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.

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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. 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. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.”

9. 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.

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.

11. 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.

12. 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.”

13. 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.

14. 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.

*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.