Tag: Biography

“Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald Review



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.




“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.


“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


“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


“How To Be a Man (And Other Illusions)” By Duff McKagan Review

how to be a man

How to Be a Man (And Other Illusions)

Author: Duff McKagan

Release Date: 2015

I originally read Duff’s first book, “It’s So Easy and Other Lies” shortly after reading Slash’s autobiography. Between the two, I preferred Duff’s book for several reasons: it was obviously written more by the musician than a ghost writer; the book had more humor in it; and the story extended to the Velvet Revolver era. I’m happy to pick up another book by McKagan based on that one, although where “It’s So Easy…” was a great biography for any music fan “How to Be a Man (And Other Illusions)” is definitely more in the vein of for hardcore fans only.

The style of this book is about half life lessons and half biography of events since “It’s So Easy…” was published. That includes some very cool events, including a book tour, a new band (the excellent Walking Papers that I’d recommend any rock fans check out), and even some reconciliation with Axl Rose. The events stop short of the Guns ‘n Roses reunion however, which is unfortunate because the story of Axl and Slash patching things up would probably be the most fascinating story in any Guns ‘n Roses biography.

Interspersed in those biographical chapters are life lessons from Duff. There are also several short chapters on subjects like dating and parenting, some more successful than others. My main criticism of the advice portions of this book is that McKagan seem to be writing as a character. Much of the advice begins “Make sure your chick….” or something in similar vernacular. While McKagan certainly has a rock and roll attitude to much of his writing, he also comes across much more intelligent in most of his writing that he does when boiling things down to life lessons.

I loved the section on 100+ records every dude should own which gave me some solid education on punk rock. The section on books to read was less successful as it was much more limited in its variety. The van tour by Walking Papers was probably the backbone of the book and served as an interesting anchor to keep coming back to, however the shadow of the Guns ‘n Roses reunion hangs over the book as the mega event that the reader knows the outcome of but knows will take place after the book is over.

With all of the excitement of Guns ‘n Roses successful reunion as well as the popularity of McKagan’s daughter’s band The Pink Slips, one can only suspect that McKagan will have plenty of material for another installment in his biography series. If Chris Jericho and Theodore Roosevelt can justify three volume biography sets, then the bass player from GnR, Loaded, Velvet Revolver, Walking Papers and more will have me back at the book store for round three as well.


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


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.


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


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