Category: Biography

“Grant” by Ron Chernow Review

Grant

Grant

Author:  Ron Chernow

Released:  2017

Grant has been vilified as an incompetent president for the scandals on his watch. Attacking him on that issue became a convenient tool for Reconstruction opponents who sensationalized his failings through congressional hearings and a strident press. But corruption had flourished in American politics since the heyday of Andrew Jackson. Page 854

It’s difficult to look objectively at modern politicians without the context of an historical overview. One gets the impression that living through Grant’s two terms as president was a daily barrage of scandals that would seriously damage the credibility of the man holding office. In addition, his actions that are most favorable historically were severely opposed by half of the country, and only moderately supported by the other half. With over 100 years of hindsight, Grant stands as one of the great presidents due to his accomplishments and policies in office; the numerous scandals appear much more minor in significance.

Certainly there are other factors as to why Grant stands so well regarded. His meteoric rise to General of the Northern army during the Civil War would guarantee him a prominent place in American History even had he never taken office. If there’s one take away I got from reading Chernow’s book however, it’s that flawed men (or even deeply flawed administrations) can still be the right individuals for the job.

Born into – Born Hiram Ulysses Grant in southern Ohio, the man famously known as U.S. Grant actually had a different name. Not until a clerical mistake in his enrollment at West Pointe did he become Ulysses S. Grant, with no middle name attached to it. Grant’s father Jesse ran a tannery (Grant had zero interest in this, hating both the smell and the wanton slaughter of animals), and had habit of moving to bigger cities every few years. Jesse was eventually even successful enough to be elected mayor. The Grant family was original democrat, but switched to the Whig party (and strong abolitionist) around the time of William Henry Harrison’s presidential election.

Early stories of Grant are very reminiscent of George Washington. Grant was very a honest child. Instead of a cherry tree, the best anecdote that has been passed down about Grant was when he was tasked with negotiating to buy his dad a horse. “I’m to offer you $20 first, but to go up to $25 if that’s what it takes” he told the seller. Grant purportedly didn’t flinch at hearing gun shots at the age of 2, and could ride a wild horse on one foot by age 5 (this one seems more likely as stories of his horseback riding prowess occur throughout his military career).

Grant’s Early education was modest, but his father was able to pull strings to get Grant sent to West Point. This involved getting a sponsor that was a Congressman. Grant didn’t want to go as he didn’t believe he could succeed there. Once enrolled it gave him a strong sense of loyalty to the United States government and the concept of the Union. 2.5 out of 5.

Pre-President – Grant graduated from West Point as a private in the middle of his class; however looking at the number of candidates who began in class with him and then dropped out, he was in better than top 25% of candidates overall. From West Point he was then dispatched to St. Louis before getting involved in the Mexican American War conflict. Grant began the war as a Lieutenant and was successful across the board during the war. Eventually he was promoted to Quartermaster, which although was much less flashy than some roles during the war, certainly prepared him for the complicated logistics of running the entire military later on in his career. Grant served first under Zachary Taylor, who Grant respected and emulated. As a soldier, there were no allegations that Grant was anything but brave and willing in battle, and one incident where he raced a horse through enemy territory was regaled for years afterward. When Winfield Scott took over, Grant praised his military mind but little else about the man. After the Mexican American War, Grant was involved in the Temperance movement and swore off alcohol. There were the beginnings of signs that he had a drinking problem and was aware of it. When he was stationed in California without his wife and (at that time) two children he resumed drinking.

Grant’s first exit from the military is an amazing story of what somebody can bounce back from. When he was transferred to a different commanding officer in California, Grant was put on notice for his drinking problem. Essentially, he was made to write a resignation and leave it undated, with the understanding that if he had another drunken episode he would have to resign. Grant had another drunken episode, and resigned (as a Captain). He tried to get back home to his family including one child he had never met and was nearly two years old. Everybody that Grant did business with or had invested money with ended up being a crook and Grant was penniless and stranded on the wrong side of the country. Eventually he got a free ride to New York, where he stayed until being rescued by his family (there is some historical evidence he was even jailed for drunken behavior at this time). Once he got back to his wife, his options were limited and his best one was to farm the 60 acres her parents had given for their wedding and sell wood in the winter time. His financial troubles continued for years, until he went back to Illinois to work for one of his dad’s companies (and below his two younger brothers) as a clerk. The timing on this was fortuitous however, as it placed him an area where he could rapidly advance in the military as the Civil War began.

Given the initial rank of Colonel in Illinois army, Grant was quickly promoted to Brigadier General before any conflicts even took place. Grant was fast tracked because of friends from Illinois (primarily Elihu Washburne) advocating for him and Lincoln giving his home state more generals than any other. Grant was well aware of what caused his previous fall from grace and enforced alcohol use/abuse strictly in his command. In addition he made his Chief advisor John Rawlins take an oath to prevent him from Grant from drinking. Unlike many of his northern contemporaries Grant was successful in his first three conflicts, capturing a city before Rebels could reinforce it, then capturing 2 forts, one of which was fairly heavily defended. The success gained Grant national acclaim as the most successful Northern General from the very beginning of the war as well as a promotion to Major General. Those above him (Halleck and McClellan) were both overly cautious and ambitious, and as a result resented Grant for his success and even wanted him jailed for failure to send daily updates afterwards. It took Lincoln stepping in and telling them the red tape wasn’t the most important thing at this time.

Grant’s first major fight was the Battle of Shiloh, at the time the bloodiest of the Civil War with more deaths than the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican American War combined. There is some evidence Grant’s army was surprised and unprepared when they were attacked by Rebels, which led to many casualties, but Grant’s resolution kept Union forces from surrendering territory. Grant was also unique in his willingness to pursue the Confederates instead of taking time to regroup, correctly understanding that defeating the opposing army would be the key to winning the war. Although the Battle was basically a draw, the Union claimed victory for keeping the territory. When Halleck was momentarily promoted to McClellan’s role of head of the army, Grant became the military general for most of the Western war front.

The single action that looks the worst historically in Grant’s career was his military order removing all Jewish merchants from the area. Spurred on by a few bad apples in the area and his dad’s work bringing in merchants attempting to scam the Union Army, Grant took his frustrations out on the entire Jewish population in his area. Although repealed within 30 days and included among his life’s greatest regrets, the action did have terrible outcomes for many individuals removed from their homes and ostracized by the military.

Grant’s campaign to capture Vicksburg is still recognized as one of the greatest military campaigns in American history and on its own should be sufficient to rebuke his inferiority as a General to Robert E. Lee. Chernow compared the two men, stating Lee would fight you on your front porch, while Grant would fight you in the kitchen and bedroom (meaning Lee was great head to head in a battle, but Grant had a better view for choking off resources and winning a war.) Unfortunately, it was followed up by possibly the worst display of public drunkenness in his career as he fell off a horse in New Orleans in between the Vicksburg and Chattanooga campaigns. Reports vary as to how drunk he was, but Grant’s superb horsemanship underlies the fact supports the allegation as he fell of broke his leg and was sidelining him for 2 months. Most of Grant’s alcohol episodes occurred in private, at non-critical times and out of sight of all but those closest to him during war.

Grant strongly supported the Emancipation Proclamation and was an early adopter of utilizing “Colored troops regiments.” He believed not only they could be useful with manual labor but could also serve and fight bravely in battle, something he bonded with Lincoln over following his success in Vicksburg. The Chattanooga campaign was nearly as impressive as Vicksburg, with Grant’s arrival when the existing troops were less than two weeks away from surrendering due to starvation. Grant fixed the supply infrastructure, and reversed positions securing the city and chasing out the Rebel threat. Following this campaign, Grant was made only the third Lieutenant General in U.S. History, following Washington and Winfield Scott. His delegation style leadership not surprisingly worked well with competent generals but not effective with poor generals. Grant gave great leeway to Sherman and Sheridan and was rewarded for it. Coordinating the attack on multiple fronts, Grant did what no other general before him could do and took the will out of the Rebels at great casualties to both sides

Grant’s handling of Lee’s surrender was in accordance with Lincoln’s wishes. Chernow praised how Grant allowed Eastern generals to get victories and Southerners to surrender gracefully in laying groundwork for easier reunification. Likewise, he helped clean up Sherman’s blunder in granting special terms to Johnston’s surrendering army, but still allowed Sherman to take credit for the surrender. Throughout the end of the war, Grant formed a friendship with Lincoln communicating with him in person and over telegraph frequently.

Grant’s initial trip to the south after the Civil War had him optimistic at southerners willingness to accept the new status quo. However, the actual situation (and Johnson’s handling of it) made it clear that was not the case and Grant needed to use Federal troops to enforce laws to protect free blacks. In addition, Grant passed orders such as “No law can be enforced against blacks which is not also being enforced against the rest of the population.” Under his direction, armies removed elected individuals from office who did not prosecute white criminals, and even threatened to shut down public transportation if it didn’t provide for blacks as well as whites. In doing so, he became the most powerful person in protecting Freedmen in the country. This was despite having a president who was doing everything he could to thwart Republican reconstruction, including removing Grant’s generals who were must successful at making a difference. Grant was tangentially involved in Johnson’s impeachment drama, as Johnson had attempted to name Grant Secretary of War in violation of the Tenure of Office Act. 5 out of 5.

Presidential Career – Grant stayed away from campaigning for the presidency, instead letting the position come to him. Grant won in a landslide electoral vote, though popular vote was much narrower. He definitely benefitted from the African American vote, which was substantial prior to the obstruction that would take place soon after. One of biggest powers of the President during that era was patronage. Grant was as bad as anybody with nepotism, giving jobs to just about anybody who had helped him out or was related to him. On the positive side, Grant gave hundreds of positions to blacks and Jewish people, including the first Ambassador positions to the former and Governorship to the latter. Grant came in with strong preference to assimilate Indians into Christian culture, and appointed various religious figures to assist with this. Although it would not be politically correct now, it was a more humane approach than many of his contemporaries who preferred relocation or genocide for the natives.

Grant also favored annexing the Dominican Republic if possible, however it was thwarted by opposition in Congress. Some of the only support for this plan came from individuals who would benefit monetarily in a direct manner. Along with the first Black Friday scandal (where gold was bought up artificially inflating the prices prior to the treasury then correcting the market) it appeared that individuals that surrounded Grant were unscrupulous and attempting to benefit from government decisions while Grant was ignorant of the conflicted parties until after the fact. While in office, the 15th Amendment was passed giving all men right to vote. His participation was the opposite of Andrew Johnson, in that he supported it and lobbied for its passage.

The size and power of Federal government grew considerably during Civil War and continue to do so under Grant. The Departments of Education and Agriculture were created during his first term. The Department of the Interior established the first ever National Park during Grant’s presidency. Most importantly, the Justice Department gave the Attorney General much more power, and Grant’s Attorney Generals filed thousands of indictments against Ku Klux Klan members while state governments did little or nothing. Mass murders of blacks and republicans in Louisiana and Mississippi during Grant’s reconstruction era have largely been forgotten by the general public but were unique emergencies that he had to deal with despite great opposition by Congress and Northerners fatigued with the “black problem” in the south. Grant stayed firm in his decision to keep federal armies present to enforce existing laws and arrest lawbreakers. Grant also signed into law the first Civil Rights Act, which although weak in enforcement provisions was the first of its kind. It was overturned by the Supreme Court several years later and another was not passed until the landmark act of the 1960’s.

America’s relationship with Britain was strained at the start of Grant’s presidency, as many Northerners held Britain accountable for the war lasting as long as it did based on aid given to the Confederates through ships and shipyards. Grant’s cabinet (in particular highly regarded Secretary of State Hamilton Fish) accomplished successful mediation with Britain via a five person committee that signaled the beginning of our long standing position as allies.

The Whiskey Ring scandal was the biggest scandal of Grant’s Presidency, even causing him to have to give a deposition while he was in office. It centered on Orville Babcock (a member of his cabinet) working with Whiskey producers to avoid paying taxes on their product in exchange for a cut of the profits. As with all of the scandals (and there were plenty of others, including one involving his brother Orvil and Indian trader posts), all evidence pointed to Grant being unaware of it and just trusting the wrong people in power.

Grant did have one final instance when Federal troops were needed in Mississippi to safeguard black and Republican voters and chose not to assis. Letters and from the time show he was willing to send them in but was convinced by his Attorney General and members of the Ohio government that the Mississippi Governor hadn’t done everything needed to require federal intervention, and that additional government interference in the south would alienate voters in the Ohio elections, costing power for the only party willing to support or protect Freedmen. It was another of Grant’s regrets late in his life.

Although Grant’s general policy with Native Americans was more peaceful than his predecessors, it was unfortunately marred by the Black Hills incidents and massacre of Custer’s troops at Little Big Horn. Ultimately it boiled down to either honoring treaties with Native Americans granting them the Black Hills, or using Federal troops to fight off prospectors which Grant believed his troops would not do.

The final controversy for Grant to deal with was the election of his successor. Three southern states had dueling factions claiming victory for both the Republican and Democrat candidates. The biggest fraud was certainly in the Democrat side who terrorized republicans from voting, but subsequent moves by both sides jeopardized the counting process. Grant appointed a bipartisan group (8 republicans, 7 Democrats) to decide on the winner of each state which ended up going 3-0 Republican and giving Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency. Despite the scandals, Grant stood firm on protecting the rights of blacks in the south, and even with a financial crash mixed in left the economy stronger on the global scale than it had been before through both an increased government size while still being backup up by the gold standard. 4.5 out of 5.

Vice President – Grant’s first Vice President was Schuyler Colfax from Indiana, also known as “Smiler” Colfax. Seemed to be well liked by everybody and had bright future ahead of him as of election. Colfax accepted stock in Credit Mobilier, which got lumped into another scandal of Grant’s presidency, declined a bid for reelection.

Henry Wilson of Massachusetts was a radical republican who operated a shoe factory and was the individual elected vice president for the second term. Neither man was again referenced in this biography and it was not uncommon at that time for Vice Presidents to not work with the sitting president outside of a campaigning capacity. 2 out of 5.

First Lady – With Julia Dent, Grant love at first sight. This was surprising to some, as Ms. Dent’s most prominent feature was a lazy/crossed eye. Dent came from a wealthy slaveholder family. Her father did not approve of Grant, and delayed their engagement for years. Grant’s only allegation of infidelity with Dent is an unsubstantiated/dubious claim that he fathered a baby with a Native American woman while out in California prior to the Civil War. During those early years of Grant’s marriage (particularly when he was sent to California) it appears Grant was very worried and jealous about his wife’s life away from him; he would frequently send her letters and she was much more sporadic in her responses, even in telling him she had given birth.

Grant was in a situation where although he opposed slavery, his wife supported it and her family even gave them their own slaves at times that they lived in Missouri. True to his word, when title to a slave was transferred to him for the first time, he went to the courthouse and gave the 35 year old man his freedom. This was even despite Grant being poor and obviously able to benefit financially from selling the man.

Mary Lincoln’s poor treatment toward Grant’s wife was a main factor for why Grants didn’t also go to Ford Theater with the president, where he was also an assassination target along with Lincoln.  Dent loved being First Lady, and took to hosting social events and even having ambassadors wives over in semi-official capacities.  Grant hid his decision not to run for a third term (basing it on all of the scandals towards the end of his 2nd term, as well as the appearance that he would not be a unanimous choice for the Republican Party for the first time) from his wife.  Julia took it as an affront to her, as she was accustomed to her role and still believed Grant was the only suitable choice for president.  Grant, knowing this would be the case, waited until he had mailed off his official statement that he would not seek a third term before telling her.  Perhaps her greatest attribute was that she always believed in the greatness of her husband, even when he was working as a clerk in Illinois and apparently no prospects for advancement.  3.5 out of 5.

Post Presidency – Once Grant was out of office, he took a trip around the world.  Starting in England and proceeding through France, Prussia and even becoming the first (former) president to visit Jerusalem.  Before coming home he moderated a dispute between Japan and China, becoming the first ex-president to take such a role in foreign affairs.  When Grant returned he campaigned openly for Garfield to win the following presidential election, once again something that was not done by prior presidents.

Unfortunately, Grant had another major scandal after leaving office.  Along with his sons, the group formed an investment firm called Grant & Ward based on the investing of Ferdinand Ward.  Ward seemed to be a miracle worker who would make massive returns on all investments.  The method to his success was what is now known as a Ponzi scheme.  Grant, always trusting, never reviewed any of the statements or looked into what was happening.  When the bubble burst, Grant and his kids were all broke and Ward ended up doing time in prison.

Desperate for money,  Grant accepted an offer to write a series of articles about various battles during the Civil War.  After some initial struggles with his style, Grant settled in and delivered very compelling work.  The publisher then requested an autobiography, which Grant began on.  He was later convinced by Mark Twain to have Twain publish the book, in return for a better financial return.  The book, which does not even go into his presidency, family or alcohol problems, was a massive success.  Selling over 300,000 copies (600,000 if you count each volume of it), it rivaled <i>Uncle Tom’s Cabin</i> for most successful book of the century.

Grant’s lifetime habit of smoking cigars led to throat cancer at the end of his life.  In the end, he gave up smoking, alcohol, and focused on finishing his book.  When he died he had slimmed down below 100 lbs, but had also been given back his pension as a general via an act passed by Congress.  He was buried in the impressive memorial now known as Grant’s tomb, along with his wife (who survived him by several years).  Although much of what he accomplished is common place now, for the era he was a trendsetter in his role as ex president.  4 out of 5.

Book Itself – Chernow is definitely the best biographer I’ve read so far, delivering a wonderful book on Washington and another now about Grant.  Perhaps he has benefited by selecting such interesting subjects, getting to write about compelling topics such as war and its aftermath.  Even in the quieter moments of Grant’s life however, Chernow creates a well rounded picture of a human being.  One impression I had of Grant in reading this book was that outside of the military he was a pushover.  Besides allowing himself to go by the wrong name for his entire career, he had a habit of not collecting debts from people who owed him money, and allowing those closest to him to take advantage of him with no consequences afterward.

Overall though, I came away really liking Grant and loving this book.  Grant was well liked by his troops and fellow officers that he served with, mainly due to his willingness to live under the same conditions and do the same work he asked of his soldiers, as well as his willingness to treat people with dignity regardless of who they were.  He seemed aware of his flaws and did what he could to prevent them from derailing him a 2nd time in his life.  Beyond the author connection, Grant seemed so much like Washington.  Both had anecdotes about their inherent strength as children, both were soldiers thrust into roles that seemed impossible and ended up victorious.  While Washington was the only founding father to free his slaves upon his death, Grant is the only politician I’ve read about to actual free his slaves prior to death or being legally obligated to.  America after the Civil War was nearly as blank a slate as America after the Revolutionary War.  While Washington set precedents we still follow today and held the office with incredible grace, we can directly compare how other presidents handled Reconstruction in Johnson and Hayes, and see how Grant’s methods were far more just, and necessary, than any of his peers.  Underrated as a General, and as a president, this was one of the best presidential biographies I’ve read.  5 out of 5.

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“Andrew Johnson: A Biography” by Hans L. Trefousse Review

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson: A Biography

Author:  Hans L. Trefousse

Released:  1989

“I am unwilling, of my own volition, to walk outside of the Union which has been the result of a Constitution made by the patriots of the Revolution… So far as I am concerned, and I believe I may speak with some degree of confidence for the people of my State, we intend to fight that battle inside and not outside of the Union, and if anybody must go out of the Union, it must be those who violate it.”

It’s amazing to think how different U.S. history could have been if Andrew Johnson did not replace Hannibal Hamlin as Vice President for Lincoln’s second term. I’m still working my way through Presidential biographies chronologically, so it was a bit jarring going from who many consider to be the best president ever (Lincoln) to arguably the worst president: Andrew Johnson. I knew by reputation that Johnson was not well regarded as a president, primarily being famous as the first president to be impeached. However, I went into this with an open mind as history had showed me that the southern presidents prior to the Civil War (Polk, Tyler, etc.) had come across much better than the northern presidents (Pierce, Buchanan, etc.) as they tended to compromise more toward the historically correct position of being anti-slavery. On top of that, Johnson was the only southern Senator to not support secession, and was as firmly pro-Union as any northern man. I mean, just read that quote at the top of the review. From his humble beginnings and thrust into the ultimate no win situation, this should have been a no-brainer for an all time great president. However, upon further reading, Johnson was as bad as his reputation suggests, at least once he actually made it to the oval office.

Born into – Along with Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson has the best origin story of any president. Born in North Carolina, and not the eldest son, his parents were humble; they were employees not owners of businesses. On top of that, Johnson’s father died when he was young and there were even rumors that his siblings had different parents. Andrew Johnson was never sent to school, instead he was placed in an apprenticeship with a tailor. Johnson began this apprenticeship and got training but left before fulfilling the full seven year contract. (The long contract was standard for the era, but was also very advantageous for the tailor and a hardship for the actual apprentice.) 5 out of 5.

Pre-president – After ditching out on his apprenticeship, Johnson moved to Tennessee, where he (of course) worked as a tailor. In the developing state, he was very successful and also had a knack for profiting from his business and investing in other properties. Politically, Johnson began more as an Independent, with leanings both toward what was then the Whig and Democrat parties. Johnson began his political career as an Alderman, then ascended to town Mayor. After that he progressed to State representative and then State senator. After voting against Democrats on railroad issue early in his career, he lost his only election of his pre-presidential career and became a strictly party lines Democrat for years afterward.

Johnson’s areas where he stood out voting included going against daily prayer and the 3/5 compromise. It wasn’t that Johnson was against religion or supported black rights (he owned 8 or 9 slaves), but stemmed from his belief in small government not spending time or money on non-essential issues and his understanding that the compromise hurt the white population that didn’t own slaves in mountainous regions. Likewise, Johnson voted (unsuccessfully) in Congress to have Chaplains paid from donations from Congressman instead of through budget. Johnson’s Political views were very similar to Jefferson’s, but less evolved from those ideas than other Democrats of his era. He regularly voted against internal improvements, raises for the military, or furnishing the White House, but would make exceptions if it benefitted his home state.

Altogether Johnson served ten years in the House of Representatives, never being defeated.
He clashed with James Polk even though both men were from Tennessee. Johnson viewed Polk as part of the aristocratic politicians that stood off from common men like himself. Johnson was very proslavery, making very racist remarks on routinely on the Congress floor. He did make a similar proposal to Henry Clay’s compromise of 1850, also encouraging harsher enforcement of Fugitive Slave Act and leaving some territories up to themselves as to whether they would have slavery.

The major issue Johnson promoted in congress was the Homestead Act, which attempted to give free land to those willing to cultivate it (160 acres per person). Eventually got it passed in House but not the senate. After his position as Representative was taken away by gerrymandering his district out of existence, he ran for Governor and was elected (unlike Lincoln, Johnson was very successful in pre-presidential elections). As Governor supported consistent positions as he did as Congressman, which continued to alienate some (particular his views on the 3/5 compromise). However his power was very limited under the Tennessee constitution, basically just allowing for making advisory speeches and appointing individuals for military and prison duty or casting pardons (which he did liberally).

After being governor, he ran for and was elected Senator where he continued to promote the Homestead bill unsuccessfully. The major issues of the day were slavery and secession, and Johnson quickly distinguished himself by making powerful pro-Unionist speeches. (Seriously, how great is that quote at the top.) His reasons for siding with the union instead of secessionists were threefold. First, he idolized Andrew Jackson, who was very pro-Union. Second, he still wanted to promote the Homestead Act, and those against it were primarily southerners who he didn’t get along with anyway. Perhaps most importantly, because he was not likely to advance in a southern states government, he could instead stand out by being a southerner who supported the north.

When everybody else in the south seceded, he stayed on as senator. Lincoln soon appointed him to serve as military governor of Tennessee which was very split between unionists and confederates. He took strong unionist policies to the position, which helped his political standing in the North but alienated him in much of his own state. Gradually he shifted his position from “the constitution is the only thing protecting slavery” to “if slavery is destroying the Union than slavery must too be destroyed.” As military governor his main responsibilities were enforcing laws and overseeing security. Routinely Johnson would require individuals in government to pledge themselves to the Union or face incarceration. When elections were held, if secessionists were elected over unionists, Johnson would uphold the election, then require them to make an oath to the union. When they refused he would incarcerate them and vacate the office.

Johnson had presidential aspirations since 1852, and it appeared his road to White House would be easier as Lincoln’s V.P. than as a competitor. Lincoln switched from V.P. Hannibal Hamlin to Johnson out of fears the election would be closer Lincoln won in landslide victory, however Tennessee’s votes were so illegitimate (oaths were required by people to the Union party to take part in the government and Democrat soldiers protested election as a result) that the state’s votes weren’t even counted in the final tally. His only act as Vice President was showing up drunk to the inauguration, which was compounded by an illness he was dealing with. The author indicates that while Johnson was drunk from time to time, few people considered him a drunkard and it appeared that was the only incident in his political career where alcohol cast an aspersion on him. 4 out of 5.

Presidential career – Johnson Performed better while being sworn into office under the very difficult circumstances of following Lincoln’s assassination. He immediately gave some encouraging words to others present and cast the illusion of a man ready for the moment. He kept Lincoln’s existing cabinet despite pressure by others to replace them. He even gave Mary Lincoln weeks to grieve and collect herself before she moved out of the White House and he moved in. The war was over, however the last southern troops didn’t even surrender until Johnson was in office. Although Lincoln did not have a public plan for reconstruction, but it is a certainty that Johnson approached the process differently than Lincoln would have. For starters, Johnson still had many southern prejudices, including being firmly against suffrage for blacks (which he began by phrasing it as being an issue that should be left to the states) and supported a program to relocate them to Mexico or elsewhere out of country.

Some contemporaries and many historians believe that in 1865, the southern states would have agreed to Black suffrage or any sort of conditional enfranchisement as a condition to reinstatement to the Union, however Johnson preferred otherwise. Instead of waiting for Congress to help organize reinstatement of southern states at their next session, Johnson began reconstruction by executive order. First he appointed governors in the southern states, and conditioned their new status in the government on the minimal conditions that the states ratified the 13th amendment and repealed secession articles. Johnson’s governors came from different parties but were all currently unionists, although at least one had held office in a confederate state.

Johnson’s overall policy in directing reconstruction was both consistent with his love of Andrew Jackson/Thomas Jefferson state’s rights republicanism, and his own prior success at promoting himself with the opposition in an attempt at future political success (in this case, reelection in 1868. An early indicator of Johnson’s view of reconstruction was when he used executive order to give lands in possession of freemen back to the rebels. He also pardoned Confederate criminals liberally, up to and including the Vice President of the confederacy. Johnson did everything he could to prevent black suffrage. He vetoed bills allowing blacks to vote in Washington D.C., or that tried to give additional resources to the Freedmen Bureau. He indicated he was vetoing these bills because the southern states were not yet represented in Congress. Likewise, he fought to obstruct the 14th Amendment throughout his time in office. Johnson’s view towards blacks was apparent from his frequent use of racial slurs and descriptions while in office. Even when welcoming a black reporter from New Orleans and asking him to stay for dinner, he made him eat in a room by himself. His overall policy seemed to be that any enfranchisement for the black race must therefore by coming at the cost of disenfranchisement for the (superior) white race.

Perhaps sensing the growing gap between himself and the party that elected him (the same party that had won the war), at one point Johnson tried to organize a convention for a new political party. As a result, of that and his shift in policies from Lincoln’s Republican platform three members of his cabinet resigned. Johnson also took the unusual step to give stump speeches while traveling, which was unheard of by presidents and considered undignified by many. The speeches also provided plenty of opportunity for his opponents to steer the discussion to things they were unhappy with. Impeachment talk began much before actual impeachment proceedings were instigated. The general charge leveled against Johnson was that his discharge of property and positions through reconstruction rose to a criminal level.

Johnson cleaned house a few years into his Presidency, mainly through generals and commanders, all the way up to his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who he attempted to replace with Ulysses S. Grant. Stanton was in fact conspiring against Johnson in many ways. Johnson then immediately did not trust Grant, who supported the 14th Amendment as well as banning confederate officers from holding office. Renewed interest in impeaching Johnson began around this time. The House of Representatives even tried to impeach him once prior to their successful attempt, and it was constantly speculated about. (The impeachment process works as follows: the House of Representatives needed 2/3 votes to impeach, then the Senate needs 2/3 to convict).
Stanton was then returned to his position by Congress as it was alleged that his firing violated the Tenure of Office Act. After this took place, the President was finally impeached for 11 separate articles of charges. Nine of them dealt with the removal of Stanton from his position, with the final two alleging Johnson “brought Congress into disrepute via speeches given” and “denying the laws of Congress regarding states not currently represented.”

Throughout the impeachment hearings, Johnson stayed out of it on the advice of his lawyers (who he didn’t agree with). For as awful of a president as Johnson was, the actual grounds for impeachment were not very strong. The crux of it was the Tenure of Office Act which protected Stanton’s job. However, it did not seem that the law should have applied to Johnson as he was not the one who appointed Stanton (Lincoln had), and the Act did not protect individuals from newly elected officials (successor presidents). At the very least, it seemed Johnson had a good faith legal argument for his position. The Senate correctly did not convict Johnson on each of the first three articles and then abandoned the proposition all together at that point. The end of Johnson’s term in office was largely uneventful, except for the massive pardons he continued to issue. This included confederate president Jefferson Davis.

The two sole successes of the Johnson administration are as follows: Johnson oversaw the purchase of Alaska and Midway Island, neither of which was given credit at the time for the resources would provided to America. Surprisingly,the impeachment proceeding is Johnson’s other great contribution to American history. Had the Senate followed through on convicting Johnson, it would have had a chilling effect on the checks and balances system in America. Essentially, removing an unpopular president from office for not agreeing with the majority of individuals in office was the real basis for the impeachment.

Vice president – In the great tradition of John Tyler and Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson held office without a vice president. 1 out of 5.

First lady – According to a family story, Eliza fell in love with future husband Andrew at first sight. The two had different very personalities, but stayed married for 50 years and had 5 kids together. She never traveled when he did except for when they went to live in the White House, and while there where she rarely made appearances. She was educated, and helped him with further education, although Johnson could read and write already (though not well) prior to being married. Eliza had ill health through the presidency, so it fell to daughter Martha to take care of the hosting duties typical of First Lady.

I noticed two scandals with Johnson that would not be a huge deal in modern days but stand out in reading early biographies. Early on in his presidency there was a small scandal involving a woman named Lucy Cobb who was alleged to have been trading secrets with Johnson or possibly having a sexual affair with him. When it happened it didn’t get a lot of traction but later on it was brought up as part of attacks on his character. After he was president but again when he was seeking office, there was another woman (Emily Harrell)who was rumored to be sexually involved with him. That woman ended up killing herself. Through 17 presidents, the closes I’ve gotten to a sex scandal was Andrew Jackson’s wife possibly still being married when he married her. To go from that to a allegations of two infidelity with two women seemed shocking. 1 out of 5.

Post presidency – Johnson did not like Grant based on his dealings with him during the Stanton debacle, and by the time Grant was elected president he would never change his mind about him. Johnson took the unusual step of following John Quincy Adams’s lead and did not attend Grant’s inauguration (every other president that had previously been able to attend, had). Johnson did not waste time once he back to Tennessee; he immediately began making speeches and pulling strings to orchestrate a possible Senate campaign. He ended up running but was not selected to hold office (it was not a popular vote but was decided by state officials at that time). When that was unsuccessful, he then ran for House of Representatives and came in a disappointing third place by a significant margin. Johnson’s presidential actions had angered the republican elements while not making enough favors with the south to have a base to support him.

Oddly enough, a years old controversy involving the execution of Mary Surratt (one of the individuals hanged in relation to the Lincoln assassination) resurfaced at this time. One of the officials involved alleged that Johnson ignored paperwork that could have stayed Surratt’s execution. Johnson wrote a persuasive reply to these allegations that was lauded by the press and other politicians. Around this same time another opening for the Senate came up in TN, and Johnson was able to parlay his new support (and his pledge to be more moderate) into attaining this seat. While there he once again showed his disdain for the current reconstruction trends supported by Grant. He had further political goals, including another run for President, but he had a stroke while visiting his daughter and passed away.

Book Overall – I was surprised to see this book was written in 1989 and would have guessed closer to 1950 based on the writing. While very competent and fair when discussing its subject matter, the institution of slavery got a fairly old fashioned write up by Mr. Trefousse. I understand using the language of the era, referring to it as “our peculiar institution” frequently. Likewise, any direct quotations about race, no matter how racist or disgusting, provide insight into the men being discusses as well as any facts. However, when discussing Johnson’s own slave owning experience it was laughably rose colored. The only stories about Johnson’s slaves involve their love and respect for the master and his joy of playing with their kids. While Johnson owned 8 or 9 slaves all together, never selling any of them, the biography indicates he did dispose of a 13 year old boy but doesn’t explain how. (The citation in the book points to a Speech against Johnson that was pointing out Johnson’s anti-negro views… seems like a pretty important detail to overlook without explanation.). Likewise, despite 350 pages of preface beforehand about his racist views, the author drops a detail that Johnson would talk walks with his black companion after he was president, with no discussion as to who the companion was, male or female, young or old. (Once again the citation was no help. The footnotes provide citations to original texts but no elaboration.)

That issue aside this book did a nice job of explaining the origins of a man who followed a great president with almost no prior elected experience.  Despite Johnson’s experience at nearly every level of government and five years of head start from Lincoln on how to handle this problem (of which Johnson was there for one of them), Johnson screwed up reconstruction by focusing entirely on minimizing the impact of the Civil War by any means necessary.  If Johnson had his way, the south would have been represented and back to normal with minimal societal changes within months of the Treaty of Appomattox.  While his big picture idea of the states never having really seceded was in line with Lincoln’s position, his lack of an ability to adapt (which Lincoln had) rightfully frustrated Congress to no end.  4 out of 10.

4-star

“Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald Review

Lincoln

Lincoln

Author:  David Herbert Donald

Published:  1996

To all outward appearances, he was less prepared to be president of the United States than any other man who had run for that high office.  Without family, tradition or wealth, he had received only the briefest of formal schooling.  Now fifty years old, he had no administrative experience of any sort; he had never been Governor of his state, or even mayor of Springfield.  A profound student of the Constitution and of the writings of the Founding Fathers, he had limited acquaintance with the government they had established.  He had served only a single, less than successful term in the House of Representatives, and for the past ten years had held no public office.  Though he was one of the Founders of the Republican Party, he had no close friends and only a few acquaintances in the populous Eastern states, whose vote would be crucial in the election.  To be sure, his debates with Douglas had brought him national attention, but he had lost the senatorial election both in 1955 and 1859.  Dismissing his chances for the presidency, one of Hatches’ Boston correspondents remarked scornfully: “As for Lincoln, I am afraid he will kick the beam again, as he is in the habit of doing.”  Pg. 236

 

Lincoln by David Herbert Donald is the fourth biography about an iconic president that I’ve read through the first sixteen.  Along with Washington, Jefferson and Jackson, Abraham Lincoln is a subject that everybody reading comes into with a head start as far as the major plot points in his life.  As the previous paragraph summarizes though, Lincoln’s pre-presidential years were unremarkable by political standards, his post presidential years non-existent, and his term in office dominated by a single conflict.  I was curious to see if I would come away as impressed by him as I was by Washington, who seemed to have done ten times as much as he is credited for doing in the history books with no precedent for any of it, or underwhelmed like I was by Jefferson who lucked into his greatest contribution to America through a French government needing to make money.  In the end, I came away viewing Lincoln much like Andrew Jackson, a man who deserves to be recognized as a titan in the Oval Office, but one who also did not quite live up to his gigantic reputation.  Here’s how the president scores on my presidential grading rubric:

 

Born into –  Lincoln’s mother’s heritage is difficult to trace, with the possibility that she may have even been illegitimate.  His father’s family came from successful land owner/farmers in Virginia.  The family owned three farms in Kentucky, moved to Indiana because it didn’t allow slavery and the land deeds/titles were clearer than they were in Kentucky.  After Lincoln’s mom died from drinking bad milk (cows had eaten a poisonous root), his father remarried and Abraham loved his new mom.  Compared to his father, who Lincoln never had a kind word to say about, Lincoln and his step mom were closer than either Lincoln was to his father or his stepmother was to her own biological son.  In terms of coming from little, Lincoln’s in line with Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan as coming from humble origins, but not quite as impressive as Andrew Jackson’s rags to riches.  4 out of 5.

 

 

Pre-President – Obviously there’s more information available for guys like Lincoln and Washington as children than for lesser known presidents, and this book provided a good overall view of Lincoln from a young child onward.  For education, Lincoln went to nearby cabin houses for schools for three separate years, but never full time.  He estimated he only had about one entire year of education as a child.  Growing up he developed ideas on politics early, and was very much Anti-Jackson (he would read anti-Jackson papers) and very pro Henry Clay (pro internal improvements/forming a national bank).  He took a variety of jobs before settling down, including as a riverboat pilot (navigator) and store clerk.  People always trusted Lincoln, and as a clerk he got to know his community in Illinois (he moved there as older teenager).

 

Lincoln’s first political run was for state legislature, where he finished 8th out of 13 candidates (losing, just the top four advanced).   He was asked to run by others, so his interest in politics was still not immediately apparent.  Following his loss, he enlisted in the militia for the Black Hawk War, and was chosen to be an officer by 2/3 of his fellow soldiers.  Lincoln never saw any combat or Indians, and would mock his military experience in later political campaigns.  His first political appointment was Village postmaster; this was not an important appointment as Lincoln (a Whig) was appointed by Jackson’s (Democrat) party.  Because the job paid so little, Lincoln also began working as an assistant surveyor.  He ran for office again for the State House of Representative (the author argues) primarily for monetary concerns.  Lincoln didn’t reveal his positions on political issues to help bolster his chance of being elected.  This second bid was successful.   Lincoln began studying law once he was elected.  This book glossed over his admission to the bar, just stating Lincoln partnered with another attorney and was one of busiest in Springfield.

 

On the social scene, his first fiancé was Ann Rutledge; she died while waiting for Lincoln to complete his education and before they could tie the knot (probably of Typhoid fever).  Most of Lincoln’s efforts as State Representative were toward making Springfield the new state capital, an endeavor he and his friends were ultimately successful at.  Lincoln continued to practice law during this time, and tried 300 cases before the highest Illinois court during his career.  His practice was varied, representing clients as different as slaves seeking freedom, and slave-owners seeking return of slaves.  At this time there was a devised plan within Whig party for House of Representatives (National level) candidates to only seek one term in office; Lincoln had earlier helped endorse the plan when it wasn’t yet his turn to run for the office apparently to help cycle through candidates until it was his turn to run.  It paid off when Lincoln was elected to the House during Polk’s term.  As a Whig, he made numerous anti-Mexican American War speeches which would haunt him later in his career and spent most of his energy trying to get Taylor elected the following year, which seemed very hypocritical for a person so against the war.

 

Lincoln’s view on Slavery while he was in the House was to vote to allow discussions of it, but to vote against actual restrictions on slavery.  He even devised a plan while in the House of eliminating slavery in D.C. by banning it after 1850, keeping those that were slaves as slaves but allowing them to be sold to the government, and those born after 1850 would be free.  Looking to others for feedback, nobody else would support it and he never brought it to the floor.  Lincoln sought and was offered other positions after his term, the most interesting being the Governor of Oregon, but instead he returned to his law practice when his term was over.  The experience in Washington helped his practice, which began generating high income and notoriety for successfully arguing railroad cases.  Lincoln mostly stayed out of politics besides arguing for Winfield Scott’s candidacy until running for office again in 1856.

 

Up until he was President, Lincoln supported the idea of sending freed blacks back to Africa as the best solution to the slavery problem.  He lost in his first bid for U.S. Senator, lost in a bid for the Vice Presidency, and was actually elected to the Illinois House of Representatives but declined it because it would have disqualified him from running for Senatorial office.  He switched from Whig Part to Republican in time for the 1856 Presidential election, which rejuvenated his political career.  Lincoln was the major politician present in crafting the platform of the Republican party which borrowed from Whig, Abolitionist, Know-Nothing  and Free Soil platforms.  During this time, Lincoln debated against Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas several times before eventually running against him for Senatorial seat in 1858; Douglas’s spot was in jeopardy due to heavy Anti-Nebraska (those against the Kansas-Nebraska act) sentiment.  Over a total of seven debates held throughout the state, all of which received substantial media coverage, the two showeded their main differences as candidates was Douglas extreme Pro-state’s sovereignty position versus Lincoln’s belief in fundamental human rights for all individuals, blacks included.

 

The final result in the election was very close with Republicans edging Democrats by a plurality, however election of Senator was done by the state legislature at that time which still had a democrat majority, so Douglas won.  Lincoln tried to maintain the illusion that he wasn’t interested in Republican nomination for president, however he had a book about his debates published as well as an autobiography prior to election cycle to promote himself (at this time, it was still considered bad form to campaign yourself to be president).  Lincoln, despite little experience as an elected official, was a name many papers and people supported as a candidate, first due to his role in forming the Republican party in Illinois, and second because of his notoriety from debates and speeches made regionally prior to the election.  Lincoln’s destiny as a potential presidential candidate was yet again tied to Stephen Douglas.  If the Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas as their candidate, Republicans would likely nominate somebody from the West as well for their candidate.  The Democrat party ended up being split, with half supporting Douglas and half supporting Breckinridge.  The result was that though Lincoln received less than 40% of the popular vote (with Douglas, Breckinridge and the National party candidate 4th), he easily won the electoral vote.  This was despite not receiving a single electoral vote from a slave state.  With that, the inexperienced one term former Congressman was President.  2/5

 

Presidential Career – Lincoln’s goal coming into office was to balance his Cabinet with former Whig and former Democrat Republicans.  He also considered having somebody from south for his cabinet, but the only individual it was offered to declined as he required Federal protection for slavery in the territories as condition of his acceptance of the position.  From the start, Lincoln seemed to underestimate the threat of secession, even believing the raising of arms in South Carolina to be beneficial event for quelling any eventual rebellious sentiment.  Lincoln made no public speeches prior to taking office in an effort to not further agitate Southern sentiments.  He ended up picking William Seward as Secretary of State and lead voice in his Cabinet, a man who disagreed with many of Lincoln’s views (Seward wanted to go further than Lincoln to conciliate the South).

 

From the beginning there was disarray in the office, as the Fort Sumter crisis came to a head.  Many criticized Lincoln for not knowing how things worked (he tried communicating orders directly to naval commanders, and attempted to establish a Militia branch on his own), and for not having a definite plan.  Part of this was that Lincoln continually underestimated the likelihood of the South seceding.  His plan was also very reactive, so it genuinely could appear he didn’t really have a plan.  He did preserve the historical upper hand though by making the first shots come from the south in retaliation for non-violence by the Union (attempting to bring provisions to the Fort).  After the loss of Fort Sumter, Lincoln began acting more decisively, suspending Habeas Corpus and ordering 75,000 troops to be raised.  Lincoln tread carefully at first to avoid provoking middle states like Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri.  Later in the war he would even imprison news paper editors for advance reporting on the draft (causing gold speculation).  Obviously Lincoln saw war time as an acceptable excuse to infringe on any constitutional rights necessary to preserve the Union.

 

As the Civil War began, Lincoln would struggle (and continue to do so) with his picks for head General.  Winfield Scott was too old to take the field and was forced to resign after some early struggles.  George McClellan was young and looked the part but was constantly criticized for not being aggressive enough and failing to take note of the topography in making his plans.  McClellan also didn’t like Lincoln and criticized him privately, and even refused to see Lincoln when the president visited him at his residence.  Lincoln was consistently criticized for not having a policy or not being assertive enough, particularly regarding his relationships with generals.  Lincoln allowed McClellan to not reveal what his military plans were, and consistently deferred to McClellan even when he strongly disagreed with the general’s strategy.  Even Lincoln’s detractors praised him for being honest and having good intentions though.  I would agree with the good intentions compliment, however the author cited tons of examples where Lincoln would claim ignorance of areas to avoid having to discuss his policies and orders (I picture Phil Hartman’s Ronald Reagan impression) that seemed to contradict that Honest Abe reputation.  Lincoln took his time removing McClelland in favor of Halleck, then went back to McClelland.  Afer McClelland’s second removal, the post went to Burnside, then to Hooker, all of them focusing on Richmond and reasons why they could not engage Lee’s army despite Lincoln’s prodding otherwise.  Lincoln’s first success with the position came with Meade, who Lincoln initially chastised for not pursuing Lee after Gettysburg before coming to his senses and praising the military victory.  However, even Meade proved too reluctant to pursue battle, so Lincoln brought in Grant from the west.  Lincoln supported Grant more than any of the other generals, for the primary reason that he actually was willing to fight with what he had, and did not send constant requests for more troops.  His first few months on the job involved tens of thousands of casualties, but we all know how the final results went.

 

The main international incident of Lincoln’s presidency occurred when Southern delegates were caught via the search of a British naval vessel.  Initially Lincoln and all but one of his cabinet members were happy that it happened and underestimated the view the British would take.  It soon became apparent that it could be the catalyst for a war with Britain if the delegates were not released and an apology issued.  That was the route Lincoln ended up taking as he could not risk a second war with Great Britain.  In general, the event showed his limited grasp of Foreign relation issues, and he either delegated or took the advice of others on these issues for the rest of his term.

 

Lincoln tried to maintain the position early and often that the sole issue of the War was Union or Disunion.  Despite requests by many Republicans (including Vice President Hamlin) to either confiscate slaves from rebels or declare them free, Lincoln resisted because of worries of how it would play with middle states and southern Union supporters.  The issue came to a head when the Governor of Missouri issued a proclamation doing what Lincoln would not; Lincoln considered this more helpful to the Confederates than their victory at Bull Run.  When the Governor’s (Fremont) wife (the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton) came to discuss this with Lincoln, he dismissed her as a female trying to discuss politics.  Lincoln stayed firm and made sure that all positions and policies on slavery came only from him.  In addition to Fremont, Trumball and others tried to drive legislation through to abolish Slavery prior to Lincoln during the war.  Lincoln was slow to decide how to approach this issue, spending time considering sending Slaves to Africa, then to Central America, before ultimately deciding to offer compensation for states that voluntarily abolished slavery over set time tables (ranging from 1860’s to 1890’s).  Lincoln was continually approached by abolitionists and Republican Generals about emancipating slaves in the South; Lincoln resisted doing so until it seemed the tide was against him in war and in public opinion.  Still, he needed a military victory before making any announcement, so he waited until after Antietam for the Emancipation Proclamation.  Even after doing this, Lincoln met with Black leaders to discuss the colonization option with them, and not surprisingly they were not on board.  The author indicated that Lincoln did that so he could deflect his shift in positions on this topic; my guess is that Lincoln still thought it was the best option and was genuine in trying to sell blacks on it.  Lincoln eventually decided to allow black soldiers in the Union Army, but it was done very reluctantly, with the position they would just be used to garrison or perform additional non-combat duties.

 

Besides the Civil War, there were a few other interesting incidents during Lincoln’s terms.  A Sioux uprising led to over a hundred settler deaths in Minnesota.  A few hundred Sioux Indians were rounded up and sentenced to death; Lincoln reviewed all the charges/paperwork and commuted all but 28 of the executions.  Congress also established the Homestead act, the national banking system with paper currency, and the Department of Agriculture during Lincoln’s tenure, though his involvement in those appears to have been minor if at all. Seward and Salman Chase (Head of the Treasury) both tried to resign their cabinet positions, but Lincoln would not accept either one and even manipulated Chase into admitting he exaggerated strife in the cabinet to the Senators he had previously been complaining to.  Chase later was angling for nomination against Lincoln, and Lincoln again allowed him to connive against the President.  Beacuse Chase was successful running the Treasury for the cabinet, he was kept on despite the problems caused by his ambitions, until his third submitted resignation; Chase was actually surprised when Lincoln accepted it.

 

Lincoln began addressing the public more after a Congressman was arrested for inciting desertion; the reaction was so positive he continued to do so throughout his presidency and began consulting his cabinet less.  Besides the things he is best known for, this precedent was adopted by later presidents.  His Gettysburg Address came a few weeks after the battle, and was a very short speech that followed a few hour long oration by the previous speaker.  Those that heard it were caught off guard as to its brevity, but as it was recirculated and evaluated it ended up representing a turning point in both Lincoln’s perspective and the public perspective on the need for the war; no longer just Union or Disunion, but about equal fundamental rights for all men.  Lincoln’s most impressive actions as president came in steering reconstruction.  Even prior to being reelected, Lincoln made it known that abolition of slavery would be condition of any peace agreement.  This was a controversial position, however Lincoln stayed strong on it for the reason that it would be wrong to go back on his promise made to those that came north and were fighting in the army (200,000 blacks by that point).

 

The only political rival Lincoln worried about when his reelection campaign happened was Ulysses S. Grant; Grant however was very supportive of Lincoln and had no interest in running against him.  Donald straddles line of what Lincoln and his people did to insure he was elected (holding out naming Supreme Court Justice, furloughing soldiers to go vote) versus what he didn’t do but could have (rushing additional pro Union states in the west into existence, suspending the election due to the rebellion) to make the case that Lincoln was completely ethical in his handling of the election.  Surprisingly to Lincoln, he won in a landslide, with only three states voting against him.

 

According to Donald, Lincoln had limited involvement in getting the 13th amendment passed by Congress.  He was obviously in favor of it, however there was also enough sentiment in Congress that he did not need to take an active role in getting it passed.  Lincoln was more involved however in working to get it ratified by ¾ of states.  As late as 1864, Lincoln was in favor of paying $400,000 to south in exchange for 5 year gradual elimination of slavery but was talked out of it by cabinet.  Throughout the entire war, Lincoln held firm in his position of never recognizing confederate states government, but this caused problem at the end of the war with whom to recognize to discuss terms of surrender.  The eventual settlement on “gentlemen that served as representatives to rebellion” struck a balance between efficiency and principal.  Lincoln’s final plans for reconstruction (essentially putting the rebellious confederate leaders back into Congress) were opposed by most of his cabinet, and he withdrew them along with his initial pledge to Virginia to recognize its leaders in effect during Civil War.  He did become first president to state formally that some blacks should be granted the right of suffrage (educated ones who served in military).  On same day he believed the war to finally be over he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth as part of plan to kill both Johnson and Seward as well (Seward was attacked and injured, Johnson’s attacker never followed through).  4.5/5

 

Vice President – Hannibal Hamlin was Lincoln’s first Vice President.  Hamlin never met Lincoln until after both men won their nominations.  The two met for three days in Illinois where the two discussed forming the cabinet and seemed to get along well.  Like most Vice Presidents of that era, Lincoln did not include him in discussing policy or in important cabinet decisions.  At once point during Lincoln’s first term, Hamlin was encouraged to abandon Lincoln and run for president himself by unhappy Republicans, however he chose to support the President instead which gives him a memorably contribution to the office that most early Vice Presidents lacked.  Hamlin was much more radical than Lincoln regarding abolition, and Lincoln used to joked nobody would kill him because the Vice President was even more entrenched in the positions than he was.  4/5.

 

Hamlin was not renominated as Vice President as there was no excitement toward him at Republican convention in 1864.  Lincoln was very guarded about who he wanted as his Vice President, but all indications are he was happy with Hamlin and also with candidate Andrew Johnson.  Andrew Johnson was the only southern senator (Tennessee) to continue serving once war broke out, which is a pretty neat fact.  Also neat is that Johnson got drunk before he was inaugurated as Vice President and made a fool of himself.  Lincoln even asked that Johnson not be allowed to talk outside following the inauguration.  2 out of 5.

 

First lady – Mary Todd Lincoln was rumored to be courted by Stephen Douglas prior to marrying Abraham; after they were married she always called her husband “Mr. Lincoln” so you can tell right away she was a wacko.  Mary Todd came from a wealthy family of southern slaveholders, which would cause many to question her loyalty once the war broke out.  Lincoln got land and a yearly income from Mary Todd’s father after marriage during marriage.

 

Mary Lincoln was described as being the most prevalent First Lady since Dolly Madison, and the woman that the term “First Lady” was coined for.  That might have been because she was so disliked.  Her large contributions to the presidency consisted of going so far over budget on redecorating the White House that Congress has to authorize twice to go extend additional funds to cover purchases she already made… this while soldiers were freezing during a Civil War.  She also was accused of revealing a sensitive document to a reporter, but the reporter later indicated the gardner showed him and the matter was dropped.

 

Two of Lincoln’s children died before Lincoln; Eddie who was four years old and died in 1850, the author didn’t spend a lot of time on, aside from mentioning that Lincoln may have written poetry about it.  The death of Willie was incredibly tragic.  He was 12 years old and was sick for weeks due to bad water (termed Bilious fever) and continued wasting away.  Lincoln was in the office, and Mary Todd Lincoln chose this time to host her largest soiree, so both parents took turns coming upstairs to check on Willie.  He died a few days later, while little brother Tad was also bedridden with the flu.  I can only imagine how awful it must have been consoling nine year old Tad when his brother had just died and he was sick with the same flu, not knowing if he would recover.  After Willie’s death, Mary Lincoln retreated in mourning and stopped hosting large get-togethers.

 

Mary conducted multiple séances at the White House to speak to her dead son, even getting Lincoln to sit in on one but Lincoln remained unconvinced.  Despite the tragedies, she continued to be disliked and distrusted by those in Washington.  Mary Lincoln also embarrassed herself when accompanying Lincoln to visit Grant’s troops.  She was late arriving and Lincoln was accompanied by an attractive young woman on a horse and Mary berated her in front of everybody.  Overall, she was the worst/least likable first lady I’ve read about, even beating Franklin Pierce’s wife.  1 out of 5.

 

Post Presidency –  **Crickets**  N/A

 

Book Itself – Donald set out with the goal (per the intro) of writing a book that focused on what Lincoln knew when he made decisions and why he made them.  For the most part, the book read like a standard biography, but it also read pretty fairly.  When given an opportunity to interpret Lincoln’s actions, Donald would generally try to present both sides but would land on the most favorable interpretation to Lincoln.  The result was a portrait of a man who came into office with impossible circumstances out of his control and stood firm in the face of that opposition.  I don’t know that Lincoln was extraordinary in his accomplishments, as all of his most notable actions were supported by or attempted by other members of his party prior to Lincoln acting on them, but certainly history supports the timing of his decisions as the North won the war and slavery was abolished.  For such an iconic figure, it was a very fair biography.  5/5.

 

5-star

“Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave” by Ian Johnston review

Bad Seed

Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave

Author:  Ian Johnston

Released:  1995

Prior to reading Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave, I was a bit of a Nick Cave fan. I own all of albums, 16 studio albums by the Bad Seeds, two by Grinderman, a few soundtracks by Cave and Warren Ellis, and a few Birthday Party records. I’ve read both of Cave’s prose novels, And the Ass Saw the Angeland The Death of Bunny Monroe, and bought and enjoyed the films he has written, particularly Lawless and The Proposition. I’ve seen Cave in concert twice, once in Chicago as part of the “Dig Lazarus Dig” tour, and again in Louisville for the “Push the Sky Away” tour. So, take the rest of my review with however main grains of salt because odds are you won’t line up on the Cave fan spectrum at the same level as myself, for good or bad.

That disclaimer out of the way, the biggest takeaway I had from reading Ian Johnston’s book was that it was way to early in Cave’s career to write any sort of a comprehensive biography. Johnson’s book came out in 1995, which was prior to “Murder Ballads” being released. That’s eight studio albums ago. That’s before Grinderman was a band, and released two more. The most prolific collaborate or Nick Cave’s career after Mick Harvey is Warren Ellis, who is not mentioned until page 302 (the book is 304 pages long). The book ends a decade before Cave published another novel or wrote his most successful films. So if you’re looking for a book to discuss all of the amazing work in his career, this book will leave you with less than half of it.

The strength of this book is as a a biography of The Birthday Party band, extensively documenting their early years, discography and breakup. This portion of the book is 150 pages, or roughly the first half. The following half gets into Nick Cave’s sobriety and increasing artistry, but as already outlined it is certainly an unfinished story.

The writing of the book is very detailed and features extensive quotes from people with firsthand knowledge of events. This ends up being the books greatest weakness however as well, as often Johnson will spends over a page quoting the same source and as a reader I would often lose track of who was recanting a story because a quote would go on for so long. It also seemed like for a work of scholarship the number of sources cited outside of interviews was on the low side.

It’s obvious Johnston agrees Cave is a genius, and I learned a lot about Cave’s early years and the critical reception of Cave early in his career by reading this book. I also got more of an idea as to his creative process and the personnel on the classic Bad Seeds albums. Perhaps a part two in another twenty years will help finish where this book leaves off, as Cave was just getting started when this came out.

3-star

“President James Buchanan” by Philip S. Klein

President james buchanan

President James Buchanan

Author: Philip S. Klein

Published:  1962

Much like Martin Van Buren or Millard Fillmore, Buchanan was a politician through and through, although his ambitions are more clearly defined due to the strategies he used being a conscious reflection of those winning recipes by his predecessors. Ben Perley Poore stated of Buchanan that “never did a wily politician more industriously plot and plan to secure a nomination than Mr. Buchanan did, in his still hunt for the Presidency. Speaking of Martin Van Buren, Buchanan took aim at the highest office in the land from every election from Martin Van Buren to when he ultimately won.

With that lengthy of a political career, one would expect that Buchanan would be attached to all sorts of interesting and important moments in government, but that was actually not the case. Philip Klein writes on page 142:

In this remarkable galaxy of American politicians, Buchanan always stood on the periphery. He never, in all his legislative career, had his name attached to an important bill or became the focal point of public interest in a debate…He quietly exerted a great deal of influence on important legislation, but his steady craftsmanship attracted little public attention.

How did such a man become president? Precisely because of Buchanan’s nature, as well as some fortunate timing on his part, he managed to avoid being caught in a position that made him unacceptable to the new Republican North or the Democrat South. Klein continues to write on page 248 that Buchanan “could not help wondering about the freak fate which had kept him out of Congress during each of the four most violent sectional controversies of the century: The Missouri Compromise, The Nullification Struggle, The 1950 Compromise, and now the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. If he should become president he feared he should not escape the next outburst.” History now ranks Buchanan among the worst presidents as his great fear was certainly realized in the most violent way possible.

Here’s how he scores up on my presidential ratings rubric:

Born into – Buchanan’s father was an Irish immigrant, who bought some land from a public sale after earning some money working for a family member. He ended up becoming a successful farmer and store owner, but nothing particularly prolific compared to many of the other presidential families. James had several sisters, but was also the oldest (surviving) child, whose few brothers were much younger (14 years or more). For his parents humble beginning he scores well here, but being the oldest son was also a ticket to success compared to others. 4/5

Pre-President – George Washington was family hero to the Buchanan’s that that they may have even met in the late 1700’s (when James was 3 or 4), so it’s no surprise that Buchanan ended up being a permanent presidential aspirant. Not a lot is known about his younger years that is distinctive of any many of that era. Buchanan went to Dickinson College to learn pre-law; he was expelled for bad behavior, but was also eventually reinstated. Despite that, it was obvious that Buchanan was disliked by Dickinson faculty for his attitude throughout this time. Although he made his share of enemies in politics, this appears to have been a particularly rowdy period for him as later on he was mainly described as having an accountant’s personality, keeping track of everything paid and everything owed, including keeping books indicating where he stood with everybody.

Buchanan’s first foray into politics was becoming a State Assembly man after being nominated by a friend. The first speech that Buchanan gave convinced people he was a Democrat; Buchanan over-corrected so much that his 2nd speech was so anti-democrat it created lifetime enemies (Note, Buchanan was a Federalist at this time; the family did idolize Washington). For income Buchanan ran a successful law practice, so much so that Buchanan appears to have been one of the wealthier former presidents upon retirement. Once Buchanan was elected to Congress as a Federalist, he was appreciated by his constituents who then reelected him twice more (which had never happened to somebody from his district previously).

Once in Congress Buchanan again made his mark with a speech, this time defending Calhoun on overspending on the war budget, making a formidable ally while doing so. As with every politician alive from the early to mid 1800’s, the election of John Quincy Adams shook up Buchanan’s world. Buchanan played an important role by being the congressman to directly ask Andrew Jackson about promises in his cabinet, as well as alluding to what rumors he had heard. The fallout was Buchanan eventually switched parties from Federalist to Jackson Democrat, even though Jackson never trusted him completely afterwards.

Buchanan was still reelected even though he switched parties, although the shuffling among politicians resulted in his branch of the party (called by the author the Amalgamation group) losing ground in political appointments. While Buchanan thought he was in line for a treasury or even Vice Presidency spot, he ended up being appointed as Minister to Russia (a spot the author says was reserved for sending dangerous politicians). Buchanan held this spot for two years, and thought it appears he was liked he also didn’t accomplish anything of note there. When he returned, he was able to be inserted into a Senator spot after all the shakeouts from party conflicts opened one up, even though he wouldn’t have won at an election (per the author).

Once there, yet another speech made others take note of him, this time defending George M. Dallas’s position during the National bank controversy, once again creating an ally and positioning himself to get notoriety while not defining Buchanan’s individual politics. He became the chairman of Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate, where he got the nickname “10 cent Jimmy” by Whigs based on speech he made about ten cents a day being a sufficient working wage, a nickname that stuck with his detractors afterward. Once note of interest, Buchanan was on the receiving end of the first telegraph from Samuel Morse, which indicated Polk’s surprise Democrat nomination.

Once Dark Horse Polk was elected President, he named Buchanan Secretary of State, but before it was finalized the two acknowledged the possibility Buchanan would seek the nomination the following term but would step down from office if that happened. As Secretary of State, Buchanan picked Nicholas Trist for negotiating a treaty with Mexico; Trist ended up being disaster in the eyes of administration, a man who didn’t follow directions and continued representing the country after Polk wanted him recalled. Polk never trusted Buchanan throughout his presidency, according to Polk’s journals.

Buchanan was “retired” during the Taylor/Fillmore administrations, during which time he bought a big farm and helped take care of orphaned or poor relatives. His reentry to politics was as London Ambassador for the Pierce administration, where dealt with issues of British presence in Caribbean in violation of Clayton/Bulwer Treaty, though he didn’t have any success in resolving. He also got roped into America’s attempt to purchase Cuba; none of those present for these “negotiations” came away looking great due to a mixup of language (the famous use of the word “detach” discussed in my Pierce review) and personalities (Boulle was detested by Spanish).

Following Pierce’s term, the new and strong Republican party (with candidate Fremont) threatened to jail Pierce and others that disagreed with them on handling of Kansas matter if they won. (Between Andrew Jackson’s biography and Pierce/Buchanan, I think I’ve seen every crazy thing from the Trump Administration represented in one of these biographies.) Against this contested political setting, Buchanan was the election by carrying his home state and much of south. It was apparent at that point that the Democratic Party was the only party that was not entirely regional at that point. 2/5

Presidential Career – Buchanan filled his cabinet by trying to represent various states and not ideologies. As a result he was not in touch with the extreme views of the political climate directly prior to the Civil war. Lewis Cass was made the Secretary of State, but mainly an honorary title at that point due to his age. Howell Cobb was the main voice in the Cabinet, a Georgia man against secession as late as 1860.

Buchanan’s goals in taking office were to preserve the Union and quiet the anti-slavery element (which he considered the greatest threat to the Union). History has not been kind to his term in office, as many historians list Buchanan as the worst president. Having just read Franklin Pierce’s biographies, it’s tough to say who was worse. In addition to Buchanan’s views of preserving slavery as an institution, he also had a near million dollar embezzlement scandal involving members of cabinet.

Buchanan was already out of touch with his country when he was elected. In particular he was naïve about the possible outcomes in Kansas, always assuming it would be a free state and that only real issue was making sure it went Democrat. As with Pierce, Kansas became the key issues of his presidency, as Buchanan supported the original vote that settlers made toward government despite allegations that it had been fixed by the pro slavery faction. Buchanan’s decision to favor those that did vote rather than those that stayed at home seems to have been based on his preference for the law than for sentiments as to what he wanted to have happen.

His veto of the Homestead act is defended by author, but apparently not by rest of historians. Per Klein the act was something that would benefit northerners only at expense of mostly southerners and was against all of Buchanan’s already established convictions. Klein also argues that the act was written in such a way that authors were wanting it vetoed by Buchanan so that that they could ridicule him over it and pump up a Republican candidate instead.

The eventual election of Lincoln led to South Carolina seceding, as Klein spends as much time on the last few months of his presidency as on the entire rest of the term. Per Klein, the congressional atmosphere in this time was purely obstructionist with no movement to accomplish anything productive. Coupled with Buchanan’s ideology of balance of powers and not usurping the roles of Congress, that led Buchanan’s chief “accomplishment” being keeping the Union from imploding.

After the secession, Buchanan struggled with the legality of the concept and had research done on what authority states had and what authority the federal government had to police this new movement. Buchanan did everything he could to not set off hostilities, including allowing a sitting cabinet member to travel to discuss his state seceding, not reinforcing South Carolina forts, and blaming the impending conflict on Lincoln and the radical Republicans. As he left office, he had neither reinforced or abandoned Fort Sumter, with his main goal being for nothing to happen while he was in office. 1/5

Vice President –. John Breckinridge was a surprise nomination as vice president, and like many from that era was not mentioned again for much of the book. 2/5

First Lady – Much has been speculated about Buchanan’s sexuality. As America’s only bachelor president, some historians have “determined” that he was in fact gay. After reading this book I would guess that to be correct, but there’s not enough information to prove or refute it. His lack of a love life was certainly interesting. His only engagement was to a very wealthy woman; she accused him of only being with her for her money and then dumped him when he came to the area she lived and didn’t visit her first. She then died mysteriously later the same day.

Also mentioned were a fling/crush with an 18 year old girl when he was about 50; Buchanan wrote her a poem about why it couldn’t work out between the two of them. Finally an attractive widow went to the White House to marry Buchanan, even ending up staying there for awhile, but ended up leaving later in Buchanan’s term unsuccessful in her bid. All the comments about their relationship were by her prior to her even meeting him.

Buchanan’s closest relationship was with Howell Cobb, who Buchanan revered as a man and a friend and would spend time with nearly every day they were in office together. 0/5

Post Presidency –Buchanan’s post-presidency was spent in retirement, with a focus on justifying his own term. This included commissioning multiple biographies about himself, none of which were ever completed (the first biography of Buchanan wasn’t released until after his death. The political climate was not one that favored praising Buchanan during the Civil War, and even his allies suggested he put his mission on the back burner which Buchanan mostly did. The one exception was in some letter writing with Winfield Scott as the two blamed each other for some handling of the South Carolina issue. 1/5

Book itself –I prefer a biography that is objective regarding its subject than one that is written from an obvious point of bias. That being said, I couldn’t help but feel that Klein was as unsure of his opinions of Buchanan as any biographer I’ve read. I’m sure it’s difficult to learn everything about a man and his justifications for his actions and still judge him critically, but I think Klein could have done a better job of doing so. The research here was obviously fantastic however, and I didn’t come away with questions about Buchanan’s actions. 3/5

3-star

“Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union” by Peter A. Wallner Review

Franklin Pierce Martyr

Franklin Pierce: Martyr For the Union

Author:  Peter A. Wallner

Release Date:   2007

From 1860 to 1865, half of America went to war against the other half, and nearly three quarters of a million people died in the process,  In 2017, Donald Trump asked why the Civil War could not have been avoided.  I bring up both of those facts because finishing up the second part of this biography series on Franklin Pierce spends a great deal of time on the eight years leading up to the Civil War, four of which Pierce was in office as president.  Certainly there is plenty to be found here in terms of causes for the Civil War.

In rankings of the best to worst presidents, guys like Pierce, Fillmore, and Buchanan are justifiably ranked near the bottom, however each came into office with issues that presented choices that would anger one half of the country into possible battle.  I mentioned in my Millard Fillmore review that northern presidents of this era came off worse than southern ones in historical retrospect and that continues significantly here.  The reason for that is that each compromise the presidents took to preserve “harmony” was to appease the southern slave states.  Pierce went well beyond Fillmore in his support for the south however, and through fourteen presidents he was by far the worst individual to hold office (though Buchanan looks to be even worse).

Here’s how he scores up on my presidential ratings rubric:

Born into – Pierce’s father was a Revolutionary War soldier who made himself successful farmer afterward and then a tavern owner.  Pierce had several siblings, but was born to his father’s second wife (named Anna Kendrick, who was also referenced in Scrappy Little Nobody which I read while I was reading the first volume of this biography set), who gave birth to Franklin Pierce as the 5th of eight children.  Pierce’s father eventually became sheriff, and used that as a platform to eventually become governor of New Hampshire (while Pierce was in college).  2/5

Pre-President – Pierce was not a great student at first, being last in class after two years at Bowdoin College, before buckling down and finishing 5th out of 17.  Like so many presidents before him, he became a lawyer after college.  His political career began when he was elected to state legislature, becoming the youngest ever speaker of House in New Hampshire.  While in the House, he voted to curtail a number of news papers that had been funded by the government to print laws; in actuality this measure was actually a shrewd manner of eliminating non-Democrat news papers.  Pierce would continue to act with the best interests of the Democrat party ahead of those of the people in his state in country throughout his political career.  Pierce also spent some time in the military during the Mexican American War, which provided no moments of great account for Pierce and possibly some aspersions of cowardice that would follow him around throughout his career.

Pierce followed his state service up with eight years in United States House of Representatives.  While there he did not support Gag Order on discussing slavery, even though he was against abolition.  I mention this because this is pretty much the only time in his political career he did something that was not the prime wishes of the southern democrats.  Like Andrew Jackson, Pierce was involved in a duel that killed another member of the House of Representative, however rather than fighting in it he assisted in finding “a second” for the duel.  Due to his limited role, he managed to escape the wrath of congress afterward unlike the rest of the participants.

Pierce became a Senator next, but retired partially into his only term as he wanted to go back home.  His only real impact as Senator was involvement in vetting claims for Revolutionary War Pensions.  Back in New Hampshire, Pierce focused on directing the path of the state Democrat party.  While there his main political rivalry was with John Hale.  Hale (an idealist, willing to break from party on issues if needed) versus Pierce (follow the party position on all matters) was the most interesting contrast of politicians in the first volume by Wallner.  It was still fairly amazing he emerged as presidential candidate after years as the unofficial leader of Democrat party in New Hampshire, and as a dark horse candidate he even puts famous dark horse Polk to shame.  Essentially it happened by Pierce becaming a compromise pick, everybody’s second choice at Democrat convention.  None of the front runners saw him coming and he secured nomination rather quickly once he was presented as a candidate.  As the candidate, he won in a landslide victory winning all but four states, albeit with a very low voter turnout.  3/5.

Presidential Career –   Pierce’s first acts were all attempted to represent all factions of the Democratic Party in his cabinet.  I thought this was admirable, not quite as much as Washington on Monroe welcoming different party views, but admirable still.  Those that he ended up selecting ended up being the only cabinet (as of the writing of book) to remain the same for entire presidency.  Pierce gave more responsibilities to his attorney general that had previously been done (those had belonged to Secretary of State) and created the modern justice department as a result.  His first crisis/headline involved a man named Koszta who lived in America but was wanted by Hungary for his role in inciting a revolution; Pierce held strong and Hungary eventually relinquished their demand for him.

Pierce’s policy of spreading out appointments and patronage began losing him favor immediately; it cost him support particularly in New York where the “Hard” portion of the party’s appointed leader disregarded Pierce’s instructions and screwed the “Soft” and “Barnburner” democrat portions.  Pierce set precedent by removing the culprit with that as the cause.  Often Pierce’s ideas were good but the execution was poor.  In one instance he sent an individual to finalize the Mexican border with Santa Anna; the problem being the man he sent was also an interested party in a citizen claim affected in that area.  The man of course leveraged his claim into the treaty and insinuated that was Pierce’s wish as well, however Pierce did have that portion removed before submitting it to the Senate for approval.  The Senate (rife with corruption and special interests at the time) reinstated it plus added other private claims.

The most famous act in Pierce’s presidency is the Kansas Nebraska act.  Overturning the Missouri compromise, the act could lead to the first expansion of slavery into the north.  It was supported by Pierce, which contradicted his inaugural statements that he would not agitate the slavery question.  Wallner argues that non-support of the act would have had same effect towards Civil War.  Pierce did not just support the act, he bribed it into existence by promising jobs to 13 House of Representatives members if they changed their vote.  In the mid-terms, twelve of the thirteen were voted out of office as a result and needed them (a theme for the entire Democrat party in the midterms).  Pierce also returned more fugitive slaves than any other president during his four years in office (although the length of his term versus everybody but Polk from this era makes this an unfair statement).  Kansas remained the biggest issue throughout Pierce’s term.  Called “Bleeding Kansas” by the press, pro and anti-slavery groups moved to the territory to try and establish a voting block on the slavery issue, and violence and voter fraud issues were common.  For a time, two separate governments ended up being set up in the territory.

Pierce continued his bribing ways when he authorized $5,000 for use to persuade Canadians for a favorable settlement in a fisheries dispute.  Secretary of State William Marcy was troubled by this as however Pierce did not hesistate.  Once again miscommunications was a problem, as the Canadian ambassador ended up spending tens of thousands more than authorized.  Another instance of this was an ambassador sent to Spain did not understand what was meant by “detaching” Cuba from Spain and failed to present the option that Pierce had intended.

Pierce focused much of his attention on foreign affairs, probably to deflect from his poor handling of issues at home.  The Crimean War was occurring in Europe at the same time, but had little effect for Pierce aside from him authorizing sending three military officers to observe military tactics of multiple European armies.  Pierce focused the most on British involvement in Nicaragua in speeches and inside the office.  This may have had to do with Pierce’s view of the office of presidency, as he vetoed so many bills for internal improvements (which were then overturned by congress) that foreign policy was one of the only areas left for a president to make an impact.  The result for all this intrigue was the Dallas-Clarendon treaty which would have Great Britain exit central America with the exception of Belize.  However after all the time spend on the issue, the treaty was not passed until Pierce was out of office, at which point it was modified so much that Britain rejected it.  Pierce did support the transatlantic cable, one of his positive legacies in addition to building additional Navy ships and modernizing the army prior to exiting office.

Some interesting random notes from during his presidential years.

  • William Atherton (one of Pierce’s best friends and a loyal politician) died unexpectedly and left $8,000 in his will to Pierce. Scholars later found out it was for the care of his secret family and lovechild.  Certainly an oddity for a sitting president to have to deal with.
  • Brigham Young was appointed Territorial governor of Utah and caused problems by showing his power was greater than that of the national government, even colluding with Indians against the army. Pierce made the political move of appointing somebody else to take Young’s place that would end up declining the offer, thus not showing endorsement of Young or polygamy but also not removing him from power in Utah either.
  • Pierce lost the presidential nomination to James Buchanan and never had any momentum in his favor. He is the only president who sought reelection to be denied nomination by his party.

Vice President – Vice president William R. King died very early in office, was never replaced as there was no mechanism for it at that time.  .5/5

First Lady – Jane Appleton was one of the most intriguing first ladies, but not in a good way.  Wallner did not seem to be a fan of her, citing statements that Jane Appleton Pierce’s  only redeeming quality was keeping Pierce sober.  More than anything, she seemed a tragic figure.  Jane and Franklin had three children, one died at three days old, one died at four years old, and the last died at eleven years old.  The last one was particularly sad, as he died when Pierce was on way to Washington with his family via train.  The train crashed, and Pierce’s son Benjamin was thrown.  When Pierce went up to him he thought he was unconscious but discovered the back of Benjamin’s head was missing.  This drove his wife into grieving, and led to a fight 48 hours before inauguration where she told him not to worry about politics.  She also decided not to give him lock of hair from Benjamin to wear at inauguration which she had previously saved.  Jane remained in mourning for entire first year.  In addition to being described as sad  she was also mentioned as controlling, known for criticizing Pierce for his mannerisms (i.e. keeping his hands in his pockets) or for inability to resist alcohol at dinner.  After he death, Pierce made comments to a writer about his wife indicating his favorite thing about his wife that that she needed him to take care of her due to always being ill.  Interestingly enough, Pierce’s friendship with writer Nathaniel Hawthorne seemed more emotional than his relationship with his wife (or siblings).  I’ll give her a decent score here for being memorable, though she stayed out of any roles as a First Lady.  3.5/5.

Post Presidency – Pierce didn’t take any official roles in politics after he left the office of president.   Instead he spent time traveling with his wife across American and Europe.  Pierce’s cabinet stayed loyal to him after office he left office, particularly Jefferson Davis.  Unlike prior presidents that I’ve read about, there was a story of Pierce drinking all night with a friend and spending $30 unaccounted for in area known for gambling and brothels.  It seems like every president that’s been alive four years after their loss has been asked to run again, and Pierce was no exception after the disaster of the Buchanan administration.  Pierce continued to make “pro-National” speeches, chastising abolitionists.  Wallner glosses over his repeated statements that whites and Africans are not equals regardless of how the law characterized them.  This went on throughout the Civil War, as Pierce and other democrats remained critical of Lincoln and abolition until victory in Atlanta assured Lincoln victory.  1.5/5

Book itself –   I enjoyed the second volume of Wallner’s biography better than the first, as it focused more on this fascinating time in American history.  Throughout the two volumes however, there were some things that did not work as well other biographies that I’ve read.  Stories of Pierce as a lawyer were full of hyperbole (there was even a part talking about how everybody would be weeping after his closing arguments were finished).  Wallner also frequently made excuses for Pierce, such as his frequent use of bribes (“it shows how important Pierce felt the issue was”) or using patronage to sway votes (“what president before or after would not have done the same thing?”).  However Wallner also includes some fun critical comments of Pierce such as the critics of his drinking’s nickname for Pierce as the “Hero of many well-fought bottle.”  Possible military cowardice was also mentioned, however like Pierce’s drinking Wallner mainly mentions that the critics said it more than analyzing how much truth there was to it.  Overall as good as can be expected on the subject, but not one of the best biographies I’ve read so far.3/5

3-star

“Nevertheless: A Memoir” by Alec Baldwin Review

Nevertheless: A Memoir

Author: Alec Baldwin

Release Date: 2017

NeverthelessWho would want to read a book about a guy that needs to spend two pages detailing all of the people he’s punched since becoming famous? Somebody whose most famous moment in the past twenty years involved leaving a voicemail insulting his young daughter? Somebody whose politics can be so one sided he was caricatured as the villain in Team America: World Police? Sign me up, for starters. In addition to plenty of controversy and poor decisions, Baldwin is also the fascinating Hollywood leading man who famously could not draw an audience. Despite all that, he has appeared in many great films, had a starring role in one of the best TV comedies of all time, hosted Saturday Night Live more than any other person and enjoyed a second career as a successful podcaster. Clearly there is ample substance here to populate an autobiography.

Much like the man writing it, Nevertheless: A Memoir by Alec Baldwin is at times very entertaining and at others frustrating. I suspect your enjoyment of this book will depend on your expectations heading into it. If you are looking for an extensive experience inside the mind of Alec Baldwin spent discussing his famous family, behind the scenes drama on movie sets and his aspirations beyond acting you’ll unfortunately be disappointed. Although there are nuggets of each of those areas, Nevertheless doesn’t spend an extensive amount of time on any of them. If you are hoping for a very well written summary of his life that touches on all of the greatest hits but does not go into great detail on any of them, then this is a very engrossing read and a page turner.

The early headlines coming from this book involve the shade thrown by Baldwin at the producers of a movie that possibly misled him on his co-star being underaged and at Harrison Ford for taking his Jack Ryan franchise away from him. Those two sections combined take up two paragraphs in a 260 page memoir. Comparatively, Baldwin spends extensive time complimenting the many actors, directors, agents and friends he has known throughout his life. It is fitting that Nevertheless’s headlines look to make Baldwin as combative and ignore sections praising the likes of Gary Oldman, Jennifer Jason Leigh or Al Pacino. Even when describing his relationship with Kim Basinger, Baldwin’s harshest words are reserved for the attorneys and judges that he has encountered in his various trips to the court room.

While Baldwin spends an appropriate amount of time discussing 30 Rock, The Hunt for Red October, The Edge and his work in the theater, the vast majority of his filmography receives one sentence or fewer. For me, that was the most disappointing aspect of this book as Baldwin is primarily known for being an actor but glosses over most of his film work. Similarly, Baldwin spends a great deal of time discussing his parents but almost no time at all on his famous siblings (what little is mentioned is when all of the boys were still living at home). The one family member that gets extensive discussion outside of his parents is his daughter Ireland. While I don’t disbelieve anything Baldwin writes regarding his daughter, each passage does read like atonement bordering on pandering to convince the reader that the voicemail controversy was not indicative of their relationship. Baldwin also details his relationship and affection for homosexual males throughout his life which similarly reads as laying the groundwork for his rebuttal toward criticism of his use of the word “faggot” toward a paparazzi (Baldwin also denies saying that word).

Those are my criticisms of the book but I’m giving it four stars. I read this book over a few days but it’s definitely the sort of book you could read through in one sitting. Baldwin writes more like a novelist than an actor, utilizing different tenses and twists in chronology to tell his life story. The language is excellent to the point that I was checking for a ghost writer after completing. My favorite section was actually the flashback through all the people Baldwin had punched which served as a shocking and entertaining switch from the reality Baldwin had presented throughout the rest of the book. While I didn’t learn a lot about his work on his own projects that I didn’t already know, Baldwin is proud to share his knowledge of film history (and classical music) in a way that is likely to educate many readers. Despite obviously writing to counter personal attacks on him as a parent and homophobe, Baldwin also comes away looking very honest at other times, such as discussing his motivations for writing this book and his belief that parents can never love all their children equally.

One gets the sense that Baldwin is just beginning another chapter of his life with three children under three as he approaches sixty years old. For older fans, he is a former leading man but a new generation sees him as a game show host and a late night impressionist.Nevertheless is the second book he has written, but looking at where he is now in life Baldwin has ample life experiences happening to supply a third one. If you are a fan of his work or just find him an interesting public figure, this book will entertain you. If you are looking for more than what you could get in an extended interview with the man, particularly related to his film work and famous siblings you may come away disappointed.

4-star