December 20, 2010

election day

The election of 1848 was the first in which the entire nation went to the polls on the same day (November 7).

Rough and Ready

Zachary Taylor was an utterly competent military commander. Probably the coolest thing about him is that his biographer’s name is Jack Bauer. Here’s what Bauer had to say:

Taylor returned home a great hero. In the public mind he was the architect and leader of the victories at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterrey, and Buena Vista. It was an unearned reputation. Taylor was a successful battlefield commander because he faced opponents whose tactical abilities and nerves were less than his and because his army in the early battles contained well-trained, self-confident subordinates. Taylor demonstrated little tactical virtuosity or the instinct great commanders have for a final crushing blow. More than anything else, Taylor’s performance, especially when his activities were questioned by his superiors, illuminated his petulance. He easily rationalized objections as political attacks and suggestions as traps.

Two things stick out to me about Zachary Taylor. The first is that every time he was commended, it was for having well-trained, orderly men. (Before the war, that is, only before the war. The men he commanded in the war, mostly the Texans, were notorious for being jerks to the Mexican women.) The second is that he frequently wrote really really long letters of complaint to men in authority. He opposed the army’s policy of automatically promoting officers after 10 years, and he wrote a 52-page letter about it to someone in the war department. Fifty-two pages! Ugh! He was a stickler – a stickler for rules, propriety, and behavior. It did not make him a genius at war or at the presidency, but it made him predictable and reliable.
A lot of people were stressed out about James K. Polk being president. He had a habit of making sweeping decisions without consulting anybody, or taking public opinion into account (exhibit A: The Mexican War). It is a great irony that the Whig party spent 4 years opposing, complaining about, and refusing to supply the war, ran a presidential campaign based on how stupid it was the Polk started the war, and then chose a war hero as their presidential candidate.
On the other hand, it makes a lot of sense that after 4 years of the elusive, secretive Polk, an extremely bland and predictable war general was exactly what America wanted. When choosing their candidate, the Whigs essentially decided between General Zachary Taylor and General Winfield Scott. To give you some insight into why they chose as they did, Taylor’s nickname was Old Rough and Ready. Scott’s was Old Fuss and Feathers.

December 17, 2010

this is cute

When stationed at Fort Crawford near Green Bay, Taylor's soldiers used to put on plays.

"[One] visitor reported attending a performance of The Poor Gentleman in a room of the fort. The scenery had been painted by the soldiers, who fashioned lights by placing lanterns on bayonets. The seats were arranged so that they rose like the pit of an orchestra."

December 16, 2010

quite possibly all you need to know about Zachary Taylor

His second daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, was named after her grandmother and a fort.

December 01, 2010

smash and grab

while my six-layer russian honey cake is cooling (my work birthday party is tomorrow), i thought we could talk a little about my cousin james.

the polk presidency was unique in so many ways. as i wrote previously, after his election polk outlined 4 goals - to reduce the tariff, to establish an independent treasury, to bring oregon into the union, and to claim california from mexico - and said he would not seek a second term. he did achieve all four, and he did refuse renomination.

the question immediately arises: why can't every president be that forcefully effective? why didn't they all take from the polk playbook? answer: by the end of his presidency, polk had next to no allies. that being only slightly less than the number he started his presidency with.

polk was a compromise presidential candidate - the democrats were deadlocked choosing between martin van buren (again? too northern!) and lewis cass (the fat guy? too southern!). the delegates were too stubborn to switch their votes, but enough of them would decamp to a new nominee. james k. polk, lately the speaker of the house and a protege of andrew jackson's, made everybody happy long enough to get a nomination vote.

you get the feeling he knew he was nobody's dream, so he just dug his heels in and decided to get tons of stuff done, not bothering to make friends. he worked incredibly hard. he only left washington 3 times during his presidency. he often went weeks without even leaving the white house. the politics of expansion had been simmering for a few decades, and he was determined to finish the job.

to back up a little, you'll remember that us presidents up to this point had fallen into the following timeline:

founding fathers
nation builders (my favorite!)

the expansionists are not a thrilling bunch. as merry puts it, "The conquest of other nations' territories on such a scale was an alien experience for America, and it wasn't surprising that no consensus could easily emerge as to how to proceed while preserving the sacred precepts of the Constitution."so the politics of expansion involved a lot of land treaties, voting on territorial governments, and establishing trade routes.

polk was eager to have it all done with. let's just finish off manifest destiny, he said, so we can all focus on compromising over slavery for a while. and look, he did it.

we got ourselves to the mississippi pretty early on. then jefferson bought louisiana a few years later, followed in 1819 by monroe's acquisition of florida from spain. we hung out there for almost 30 years until we added texas, california, and oregon in the space of 4 years. although he shares credit for texas with john tyler, james k. polk increased the size of the US by 500,000 square miles.

but polk is much better know for the mexican-american war, an ambiguous conflict - as ill-defined as it was vaguely unconstitutional - recently making a comeback as a popular comparison to the wars of george w. bush. it was so ill-defined, in fact, that one of the reasons it dragged on was because congress was debating what its purpose was in the first place, and therefore when they could declare that purpose achieved. the war dominates polk's legacy, as it did his time in office. his cabinet - one of the best constructed of its time - splintered over it, and his senior advisers started turning other politicians against polk (james buchanan, who we'll see in a bit when he's the undisputed worst president in US history, was polk's secretary of state, and was a particular snot about it).

in a particularly sad, but very representative, anecdote from his presidency, polk had a falling out with senator thomas hart benton, who had been his closest and must trusted confidante. benton's son-in-law john fremont was being court martialled, and polk (never compromise, never make friends) refused to pull strings to get him out of trouble. the break was so severe, one washington paper reported, "that benton and polk no longer acknowledge each other in church on sundays."

history's one mercy to polk was that the war ended while he was still president, sparing him the "cleaning up polk's mess" victory of a successor. but it wasn't enough to save his reputation, the way winning 1812 had saved madison's. so he left office, having worked himself to the bone. he died 3 months after leaving office.

November 29, 2010

Henry Clay

one of the great things about reading about all the presidents is getting to know all the other lifelong statesmen that crop up in everyone's biography. these men - such as patrick henry and john c. calhoun - often ran for president themselves, sometimes several times, but never won. and although decades in the senate or house arguably made them much more significant to US history than some of the slighter presidents, they're often forgotten.

john c. calhoun, for example, was vice president twice, secretary of state, and secretary of war. usually they put him in the cabinet to appease the south, because he was single-handedly drove southern politics. he was also unabashedly a white supremacist. he gave a speech in the senate opposing the annexation of mexico because then there would be non-white senators.

but henry clay is my favorite. a kentuckian born just after the revolutionary generation, he got in on the nation building. he was suave and funny and a skilled politician. he founded the whig party in the demise of federalism, and ran for president a few times, although he never won after ruining his reputation by what seemed like shady dealings to secure himself a cabinet position under JQA. every time he shows up you know he's about to say something eloquent and kind of funny.

my two favorite henry clay anecdotes occurred at the beginning and end of his political career.

the first, in the 1780s, as a young senator from kentucky he was sent to london with the treaty commission. JQA was also on this commission, as the senior member. one morning, at 4am, after JQA had risen, read his Bible, and was heading out for his morning walk and bath, he met henry clay on the stairs, who was coming back from a card party. both were disgusted (although they went on to be bosom friends, and JQA asked for Clay on his deathbed).

in the 1840s, henry clay went to the white house to pay a call on james k. polk, who had defeated him in the election 3 years earlier. despite this, and despite the fact that polk was a jackson protege, whom clay actually despised, and despite the fact that polk was wildly unpopular at the time, clay was his usual charming self and by all accounts they had a nice visit. as he was leaving, he turned to sarah polk, known for her hospitality, and said:

"Madame, I must say that in all my travels, in all companies and among all parties, I have heard but one opinion of you. All agree in commending in the highest terms your excellent administration of the domestic affairs of the White House."


"But as for that young gentleman there, I cannot say as much. There is some little difference of opinion in regard to the policy of his course."

Zing! the polks were delighted by this little joke, because if you're henry clay you can say anything.

June 03, 2010

double digits, family ties

technically we hit double digits with tyler, but we never celebrated it. so celebrate! we made it through the first 10 presidents! once we finish polk we'll be a quarter of the way through! and you doubted!

what you just listened to was a lovely song about james k polk by they might be giants (followed by some other songs which you didn't need to listen to but might have). although polk is not one of the more famous presidents, they touch on the two cornerstones of his legacy (can there be only 2 cornerstones? or does it have to be 4?)

regardless, those who know polk know this:

he made 4 campaign promises: assimilate texas, buy oregon, lower the tariffs, and establish an independent treasury.

he accomplished all 4 things, and did not run for re-election.

this has given him a reputation for being a combination of efficient, ruthless, genius, demanding, and uncompromising. some like to call him the most effective president in history. others think he pulled off a smash and grab job, and left future presidents to clean up the mess (then again, almost every president is accused of this in some way or the other).

but it's all so much more complicated than that! watch this space.

HOWEVER, a lesser known fact about james k polk is that his great-grandfather ezekiel came to america from scotland and settled in north carolina. many generations of polks lived in north carolina, including his great-grandson james, and his great-granddaughter mark polk petty, who is - drum roll - my great-great-great-great-grandmother. margaret and james were second cousins, making james k. polk and myself second cousins six times removed. so you'll forgive me if on this one i'm a little biased.

May 23, 2010

it's not like we ever liked you anyway

despite his success annexing texas, john tyler lost reelection to james k. polk. he went home to his estate in virginia, sherwood forest, where he and his wife julia hung out, having kids and entrenching their views.

although he had never been a popular president, the south didn't have too many political luminaries to look up to, so he became a respected elder statesman of virginia. maybe this long-sought, long-coveted popularity explains his post-presidential actions. or maybe he had been waiting for the opportunity his whole life. either way, john tyler became a leading secessionist.

he was asked to be the president of a peace conference between the north and south, a last ditch attempt to avoid civil war. attended by 12 border states, 6 of each north and south, the conference went on for a while, without accomplishing much, and then at the end john tyler gave a speech stepping down as president of the conference and went home to vote for secession. there is a legend, although it is no more than that, that tyler had only attended the conference to stall the advent of war while the south built up its arsenal.

tyler was sooned elected to the confederate senate. his granddaughter letitita, who had actually been born in the white house, could be seen raising the confederate flag at confederate rallies. whatever his relationship with the american people had been, he left it behind. and the north was furious.

he was called the traitor president. when he died, in 1862 (before he ever took up that senate seat), the event was met by silence from washington, the only former president whose death was ignored.

May 22, 2010

you, sir, are no thomas jefferson

john tyler was never supposed to be president. he was chosen, as were most vice-presidential candidates, to balance the ticket geographically. he was referred to commonly as "his accidency," and as soon as he got into office he went rogue.

even though he was elected on a whig ticket, one of his first actions  in office was to veto a whig bill that had passed both houses. as a result he was the first president to face impeachment proceedings, led by john quincy adams on the grounds that he had no right to veto a bill that had passed with no problem.

the whigs called him a traitor, but the democrat-republicans weren't too eager to welcome the unpopular man into their party, so tyler started to call himself "a president without a party." then he spent 4 years just doing whatever he wanted.

john tyler idolized thomas jefferson and james madison. he referred to them constantly as his political role models. during his presidency, he kept taking big, bold actions reminiscent of those adept nation builders. the difference is that they were good at it.

jefferson and madison had stood up to great britain in the form of the blockade and then the war of 1812. in the 1840s, anglophobia was still rampant, not only because of popular feeling but because great britain was the most powerful state in the world. tyler stood up to great britain on two fronts - canada, hawaii, and china.

first, to settle the boundary between maine and canada, he sent a secret agent to england to gather information. completely without the knowledge of the actual american ambassador to england, this guy shows up and starts snooping around. john tyler was paying him with secret service funds, which he didn't have to disclose. it was weird.

then hawaii decided to send two emissaries on a world tour getting big nations to recognize their sovereignty. america was more than happy to do this, because it would mean britain couldn't colonize hawaii. but when the two emissaries showed up in d.c., tyler didn't see them for several weeks, giving really weird and vague excuses, which might have had something to do with the fact that one of the hawaiian dudes was black.

then there was china. tyler wanted to sign a trading treaty with china to block great britain's monopoly. so he sent caleb cushing to china to negotiate, and the letter of introduction he sent with him demonstrates his enormous belief in white supremacy.

feast your eyes, fellow americans, on this humiliating piece of diplomacy:

"I hope your health is good. China is a great empire, extending over a great part of the world. The Chinese are numerous. You have millions and millions of subjects. The twenty-six United States are as large as China, though our people are not so numerous. The rising sun looks over the great mountains and great rivers of China. When he sets, he looks upon rivers and mountains equally large in the United States."

and later,

"The Chinese love to trade with our people, and sell them tea and silk, for which our people pay silver, and sometimes other articles. But if the Chinese and Americans will trade, there should be rules, so that they shall not break your laws nor our laws. "

the chinese, for some reason, decided to ignore this blatantly insulting letter and sign a pretty good treaty, saving their revenge for the 2008 olympics.

so in the end, tyler accomplished a lot of good things. he settled a border with great britain, extended the monroe doctrine to hawaii, and set up trading policies with china. but each time it seemed like a miracle that it worked out. he would go into it brashly, without an ounce of tact, and all the other parties involved would compensate for him and get it done. basically, thank heaven for daniel webster, tyler's secretary of state, who was 8 times the politician, and is responsible for most of tyler's "accomplishments."

in a washington full of larger than life politicians such as daniel webster, henry clay, and john calhoun, tyler was widely regarded as the least qualified man in town for the job he held. i think this is why he just kept doing whatever he wanted. he was convinced that if he could annex texas, he would win the favor of the american people. he did, but he didn't. using the same disregard for the constitution that he had displayed again and again (and taking notes from jefferson's purchase of louisiana), he annexed texas by a joint resolution instead of an amendment, a move that made the old guard, JQA in particular, super mad.

his accidency was not reelected. but unlike other former presidents, he did not go back to his mansion and age quietly, instead he worked to hasten the civil war. hold on to your seats, readers, it's about to get ugly.

May 17, 2010

coming up next, 4 more years of not ending slavery

from a distance, our presidential timeline so far would look something like this:

Founding Fathers

Nation Builders

Eight Guys Who Didn't Free the Slaves


in the eyes of history, these guys never stood a chance.

May 06, 2010

a heartbeat away

in an early season episode of the west wing, the vice president is being pressured to resign because of a public scandal (alcoholism i think? dave?) in the end, president bartlett tells him he doesn't want him to resign. the reason: "because i could die."

the irony of the episode, as with so many west wing episodes, is that in the endless political maneuvering, the heart of the issue was forgotten. that being that the vice president could become the president in a blink of an eye.

and for this we have john tyler to thank. the constitution is very unclear about the process of succession in the case of the president's death. lucky for tyler, william henry harrison was gravely ill for about a month, so he had a long time to get ready to make his move. after the president's death, he went to the capital and announced that he would take office. the response of the federal government was basically, "um...are you sure? that what we're supposed to do? does anybody know?" and since john tyler was the only one who acted with any certainty, the office was his. it became known as the tyler precedent, and has been used 7 times since. (it was not until 1967 that an amendment to the constitution made official what had happened 8 times.)

8 times! 8 presidents have died in office! 4 by assassination and 4 by natural death. that's more than 1 in 6 presidents that die in office. that number seems high considering the apathy and mixed motives with which we continue to choose and judge vice presidential nominees. especially since the other precedent that john tyler set was that a vice president, who has no campaign promises breathing down his back, can kind of do whatever he wants.

May 03, 2010

Of 19th Century Campaign Slogans

Just finished Harrison (sucked) and haven't finished Tyler yet, but I thought a good transitional post would be about the greatest gift that the two of those jokers gave to posterity---the campaign slogan. "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" is a masterpiece---at once alliterative, iambic, and stirring. It makes a man feel good about casting his ballot for politicians capable of constructing such a sturdy slogan.

James K. Polk, Janet's fave, continued Harrison's tradition of poetic slogans with his melodic "54-40 or fight." However Polk also brought upon us the age of the cumbersome campaign slogan with his "Reannexation of Texas and Reoccupation of Oregon." Any political scientist could have told Polk that presidential elections are about change, and that it is ill-advised to use the prefix "re" in your slogan three times (if you look hard enough).

Then came Zachary Taylor's "President of the People" campaign, which boldly forfeited the coveted animal vote to ensure his election. John C. Fremont's unsuccessful 1856 bid had as its rallying cry, "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men, and Fremont," and mostly Honest Abe Lincoln followed in the money-for-nothing theme with "Vote Yourself a Farm." Lincoln's 1864 slogan was "Don't swap horses in the middle of the stream," which sounds reasonable enough, and which George W. Bush appropriated in his 2004 run. The message: I got you into this mess, so who else is better equipped to get you out? It reminds me of my late Uncle Danny, who spent the first half of his career installing asbestos insulation, and the second half removing it.

Then, my friends, we arrive at the 1884 election between President Grover Cleveland, and his challenger, James G. Blaine of Maine. Blaine struck first with his rhyme, "Ma, Ma, Where's my Pa, Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha." It is hard to make much of this, but my feeling is that this little ditty was the 1884 version of the oft-seen 2000 bumper sticker, "A village in Texas is missing its idiot." Cleveland, not to be outdone, retorted, "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The Continental Liar from the State of Maine." Aside from the four superfluous syllables of "Continental," the slogan is pure genius---the perfect smartass comeback to the playground taunt. Cleveland took it all the way to the White House, and history remembers Blaine as just another continental liar.

That is all for this gimmick post. This may leave you wondering if we can really be serious about breaking this post up so that we will have another slogan column at the ready when we have nothing to write about during the 20th century presidents. Yes, We Can.

April 22, 2010

what a tool

in fact, the title of our biography is "mr. jefferson's hammer," which is to say that when indiana split off from ohio as a new state, and that state needed a governor, WHH got the job because he had proven himself so adept at obtaining "cessions" from native american tribes. "cessions" being when an indian chief signs away his tribe's lands for some alcohol and "munitions" that may or may not be paid.

it is easy to dislike WHH for this. but the sad fact of the matter is that if he didn't do it, somebody else would have. this biography has been really interesting because it shows what was going on in the west of the country while dave and i were reading merrily through the first 8 east coast presidents. general washington gave harrison his first commission. john adams appointed him governor of indiana. thomas jefferson was the one who wrote him letters at the turn of the 19th century that said, in effect, "do what you have to do." we've jumped way back in time to watch the birth of the nation from a whole other side. the ugly side.

the american west (which at that point obviously was like illinois) was often referred to as the back country. as someone quoted at the time very wisely said, the fact that it was called the back country makes it obvious which way they were facing (a: europe). for all the lip service paid to treating the indians fairly (and there was a mountain of it), the revolutionary generation saw them as an obstacle to their destiny as a new and better version of europe. so the government's men in the west were commissioned to either bring the indians in line or get them out of the way.

WHH was born in virginia. his father, benjamin harrison, was a signer of the declaration of independence. as owens sees it, WHH was always trying to make himself into a gentleman farmer/statesman equal to his father. this is grouseland, the original indiana governor's mansion that he had built near vincennes (still there). it looks a lot like the virginia plantation homes he had grown up with, and it was also designed as a workable fortress. this just about sums up WHH's political philosophy in territorial and then stated indiana - move the revolutionary ideal west, build up the arts and agriculture and education, and try to look leisurely doing it. if anybody gets in your way, get rid of them.

in this way harrison was a good soldier, a tool of the system. his superiors liked him because he got the job done, so he kept his job running indiana for a long time.

on the other hand, as dave pointed out, his baldly pro-slavery hijinks in a territory that was conceived to be anti-slavery were really despicable. in that way he was just a tool.

April 13, 2010

mad anthony

some would say harrison's big break was "Mad Anthony" Wayne, the commander of president washington's indian fighting army who took a liking to WHH and promoted him a few times. he figures prominently in the beginning of the WHH bio, and shaped much of the future president's young life.

dave currently lives in fort wayne, the city named for this crazy general, which includes an historic fort you can visit.

why dave hasn't yet visited this fort, in service of his blog, is beyond me.

April 10, 2010

hoosier hysteria

Sometimes I think of this 4 year quest as a 230 year quest- a march across a timeline that began with the inauguration of George Washington and will end with either the second inauguration of Barack Obama or the first of 45. In that context, some of these biographies are absolute bargains. Thomas Jefferson got us from 1800 to 1808 in a mere 232 pages. The month of FDR will get us from the Great Depression to the cusp of the atomic age. To that end, it is hard to get excited about William Henry Harrison, who died so shortly into his term---the 30 days of April will yield us a mere 31 days of presidency. This book is to our project as a five-dollar bill is to a student loan.

Anyhow, one part of this book to which I did look forward was the Indiana part. I knew from my fifth grade Indiana history section that William Henry Harrison was the first governor of Indiana, and the first Hoosier elected president. At least I could learn a little about the origins of my state.

Turns out that the origins of my state are pretty embarrassing. When WHH took the reins, the Indiana Territory was in the midst of internal and external debate as to whether slavery would be allowed. Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance had seemingly resolved this issue. It stated that all slavery was banned north of the Ohio river. However, WHH chose to interpret the ordinance liberally, as to merely outlaw all new slavery. In fact, "his first major public initiative as governor was to bring more slaves to the area." Then, to be sure, he suspended Article VI for 10 years. All of this in the face of popular opposition. This policy of deliberate ambiguity began a long period of Indianan indecision on the slavery issue that was not fully resolved until the state opted to take the Union side in the Civil War.

By the time I got to the Indiana chapter, though, I knew what to expect. By that time, WHH had already spent 3 years as the devil perched atop President Jefferson's shoulder. Thomas Jefferson's contradiction as a freedom-promoting slavery propagator has been well-covered, not least in this blog. And it has always been something of a mystery to me how a President could enforce laws he so fervently believed to be unjust. Owens explains it like this: "While Jefferson's distaste for slavery in the abstract prevented him from encouraging its spread, a lack of moral courage prevented him from decisively discouraging it."

WHH had no such reservations, and actively encouraged slavery's spread in the Indiana Territory. Most troubling is that his motivation appears to have been at least partly personal. WHH, you see, had always been very self-conscious about his less-than-aristocratic upbringing. And he was constantly compensating by acquiring more land, more power. "He needed to openly display not only his worth but his power as well," Owens tells us, and "[f]or the society into which he was born, to be a man of note was to have control over others . . . being a master to slaves."

With this guy as our first governor, it is miraculous that Indiana eventually produced such national treasures as Kurt Vonnegut, James Dean, and the Butler Bulldogs. I will hold out more hope for the biography of Indiana's second President, Dan Quayle.

March 30, 2010

i sure do miss the adamses

as some of you know, i recently had major abdominal surgery, which is why i have been absent from the blog (and society) for the last month or so. the most expedient way to catch up on how i felt about andrew jackson is to share two different online conversations david and i had when we were reading the meacham biography.

me: this jackson is so emo
David: right?
me: i cannot imagine jon meacham and ralph ketcham talking at parties
David: you should mock up a dialogue
me: he illustrates every point with a long list of things separated by commas
David: haha
me: lover, warrior, friend, father, d-bag, husband
David: he loves the contradictions
me: so original
i'm only on page 50 or so, but i'm still waiting for him to calm down and tell the story
David: i am at same place
me: i'm glad i already know most of the context from jqa
otherwise i wouldn't even know that him seizing florida was a big deal

[and a day or two later...]

David: i gotta get moving on old hickory
me: i'm about 100 pages in
it's so different
it feels like part of a different project
David: elaborate pls
me: he's all about atmosphere
like talking more about society and the invention of the train than about jackson's policy
David: jqa loved the train
me: he did, i want to write about it
David: dickens loved it too
i wish there was more time
me: based on how well i feel i know madison or jqa
i feel like i don't know jackson at all
i know him like i know tom hanks
David: do you think its because as a person he is a son of a bitch
(jackson not hanks)
me: i think it's meacham's philosophy of characterization
like what he thinks it's important for us to know
which is nothing
David: i notice that for some of the "lesser" presidents the book titles are like [President]---His Life and Times
but you wouldnt think that would be necessary for AJ, who actually was an interesting man

and i think that just about sums up how i felt about the jackson biography. (and yes, david and i spend a lot of time discussing the presidents online.) one of the most complex figures in our history was usually summed up by a string of painstakingly chosen adjectives, without a ton of explication behind them. the fact that he drastically changed the role of a president is covered, but given much less attention than the squabbling of the white house inner circle. but that's all old news.

as david has already very ably iterated, martin van buren was like a spin-off of the andrew jackson administration. and, as with all spin-offs, didn't recapture the magic of the original and didn't last as long. martin van buren was a consummate party man. i bet it would have been a fun party trick to think up the most convoluted political scenarios and see how long it took him to form the democratic party's response. within minutes he would list all the precedents, the party's position on all the relevant issues, and whose arm to twist to get it all done. he was nicknamed "the little magician" because of his talent for working politics. and he is always described as competent, efficient, and loyal. but as a president, this made him uninspiring. he entered office during an economic recession, and all he did was stay the course. he showed no creative initiative or leadership. only the 3rd president to lose re-election, he lost not because the american people had grown to dislike him, but because they had never really grown to like him.

he's the first guy who, while i was reading the biography, i thought, maybe wasn't cut out to be president.

March 16, 2010

Popping the Question

When we started reading John Quincy Adams, Janet said something like, "Folks, we are no longer on money." The Revolutionary Era was over. But our drop-off was not very severe--we took a step down but did not fall off a cliff. This is because Presidents Quincy Adams and Jackson, like their predecessors, possessed the heretofore ineffable qualities of Great Presidents. They governed boldly, they are remembered, and Jackson, yes, is on money.

Martin Van Buren is the first of our forgotten Presidents. Something of a Presidential history buff, all I knew of MVB before reading this book I had learned from a legendary book report by my friend Lisa's sister, whose overreliance on her electric dictionary and thesaurus led to exposition on Martian Van Buren's Trial of Lacerations. So our first order of business is to figure out the difference. Why are some borderline-evil Presidents like Jackson remembered, while others are forgotten? I think the answer has something to do with The Question.

As dramatized by the West Wing episode, "The Question," a threshold statement every presidential wannabe has to make is a cogent and persuasive answer to this question: "Why do you want to be President?" Ted Kennedy, for one, struggled to answer this in his nascent 1980 campaign, and never recovered. The Question separates those who seek the presidency as a means toward improving their country from those who seek it as an end in itself.

Say what you will (and we have) about the flaws of the first seven great man Presidents, but all of them could have answered that question. Washington hated the idea of occupying the office, but knew he was indispensable as a man who could govern above the partisan bickering. Jefferson was more ambitious, essentially seeking a real-world laboratory for his philosophical musings on democracy. Even poor old impotent JQA was a servant, his self always sublimated to his countrymen. Why did he want to be President? To lend America his talents.

My guess is that MVB could not have answered this question, and that this is what separates him from the earlier Presidents. From the time he was elected Governor of New York, Van Buren's every move seemed calculated only in terms of the next election, or the next step of his career. As Jackson's Secretary of State, MVB was known internally and internationally as a yes-man whose biggest diplomatic coup was befriending the ill-reputed wife of a cabinet member. As Jackson's veep, his biggest successes are unknown, at least from a reading of this book. The guy's biggest talent seemed to be not pissing anybody off.

When MVB ran for and won the Presidency, he was carried to the starting line and over the finish line by Jackson. Voters were voting for an extension of the Jackson presidency, with MVB acting as a seat-filler. Why did the voters want MVB to be president? Because they wanted more Jackson. Why did MVB want it? Because it was there.

I am not so far into his Presidency yet, and am interested to see how his political philosophy plays out now that he has attained the ultimate. I suspect that he will be kind of dull and uninspiring now that he has nothing left to run for.

presidential fact #17

As well as/despite being the first President not born an American, Van Buren is the only President whose first language was not English. It was Dutch.

March 11, 2010

presidential fact #16

martin van buren was the first president born after the founding of the country (1782).

February 25, 2010

behind the scenes of at times dull

here is what is going on. we are mired, just mired, in andrew jackson. we had planned to finish the meacham biography by february 14, and neither of us has yet accomplished it. every once in a while we check in with each other, confirm that we haven't finished, and complain about this book.

i can't put my finger on it, but this biography just seems insubstantial. andrew jackson was a huge turning point for the american presidency, and while meacham is quick to point this out, he's more interested in which adjectives to use to describe the turning point than in parsing out its implications.

jon meacham loves adjectives.

we have also had very little serious inquiry into AJ and the indian question, which is maybe the defining question of his presidency. meacham dwells a lot more on the nullification crisis, and on the scandal of who would and would not receive visits from andrew jackson's secretary of war's wife, who was of ill repute. these issues got a lot of people hot and bothered at the time, but their historical merit doesn't jump off the page.

dave and i are now very serious presidential scholars, and we can tell a fluff biography when we've got it in our hands. we're not happy about it.

presidential fact #15: this was before the time of full body scanners

back in the day, the public were allowed to come and observe congressional sessions at their will. (this is still true to a degree, but there are a lot more bag checks, i'll tell you.)

if one was going to the senate to listen to the nullification debates of the 1830s, one would pass a sign that read:


February 15, 2010

happy presidents day!

Belated Valentine's Day Gift

In which all of the Presidents are listed in order of sexiness.

Most underrated? Harding at 41---I like the eyebrows.
Most overrated? Honest Abe Lincoln at 10. When accused of being two-faced, he once replied, "If i had two faces, would I use this one?"

h/t Matt Rogers

February 11, 2010

Civil War Stirrings

In one of Meacham's first scenes, a weary second-term Andrew Jackson admits to himself that Civil War may be inevitable, and that he had best start preparing for it. The President had a perfect candidate in mind to command the Union troops: himself. It is an arresting introduction to the seventh president, and offers a tidy summation of many of his salient traits-- patriotism, courage, stubbornness, and being ahead of his time.

My first thought upon seeing Jackson facing civil war was "What? Already?" Abraham Lincoln, whose presidency is defined by the Civil War, is still 9 presidents away. But the small-c, small-w civil war that loomed over Jackson did not have at its core the familiar issue of slavery---it concerned the Nullification Crisis, a huge deal that history largely has forgotten (at least it was never taught to me).

Basically South Carolina passed a law that declared the Tariff Act of 1828 (passed by Jackson's enemy and predecessor, JQA) unconstitutional, and inapplicable to its citizens. This was indeed a crisis. Though the Constitution created a federal government of limited and enumerated powers, its power to tax had never been questioned. If the citizens of South Carolina were exempt from paying federal taxes, all United States citizens would also be, and the union would dissolve. Similarly, if any one state were to have the power to declare federal laws unconstitutional, no federal law could ever be enforced.

Many South Carolinans and interested observers expected some support for Nullification from the new President Jackson. He was swept into office with a populist states' rights message. Surely he would support a state's ability to disencumber itself from the tax-happy feds. However, and after a good amount of dithering, Jackson stated certainly: "I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assembled by one state, incompatible with the existence of the union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed." Jackon's Vice-President, John Calhoun, disagreed and left his post to become a South Carolina senator.

Both sides began gearing up for conflict. Jackson made absolutely clear that he would not hesitate to send troops to South Carolina to enforce the tariff, and Congress passed the Force Bill, allowing him to do just that. On the brink of war, Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, reached a solution that all parties agreed with. Basically South Carolina would pay its taxes, and the tariffs would decrease each year for a period of nine years. War was averted.

Yet it would be folly to dismiss the Nullification Crisis as an isolated incident---the basic battle lines that it drew were apparent in the Civil War, and persist today. You had on one side the strong federal government people, who believed in laws that were more or less uniform- each state was an equal member of the union, and had to be taxed as such. On the other side was the state's rights contingent, who believed in a "weak, inactive, and frugal federal government."-- states should be allowed to do almost whatever they wanted including interpreting the Constitution and allowing slavery. From the Crisis forward, "states rights" became euphemistic for "allowing slavery," and every state who supported nullification ended up seceding from the union during the Civil War.

This division exists today, evidenced by Rick Perry's threat that Texas secede from America to protest the President's stimulus packages, and the Tea Partiers allying themselves historically with those who believed they should be free from unjust national taxes. The Nullification Crisis should perhaps teach us that such rhetorical protesting can have dramatic real-world consequences. In the run-up to the Civil War, only one state decided to secede without dramatic disagreement and in-fighting. That state was South Carolina, which had already been waiting 25 years for its opportunity.

February 07, 2010

Presidential Fact #14

During the 1828 election, members of JQA's camp referred to Jackson as a "Jackass," punning on his last name. Jackson embraced the nickname and adopted it as his personal symbol, which is still used by the modern Democratic Party.

February 04, 2010

full steam ahead

with jackson in the white house, we're crossing into the 1830s. when people ask me about this project, one of the things i mention is that i feel like i live dually in 2010 chicago and in 19th century america. i'm very at home with the pace, vernacular, customs, and geography of the 1800s, because i spend so much of my time there. which is why i almost let out a whoop of joy the other day, when john quincy adams got on a train.

back when we were reading adams and jefferson, dave texted me to say, "it's driving me nuts that these guys don't have cell phones." a lot of the early guys who were european ambassadors before they were presidents had to wait month - months! - for answers to their letters. sometimes they would get promoted or reassigned and not know it for almost a year. it was terrible.

and then there's a handful of times in each biography so far where the dude's trip to washington is delayed because of muddy roads. because they all went home when congress wasn't in session, about every 50 pages we have to go through a description of the trip back to quincy or virginia and how the carriage held up. it's dull reading, at times.

but then, thank the almighty in heaven, they built the railroad. it happens during jackson's tenure, so one of john quincy adam's trips to washington as a congressmen is the first time we read about it. i was just so happy. when one of these guys gets in a car i'll probably weep for joy.

January 27, 2010

Common Beginnings

When JQA's father died, it was marked by a Presidential proclamation, a day of rest for all armed forces, and a national week of mourning. When Andrew Jackson's father died (weeks before he was born), "[his] pallbearers drank so much as they carried his corpse from Twelve Mile Creek to the church for the funeral that they briefly lost the body along the way." Without a father, Jackson grew up in the houses of relatives, for whom his mother acted as a domestic servant/pity case.

Jackson came to feel that he never belonged to any home, and it made him angry. Despite his considerable skinniness (as President, Jackson was 6'1, 140 lbs), boyhood Jackson was an accomplished schoolyard wrestler who constantly harangued his friends with empty death threats. When angry, he would "work himself into fits of rage so paralyzing that contemporaries recalled he would begin slobbering." At 14, Jackson and his brother Robert were rounded up by British troops who took them as prisoners of war during the War of Independence. When a soldier demanded that Jackson polish his boots, Jackson refused, causing the solider to attack the two boys with his sword- an attack that ultimately killed Robert. Jackson's mother nursed him back to health, then died herself---At the age of 14 Jackson had lost both of his parents and all of his siblings.

In the meantime, his contemporary JQA was learning Latin from Benjamin Franklin in a mansion in Paris.

A frustrating part of this project has been the extent to which the first 6 books have overlapped. These guys were all together during America's formative years, which means J.Po and I have read the same little anecdotes about the same events many times. But thematically, this book very much reads as a sequel. Having spent the last half year learning about how some elites created this democracy experiment, we now learn how the experiment was affecting the people who Sarah Palin would call "Real Americans." Thomas Jefferson voted to start a war and retired to his plantation. Andrew Jackson lost both his brothers to the wrath of British troops. His story will be the first story of "of, by, and for the people."

There also seems to be a certain symmetry shaping up between the lives of Jackson and JQA. JQA's story was of a man taking 60 years to learn how to fight. Jackson's story begins with a kid who would become paralyzed with rage. Let's see if he learns to chill out.

kind of a big deal

jqa also knew stephen douglass (of the famed lincoln-douglass debates) when he was in congress. and he knew charles dickens, because on dickens' famed tour of america, the aging ex-president was one of the people he insisted on meeting.

after jqa's uninspiring and unpleasant term as president, he returned to congress as a representative from massachusetts and served under the next 5 presidents, until he literally died on the job almost 20 years later. (he collapsed during a session of congress and was taken to the speaker's chambers, where he died the next day.)

in this time, jqa became an american folk hero. he was far more popular as a congressman than he had ever been as president. because of his experience, he garnered obvious respect in the house, and because he was post-presidential, he had nothing to lose. he had always been a reserved, cantankerous guy forced to play nice in order to survive in politics. no more! this dude let loose.

at the time, regional tensions were ramping up in a major way, full steam ahead to the civil war, so congress was a place where everyone was trying to compromise to keep a tenuous peace. jqa was the guy who didn't give a hoot what would make everyone happy, he fought for what he thought was the best outcome for the nation.

when the gag rule was enacted (in which no petition to congress concerning slavery could be read aloud or debated), jqa introduced a motion to have it revoked at the beginning of every session for over a decade, and found sneaky ways to read those petitions anyway.

when the amistad sailors were imprisoned in america (africans who were being brought to america on a slave ship who overpowered the ship's crew and sailed the boat into new york harbor by themselves), jqa defended them before the supreme court, a case nobody else would touch (much like his father defended the british soldiers of the boston massacre decades earlier). his closing oration before the court is said to be one of the crowning achievements of his life.

he was an outspoken abolitionist and made enemies freely. in so doing, he became wildly popular. he was celebrated wherever he went and fought over as a public speaker. he had become something like america's grouchy old uncle, not always pleasant, but indisputably the most respected member of the family. the papers nicknamed him "old man eloquent."

he was never happier. he was finally getting the adulation he deserved for his lifetime of service, and he could finally do just about whatever he wanted. it makes you think all ex-presidents should serve in congress.

it's just an incredible chapter of american history, and one i had no idea existed. lucky for you, there's a new book - Mr. Adams' Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress by Joseph Wheelan - in case you had no idea either. you should really learn about this guy, you're going to like him.

presidential fact #13

JQA knew Abraham Lincoln during Lincoln's turn in the House of Representatives from 1847 until Adams' death in 1848. He is probably the only person to have counted both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as acquaintances.

It was also JQA who first suggested that, in the event of a civil war, the President could use his war powers to outlaw slavery. Fifteen years after the two met, Lincoln did just that in his Emancipation Proclamation.

January 21, 2010


jqa was a mega prolific diarist, often using it as an outlet to rant about his political enemies, one of whom he described as a "beef-witted blunderhead."

January 19, 2010

presidential fact #12

Only two then-living Presidents have failed to attend their successor's inauguration---John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Bitter.

All the World's a Stage

F. Scott. Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives. He was wrong, of course- American lives, and especially American politician's lives, are all about second acts, and especially third acts. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to America as a sexually confused teenaged bodybuilder, became the greatest action star of all time, and wound up the steward of the world's tenth biggest economy. George W. Bush started as a rich fuck-up, owned a professional sports franchise, then became a busy President. Richard Nixon went from a powerless Vice-President, to an embarrassing failure of a gubernatorial candidate, to the Presidency. And so on.

JQA is also a man of three acts. The first we have already talked about- the tortured prodigy, the reluctant family man, the brilliant statesman. The third act is certainly his finest- the curmudgeonly congressman who dedicated his days to promoting abolitionism. He was the original lion in winter (the latest of whom is rolling over in his grave tonight).

Act Two was relatively uneventful and uninspiring, which is surprising as this constituted JQA's presidency. Nagel devotes only ten or twenty or thirty pages to the presidency, because not much really happened during it. History has long since forgotten whatever minor policy decisions JQA made during his four years as commander in chief. From a historical perspective, it is dust in the wind- a stopgap between the last founding father presidency and the first commoner presidency.

But we have been searching for JQA the man in these posts, and Act Two serves its purpose as a useful bridge between Act One's precocious neurosis and Act Three's heroic bluster. I suggest that JQA's presidency is when he finally stopped caring so much about the public opinion of him. When he decided to run for President (which in those days meant you decided not to protest too much when others decided to nominate you for President), JQA quickly realized that his top competitor would be the war hero, Andrew Jackson, from Tennessee. Jackson had captured the public's imagination with his battlefield exploits and aw-shucks charm, and stood in sharp contrast to the stuffy JQA. JQA thus did everything right in attempting to woo his rival and the public. He hosted Jackson with a fancy banquet at his own home, at the end of which Jackson gave a lengthy toast to JQA's wife, Louisa. Even when Jackson eventually entered the race and lost to JQA, Jackson congratulated his victorious rival with a hearty handshake.

However all of JQA's sucking up got him nowhere. From the time he took office, hateful rumors were floated from the Jackson camp accusing JQA of being a sexual deviant, adulterer, and cheat. His rivals in Congress used procedural delays and dishonest rhetoric to thwart his every attempt at governing. JQA retreated into a state of depression that briefly isolated his wife and friends.

After four years and a trouncing by the new President Jackson, JQA was relieved to move out of the White House. But he was not relieved because he now was able to leave politics- rather, he was now free from the restraints imposed on him by the presidency, which required him to compromise his powerful ideas and govern the whole country rather than throw partisan bombs. JQA was ready to fight, finally. Whereas he entered the White House a deliberate man with a deep concern for how he was perceived, he left it an angry man who needed the country to know that they were wrong for disagreeing with him. As Bob Dylan said, "there's no success like failure." For JQA, failure finally rid him of his fear of failure-unchained, he followed it with his greatest years, discussed next time on attimesdull.

presidential fact #11

"At 10 o'clock on an August night in 1819, Adams arrived in New York City on his way to a summer holiday in Quincy. When he learned that the helpful French ambassador was also in town, he set out to locate him, ignoring the late hour. Finding Hyde de Neuville at the French consul's residence, "I roused him from his bed and held a dialogue with him, standing at the door of his home, and he in his night cap with his head out of the chamber window."

It was like a scene from a Moliere play, Adams admitted, as he explained to the sleepy baron that the untimely intrusion was only because he had to catch a steamboat for New England at dawn.

January 12, 2010

what's the opposite of a silver lining?

i don't know why the presidents keep reminding me of tv shows, but so it is.

there is an episode of everybody loves raymond where ray is nominated for a sportswriting award. he calls it a lose-lose situation. he says if he wins, there will be expectations, jealousy, competition. if he loses, he'll be upset. his wife, deborah, tries to convince him just to be excited that he was nominated.

they never show the ceremony, so the next scene is the two of them arriving home. deborah walks in the door, saying, "i promise you, ray, something good is going to come of this," at which point ray walks in, dragging his feet and whining, carrying a huge trophy.

JQA reminds me of this over and over again. throughout his life, people and institutions absolutely throw acclamation at him, and he is quick to rue it every time. when george washington appoints him as minister to russia it's oh why didn't he ask me about it first and when john adams transfers him to prussia it's people will think it's because you're my dad and when his fiancee - not girlfriend, fiancee! - asks him when he wants to get married it's maybe you should just go back to america and i'll be there in a few years and we'll get married then and MAN why do you write me so often?

paradoxically, he is aching to make something of himself, to benefit the world, as he says. he is tormented by the dual demons of wanting to live up to his father's reputation and his mother's standards, and also wanting to be seen as independent of their influence and patronage.

paul nagel has a major beef with abigail, and i therefore have a major beef with paul nagel. he goes to great lengths to portray her as a domineering nag, and has few qualms about the fact that this point of view is singular. he rarely misses an opportunity to quote her pedantic letters to JQA, brushing over the fact that the adams family were devoutly religious, so what seems pedantic to us was probably basic chatter in their house. not to mention the fact that nuclear families in those days all lived together until the kids were in the mid-20s, and sometimes after, so having a son who was across the ocean for years at a time was, oh, traumatic and worrying. when JQA, at the age of 22, basically without money, wants to marry a 15-year-old, abigail thinks it's a bad idea. so does john, JQA'S brothers, the girl's family, and eventually the girl and JQA herself. "so after abigail ruined that marriage" nagel defiantly explains, JQA was heartbroken. sure.

but sure, even so, john and abigail had high expectations, and were an intimidating set of parents to live up to. JQA was always saying that he wanted to be a scholar, and have a literary career. but equally, and more subconsciously, i think, he wanted to please his father, and people in government were always asking for his service, so he kept subverting his dreams to work in politics.

he took the road more traveled, in the adams family, and always wondered what difference it had made. what constantly nagged at him - much much more than abigail - was the impression that he hadn't chosen his life.

January 06, 2010

happy birthday, dave

from all of us!

and janet.

January 05, 2010

presidential fact #10: more spooning

when the marquis de lafayette, a revolutionary war hero, visited america from france in the late 1820s, it was a huge occasion. he was feted in washington, and then went on a trip (with then president quincy adams) to visit jefferson, madison, and monroe. john marshall came along as well. the picture of these guys hanging out together in retirement is just too adorable for words.

on one of the stops on their journey back east, quincy adams and monroe "were quartered in the same bedchamber."

i love it when these guys bunk up!

January 04, 2010

Revolutionary Brat

It is a well-known British convention for monarchs to refer to themselves with the "royal we." The idea is that the King is both himself and the state---his person and his position. Thus when a King dies, people react with my favorite English expression, which is not self-contradictory: "The King is dead. Long live the King."

Of the first five Presidents, there was little space between the man and the potus. George Washington, for example, totally sublimated his personality to make it fit that of what he considered an ideal leader: stoic, brave, disciplined. James Madison was so consumed with political spirit that there was barely room left for a personality- imagining Madison "the man" is like imagining James Carville "the man." They are what they do. Revolutions just take so much energy. To be a revolutionary is necessarily to dedicate your life to the revolution and you don't have much time for such foolishness as a dramatic inner monologue.

Enter John Quincy Adams. As the son of America's worldliest founding father, Adams was instilled with all of the wisdom and experience of a revolutionary- JQA spoke several languages, including Greek and Latin, fluently at age 11. He was secretary to the minister of Russia at 14, the age at which his father plausibly called him the most well-travelled person in America. When JQA took his entrance exam at Harvard, he requested the exam be in French- the language in which he was most conversant. To read about JQA's culturally privileged childhood is to lazily leap from platitude to platitude, like some pond frog on so many lily pads. A schoolteacher in some country says that JQA is the most brilliant mind he has seen; A king in some other says that JQA is the most promising youth; And so on.

So what's the big deal, you say. Just another genius President. But the difference in this genius president is that he was not becoming brilliant for something. His father studied and studied because he was not born of relative privilege and needed every advantage to be a successful lawyer, and later statesman. Madison's learning was all funneled toward how he could best serve the cause. The student JQA had no particular utility for his knowledge besides vague ideals from his parents to become a "sturdy" man and "not to embarrass" them. He was the first spoiled liberal arts student in the United States of America (I was the 19,000,000th).

And what happens to spoiled liberal arts students? They think too much. They get depressed. They break up with the loves of their lives because the women don't meet their mothers' standards. JQA did all of these things. No milestone in JQA's life escaped his considerable angst. An election to Congress was accompanied with soul searching over whether he wanted to enter a life of partisan politics. A foray into the legal world brought about deep ambivalence about whether to exit public service. When a perfect woman practically dragged JQA to the alter, he set up a Rube Goldberg-esque series of hurdles to ensure the wedding was delayed.

None of this is to say that JQA was a whiny ninny- I actually quite like him. He seems thus far the most genius of the genius Presidents, and most of his wrath was of the self-loathing variety. Most who knew JQA, including his long suffering betrothed, found him a good dude. And man, he wrote great erotic poetry. In one poem, in which he looks forward "to my lonely conch return," he ends with these lines:

Louisa! thus remote from thee,/ Still something to each joy is wanting/ While thy affection can to me/ Make the most dreary scene enchanting.

Here's my point:

We sometimes conceive of the modern presidency as an office through which men can exorcise their personal demons on a public stage. Clinton needed to be liked, Nixon needed to be loved, Bush 43 needed to be taken seriously, etc. Going into this project, I was very much looking forward to learning about the men behind the early presidencies, but was stonewalled. The first five guys aren't just on monuments, they are monuments. JQA was the first to bring a personality to the office that hadn't been formed by a long journey to the office. In a limited sense he was America's modern President- its first Royal We.

January 03, 2010

the fellowship of the revolution

Before I totally say goodbye to the founding fathers, which I am obviously sad to do, I thought I'd share something I've used to occupy my mind on the commute lately.

The Founding Fathers as played by The Fellowship of the Ring
or vice versa

Bilbo Baggins : Benjamin Franklin
about half a generation up from the other guys. already a legend on his own merits. given in his old age to silliness and ribaldry, which is tolerated because he's earned the right to sit on his laurels, but soulful and wise when it counts.

Gandalf : one of the Greek philosophers who the fathers are always quoting
dave has a crush on a girl who could tell us which one

Aragorn : George Washington
courageous military commander who is reserved and wise beyond his years in everyday life. a leader whom men line up to follow.

Legolas : Thomas Jefferson
understated, pithy, seems above it all. intimidatingly perceptive and detached.

Boromir : Alexander Hamilton
a soldier, and somewhat likeable, but ultimately treacherous. is killed.

The Hobbits : John Adams
chronically underestimated because of their size, appetite, and capacity for merriment. when relied upon, will go anywhere and stop at nothing to succeed. approachable and well loved.

The Dwarf : i have no idea!
this one's been puzzling me. at first i thought john adams, because of his gruffness and unlikely bond with jefferson, but he's too optimistic and helpful to be the dwarf. maybe john marshall, just because he deserves to be on the docket. i don't know, and dave's never read or seen lord of the rings, so this one may be left up in the air.

happy new year, 1825

2010 brings with it a whole new phase for At Times Dull. james monroe is regularly referred to as the last founding father. he fought under washington in the revolutionary war, but came to fame for his accomplishments in the early senate. as he turned the reins over to JQA in 1825, the era of America being run by veterans of the revolution officially came to a close, and a generation of men who had been raised in an independent nation took over. revolutionary heroes stopped being presidents, senators, justices, and diplomats, and started being icons. or rather, they started being the founding fathers

the latter half of 2009 took dave and i through the bombastic early phases of america. there were the firebrand idealists, who orated our nation to freedom (these people are patrick henry, alexander hamilton, and samuel adams). then there were the nation builders, who slowly and painstakingly, with many mistakes, fashioned a federal government from the ashes of war (these people are adams, jefferson, and monroe). now, with all the freedoms won (and rewon in 1812), and infrastructures structured, the president becomes an executive.

james monroe's presidency saw no wars, insurrections, or stalemates. it saw some treaty negotations, internal improvements, a moderately serious economic downturn, and a doctrine. by this time, monroe had had enough predecessors to learn from their mistakes (don't keep the last guy's cabinet, don't suffer fools in the military, make sure your diplomats have brains), and enough of their wisdom to fall back on. in one case, when monroe wasn't sure whether something was constitutional or not, he actually went and asked madison, a convenience which surely could be envied by many of his successors. i won't embarrass him by pointing out again that he wasn't a genius (oh, oops), but i will say that being a genius started to be a lot less necessary. the job was in place, just listen carefully and be a good leader.

2010 is going to be a real touchstone year for us. leaving the founding fathers in 2009, this year will take us from JQA to at least Grant. of those 13 presidents, exactly four could be called household names (Quincy Adams, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant), leaving us with the forgettable nine of the of the 19th century (Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Filmore, Pierce, and Buchanan).

folks, we are not on money any more.

January 02, 2010

james, we hardly knew you

jefferson and madison both loved monroe. in fact, everyone seemed to love monroe. apparently he inspired confidence and was well liked, ammon says it all the time.

he had been governor of virginia, twice a diplomat, and secretary of war and secretary of state at the same time. as madison's second term came to a close, monroe was the heir apparent. says ammon,

"While Monroe never enjoyed Jefferson's great popularity in the nation, he was, nonetheless, a widely respected figure. If most of his contemporaries did not judge him to have talents comparable to those of the first two Republican Presidents, all acknowledged that his sound judgment, his administrative abilities and his long service to the nation for four decades gave him a just claim to the succession."

it's not the highest praise. as we've said, monroe was the first non-genius president. his success is due to the fact that he is a fundamentally great guy to have around. he was confident and hard-working and his superiors always liked him. and one can't underestimate the impact being tall and good-looking has on one's fortune in the world.

but i really have no idea what james monroe was like. ammon's biography reads like a really, really (really, really) long encyclopedia entry. mccullough was big on personality and detail, and john adams comes across in the flesh. ketcham was big on political theory, as madison was a politics geek, and his book is the basis of most of my understanding of revolutionary politics. ammon's book is neither. it's very informative. maybe ammon is our first non-genius biographer.

this is probably why, on january 2nd, i'm scrambling to finish the last 100 pages or so of monroe that i was meant to finish in december so i can move on to JQA this week. david finished monroe a long time ago, because he lives in fort wayne.