Category: Presidential Biography

“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

“Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son” by Peter A. Wallner Review

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Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son

Author: Peter A. Wallner

Release Date: October 2004

I will do a longer review once I read the second volume of Peter A. Wallner’s Franklin Pierce biography, “Martyr for the Union.” This volume covers Pierce’s early years and heritage and ends at him taking the oath of office in Washington. I’ve read a lot of presidential biographies recently (15 on 14 presidents) and my initial take away was that Wallner does as a good of job as he can with making Pierce interesting and conveying information. The problem is that Pierce didn’t do enough in his early life to justify a two volume study. Whereas somebody like John Quincy Adams had vast accomplishments prior to and after being president, Pierce was relative unknown before being elected. He retired shortly after serving his only term in the Senate, and was strictly a party man while in the House of Representatives. At the state level, for the years leading up to his nomination he was the unofficial head of the Democrat party in New Hampshire, well known among the politicians but not exactly a household name. He was best known for being an attorney, drawing crowds in his area due to his skills with language. By far the most interesting aspects of Pierce was the tragedy in his home life, which I’ll get into more in the full review after volume two.

3-star

“Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President” by Robert J. Rayback Review

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Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President

Author: Robert J. Rayback

Release Date: 1959

At times, reading Robert Rayback’s biography on Millard Fillmore felt like Déjà vu all over again, and not just because it’s the thirteenth presidential biography I’ve read in the last 18 months. I should have expected similarities after the numerous recurring themes between William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, but sure enough the John Tyler/Millard Fillmore comparisons are too apparent to ignore. Both Tyler and Fillmore were elected Vice Presidents for the Whig party under two older war hero Generals; both elections featured vague promises and unclear politics to try to catch as many Whig votes across the country as possible. Both took office shortly into their President’s first term as illness took their predecessor. Both were then turned on by their party, with neither man even representing the Whigs in the follow-up election. Both men were part of the string of presidents that attempted to preserve the union through compromise rather than confronting the sectional issues head on.

So considering all that, why did I not really care for Fillmore afterward while Tyler was absolutely one of my favorite presidents to read about? It boiled down to two reasons, Fillmore’s home state and Tyler’s convictions. Whereas Tyler was a southern man, his compromises appeared better in an historical light as they showed an understanding for the Northern goal of halting the expansion of slavery. Fillmore’s New York origin naturally meant that his compromises look much worse historically, as he embraced the Fugitive Slave act much more heartily than any other President. Despite being a New Yorker, it was only the Southern Whigs that continued to support him after his term. More intrinsically, Tyler stayed true to his own convictions even when they were completely opposed to Clay’s Whig party platforms. Fillmore was much more willing to bend his convictions to reach compromises and would even wait to see which way the wind was blowing (figuratively speaking) before making a decision.

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

Born into – Fillmore scores well here, as his father was a farmer who got duped by the land giveaways for veterans scheme in New York (those that fought in the Revolutionary War had opportunities to be compensated with farm land; in this case not particularly fertile or easy to sell farm land). Fillmore was the oldest son (a common theme with our highest office thus far) and his education was unexceptional. In addition to farming, Fillmore learned how to work in a mill before apprenticing as a clerk for an attorney; this was a great opportunity for him however he ended up quitting due to feeling taken advantage of by the man who offered him this position. Fillmore took a job for $3 using the skills he had picked up, his boss found out and chastised him for it. He caught his big break when he got another Clerk job and was admitted to practice law 27 months after starting, something that usually required seven years of education. 4/5

Pre-President – After Fillmore was an attorney, he went to a small town to be the only attorney rather than work with partners in bigger area. He became an important figure locally as a result. Drawn into politics by the Anti-Mason saga, he ended up becoming part of the Anti-Mason party following Jackson/Adams election (Fillmore supported loser eventual Adams). Taking advantage of his local statute, he was elected to the New York legislature.

Fillmore was quiet first year in legislature, still learning the ropes. After his reelection, he became much more vocal. His most impressive accomplishment in the entire biography was probably the creation of the first bankruptcy laws in the United States. In order to get it passed, he offered it as non-party legislation so Democrats would vote and take credit for it instead of its creators (the Anti-Masons).

After this success, he moved to Buffalo, where he was heavily involved in organizations and local affairs. His involvement directly created the Fire Fighting system that was in effect at least 70 years after its formation. Fillmore began his own law firm eventually employing future politicians Solomon Haven and Nathan Hall, and eventually Grover Cleveland as a law clerk. Haven and Hall were also prolific, in that one of them helped make Buffalo the first publicly funded free school system in America.

Once elected to the national Congress, Fillmore focused on creating a new national party because anti-masons were not succeeding at the national level. Fillmore’s first choice was having Supreme Court Justice John McLean head the ticket as a presidential candidate. Once the Whig Party was formed, Fillmore switched to it and immediately and the party immediately became more successful than Anti-Mason party ever was. Fillmore was instrumental in organizing the New York Whigs, however it is not a stretch to say they were the most divided group of Whigs in the country. As the Head of Ways and Means Committee, Fillmore’s biggest victory was the Tariff of 1842 that placed President Tyler in a no-win situation and contributed to his fall from grace in the Whig party. Fillmore lost interest in Congress however and retired to return to Buffalo.

At the state level, he shortly thereafter nominated for Governor against his will (he had made a promise to endorse John Collier, and did not want to go back on this). However, Thurlow Weed (the closest thing a biography can have to a villain) didn’t want Fillmore to be Vice President and arranged for support for Fillmore’s gubernatorial run to discourage a run for the national office. Fillmore lost his run for Governor and spent a few years as retired. Two years later he ran for comptroller at party’s urging and won in a landslide, moving his family to Albany. There he started newspapers to help the Whig party, including one in German for immigrants and was repayed by John Collier when Collier recommended him for Vice President to the New York assembly. The author noted this was alleged to be a scam by colleagues, and I certainly picked up on some Clay/J.Q. Adams underhandedness. Weed also managed to get Fillmore to support his guy William Seward for governor over Collier, which of course led to Fillmore’s lack of power over Federal patronage in New York and later difficulties as President. 3/5

Presidential Career – Fillmore didn’t get off to a good start, as he needed to build a cabinet from scratch in a short period while the south was threatening to secede prior due to the national question of how to address slavery in the western territories of Utah, New Mexico and California. Fillmore would have been the tiebreaking vote on Compromise of 1850, and while his personal beliefs made him want to support compromise, political aspirations had him wanting to support Taylor. He told Taylor he would support beliefs but ultimately the situation changed and vote never came to pass.

By name recognition, Fillmore created an impressive cabinet, let by Daniel Webster, John Crittenden, and Nathan Hall. As President, Fillmore’s focus was more on preserving the union than being anti-slavery, which turned off many in his party. Fillmore followed the lead of Congress in breaking the agreement up into several sections to make it more palatable to all. In particular, the federal government assuming Texas’s state debt was a novel solution to getting support from a state on that issue. As previously mentioned, Fillmore’s zeal for enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law is a tarnish on his legacy, taking it further than any other president including a well publicized case in Boston. Domestically, Fillmore was also the first president to subsidize railroad.

On the international side, Fillmore laid the groundwork for opening trade with Japan a few years later, however this was more a function of Japan being ready to open its borders than any shrewd execution on America’s part. The other notoriety was an international incident when Webster gave permission to private citizens to go get Guano from South America with the promise of Naval support if things went haywire; the citizens had no claim to the Guano and Fillmore had to come up with compromise of paying back involved parties by government to make avoid hostilities. Fillmore also had opportunities to add definitely add Hawaii and probably add Cuba to U.S., but chose against both as he was anti-expansionist/anti-conflict.

Per Rayback, Fillmore never intended to run for reelection; he had decided early on to not seek reelection but ended up being roped into it got elected because he was talked out of formally withdrawing and made vague statement about accepting will of people who then nominated him. I don’t buy it as Fillmore would run for president again a few years later, and his shrewdness in the Governor/V.P hustle with Collier earlier shows he valued the appearance of not wanting to appear he was seeking office but doing it for “the will of the people.”

Fillmore ended up defeated as nominee by Winfield Scott for reelection, which was considered by Rayback to be death the of Whig party; Scott lost 27 states to 4 but Pierce only got 56% of vote. Southern Whigs supported Fillmore but New Englanders preferred Webster and everybody else wanted Scott. Fillmore’s last attempted act as president was to address the slave issue. He believed shipping blacks to Africa at 100K per year was best solution as it would keep population levels manageable and additional workers could be replaced by Asians. He was talked out of it, so only us real history nerds got to hear his thoughts on it. 1.5/5

Vice President – Like Tyler, it doesn’t seem Fillmore had a Vice President. 0/5

First Lady – Abigail Powers was two years older than Fillmore, and the daughter of a reverend. They were married several years after meeting, once Fillmore was successful enough to propose marriage. She had two children with Millard, Millard Powers and Mary Abigail. By the time Fillmore was president, she was not in great health and Mary Abigail tended to many of the first lady duties. During Franklin Pierce’s inauguration, Abigail Powers got a flu and died shortly afterward. Fillmore’s daughter died shortly thereafter. 1.5/5

Post Presidency – It was a sad time after Abigail’s death. Whigs splintered into Republican (those that were Anti- Kansas/Nebraska act) party and No Nothing Party ( or “American” party, founded on an anti- Catholic and anti-immigrant.stance). Fillmore was concerned about political parties becoming entirely sectional and decided to throw in with the No-Nothing party which allowed him the best option for success after Whigs were no longer effective. He threw his name in for a presidential candidate option, and even seemed to agree that Immigrants were problem and should not be allowed to hold office. Fillmore then traveled the country for several months and Europe for a year to allow others to law groundwork for his nomination.

Alas, it was all for naught as Fillmore then lost convincingly to Buchanan (and actually finished in 3rd place overall) which ended his political career. Fillmore’s post political life included remarrying. This time, a very wealthy widow who actually had enough money that Fillmore took a $10,000 income a year to manage her finances while they were married. He also took part in nearly every new organization in Buffalo, including the Y.M.A., Library, Humane Society, Center for Arts and everything else you can think of. He even served as the first Chancellor of Buffalo University, although more in an honorary capacity.

When the Civil War began, Fillmore was on board supporting the North. He began an organization called the Union Continentals which was made up of older gentlemen former soldiers. The group helped raise morale and enlistments in the area and was in effect for a few years. Unfortunately, Fillmore’s lasting legacy on the Civil War is a speech he made at a community event in 1864, criticizing Lincoln and the refusal to make concessions for the their southern brothers. Rayback argues that this speech was a significant reason why historians have been so unkind to Fillmore. 2/5

Book itself – In the preface, the author discusses how he originally set out to write a history of the Whig party, which ascended with Fillmore (as he switched from Anti-Mason to Whig) and died with his loss for reelection. This was an interesting period in history that often gets overlooked, but Fillmore himself doesn’t appear to deserve much additional scholarship as his lasting legacy was as one of several who did nothing to solve the major issues facing the country. The book did not spend enough time on his personal life for my taste, and also glossed over several important political times such as Fillmore’s first run for national the House of Representatives. Many authors on these biographies do all they can do to make their subject likeable it’s much rarer that the author can make somebody interesting, likeable and understandable. While I understood many of Fillmore’s decisions, I never cared for the man or found this to be much of a page turner. 2.5/5

3-star

“Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest” by K. Jack Bauer Review

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Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest

Author: K. Jack Bauer

Release Date: August 1993

Most of what I knew about Zachary Taylor prior to reading this book, I had learned from two separate sources. Most of my knowledge came from reading the James Polk biography by Robert Merry, “A Country of Vast Designs,” which detailed Taylor’s Mexican war exploits and his ascension to presidential candidate for the Whig party. The rest of my knowledge came from “John Tyler: Champion of the Old South,” by Oliver Chitwood. Chitwood’s novel didn’t talk about Taylor at all, but I used to get Taylor and Tyler confused quite a bit, so reading that one helped me remember which one Tyler was, which gave me some knowledge on Taylor by process of elimination.

I’m sure that I will see patterns as I read more presidential biographies, and authors will likewise point out similarities, but upon finishing “Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest” I got a heavy sense of déjà vu with one William Henry Harrison. The Whig party of that era has always seemed to pale in comparison to the Democrat party of the era, or even the Federalist party before it. Instead of leaders like Jackson and Jefferson, the Whig party took many of its leads from Henry Clay who (although a major figure of his era) history has not venerated as it has his rivals. The two Whig presidents to win presidential elections ended up both being military leaders following American wars, and both were elected on vague politics than on the strength of any issues. Where William Henry Harrison was elected based on catchy log cabin campaigning and rhyming slogans, Zachary Taylor thrived with alliterative nicknames (“Old Rough and Ready”) and a refusal to take positions on important issues of the era.

For Harrison’s quick successor John Tyler, this led to problems when Tyler differed from Clay’s position on Whig party issues. Similarly, Zachary Taylor ended up sharing more ideals with the Democrat party than his own party was aware of when he was elected. It appeared to be a case of both the Whig party as well as the American voters not learning their lesson when electing a former military commander without first forcing the candidate to declare their position on issues. Taylor’s position (as well as Harrison’s) called for limited involvement by the chief executive, which mitigated the fallout during Taylor’s time as Commander in Chief. Of course, the final similarity is the tragic end of both men. Harrison’s legacy in the history books is his death just months after being elected. Were it not for him, Taylor would be in for the similar distinction of dying two years into his term. Here’s how Taylor scores in my presidential rating rubric.

Born Into – If you’re ever looking to read a quick history of America, you can probably just grab a Virginia history book and get most of the same information. The twelfth President has the same distinction as six of his predecessors in being born in Virginia. Similarly to Polk and Jackson (who were not born in Virginia), Taylor’s family moved west and transplanted him to Kentucky at a young age. The third son of a wealthy family (not Madison wealthy, but closer to Madison’s wealth than Jackson’s humble beginnings), Taylor had access to land and slaves and even a possible military commission through his family and name. 2/5

Pre-President – The bulk of this book is spent on Taylor’s military career prior to being elected president. However, unlike William Henry Harrison, Andrew Jackson or George Washington, Taylor’s military career was fairly unremarkable. Beginning with the War of 1812, Taylor’s troops were involved in some small Indian skirmishes, but his only involvement significant enough to warrant discussion was the his defense of Fort Harrison from Indian attack. Taylor was successful in fighting off the intruders and utilized the civilians present to fight fires and load muskets, but the numbers were on the small side and it did not play a significant role in Taylor’s advancement in command.

Between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War (1816 to 1846) Taylor’s military record is very uneventful with one exception. Bauer does a nice job showing Taylor’s character during these thirty years, and the result is not flattering to the subject. Much of Taylor’s surviving writings (most of his letters were destroyed by the boys in blue during the Civil War) are letters sent during this period in which he showed continued frustration at slow advancement in army (brevet commissions were detailed heavily in contributing to this problem). Bauer described Taylor as suffering from “30 year old syndrome,” which boiled down to the future president having a bad attitude about his station in life. Taylor was routinely quick to lose his temper and committed himself to two duels, but neither took place. When not requesting promotion in the army, he was often involved in petty arguments and grudges with other officers, or taking leave for vacations to his new home in Baton Rouge, LA.

The only real action or excitement during this time was the Battle of Lake Okeechobee in the Florida Seminole conflicts, which ended up being the bloodiest battle of 19th Century Indian Warfare. Taylor’s troops took heavy losses, particularly his volunteer militia (which Taylor was never fond of using). Taylor was criticized for sacrificing his volunteer militia in his battle plan, but still got a promotion to Brigadier following the battle and became leader of the Army of the South in dealing with the Florida Indian problem. During this period he earned his nickname, Old Rough and Ready, but like all the other commanders dealing with defending Florida was not able to solve the problems. I’ll give Taylor credit for trying some innovative ideas (establishing a grid of outposts for quick responses, using bloodhounds to track Indians (unsuccessfully)) which stood out in contrast to his conservative leadership in the Mexican American War.

Bauer repeatedly made the point that Taylor was not a great tactician and also lacked a killer instinct to pursue enemy and end conflicts. As part of four battles in the Mexican American War, all were victories but each was criticized by historians for Taylor’s decision making. Taylor comes across as a presence for the army more than a tactician or motivator. Dressed as a farmer on all but two occasions (according to another officer), Taylor would often play jokes on new arrivals and pretend to be somebody other than the General. He would later run his cabinet as he did his command, allowing those under him to make decisions on strategy and command, and rather than take over should they fail, he would withdraw and replace the individual later on. His most famous battle is certainly Buena Vista; again Bauer goes to great lengths to minimize Taylor’s actual planning and even presence (Taylor mistakenly believed the battle was over prematurely and left to inspect a hospital at one point) with two officers (Wool and Worth) doing more of the leading. With the War still ongoing, Taylor requested six months leave shortly after Buena Vista, and left for home before it was even granted. 2/5

Presidential Career – I will be interested to find out if any President ever takes the office being as underqualified as Zachary Taylor. Not holding political offices or being involved with political associates is one thing, but Taylor’s political naivety far exceeded that. As an illustration, when Taylor was elected, about 83% of those that could legally vote, did; that was also a low turnout for that year. Taylor, by contrast, had NEVER voted before. If you also read Merry’s Polk biography, there is an argument to be made that Taylor was confused on which political party even represented his own personal views. Despite identifying himself as a Jefferson democrat, he would run as a Whig candidate. On the few occasions Taylor would disclose his views on any given topic, they would often be diametrically opposed to the party he was running for and he would be advised to cease commenting on issues. With that background, what exactly did he bring to the office? Regardless, he ended up defeating both Martin Van Buren of the Free Soil Party and Lewis Cass in the Democratic Party

Taylor’s political views ended up being easy to summarize in the abstract, and harder to pinpoint on specific issues of the time. He opposed using the veto, preferring laws to come from the legislature. He opposed protective tariffs, and didn’t believe the national bank was feasible, while also favoring internal improvements. Most significantly, he believed slavery should be protected but not extended, and he was not committed to the Monroe Doctrine. When assembling his cabinet, Taylor focused more on geography than skill or merit, trying to represent the country. The possibility exists that he was trying to form his own political party but I’m skeptical he was ambitious or intelligent enough to have actually taken steps toward this. The result of his weak cabinet was there was no implementation of any domestic policies during Taylor’s term in office, and his relationship with Congress was poor.

The two main issues of Taylor’s presidency were the slavery issue in new American territories and a proposed canal in Nicaragua. It is through these two issues that we must judge Taylor’s presidency, as so little was accomplished by his administration. Complicating this is that Taylor died before the Compromise of 1850 was even reached, leaving the biographer (and reader) to speculate on what little information can be verified. Negotiating a potential Nicaraguan canal with Britain (who had an interest in their Moskito Islands protectorate) seems minor in the abstract but should certainly be considered the major legacy of the Taylor Administration. The resulting Clayton-Bullwer treaty was reached and has been praised and criticized for its two results. First, the concessions by both Great Britain and America to not expand further into Central America ended manifest destiny to the South. Taylor’s non-agreement with the Monroe Doctrine also shows as Great Britain was allowed to remain in Central America. This latter effect would be minimized due to a number of economic and political factors which would later lead to British withdrawal from the Moskito protectorate, no thanks to Taylor.

Following the Mexican American War, the new territories of California, Utah, New Mexico and Texas posed the greatest question to American leadership since Independence. The southern states were well aware that the North would continue to have advantages in the House of Representatives for the future, so the admission of new states and territories was of vital importance in determining the strength of the Senate. All parties also became aware that Utah, California and New Mexico were not interested in having slavery be a part of their new state Constitutions. A number of proposals came forth to allow Northern and Southern agreement on this, but each required concessions from both sides. Taylor surprised many by actually siding with the Northern Whigs proposal. The reason for this is unclear, as it’s possible Taylor was preferring to save the larger number of northern votes for a possible second term, or it’s possible that Taylor viewed preserving the Union as tantamount to any sectional interests. The ultimate resolution would be saved for Millard Fillmore, but Taylor’s passivity and eventual position do not harm him in the eyes of his historian.

3-star

“A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent” by Robert W. Merry Review

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A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent

Author: Robert W. Merry

Release Date: November 2010

James Polk is a president I knew more about than John Tyler or Martin Van Buren, but was still mostly limited to the expansion of the country and his mostly favorable place among his peers in the Oval Office by comparison. Although Polk was a one term president, he accomplished a great deal, and virtually everything he set out to do. This was despite having a Whig heavy House of Representatives for the last two years of his term, and a congress overall in flux with the democrat party beginning to be splintered along geographic lines on the issue of slavery. If Merry’s book is accurate, Polk also had to deal with several individuals that were incompetent in their job at best and maliciously traitorous to Polk at worse in his cabinet in James Buchanan and Nicholas Walker, and that’s before even looking at his generals Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor, who at times were much more interested in their future political avenues than prosecuting the war against Mexico. Here’s how Polk stacks up in my presidential tally sheet.

Born Into – Polk was born in North Carolina to a moderately successful slave holding family, and moved to Tennessee as a small child. Much like his political idol, Andrew Jackson, Polk likely benefited from the frontier move as he was able to distinguish himself among his peers and advance to the top of Tennessee politics. 3/5

Pre-President – More than any other area in Robert Merry’s book, his pre-presidential career is really glossed over. If I recall, by about page 75, Polk has already been married, been in the military, been governor and speaker of the house and been voted out of office. The most memorable anecdote in those pages was young James Polk (12 years old?) being sedate with brandy and having urinary stones removed in a painful procedure that may have left him sterile. A lawyer by trade, Polk’s zealous support for all things Andrew Jackson (particular his opposition to the National Bank) aided him in standing out in the democrat party. His path to the presidency was also an interesting dark horse story, as he was originally just a VP candidate at the party convention, however Jackson’s newfound anti-Van Buren sentiment (due to Van Buren’s opposition to annexation of TX) opened door for him. After a new policy require a 2/3 majority before agreeing on a candidate effective knocked out the initial majority winner Van Buren (a northern favorite by states that would likely vote Whig), with Lewis Cass and Richard Johnson gaining votes and James Buchanan falling off the ballot. When Polk’s name was volunteered by the New Hampshire delegation, it was on the 8th ballot, and was quickly agreed upon by southern delegates. By the 9th ballot, he was the unanimous choice and eventually defeated Henry Clay (as so many others have before him) by sticking to democrat values at avoiding giving details on his position on tariffs. 3/5

Presidential Career – Polk’s presidential career began with a few snafu in selecting his cabinet: first with representing New York in the cabinet by selecting William Marcy which was probably more Van Buren’s fault and due to delays in the mail system at that time. Polk effectively appointed one of Van Buren’s enemies to his cabinet and divided New York Democrats for years afterwards. The other was appointing Buchanan to Secretary of State, who would repeatedly abuse the position, and leak confidential communications to the press all while setting himself up to succeed and Polk to fail whenever possible.

Polk outlined four private goals of presidency in his journal upon taking office:
· Settle Oregon question with Great Britain
· Acquire California from Mexico
· Reduce Tariff of 1842 with pure revenue rationale
· Revive Van Buren’s independent treasury
The Texas annexation went through per groundwork laid by Tyler, however in doing so it allowed Polk to pursue acquiring California through the most controversial moves of Polk’s presidency. Once the United States annexed Texas, and Mexico did not agree to it, the countries were essentially at war (Mexico was at war with Texas, which was then part of the U.S.A.). The southern border of Texas was also in dispute, and Texas had some claim to the Rio Grand river, so when Polk sent his troops to that location historians can now disagree if that began the war or if Mexico shedding first blood did. There is little dispute that Polk’s actions were more motivated by gaining territory for the country than defending Texas’s southern most claim, however the effect was America beating up on an inferior developed country with European imperialism as a motivation.

Simultaneously, Polk positioned himself that he was also OK with war Great Britain if it did not accede to our requests for settling the Oregon boundary. While Polk believed he could obtain up to through the 54th parallel, he ended up settling the Oregon territory dispute with a compromise made by prior presidents (49th parallel). However, it was him forcing the issue and appearing to be willing to go to war that allowed him to finish what prior presidents could not.

During the actual war, which lasted most of Polk’s presidency, the politics of the nation added much headache and delay in providing soldiers and funds. Whigs wanted to keep Taylor and Scott as the only generals so they could have a candidate for the next election (like William Henry Harrison was); Polk wanted to add Generals although it is unclear on if his motivations were to thwart Whig power or for military strategy. (Note – I’m noting a theme in wars where both parties vote to initiate war, and then the party opposite of the president takes a stand against the war shortly afterward (i.e. 1812, Mexican American, War on Terror, etc.)

Polk accomplished both his domestic goals with the help of a Democrat congress in his first two years; The Independent Treasury would be our system until 1913 when the Federal Reserve would replace it, and the critics of who stated it would lead to another Jacksonian recession were thwarted by discovery the of Gold In California soon after which boosted the economy. Likewise, as Britain embraced free trade later on, Polk’s reduced tariff victory also became moot.

Like all presidents of that era, Polk punted on the slavery issue when it was brought to the forefront. Specifically, when annexation of California territory entered the picture, Polk (along with many congressmen, including overrated abolitionist John Quincy Adams) felt slavery and California should not be an issue b/c there was no slavery in that territory and Congress should not preemptively make an issue where there wasn’t currently one.

Two of the most interesting headaches for Polk were Winfield Scott and Nicholas Trist, who both had prickly personalities and disliked Polk. Polk wasn’t fond of either of them as Scott’s political aspirations sometimes led him to disregard Polk’s orders and Trist’s resolve to end the war was more important to him than Polk’s aspirations of gaining land. However, Scott’s domination of General Santa Anna and Trist’s continuation of negotiations despite being recalled (transportation wasn’t yet there for him to leave initially, but he stuck around long past that excuse) ended up helping end the War on Polk’s terms. 4.5/5

Vice President – George M. Dallas was Polk’s vice president. Either he did nothing of interest while in office, or Robert Merry chose to ignore him. 1/5

First Lady – Sarah Childress was both a confidant to Polk as well as a successful first lady in performing the duties of the era. Much like Washington and Jackson, Polk is another president whose lack of children seemed to place an added emphasis on his wife as somebody to discuss the demands of his office. 4/5

Post Presidency – Polk died about four months after leaving office, taking just enough time to get home and get sick beforehand. 1/5

Book itself – Robert Merry’s biography is similar to other more recent president biographies, definitely written more for the normal book buyer than the scholarly peer. My biggest complaint is the glossing over of Polk’s early political career and military role. Had the author spend another 50 to 100 pages on this time frame, it would have been one of the best presidential biographies I had yet read. However, the result is still a fantastic and educating read, just one limited most primarily to Polk’s presidency. Large sections of the book completely ignore Polk in favor or explaining all the political intrigue going around him. While obviously no man exists in a vacuum, if you’re already well versed on Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, much of this book could also be redundant to you. 4/5

4-star

“John Tyler: Champion of the Old South” by Oliver Perry Chitwood Review

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John Tyler: Champion of the Old South

Author: Oliver Perry Chitwood

Release Date: 1939

I am on a roll with great presidential biographies. After “Old Tippecanoe,” I (naturally) enjoyed Tyler too through Oliver Chitwood’s 1939 biography “John Tyler: Champion of the Old South.” I am officially mired in that string of one term presidents between Jackson and Lincoln that mostly get glossed over in school and can even blend in together. (Truthfully, I often had trouble remembering which of Tyler and Taylor was named Zachary or John). This book did a great job of making an historical figure understandable, relatable and sympathetic despite having some questionable political views which certainly contributed to the eventual Civil War.

From the time he was thrust into head of the nation via the death of William Henry Harrison, “his accidency” (as his opponents would refer to him) was dealt a cabinet that was against him, a political party looking to replace him, and a platform he was elected to that he did not support. Throughout the remainder of his term and at times until the end of his life, he was the subject of ridicule for his handling of the office. Chitwood does a fantastic job in this book exploring the complaints against Tyler, as well as the available options to him and the rationale for his decisions. I came away with an understanding for nearly all of his decisions, and in terms of personality, Tyler even rivaled prior presidents Monroe and Washington for making the biography reader appreciate him as a person. Here’s how he stacks up in my presidential ratings module.

Born Into – Tyler was yet another aristocratic Virginian, whose F.F.C. family and political father allowed him to have an expedited route into office. In this way he is very comparable to Madison and Harrison. 1/5

Pre-President – Tyler was a farmer and a lawyer and held a number of state offices before becoming Vice President, including Governor, Senator and state representative. One particular issue as a Senator arose when his state’s instructions to him by ballot differed from his own political beliefs. Prior to becoming a Senator, he had called for the recall of elected officials who did not follow his state’s instructions. When the time came for him to decide how to use his authority, he ended up stepping down rather than go against his conscience. Moments like this led to his estrangement from the Democratic Party. The fledgling Whig Party utilized his name and geographical origin to put him on the Ballot with WHH for President. The catchiness of ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler too’ and the log cabin campaign were so popular with the voters that neither man really had to define his actual views on the campaign trail, leading to the major clash with the Henry Clay led Whigs once Tyler became president. 3/5

Presidential Career – The defining moment of Tyler’s Presidency occurred in the first year as congress tried to establish a 2nd national bank (the same bane of both Jackson and Van Buren’s presidencies). The first attempt was vetoed by Tyler (a staunch democrat against the bank his entire life) but it became more interesting as a second attempt was allegedly OKed by him verbally before he ultimately vetoed it again. Chitwood discusses several reasons for this, with the most likely being that the bank he would have allowed was different than the one he vetoes, but the effect of it was a mass resignation by his entire cabinet (save Daniel Webster) and the alienation of the entire Whig Party. As a result, Tyler’s accomplishments in office were mostly restricted to diplomatic achievements which he could coordinate through his secretary of states. These included settling the border between Canada and Maine/Massachusetts, opening up trade with China, and setting up Texas becoming part of the United States (which that old recurring rapscallion John Calhoun took credit for). Beyond that, his diplomacy helped avoid his own Civil War (through the Rhode Island Rebellion), and he also oversaw an economy that went from 17 million in debt to a surplus (though Chitwood does point out that was a result of American industry, as a gridlocked President and Congress took no real action to improve the situation). Because I blame most of Tyler’s problems on Henry Clay, I’ll give him a 3.5/5

Vice President – I had to verify it on Wikipedia, but I don’t believe anybody replaced Tyler as Vice President. No mention of this was in the biography, and the next V.P. after Tyler is listed as Polk’s. 0/5

First Lady – Tyler had TWO first ladies. The first (Letitia Tyler) had suffered a stroke 2 years before he took office and was paralyzed as a result. She died two years after Tyler took office, and although she lived at the White House with him, her “duties” were attended to by Tyler’s daughters or daughters in law. She had seven children survive to adulthood. Julia Tyler was a woman Tyler met amid the destruction and grief from the Princeton ship incident. She was much more involved in the social aspects of the office, though she was criticized for appearing to elevate herself to a royalty-like position in her interaction with peers. Chitwood frequently pointed out how attractive Tyler’s wives were (and that Tyler was also attractive himself), looking at the limited evidence online he was likely judging on a curve compared to other first ladies. 2/5

Post Presidency – Tyler was a man without a party after leaving office. Politically he was certainly a democrat, but Polk had removed many of his people from office and there was no place for the ex-president in the ranks of the party. In 1856 and 1860 he spoke to close friends about the possibility of running for president again, but it appears his estimation of those chances were higher than any actual chance was. One of my favorite anecdotes however was when he retired to “Sherwood Forest” (his plantation) his political enemies were all his neighbors, and had elected him “Commissioner of Road repairs” as a last dig at his fall from grace. Rather than decline the position, Tyler took pride in it and even returned the favor by conscripting his neighbors into road repair service (particularly when it was time to plant new crops). Unfortunately for history, Tyler found his place in politics as a leading advocate for secession. He served as president of the Virginia Convention and was even elected to the Confederacy House of Representatives but died before he could take office. 2/5

Book itself – This is exactly what I want in a presidential biography. The facts all felt reliable, and any issues in dispute were fully examined with multiple reasons or explanations given, with the author explaining why certain possibilities (or accounts) were likely not to be trusted (such as the story of Tyler trying to flee the city when Polk took office). The author also pointed out when Tyler made poor decisions or was himself deluded. The only areas where it could have been better was more detail on his family relationships and their own courses in history, and at the times the 1930’s perspective was a bit too understanding in terms of the Confederacy’s position. Still one of the best books I’ve read so far through the first ten presidents. 5/5

5-star

“Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Times” by Freeman Cleaves Review

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Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Times

Author: Freeman Cleaves

Release Date: 1939

President number nine was one I was particularly looking forward to. I knew little about William Henry Harrison prior to reading this, except that he had Indiana ties, was a successful general in the War of 1812, and died shortly after taking office (the circumstances of which, I was actually mistaken about). One biography later, I think I know closer a lot more about Old Tippecanoe (and Tyler too), some positive, some negative. It’s hard to imagine an odder candidate to be thrust forward as a potential President, first as an opposing party’s rebuttal to Richard Johnson (the very interesting Vice President of Martin Van Buren from my last presidential biography; Johnson took credit for the victory at the Battle of the Thames and WHH was basically elevated to presidential candidate to refute that), and subsequently as a compromise candidate in the Whig party as somebody less disliked than Henry Clay (and literally doing nothing else of note for the four years in between). How does he stack up at my conveniently subjective ratings system?

Born into – The humble beginnings of a settler, born into a log cabin on the frontier are total b.s. though they were a cornerstone of many pro Harrison campaign pieces during his day. In actuality, Harrison’s father was a prominent Virginian and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and much of his family served in various political offices. It was as much his name as anything that led to him becoming Governor of the Indiana Territory. 1/5

Pre-president – Harrison’s main accomplishments are as follows: Was one of basically four Generals with Military success in the War of 1812 (my impressions are that he was a defensive General, like Washington, not an offensive one, like Jackson; none of his victories as great as Jackson’s New Orleans, but also not due solely to his Colonel’s as Richard Johnson alleged), served as Governor of the Indiana Territory, served as a delegate for the territory in Congress (passing bills which divided the Northwest Territory and made it cheaper for settlers to buy land), and served as Minister to Columbia (accomplishing nothing of note during this time of insurrection in the area). His greatest accomplishments as either General or politician were the numerous treaties he signed with the various Native Americans in the area, adding many thousands of acres for settlement without bloodshed. The legacy I took away from Harrison was a very positive one with regards to Native Americans (even mentioning treating them with trust in his inaugural address) and negative with by doing nothing to aid in abolition (both allowing slavery in the Northwest territory for ten years and denying Congress’s ability to abolish slavery in Washington D.C.). 3.5/5

Presidential career – Contrary to what I learned in school, Harrison did not die as a result of catching cold during his lengthy inaugural address (one hour forty minutes). In actuality he served a few solid weeks in good health before catching a cold in poor weather later on. During that time, he finished appointing members of his cabinet and various ministers. His platforms as President seemed to be to 1) serve only one term 2) not use his veto power and 3) make political appointments and firings based on merit, not political party. He was (technically) successful at the first two and on the right path in goal number three, even causing more offense to Henry Clay than any other politician before him. If you want a candidate that wants Congress to do the work and the President to stay out of their way, Harrison is your guy. 2/5

Vice president – The most interesting fact about William Henry Harrison’s father is that when he died, his seat in the Virginia House was filled by John Tyler Sr (yes, the father of V.P. Tyler). History amazingly repeated itself in this instance. Not going into his role as President whatsoever, Tyler is one of the early V.P. candidates that actually helped Harrison get elected being on the same ticket. The fact that he actually finished 99% of the term, gets him a good score in my book. 4/5

First lady – Anna Harrison was too ill to come to Washington when William was elected, so one of his daughters took her place fulfilling First Lady duties (hosting parties). She had ten children with William, and outlived him by 20+ years, but did nothing of consequence beyond that to be included in this biography. 1/5

Post presidency – **Crickets** N/A

Book Overall – This was an enjoyable read for learning about the era and Harrison’s political peers. I didn’t know that Henry Clay had the most attractive donkeys in America or all the historical moments that took place in Fort Wayne and Vincennes, IN. As alluded to, there really wasn’t much writing about Harrison’s marriage or his children, and the book ends at his burial (I enjoy when a book devotes some time to legacy). This book stood about near Unger’s the Last Founding Father as a very good biography (not quite Chernow’s Washington or Bemis’s JQA and the Union though). 5/5

5-star