The Presidents between #7, Jackson, and #16, Lincoln, are almost entirely unknown to most of the public: not one in a hundred can name them all, and of those almost none can name them in order. Eight one-term Presidents, all trying to stave off the civil war in various ways, and all failing that mission.
I will never understand why learning the Presidents in order isn’t a standard requirement in the public schools. It’s not hard; it is a useful tool in placing events in American history, and it prevents embarrassments like the Cornell law grad I once worked with who couldn’t place the Civil War in the right century. Besides, we’re Americans, damn it. The least we owe the 43 patriots who have tried to do this job, some at the cost of their lives, many their health, and many more their popularity, is their place in our history and their names.
On with hailing the Chiefs with some of my favorite facts about them:
James K. Polk
“Hail to the Chief,” which had been sporadically in use since Madison’s day, became the official anthem of the office during the Polk Administration. Polk was a small, unimpressive man, and it was said that he needed the musical announcement when he entered a room or no one would notice him. Looks can be deceiving. James K. Polk was as wily, tough and as ruthless as they come. One reason may be that he was another Presidential survivor of an ordeal that would kill most people: as a teenager, he underwent a bloody frontier operation for gallstones with no anesthesia, tied to a table, biting on a rag.
General Taylor, who was pursued by both the Whigs and the Democrats who both wanted to nominate him for President, was a great experiment He was not a member of any political party, had never held public office prior to becoming President, and had never even voted before becoming Chief Executive. He was also nearly illiterate. We often long for an apolitical President, a true, rather than a pretend, “outsider.” Taylor would have been an interesting test case, though the pre-Civil War political and social chaos was hardly the most promising period to try out the theory. Unfortunately he died of cholera less than half-way into his administration.
And he wasn’t even elected in a year ending in a zero!
The President with my favorite President’s name had an undistinguished tenure, but he was instrumental in establishing the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in this country after he left office. I will always think well of him for that.
New Hampshire’s only President had the most tragic life of those who escaped the White House still breathing. Bad things were always happening to him; for example, he was wounded painfully in the Mexican-American War when he was thown by his horse against the horn of his saddle, harming his testicles. His wife, Jane, was chronically ill and had emotional problems that were exacerbated by the deaths of the Pierces’ two youngest sons. She hated politics, hated everything Pierce did and the people he associated with, and didn’t seem too crazy about Franklin either, nagging and berating him constantly and mercilessly. Then, on the way to Washington, D.C. after her worthless husband had blundered his way into being elected President of the United States, Jane watched their surviving 11-year-old son get beheaded when the train carrying the Pierces ran off the rails. Franklin saw the horror too. (The boy was the only casualty.)
The couple arrived grief-stricken and broken. Jane refused to participate in affairs of state, blamed Pierce for their son’s death, and continued to berate him. The President, quite possible suffering from PTSD himself, began drinking heavily. Meanwhile, the country was falling apart, with the divisions and violence over slavery escalating and requiring firm, measured, deft leadership, which Pierce was not equipped to provide. He knew it, too. He was almost certainly an alcoholic, but if he hadn’t been, he would have been driven to drink anyway. Upon leaving office in 1857, Pierce is believed to have said in answer to someone asking what he was going to do now, “There’s nothing left to do but get drunk.” Jane kept nagging and abusing him until she died in 1863, and in 1869, his liver ruined, Pierce died himself.
One of his best friends as a young man was Nathanial Hawthorne. Franklin Pierce’s tragic life played out like one of his pal’s stories.
When he is not being labelled our worst President (though one could not be worse than Pierce) James Buchanan is often distinguished as the only bachelor President. In fact, he was probably our first gay President. His engagement to his fiancee, Ann Coleman, broke off under mysterious circumstances, and she died not long after. Was he unmarried out of grief or guilt? Historians tend to think not. Buchanan’s long-time companion, Senator William Rufus King (D-Al), was referred to as his “better half,” ‘’his wife,” and “Aunt Fancy,” and in the Capital, the pair were called the “Siamese twins,” a euphemism for gays and lesbians. When King was appointed envoy to France in 1844, Buchanan complained to friends about his loneliness, saying “I have gone wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any of them.”
The giant among Presidents, literally and figuratively, is so iconic that we tend to take his brilliance and complexity for granted. Lincoln was another President who nearly died before he could lead the nation: when he was 10, he was kicked in the temple by a horse and was unconscious from the blow until the following day. His neighbors thought he was dead, or as good as dead. Some historian and doctors have speculated that Lincoln suffered permanent brain damage from the incident, explaining his life-long fits of depression and the relative lack on animation of the left side his face (he was virtually blind in his left eye as well.)
If Lincoln was brain damaged, find me a horse. Many of his speeches are imprinted on our souls, so I’ll take this opportunity to highlight one of Abe’s earlier efforts,an address he gave at the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1837. His main topic was “The perpetuation of our political institutions,” but the speech was inspired by the murder of Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist and activist who began publishing a paper in Alton, Illinois. On November 7, 1837, a pro-slavery mob set the building where he kept his printing press on fire and shot Lovejoy dead. Lincoln’s message was a condemnation of mob violence. Here is the most memorable passage, and it’s still relevant today:
…I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country—the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts, and the worse than savage mobs for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth and an insult to our intelligence to deny. Accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the every-day news of the times. They have pervaded the country from New England to Louisiana, they are neither peculiar to the eternal snows of the former nor the burning suns of the latter; they are not the creature of climate, neither are they confined to the slaveholding or the non-slaveholding States. Alike they spring up among the pleasure-hunting masters of Southern slaves, and the order-loving citizens of the land of steady habits. Whatever then their cause may be, it is common to the whole country.
It would be tedious as well as useless to recount the horrors of all of them. Those happening in the State of Mississippi and at St. Louis are perhaps the most dangerous in example and revolting to humanity. In the Mississippi case they first commenced by hanging the regular gamblers—a set of men certainly not following for a livelihood a very useful or very honest occupation, but one which, so far from being forbidden by the laws, was actually licensed by an act of the legislature passed but a single year before.
Next, negroes suspected of conspiring to raise an insurrection were caught up and hanged in all parts of the State; then, white men supposed to be leagued with the negroes; and finally, strangers from neighboring States, going thither on business, were in many instances subjected to the same fate. Thus went on this process of hanging, from gamblers to negroes, from negroes to white citizens, and from these to strangers, till dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every roadside, and in numbers that were almost sufficient to rival the native Spanish moss of the country as a drapery of the forest.
Turn then to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim only was sacrificed there. This story is very short, and is perhaps the most highly tragic of anything of its length that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man by the name of McIntosh was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman attending to his own business and at peace with the world.
Such are the effects of mob law, and such are the scenes becoming more and more frequent in this land so lately famed for love of law and order, and the stories of which have even now grown too familiar to attract anything more than an idle remark.
But you are perhaps ready to ask, “What has this to do with the perpetuation of our political institutions?” I answer, “It has much to do with it.” Its direct consequences are, comparatively speaking, but a small evil, and much of its danger consists in the proneness of our minds to regard its direct as its only consequences. Abstractly considered, the hanging of the gamblers at Vicksburg was of but little consequence. They constitute a portion of population that is worse than useless in any community; and their death, if no pernicious example be set by it, is never matter of reasonable regret with any one. If they were annually swept from the stage of existence by the plague or smallpox, honest men would perhaps be much profited by the operation. Similar too is the correct reasoning in regard to the burning of the negro at St. Louis. He had forfeited his life by the perpetration of an outrageous murder upon one of the most worthy and respectable citizens of the city, and had he not died as he did, he must have died by the sentence of the law in a very short time afterward. As to him alone, it was as well the way it was as it could otherwise have been.
But the example in either case was fearful. When men take it in their heads to-day to hang gamblers or burn murderers, they should recollect that in the confusion usually attending such transactions they will be as likely to hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is, and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake. And not only so; the innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals are trodden down and disregarded. But all this, even, is not the full extent of the evil. By such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint but dread of punishment, they thus become absolutely unrestrained. Having ever regarded government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations, and pray for nothing so much as its total annihilation.
While, on the other hand, good men, men who love tranquillity, who desire to abide by the laws and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defense of their country, seeing their property destroyed, their families insulted, and their lives endangered, their persons injured, and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better, become tired of and disgusted with a government that offers them no protection, and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose. Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocratic spirit which all must admit is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed—I mean the attachment of the people.
Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of [our] population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing-presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure and with impunity, depend upon it, this government cannot last. By such things the feelings of the best citizens will become more or less alienated from it, and thus it will be left without friends, or with too few, and those few too weak to make their friendship effectual. At such a time, and under such circumstances, men of sufficient talent and ambition will not be wanting to seize the opportunity, strike the blow, and overturn that fair fabric which for the last half century has been the fondest hope of the lovers of freedom throughout the world.
Johnson was a terrible President, thrust by John Wilkes Booth in office at the worse possible time, for him and the nation that needed an unusually steady hand at the helm. He was a poor negotiator, stubborn, quite possibly another alcoholic, and had to follow Abraham Lincoln, which would have made him look weak by comparison even if he had been much better.
Still, he is the greatest Horacio Alger story of all the Presidents. He was dirt poor and indentured when a boy to a tailor as a virtual slave. Johnson escaped, there was bounty offered for anyone that caught and returned him. One would think that Johnson’s own experience would naturally engender in the 17th President some empathy for former black slaves when he was in a position to help them, but it did not. In fact, he later owned slaves, and, like Thomas Jefferson, may have fathered children with one of them.
Johnson was taught to read and write with professional competence by his wife. In his case especially, but with all of these men, rising to be even a lousy President is a remarkable achievement. Falling victim to the Peter Principle is a constant risk when you reach the very top, and in no field is that more of a peril than national leadership.
Ulysses S. Grant
My son is named after Grant, arguably the nicest and most sensitive of our Presidents. (How this sensitive man was able to sacrifice his soldiers in the thousands to win the horrible battles he did is an enigma.) As a cadet at West Point he drew pictures of horses obsessively; in the field, he refused to allow any of his men to see him unclothed. He loved his wife passionately, and wouldn’t allow her to get her badly crossed eyes fixed, because “God made her that way.” When his daughter was married, he retired to his bedroom and could be heard sobbing for over an hour.
As President, he was fatally handicapped by his nature, which caused him to trust people he shouldn’t and allowed others to exploit his good nature. The result was several scandals engineered by his appointees and associates, including Crédit Mobilier and the Whiskey Ring. Yet he had a natural aptitude for leadership, as his superb autobiography proved on every page. He could manage and lead; what he was bad at was manipulation, deceit, pretense, and retribution—in short, politics.
In one odd area, his customary sensitivity was completely lacking. He hated music of any kind.
Rutherford B. Hayes
Hayes appears to have had something of a female fixation. He was raised by his older sister and his mother, and of his two wives, one had the same name as his sister and looked like his mother , while his other wife looked like his sister and had the same name as his mother. He was far from a wimp, however: of the Presidents who saw action in the civil war, he was the only one wounded, and he was wounded four times.
Hayes would have been a terrific President in almost any other era. As it was, he was handicapped by the corrupt deal Republicans cut with Democrats to give Hayes the 1876 election despite finishing second in popular votes—the GOP got Hayes, and the South got rid of Federal troops and were able top go back to discriminating against African Americans—and the fact that the election was widely regarded as “stolen.” In this case, it really was.
James A. Garfield
Garfield is another of the great “what ifs?” on Presidential history. He was brilliant, he was brave, he was principled, and he was charismatic. Unfortunately, he had the Three Stooges on his medical team, so a non-mortal wound from the gun of genuine whack job Charles Guiteau (He wrote a poem that he delivered on the scaffold before they hung him; Stephen Sondheim set it to music for the highlight of his strange, dark musical, assassins. That’s a great trivia question: Which Presidential assassin wrote the lyrics to Broadway song?) killed Garfield anyway because his doctors poked, dug, cut and prodded so much trying to remove the bullet that infection did him in.
Garfield also had a super-power. At parties, he would simultaneously translate an English passage into Latin and classic Greek, writing one language with his right hand as he wrote the other with his left.
Chester A. Arthur
Chester is one of my favorites. He was added to the Garfield ticket as a sop to the corrupt Republican machine in New York, of which Arthur was a card-carrying member. Indeed, his mentor was the infamous political boss, Roscoe Conkling, who assumed he could count on a compliant Arthur to oppose the political reforms favored by Garfield that threatened Conkling’s power and livelihood.
Arthur, however, was apparently listening when President Hayes said, in his most famous quote, “He serves his party best who serves his country best.” Once in office as President, Arthur championed and signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, and strongly enforced it. He then blocked politics as usual by vetoing Republican pork barrel projects. He was regarded as a traitor by his party: he was never seriously considered for re-nomination in 1884. Arthur was one of the better Presidents under difficult circumstances, and an Ethics Hero.
Part 1 is here.
Part 3 is here.
Part 4 is here