Thursday, February 12, 2015

And you think politics are ugly now?

I just finished reading a fascinating book, The Presidents' War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War that Divided Them. The author, Chris DeRose, provides brief descriptions of the administrations of the presidents and administrations that fell between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln and then discusses how the five living ex-presidents responded to the Civil War. You think politics can be nasty now? Or that "journalists," especially the ones on Faux News, have a tendency to lie?  Read some history, my friends, because compared to the 1850s and 1860s we are living in a remarkably civilized time.

Granted, no one in South Carolina has decided (yet) that it would be a good idea to have the state militia open fire on Fort Jackson, although I'm sure there are some idiots on the far right who think that it would be a good idea. The lack of open warfare does have to make the present day look a lot better than Lincoln's time regardless of whatever vitriol gets spilled on the air or in Congress. But, holy wah, they were nasty back then.

Among other things, no matter what Bill Clinton or George W. Bush might privately think about the current occupant of the White House, they're polite in public. All the ex-presidents are nice to each other. They don't openly criticize the decisions their successors make or allow themselves to get sucked into second guessing existing policy. Their minions and/or acolytes might get nasty, but the ex-presidents themselves? Never. In contrast, Lincoln had to deal with five living former presidents who weren't nearly as restrained. Four of them were pro-slavery and either openly secessionist or close to it. John Tyler, in fact, was a delegate to the Virginia state convention that voted for secession. He bears the dubious distinction of being the only U.S. president to have died as an enemy of the country he once led.

Andrew Jackson was the 8th President of the United States; Abraham Lincoln was the 16th. Their administrations fell a mere 24 years apart but were separated by a string of one-term office holders, two of whom rose to the position from the vice presidency following the death of a president. These are the guys who cause high school students' eyes to glaze over and who most of us can never remember: Martin Van Buren (who I remember primarily because in at least one of Gore Vidal's historical novels his characters speculate that Van Buren is Aaron Burr's illegitimate son; I have no clue if Vidal based that bit of fiction on any actual 19th century gossip), William Harrison (notable for, if I recall correctly, insisting on marching in the rain on inauguration day, getting sick as a result of his stubbornness, and dying barely a month later), John Tyler, James K. Polk (whose name only comes up as the answer to trivia questions about presidents with 4-letter names; there have been five. Polk is the one no one can ever remember)(Taft, Ford, Bush the Elder and Bush the Younger are the other four), Zachary Taylor (rumored to have been poisoned; he was actually exhumed a couple years ago and tested for arsenic); Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan.

Of the five living ex-presidents at the time Lincoln took office, only Van Buren came close to supporting the administration. Van Buren, who had been Andrew Jackson's vice president, was nominally a Democrat but appears to have tried the hardest to keep his mouth shut. He was active in organizing support for the Union troops and made a point of staying out of politics. Unfortunately for Lincoln, Van Buren died in 1862. As for the others? The vitriol flowed freely. Pierce referred publicly to Lincoln as an ape, an ignoramus, a tyrant who was shredding the Constitution and should be removed from office by any means necessary. Pierce even carried on an active correspondence with Jefferson Davis during the war -- prior to the war, Pierce had promoted Davis as a presidential candidate (and what an interesting alternate history novel that would make: Jefferson and Varina Davis in the White House instead of Abraham and Mary Lincoln). Pierce actually came close to being indicted for treason when Union forces captured the Confederate capital in Richmond and the Pierce-Davis correspondence was found.

All the ex-presidents wrote long letters, which usually included a phrase saying that although they didn't intend the actual letter for publication, the recipients were free to share their sentiments with others. They described Lincoln publicly in terms that today not even the talking heads on Faux News would consider using in dissing President Obama. Lincoln was a subhuman mongrel, a shambling ape. A few of them nourished fantasies of returning to the White House themselves; after all, they'd served only one term. . . and a couple of them (Tyler, Fillmore) hadn't even been elected to the office to begin with. The fact their party's convention had passed them over after seeing how they did the first time around didn't faze them. They were still convinced they knew the pulse of the country and could do a better job than Lincoln. It does show how delusional politicians can get: Pierce, Buchanan, and Fillmore were being reviled as Copperheads, they were openly mocked in the popular press, but because they still attracted a crowd of fellow Copperheads when they spoke, they thought they represented mainstream thought (and, wow, does that ever sound familiar, kind of like a Sarah Palin or Ted Nugent public appearance).

Copperheads were the Civil War equivalent of today's Tea Party, a radical faction within the Democratic Party. Copperheads wanted to end the Civil War on almost any terms, including restoring slavery throughout the entire United States. Their position was that whatever it took to get the secessionist states back in the Union was okay with them. It didn't seem to register with them that once thousands of Union troops had died in battle, most of the Union states weren't feeling particularly conciliatory. Pierce was so tone-deaf (or oblivious to reality) that he gave an anti-Lincoln, pro-Southern speech the day after the Union army managed to defeat the Confederates at Gettysburg. The crowd present at the speech cheered him; the rest of the country was disgusted and horrified. Secure within their own little bubble, the Copperheads were convinced that they would win the 1864 presidential election handily, especially when General George McClellan (one of the most useless military men in the history of warfare) was their candidate. They were, needless to say, stunned when Lincoln was re-elected by a large majority.

John Tyler probably caused the fewest headaches for Lincoln. Tyler had retired to a Virginia plantation, Sherwood Forest, when he left the presidency. Initially snubbed by his neighbors who perceived him as having been too pro-free state while he was president, by the time the war broke out he had repaired his reputation within the state. He was elected as a delegate to the state convention that voted for secession and then as a representative to the Congress of the Confederate States of America. If he had still been living when the war ended, he might have been tried for treason along with Jefferson Davis and other members of the CSA government. He was extremely critical of Lincoln, but as an open member of the Confederacy, his opinions probably didn't carry much weight in the North.

A small digression: Tyler's home, Sherwood Forest, is the only presidential home that's still owned by a member of the president's family. His grandson Harrison lives there. Yep. Tyler's grandson. Tyler was married twice and had 15 children; he was 63 when Harrison's father Lyon was born. Lyon in turn was married twice and had children late in life; he was 75 when Harrison was born.

Several things struck me while reading this book. One was that no matter how badly most of the politicians mentioned in this book screwed up, they were never willing to admit they'd blown it, e.g., that getting rid of the Missouri Compromise was a bad idea. There were exceptions: Stephen Douglas publicly castigated himself for having pushed for state sovereignty (i.e., letting new states decide for themselves whether to be free or slave), and Lincoln was notable for being willing to change his mind and admit errors. Almost no one else, however, seemed capable of saying they'd blown it. If anything, the worse things got, the less willing they were to admit they'd had a hand in creating the situation.

I did feel a few twinges of pity for a couple of the ex-presidents. Pierce, for example, was close friends with the author Nathaniel Hawthorne. They'd been good friends since their college days; Hawthorne dedicated one of his last books to Pierce; and Hawthorne was actually visiting with Pierce when he died. Nonetheless, Pierce was by then so universally disliked that the people arranging Hawthorne's funeral cut Pierce out. In the normal course of events, Pierce would have been at least a pall bearer if not one of the eulogists. Not this time. I don't know if Pierce was told not to attend at all (DeRose doesn't make that clear), but given that Pierce is described as distraught over the exclusion, it's possible he was indeed told to stay away.

In addition to shedding light on some of the political maneuvering going on in the years preceding the war, the book also makes it totally clear that the one and only reason the southern states seceded was slavery. It wasn't states' rights in a general sense because the only right the southerners were interested in was the right to own slaves. DeRose provides direct quotes from the various secession declarations, and in every one where a state did a specific statement of secession, that state gives the right to own slaves as its reason. This is a historical fact that needs to be pointed out on a regular basis along with the fact that it was the south that started the war. It was not a glorious cause; it was a war to perpetuate slavery. And it was not a "war of northern aggression" when it began with a southern state attacking a federal facility.

The Presidents' War is a recent publication. I actually found it on the New Books shelf at the library -- which prompted a "holy wah, it's actual history" reaction, because that space is usually filled with the most recent Janet Evanovich or Nora Roberts releases. It's quite readable, and it does probably provide enough biographical information on each of the key players that any burning desire a person may have had to learn more about Millard Fillmore or James Buchanan will probably be satisfied. It's also nicely concise for a history that covers several decades; DeRose did a good job of figuring out what was important without loading the book up with material that's been well-covered elsewhere. I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in antebellum and Civil War history.


  1. politics has been dirty since Julius Caesar..

  2. I love this post. Thanks for pointing out this book to us.


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