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Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan
October 22, 2009 1:49 PM   Subscribe

There was a rivalry between the parties, of course, but in Potter's account, it was more like the rivalry between Cal and Stanford than that between today's Republicans and Democrats. The parties had somewhat different constituencies and pledged fealty to a different set of men, but each attempted to encompass as much of the political spectrum as possible rather than merely half of it. The story of the 1850s, by these lights, is about how this changed.
With reference to David M. Potter's The Impending Crisis, Adam Cadre surveys the four antebellum presidents.

Previously profiled in his occasional series on the American presidents:

George Washington ("...a sort of machine programmed to relentlessly seek out personal success.")

John Adams ("...a dead-even mix of good and bad qualities.")

Thomas Jefferson ("...a chess player's compulsion to rearrange the institutions of society into a more effective alignment.")

James Madison ("...first nerd president.")

James Monroe ("...kind of an empty suit...")

Andrew Jackson ("...a third-world strongman.")

John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and James K. Polk ("...like reading Solo Avengers issues about Starfox and Doctor Druid.")
posted by Iridic (23 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
I question that comparison: while I agree that Stanford has at all times been the very model of gentlemanly restraint and good grace, the same cannot be said for the disgraceful antics of Berkeley.
posted by Comrade_robot at 2:04 PM on October 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


I read the 1850's essay and enjoyed it. I'll have to look at the rest of these.

The 1850's in the U.S. are a extremely interesting period of history and Fillmore, Pierce, Webster, Calhoun etc. are a great cast. For a brief period in grad school I could tell you all about this: Whigs, Democrats, Ostend Manifesto, Kansas-Nebraska Act blah blah blah. Unfortunately, my brain turned to mush shortly after graduate school.

The professor I had for Civil War and Reconstruction was a big fan of David Potter. The Impending Crisis is a fine book, and well-written to boot.

At the risk of being an asshole, I'm going to quote my favorite passage from that book:

The story of these deliberations [Compromise of 1850], and of the great debate which ran through them, has become one of the classic and inevitable set pieces in American historical writing. The gravity of the crisis, the uncertainty as to the outcome, and the brilliant effects of oratory in the grand manner all combined to create scenes of stunning dramatic effect. The stage was the Old Senate Chamber. The theme was a heroic one -- the preservation of the Union...Here, for the last time together, appeared a triumvirate of old men, relics of a golden age, who still towered like giants above the creatures of a later time: Webster, the kind of senator that Richard Wagner might have created at the height of his powers; Calhoun, the most majestic champion of error since Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost; and Clay, the old Conciliator, who had already saved the Union twice and now came out of retirement to save it with his silver voice and his master touch once again before he died...Calhoun stood visibly in the shadow of death and spoke audibly in a voice from beyond the grave; they would bury him before they voted. The Jove-like Webster never seemed greater than when he launched into his classic speech of the seventh of March: "Mr. President, I wish to speak today not as a Massachusetts man, not as a Northern man, but as an American...I speak today for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause."

Yeah, it's Top Down Great White Guy History, but I get chills whenever I read that passage.
posted by marxchivist at 2:06 PM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


like reading Solo Avengers issues about Starfox and Doctor Druid.

There's a lot of snark for snark's sake in these, but I'm willing to forgive a lot for that line.
posted by Zed at 2:22 PM on October 22, 2009


This is awesome. What was that about the lady's hand in acid?
posted by absalom at 3:09 PM on October 22, 2009


What was that about the lady's hand in acid?

Source.

posted by Iridic at 4:13 PM on October 22, 2009


Crazy. It really is that Adam Cadre. Oddly, I think this isn't the first time I've been surprised at the range of his endeavors.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:25 PM on October 22, 2009


Majestic Champions of Error is my new band name.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:57 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I really enjoyed these essays. Thanks, Iridic.
posted by box at 6:44 PM on October 22, 2009


-hugs this thread SO MUCH-
posted by The Whelk at 7:08 PM on October 22, 2009


Oh, man, I've hated Polk since I was in high school. Totally the most outwardly unethical president until Nixon. Got to be in my top three worst ever, with Tricky Dick and Dubya.
posted by Amanojaku at 7:12 PM on October 22, 2009


Oh, man, I've hated Polk since I was in high school. Totally the most outwardly unethical president until Nixon. Got to be in my top three worst ever, with Tricky Dick and Dubya.

You missed this discussion.
posted by The Whelk at 7:20 PM on October 22, 2009


ooh ooh ooh I hope he gets to Benjamin Harrison, he's my favorite
posted by jtron at 8:41 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, man, I've hated Polk since I was in high school.

In four short years he met his every goal. He seized the whole southwest from Mexico, made sure the tarriffs fell, and made the English sell the Oregon territory. He built an independent treasury. Having done all this, he sought no second term. But precious few have mourned the passing of Mister James K. Polk, our eleventh president. Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:59 PM on October 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


Amanojaku: Oh, man, I've hated Polk since I was in high school. Totally the most outwardly unethical president until Nixon. Got to be in my top three worst ever, with Tricky Dick and Dubya.

Polk was not nearly the worst president. He was the perfect president in certain ways.

People forget that when the constitution was written the role of the president wasn't planned as some sort of grand idealistic leader of the nation who gives us hope. People like Lincoln don't happen even once in a century, unfortunately. The constitution actually plans for a particular sort of president: a man who is crafty, has no scruples whatsoever, and uses his power as much as he possibly can to enrich his party and country and to make himself and what he perceives as his nation win out. Congress struggles back against him, the judiciary struggles back against him; all three, in fact, simply strive forward for their own interests. That's the idea of the constitution, and Polk actually fit that idea quite perfectly. It's easy to despise him because he was a mediocre man, but he was astoundingly efficient. Later on lazy people like Richard Nixon and George W. Bush actually managed to abrogate and even wholly break the rules, but it's important to note that James K. Polk himself did not.

I urge you to read one of the greatest historical texts written in the last century: Bernard DeVoto's masterwork 1846: The Year Of Decision. DeVoto does not pretend that Polk was the finest president, nor the most intelligent president, nor the subtlest president, nor the most righteous president. But he argues very convincingly that Polk was an extremely efficient and effective president, and I can't help but agree with him; the man did precisely what he said he'd do and chose goals that made sense. He was for one thing not nearly as odious as Andrew Jackson, the so-called 'Indian fighter.' Having goals and trying to meet them within the law isn't exactly 'unethical,' and while I can understand the belief that 'manifest destiny' was misguided James K. Polk is a pretty bad choice if you're trying to choose someone to hang for it. I mean, consider the fact that he won more territory than any other president in history and did so entirely without bloodshed - how is that more unethical than what other presidents have done?

One of the more interesting and controversial claims Bernard DeVoto makes is the claim that, if it weren't for James K. Polk and his western expansion of the US, the North would have lost the civil war and the union would have been broken. He's actually quite convincing here; when Polk took on the presidency, the Wilmot proviso had already been issued, and the nation was already surging against the barriers to armed conflict over slavery. Polk effectively engaged the nation in a massive game of checkers for four years and left behind enough board games to keep it occupied for another ten years, at which time Lincoln took office. DeVoto makes the very interesting point that the West, its development, its resources and its potential, were instrumental in the North's defeat of the South in the Civil War.

So: if Polk hadn't been president, there might not have been a United States today.

Besides, there's no way any president (Polk, Nixon, George W. Bush, Andrew Johnson, etc) could ever be as odious a human being as Hiram Ulysses "S" Grant, the absolute worst president this nation has ever known, the man who is responsible not only for economic and political destitution that persists to this very day in many parts of the south but also for in many ways utterly destroying any chance for a real and complete reconciliation and for an actual movement toward civil rights for those African-Americans who found themselves suddenly free. It's really his fault not only that the civil rights movement took another eighty years, but (more importantly) that it was opposed so rigorously by a whole generation of poverty-stricken whites who had been driven toward racism by the poverty inflicted on them by the north their entire lives. The whole tone of the 60s in this country would have been radically different if that disgusting human being hadn't held office.
posted by koeselitz at 11:42 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Grant wasn't corrupt; his cabinet was. He just wasn't paying attention.

As for "Grant's policies aided racist policies that followed"... eh, I don't buy it.
posted by grubi at 6:56 AM on October 23, 2009


The constitution actually plans for a particular sort of president: a man who is crafty, has no scruples whatsoever, and uses his power as much as he possibly can to enrich his party and country and to make himself and what he perceives as his nation win out.

Having read the document front-to-back many times over, I find no such "plans."

The whole of article II:

Section 1.
The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse the President. But in chusing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representatives from each State having one Vote; a quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall chuse from them by Ballot the Vice President.

The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.

The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be encreased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:--''I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.''

Section 2.
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

Section 3.
He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.

Section 4.
The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.


Perhaps you've been looking at Cheney's copy. It apparently has extra duties for the Vice President as well.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:49 AM on October 23, 2009


That was a lot of fun, thanks! And I found this particularly interesting:
Potter makes a really interesting point about how, once a party became unbalanced, it tended to stay unbalanced: imagine it's the 1850s and you're part of the Democratic Party apparatus in Vermont, where Pierce (who won 86% of the electoral vote nationwide!) didn't even hit the 30% mark. Do you launch a recruitment drive and try to build the Vermont Democratic Party? No! Your chances of bringing in enough people to swing Vermont to the Democrats are close to zero. But the Democrats can still win the White House. That means patronage. That means the White House needs to find Democrats to run the post offices and custom houses up in Vermont. And that means that the fewer people there are in your state party, the greater the likelihood that you'll get one of these plum jobs. It was in the interest of party operatives to keep their parties as small as possible!
Can anyone who knows more about the period than I do tell me if it's accurate?
posted by languagehat at 11:33 AM on October 23, 2009


utterly destroying any chance for a real and complete reconciliation and for an actual movement toward civil rights for those African-Americans

Grant supported the 15th Amendment and supported and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1871 ("Ku Klux Klan Act") and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. His administration cracked down on the KKK.
The effects of the late civil strife have been to free the slave and make him a citizen. Yet he is not possessed of the civil rights which citizenship should carry with it. This is wrong, and should be corrected. To this correction I stand committed, so far as Executive influence can avail.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:42 PM on October 23, 2009


koeselitz: "[Polk] won more territory than any other president in history and did so entirely without bloodshed" (italics in original)

This is true, the Mexican-American war was actually fought with pillows.
posted by Panjandrum at 4:24 PM on October 23, 2009


me: The constitution actually plans for a particular sort of president: a man who is crafty, has no scruples whatsoever, and uses his power as much as he possibly can to enrich his party and country and to make himself and what he perceives as his nation win out.

Ironmouth: Having read the document front-to-back many times over, I find no such "plans."

To imagine that the people who wrote the constitution expected presidents to be noble, glorious, humanistic fellows who always did wonderful things and petted kittens all day is to assume that they were complete idiots.

Of course the Constitution doesn't say "oh, and we're putting this bit in because the executive branch might get too much power, and we didn't want that to happen." But even the bit you quoted limits the office plenty. If you can't see anything in the Constitution that tries to limit the powers of the president or give oversight of his office to other branches, then I really don't know what to do with you, as I don't think you can have read the document.

Finally, the Federalist Papers; have you heard of them?
69. The Real Character of the Executive.

... That magistrate is to be elected for FOUR years; and is to be re-eligible as often as the people of the United States shall think him worthy of their confidence. In these circumstances there is a total dissimilitude between HIM and a king of Great Britain, who is an HEREDITARY monarch, possessing the crown as a patrimony descendible to his heirs forever; but there is a close analogy between HIM and a governor of New York, who is elected for THREE years, and is re-eligible without limitation or intermission. If we consider how much less time would be requisite for establishing a dangerous influence in a single State, than for establishing a like influence throughout the United States, we must conclude that a duration of FOUR years for the Chief Magistrate of the Union is a degree of permanency far less to be dreaded in that office, than a duration of THREE years for a corresponding office in a single State.

The President of the United States would be liable to be impeached, tried, and, upon conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors, removed from office; and would afterwards be liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law. The person of the king of Great Britain is sacred and inviolable; there is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable; no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution. In this delicate and important circumstance of personal responsibility, the President of Confederated America would stand upon no better ground than a governor of New York, and upon worse ground than the governors of Maryland and Delaware...

The President of the United States would be an officer elected by the people for FOUR years; the king of Great Britain is a perpetual and HEREDITARY prince. The one would be amenable to personal punishment and disgrace; the person of the other is sacred and inviolable. The one would have a QUALIFIED negative upon the acts of the legislative body; the other has an ABSOLUTE negative. [emphasis mine]
When the Federalist describes the president as a "qualified negative," you can be sure they aren't planning for an executive that will be hunky-dory and delightful. In fact, you'll find that the strikingly negative language that Publius here uses – speaking, for instance, of the extreme damage a president could do in four years, and defending the four-year term by claiming that it would take more than four years to do really lasting damage to the country – is used throughout the Federalist papers, and indeed most of the founders' writings on the constitution reflect a similarly pessimistic view of the presidency.

And why shouldn't they? As you can see here, their first point of comparison was the British Monarchy. Of course they saw a single executive as a necessary evil and apt to immediate corruption.
posted by koeselitz at 6:30 PM on October 24, 2009


Panjandrum: This is true, the Mexican-American war was actually fought with pillows.

Technically, the Mexican-American war didn't win anybody any territory.
posted by koeselitz at 6:31 PM on October 24, 2009


Ironmouth: maybe you misunderstood what I meant. I meant that the Constitution expects that cads and knaves will become president, and endeavors to limit their powers enough that they can't do much damage even if they do.
posted by koeselitz at 6:33 PM on October 24, 2009


grubi: As for "Grant's policies aided racist policies that followed"... eh, I don't buy it.

In my mind it's pretty clear that the biggest motivation for a generation of racism in the South was economic destitution. That's not to say that we can blame racism solely on the North's economic ransacking of the South, but the KKK et al. wouldn't have gotten a second nod if it weren't for the throngs of poor, starving white people in the South who grew up believing that the fact that they couldn't eat was due solely to black people. I know it's a delicate subject, but it's hard for me to believe that everything wouldn't have gone quite differently if the South had actually been rebuilt.
posted by koeselitz at 6:38 PM on October 24, 2009


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