October 26, 2011

About that trip to Gettysburg


This August my friend Kara and I spent 3 days in Gettysburg, PA. This is the essay I wrote about the trip for The Millions.

There is a wonderful exchange in the documentary Moving Midway between the descendant of a North Carolina plantation owner, and the grandson of that same plantation owner’s mixed-race son. The documentary follows the moving of Midway Plantation, which sat across the road from a strip mall, to more secluded acreage. Godfrey Cheshire, the filmmaker (also a descendant of the plantation owners) starts looking into the history of Midway, including its slave families, which is why Abraham Lincoln Hinton, a 96-year old man from Harlem, is invited to the house’s re-opening party.

As he stands in the front hall, Godfrey tells him that the house had originally been built in 1848. “This house?” asks Hinton, “built then, and stood up like this?”

“That’s because your family built it,” says his host.

Everyone relaxes, including the viewer, with sheer relief that someone has said something candid. These two men, who are connected by a long, ugly history, but who weren’t personally involved, and both seem very gentlemanly, have such a strange, limited space in which they can relate to each other. Engaging the history of the South would be too sober a task and, quite frankly, not their responsibility, but acting as if they’re just two guys meeting on a porch is too flippant. The resulting atmosphere is cordial but constricted.

This is how I felt for the entire three days I recently spent in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Just being there reminds you that, had you been born in a different time or place, there were people you would be expected to hate. Not everyone chooses to travel to the physical embodiment of racial and sectional conflict, but then I am a history fan. And, as I wrote in March, I’m in the process of reading a biography of each American president. Having recently arrived at the Civil War, I decided to celebrate, if such a word can be used, by visiting Gettysburg.
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Along with everything else, Gettysburg is beautiful. The three-day battle spread itself for miles around the town, and because the battlefield is now a national park, Gettysburg is surrounded by woods and fields that have remained untouched except by monuments. As Kent Gramm writes in the opening of his book, Gettysburg, “It is the most beautiful place on earth. But death is everywhere — in every meadow, along every Virginia rail fence, all over those quiet, rocky hills at sunset.” My friend Kara, who traveled with me, and I spent our time learning and relearning the story of the battle. A topographically-based battle is remarkably easy to grasp, especially when the topography is preserved, and you are walking around on it.

There are two long, parallel ridges – Cemetery Ridge and Seminary Ridge – that extend southward from the edge of town and frame the second and third day’s fighting. Then there are the contested hills – Culp’s Hill, Oak Hill, Little Round Top, and Big Round Top – that provided more brief, concentrated action. The major events of the battle – Buford’s stand on the first day, the Wheatfield and the Little Round Top bayonet charge on the second day, Pickett’s Charge on the third day – cluster around these high grounds.

We spent the first day at the Gettysburg visitors’ center and museum, plus a visit to the room-sized diorama. The next day we went on the self-guided auto tour, for which you listen to a CD in your car that tells you what points to drive to and what to know about them (usually: the next stop is a spot where many brave men died), and walked in the National Cemetery in the evening. The third day I went on a horseback ride along the Confederate encampment lines with a Robert E. Lee impersonator. As Kara said, you can’t throw a rock in Gettysburg without learning a historical fact (did you know Union Major General Daniel Sickles shot and killed Philip Key – son of Francis Scott Key – for sleeping with his wife, and was one of the first people to be acquitted of murder via a plea of temporary insanity?). By the end of the trip we knew the narrative of the battle like the backs of our hands.

The town of Gettysburg is entirely dedicated to teaching you what happened there 148 years ago, but it avoids interpreting itself. The museum’s 15-minute orienting film introduced me to the Gettysburg gaze — a particular brand of narration (in this instance supplied by Morgan Freeman, impartial as the voice of god always is) that pervades the town, describing every skirmish as good vs. good. Good wins.


Michael Shaara’s Gettysburg novel The Killer Angels, which we listened to on our drive, is the champion of the Gettysburg gaze. Its film adaptation, Gettysburg, takes it even further. Scored like NBC scores the Olympics, the film features commanders in freshly dry cleaned uniforms who philosophize more than they command. One Union commander, marveling at General Lee’s success, says “It’s amazing what one honest man can do.” “One honest man,” his superior replies, “and a cause.”

This is freakishly off point. The Southern campaign for independence was not one honest man and a cause. It was the culmination of near a century of sectional conflict which, among others, The Missouri Compromise, The Wilmot Proviso, The Compromise of 1850, the repeal of The Missouri Compromise, popular sovereignty, and The Kansas-Nebraska Act all in turn failed to assuage, and finally escalated into a fury. Sure, it all started as Jeffersonian democracy versus Federalism, but those were hardly the rallying cries of the armies as they shot at each other.

The auto tour ends on the Union side of Pickett’s Charge, the foolhardy press of 12,000 Confederate soldiers towards the better-situated Union line, which decimated Lee’s troops, ended the three-day battle, and turned the tide of the war. You stand on Cemetery Ridge, looking at Seminary Ridge on the other side of town, and you try to imagine two armies watching each other across that distance, preparing to fight each other because the Constitution didn’t explicitly prohibit slavery. Your brain tries to fill in all the steps in between and obviously falters. In Gettysburg, Kent Gramm argues that the Civil War was fought for opposing abstract ideals — union and independence. As you stand on Cemetery Ridge, picturing 7,000 dead bodies scattered in the valley before you, it’s hard to comprehend that they got there because of opposing abstract ideals. So you stand with furrowed brow for a bit longer — that bizarre requisite time you spend standing silently at complicated historical locations, usually about two minutes — and go back to the car.

All our days ended this way. The stories and statistics would build up until it was impossible to grasp, so we’d go back to the hotel and collapse on the beds to read the AV Club and update our Facebook statuses. This is when the Gettysburg gaze comes in handy. Everything turned out fine, you tell yourself, everyone involved was brave and good and civil rights were just around the corner. (That sounds ridiculous, but one narration we heard drew a direct line from Gettysburg to Jackie Robinson.)

The closest encounter I had with partisanship during my visit was talking with the Robert E. Lee impersonator on a horseback tour of the battlefield. He bemoaned the fact that I was from Indiana, preferring to socialize with his fellow natives of “God’s country.” I told him, though, that my family had lived in North Carolina before settling in Indiana in the 1850s, and that the relatives who remained behind served for the South. He praised the brave deeds of the regiments from that state, to which I assured him he was welcome. Eager to use my outsized knowledge of 19th century politics, I chatted with him about George McClellan and John C. Calhoun, the presidential elections of 1852 and 1856, and the Mexican-American war (which he fought in, although he disagreed with policies of James K. Polk, who is a long distant cousin of mine, and this caused some tension). In all this he avowed Southern partiality, but in a passive, melancholy way.

The New York Times published an editorial in 1867 that read: “The contest touches everything, and leaves nothing as it found it. Great rights, great interests, great systems of habit and of thought disappear during its progress. It leaves us a different people in everything from what we were when it came upon us.” The greatest mercy of Gettysburg is that it releases you from culpability. It’s the American Mordor. Whatever the sins of the past, they were destroyed there in fire. Surely we continue to read about and visit Gettysburg to learn what happened, but just as much to confirm that it did.

October 25, 2011

the kids

My friend Kara, who is also a history buff, is a big fan of Lincoln. Last summer she and I traveled to Gettysburg together. The summer before she went on a Lincoln road trip around Illinois and Kentucky. She has this to say about the Lincoln children:

The story of Abe Lincoln’s children is probably the central tragedy of his life. Only one of his children, Robert, survived past childhood.

During the happy times, the Lincolns were notoriously permissive parents (ed. - This is so true. Tad couldn't read or write at the age of 9. 9! And when people commented on it Abe was like, it's no big deal). The boys would mess around in Lincoln’s law office while he and his partner were working, and would be asked to recite poetry at dinner functions for Abraham and Mary Todd’s Springfield cronies, which was considered gauche at the time. Mary Todd would dress up in costumes to perform in Robert’s plays, and once Lincoln had accumulated some cash, he purchased a stereoscope for the boys, the Xbox 360 of its time.

Eddie died at age three of consumption in Springfield. The Lincolns were devastated by his death, and historians believe this was the start of the unraveling of Mary Todd. Mary Todd is arguably one of the most criticized of first ladies, but this is an area where I believe historians should just give the lady a break. Three of her children died young! How could any woman stay sane?

Two of Lincoln’s boys, Willy and Tad, were White House kids, and are the source of many anecdotes that fall under my favorite category of presidential tales: Kids Clowning Around the White House Stories. Supposedly the White House roof was converted into a play area for the boys (The whole thing? Did they put up a railing?), and their pet goat would pull a cart through the hallways.

By the time the Lincolns headed to Washington, Robert was away at college. Robert was significantly older than the two little White House boys. He held some resentment toward his father for Abe’s career, which had resulted in money, power and the most famous address in the country for the younger kids, but had mainly resulted in Robert not having seen his father much during Robert’s formative years. Willie died in 1862 at age 11, and the whole nation grieved. Lincoln removed
himself from public correspondence for days, and Mary Todd basically went off the deep end. Tad was eight years old, and Robert was nineteen.

After Lincoln was killed, Mary Todd and the boys moved to Chicago. Everyone’s future had been destroyed in different ways by the assassination. Robert had been on the path toward a very promising law career, but instead had to head back to the Midwest to care for his mother and little brother. Mary Todd struggled with her mental health, and she and Robert clashed. Tad supposedly did okay in Chicago, making “many warm friends” according to Mary Todd, until his untimely death at
age 18 from congestive heart failure. Robert eventually had Mary Todd committed, and burned many of her letters.

October 20, 2011

God did his best when he created Mr. Lincoln

I got so excited when I got to Lincoln. Lincoln! Lincoln after all those dopes! No more compromises, the new birth of freedom!

And then, first of all, I got sucked into George R.R. Martin, as one does. Then I went to Gettysburg, and needed a little break from the Civil War, and then I don't know, I just wasn't into it.

Part of it, I think, is that reading about Lincoln has less cache than reading about the unknowns. I'm probably the only person you know who's read a Millard Filmore biography (love him!). I'm probably the 900th person you know who's read a Lincoln biography.

There's also a sense that reading one book about Lincoln, even reading 10 books about Lincoln, will never make me understand what made him so right for America in the 1860s. Especially in the early chapters, when young Abe is reading and talking to his stepmom and deciding what he wants to do with his life, I was always looking for telltale signs that he would become the greatest American of all time. David Herbert Donald quite obviously has this lens as well, and writes about his life in Indiana and Illinois like he's writing a fable. He will never resists relating someone's impression of Lincoln that goes like this: "Lincoln showed up and he was so gangly! How embarrassing that his pants didn't cover his ankles! He dresses like a farmer! Then he started talking and now I love him more than I've ever loved anybody!"

There is at least one of these stories every 5 pages. They are, of course, enjoyable, and make heart your swell with pride every time someone else is won over by Abe's folksy charm and hidden depths. Even if he hadn't lead America through the war and freed the slaves, he'd still be one of the most likeable presidents of all time.

He was, however, an incredibly unpopular president for his first two years in office. He had so little experience in the federal government that he made stupid, embarrassing mistakes, like doing something that was actually his Secretary of State's job, and allowing a pack of dunderheads to lead the Army of the Potomac. And he had no military experience, so he was shaky in the main duty of his new job, which was leading a war. (He actually got books about military strategy out of the library! Can't you just picture him in the "military strategy" section, like that scene in Wet Hot American Summer? Again, so cute and so embarrassing.) Everybody was mad at him all the time, including his wife, who couldn't have been less helpful.

Then the summer of 1863 really magically turned his image around. First he manned up and fired General George McClellan (for the second time), truly the biggest military doofus since Alexander Hamilton, which gave the country some confidence in him. Then he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. Then he gave the Gettysburg Address. All of a sudden the country felt like it had a president. They couldn't wait to re-elect him. One guy wrote, "I think God tried his best when he created Mr. Lincoln."

So I'm not quite done with the book. We've currently got Petersburg under siege, but the hagiography has already started. What's gnawing at me is that with so many of his predecessors, when I finished a 500-page biography of them I was totally satisfied. I could close it and say, "Ok, I think I know everything I ever need to know about Franklin Pierce." But I'll never feel that way about Lincoln.

July 27, 2011

Mayor of Dreamytown

I'll take a short break from Lincoln (who I AM reading, and posts are simmering) to brag about this photo:

There's me and Dave standing next to Rahm Emmanuel. I decided to be a doll and have a camera in my face. Let's zoom in.
 And here is the exact picture I was taking while that picture was being taken of me.
Oh to stand so close to our darling mayor! I love him so.

June 24, 2011

how do you get to be the worst president in US history?

I'm kind of tired of this guy. Let's make this quick.

After the Kansas debacle, people starting jumping the Buchanan ship. Members of his staff left, his friends in Congress stopped returning his letters, his Cabinet lost faith. Buchanan himself got more irritable. Congress disassociated itself from JB, miring all of his bills in paperwork and committee, which was especially crippling for JB because he was such a staunchly literal constitutionist, and wouldn't do anything unless Congress was in agreement.

Which is how it all went south, so to speak. South Carolina had threatened to secede if Lincoln was elected. Lincoln was elected. So the federal employees of South Carolina walked out - court officials, judges, etc. However, there was no uprising or violence. And as yet, there was no secession, although it was understood that it was South Carolina's eventual intention.

So what can JB do? From a strictly constitutional perspective, which is all JB ever used, he claimed a few things:

- The federal government had no power to act aggressively towards one of the states in order to coerce submission.
- UNLESS the officials of that state asked for help.
- HOWEVER, the officials of South Carolina were not acknowledging the federal government.
- So, UNTIL the state seceded or incited violence towards the government, they were still technically a part of the country, and therefore preemptive action against them was illegal, in fact unseemly.

On top of this, Major Anderson was holed up inside Fort Sumter, hoping for new provisions. But if JB sent him more men or supplies, it could appear to be preparation for battle, which might spur South Carolina to fight.

It was a CONSTITUTIONAL STANDOFF!

JB didn't think that he had the authority to do anything, as matters stood. Many, many people pointed out - then and since - that DUH there was nothing in the Constitution about what to do if the states rebelled, because that would make it sound legal, and maybe JB should just improvise, maybe act like an executive? Of course, people were crying out for action, for the president to show some backbone, flex some muscle, but this was no Andrew Jackson we had in the White House in 1860. This was James Buchanan. He was an unpopular, lame duck president who had no intention of starting a war during his last 4 months in office. He proposed a second Constitutional convention that would add a pro-slavery amendment, in order to appease the South and keep them from seceding (this is where he lost my sympathy), but Congress wouldn't call it.

It was an incredibly murky situation, legally, politically, and morally, and JB very honestly did what he thought was right. That has not helped his legacy, it never does.

His reputation just got worse and worse after he left office. Since he was retired, and already a villain, people felt free to blame him for anything negative that had ever happened. His old friends, who knew that the reports were false, wouldn't even publicly defend him, because he was political kryptonite.

He didn't deserve all the vilification he got, and yet he was the exact wrong man to be president from 1856-1860.

June 22, 2011

Buchanan miscellany

I finished the Buchanan bio last night, but before I do a final post on that ill-fated administration, there are two fun facts worth noting.

THE FIRST: James Buchanan was the only president never to marry. In his 20s he was engaged to a rich, pretty girl, but he traveled a lot and rarely saw her. She started getting mad about it, and chastised him a few times in her letters, letting him know that he was on thin ice. He didn't mend his behavior. One time, when he returned home to Lancaster from a business trip, he went immediately to see a friend who was in town to visit, and then went home to sleep, and then visited his fiancee the next day. She was furious that he had waited so long to see her, especially when he'd been to visit other people and their pretty daughters, so she dumped hi. To get away from the heartbreak, she went to visit her sister. The day she arrived she took to bed, the doctor was called, but couldn't find anything wrong with her except that her heart was slowing down. It kept slowing down, until a day or two later she died. Apparently, her heart just slowed all the way down and she died, it's kind of bizarre.

After that he was rumored to be "attached" a few more times, but nothing ever came of it. When he lived in Washington, he usually shared a house with Senator King of Alabama. Andrew Jackson nicknamed Buchanan and King Aunt Nancy and Aunt Fancy, because they dressed well and were quite prim. Rumors abound, although Klein doesn't give them any quarter.

THE SECOND: During the last year of Buchanan's administration, Queen Victoria's son Albert announced a visit to Canada. JB wrote and invited him to visit the US as well, which Victoria decided he should do. This was the first time since the revolution (or before) that an English royal visited America. For 80 years relations between the two nations had been crawling from horrible to fine, and the fact that JB had been a well-liked minister to England definitely helped smooth the way.

Sub-fact: When Albert and his entourage were staying in the White House, JB threw a state dinner and afterwards had to put up many of the guests. When everyone was settled, he realized there were no more beds, and had to sleep on the couch.

Albert's visit to the US is enormously significant, and might have been recognized as such if it hadn't been the 1860. As it were, JB was a little annoyed at the distraction and all the duties of hosting him, with the nation crumbling all around him.

June 20, 2011

here comes some nonsense

Oh, James Buchanan. He was a really good lawyer. He really wanted to be president. Did he want to be president in the 1850s? No. Was he? Yes. How did he handle that? By hoping the problems of the 1850s would sort themselves out. Considering the fact that the problems of the 1850s eventually caused an ENORMOUS WAR, you could say he spent most of his presidency deluding himself.

During JB's presidency, the divided nation projected all its issues onto Kansas. Kansas was about to be admitted as a state, and after a long long battle, it was decided that the slavery question in KS would be decided by popular sovereignty — that is, the KS residents or their elected officials would vote on whether or not to have slavery. This resulted in both the North and the South trying to get lots of people to move to Kansas to vote for their cause. In the North, the New England Emigrant Aid Company was founded to essentially pay people to move to Kansas and vote against slavery.

Chaos! Shocking no one, the abolitionist and pro-slavery factions refused to work together, and instead set up two separate Constitutional conventions, and created two separate state constitutions for the population to vote on. Each faction boycotted the other's vote. The abolitionists wrote the Topeka Constitution, which only the abolitionists voted on. The pro-slavery faction wrote the Lecompton Constitution. When they sent it out for a vote, the only choices on the ballot were "Constitution w/ slavery" or "Constitution w/o slavery," but even the w/o slavery option would not have made Kansas a free state, it would have vaguely prohibited future importation of slaves, kind of. A very small minority of Kansas settlers (mostly Southerners) voted, and passed the Lecompton Constitution with slavery.

Both the Topeka and Lecompton Constitutions were sent to D.C. for ratification. What a lot of nonsense! every said, neither of these charters have anything like popular support in Kansas, one of them didn't even present a free state option, and really, the fact that there are two state constitutions proves that there was no viable state convention. COOL THANKS LET'S PASS IT, said President Buchanan. Um, WHAT, said the nation and federal government (except for the South, who were stoked). That is NONSENSE. But JB said that the Lecompton Constitution was legally drawn up and offered for a vote. The fact that the vast majority of Kansas boycotted the vote? Their fault, said JB, and asked Congress to admit Kansas as a slave state under the Lecompton.

The governor of Kansas RESIGNED rather than be associated with this nonsense. The Senate approved it, but the House did not. There was even a fist fight on the floor of the House, but this wasn't rare. The House decided that the constitution should be sent back to Kansas for another vote, this time with a yes/no option instead of a slavery/no slavery option, and it was voted down 6 to 1.

So now everybody is mad. The South is mad that it didn't go through, because they thought the original vote was fair. The North was mad that Buchanan had tried to force it through. The governor of Kansas was mad. Buchanan was mad that he looked like an idiot. And worst of all......Stephen Douglas was mad. Never make Stephen Douglas mad! The Douglas/Buchanan feud split the Democratic party in two. Buchanan never really had a shot at accomplishing anything after that.

And Kansas had to wait another 3 years for a constitution.

June 15, 2011

the value of an untarnished reputation

The secret to JB's success, as time went on, was his avoidance of conflict. The mid-19th century was an explosive, divisive time, and Old Buck got through it without much baggage. It was great for his career, but it inspires no respect.

He served alongside what Klein calls a cache of Parliamentary giants - not only future presidents like Van Buren, Polk, Filmore, and Pierce, but lifelong statesmen like Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Douglas, Benton, and Crawford. These men got their hands dirty. They loved speechifying. They defended their political interests fiercely. "Best not to say anything," said Buchanan from the sidelines. "Best to see how this all plays out." He wasn't uninterested, or unintelligent, but he was gun-shy. A few early misunderstandings with Andrew Jackson that threatened his political standing made him wary to enter the fray.

During the four gargantuan Congressional battles that led up to the Civil War - the Missouri Compromise, the nullification crisis, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska bill - Buchanan was elsewhere. Either not in office or abroad. He was, of course, Secretary of State during the Mexican-American war, but that hung solely around Polk's neck.

As the 1850s started getting real crazy - John Brown, Kansas-Nebraska, the Fugitive Slave Act's big comeback - Buchanan was in England negotiating fishing rights. He returned to America in 1856, just in time for the election, and everybody said, hey, nobody hates this guy!

So they gave the reins of the country, in its darkest hour, to a chronically passive man.

DUH DUM.

June 10, 2011

Buchanan v. Polk

How trying it is, when one cannot be president, to be Secretary of State to one so undeserving.

Buchanan's mission to Russia turned out quite well for him. Because Russia had recently enslaved the Poles, and were frightfully unpopular in continental Europe, they decided to fete the American, in order to win an ally. So Buchanan went to all the balls and danced with the Empress and was all around a success. He also managed to negotiate a mutually beneficial trade agreement between the US and Russia, despite (or because of) the fact that the Russians opened all his mail.

So he had left America a b-list politician and returned a statesman. He returned to the Senate for a while, and was a frontrunner for the 1844 presidential nomination. But Van Buren was running, obviously, and he didn't want to openly oppose the party patriarch, pledging only to run if VB dropped out. By the time VB did, Polk was the nominee.

Polk named him Secretary of State, which in any other administration was an invitation to succeed him in office. But Polk was tired of seeing the last year of an administration turn into a squabble over who in the cabinet would be the next president, so he made Buchanan promise that if he planned to run for president in '48, he would immediately resign the State Department. Buchanan kind of agreed, but claimed that if his supporters started campaigning for him, he could hardly be asked to stop them.

Much to JB's chagrin, Polk really only wanted him to manage State, not run it. Polk, you may remember, was a micro-manager. A lot of previous presidents gave the State Department to their bestie so they could work closely together. Since Polk didn't have any friends, he gave it to an able statesman, but didn't let him do anything.

Let's remind ourselves, though, that Polk was an insanely efficient president, and Buchanan was known for kind of writing a lot of letters and never getting anything done. So when Polk wanted to settle the Oregon/Canada border he was like "Tell the British 49 degress" and Buchanan was like "They'll never agree" and Polk was like "I'll just do it" and Buchanan was like "Surely we should send another envoy to talk to them about it" and Polk was like "Nope!" and Buchanan was like "We need to have more meetings about this" and Polk was like "I just did it while you were fussing." So, they were not a match made in heaven.

When a Supreme Court position opened during Polk's presidency he offered it to Buchanan, probably to be like, get out of my life, but Buchanan turned it down and suggested a friend of his. Polk ignored his suggestion and nominated somebody else. Once the nomination was up for confirmation, Buchanan was like "Well if you're going to ignore my suggestion than I'll go ahead and take the post" and Polk was like, dude, they are already voting on it. The nominee was not confirmed, so Buchanan kindly informed Polk that he would take it. This time Polk just ignored him and nominated somebody else, who was confirmed, and then Buchanan was like "Yeah I don't want it" and Polk was like DUDE.

Buchanan was basically peeved that he was the most reined-in Secretary of State in American history, which is fair enough. It meant that all the prestige that usually comes from holding that post, which so frequently translates into a successive presidency, was denied him, because everyone in Washington knew he didn't do anything.

June 08, 2011

James "Backfire" Buchanan

Alright! James Buchanan is happening!

ATD has been 100% dull recently while I work on other writing assignments, but this summer is going to be epic – as in, I’m going to read Buchanan and Lincoln and hopefully all of Shelby Foote before my friend and I visit Gettysburg in August.
But for now, Buchanan. JB almost always tops the list of “worst presidents in history,” because he allowed the South to secede, and war to break out. This puts an interesting lens on the early years of his life. While I’m reading about his education and career as a lawyer, I’ve got my eye out for the tragic flaws, the enormous lapses in capability that will one day throw the Union into turmoil.
So far, they’re few. Biographer Klein is being fairly coy about how poorly JB’s career will end. He’s keen on letting the early, state government phase of JB’s career stand alone, without breaking in with foreshadowing. I’m not a big fan of this tactic, because the first 100 pages of a presidential biography are reliably the least interesting. In general, any man who eventually rose to the presidency was the smartest and most admired young man in the milieu of his young life, so these sections of presidential biographies all read the same. “What a talented young lawyer/congressman/soldier! So smart! He’ll definitely go far,” say all their friends and family.
And then, God help us, they enter state politics. Know who cares about Pennsylvania state politics in the 1810s? No one. It’s not until, usually, page 200, that they get to national politics, and I’m finally like, “Oh hi John C. Calhoun! Hi Senator Adams!”, and I generally re-enter the narrative that runs through presidential history.
Those first 200 pages can be awful, as the dudes slowly climb the ranks of government, but of course they’re important for character development. Klein is being fairly objective, but lets The Buck’s flaws shine through.
And yes, while he is an obviously smart and talented lawyer and politician, he can be kind of a snot. He was a mama’s boy, and grew up fussy and conceited. He almost got expelled from college for acting like a douche all the time. His father, who clearly recognized his son’s Achilles heel, was always writing him letters reminding him to be humble about his academic prowess and to try to be agreeable. The society of Lancaster, PA, and later PA government, seemed to acknowledge that he was an important member, but not an endearing one.
He took offense easily, and wrote fussy letters about it, and his political views seem quite malleable. I first met JB when he was Polk’s Secretary of State, and Polk grew to despise his fussy, demanding ways. I will never stop describing him as fussy.
That’s not to say that sometimes he wasn’t right to throw a fit. He seemed to have chronically bad political timing. He would form an alliance of PA politicians, and then everyone they excluded would get elected to higher office. He switched political parties, and his old party swept the state elections. He went to visit presidential candidate Andrew Jackson, and Jackson later accused him of being there to strike a corrupt bargain. He was always working for his political betterment, it frequently backfired.
The tides turned when he was appointed as minister to Russia. Far-flung foreign appointments, as Klein points out, were given to politicians who you didn’t want in your government, but were too important to ignore. Jackson or Van Buren (I forget which, but they both disliked him) wanted him out of their hair without angering his supporters by an outright snub, so they packed him off to Russia. It turned out to be his big break.

February 21, 2011

Happy Presidents Day


from me and John.

February 10, 2011

there are bad presidents, and then there's franklin pierce

Franklin Pierce was so good looking, guys. A real charmer. Adored by everyone, a favorite at Bowdoin, and successful in business. Peter Wallner, his biographer, trots out testimony after testimony of how nice, gentlemanly, and smart he was. Probably because, to look at his presidency, you would conclude that he had his head in his pants.

A protege of Daniel Webster, he served in the House, Senate, and was a brigadier general in the Mexican American War. Then his wife, Jane, who was sickly, religious, and shy, made him leave politics and move back to New Hampshire to raise their three kids. Which he did.

Because also, he was an alcoholic. And politics made him hit the bottle. So he spent ten lovely years in New Hampshire with his wife and kids, staying sober.

Then the convention of 1852 came along, and the Democrats could not decide between Stephen Douglas, William Marcy, James Buchanan, and Lewis Cass. Thirty-four ballots went by, and no one would change their vote. Finally, someone said, "Hey, remember Franklin Pierce, he used to be a Senator?" "No," all the delegates replied. "Well, he is good looking and friends with Daniel Webster." "Ok, let's make him our candidate."

Candidate he was, and he easily beat Winfield Scott in the presidential election, because people in general were tired of Winfield Scott running for president.

What Franklin Pierce believed in was small, efficient government that neither aided nor hindered people from doing their own thing. As such, he vetoed a bill full of mental health treatment reforms, because it would have given public land for new mental institutions. (He was, however, an extremely good administrator. Never had the federal government been run so smoothly, they all said.)

But any chance he had of being remembered well was brought down by Kansas and Nebraska. It all started when they wanted to build a railroad to the Pacific. To do so, they had to formalize Nebraska as a territory. To do that, they had to decide whether or not to allow slavery in Nebraksa.

Actually, they didn't have to decide - the Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery in the Nebraska territory, but a handful of Southern senators got together and refused to vote for a territorial bill unless slavery was explicitly allowed. Stephen Douglas, a big proponent of both territories and railroads, rewrote the bill to include popular sovereignty - the provision that allows a new territory or state to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery.

This wasn't enough for the South. They wanted an official repeal of the Missouri Compromise, not just a new bill that ignored it. Franklin Pierce was just the man for the job. He believe in states' rights almost as much as the South did, and he agreed to repeal the Missouri Compromise on those grounds. This emboldened the South, and infuriated the North. It's safe to say that, while the Civil War had been building steam for almost a century, no single act provoked it as directly as Pierce's compromise.

He became very unpopular, and wasn't renominated for a second term. During Buchanan's administration, he and Jane traveled around Europe, hanging out with Nathaniel and Sophie Hawthorne. Soon after they returned to the States, Jane and Nathaniel - essentially Pierce's two best friends - both died, and Frank started drinking again. He spent his last years getting drunk and bad-mouthing Lincoln. He was against Lincoln and reunification until the end, stubbornly demanding that personal liberty laws made the Civil War unconstitutional.

He was the wrong president at the wrong time. In a less polarizing era he could have been a good president, with his powers of persuasion and knack for detail. In the 1850s, he just made things worse.

February 02, 2011

a few fun facts about franklin (pierce)

He remains the only president to come from New Hampshire. (If you don't count Jed Bartlet.)

He is the only president whose cabinet remained the same for his entire administration.

His vice president died after a few weeks in office, and was never replaced. The Senate majority leader was next in the succession line for the majority of his administration.

He was a long-time friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom he appointed to a lucrative customs post.

January 21, 2011

he was only one milf


If Milf was known for anything, it was patience. Possibly the happiest years of his life were his 20s and 30s, when he and his two best friends ran a law firm in Buffalo, and also ran Buffalo itself. He was widely known for being a good lawyer, and a good teacher. Many, many young lawyers, including future president Garfield, came to learn from him and then spend evenings seeking his advice.
He was also famous for the political rivalry he had with Thurlow Weed, a newspaper editor, former friend, and champion of William Seward (senator, governor, rival and eventual second fiddle to Lincoln). Weed launched a smear campaign against Milf that lasted decades, and Milf put up with it without ever striking back.
In a particularly poetic string of events, Weed was a big supporter of Milf for vice-president solely so that he would be out of New York, ensuring Seward’s bid for governor, which was thought to be a more powerful position than VP. With Milf as VP and Seward as governor, Weed started manipulating President Taylor to undercut Milf’s authority until surprise! – Taylor died, Fillmore became president, and Weed got burned.
Although he didn’t get too burned. For being the new president’s most vocal antagonist, Milf did almost nothing to shut him down when he took office. He let Weed’s friends keep their appointments, tried to work with Seward, and generally took the high road. He had bigger things to worry about, I guess is the point, than New York politics, which has always been ugly.
And at the time, even more than usual, every politician was mad all the time. Sectional conflict was starting to get pretty real, and they couldn’t even pass a bill about building canals without slavery coming up. So Milf’s main job, and main accomplishment, as a president was making most of the people happy most of the time. It’s not a legacy that forges monuments, but it’s a lot more than many of the leading politicians of the day could have done.
Of course, the flip side of being a compromise president is the argument that compromise wasn’t the noble path. Now that we all know that the compromises of the 1840s and 1850s only delayed war instead of avoiding it, these men look pretty impotent, which is why Milf gets no respect. But he seems like he was a really nice guy.

January 20, 2011

party time


I’m not too interested in talking at length about the evolution of political parties, but it has to be said that things got pretty weird in the 1850s.
The Democratic-Republican party of Jefferson and Monroe started out as ultra-small government, partially due to the remaining distaste for monarchy and the big programs of John Adams. However, as the need for centralized authority in the running of a large country became more apparent, the Democratic-Republicans started putting more and more power into the federal government, to the point that John Quincy Adams, formerly a hated Federalist, became a natural member of their party.
But then Andrew Jackson was like, we need to be EVEN MORE POWERFUL, so although he claimed Jefferson and Monroe as his heroes, he is considered the first Democratic president because he broke with so much of their philosophy (like diplomacy).
So then the anti-Jackson faction kind of didn’t know what to do, because they considered themselves in opposition to him, even though he had kind of come from their party. So the only thing to do was to start a new party that was obviously not his.
The Anti-Masonic party started as a vote-getter for John Quincy Adams. A small group of supporters wanted Adams back in power, and they thought the most effective way to get rid of Jackson was to stoke people’s fear of Freemasons, of whom Jackson was a powerful member.  It didn’t work, so the Anti-Masons mostly all became Whigs, which had a broader political platform.
The Whigs came to power with the presidency of William Henry Harrison, but his successor John Tyler abandoned the party while still president. Then the Whigs coalesced around opposition to the Mexican-American War and James K. Polk, its Jacksonian-protégé leader, and got Zachary Taylor elected as the anti-Polk.
The Whigs, though, had a hard time keeping it together. In order to be a powerful national party, they had to appeal to be North and South, and this was next to impossible, because everyone had a strong view on slavery. Abolitionists kept breaking away from the Whigs and starting their own parties, but they never got strong enough to win anything besides local elections.
Then there was the Native American Party, otherwise known as the Know-Nothing Party, or Nativists. This party was started by the secret society Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, a group of New England white guys who hated immigrants and Catholics. If any of them were ever asked about their secret society, they would say “I know nothing about it,” which is how they got their nickname.
The people in the Know-Nothing Party were valuable to Whigs, though, because they agreed on sectional compromise as a policy, so they eventually got folded back into the Whigs as well.
But, in general, party-hopping was rampant among non-Democrats. There were Free-Soilers, National Whigs, "Silver-Grey" Whigs, Nativists, Anti-Nebraskans, and the Liberty Party. Old Millf started out as an Anti-Mason, then a Whig, and then remained a Whig when the rest of the party became Republicans. It’s hard to keep track of, because everybody keeps switching. As Rayback says in his biography of Millf, a lot of politicians in the 1850s were “experimenting with new political loyalties,” and everything got very unpredictable.

January 05, 2011

we'll call him MilF, shall we?

No better way to start the new year, really, than by reading about Millard Fillmore.

People's responses to learning about At Times Dull has been an accidental sociological study. Most people say, "What are you going to do when you get to Millard Fillmore?" I swear to this, 9 out of 10 times it's Millard Fillmore. The other time it's usually Garfield.

Ol' MillF is the poster boy for forgotten presidents with funny names. Unlucky #13. And biographies of this guy do not grow on trees. But, prosaically, the answer to "What are you going to do when you get to Millard Fillmore" is "read a biography of him and blog about it, just like all the others."

Happy new year from me and MilF!