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.