he used federal power and authority only when it suited him–if he wanted something to happen, he had no qualms about using federal authority; if he did not, he shamelessly looked the other way. He was concerned primarily with himself and ensuring his own success. He is vastly overrated.

*Rankings not definitive

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: Martin Van Buren #8

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Martin Van Buren, the eighth 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), I picked Martin Van Buren and the American Political System by Donald Cole.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

Martin Van Buren and the American Political System by Donald B. Cole

Martin Van Buren – Lived 1782-1862 ; President 1837-1841

Van Buren was a true politician, though not in the way that we may think of that term today. Yes, at times it seems that he simply followed the winds of popularity, but at other times he picked a stance and stood up for it regardless of possible consequences. It is difficult to get a feel for him as a person, however, due to this propensity for changing positions and picking battles. Who was Van Buren, truly? I’m not sure I have a good answer to that question after this biography. However, from reading comments about him other places, I find that to be a somewhat typical response.

A capable lawyer who spoke English as a second language (Dutch being his first), Van Buren leveraged his acumen for people to organize the Democractic-Republican Party in New York. He also helped found the Albany Regency, a powerful political machine that is certainly one of the first organizations that may rightly claim that label. The Regency was a group that exerted much power politically both in New York state and nationwide. Van Buren would spearhead this group and ride its influence to the White House.

Van Buren was very careful to try to give balance to his statements and positions. He allied himself with Jackson and leveraged that connection to expand his influence. He even managed to turn his resignation as Secretary of State during the Petticoat Affair (a scandal in the White House involving members of Jackson’s cabinet in which the wives of several cabinet members worked to ostracize another) into a political win and increase of his power.

One example of how he rode the line between positions is his treatment of slavery. For many years and throughout the Jackson Presidency, he was concerned with alienating Southern power and so he continued to favor policies which slaveowners also favored. However, later in his life he became known as a major proponent of abolition and supporter of Abraham Lincoln. The latter was perhaps not as large a swing as one may think, however. At the time, many Republicans favored abolition, though certainly did not favor equality of all people. Van Buren’s shift on this question may not truly show a change of heart so much as a change on feelings towards forced labor. It was, perhaps, a change of politics, as with many parts of Van Buren’s life.

As President, Van Buren wasn’t as successful as one may have anticipated given his demonstrated capabilities related to political maneuvering otherwise. The beginning of his Presidency was struck with a depression, leading to several blaming him for the economic collapse. He came up with a plan that would eventually turn around the economy of the country by keeping federal funds independent of various state banks, but this plan wouldn’t be implemented until enough hardship had happened for many to become embittered against him. Van Buren was also hesitant to upset the balance that was created from the Missouri Compromise and so fought against annexation of Texas, not only hoping to prevent war with Mexico but also seeing it as something that could spur on further North-South conflict. Though Van Buren preached a Jacksonian policy–and certainly continued the horrors that were visited upon various Native groups in the North America through these policies–he modified it towards his own ends, spurring on the strength of the Democractic Party. As President, however, few of his policies were adopted.

After his Presidency, Van Buren leaned increasingly towards abolition and, as I said, became a large supporter of Abraham Lincoln in his anti-slavery efforts.

Martin Van Buren and the American Political System is a worthy read, if it is a bit dry at times. Cole certainly gives a huge amount of background on the issues that surrounded Van Buren throughout his life. Van Buren is a difficult figure to analyze

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.

3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.

4. John Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.

5. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.

6. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.

7. Martin Van Buren (8th President- original ranking- #7): How do you analyze a man who was perhaps first and foremost a politician? Though that word has become something of a pejorative depending on its usage now, Van Buren didn’t play the system so much as he created one. He created what would develop into the modern day political party, taking what Andrew Jackson had started and running with it. He did so on a local and then national level, leveraging it to eventually become President of the United States. His continuation of Jackson’s policies towards Native groups caused enormous harm. His outright support of slavery may be baffling in light of his being remembered by contemporaries as a voracious abolitionist, but this change in policy was later in life and cynics may argue that it was a policy of convenience. He struggled as President to get much passed, largely due to his shouldering the blame for the economic crisis that greeted the beginning of his Presidency. His political skill helped create our modern political system, for better or ill. No matter what you think of him, he does at least give me the chance to use my new favorite phrase of this list: “He’s still a better President than Andrew Jackson.”

8. Andrew Jackson (7th President- original ranking- #7): I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how Jackson manages to get ranked so highly on so many lists of Presidents. On the positive side, he did help prevent an earlier Civil War by, eventually, ending the nullification crisis. He defined the office of President as representative of the people. He also was the first to truly form up a political party around himself and help use it to shape the dynamics of policy. Not an unimpressive list of accomplishments. Yet he was also an extremely staunch defender of slavery, to the point of failing in his office to enforce the law by allowing freedom of speech to be impeded by federal postmasters through the south. He personally oversaw slaughters of Native groups and set up and endorsed policies that would lead to countless thousands of deaths and atrocities against Native Americans. He callously saw only white people as worthy of the words of the Constitution, as demonstrated in both of these actions. Moreover, he used federal power and authority only when it suited him–if he wanted something to happen, he had no qualms about using federal authority; if he did not, he shamelessly looked the other way. He was concerned primarily with himself and ensuring his own success. He is vastly overrated.

*Rankings not definitive

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 Jackson #7

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Andrew Jackson, the seventh 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), I picked

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meachem

Andrew Jackson – Lived 1767-1845 ; President from 1829-1837

I was looking forward to reading more about Andrew Jackson, whom I’ve heard much about, both flattering and unflattering. I see him consistently listed, at minimum, in the top half of Presidents when it comes to ranking Presidents. Given the particularly egregious wrongs I’d read about him perpetrating, I figured there must be some truly amazing positives to shoot him so high up lists. Reading this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Jon Meachem leaves me quite confused as to how Jackson has managed to be regarded so highly.

Andrew Jackson’s rise to power is seen as interesting because he was more of a self-made figure than one who’d inherited position and fame. Even this facet seems a little overdone–no one would care about George Washington if he hadn’t worked so hard to achieve what he did. Nevertheless, Jackson was born in relative poverty compared with his contemporary Presidents. He made a name for himself militarily, through what he saw as a retributive attack on the Creek people after they’d attacked Fort Mims, itself a harbor for soldiers and settlers who had previously attacked the Red Sticks people. Jackson led the strike which exacted an awful toll and saw it as completely just. Later, he won the Battle of New Orleans, though only after using the powers of martial law and a kind of dictatorial power to do what he wanted–something that would become a theme in his Presidency. His victory over the British at New Orleans cemented his name on the national stage and he would use it to propel himself to the office of President–though not before a bitter defeat by John Quincy Adams the first go-round.

The Jackson Presidency was full of events and it would be impossible to provide a concise summary of them all. There was much drama surrounding his friendship with the Eaton family and the possibly sordid details involved therein, eventually leading to the first ever dissolution of a cabinet by a President. There was his retributive strike against Quallah Battoo after a U.S. ship had been attacked and stolen. This event was one of the earliest projections of U.S. power globally, showing that the States would be unafraid to send its military abroad to defend its interests. However, the man Jackson picked to lead this counter-strike was uneven of temper and rather than negotiating, simply slaughtered the Malay’s wholesale. Jackson had politically maneuvered himself out of accountability for this, however. These events were important, but don’t do as much to define the Jackson Presidency as others.

Perhaps the biggest win for Jackson was his prevention of civil war… for the moment. A tariff was passed that many Southerners felt impacted the South more than the North. The Tariff basically raised an exorbitant fee on imports that were outcompeting Northern manufactured goods, and the idea was to make it so that the American industrial areas could compete with imported goods by price. The South felt this was unfair and favored the North, which was unconstitutional. Thus began the Nullification Crisis, in which South Carolina effectively tried to nullify or make void the Tariff and not enforce it. Jackson, ever bullheaded, determined not to allow this violation of Federal Law to happen. The crisis extended for years, but when push came to shove Jackson threatened intervention through military means if necessary. Ultimately, a kind of compromise was reached in which the tariffs were somewhat lowered but South Carolina must enforce them. The crisis had pushed the Union to its brink, but not over it. Jackson was intimately involved in the crisis, though I’m not convinced he deserves all the credit for making sure it didn’t boil over into war.

Jackson was also vehemently opposed to the Bank of the United States. Andrew Jackson was opposed to having that amount of power in a private institution, among other things, and he clashed with the Bank over any number of issues. The Bank had to be rechartered to continue its existence, and Jackson made opposition to it a personal vendetta–as he did with so many other things. After he was re-elected, he felt he had the voice of the people behind him and vetoed the bill to recharter the bank. This led to a censure of the President by Senate, but Jackson’s unrelenting personality led to a restructuring of the Bank in ways that echo to today.

Andrew Jackson was a racist through and through; there’s simply no denying that. As Meachem put it,

The common theme [in Jackson’s mind regarding Native groups]: As a people Indians were neither autonomous or independent but were to be manipulated and managed in what most benefited Jackson’s America–white America. Missionaries and humanitarian reformers struggled to make the case for the innate rights of the Indians, but the white agenda–more land, fewer Indians, complete control–took precedence.

Similar comments can easily be made about Jackson and slavery–they were tools of white people to push forward the agenda of more land, money, and power. Regarding Native Americans, Jackson not only personally led massacres, he also was a huge proponent of the Indian Removal Act which empowered Jackson to “negotiate” to remove Native tribes from east of the Mississippi. He wielded this power multiple times, fighting wars against the Seminoles in Florida and setting stage for the Trail of Tears and many other travesties. Meachem argues that Jackson tended to see Native Americans not as independent people but as inherently enemies/squatters on American land or as allies of foreign powers. Thus, the President felt they had to be destroyed or removed.

Andrew Jackson was a vicious proponent of slavery, as both his actions and personal writings attest. He personally offered rewards for returned slaves and in at least one case increased the reward if the escaped slave was given 100 lashes! More damningly, he tried to use Federal power to squelch freedom of speech. Initially this was planned to be an active silencing of abolitionists. In practice, it became Andrew Jackson simply refusing to make federal postmasters allow for freedom of speech. He allowed them to refuse to send antislavery pamphlets, which in his own mind would cause slave revolts and violence to break out. This is particularly interesting because Jackson never refused to use federal power for his own ends, as in the case of the Nullification Crisis, but when it came to something that might impact his own pocket book–slavery–he simply decided he would not enforce the law. Later, Jackson would also support the banning of the right to petition in the case of slavery, yet another example of his suppression of freedom of speech for his own ends.

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House is a readable, interesting biography that perhaps meanders a bit too much at times. Overall, it presents a straightforward look at the flaws of Jackson, while not making apologies or excuses. There are a few points it seemed a bit vague on. Overall, however, it is an excellent biography well worth reading to learn more of the history of the United States. I was astonished to learn all these things about Jackson and realize he is still seen as some kind of American hero.

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.

3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.

4. John Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.

5. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.

6. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.

7. Andrew Jackson (7th President- original ranking- #7): I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how Jackson manages to get ranked so highly on so many lists of Presidents. On the positive side, he did help prevent an earlier Civil War by, eventually, ending the nullification crisis. He defined the office of President as representative of the people. He also was the first to truly form up a political party around himself and help use it to shape the dynamics of policy. Not an unimpressive list of accomplishments. Yet he was also an extremely staunch defender of slavery, to the point of failing in his office to enforce the law by allowing freedom of speech to be impeded by federal postmasters through the south. He personally oversaw slaughters of Native groups and set up and endorsed policies that would lead to countless thousands of deaths and atrocities against Native Americans. He callously saw only white people as worthy of the words of the Constitution, as demonstrated in both of these actions. Moreover, he used federal power and authority only when it suited him–if he wanted something to happen, he had no qualms about using federal authority; if he did not, he shamelessly looked the other way. He was concerned primarily with himself and ensuring his own success. He is vastly overrated.

*Rankings not definitive

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!

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SDG.