Thoughts on Independence Day


“It has been the hope of every patriot that a sense of justice and of respect for the law would work a gradual cure of these flagrant evils. Surely no one supposes that the present can be accepted as a permanent condition…This generation should courageously face these grave questions, and not leave them as a heritage of woe to the next. The consultation should proceed with candor, calmness, and great patience, upon the lines of justice and humanity, not of prejudice and cruelty. No question in our country can be at rest except upon the firm base of justice and of the law.”

-Benjamin Harrison, First State of the Union Address [1889]

I have had ample opportunity over the last year and change to consider what it means to me to be an American. We’re in a time where progress on public policy is stagnant, prejudices that the public thought were on the wane were revealed to still be strong, and the “you’re either with us or against us” divisive mentality is more pervasive than ever. I have experienced intense emotions evidenced by people on all sides of the political spectrum, and I have listened to the words and the thoughts of those with whom I agree on certain issues ideologically as well as those with whom I disagree. On this Fourth of July, I am more proud to be an American than ever before.

I know there are at least 66 million Americans who disagree with me on this (though I imagine that figure to be higher), but though I have my grave concerns and disagreements with the present state of things, I also have strong reasons for my strengthened sense of patriotism. Having historical perspective has served me well in these unusual times. While there is much occurring that the present population of Americans has not faced previously, I’d say at least 95% of it either has a historical precedent or is a logical place to be given the history that’s led us to this point. If we’ve figured this or something similar out before, then I believe that we can figure it out again.

Likewise, I draw strength from the fact that, though there are a number of instances that we can point to from recent history that did not show individual Americans or groups of Americans acting at their best, there are also so many more on all sides of the political spectrum who are doing all they can with the best intentions in mind. I have seen people who have never shown any inclination or interest in politics now discussing the issues. We have had the framework and the possibility of a true representative democracy before us for a while, but as abysmal voter turnout rates have reflected, we have not taken advantage of it before. My hope is that will change. Certainly, I am seeing people increasingly speaking out and standing up for their neighbors as well as for themselves. I am witnessing individuals attempting to understand those from different backgrounds or perspectives, even if those others have opinions and viewpoints with which they disagree. I see folks taking up the challenge to do the hard work of democracy. If it took present conditions to get us to understand that we must work and live together, that the problems of our neighbor are our problems, then perhaps the turmoil that we’ve recently experienced will ultimately bring about a better nation and a better world.

There are problems to be faced and we must not forget those who are suffering or in danger, but we must also realize that we must face the problems together. We must, as President Harrison said so many years ago, have the courage to “proceed with candor, calmness, and great patience, upon the lines of justice and humanity, not of prejudice and cruelty.” The present is not a permanent condition nor has it ever been, and what being American means is not determined by any one person or one group. Self-determination was one of the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and is one which, in my humble opinion, is key to wisely moving forward from the present. The only choice that we face as individuals is whether we will take up the responsibility and do what we can to help forge the path forward or accept the path that someone else makes for us.

Happy Independence Day to all!

Published in: on 4 July 2017 at 10:09  Leave a Comment  

2016 – A Year in Books

In our final hours of 2016, I am keeping up a tradition of reviewing where my reading habits have taken me this year. I have read 63 books and 19,400 pages. The majority (28) were fiction, followed by 21 non-fiction, 11 graphic novels, and 3 poetry collections. Oddly enough, the longest book and the shortest book I read this year were both by the same author – Leo Tolstoy. However, the honor (by a hair) of the author who I have read the most books by this year goes to G K Chesterton on a technicality (I ‘read’ two audiobooks that split his book, The Innocence of Father Brown, into two different audiobooks). I actually didn’t have many repeat authors this year with the aforementioned Tolstoy as well as Louise Penny being the only other authors of more than one book that I read this year.

The ranking below is rather arbitrary – I don’t have a specific rubric that I go by. Some books are ranked higher because they personally struck me more. Others are ranked based on the amount of effort that I know the author went through in crafting her/his work. I also rank them as I go along rather than all at once, so I imagine that affects the results. In the top ten, four are non-fiction while the rest are fiction. As I will remember this as the year that I read War and Peace, it seems only appropriate that such a sweeping and inspiring text should be my number one pick. Honestly, if you haven’t read War and Peace, you really should make plans to do so. I still find myself thinking back to it from time to time, and I think of Pat Conroy saying in his memoir how much it struck him and how he approached it differently at different points in his life, and I find myself looking forward to later on in life picking it back up.

Likewise, Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop should be on everyone’s reading list as it is such a powerful read. As it’s not nearly as long as War and Peace, there’s no reason that you can’t pick it up sooner, dear reader, and it’s one of the few that I’d like to actually reread at some point. James Cannon’s biography of Gerald R Ford earned the spot of the top non-fiction book that I read this year because, not only was it well-written, well-researched, and engaging, but it was a much needed addition to a rather sparse bibliography of books on our 38th president. Honestly, do a search sometime – books on Ford are few and far in between. While I look forward to the day when there’s an in-depth scholarly biography done (as Cannon worked for Ford in the administration, I can’t proclaim that it’s a non-biased examination though, to Cannon’s credit, he does attempt to take his personal views out of the equation at certain key points in the narrative), Cannon’s is an admirable effort and brings much insight into an often-overlooked presidency.

I would like to mention Louise Glück’s poetry collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night, as I read it recently and was greatly impressed. Her imagery and the emotions that she invokes with her words are highly admirable and worth a read. The oldest released work that I read this year was William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus which we didn’t have a chance to touch upon in my Shakespeare class in college. Betrayal, treason, exile, and revenge – it is certainly a dark Shakespearean tragedy. I also managed to read Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. While there is much to admire in the book and I did enjoy it, in some ways, it was a tougher read for me than War and Peace. As it came out originally in a serialized format, it did seem at times that there was a little filler included to pad the narrative out while Tolstoy, while he would go off on tangents, seemed to have had a meaning and purpose behind every diversion he took on his narrative journey besides just making the work longer.

A few books released this year by up and coming authors that I’d like to mention as worth checking out: Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, Saleem Haddad’s Guapa, and Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World. The bottom three were all graphic novels. To be fair, going in, I expected that they would be at the bottom of the list, but they were quick reads. If you are looking for good graphic novels to read, I’d recommend Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes (yes, this was my first time reading it – I know, I know, I don’t know why it took me this long either), and Legion Lost.

What’s next for 2017? Honestly, I don’t know. I’d like to read more Louise Penny. I’ve heard from my mother-in-law that the Louise Penny series gets even better as it goes on, so I imagine I’ll continue on that one. I actually do need to read some more Alexander McCall Smith as I can foresee needing some lighter hearted fare. However, I’d also like to read the next in the Gore Vidal Narratives of Empire series. I’m currently working my way through a biography of George H W Bush as the journey through presidential biographies continues. I’m considering Don Quixote as my big summer read this year in the same way that I read War and Peace this year (I sped through Quixote for a class in college, but I don’t count that as really reading it). Sometimes, I plan books to read. Other times, I just pick titles up as well. Wherever my reading journey leads, I’ll be glad for the experience. If anyone wants to know my two cents on any of the titles mentioned, please feel free to email me at Happy New Year to all, and may your reading journey be an enjoyable one!

1 – War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
2 – Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather
3 – Empire – Gore Vidal
4 – Gerald R Ford: An Honorable Life – James Cannon
5 – To the Bright Edge of the World – Eowyn Ivey
6 – What Belongs to You – Garth Greenwell
7 – The Log-Cabin Campaign – Robert Grey Gunderson
8 – The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy
9 – My Reading Life – Pat Conroy
10 – Reagan: The Life – H W Brands
11 – Faithful and Virtuous Night – Louise Glück
12 – The Brutal Telling – Louise Penny
13 – Lieberman’s Choice – Stuart Kaminsky
14 – The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics – Daniel James Brown
15 – Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith – Marcus J Borg
16 – Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution – Kathleen DuVal
17 – Guapa – Saleem Haddad
18 – Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit – Parker J Palmer
19 – Daredevil: The Man Without Fear – Frank Miller and John Romita Jr
20 – Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader – Anne Fadiman
21 – The Sandman, Vol I: Preludes and Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman, Sam Keith, et al.
22 – Legion Lost – Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Olivier Coipel, and Pascal Alixe
23 – The Yanks Are Starving: A Novel of the Bonus Army – Glen Craney
24 – The Devil’s Novice – Ellis Peters
25 – Coriolanus – William Shakespeare
26 – Avengers: Assault on Olympus – Roger Stern, Bob Harras, John Buscema, and Bob Hall
27 – Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography from Plains to Postpresidency – Peter G Bourne
28 – The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection – Alexander McCall Smith
29 – Nicholas Nickleby – Charles Dickens
30 – The New Testament as Literature: A Very Short Introduction – Kyle Keefer
31 – The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square – Ned Sublette
32 – Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time – Karen Armstrong
33 – Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President – Jimmy Carter
34 – A Month in the Country – J L Carr
35 – Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham – Mike Mignola, Richard Pace, et al.
36 – The Cardinal of the Kremlin – Tom Clancy
37 – Canada 1911: The Decisive Election that Shaped the County – Patrice Dutil and David MacKenzie
38 – A Rule Against Murder – Louise Penny
39 – The Roman Hat Mystery – Ellery Queen
40 – Crisis on Infinite Earths – Marv Wolfman & George Perez
41 – A Shropshire Lad – A E Houseman
42 – Batwing: Volume I, The Lost Kingdom – Judd Winick and Ben Oliver
43 – Living History – Hillary Clinton
44 – The Innocence of Father Brown, Volume I – G K Chesterton
45 – An American Life – Ronald Reagan
46 – Chances of a Lifetime – Warren Christopher
47 – Bootlegger’s Daughter – Margaret Maron
48 – The Wisdom of Father Brown – G K Chesterton
49 – History of the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842 – John K Mahon
50 – The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House – Jesse J Holland
51 – Batgirl, Volume 2: Family Business – Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr
52 – When in French: Love in a Second Language – Lauren Collins
53 – Winter Words: Poetry and Personal Writings – Thomas Hardy
54 – Two Boys Kissing – David Levithan
55 – A Death in the Small Hours – Charles Finch
56 – Time and Time Again – Ben Elton
57 – Doctor Who: Engines of War – George Mann
58 – The Silver Needle Murder – Laura Childs
59 – From Missouri – Zane Grey
60 – The Innocence of Father Brown, Volume II – G K Chesterton
61 – Invasion! – Keith Giffen, et al
62 – Warzones: Years of Future Past – Marguerite Bennett and Mike Norton
63 – Avengers: Time Runs Out, Volume One – Jonathan Hickman

Published in: on 31 December 2016 at 16:29  Leave a Comment  


As Ms. Cunningham and her guests this week focused more on Grant’s memoirs in this week’s Presidential podcast (which I highly recommend as it is an excellent discussion), they left me with a wealth of material to share with you. I do have to admit that Grant’s administration is one of my favorites to study as it is filled with both some of the most honorable and dishonorable individuals in American executive history. I won’t go into most of the details, but a few names that should be much more well-known than they are – Amos T Akerman, George S Boutwell, Benjamin H Bristow, Hamilton Fish, and Alphonso Taft.[1] They represent admirable public servants in the midst of what would come to be known as the Gilded Age, a less than admirable time in our nation’s history. But I digress.

Ironically for a man who would come to be known as a liberator of enslaved people, Grant was the last of the US Presidents to own a slave. He owned a man named William Jones for a period of time but would also prove to be one of the few presidents to emancipate a slave during his lifetime. Grant filed the manumission papers on March 29th, 1859 to free Mr. Jones despite Grant being in desperate financial straits at the time.[2] In the mindset of the time, most would have argued that he should sell Jones. Instead, he did the honorable thing. This was not the first nor would it be the last time that Grant put loyalty and virtue above the personally expedient option.

The war years are well covered by many others, so I won’t devote much time to those. However, one Grant moment that I often find myself thinking of is Grant and Sherman after the first day of the battle of Shiloh. The battle was a hard-fought and deadly one, and Grant’s advisors were talking retreat. Grant, however, replied, “Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.” Sherman went to talk to him around midnight and “found Grant standing alone under a large oak tree, dripping wet, hat slouched down over his face, coat collar up around his ears, a dimly glowing lantern in his hand, cigar clenched between his teeth.” When Sherman finally walked up to him, he said, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” To which, Grant replied while smoking on his cigar, “Yes. Yes. Lick ‘em tomorrow though.”[3] And lick em they did, though at a terrible price. As James McPherson described it, “Shiloh was the most ghastly bloodbath in the history of the Western Hemisphere thus far, though later Civil War battles would put it in seventh place in this respect. More than 1,700 men were killed and 8,000 wounded on each side.”[4] Grant was immediately criticized for it and branded the “Butcher of Shiloh,” but Lincoln saw something from his conduct in this battle that would lead him to elevate him to Commanding General before long. As Lincoln said when asked to remove Grant from command, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”[5]

Grant would reluctantly serve Lincoln’s successor in the presidency, Andrew Johnson. He is noted as saying to his wife after Lincoln’s assassination that “…for some reason I dread the change [of Johnson for Lincoln].”[6] Grant would later remember his encounters with Johnson during the war in his memoirs with the following description:

“I knew also the feeling that Mr. Johnson had expressed in speeches and conversation against the Southern people, and I feared that his course towards them would be such as to repel, and make them unwilling citizens; and if they became such they would remain so for a long while. I felt that reconstruction had been set back, no telling how far…Mr. Johnson’s course towards the South did engender bitterness of feeling…He uttered his denunciations with great vehemence, and as they were accompanied with no assurances of safety, many Southerners were driven to a point almost beyond endurance.”[7]

However, Grant and the nation would soon find that Johnson was far from being a radical Reconstructionist. By 1866, Grant was writing to his wife Julia while on the “Swing Around the Bend” tour with Johnson, “I never have been so tired of anything before as I have been with the political stump speeches of Mr. Johnson from Washington to this place [St. Louis]. I look upon them as a National disgrace. Of course you will not shew [sp] this letter to anyone for so long as Mr. Johnson is President I must respect him as such, and it is the country’s interest that I should also have his confidence.”[8]

While riddled with scandals, some folks in the administration, Grant included, worked hard to try to get back to what they saw as the path laid forward by Lincoln and to heal the nation as well as move forward into the height of the industrial age. Grant’s presidency saw the completion of the transcontinental railroad and the first awarding of a patent for the telephone.[9] It also saw the implementation of the Fifteenth Amendment to prohibit both the federal and state governments from denying suffrage to individuals based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” and to which Grant gave his firm support.[10] On the international front, a commission led by Secretary of State Hamilton Fish successfully negotiated the Treaty of Washington with Great Britain which resolved numerous remaining issues between the two nations and, as described by Fish biographer Allan Nevins, “was an event of cardinal importance in the history of the relations of the two English-speaking Powers,” and Grant biographer Jean Edward Smith notes that “Never again would the two nations be seriously at odds. The goodwill engendered by the document inaugurated a new relationship,” one more akin to what we think of as the “Special Relationship” which would play such a pivotal role in 20th century history.[11] It was one of the defining markers of a new era for the US. However, for all of the promise of the time, there was much disappointment.

Though Grant’s presidency was disappointing in terms of scandals involving administration officials and increasing resistance to reconstruction efforts, Grant was courted for another run at the presidency in 1880. After a successful world tour, Grant’s name was put into the Republican nomination contest that year, but after numerous ballots, Grant eventually lost out to relatively unknown Rep. James A Garfield who went on succeed Rutherford B Hayes in the White House.[12] As mentioned in the podcast, Grant went on to suffer financial failure and ill health, both of which led him to draft his memoirs in order to save his family. His legacy, though a mixed one, is certainly better than some of his predecessors. One has to wonder what he could have done had he been able to succeed and have the counsel of Abraham Lincoln in 1868. As later president Harry S Truman noted, “Grant was typical of the soldier-President. Without any understanding of political machinery, he was able to ride into office on the popularity which military victory always brings.”[13] He was a man who earned Lincoln’s respect and vice versa, and Lincoln may have been able to guide him better through the machinations of politics as Grant had guided Lincoln through the demands of war. Together, they were able to defeat the Confederacy. One can only wonder where the nation might have gone had their partnership not ended with the assassin’s bullet. If nothing else, he was willing to embrace changes in the nation as his immediate predecessor had not. The debate will continue on just how effective he was in his efforts.

As usual, some additional resources on Grant can be found below. Thanks so much, and I hope you’ll join me again next time when we discuss who I feel to be an underrated president – Rutherford B Hayes. Thanks so much for reading!

[1] In case you’re wondering, yes, that is in fact William Howard Taft’s father. Taft père served as Grant’s Secretary of War and Attorney General then later served as US Minister to Austria-Hungary and US Minister to Russia under Chester A Arthur. (Pringle, Henry. William Howard Taft: The Life and Times, Volume One. Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1998 [1939]. P. 51, 61, 68)

[2] Smith 94

[3] Smith 200-201

[4] McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001. P. 250

[5] Smith 204-205

[6] Bunting, Josiah III. Ulysses S Grant. New York: Times Books, 2004. P. 71

[7] Grant 566

[8] 9 Sep 1866, Grant to Julia Grant, as printed in Simon, John Y, ed. The Papers of Ulysses S Grant, Volume 16: 1866. Carbondale, IL and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988. p. 308

[9] Gordon, John Steele. An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. P. 216-217; Morris, Richard B, ed. Encyclopedia of American History. New York: Harper & Bros, 1953. p. 537

[10] Smith 467; McPherson A-21

[11] Nevins, Allan. Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1936. P. 493; Smith 515

[12] Smith 613-617; Garfield’s biographer, Allan Peskin, puts forward numerous eyewitness accounts at the 1880 Republican National Convention that argue that Garfield was not too enthusiastic about receiving the nomination. If it is not discussed more in the Presidential podcast or in my blog response on James A Garfield, more about Garfield and his nomination for president can be found at Peskin, Allan. Garfield: A Biography. Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 1987. p. 451-481

[13] Truman, Harry S. Memoirs by Harry S Truman, Volume Two: Years of Trial and Hope, 1946-1952. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co Inc, 1956. P. 198

Published in: on 15 May 2016 at 17:44  Leave a Comment  

A Johnson

In this week’s episode of the Presidential podcast, Ms. Cunningham and her guests examined the life and legacy of yet another of the presidents often at the bottom of the presidential rankings – Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. Johnson is the third(ish)[1] and, to date, last president born in my home state of North Carolina. The podcast hit the highlights of Johnson’s career and story, but there are a few other points I’d like to bring up and expand upon.

Considering his background, it is not surprising that Andrew Johnson was consistently a strong proponent of the Homestead Act. Around the middle of the 19th century, the government owned huge tracts of land that had been acquired by territorial purchases over the last few decades. The government sold some land to settlers, but there was a great deal of purchase being done by speculators who sought to make a profit off of the land much in the way as had been done with the Midwest and old southwest (modern day MS, AL, and GA). Johnson and other supporters of the Homestead Act felt that, by opening the land up to more individual settlers at little to no cost, it would assist in alleviating problems of economic inequality in the nation and more firmly secure US control over the west.[2] While a popular issue in Johnson’s congressional district made up primarily of small-scale Appalachian farmers, homesteading was not popular in the South as a whole as they felt that Northerners would benefit from settling the more viable land in available free territory north of the Missouri Compromise line which would cause increased competition for the South both in the marketplace and in representation in the federal government, thus leading to the abolition of slavery.[3] After the Southern congressional delegations were out of the way due to secession, Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862 which opened up land to many loyal Unionists including African-Americans, women, and immigrants.[4] By that time, though, Johnson had already been appointed and taken office as military governor of Tennessee.[5]

For all of his imperfections, it should be remembered that Andrew Johnson did take a great risk in remaining in support of the Union. While his home in east Tennessee had a strong pro-Union contention as it “had no political commitments to slavery,” it was also an area that the Confederacy had strong reason to seek control of due to the Cumberland Gap and the potential threat that control of the Gap by the Union posed to their strength.[6] Thus, Johnson’s friends and family were caught in the crossfire of the conflict, and Johnson himself was shot at numerous times as he passed through the Cumberland Gap on the way to Washington, DC in 1861. At the time that he left, he had no way of knowing whether he would see his home again and, indeed, did not return to Greeneville for eight years.[7] His associates were arrested, his family was harassed, his home and property were seized and put to use for the Confederate cause, but still he pressed forward for the Union and advocated in Washington on behalf of the Unionists of east Tennessee.[8] Upon assuming the military governorship, Johnson was faced with more hardship as Union forces struggled to gain a foothold in Tennessee. As noted by his biographer Robert W Winston, “From September 15 to November 14, 1862, Nashville [the Union capitol] was in a state of complete siege – cut off from the outside world. It was then Andrew Johnson grew to a hero’s stature. The capitol building at Nashville, then called Fort Johnson, was fortified, and in the cupola the Governor and his staff often slept without removing their clothing…On November 5, 1862, a concerted attack on the city was made…As the Confederates approached the city Johnson and his staff ascended the cupola of the capitol and watched the battle line, surging and wavering to and fro. Presently the Union troops gave way and fell back towards the city…From his place, in the dome of the capitol, the lion-hearted Johnson thundered out, ‘I am no military man but any one who talks of surrender I will shoot.’”[9] While Johnson’s unwavering determination served him, the state of Tennessee, and the Union cause well during the War, this same quality would prove to be recharacterized as pig-headedness following the War when he succeeded Lincoln as President.

One early part of his presidency that was not discussed on the podcast was the Johnson administration’s response to the Lincoln assassination. Johnson himself was an intended target in the assassination, but George Atzerodt, the conspirator assigned to carry out the task, decided not to go through with it.[10] This decision, however, would not save Atzerodt from being executed along with three other co-conspirators. Johnson would issue the orders outlining the trial procedures, a military tribunal, and, in around two months’ time, would sign the execution orders recommended by the military commission.[11] Johnson would go on to be criticized, both during his time as president and by future historians, for the execution of Mary Surratt and the imprisonment of Dr. Samuel Mudd as being unjust.[12] However, his determination was to act speedily as was constitutional – the Sixth Amendment guarantees “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused…the right to a speedy trial.”[13] If nothing else, Johnson was a strict adherent to the Constitution as he saw it, which quickly brought him into conflict with Radical Republicans.

Unlike Lincoln, Johnson was not able to overcome and transcend the legacy of his past. Instead, he clung to ideas that the rest of the nation were beginning to move forward from, and because of his uncompromising nature, he would hear of nothing else. His biographer Hans Trefousse notes that “the seventeenth president unquestionably undermined the Reconstruction process and left a legacy of racism” and that “his limited world outlook, so typical of early nineteenth-century America, was no longer adequate” for the circumstances of an industrializing America.[14] Following his presidency, Johnson went on to become to-date the only ex-president to be elected as US Senator following his term in office, with his home state of Tennessee returning him to the office that he had held to represent their interests even when his state had turned its back on the Union. Johnson, upon learning of the result, asserted that “Well, well, well, I’d rather have this information than to learn that I had been elected President of the United States. Thank God for the vindication.”[15] However, he was not to hold the office long – he only served during a special session where he delivered an address critical of a resolution in support of his presidential successor Grant’s Reconstruction policy in Louisiana – before passing away on July 31st, 1875.[16] William Seward, Secretary of State under Lincoln and Johnson, referred to Johnson at the end of his term as “the great statesman of Tennessee.”[17] For better or worse, Johnson tried to serve his nation as he best saw fit, though he could not neither understand the new direction it was going in nor all of its citizens, newly freed and otherwise. The world would move on past the presidency of the last chief executive to date from the Volunteer State.

As always, if you’d like to read more on Johnson, I’ve listed some resources below. I’m hoping to post on Grant towards the end of the week, and we should finally be back on the regular posting schedule. Thanks for reading!

  • Castel, Albert E. The Presidency of Andrew Johnson. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1979.
  • Stewart, David O. Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.
  • Trefousse, Hans L. Andrew Johnson: A Biography. Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 2009 [1989].
  • Winston, Robert W. Andrew Johnson: Plebeian and Patriot. New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1928.
  • The Papers of Andrew Johnson (University of Tennessee) –
  • Andrew Johnson National Historic Site (National Parks Service) –
  • Mordecai Historic Park (includes Andrew Johnson Birthplace; City of Raleigh) –

[1] Due to competing family stories about where Jackson’s mother was when she gave birth and as folks in the Waxhaws often drifted across the border between North Carolina and South Carolina, it is not known if Andrew Jackson was born in NC or SC. Jackson himself felt that he was born in SC, but his museum is in NC. (Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Empire, 1767-1821. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. P. 4-5) There is no question, however, that James K Polk and Andrew Johnson were born in NC.

[2] Winston 51; Trefousse 76-78, 80, 119-122

[3] Trefousse also notes that Southerners were concern that the Homestead Act “might reduce the national revenue from land sales, necessitating renewed protective tariffs for raising needed government funds. (63, 119); Nevins, Allan. Ordeal of the Union: A House Dividing, 1852-1857. New York and London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947. P. 334-335; McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2001. p. 120

[4] The Homestead Act was enacted on 20 May 1862, and McPherson notes that “Before the war’s end, nearly 20,000 farmers had taken up three million acres under the law, which eventually accounted for the settlement and ownership of more than eighty million acres.” (404)

[5] Trefousse 152-153

[6] Williams, John Alexander. Appalachia: A History. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. P. 152-154; Trefousse 143

[7] Winston 198-199; Trefousse 142-143

[8] Trefousse 145-147, 150-151

[9] Winston 236

[10] Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. P. 738; Winston 279

[11] Trefousse 211-212; Winston 279-291; on an interesting sidenote, as noted by Winston, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who would be the Democratic nominee for president in 1880, and Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur and future Pres. Benjamin Harrison’s campaign biographer, were involved in the military trial. (282)

[12] McPherson 520; Winston 286-291

[13] National Archive. “Bill of Rights.” The Charters of Freedom. Last Accessed: 9 May 2016.

[14] Trefousse 378-379

[15] Trefousse 372

[16] Trefousse 373, 377; Winston 500-507

[17] National Intelligencer, 29 Mar 1869, as quoted in Stahr, Walter. Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. p. 531, 657

Published in: on 10 May 2016 at 19:01  Leave a Comment  


This week’s president is possibly the toughest to write about to date as there is already so much written about him already. I greatly enjoyed the approach that Ms. Cunningham and her guests (including the amazing Doris Kearns Goodwin) took on the Presidential podcast, but it leaves me with a tough task to provide something additional to the mix.

One of the aspects of the Lincoln administration that doesn’t get much attention in many accounts of the Civil War is the importance of foreign relations to the war effort. One of the first acts of the Confederate government upon taking office was to authorize, on February 13th, 1861, a three-man commission to travel to Europe in order to seek diplomatic recognition and to negotiate trade deals with the major powers. They felt that, especially with Britain, King Cotton would secure them that source of legitimacy, needed financial income, and possibly allies against the US. However, as described by Emory Thomas, “the Confederate diplomatic image was often unfocused.”[1] The Union didn’t curry any favor when they overzealously boarded a British mail ship, the Trent, in order to capture two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, on November 8th, 1861. Lincoln and his Cabinet spent the next few weeks attempting to find a diplomatic solution to smooth out British animosity over the “affront to the national honor” of Great Britain with Mason and Slidell ultimately being turned over to British authorities in a plan concocted by Secretary of State William Seward though with the announcement also containing an argument that the action had been justified and with no apology being granted. When presented to Lincoln and despite the initial opposition of most of his Cabinet, Lincoln ultimately agreed to it by saying to Seward, “I found I could not make an argument that would satisfy my own mind, and that proved to me your ground was the right one.”[2] Though Lincoln’s government would have later issues where they had to back down from previous precedent as “good relations with England must supersede…legal questions,”[3] they were ultimately able to ensure that recognition was delayed until the major Confederate defeats of Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 ensured that it would never come and that the Confederate government would be denied the shot in the arm that the financial and legal boost would have given them.[4] However, due to their having to devote so much time and resources to the war, the French were able to take advantage of the situation to conquer Mexico in a flagrant violation of the Monroe Doctrine.[5] Though the House of Representatives acted in the Davis Resolution in 1864 to condemn the action, due to political expediency, the Lincoln administration had to placate France long enough to successfully conclude the Civil War before taking action, and Lincoln would ultimately not be around to lead the response ultimately taken by his successor.[6]

The religious beliefs of presidents has been a frequent topic of conversation both in historical and more general circles. Especially with the more well-known presidents (Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln to name a few), there is a good deal of valid scholarly research alongside blatantly biased accounts. Even with the first biography that came out after his assassination, a work entitled The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Josiah G Holland, there is an attempt to paint Lincoln as “a Christian President” “who thought more of religious subjects than of all others, who had an undying faith in the providence of God” though his friends and colleagues said that they “don’t Know anything about Lincoln’s Religion, don’t think anybody Knew” and with one going so far to say that “Lincoln often if not whol[l]y was an atheist.”[7] However, as the war progressed, he did on rare occasions express a faith in something higher. IN particular, when announcing to his Cabinet that he intended to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, he told them that “I said nothing to any one; but I made the promise [that should Gen. Robert E Lee’s forces be driven out of Maryland in 1863] to myself, and (hesitating a little) to my Maker” that he would issue it.[8] Historians note that he was not alone in his more nebulous religious views as “By the 1850s relatively few Americans lacked a degree of loyalty toward one Christian denomination or another,” but he was well-versed and often turned to the Bible in his life as “the richest source of pertinent quotations” but in particular during the War to mobilize the war effort to the point that he was considered to have “deep religious feeling” and to be viewed as a latter-day “saviour of our country” and akin to the Biblical Joshua.[9] Indeed, his ability to inspire, both contemporaries and future generations, is one of the hallmarks of Lincoln’s life and story.

Lincoln’s influence would directly continue on to the administration of Theodore Roosevelt as Lincoln’s protégé John Hay served as first William McKinley’s then TR’s secretary of state. Lincoln’s influence on Hay is evidenced by a diary entry shortly before his death in 1905 in which he recorded having a dream about Lincoln. “I went to the White House to report to the President who turned out to be Mr. Lincoln. He was very kind and considerate, and sympathetic about my illness. He said there was little work of importance on hand. He gave me two unimportant letters to answer. I was pleased that this slight order was within my power to obey. I was not in the least surprised at Lincoln’s presence in the White House. But the whole impression of the dream was one of overpowering melancholy.”[10] Despite their own sometimes troubled relationship,[11] Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, would grow up with his father’s sense of public service and noted later on in life around the turn of the century that he tried to instill in his children the lesson that he had learned from his father of “the possibility of advancement from the most obscure beginning to even the highest place for a citizen of our country who is faithful to the principles on which the institutions are founded.”[12]

As described by Lincoln biographers William H Herndon (also Lincoln’s former law partner) and Jesse K Weik, “The truth about Mr. Lincoln is that he read less and thought more than any man of his standing in America, if not in the world.”[13] His thoughts and deeds have had and continue to have a profound influence on our world, and his importance in our history cannot be understated. As such, should you wish to think a bit more on him, there are numerous resources to which I could refer you to learn more about Mr. Lincoln, but I have included a few below. Next time, we’ll go back to another hated president and talk about the tailor from Tennessee – the one, the only Andrew Johnson. Thanks so much for reading!

  • Brookhiser, Richard. Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Basic Books, 2014.
  • Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
  • Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years. Boston: Mariner Books, 2002 [1926, 1939].
  • Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site (National Park Service) –
  • Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial (National Park Service) –
  • Lincoln Home National Historic Site (National Park Service) –
  • Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (State of Illinois) –
  • The Papers of Abraham Lincoln (Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum) –

[1] Thomas, Emory M. The Confederate Nation, 1861-1865. New York: Harper Perennial, 2011 [1979]. P. 81-84

[2] Goodwin 396-400

[3] Goodwin 517-518

[4] Thomas 243

[5] Thomas 186-187; Goodwin 690-691

[6] Stahr, Walter. Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. P. 394-395, 440-446, 464-466

[7] Carwardine, Richard. “Lincoln’s Religion.” Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World. Eric Foner, ed. New York and London: W W Norton & Co, 2008. P. 223-334

[8] As quoted in Goodwin 481-482

[9] Carwardine 225-226, 244, 246

[10] Taliaferro, John. All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013. P. 539-540

[11] As summarized in Wead, Doug. All the President’s Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families. New York: Atria Books, 2003. P. 175-183

[12] Emerson, Jason. Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln. Carbondale, IL and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. P. 373, 537

[13] As quoted in Carwardine 226

Published in: on 4 May 2016 at 19:02  Leave a Comment  


The Presidential podcast that’s the focal point of this post was about the president who is fairly consistently ranked at the bottom of the rankings. He’s the president who was on the job when South Carolina became the first state to ever secede from the Union. Six other states would follow before Lincoln’s inauguration. His affinity for Southerners allowed some of his southern Cabinet members and administration officials to divert resources to the South prior to their states seceding.[1] In four years’ time, he would go from being seen as “the most suitable man for the times” to being reviled by all sections of the country.[2] We are indeed talking about James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, arguably the most qualified man to assume the presidency by that point in our nation’s history but who is seen as an abject failure. What happened then? Ms. Cunningham and her guests touch upon that question, but I’d like to look a little more at Buchanan to see what we can find to help in understanding.

It should be remembered that Buchanan wasn’t an ineffective president because he didn’t put in the time and hard work. In fact, Buchanan is noted as having regularly worked sixteen-hour days during his four years as president.[3] However, he wasn’t all work and no play. He was also successful in repositioning the White House back into the center of Washington society with the assistance of his niece, Harriet Lane, who acted as First Lady during Buchanan’s tenure. For the first time in over a decade, the White House became a lively social gathering place with weekly dinners and other functions. Buchanan wrote to his liquor merchants a few weeks after the inauguration that they needed to not send champagne in small bottles as they had been as they “are very inconvenient in this house as the article is not used in such small quantities.”[4] He even managed to impress Queen Victoria herself by hosting her son, the (well into the) future King Edward VII, at the White House and on a cruise to Mount Vernon.[5]

Buchanan was the type of man who made both strong friends and even stauncher enemies. John Tyler, through the course of his life, vacillated in more public statements, but one gets the sense that his true feelings were expressed in this excerpt from a letter to his son, Robert Tyler, in 1851 – “To Mr. Buchanan I owe nothing of sympathy. He had none for me in my severe trials; and I was well informed, at the time, of his nods and smiles of approval whenever I was assailed in the Senate.”[6] In addition to the sectional conflicts threatening the unity of the nation, Buchanan and his administration was also the subject of an investigation in 1860 into allegations of various offenses that, had they been proven true, could have led to Buchanan’s impeachment. The committee was led by Rep. John Covode, a Republican from Buchanan’s home state of Pennsylvania, who would later on after the war introduce the resolution to impeach Buchanan’s successor in the executive office, Andrew Johnson. His first attempt at impeachment didn’t make it that far though as the committee could find no grounds to impeach Buchanan.[7]

By the time the possibility of reelection came around, he declared that “I am now in my sixty-ninth year and am heartily tired of my position as President.”[8] Reflective of the nation, his Cabinet disintegrated after the 1860 election, and he had to quickly pull in Northern replacements including a man who would play a large role in the Civil War – Edwin M Stanton. Stanton, better known as Lincoln’s Secretary of War, served for a few months as Buchanan’s Attorney General.[9] Despite efforts to pull together a peace conference to seek a peaceable resolution to the sectional crisis, Buchanan and his troubled lame-duck administration were able to do little to preserve the union, and he handed off the reins of power to Lincoln as Jefferson Davis was getting settled in to office as president of the Confederacy.[10]

As I’ve been delayed in getting this blog post out, it’s given me some time to think about Buchanan. There are some instances where presidents suffer in assessments of their record when compared to their predecessor or successor (think William Howard Taft or Harry S Truman). However, in Buchanan’s case, the criticism is justified. Buchanan aspired to be considered as great of a president as George Washington, but when faced with a challenge equal in magnitude to that as Washington faced in his life, he came up far short. I almost think his record worked against him. What made him a success as a Senator and diplomat was being tuned in to political expediency and the art of compromise. He was a successful politician, but the nation didn’t need a politician. It needed a commander in chief – a leader to make decisions and take action. In a twist that couldn’t have been imagined by anyone at the time, it was a disheveled lawyer from Illinois who would go on to match (or surpass in some estimations) the legend of Washington. We’ll talk more about him when I’m able to get the next blog post out, but in the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Buchanan, I’ve listed some resources below. Thanks so much for reading!

  • Binder, Frederick Moore. James Buchanan and the American Empire. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1994.
  • Birkner, Michael J. James Buchanan and the Political Crisis of the 1850s. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1996.
  • Klein, Philip S. President James Buchanan: A Biography. Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1995 [1962].
  • Smith, Elbert B. The Presidency of James Buchanan. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1975.
  • James Buchanan’s Wheatland [Lancaster History’s Historical Society] –
  • James Buchanan and Harriet Lane Johnston Papers [Library of Congress] –

[1] Goodheart, Adam. 1861: The Civil War Awakening. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2011. P. 83

[2] 15 Nov 1856, T R R Cobb to Howell, as quoted in Klein 260, 455

[3] Goodheart 80

[4] Klein 274-275

[5] Klein 350

[6] 17 Mar 1851, Tyler to R Tyler, as quoted in Tyler, Lyon G, ed. The Life and Times of the Tylers: Volume II. Richmond, VA: Whittet & Shepperson, 1885. P. 494

[7] Klein 338-340

[8] As quoted to Mrs. Polk (n.d.) in Klein 340, 462

[9] Klein 370-381

[10] Klein 388-402; Chitwood, Oliver Perry. John Tyler: Champion of the Old South. Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 2003 [1939]. P. 436-447

Published in: on 29 April 2016 at 17:25  Leave a Comment  

Reading and Marriage: A Dickensian Tale

Sometimes, my husband has to throw his hands up and wonder what to do with me. While we have many things in common, sometimes we are very different people. Case in point: I’m (almost done) reading Nicholas Nickleby and have been since January 21st. Though I wasn’t as diligent as I could have been in reading it (and have to admit that, at times, it did seem as if it was dragged out longer than necessary), I was determined to finish this Dickens classic. Why? Because a) I was an English major in college, and I feel that it is my duty to have more first-hand knowledge on an author who has played such a large role in English literature and b) I’m doing research on US history around 1840, so I was interested to see what insight this book might have on cultural norms of the time. I checked it out from the library and started reading, then I had to return it without renewing as it was requested. I managed to get a copy back but wasn’t able to complete before having to return it again. Thus, I did two things: 1) I bought a copy so that I wouldn’t have to worry about hitting a due date again and 2) I set up an Excel spreadsheet to plot out my reading per day to give myself benchmarks to meet in order to systematically complete the read.

It was around this point when Alex started shaking his head. While well-read, Alex is not a big reader. If he isn’t hooked within a few pages, then he puts the book down. He’s very particular about what he reads. When I know that I’m reading a book that Alex will never read, I talk to him about what’s going on with it. He’s shaken his head a great deal with Nicholas Nickleby and quipped, “That’s what I can’t stand about Victorian literature. It’s so over the top.” To be fair, I think that, were Dickens alive and writing in the late 20th/early 21st century, he would be best as a soap opera or serial drama writer. He asked the question of why I was reading this book and, after stating what I said above, I got another head shake. That wouldn’t come close to being a good reason for him to read this book. I don’t know if one could pay Alex to read Nicholas Nickleby.

For my part, as I’m wrapping up this read today, I find that I ended up enjoying it more than I thought but do think that it could have used some editing to make it a tighter story. I understand that it was written for a different time with people who had different reading sensibilities (i.e. longer attention span, less sensory distractions, etc.). When we were discussing it last night and I said something along these lines, Alex said, “I have not once heard anyone say that they love Dickens. I’ve heard people say pretty much what you said. ‘I respect his work,’ but not ‘I love his work.’ People love the Canterbury Tales. They love Dante’s Inferno. Dickens is just overdramatic and drawn out.” Maybe there’s something to that. As an English major, part of the ongoing debate in the field in the 21st century is whether there should be a canon of ‘must-read’ books. If so, then should that include the works that are most well-known or books of a certain caliber of writing or that have a certain purpose, then the question becomes who makes that call? In terms of my personal reading, what should be the criteria that I judge what I should read? Should I read works that have been deemed culturally significant, or should I only choose books that I want to read? Alex would say the latter. I’ll likely need to develop some Excel spreadsheets to analyze.

On a side note, we’ve talked about doing a read together as we’ve been together for nearly 14 years but have not once read a book together. I rarely have an opportunity to read with anyone, so it would mean a great deal to read at least one book with the person I’m closest to in the world. Deciding on a book is going to be the first challenge and will likely take a bit to choose. Judging from our interactions with the Nicklebys, we can definitively say that it will not be a Dickens book.

Published in: on 28 April 2016 at 13:01  Leave a Comment  


I do have to admit that when I saw James McPherson was going to be on this week’s Presidential podcast, I did a geeky internal dance of joy (and maybe an external squeal). McPherson’s Ordeal By Fire was the book used for my college Civil War and Reconstruction class, so I knew that he was a good authority for Ms. Cunningham to go to for this episode (and hopefully future episodes). Overall, I think this was a good assessment of Pierce’s career, but of course, there are a few more interesting stories and facts that didn’t make it into the podcast.

Besides the fact that Pierce was the only president who would not swear his inaugural oath but rather affirmed it, one other fact made the inauguration of 1853 unique – namely, that the vice-president was not there. Franklin Pierce ran with William R King of Alabama, a politician whose career on the national level stretched back to the early 1810s.[1] He gained his place on the ticket because of his close relationship with Polk’s former Secretary of State James Buchanan (more on that in a minute).[2] However, King was sick with tuberculosis and traveled to Cuba in January in order to restore his health. While he was in Cuba, through special authority granted by Congress, King was sworn in as Vice-President, becoming the to-date only Vice President sworn in on foreign soil.[3] King would remain there for an additional month following his inauguration but would depart for his home knowing that he was not long for this world. A day after returning home, he died.[4] Thus, he became the third vice president to die in office and to date the holder of the office with the shortest tenure who didn’t succeed to the presidency. Despite this, when King is remembered, it’s typically for another reason. This will likely be discussed in next week’s Presidential podcast, but King was very close friends with Buchanan, and tongues have been wagging ever since about just how close they were. Andrew Jackson called them “Aunt Fancy” and “Miss Nancy.”[5] Aaron V Brown, Buchanan’s future Postmaster General, called King Buchanan’s “better half.”[6] More to come on that next week.

Other than his vice-president, Pierce would prove to have the most stable Cabinet in history to date. All of his original appointees stayed in office till the end of Pierce’s term.[7] Though not as well known today, his Cabinet included some Democratic heavyweights including William L Marcy, who was a former Senator, former governor of New York, and Secretary of War in Polk’s Cabinet; Caleb Cushing, who had negotiated the first treaty with China back in Tyler’s administration; and probably the most familiar name out of the bunch, Jefferson Davis.[8] Though overshadowed by other national events, Pierce pushed for reform in each of his executive departments and indeed implemented civil service examinations. The civil service reform movement would really take off in the late 1800s, so Pierce’s efforts were very forward-thinking.[9]

Likewise, it was during Pierce’s term that the idea of a transcontinental railroad really began to take off. In an effort to accommodate a southern route for the railroad, James Gadsden was sent to Mexico and successfully negotiated what would come to be known as the Gadsden Purchase – what’s now the southern part of Arizona and New Mexico – for $10 million.[10] At a time when the nation was increasingly being pulled apart, there were still some dreaming of how to bring it closer together.

Pierce was also one who pushed for preparedness. As part of his reform efforts, he successfully advocated for strengthening and updating the technology utilized by the Army and the Navy.[11] His reforms likely saved the Union a number of steps when they had to turn its military force against the South in 1861. However, that did not save him from being turned out of office. Pierce in fact sought reelection and expected to receive the Democratic nomination again in 1856. However, that would not be. Buchanan took a lead in the first ballot and continued to build upon it until Pierce’s name was withdrawn and Buchanan got the nomination. Thus, in another first for the Pierce administration, he became the first (and to date only) sitting president to seek but not receive his party’s nomination for another term.[12]

Pierce’s reputation would sink even more during the 1860s as he publicly criticized Lincoln and his war policies.[13] Despite any concern over his personal standing being lowered even more by doing so, he would also visit his former Cabinet minister and friend Jefferson Davis during his imprisonment in Fortress Monroe following the war. Davis would write him a note of appreciation about “this day made bright by a visit by my beloved friend and ever honored chief.”[14] However, Pierce would later receive praise from his successor in office, Ulysses S Grant. In his memoirs, Grant wrote that “Whatever General Pierce’s qualifications may have been for the Presidency, he was a gentleman and a man of courage. I was not a supporter of him politically, but I knew him more intimately than I did any other of the volunteer generals.”[15] After a lengthy public career, Pierce would die alone with no family around him in his final days.[16] His friend Nathaniel Hawthorne would describe him as “so simple, so complicated,” and I think his legacy could be assigned the same descriptor.[17]

On that cheery note, I leave you this week. Next up is “Aunt Fancy” himself, James Buchanan. As always, should you like to find out more about Pierce, I’m including some resources below. Just a quick note, as I’ll be traveling part of the week next week, my post on Buchanan may be delayed, but I’ll try to get it written and posted as soon as I can. Thanks so much for reading!

  • Gara, Larry. The Presidency of Franklin Pierce. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1991.
  • Nichols, Roy Franklin. Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1931.
  • Wallner, Peter A. Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son. Concord, NH: Plaidswede Publishing, 2005.
  • Wallner, Peter A. Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union. Concord, NH: Plaidswede Publishing, 2009.
  • Franklin Pierce Papers (Library of Congress) –
  • Franklin Pierce Homestead (Hillsborough Historical Society) –

[1] McGuiness, Colleen, ed. American Leaders: A Biographical Summary, 1789-1994. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc, 1994. P. 28.

[2] Wallner I 201-202; Buchanan, as Pierce was deciding on his Cabinet, recommended in his letter of 11 Dec 1852 that he wait to confer with “Col. King” in Washington, DC before making his final decisions. Luckily, Pierce ignored this advice as he was not to meet in person with his Vice President ever again. (Wallner I 236, 292)

[3] Wallner II 21-22

[4] Wallner II 22

[5] Blechner, Mark J. Sex Changes: Transformations in Society and Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 2010. P. 7; Friend, Craig Thompson. “Sex, Self, and the Performance of Patriarchal Manhood in the Old South.” The Old South’s Modern Worlds: Slavery, Region, and Nation in the Age of Progress. L Diane Barnes, Brian Schoen, and Frank Towers, eds. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. P. 260; It should be noted that Jackson was not a fan of Buchanan, once supposedly remarking of his appointment of Buchanan as US Minister to Russia that “It was as far as I could send him out of my sight…” (Boller, Paul. Presidential Anecdotes. New York: Penguin Books, 1982. P. 118)

[6] Baker, Jean. James Buchanan. New York: Time Books, 2004. P. 75

[7] Wallner II 305

[8] Wallner II 6-7

[9] Wallner II 36

[10] Wallner II 75-80; It should be noted that when the treaty was delivered to him in Washington, DC, Pierce was so set against it due to various special clauses and conditions contained in it that he recommended not submitting it to the Senate at a Cabinet meeting. Finally, he did submit it after some edits and recommendations to the Senate for further changes. (Wallner II 89-90)

[11] Wallner II 41-43, 256

[12] Wallner II 228, 268-272

[13] Wallner II 337-349

[14] Wallner II 368

[15] Grant, Ulysses S; Long, E B, ed. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Cleveland, OH and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1952. P. 71

[16] Wallner II 372

[17] Wallner II 375

Published in: on 15 April 2016 at 18:58  Leave a Comment  


Ms. Cunningham admitted on this week’s Presidential podcast that she was having trouble planning out episodes for the ‘lesser known’ Presidents of the mid-1800s with Millard Fillmore to date being one of the worst. While I think she did an admirable job of hitting the high notes of Fillmore’s career, there are a few other items that, while they may not have gotten as much attention in his time, are worth mentioning.

Presidential scholars note that, in the time between Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt with the obvious exception of Lincoln and arguably Polk, there was a downgrade in executive leadership, less of a dynamic quality to those who served in the office. There was more of a majesty noted in public opinion of legislators at the time than the president.[1] However, that is not to say that the president was ineffectual, particularly in certain areas. With Fillmore serving as a prime example, the president, despite a seemingly diminished stature, was still typically heavily involved in foreign policy, and the fact that, shortly after assuming office, Fillmore took as his Secretary of State someone who had already served in the office, none other than Daniel Webster, is to his credit. As Fillmore did not come with a strong foreign policy background, he chose Webster to lead “the state Department, because he was a man of considerable experience in the matters of State…”[2] Fillmore issued the order for Commodore Matthew C Perry to travel to Japan to open relations with that country which had previously been closed off from the Western world.[3] The Japanese isolation policy had been in place for over two centuries, but it was by Fillmore’s order and Perry’s action that this policy was ended.[4]

Closer to home, Fillmore had to deal with the diplomatic problems that came with American filibusters. While also meaning a lengthy speech in a legislative body to stall action, “filibuster” is also a term that was used in the 1800s to describe adventurers from one country who ventured into another nation’s territory in order to throw off that nation’s power over the territory. The territory in this case was Cuba, and the leader of the filibusterers was Narciso López. He had previously made an attempt during the Taylor administration, but when another unsuccessful expedition was launched to Cuba, Fillmore had to respond. Due to his strong Southern tendencies and the prevailing Manifest Destiny attitude of the time, though Fillmore did not support the López filibustering, he also issued warnings to European powers who hoped to establish a tripartite agreement on Cuba and sent warships to the area that they would be unwelcome as the US had a greater interest in Cuba due to its closer proximity.[5] López was eventually executed by the Spanish after a third filibustering expedition failed, and Cuba remained under Spanish control.[6]

Fillmore was also faced with the question of whether to interfere in European politics when the leader of a failed revolution in Hungary, Lajos “Louis” Kossuth, came to the United States seeking support. Kossuth was highly popular in political circles of the time, but Fillmore ultimately opted to retain the American policy of neutrality in European affairs that had originally been put in place by George Washington himself.[7] One area that Fillmore did interfere in was to push for the creation of the Utah Territory in 1850 and his appointment of Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormon Church, as the first territorial governor. Mormonism was highly controversial at the time, and the practitioners of the new religion had been driven to the far west in order to be able to freely practice their religion. Fillmore’s action granted some legitimacy to Mormons, allowed them more of a say in running their own affairs, and prevented conflict that came when later administrations attempted to exert more control over Utah.[8]

As the election of 1852 neared, it became clear that Fillmore was not in favor, either within his party or in the government. The Whig National Convention snubbed Fillmore and, after a lengthy battle between Daniel Webster and General Winfield Scott, ended up choosing as their candidate the General derisively known as Old Fuss and Feathers.[9] This would be Webster’s last attempt for the presidency as he would die that October.[10] Fillmore in his defeat opted to focus on governance for his remaining term. However, that would prove to be difficult as his attempts to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in the same month of the Whig National Convention failed despite three different nominations, and the vacancy would ultimately be filled by incoming president Franklin Pierce.[11]

It was not mentioned on the podcast, but this would not be the last time that Fillmore ran for office. Indeed, in the 1856 election, Fillmore ran for president again on the American Party ticket. The American Party was a nativist (i.e. anti-immigration, anti-immigrant, and anti-Catholic) party that was also known as the “Know-Nothings” due to the admonition that members, when asked about party affairs, were to reply along the lines of “I know nothing.”[12] Fillmore only made nominal appeals to nativist talking points while campaigning and instead focused more on the threat to the Union from Republicanism, warning, “…you must see that if this sectional party succeeds it leads inevitably to the destruction of this beautiful fabric reared by our forefathers.” Despite having Andrew Jackson’s nephew, Andrew Jackson Donelson, as his running mate, Fillmore only won the state of Maryland and did not achieve even a million votes.[13] As noted in the podcast, Fillmore’s first wife died shortly after he left office, but he did remarry in 1858. Fillmore remained mostly in the periphery during the Civil War though, behind the scenes, he was critical of Lincoln and supported George McClellan’s presidential run in 1864.[14] Fillmore was attacked for his critiques of the administration during the War and even had his home vandalized after the death of Lincoln as he did not have the customary black drapery of mourning up. It turns out that he was out of town at the time and did ultimately put up the drapery as well as led a committee of Buffalo citizens to serve as an escort for part of Lincoln’s funeral train.[15]

Fillmore was not even admired amongst his fellow presidents. John Tyler described him as “a dead weight” upon his nomination as vice-president.[16] Woodrow Wilson noted in his seminal work, Congressional Government, that Daniel Webster was a more prominent figure than Fillmore.[17] He even got an ignominious mention in a Truman letter from 1945 when he imagined some of the lesser known presidents including Fillmore “deciding which was the more useless to the country.”[18] On his own, it is highly unlikely that Fillmore ever would have made it to the presidency. He just happened to be at the right place at the right time and is deserving of study due to his role in leading the nation during an increasingly turbulent time. His decisions, for better or worse, led to the destruction of the Whig Party and an increase in sectional disunity while at the same time broadening our global perspective and reach. Fillmore helped to push us towards war as well as to become a major power in the world postbellum. He was a man born poor who worked his way up to a modest living and ended up leading the nation. His decisions may at times be questionable, but he was the first in a series of presidents who came from humble beginnings and who made reality the dreams of the Founders that anyone could aspire to a higher purpose and calling in life, that truly anyone, not just a wealthy elite or an aristocracy, could lead our nation.

As always, thank you so much for reading! Should you wish to learn more about Fillmore, I’m including some resources below. I hope you’ll join me again next week as we discuss Franklin Pierce and his turbulent administration in the mid 1850s.

  • Grayson, Benson Lee. The Unknown President: The Administration of President Millard Fillmore. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1981.
  • Griffis, William Elliot. Millard Fillmore: Constructive Statesman, Defender of the Constitution, President of the United States. Ithaca, NY: Andrus & Church, 1915.
  • Raybach, Robert J. Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President. Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1992.
  • Scarry, Robert J. Millard Fillmore. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001.
  • Severance, Frank H, ed. Millard Fillmore Papers Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Buffalo Historical Society)
  • Millard Fillmore Presidential Site (Aurora Historical Society)


[1] White, Leonard D. The Jacksonians: A Study in Administrative History, 1829-1861. New York: MacMillan Co, 1967. P. 20-21; Nevins, Allan. Ordeal of the Union: Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847-1852. New York and London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975. P. 41-42.; Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. New York: Random House, 2001. p. 554

[2] Remini, Robert V. Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time. New York and London: W W Norton & Company, 1997. P. 684-685

[3] Rayback 314-317; Remini 712-713

[4] Morison, Samuel Eliot. “Old Bruin” Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1967. P. 262-263

[5] Rayback 322-324; Varg, Paul A. Edward Everett: The Intellectual in the Turmoil of Politics. Cranbury, NJ; Mississauga, ON, Canada; and London: Associated University Presses, 1992. p. 150

[6] Rayback 323

[7] Rayback 327-332; Remini 698-705; Holt, Michael F. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. p. 692-695

[8] Langguth, A J. Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. P. 370-371

[9] Rayback 356-362

[10] Rayback 365

[11] Hall, Kermit L, ed. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. P. 540, 967

[12] Nevins, Allan. Ordeal of the Union: A House Dividing, 1852-1857. New York and London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947. P. 323; Boller, Paul F, Jr. Presidential Campaigns. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984. P. 93.

[13] Rayback 394-396, 403-404, 406-414

[14] Rayback 427-430

[15] Rayback 428, 430

[16] Tyler to Robert Tyler, 14 Jun 1848, as quoted in Tyler II 460

[17] Wilson, Congressional Government 259

[18] 12 Jun 1945, Truman to Bess Truman, as printed in Ferrell, ed 515-516

Published in: on 8 April 2016 at 17:59  Leave a Comment  


Taylor is one of the presidents to whom I have difficulty relating. I’ve often wondered if the reason for that was more his character or the sparsity of materials available by which to understand him. Though Ms. Cunningham in this week’s episode of the Presidential podcast did a good job of covering most of the basics of Taylor, one important fact not mentioned is that most of his personal papers were either destroyed or lost when his son’s plantation was seized and burned by Union soldiers in 1862.[1] Thus, where we have volumes upon volumes worth of material for other presidents of the early republic, we have to rely more on what documents historians have been able to piece together and accounts of Taylor from newspaper and other figures of the time to get an idea of who he was. The whole man may forever be lost to us, but we can begin to get some basic impressions of him. Among past and future presidents, opinions of Taylor run the gamut. Polk, who as commander in chief had to issue orders to Taylor in the field during the Mexican War, complained that “It is perfectly manifest that Gen’l Taylor is very hostile to the administration and seeks a cause of quarrel with it. This he shall not have unless he places himself wholly in the wrong, as indeed he has already done. He is evidently a weak man and has been made giddy with the idea of the Presidency. He is most ungrateful, for I have promoted him, as I now think beyond his deserts, and without reference to his politics. I am now satisfied that he is a narrow minded, bigoted partisan, without resources and wholly unqualified for the command he holds.”[2] Ulysses S Grant, on the other hand, who served under Taylor in the field, wrote in his memoirs that “General Taylor was not an officer to trouble the administration much with his demands, but was inclined to do the best he could with the means given him. He felt his responsibility as going no further…No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage. General Taylor never made any great show or parade, either of uniform or retinue. In dress he was possibly too plain, rarely wearing anything in the field to indicate his rank, or even that he was an officer; but he was known to every soldier in his army, and was respected by all.”[3] Part of this difference can be understood in the personalities of the two commentators. Grant had much in common with Taylor in terms of style and leadership approach while Polk was more of a politician and felt Taylor deficient in the qualities based more in political terms that he saw as essential in leadership.

One thing that should be noted is that Taylor was set to go on a tour of the New England states in September of his first year in office.[4] While in the modern day when a president may travel to another part of the nation once a week, at the time, most presidents tended to stay in Washington, DC with their only travel being home when Congress wasn’t in session. Though Taylor was the 12th president, he was only the fifth (the others being Washington, Monroe, Jackson, and Tyler) to make a tour of a section of the nation while president.[5] Likewise, oddly enough, Taylor arguably saw more of the nation than any other president before. As noted in the podcast, his military postings took him to far-flung corners of the United States.[6] Unfortunately for Taylor and boding ill in light of what was to come, Taylor had to cut his intended trip to New England short after reaching Pennsylvania when he began to suffer from gastrointestinal problems. Returning to Washington, he recovered quickly and resumed the New York portion of the trip but did not make it to New England.[7] He would also make a couple of quick trips to Baltimore and Richmond.[8]

Though dismissed on the podcast as an inconsequential treaty, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty was the first mostly[9] successful attempt by the US to extend the Monroe Doctrine to ensure the sovereignty of other nations in the Western Hemisphere against attempts by a major European power to establish new territories. It also solidified an idea of an internationalization of a Central American canal that had been thought of but wouldn’t be realized until the early 20th century. This treaty formed a large foundation of our national policy towards Central America for the rest of the 19th century until it was replaced by the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty of 1901.[10]

Likewise, though derided as being a lackluster Cabinet, Taylor’s Cabinet does reflect some of the leading figures of the time, and Taylor’s original intentions were to bring in more heavyweights. John M Clayton, Taylor’s Secretary of State, had been heavily promoted (but in the end unsuccessfully) for a position in the Cabinet of William Henry Harrison by none other than Henry Clay. Taylor also tapped former Harrison Cabinet member Thomas Ewing to be the first Secretary of the Interior.[11] John J Crittenden, another Harrison appointee, was offered the State Department but declined.[12] Abbott Lawrence, an intimate of Whig leaders in the 1830s and 1840s, was offered the position of Secretary of the Navy but turned it down as he really wanted the Treasury but had been passed over.[13] Ms. Cunningham mentions Henry Clay as one of the leaders passed up for a role in the Cabinet, but Clay turned 77 soon after Taylor’s inauguration and was still recovering from a number of recent family deaths as well as a recent injury that even kept him from attending the short session of the Senate after the inauguration to confirm Cabinet members.[14] Taylor was considered old at age 65 and Daniel Webster, when called back into service by Fillmore in 1850, was 68. It fits with Taylor’s notions of wanting to appeal beyond party that Taylor would seek to keep the old guard at arm’s length. As noted by Clay in a letter in late 1849, “I have been treated with much consideration by the President and most of his cabinet; but I have had yet no confidential intercourse with the President.”[15] While this could be looked at as a slight, Clay was increasingly seen as being out of touch both with the party and the nation as a whole. It could be that Taylor, like others, felt that Clay’s time had come and gone and what was needed was something new under the sun.[16]

The one other point I think important to bring up is the assertion in the podcast that Taylor’s stance on the California issue may have accelerated the timeline leading up to the Civil War. I think it important to note that the issue of secession had been on the table for quite some time. Even as early as the debate over the admission of Missouri as a slave state in 1819-1820, there was a threat of the south leaving the union if they didn’t get their way.[17] Thus, Taylor was in a position assuming office of having to stave off the threat of secession. His only annual message to Congress in December 1849 gives some clues as to how he intended to do so. He was strong in his support for immediate statehood of California and New Mexico, with both of them entering as free states. He ended the message with the statement, “Whatosoever dangers may threaten it [the Union], I shall stand by it and maintain it in its integrity.” As Taylor’s biographer K Jack Bauer argues, “In general, the message demonstrated how much political naïveté had chipped off Taylor during his first nine months in office.”[18] Indeed, Taylor was preparing for a major Cabinet shake-up in order to lead a push forward with the administration’s agenda when he died.[19] There are two important things to note about this. First, while Taylor was obviously more aggressive and less willing to compromise, he knew that he was ultimately in the stronger position. Neither the Union nor the proponents of secession were prepared for a civil war, but the Union could get prepared far more easily than southern dissidents. Second, it would be difficult to rally the south with an argument of northern aggression as was heard in 1860 against a Union led by a southerner. I have heard it postulated that an earlier timeline for the war might have ended with a recognized Southern nation due to the 1850-1860 period allowing the North to build up more industrially while the South continued to fall behind, but I have to wonder if the Union forces would not have been victorious ten years prior to the actual war as well, especially if Old Rough and Ready was leading the Union against the south. Taylor was the first president since Andrew Jackson to take a strong stance against secessionists, and one has to wonder if, by taking a strong stance, he could have stemmed the tide to squash the rebellion before it flared up or made quick work of any secessionist forces before they had a chance to get well-organized. He did not seem willing to agree to the compromise that was highly favorable to the South that Fillmore agreed to. Indeed, the strengthened Fugitive Slave Law in the Compromise of 1850 was one of the largest points of contention in the North in the ten years leading up to the war, and obviously the Compromise did not pacify the Southern leaders. Could Taylor’s boldness have saved us from war? We will never know as his untimely death set us on the path that became our history, but next week, we’ll discuss his successor, Millard Fillmore. Until then, although there aren’t many, I’ve listed some resources on Taylor below for anyone interested in learning more about Old Rough and Ready. Thanks for reading!


  • Bauer, K Jack. Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
  • Hamilton, Holman. Zachary Taylor: Soldier of the Republic. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Co, 1941.
  • Hamilton, Holman. Zachary Taylor: Soldier in the White House. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Co, 1951.
  • Smith, Elbert B. The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1988.
  • Zachary Taylor National Cemetery (US Dept of Veterans Affairs) –
  • Papers of Zachary Taylor (Library of Congress) –


[1] Bauer xxi

[2] 22 Nov 1846, Diary Entry, reprinted in Quaife, ed II p. 249-250

[3] Grant 47

[4] Bauer 268

[5] Information about his predecessors’ tours can be found with numerous sources, but for some sources that are familiar to me: Washington – Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2010. P. 608-613 (northern tour), 650-655 (southern tour); Monroe – The entire first volume of the Papers of James Monroe is a documentary history of his tours: Preston, Daniel, ed. The Papers of James Monroe, Volume I: A Documentary History of the Presidential Tours of James Monroe, 1817, 1818, 1819. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 2003 (Tyler traveled extensively through the north, south, and west); Jackson – Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. P. 62-83 (his tour of New England; it erroneously claims that Tyler was the only president after Jackson and before the Civil War to take a similar lengthy tour); Tyler – p. 319-325 (trip to New England to commemorate the newly finished Bunker Hill Monument)

[6] More details of his career can be found in Bauer 11-251, but during the course of his career, he was stationed in what is now IN, FL, LA, MO, OK, TX, and WI.

[7] Bauer 268-270

[8] Bauer 271-272

[9] The British did establish a ‘colony’ in 1852 off the coast of Central America that was in violation of the Treaty, but for the most part for the rest of the century, their activities were restricted by a “protectorate” that had been established prior to the Treaty. ::FIND CITATION

[10] Bauer 283-286; the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, ratified by the Senate on 6 Dec 1901, established sole American management and fortification rights of a canal across Central America, see Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. New York: Random House, 2001. P. 25-26 and Taliaferro, John. All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013. p. 396-397, 412-413

[11] Bauer 262

[12] Bauer 249

[13] Bauer 260-261

[14] His son, Henry Clay Jr, died in the Mexican War in July 1847. Clay biographer Remini refers to his namesake as “His [Clay’s] favorite son, his namesake, on whom he had pinned his greatest hopes…” Remini, Robert V. Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union. New York and London: WW Norton & Co, 1991. (hereafter referred to as “Remini Clay”) p. 685; following that death, the Clay family suffered a series of deaths in 1848 including a “favorite grandson,” James Erwin, Jr, who committed suicide; his niece Lucretia; and his son-in-law, Martin Duralde, Jr, see Remini Clay 711; for Clay’s injury, see Remini Clay 716-717

[15] 15 Dec 1849, Clay to Mrs. J B Clay, as quoted in Bauer 266

[16] Former Clay supporters even turned to Taylor over Clay in 1848 as they felt that Clay would lead the party to defeat again, despite Clay’s efforts to rally support for another presidential run, see Remini Clay 691-698, 711; he also had trouble finding a proper balance on the slavery issue to satisfy northern and southern Whigs, see Remini Clay 705-706

[17] Thomas Jefferson even said that the Missouri question “…like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence.” 22 Apr 1820, Jefferson to John Holmes, Founders Online, National Archives ( [last update: 2016-03-28]).

[18] Bauer 298-300

[19] Bauer 312-313

Published in: on 1 April 2016 at 18:41  Leave a Comment  
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