Hayes: "Silver Dick" Bland

Got your attention, didn't I?

This has to be one of the funniest name for any figure in American history. This even surpasses "Old Fuss N' Feathers" (Gen. Winfield Scott), "Ten Cents a day Jimmy" (Buchanan) and even "Queen Victoria in Riding Breeches" (Hayes).

Ol' Silver Dick was a Congressman who wanted to help silver miners and 'the common man' after the United States went on a gold standard in 1873. This declared that the only metal that US Dollars could be redeemed for was gold.

While this helped to bring the United States in line with the rest of the world in terms of the stability of its currency, it decimated the silver mining industry and the miners and other people that owned large amounts of silver coins. It also contracted the money supply, effectively making it more expensive for farmers and small business owners to repay their debts.

While "Silver Dick" Bland and many in congress were for having both a gold and silver standard, Hayes was squarely on the side of one gold standard since he rightly assumed that adding to the money supply would cause inflation and be harmful to contracts negotiated on the basis of the gold standard. By around the turn of the twentieth century, Hayes would get his way, but America had a two metal standard for the next 25 years or so.

Now isn't this whole economics lesson more interesting when there's a guy named "Silver Dick"?


Ohio: The Crucible of Mediocre Presidents

Just as in it's desire for quantity over quality in food, so it seems my fellow Ohioans have a similar outlook on presidents.

Like so many inoffensive, cheese covered dishes that are pumped out of the upscale casual chain restaurants that dot Ohio's landscape, it was doing the same with presidents during the 1800's and early 20th century.

Rutherford B. Hayes was perhaps the most average among the average company of his state's presidents. He stood in the middle of a line up that includes William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley and Howard "The fat man that got stuck in a bathtub" Taft.

It's ironic that Ohioans occupy a full half of the list of assassinated presidents, with both Garfield and Harrison having been killed in office. The other two, JFK and Abraham Lincoln were certainly more controversial figures in their time, both serving during war times and periods of great internal conflict.

Love them or hate them, or more likely feel ambivalent about them, no one can deny that the state of Ohio put together a pretty impressive line up of leading citizens, at least based on quantity.


Rutherford B. Hayes: 'Rutherfraud' B. Hayes

The country was bitterly divided and experienced a controversial election where the winner won by one electoral vote even though they lost the popular vote. An electoral commission decided along party lines of Democrat and Republican to disavow enough of electoral votes of the popular winner to confirm the Republican candidate.

Allegations of rampant voter fraud and intimidation flew and the country was ready to tear itself apart. The opposing party was portrayed in all media outlets as traitorous and tyrannical and one scandal after another rocked congress and the presidency.

Does this sound familiar? If it does, it's not Bush V. Gore, it's Hayes V. Tilden in the election of 1876.

This election occurred at a time when the North was taking a much more aggressive stance towards the former confederate democrats that ran the South and the nation was united on paper, but divided in reality.

Samuel Tilden, the favored Democrat in the presidential election of 1876 had 250,000 more votes than Hayes but lost the electoral vote.

To put that figure in perspective, think of how controversial the Bush Gore race was when Gore had 500,000 more popular votes than Bush but the population of the country was 10 times as high as it was in 1876. That would be the equivalent of Gore losing the electoral vote but winning the popular vote by a margin of 2.5 million votes.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Ulysees S. Grant: Scandals

Grant's presidency is known for being scandal plagued. This is both impressive since he served in one of the more corrupt periods of American history and inexplicable since we're used to hearing about trysts in the men's room or salacious letter to Penthouse type tales of young pages.

There were more than 10 scandals Grant's administration was implicated in.

Some of the main ones were:

The Whiskey Ring Scandal: Government agents received kickbacks for helping the liquor industry avoid millions in taxes.

I don't see a whole lot of difference between then and now, except instead of suitcases of money, certain industries such as banking, home building and firearms give billions in campaign contributions to politicians to keep them in office and in return, are allowed to do pretty much whatever they want.

Black Friday: Some businessmen and bankers conspired to corner the market on gold by buying up most of the supply in the country on the open market. They would all get rich if this plan worked, since the government was expected to buy back the government bonds it sold with gold and they held the majority of the supply.

To keep the regulators away and make sure the government didn't sell gold, they recruited Grant's idiot brother-in-law to get close to him and argue against a government sale of gold. (always the idiot brother in law in these things right?)

This doesn't seem that much worse than modern times, when many industries now exist whose lobbying dollars buy them virtual monopolies and the ability to write the very laws that regulate them (see: mining, insurance, banking).

There were many other scandals that revolved around nepotism, bribery or extortion, but again, they don't seem that much worse than what we have now.

In my opinion, the reason for all the scandals were best summed up by the following:

Grant was a George W. Bush type figure who was generally an honest man, but easily influenced by underlings that used his administration for their own selfish purposes. When it became obvious to all but him that the corruption was going on, he couldn't abandon his military code of protecting his troops and refused to acknowledge their wrongdoing (see: Donald Rumsfeld, Michael Brown)

Grant was not a career politician and was somewhat naive of the ways of Washington.

Grant was a big picture guy and focused all his efforts on the great issue of the times, the occupation of the southern states and potential war with Mexico at the expense of the housekeeping or audit functions he should have performed.

Grant had political enemies that made the Tea Party look like, well, a tea party. The south had enjoyed virtual business as usual under the Johnson administration, but Grant made it clear they actually lost the war.

All in all, I don't think that Grant was such a bad president, just that he lived in bad times. The rest of the world seemed to agree too, since after his presidency, he toured the world and everywhere was cheered by crowds as the great General and liberator of the black man.


Grant: Elsewhere in the world in the 1860's

Since the early days of American history up until the Civil War, America followed the Monroe doctrine. This essentially meant that there was an unofficial policy of not entering into 'entangling' alliances overseas and intervening in affairs in our hemisphere when America's interests are threatened.

The Civil War however, put a stop to both of these policies. The south actively courted Great Britain for supplies and foreign currency. It exported virtually all the cotton that Britain was using in its textile mills at the time and wanted allies overseas to protect it from the north once it broke away from the United States.

Other countries in Europe also began to look at expanding in the Americas since the United States was in such a weak and vulnerable position. Emperor Maximilian of France took invaded Mexico shortly after the Civil War came to an end when America was still in a weakened position.

Grant felt threatened by this incursion into the United State's sphere of influence and sent a large amount of military aid to the ousted rebel leader of Mexico and stationed about 50,000 federal troops on the southern border of Texas.

Maximillian was eventually killed by the Mexican army and the French army went back to Europe. America once again controlled its center of influence and would expand its reach overseas and to the further out former Spanish colonies, eventually controlling the world in the aftermath of World War II.

It's interesting to think about what would have happened if the French had been able to hold Mexico. It would almost be a reverse Louisiana Purchase. You have to wonder if France and Britain would eventually fight a proxy war in the United States or if the United State's influence in this region would simply diminish.


Grant: Picking Up the Pieces

Grant's presidency is usually a compared (unfavorably) to his time as General during the Civil War. It may be true that his presidency didn't live up to his military brilliance, but he did one very important thing that his predecessors were unwilling or unable to do.

Grant came in to power at a time when the KKK was at the height of its power during the reconstruction era. Intimidation, rape and murder of blacks and Whig politicians was commonplace and was out of control.

At this time, many of the vigilante groups acted with impunity and did whatever they could to make life the way it was before the war. Blacks in the south were hated more than ever after slavery by poor whites who viewed their place in life as sinking while the freedman's life was rising.

Grant sent the federal troops in to areas that the KKK/southern militia was occupying and actively fought them. He also sent federal troops in to areas where blacks were being denied the vote and protected them to at least a minimal degree.

The problem with his predecessors after the war was that they followed a policy of appeasement. The south was allowed to go on as if nothing had ever happened in an effort to restore national unity. This accommodating policy brought into question what the war was even fought for. Laws would go on the books giving rights to blacks, but they were still in virtual slavery.

Only by showing resolve did Grant make the violence in the South decline somewhat. This relative peace allowed the country to start on the long road to normalcy before the next national crisis.


#18:Ulysees S. Grant: War Hero

I've spoken before of how the Civil War could have gone several different directions.

Although I don't think that the South could have marched up North and enforced a slaveocracy on everyone, I don't think that it's impossible to imagine they could have chased the northern troops out of their territory and succeeded in secession.

At times, the Northern army had to contend with both large standing armies filled with experienced officers and troops as well as a brutal insurgency fighting on land it knew so well.

Then as now, the invading army did not know the lay of the land, did not understand who was their friend and foe and had to deal with corrupt army contractors that exhorted ungodly sums from the federal government to feed, clothe and equip the troops with the tools they needed to win the war.

Grant dealt with all this with a combination of cunning, bravery and brutality and ultimately oversaw Lee's surrender after taking the southern capital of Richmond, VA.

While Grant's predecessors all suffered embarrassing defeats and were suspected of sympathizing with the confederate army (most officers received their training in the South), he forced the south's surrender three times.

He won these fights through both intelligence and basic bravery. He anticipated the enemies moves, blocked supply lines and paths of retreat and would perform bold surprise attacks on the enemy's position.

The northern public loved Grant and ultimately promoted him to the presidency in one of the nation's darkest times.

Grant joined a large cast of former generals and military men to assume the presidency. George Washington, James Monroe, Zachary Taylor, Truman and Eisenhower among them.

I can't fault people for wanting generals to run the presidency. There's some logic to wanting people that know the price of war to be the only ones that can declare it.


Andrew Johnson: Labor Politics

Andrew Johnson had some interesting theories on labor relations. He was a friend of the 'mechanic', a loose term in the mid 1800's that designated any role above laborer but below large plantation owner. I guess you could say that the closest comparison today would be small business owner.

The small business owners of the time were carriage repair shops, innkeepers, general store managers etc.

Many politicians at the time were for wealthy interests such as large scale farmers, rail roads or mining interests, but very few were talking about the mechanic class of laborer. There simply wasn't a lot of money in it, I guess that's why today we have certain industries such as pharma or banking so improportionately represented in Congress, but we don't hear a lot about the guy that just owns a repair shop.

This love of the mechanic class led Johnson to take some strange views. He came out strong against a rail road cutting through his district when he was in Congress because he was afraid that it would put the wagon operators and inn keepers who weren't close enough to a rail road stations out of business. It would seem like overall, a rail road would bring commerce and wealth into a community, but Johnson tended to not think of the big picture on these things and stayed pretty dedicated to his favorite class of people.

He also was against slavery because he felt that it took jobs away from the white man and forced small farmers off of their land since a plantation can expand indefinitely with slave labor since its labor cost is somewhere close to $0.00 and any expansion means additional profits.

Under reconstruction, Johnson showed how little he was concerned about freed slaves when he underfunded all the reconstruction projects and suggested that they simply pick up and leave the United States, but by virtue of him not wanting to enslave them, it certainly put him in the progressive class in the south.

I like reading about Johnson, because it shows that in American politics, people will have different view points for different reasons. What gets lost in the soaring anti slavery rhetoric is the fact that not all people supported the abolition of slavery for simply moral reasons.


Andrew Johnson: Domestic Terrorism

After the war, a couple of good ol' boys that recently 'walked the dog' (the forced loyalty oath returning confederate soldiers had to make to federal troops) met for drinks as they commiserated about their situation.

They eventually formed a social club of sorts and called it the Klu Klux Klan.

They dressed up like ghosts in bedsheets and went on torch lit parades through town.

All of these men were angry, having fought a useless war and now being governed by the same federal troops they fought against. They took much of their anger out on the recently freed slaves who as they saw it, were better off now while they were in a worse situation.

Their ceremonies became more regular and started to focus on scaring the freedmen and keeping those who they thought were 'uppity' in line.

They also eventually morphed into a militant 'Al Quaeda in Iraq' sort of organization and started carrying out murders of freedmen and federal troops for dramatic effect and to change the political situation in their favor. This anger was also turned on the 'carpet baggers' from the north and started to spiral out of control a year or so after the war ended.

Northerners weren't safe walking the streets and whig politicians would be murdered from time to time. Johnson certainly did nothing to stop this and restrained the federal troops from aggressively going after the terrorists.

Only when Grant sent in the full force of the Army did the tide start to turn. Even after that, no freed man could break the 'black codes' without fear of being visited at night by a gang of murderers.


Andrew Johnson: Post Civil War Years: Welcome Back South!

After the war was over, Lincoln was murdered and the North's desire for revenge had never been stronger. Certainly, had Lincoln lived, he would have forced reforms in the South, but would have held back the strongest Northern extremists that wanted to treat the entire South like a conquered country and repopulate it with their own people.

Lincoln however, did not live to see his reconstruction plans through and it was left to Johnson to figure out exactly what the South was and wasn't with respect to its place in the country.

Was the South part of the United States again? Was it some sort of territory that the Federal government needed to oversee? If it was not immediately welcomed back into the Union, then what would the conditions be that would allow it back in? Should it pay reparations to what now is its own government?

The questions go on and on and are extremely complex.

Johnson was of the school of thought that the policy of the North should be one of forgiveness.

I should note that this was also Lincoln's policy, but where Johnson and Lincoln would seem to differ is that as soon as the South surrendered and its soldiers took a loyalty oath to the United States (southerners called this 'walking the dog') they were completely United States citizens again.

Johnson wanted southern states to rejoin the Union as fast as possible and pardoned high level members of the rebellion.

He said nothing when the same people that served as congress members of the confederacy eagerly rejoined the Congress of the United States and their own state's house of representatives. This begs the question of how things were any different after the Civil War politically between the North and South.

Although he outlawed slavery, he did nothing to prevent the 'black codes' from going into effect and stood by when virtually all southern states disenfranchised the recently freed blacks.

He did what he could to prevent the public works projects for teaching freed slaves business or trade skills and sent letters of support in favor of programs to send free blacks overseas or down to Mexico.

Johnson put the South in a strange position. Before and during the war, he was completely hated for his sympathies for the Union cause and his distrust of rebellion. After the war, he was loved for the way he tried to make everything the way it was before the war, minus slavery of course. Poor whites stepped into a world where they had somewhat more upward mobility since they no longer had to compete with no wage workers and the former slaves were largely excluded from political and economic life.

In short, Johnson made things as good as possible for white Southerners and made things as bad as possible for freed slaves.


Andrew Johnson: Let me be your Moses!

Those were the words uttered to a crowd of freedmen by Andrew Johnson. I suppose that in those times, simply the fact that he didn't want to own them as property must have made him seem very much the Liberator, but it seems a little disingenuous.

I don't want to make it seem like Johnson was any worse than any other white people at the time towards the blacks, but he sure wasn't much better.

Johnson didn't support emancipation of black people in the south as a moral imperative, but as a way to take the Aristocratic class down a few notches.

Johnson was a self made man, a Tailor that rose to success by his own hard work and ruthlessness and constantly fought for the 'mechanic class'. This would have been what we would call blue collar jobs these days and encompassed such professions as innkeepers, coachmen etc. Johnson saw, not inaccurately, that the slaves represented the ultimate cheap labor and forever would keep poor white people from ever making a 'living wage'.

I guess you could say he was the Lou Dobbs of his day, fighting to keep cheap foreign or in this case, black labor out of the country.

Did Johnson like the blacks and want them to make better lives for themselves? No.

Johnson basically wanted them to leave the country and head south to Mexico where they might in his words, mingle with the other mongrel races.

Here's another gem:

"I have lived among negroes, all my life, and I am for this Government with slavery under the Constitution as it is. I am for the Government of my fathers with negroes, I am for it without negroes. Before I would see this Government destroyed, I would send every negro back to Africa, disintegrated and blotted out of space. "

It just goes to show that the whole debate on emancipation was more than a black and white issue.


#17: Andrew Johnson: The Aftermath of Confederate Terrorism

It was extremely hard for me to write about Lincoln. There's very little I can say that hasn't already been said and it's hard to write about him without sounding like some propaganda piece or like a weepy fan.

Luckily, I'm moving on to a much, much lesser man, Andrew Johnson.

Andrew Johnson came to power after Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth shortly after the surrender of the south.

The conspiracy to kill Lincoln was far reaching and his killer had conspirators that attempted to simultaneously kill his Secretary of State, William Seward and other members of the cabinet.

Into this confusion and turmoil stepped the Tennessean.

To use the phrase of George W. Bush, Johnson did not have a whole lot of political capital to spend.

As a Senator, Johnson was not respected by Southerners since he took the controversial stand of backing Lincoln during the Civil War and refusing to go over to the Confederacy.

He was especially hated by the citizens of Tennessee since he served as a somewhat despotic military governor during the war.

He was hated by Northerners since in the tradition of John Tyler, he was on Lincoln's ticket as VP to 'bring out the southern vote'. It was clear even as he was running that although he stopped short of wishing to secede from the Union, he certainly did not share the Republican party's beliefs, which was a problem, since that was the ticket he was running on.

Also- Johnson was hated for a whole host of other reasons:

He was kind of a dick.
He was completely drunk during his inauguration speech as VP.
He was so paranoid, it made Nixon seem like Jack Johnson.
and a whole host of other things which I'll try to get to in later posts.

For all these traits and his absolute bungling of the post war reconstruction era, Johnson is consistently ranked as one of the worst presidents we ever had.

I'm looking forward to writing about him!


Lincoln: Navigating the Civil War

Civil Wars are tricky things.

Normally in War, the end game should be to kill as many of your enemies as possible and take over their resources, but in a Civil War, you have to face the reality that after it's all over, all sides will be citizens of the same country again. There's just something distasteful about celebrating a victory over your defeated foe when they're also your fellow citizens.

In Imperial Rome, they decreed that no victorious general was to receive a triumph (like a really, really cool parade with dancers, exotic animals and defeated enemies in chains) when the victory was over a rival for the throne. Then again, this was a little different than the American Civil War. in Rome- they were all striving for the same thing- control of an empire. It wasn't as though one rival wanted to break away from the empire while another wanted him to stay put.

This attitude of the southern states that they didn't consider themselves even to be American anymore opened the door for a level of brutality that probably surprised both sides.

Furthermore, most of the upper military class were either southerners themselves or were from border states. Also, even the northern military leaders often had sympathy to the southern cause themselves because they would generally receive their military training in the south and would feel a certain kinship with the south's aristocratic social order since they were often aristocrats in their own right.

Hardcore hatred from both sides, a halfway committed military and the reality that after it was all over, the north would basically have to rebuild what it destroyed in the south and remake the entire power and social structure of half the country. This is what Lincoln walked into. Also- Lincoln had no formal military training and basically learned military tactics on the job, reading the "Art of War" by candlelight after his hectic days in the office.

It's really amazing that he won the war.

I shudder to think what would have happened then and for the following 150 years of American history and feel that it shows Lincoln is worth a hell of a lot more than a penny.


Lincoln: Impact of the Civil War

As a result of the South's insistence that it be able to enslave people, over 1 Million people lost their lives. This is greater than the casualty numbers in the Revolutionary War, World War 1 and II combined.

That loss of life is amazing, especially when you factor in that it includes primarily military age men and the entire free population of the country included only around 27 Million people. That's 1 in 27 people that died! Also- Then, as now, the people that enter the most dangerous ranks of the military and fight on the front line are for the most part from the less affluent, rural parts of the country.

It's easy to imagine that there must have been entire communities where the majority of the children were orphans and young men were mostly absent. This is staggering and is a testament to how badly the South wanted to hang on to its aristocratic, agricultural way of life as the world moved on.

For many southerners after the war, they never would admit that they actually lost the war and thanks to President Johnson's southern sympathies in the post war era, many confederate generals and senators returned to politics as though nothing happened. This allowed slavery to continue under the guise of sharecropping and the race codes that were put in effect after the war.

So did the Civil War ever truly end? The shots may have stopped, but the culture and race wars went on for over 100 years more and some would argue that they continue to this day.


Lincoln: On Religion

Everyone speaks of Lincoln's faith and in a way they're right. In his later life, most of his speeches were infused with reference to a vague 'higher power' or 'great creator', but he certainly wasn't religious in the traditional sense, especially for the times.

He best summed up his own views when he said "When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion."

Like Jefferson, Lincoln most likely thought of Jesus as the greatest philosopher but avoided what he called religious enthusiasm.

He was raised in a very religious Baptist household, but never officially joined any church. This was at a time when church was the main social activity and surely must have raised eyebrows.

Lincoln did get involved in the temperance movement which was mainly backed by protestant churches but was turned off by their focus on looking down on the sinners. Lincoln wanted the movement to focus on making positive changes in the lives of individuals that have trouble with alcohol and eventually lost faith in it.

Lincoln mocked the idea of religion when he was younger saying things like:

"When I see a man preach, I like him to look like he's trying to avoid bees."

He resented hypocrites that had a holier than though attitude:

"My experience is that someone who has no Vices also has no Virtues."

Certainly Lincoln was not like Jefferson who had his own version of the bible where he blacked out all of the miracles of Jesus and ended the gospel when the rock was rolled over the tomb, but he would probably have a hard time getting elected today.

It's just hard to believe that a person who didn't attend any church could get elected to the highest office 150 years ago, but most likely not now when we've discovered things like the big bang, evolution, space travel etc.


Happy Fourth of July

John Adams on what he thought would be the future of July 4th Independence Day celebrations:

"I believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other..."

It seems that we're fulfilling his dream.

Happy 4th!


Lincoln the Comedian

Lincoln had what the Irish call the gift of the gab and could always diffuse an audience with a joke.

Maybe that's why his opponent Stephen Douglas once said "His qualifications for side splitting are quite as good as rail splitting."

Here's some lines of his that I like:

(to a Senator that told Lincoln that slavery was a good thing) "For a good thing, slavery is strikingly peculiar in that it is the only good thing which man does not seek for himself."

"Whenever I see anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."

"Better to be silent and be thought a fool than speak out and remove all doubt."

"If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?"

"If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; if this is tea, please bring me some coffee."

"What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself."


Abraham Lincoln: Changing Views on Slavery

What can I say about Lincoln that hasn't already been said?

He's got an entire section at most book stores, so the chances of me coming to any great insight here are slim.

For the project, I read "Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power" having already read the other main modern Lincoln biography "Team of Rivals".

The difference between the two books was that this one focused on the evolution of Lincoln's thinking, philosophy and religious views that allowed him to lead the country through its most turbulent time ever whereas "Team of Rivals" focused much more between the interactions and conflicts between members of his cabinet and Lincolns quiet management of them.

Lincolns views on slavery changed over the course of his life and circumstances.

At an early age in Kentucky and Illinois, Lincoln didn't have too much direct interaction with slaves and spent his energy on self education and improvement, trying to find a way out of his hellish frontier existence. He did however get exposed to his parents' adamant anti slavery views.

As he grew older, he started to look at odd jobs to escape his frontier life. He was famously a rail splitter on the new railroads blanketing America and worked taking a load of cargo by ferry to New Orleans from Springfield. There, he witnessed a slave auction for the first time which left a lifelong impression. He now knew that he hated slavery.

He entered local politics back in Illinois and had no real official dealings on that level with slavery although it's believed that he felt it should be confined to the old south and never come north or west. He also believed as Monroe and almost all prior politicians that there should be some colony created in Africa where slaves could eventually return to, never being able to make a life for themselves in America due to hatred and oppression even if they are freed.

When he hit the national stage in Congress, his resolve was strengthened, again, witnessing the slave auctions and workers in D.C. He came out against the Mexican War not only because he saw it for what it was, an ugly land grab of another countries territory but most likely also because he knew that it was primarily southern slave owners that wanted to find new lands for their slaves to grow the profitable cotton crop.

After the war, he hesitated to declare the slaves free so the south would not have it's assumptions that the North was trying to impose its 'lifestyle' on them and to not be seen as a radical in a time of war, but eventually saw that he had no choice.

One of the most interesting questions in history is what would have happened if Lincoln had lived to oversee Union victory and the reconstruction.

Most reconstruction presidents other than Grant were downright hostile to blacks and did everything they could to undermine any real change of balance of power in the south.

The real Lincoln is so much more interesting than the marble statue version.


Lincoln: Latest in the Self-Made Men

Most of Lincoln's life is well known and he's widely regarded as being one of the best presidents and American citizens to ever live. While someone like Rutherford B. Hayes might have one or two biographies written about him that are from the 1920's, Lincoln has an entire section at most book stores.

Lincoln's early life is relatively well chronicled. He was born in poverty (the log cabin myth actually isn't a myth at all) and his father moved his family west to Illinois from Kentucky. There they tried for the most part unsuccessfully to scratch out a living with agriculture.

Lincoln hated farm life and knew he was destined for something greater. He taught himself to read and write and studied the law at night by candle after his days of working the fields. He left home as soon as he could with no intention of coming back. He became the 'rail splitter' working on the rapidly expanding rail roads exploding from the East coast.

He eventually found work in law and politics and the rest is history from there. But many people don't know that Lincoln's story of early hardship and success through hard work is hardly unique.

Washington was an amazing man but was hardly self made as he came from an aristocratic family. The same can be said for Jefferson, Madison and Monroe and all the Virginia presidents like Tyler. Other Presidents, like Polk, Taylor or Harrison came from well known or wealthy families.

Most of the other presidents up to the Civil War though came from little to nothing to take the highest position in this new land of opportunity. Jackson, Van Buren, Fillmore, Buchanan and Johnson who followed Lincoln were all men of modest family roots.

Jackson was raised by his mother who died when he was still young, led a troubled life but turned himself around and made a life for himself out west in Tennessee.

Van Buren counted Dutch as his first language and came from the small town of Kinderhook where his family made a modest living through farming.

Fillmore's father unsuccessfully tried to start a farm over and over again, never prospering. He escaped a life of poverty through education and rising up in the New York political machine.

Buchanan's family were poor settlers in a Pennsylvania trading post and he also escaped through the law as Lincoln did, starting his own successful practice and charging the high rates that would allow him to leave the practice to enter politics.

Johnson was an awful president, but a great business man. He was an apprentice who ran away from his Tailor he was studying under and started his own garment business far away in a new settlement in Tennessee. He grew the business to the point he was able to expand to buying and selling real estate and he succeeded in politics through his force of will and overcame his utter lack of education or even literacy.

That seems to be the quality that runs through almost all presidents from Jackson up to the Civil War. It must have seemed then like America truly was the land of opportunity with the path laid out before those who were simply able to work hard enough to earn what they wanted.


Right Before the Civil War: 1850's

During the late 1850's, the North and South were vastly different places.

In the North, immigrants were reshaping the landscape in large east coast cities and the midwest. There was more than twice the amount of miles of railroad laid in the north as the south and it was much easier for people and goods to move from state to state.

Cotton and tobacco were the dominate industries the South. With slave wages at no more than the cost of keeping a human being alive with basic food, water and shelter, the concentrated aristocracy in the south felt no need to join the industrial and transportation revolution in the north.

Slaves begat more slaves and plantation owners would pour the profits back into expanding their estates, which would produce more capital, which could buy more slaves. They primarily exported raw goods and imported luxury or finished goods from Great Britain since with the sparse tracks of railroad in the south, it was easier than buying the products domestically.

Eventually, all the good land in the old south was used up, and enterprising southerners bought up westward lands from the federal government and looked to expand their agricultural feudal system.

In the west, northerners and southerners would mingle, both seeking to dominate the territories they were settling. With the new 'religious enthusiasm' in the north as Lincoln called it, slavery became the great moral issue of the day in the north and west.

The westerners from the north brought a new urgency to the anti slave movement and the south felt threatened.

As the north entered into the industrial revolution, new paths to social mobility were open even for immigrants while class division and slave driven feudalism continued to dominate the south.

The south did have one large advantage it would use in the war though. It had most of the military colleges and by far the most experienced generals, as the military culture fit in much better with the south's aristocratic world view.

This is where the two sides stood before the war. The north and south had dramatically different economies, world views, and infrastructure and would fight to the death to preserve them. The western states would become battlegrounds both in the literal sense and for the hearts and minds of their inhabitants, with massive amounts of money and effort spent on recruitment and propaganda in all the border states by both sides in the war.

This is the world Lincoln stepped into in 1861, with 8 years of almost criminal neglect of the deteriorating situation by Buchanan and Pierce. As a border state president from Illinois, he would be on the front line of the hearts and minds war.


Decoration Day

The origins of what we know today as Memorial Day had murky beginnings. It was originally known as Decoration Day and was practiced only in the South.

During the Civil War, confederate women's groups would meet to lay flowers on the graves of the southern war dead.

After the war, Union General John Logan declared that May 30th was Memorial Day. The day was set aside to lay flowers on both the Union and Confederate war dead.

However, it was only really nationally recognized after World War I when the holiday was changed to honoring all Americans who died in all wars rather than just the Civil War. Until that time, all Southern states made their 'decoration days' on separate dates because they were upset that the North would co opt their tradition of honoring their dead.

Finally, in 1971 it was declared an official National holiday.

This really goes to show that although the 'hot' Civil War ended in the 1860's- the 'cold' Civil War raged on for the next 100 years. In the big picture of American history it's only recently that calling someone a 'yankee' or 'carpet bagger' can be done so in jest.

It's surprising and encouraging that such a divisive holiday turned into a symbol of national unity.

Happy Memorial Day- let's remember that all gave some and some gave all.


James Buchanan: States Rights

Whether you believe the constitution is a living document or you are a strict constructionist, you have to agree that there's disagreement on what its intent is.

Just like the bible or any other sacrosanct document, people first decide what they believe, then examine the document for how they can prove it validates what they believe.

There's no longer any pretense of nominating supreme court judges based on their credentials or loyal following of the law. It's pretty much a naked tabulation on how closely their rulings can advance the nominating politician's stance on the issues of the day or at the very least, what their party masters want.

Buchanan was no different from politicians in the modern age in wrapping his social and economic views in the constitution.

As I've mentioned before, although he was from Pennsylvania, his sympathies were completely with the southern slave interests.

Somehow, Buchanan saw fit to send federal troops in to capture escaped slaves in Massachusetts, but could not see justification in using the federal army to put down armed rebellion in the south.

As southerners in South Carolina (where else?) were seizing federal military bases, Buchanan would not lift a finger based on his 'constitutional' views.

He argued that no state has the right to secede from the Union, however, all bodies under any Constitution had the right to take up arms to prevent oppression. The federal government he argued had no power to either recognize the secession of states or coerce them through arms. In other words, the Federal government can never tell the states what to do, even if they're threatening to not be part of the government anymore.

Does this make sense? No.

But that's not really the point, then, as now, all low minded arguments are wrapped in the high minded language of our founding fathers.

James Buchanan: His Katrina(s)

Buchanan was president between 1857 and 1861 and there was no shortage of bad things that happened during his time in office.

They say that disasters such as the Civil War and Great Depression made great presidents out of men like Lincoln and Roosevelt. But as Buchanan shows us, they can also make really awful presidents if they're not dealt with properly.

Here's just a couple examples of the things that most definitely were putting the country on the 'wrong track':

The Utah War: Based on false intelligence, Buchanan sent the Federal Army in to Utah on rumors that the same Brigham Young that James Polk had sent out there a few years ago was planning a rebellion. This was easy to get everyone to buy into because anti Mormonism had been building in Washington over their polygamy. Buchanan was widely reproached when the rumors of rebellion were proven false and this became referred to as 'Buchanan's Blunder'.

You'd think that a man that said it was 'illegal' for the United States to put down a slave holders rebellion in the years leading up to the Civil War would have shown a little more restraint, but I guess it's all about who's causing the rebellion.

I'd make an Iraq War comparison here, but that would be way to easy.

Bank Failures: We think we have it bad, but 1400 Banks and 6000 major businesses failed during Buchanan's presidency. To encourage Americans to tough it out, he gave a speech saying that 10 cents a day was enough for any working man to live on.

This is where he earned the nickname '10 Cents a Day Jimmie'.

Kansas Bleeding: Before the Civil War officially was declared by the South, there were skirmishes in the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Abolitionists moved in and powerful slave interests sent death squads in to attack and harass them so they could make it a slave territory by squatters rights.

Buchanan wasn't convinced that this was worth sending the Army in like the Mormon incident was. As I mentioned before, it's all about who's being harassed and he was clearly in the slave holder's corner.

Filibustering Expeditions: In the name of expanding slavery and profit, wealthy plantation owners would raise private funds to send mercenaries over to unstable areas in Central America and the Caribbean to both have an opportunity to take over those countries from Spain and have a ready supply of slaves and income from the sugar and mining operations already in place there.

These expeditions were almost like Super Halliburtons. They were made up largely of army and sea veterans as well as other desperate men, and they'd not only have access to great wealth if successful, but could also become Kings.

Buchanan did very little to stop this and it only increased the anger of the anti slavery movement in the north, further pushing the country towards war.

The allowed takeover by Southerners of Federal Forts and the traitors in his cabinet that would later join the confederacy are worth another post altogether.

This just goes to show that although it takes extreme times to make a man remembered in history, it doesn't indicate how he'll be remembered.


James Buchanan: A Pennsylvania Dandy

Let's start with the tawdry before we jump into the more serious and disturbing parts of Buchanan's presidency and the descent into civil war.

The popular rumor is that Buchanan was gay and although this is thrown around a lot on presidents from that period, most notably Lincoln, I tend to believe the rumors in regards to him.

The style of writing in the mid 1850's between men was much more intimate than it is now. Lincoln wrote of how he missed his bunk mates who would share his bed on a cold night when he was a circuit judge, but that was a common practice back then and it doesn't indicate anything extraordinary.

Buchanan on the other hand never married, being saved from what must have been an uncomfortable arrangement when his wealthy fiancee suddenly broke it off. She suspected, most likely correctly, that he was just interested in her fortune. Saying that his heart was broken and vowing never again to marry, this severed relationship allowed him to be free to be a lifelong bachelor and continue to form close relationships with the men he'd live with while in Washington.

You may think that never getting married doesn't necessarily mean that someone is gay and closeted and you're probably right. But for god sakes, Charlie Christ in Florida has lost support from conservatives, because as an older bachelor, they think that he may be gay. (like many of his colleagues) This is one hundred and fifty years later!

Now, although I've mentioned that men generally shared their feelings more with other men back then, this excerpt from one of his letters just seems over the top:

"I am now 'solitary and alone', having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone, and [I] should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection."

His manners were also said to be somewhat effeminate, with people referring to him as a dandy. His long time room mate and fellow Senator was also slurred with derogatory names, with Andrew Jackson referring to him as "Miss Nancy" and "Aunt Fancy".

Furthermore, on Buchanan's directions, all the letters between him and King were burned upon his death. It wasn't unusual for politicians of the revolutionary or antebellum period to do this, but Buchanan had many of his other correspondences painstakingly preserved, so this also makes me wonder.

Oh well, I guess we'll never know, which is just how he would have wanted it.


Franklin Pierce: My Burden

Reading a book on every single president for this project is hard enough, but it's especially hard with the more obscure presidents.

I had thought that it had gotten about as bad as it could get when the only book I could find on Harrison was a biography from the 1930's with stilted and let's say politically incorrect language regarding Native Americans. However, this Pierce book took it to another level.

The Harrison book, racial epitaphs used by the author aside, was written by at least a decent historian. It was difficult to read because it tried way too hard to cover every aspect of Harrison's life preceding the presidency in sequential order. This includes periods of his life that might be interesting to Harrisonphiles, but not to casual readers like myself.

The Pierce book on the other hand was hard to read because it just wasn't very well written or put together. The author is well regarded for his writings on the history of American political parties and for covering politics in the 1800's, but the fact that his profile on Wikipedia omits this biography is probably a bad sign.

The fact that this book was written in the 1920's also might make this book hard to relate to as well as the fact that it was nearly 500 pages long with small print.

However, there were a few lines that made it an interesting look at an earlier period of history.

My favorite line referenced how far technology had come since the mid 1800's and marveled that a telegraph from Alaska to the East cost now (1920's) could take as little as a few hours, whereas a message from the midwest to the East Coast in Pierces time could take as long as a month.

Jefferson may have shuddered to think that God was just, but I shudder to think that the worst presidential biographies may be still ahead of me. Although books on Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR routinely make the best seller list, there's just not that many people out there that really want to dig into Chester Arthur or Rutherford B. Hayes.


Franklin Pierce: God complex

Many politicians that reach high levels have something inside them that convinces them they're fighting for a higher cause and that their enemies are on the side of evil.

Franklin Pierce was no exception.

An obscure politician from New Hampshire that had the right combination of being able to bring home Northern votes as well as a suitable party loyalty to the Democrats and their Southern power base. Beyond being in the right place at the right time, I wouldn't call Pierce a masterful politician, but he sure thought he was imbued with a God given sense of purpose that propelled him to the highest office.

Tragedy struck his family when his son died in a railway accident a few months before his inauguration. Looking at the glass as being half full though, his wife convinced him that God took his son away from him so he wouldn't be distracted from his quest to rescue America from the evil doers. When his wife suffered from 'melancholia' (depression) and became a recluse, I suppose he saw that as a way to let him focus on his work as well.

Like the football player who thanks God for helping them make a touchdown, Pierce seemed to think that God took a personal interest in his political well being.


Special Interests in the mid 1800's

Let's pause for a minute and compare today's politics with the1850's. What were the equivalents of the NRA, Pro Life, Immigration lobbies etc?

Many of the political lobbies that existed then exist today in different forms.

There were anti immigrant political movements like the 'No Nothing Party' or 'Liberty Party' Today we have the 'Minute Men' and anti immigrant lobbies at work in Arizona.

There were anti national bank groups like the 'LocoFocos' who were made up of a populist grouping of working men and reformers on the East Coast.

There was the Temperance movement that was popular in the Midwestern and southern states that wanted to ban alcohol. Many of their advertisements and pamphlets wouldn't look much different from the current anti smoking 'truth' ads we see on television.

Of course, there were Religious movements that wanted more involvement of various churches in government policy. These movements all had their own Pat Robertsen type personalities that would travel the country and fill social halls with the faithful.

Abolitionism was a major movement in the north and west. There were abolitionist newsletters that would rate candidates in regards to their adherence to the abolitionist mission, much like the special interests of today do.

The Pro Slavery lobby was the counter reaction lobby to the abolitionists. Slavery was one of the most profitable industries in the country at that time and candidates would be judged by how well they adhered to the slaveholders interests. As lobbyists, the large plantation owners would contribute money and resources to campaigns of those friendly to their industry. Many of the wealthiest men in the country owned huge, slave run estates and they made it their business to make sure that slave friendly newsletters were funded and anti slavery activists were chased out of town.

The rail road industry at this time had a huge impact not just on peoples lives but also on government policy. They'd constantly have representatives lobby to purchase cheap land in the newly conquered western territories from the government.

Capitalists and investors in different 'schemes' also would send men to the government to lobby for 'internal improvement' money for canals and tunnels. This is not so different from todays mad dash of contractors competing with each other to get access to the no bid contracts the government gives its friends.

Abortion was not an issue at this time as women had yet to be able to vote or have a general public voice, much less have the technology to even get a safe abortion.

Environmentalism also was not in the political lexicon at this time as nature was still largely looked at as an enemy to be conquered, not a friend to co exist with.

Gun rights wasn't much of an issue at this time either since cities were not as populated at this time and a rifle at least was much more of a multi purpose tool for hunting more than just the ultimate prey.

Much of that time looks different, but much of it seems all too familiar.


Franklin Pierce: "We POLKed you in 1844, we shall Pierce you in 1853"

Millard Fillmore was a decent president that just happened to take over after a sitting president died in office and didn't really have any popular mandate for enforcing his policy. The nation was in that tense period between the Spanish American War and the Civil War and needed a steady hand to guide the ship of state.

While Fillmore didn't do anything extraordinary or horrible during his presidency, Pierce seemed to do everything he could to stir resentment in the North and destroy the fragile peace that existed between the North and the South.

Pierce's campaign slogan was "We POLKed you in 1844, we shall Pierce you in 1853" and he seemed to do just that.

Though he was from New Hampshire, Pierce consistently sided with the concerns of the slave holding aristocracy in the South. While Fillmore can be faulted for avoiding the explosive issue of slavery, Pierce put it in every one's faces, enforcing the Fugitive Slave act in Boston with Federal Marshalls. He worked hard to make sure that Haiti did not receive official diplomatic recognition by the United States to avoid the impression that it was acceptable for slaves to revolt. He refused to send Federal troops in to the territory of Kansas to help the abolitionists that settled there from being targeted by Southern death squads.

All of these things continued to embolden the South and embitter the North, making it more clear to each side that their real enemies were now internal instead of the external enemies they faced up until the 1840's. Pierce goes to show that sometimes it's better for a President to do nothing than something.


Millard Fillmore: Hawaii, "The Saudi Arabia of the 19th Century"

Whale oil fueled the industrial revolution before the process of refining petroleum was discovered.

It not only powered the street lights of the cities in the Midwest that seemed to be growing exponentially overnight, but it also was used to lubricate the machines that were required for the new mass production economy.

It's no surprise that as a resource, it became a political subject. Whaling fleets in New England eventually hunted whales off their coast to the point of exhaustion and were required to look elsewhere.

In the early 1850's, it would be nearly 100 years before Hawaii became a state, but this was the time that diplomatic relations really were established with the ruling monarchy. U.S, British and Japanese whaling fleets started to span the globe looking for suitable whaling. Both the U.S and Britain competed for fishing rights over the Hawaiian islands and sent offers of protection, threats and bribes to the ruling monarchs of the islands.

Things continued to escalate, with the major powers including the confederates during the Civil War sending privateers after competing nations' vessels. Like the oil industry, it was both public and private.

Hawaii's status as a mineral rich, remote kingdom allowed it to play the major powers against each other, using one side's negotiations against the other. It would eventually fall victim to the fate of most colonies and have much of it's wealth and resources annexed, but for the time being, it's remoteness allowed it to be the Saudi Arabia of it's times, amassing enormous amounts of wealth and power for it's ruling and connected families.

It only lost this status when petroleum oil replaced whale oil as the driver of industry.

This will be the fate of Saudi Arabia not if, but when something better than petroleum is discovered.


Millard Fillmore: Where the Whigs Came From

It's fascinating to understand the origin of political movements.

The cool thing about political parties in the 1800's was that they tended to be conglomerations of different movements rather than the well rehearsed national talking points we're used to. The Whig party that Fillmore belonged to was originally made up of several smaller, more focused interest groups.

The Whigs pulled together supporters in the Northeast that were fearful of immigrants and catholics (the No Nothing Party), northerners and westerners opposed to slavery because of various moral and economic reasons (the Free Soil Party) and anti aristocratic movements (the Anti Mason movement).

The other groups that eventually merged into the Whig party were manufacturing interests that were supportive of tariffs on imports and citizens that felt the county needed to be governed in a more modern matter that didn't match with Jefferson's original vision of an agrarian, egalitarian society which the Democrats still held. In the South, they tended to attract supporters who were skeptical of the expansion of Executive power under Jackson who wanted Congress to be the most powerful branch of government.

The one thing that united all Whigs was that they hated Andrew Jackson. For the entire life of the Whig party which was from around 1830 to 1865, 'King Andrew' remained their manifestation of what they should fear the most, even years after his death.

This is similar to the modern incarnation of Republicans rising up against FDR and his liberal, new deal policy. Powerful movements can be started from love or more often hatred of a powerful personality.


The Hitler Comparison Tradition

It seems in vogue lately to compare anyone you don't agree with 'Hitler'. You might think that the tea partiers clever photo shopped posters of Obama with a Hitler mustache are a new thing, but this seems to stretch back at least to the cocaine and pop rocks infused days of the 1980's.

Everyone from punk rockers to right wing 'patriots' seem to feel more and more free to use this choice of words. I even found a liberal blogger that seemed to think the founders were Nazi's as well. This all seems a bit of a stretch, I mean it's understandable that people can passionately disagree about issues concerning the redistribution of wealth, foreign policy, hot button issues like abortion etc., but I fail to see the correlation between political rivals and accusing someone of being a Nazi.

As I was trolling the right and left wing nut job sites for Hitler presidential pictures, a curious trend emerged. Recent presidents- Obama, W. Bush, Clinton and Bush Senior all were relatively easy to find Hitler caricatures for. As I searched for Reagan, I could only find a few punk albums from the 80's that implied Reagan was a Nazi. As I moved on to the 70's, no Carter Nazi pictures emerged (although I found several screeds by Michael Savage calling him an anti Semite). I had to cheat on this one with a picture of Carter with a Hamas head band (close enough to Nazis I guess).

Believe it or not, no Ford or Nixon caricatures were to be found. I thought was odd (Nixon and Ford were called Fascists by many protesters after all) but came up with a few possible reasons for this.

1) Language has become diluted. Swear words are common in every day speech now when they used to be reserved for the most extreme situations, maybe the willingness to pull out the Nazi or Communist card is a symptom of that trend.

2) Politics has become more 'viral' and less civilized. I don't want to make it out that politics ever was civilized- The pamphleteers of the early 1800's used to print things that would make the writers of mother jones or redstate.com blush. You have to wonder why I couldn't find the Nazi accusations about former presidents in the 70's- a much more divided decade than any time in the last 30 years.

3) The Statute of Limitations has passed on the Nazi's. Maybe the 50's, 60's and 70's didn't see a lot of the Hitler comparisons being thrown around because the war was still fresh and most veterans were still living. As the baby boomers and generation x grew up, maybe they felt less need to show the restraint the greatest generation did for this topic.

4) Less political pictures from the 70's were able to be put on the web. This really is the most boring possibility, but I'm sure that it's at least partly right.

Whatever the case, calling people Hitler is unproductive and eliminates the possibility of intelligent debate.


What Would the Founders Think About Health Care?

This is a question I've been seeing a lot on facebook (cut and pasted from foxnews.com probably) , but I have a better question ...

How would they have an opinion of it and if they did, who cares?

There's three main reasons that I pose this question:

1) In the founders' day, there was really no such thing as health care as we know it today.

Get sick? You die.
Get cancer? You die.
TB? You most likely die at some point. Maybe some time in the solarium will help a little.
Routine issue like burst appendix? You die.

In other words, health care expense wasn't much of an issue because medical science was for the most part unable to keep you alive if you had any kind of serious disease or health emergency.

There was no premium or co-pay, no deductible to worry about. You just had to make sure you could pray hard if an evil demon gave you 'the fever' or a case of melancholy.

2) The question 'What would the founders think?' is a weighted question that implies that anything that costs money (taxes) is an infringement on the liberty of the people.

While I understand this reasoning (no taxation without representation), the founders really felt that liberty was protection from government intrusion on your life (seizing your property, not allowing free expression, discriminating against religion etc.).

Their opposition to a standing army (Jefferson and the radicals at least) came from the fear that the army would overthrow the civilian government and force its will on the people, not due to taxes being increased.

3) If somehow the founders were transported into our world with its health care concerns, they certainly did not think as a block.

Some founders like Washington were reluctant to rebel against their own country and did so only because they felt something had gone wrong with the empire to make it 'less good' than it once was.

Others like Jefferson wanted an entire new society in the new world to spring forth and throw off the yoke of tyranny, almost a milder version of the French Revolution.

Still, there were moderates like Adams and Madison that fell somewhere in the middle.

So it seems naive to think they would have all been on the same page, even if they had been transported to our time and gained an understanding of the trials and tribulations of our longer and more expensive lives.

Unless of course, you're the Texas school board, then you can simply remove the founders you don't agree with from the history books.


Millard Fillmore: The Mormons Part II

I think I should take this opportunity to formally thank and acknowledge the great folks at Wikipedia.

I try to not rely on it too much since 1) I'm reading a whole book on each president and shouldn't need cliff notes and 2) I feel a little bit guilty about finding an interesting tidbit on there and having it be attributed to my own research.

But there's no denying that it's a wonderful tool when I end up with one of the books as I have now which is a poorly written diary on what Millard Fillmore liked to eat and do for fun, his greatest hopes and dreams etc. Wikipedia just gives me the facts in an easy to digest manner even though I sometimes wonder about the people that put them on there.

Using this tool helped me find this great piece of information- Millard Fillmore continued the policy of Polk in giving the Mormons autonomy out West and formally created The Utah Territory appointing Brigham Young governor. Yes, it's that same Brigham Young that once lobbied Polk to start a Mormon militia, is hailed as a prophet by Mormons today and has a University named after him.

In gratitude for making him governor and giving the Mormons a formal home, Brigham Young named the capital of the Utah territory 'Millard' and named the surrounding county 'Fillmore'.

I initially thought this might be some joke by a disgruntled grad student or something- but behold, I've attached an image of a shirt for the Millard Eagles. Go Millard Eagles!


Millard Fillmore: It could have been a lot worse

Millard Fillmore gets a lot of flack in American history for being mediocre. He's almost known for not being very well known as in the Seinfeld episode about "The Fillmore Boys Gang".

Perhaps that's why the only book I could find on him was written in the 1930's by what I can only assume was an unrepentant Fillmorephile since the book was a 550 page opus on the life and times of Millard Fillmore.

As I choked down page after page of this uninspiring book written in the stilted language of academics of that time, I couldn't help but think that although this guy was clearly a little too fond of Fillmore, there's plenty of people out there that are too hard on him.

Yes, he didn't do a lot in office that was very notable other than sending Commodore Perry to Japan as the first American to open trade there and start the presidential library, but he also didn't do things that made him one of the nation's worst presidents either.

He didn't commit high treason like President Tyler who joined the Confederacy in his retirement (he was the only former president to die who was denied a state funeral and flags at half staff)

He didn't do nothing to try and stave off Civil War between the North and South as President Pierce did.

He didn't have active Confederate sympathizers in his cabinet like President Buchanan (they were actually feeding information to rebels on troop levels in Federal bases prior to the Civil War)

So I would argue that it could have been a lot worse and the guy kind of gets a bad rap.

It's also important to remember that he took over after the death of Taylor, so it's not as though he was elected with some big mandate anyway. No one expected much from President Ford right?


Zachary Taylor: The Tease

I've mentioned before that Taylor wasn't exactly a political lifer. President was the very first elected office he held.

But he took not being political to a new extreme. Here's part of an actual letter he wrote in response to a reporter asking him to state his political views:

"I reiterate what I have often said...I am a Whig but not an ultra Whig. If elected I would not be the mere president of a party- I would endeavor to act independent of party domination and should feel bound to administer the Government untrammelled by party schemes.

Second- the veto power- the power given by the Constitution to the Executive to exercise his veto is a high conservative power, but in my opinion, it should never be exercised except in cases of clear violation of the Constitution, or manifest haste or want of due consideration by the Congress. Indeed I have though for many years past, that known opinions and wishes of the Executive have exercised undue and injurious influence upon the Legislative Department of the government and from this cause I have thought that our system was in danger of undergoing a great change from its true theory."

So....he didn't want to actively enforce party beliefs and he prefers to let congress figure out what to do, reserving his veto for extreme cases and not letting his beliefs influence it. Not exactly playing to the base.

I'm not saying that they should have put some fire breathing party animal on the ticket, but it just seems strange to put someone on the ticket that almost refuses to be classified as even belonging to the party they're running for.

It was a testament to the exhaustion of the American people with the party politics of the increasingly southern dominated democratic party. Could an independent get elected in this day and age, or have the two parties gotten their tentacles too deep into the keys to power?


Happy Presidents' Day

Today is a good day to reflect on the men this holiday is devoted to- Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. They were both indispensable to the founding and the saving of the country from internal and external enemies.

Much is known about Abraham Lincoln's quiet determination in steering the country back on course and helping his countrymen make the right moral choice on the scourge of slavery. His letters are all well preserved and his speeches and philosophy are part of the national psyche.

Less however is known about George Washington who burned his letters and writings before his death and left little more for the nation's written record than his journal on the daily temperature and rainfall that he kept for his entire life.

There were many possible motivations people assign to Washington's purposeful anonymity- possible fear of reprisal from Britain on his family and friends if the revolution failed or the country didn't sustain itself, wanting to let Americans decide for themselves what America is or should be etc.

One of the greatest unknowns is why George Washington turned down a ruler for life position and the chance to be a founding of an aristocracy that would have lasted for the entire history of the nation that he founded.

The aristocracy question is interesting to me especially, since my family on my father's side is distantly related to George Washington.

I was going through some old papers on our family history the other day and came across an article my Grandmother cut out called 'West Virginia Royalty' or something like that. In it- the journalist interviews a woman in West Virginia who's distantly related to the Washingtons and talks about how different life would be for her had Washington accepted the sword from his fellow generals and started a familial empire.

Instead of working for a living like some sucker, I could be kicking back and enjoying a guaranteed income from the family estate like one of the Julians or Claudians in the Roman empire.

Oh well- I guess some choices he made are better for the country and not for me. Anyway- Happy Birthday President Washington and Lincoln!


Zachary Taylor: Office Politics

The idea of a President and his cabinet and/or his Vice President not getting along is really nothing special. We had the 'kitchen cabinet' of Andrew Jackson which led to armed posses and near duels over a woman's honor, we had Thomas Jefferson's service as Vice President to John Adams who felt that he was actively trying to undermine him and today is no different- with the presidential hopefuls John McCain and Sarah Palin who now it seems, could barely stand each other.

That's all normal, but never before the Polk administration did a President have so much animosity towards an active General fighting a war. As General Zachary Taylor, a Whig (not even a declared Whig at that point), was fighting the Mexican War, James Polk, a democrat, did everything that he could to minimize his victories on the field of battle so he couldn't become another War Hero president like Henry Harrison.

Polk was like a less corrupt Richard Nixon, brilliant and effective, but thinking that everyone was out to get him. By the time of his administration, the Whigs blossomed into an effective national protest movement against the Democratic policies of national expansion and limited 'internal improvements' Polk espoused. He constantly wrote to friends, suspecting Taylor of 'Whiggery'.

The irony of this strained relationship, is that Taylor was more or less completely apolitical until the Whigs convinced him to accept the presidential ticket in the election of 1848. Once he accepted the nomination as Whig candidate, he refused even to put his beliefs in writing, simply saying that he'd 'protect and enforce the constitution'. I think that Taylor's limpness on issues hardly put him in the category of Whig crusader.

Imagine today if President Obama kept General Gates' from enacting his policies to keep him out of presidential contention. How would the American people feel about that?


Gays in the Army v. the Civil Rights Movement

I read an article in the Times today by Frank Rich that made me want to take a little sidebar from my writings on history and address current events.

The article points out that most Republicans who were once fierce opponents of gay rights are now distancing themselves from the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' debate. The article reasons that attitudes in the last 20 years have changed regarding gays and that it would not be politically expedient for the Republicans to retreat to tired social arguments when they're trying to attract independent voters who might identify with their fiscal responsibility and small government message.

Frank Rich points out that the arguments about troop cohesion, morale etc. being damaged by by the inclusion of gays in the military were all the same ones that were used in the 50's when Truman ordered the integration of the Army.

This got me thinking about the weight of history that some of the conservative leaders must surely feel bearing down on them. Gays and Mexicans (illegal immigrants) might be some of the last acceptable targets of borderline bigotry to score political points, but it won't be that way forever. Surely Orrin Hatch and gang must know that with the momentum of acceptance of gays in America, if they make a strong stand against eliminating this bias, in twenty years, their biographers will be writing things like "it was a different time...", "he also did some good things" etc.

It also made me think about how uncontroversial the idea of not forcing military gays to be closeted is vs. the idea of allowing blacks into the Army in the 1950's. In the 1950's, a black person had to drink out of a separate water fountain in many parts of this country and could literally be LYNCHED for looking at the wrong white person's wife. Southern Whites made up a large percentage of the Army and certainly needed to be forced into this arrangement.

Gays on the other hand, although they face some overt discrimination, are overall allowed to freely travel where they want throughout the country, work where they want and go to school where they want. It's more and more obvious that this and the marriage issue are going to be resolved for good in our generation's lifetime and that those that stand in the way will look worse and worse when the history books on this period are written.


Zachary Taylor: The Occupation of Mexico City?

If you're like me, you have a cursory understanding of American history. You know the big events, the big players, wars etc. but may be surprised when you go a little deeper than the front page of the major chapters of a High School History book.

For example, I knew their was a 'Mexican War', but for some reason, I always thought that it took place in what were once Mexican territories, New Mexico of course, Texas, California... but I had no idea that the U.S. Army marched all the way down to Mexico City and occupied it.

It seems ridiculous that I don't know this, but there it is. It really happened.

One of the best parts about this project is that you find these kinds of things out. It seems like the majority of a lot of these biographies (especially the ones on minor presidents like Taylor who died in office) focus mostly on the movements and events that happened leading up to their presidency and I'm OK with that.

The viewpoint from one author to another will change dramatically or focus on different parts of the country. All this variety fills in a lot of blanks for me and makes me appreciate the complex nature of our history.


Zachary Taylor: The Trainee Politician 1849

Many politicians before and after Taylor had well known military careers as war heroes and he was no exception. What is exceptional however is that his very FIRST political office was President of the United States.

It's understandable that many Americans don't want career politicians as President, but it's hardly imaginable that someone who never held any political position could be elected to the highest office in the land (think of the flack Sarah Palin got and she was the mayor of Wasilla!). Taylor spent nearly 40 years in the military before being nominated by the Whig party.

The Whig party calculated that having a Southerner and Northerner on the same ticket would be a good political move in this divided time and they were right. The irony is that as a career military man, Taylor didn't foster the strong Whig beliefs that they might have expected- at least none that he shared publically during the campaign.

Taylor, like Harrison got elected because most of what was known about him was nothing more than that he was a war hero. Taylor took the opposite approach as Polk in the election before and rather than being the candidate to make a bold stand on his beliefs, Taylor would take almost no public stands on the issues of the day other than that he believed in the constitution. He let people decide for themselves what his beliefs were and seemed to attract voters on conflicting sides of the same issue.

Many politicians have tried this tactic throughout world history, but I guess it takes a newbie to pull it off.


James Polk: The Mormon Battalion

I've mentioned before that James Polk grew a distaste for religious intolerance at a young age when his mother's Episcopalian Preacher refused to baptize him because his father was a Deist. Perhaps that's why he had a special place in his heart for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (say that three times fast).

The mid 1840's weren't exactly a great example for religious tolerance in America. The recent influx of foreign immigrants, especially Irish to the east coast of the United States had led to the rise of the 'Know Nothing' party which was essentially an organization devoted to keeping Catholics and foreigners out of political office and if possible, out of the country. In addition, 'Anti-Mason' parties would be devoted to fighting the influence of secret organizations on paper, but in practice they often would attack those who were not of a main line Protestant religion.

It's not surprising then that in this time period, a religious movement that supported polygamy and modern day prophets would not be met with understanding. The Mormon Church members were chased out of New York and many other eastern and Midwestern cities and were forced to flee west.

During Polk's time in office, he met with the leader of the church, Brigham Young (yes, the one the college is named after) and decided to allow them to form a 'Mormon Battalion' to head west to California and support the US efforts there in the Mexican War. They didn't see much action, but they made their first steps to creating a home land in the West, far away from the religious persecution they'd faced back east.

The History of the United States is interesting in that the intolerance faced by minorities was really no more or less than anywhere else in the world, however, the sheer size of the expanding country constantly allowed those who were persecuted to move elsewhere and start their own enclaves. When else in the History of the World have you seen anything like Utah, a state founded as a homeland for persecuted minorities within a country?


James Polk: Dark Horse

Polk served as the Speaker of the House of Representatives and Governor of Tennessee before he entered the competition for Presidential Candidate.

He had a long and distinguished career, but was actually thought to be a Vice Presidential Candidate of the Democratic party, not a presidential candidate. The Democrats were expected to choose Martin Van Buren who had actually served as president two administrations ago.

What made Polk into a serious contender on the national stage and then the President of the United States were his views on manifest destiny.

During the Whig and Democratic Convention of 1844, Henry Clay, the Whig candidate and Van Buren, the expected Democratic candidate had both come out against the annexation of Texas, badly misreading public opinion at the time to be against the expansion of the country. Polk however came out strongly in favor of annexing Texas.

Clay and Van Buren both thought that the leading issue of the day, slavery and its potential to expand would cause most Northerners to be against the annexation of Texas, but they were wrong.

Polk was the new hero of the people and quickly went from vice presidential candidate to President Elect, adding another sad chapter to the ballad of Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay.