January 4, 2017

18) Ulysses S. Grant - The Great White Father

Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in a small town 25 miles south of Cincinnati along the Ohio River. His father was a tanner, but Ulysses was not interested in following in his footsteps. Military service was in his blood with a great-grandfather who died in the French and Indian War and another who fought in the Revolution. Grant asked his Congressman to nominate him for admission to West Point, which he did, mistakenly under the name Ulysses S. Grant (his mother’s maiden name was Simpson). Grant was not enthusiastic about the military academy. He was excited about seeing Philadelphia and New York City on the trip there, but “would have been glad to have had a steamboat or railroad collision… by which I might have received a temporary injury sufficient to make me ineligible.” The collision did not materialize and the seventeen-year old arrived at West Point in May 1839 where he met his roommate Fred Dent.

Grant was not always the large man
we typically picture him as. During
his younger years he stood 5'7" 
and less than 140 lbs.
After four years at West Point, Grant was stationed at Fort Jefferson near St. Louis. Coincidentally, Fred’s family lived very close to the fort allowing Grant to visit. He fell in love with Fred’s younger sister, Julia however the Mexican American War took him away from Fort Jefferson and in to General Zachary Taylor’s command in Mexico. Grant was made quartermaster and commissary officer of his regiment. While he wasn’t happy with his post, it was a crash course on how to supply an army in the field which Grant would draw on during his Western Campaign in the Civil War.

Grant learned another lesson in Mexico which he applied during the Civil War. When Taylor took the City of Monterrey he allowed the Mexicans to march out under their own commanders, with their muskets and horses. Taylor was criticized mightily by the American populace and President James Polk for this action. However, Grant would mimic this sign of respect when accepting General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

The Mexican American War was discussed in enough detail in the posts about Polk, Taylor, Pierce, and Jefferson Davis that I don’t want to discuss the particulars of the war. However, as it relates to Grant, Grant’s father was a Whig and Grant would later win the presidency on the Republican ticket. Therefore, if you have an idea about 19th century American politics, it is not surprising that Grant’s wartime letters to Julia support his later claim that he “bitterly opposed” the war.

Upon returning from Mexico Grant married Julia. His best man was future Confederate General James Longstreet while his groomsmen included Cadmus Wilcox and Bernard Pratte. All three would surrender to Grant at Appomattox seventeen years later. Grant and Julia’s early married life involved moving first to Sackets Harbor in upstate New York, before being transferred to Detroit. They were then back in Sackets Harbor. This was at the height of the California gold rush and Grant’s infantry was soon ordered to reinforce a barracks near San Francisco. They had been married four years and Julia was eight months pregnant with their second child. She could not make the trip and returned to her parent’s home in St. Louis. Grant’s time in California was lamentable. The posting was remote giving Grant time to get involved in numerous poor financial investments and hard drinking. Grant was probably an alcoholic. From what we understand, he was a binge drinker who could and would abstain for long periods of time, but when depression took hold he would go on “sprees” as a close Army friend observed. Grant resigned from the Army while in California. It is believed he was offered the opportunity to resign in lieu of a court martial related to a drunken episode. Despite later accusations to the contrary, it is not generally believed that his drinking interfered with any critical decision making during the Civil War.

Grant returned to St. Louis with no prospects. He failed at farming and resorted to selling firewood before resorting to a job at his father’s tannery. The Grants were in their mid-thirties, with four children, poor and without much to look forward to. The outbreak of the Civil War was a blessing for Grant. Grant recruited a company of men and brought them to Springfield, Illinois where he was given a commission to recruit more volunteers. What Grant really wanted was reinstatement in the Army and he was eventually given command of the rowdy 21st Illinois from Eastern-Central Illinois. Grant was quickly promoted to Brigadier General and given his first tests as a military tactician.

Grant attacked Confederates at Belmont, Missouri (without permission) and Fort Henry (with permission) finding success at both. Following Fort Henry Grant moved quickly against Fort Donelson (without permission). Donelson was a difficult battle and Grant lost more than 500 men, however Grant’s forces took the blows and after several days of fighting General Simon Bucker, an old friend of Grant’s, asked for terms. Grant wrote back, “…no terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” About three months had passed from Belmont to Donelson and Grant went from an unknown to hero-status in the North, nicknamed Unconditional Surrender Grant, playing off his initials. More importantly, the victory at Fort Donelson discouraged wavering European nations from entering the conflict.

Two months after Donelson, Grant’s men fought the deadliest battle to-date on American soil, Shiloh. Although the Union troops won, they suffered more than 13,000 casualties. On top of the casualties, rumors of Grant’s drinking resurfaced and he was removed from command. William Tecumseh Sherman, serving under Grant at the time, convinced him not to resign. The decision proved fortunate, Lincoln soon ordered Grant’s reinstatement saying, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”

Between Shiloh and the battles leading up to the Vicksburg, Grant made an unpopular decision which became a black mark on his military career. General Orders No. 11 expelled all Jews from his military district, The Department of Tennessee. The order was a ham-handed attempt to root out the illicit cotton trade in his district. Northern speculators followed the Union Army and often worked with soldiers to smuggle cotton across the battle-lines. This activity undermined the Union blockade of the South’s cotton trade. Most of the speculators were not Jewish. However, several visible operators in Grant’s district were Jewish, making them a target. The order followed Grant for years and he was forced to acknowledge and renounce it during his run for president.

Vicksburg was a major victory for the Grant and the Union. For Grant, the campaign consisted of several seemingly risky troop maneuvers which paid off. Grant’s success in Vicksburg led to his promotion to head the entire western theatre. For the Union, the fall of Vicksburg gave the Union control of the Mississippi River. Further, the fall of Vicksburg came a day after the Battle of Gettysburg, dealing the Confederacy back-to-back blows. During the Vicksburg Campaign rumors of Grant’s drinking swirled which encouraged Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton to send someone to keep an eye on him. He reported back to Stanton that Grant would occasionally commandeer a steamer overnight and get “as stupidly drunk as the immortal nature of man would allow; but the next day he came out fresh as a rose, without any trace or indication of the spree he had passed through.”

Vicksburg was followed by a campaign toward Chattanooga, Tennessee which spelled disaster for the Confederate Army in the West. With the West won, Lincoln gave Grant control over the entire Army with the understanding that Grant would lead the offensive against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Grant and Lee’s armies fought a series of battles in the early-Summer of 1864. These battles were bloody and are often used as evidence when people accuse Grant of being a butcher who sacrificed mass casualties for victory. Despite some setbacks and the high body count, Grant’s army pushed on toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia with the decisive battle taking place at Appomattox Station.

The surrender at Appomattox. Lee on the left and 
Grant on the right writing out the terms of surrender.
As it became apparent the Confederacy’s position was untenable, Grant and Lee began exchanging letters in which Grant allowed Lee to select the location of their meeting. The Appomattox Court House was chosen. Lee arrived first, dressed in his military finest; Grant arrived later dressed like common infantry. The two spoke for some time before addressing the elephant in the room. As far as terms of surrender Grant offered parole to the entire army provided they didn’t again take up arms against the United States. Artillery and small arms were to be “parked and stacked.” Soldiers were permitted to retain their side-arms, private horses, and luggage. “This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by US authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they reside.” Specifying that laws that would govern these parolees would be “the laws in force where they reside” codified a protection from potential federal harassment. Furthermore, Grant intervened vigorously on Lee’s behalf to prevent a trial for treason against Lee or any of his men, going so far as threaten resignation from the Army. Grant’s magnanimity in victory undoubtedly went a long way to begin the country’s healing.

Grant and Julia famously declined Lincoln’s invitation to attend a showing of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre less than a week after Appomattox. As Andrew Johnson took the presidential reins, Grant remained in command of the Army. Grant and Johnson began to clash over Reconstruction and then over Johnson’s desire to replace Secretary of War Stanton with Grant in violation of the recently enacted Tenure of Office Act. The Secretary of War issue permanently damaged their working relationship. It also established Grant as a frontrunner for the Republican ticket in 1868. Grant easily won the Republican nomination before soundly defeating Horatio Seymore in the general election.

Grant as we typically picture him and
as he is pictured on the $50 bill.
Grant went on to serve two terms as president. While his presidency is often viewed dimly, it was not all bad. Grant was a terrible judge of people. This was true of him his whole life, plainly evident in his California financial woes. The worst elements of the Republican Party were entrusted to various posts within the government leading to years of corruption and scandal. While the taint of corruption never reached the president directly, his private secretary, Secretary of the Interior, Vice President, and even his brother-in-law were implicated in various scandals. The post-Civil War years were an exceptionally corrupt time in American history, yet the Grant years stand out for their unbelievable governmental malfeasance.

The corruption is what tends to be focused on when studying Grant’s presidency. However, Grant did a lot of good as president notably in regard to the government’s treatment of former slaves and Indians. Grant was the first president to unequivocally advocate universal black suffrage. The atrocities being committed against Freedmen in the South, which he witnessed, convinced him of this necessity. Grant pursued the perpetrators of these atrocities, the Ku Klux Klan, with forceful legislation. Grant also instituted a rethinking of the government’s policies toward Indian tribes in the West. This was symbolized by the ending of the treaty system of dealing with native tribes.  Grant was also a loud voice in support of the separation of church and state at a time when the burgeoning Catholic population was clashing with established Protestant communities. Gains made these areas were sadly reversed by subsequent administrations obscuring the progress Grant made.

Late in Grant’s second term there was increasing talk of the possibility of a third term. Grant made no public announcements until he was formally endorsed by the Pennsylvania Republican Party. Grant composed a letter announcing his intention not to stand for another term. He then called his cabinet to the White House on a Sunday evening and read it to them, already having submitted the letter to the New York Times for publishing the next day.

Grant lived eight years after leaving the White House. He spent that time traveling Europe and Asia, meeting with world leaders as a tourist, informal diplomat, and bonafide living legend. There were efforts made to nominate Grant again in the election of 1880, however James Garfield won the nomination. Grant’s poor judge of character struck one last time in his final years as he lent his name and money to Ponzi-schemer named Ferdinand Ward. The decision bankrupted the former president. Broke, and now dying of cancer, Grant began writing his memoirs in an attempt to support Julia after his death. Literally writing until days of his death Grant penned what is generally considered the finest presidential memoirs. The book was a huge success earning significant royalties for Julia.

A flawed man, no doubt, Grant is one of the most colorful and important characters in American history. That he isn’t as well known to school children as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln is understandable, but his story, lessons, and character embody much of what is great about the country he led.

October 24, 2016

17) Andrew Johnson - Sir Veto

For no other president, to this point, has the consensus opinion changed so drastically. As recently as the 1960s Andrew Johnson was seen as the man who attempted to shepherd through Lincoln’s magnanimous policy toward reconstructing the South; a defender of the Constitution and its system of checks and balances against the vindictive Radical Republicans led by Thaddeus Stevens. Johnson is now more likely to be viewed as a humorless racist with no regard for the atrocities being committed in the Southern states.  As is often the case, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Johnson grew up fatherless and poor, born in a shack in North Carolina. He had no formal schooling and taught himself to read. When he reached adulthood he moved to Tennessee and served as the town tailor. He continued to learn and joined debating societies where he impressed locals, who would ultimately elect him to various offices including mayor, the state legislature, four terms in the House of Representatives, governor of Tennessee, and ultimately to the United States Senate. He was known as a good speaker in Congress and he instituted Tennessee’s first public school system as governor.

After Lincoln’s election Johnson made himself into a national figure. Johnson was the lone Southern voice in Congress to speak out against secession and even returned to Tennessee to attempt to keep his state in the Union. This was a courageous and lonely act which put him and his family in physical danger. They were forced to flee to Kentucky when Tennessee joined the Confederacy. When the Union Army was able to take control of parts of Tennessee, Johnson was installed by Lincoln as wartime governor.

Andrew Johnson
When Lincoln ran for his second term, Johnson was nominated for Vice President in place of Hannibal Hamlin. Johnson was seen as an ideal personification of the bridging of the gap between North and South, Republican and Democrat. After winning his second term, Lincoln gave the famous speech in which he appealed to the country to heal “with malice toward none, with charity for all…” However, shortly before that celebrated address Johnson was sworn in in the Senate chamber where he was an embarrassing spectacle. Though not otherwise known as a drunk, he showed up in a bad way. He rambled for nearly fifteen minutes before Hamlin interrupted to administer the oath of office. Senator Zachariah Chandler, who witnessed the event, wrote to his wife, “[Johnson] disgraced himself & the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech.”

Six weeks later, Lincoln lay dead and Johnson was sworn in as the 17th president. Trouble began early as Johnson allowed Southern states to send many high ranking Confederates to Congress. The Radicals fought back by refusing to recognize any Senators from the former Confederate States. Returning to the changing opinion of Johnson’s presidency, where historians once saw a man who was carrying out Lincoln’s “malice toward none,” many now see a man choosing to ignore atrocities, often murders, being committed routinely against blacks, Republicans, and US soldiers in the southern states.

A major fear of the Radical lawmakers was the potential political power of a fully reinstated south. The 13th amendment counterintuitively increased the South’s power as their many black residents were now counted instead of being counted as 3/5s of a person. The fear, and reality, was that blacks would be kept from having any place in society or voice at the ballot box while the number of southern representatives in the House would increase.

The Radicals in Congress sparred with Johnson throughout his term. Johnson went around the country giving inflammatory speeches against the Radicals while Congress passed laws over Johnson’s veto. The Radicals in Congress toyed with the idea of impeachment. One of these laws that Congress passed to limit Johnson’s power was the Tenure of Office Act, whereby the president needed the Senate’s blessing to remove many appointed officials. Though the law’s constitutionality was dubious, these were tense times. When Johnson removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and replaced him with General Lorenzo Thomas, Congress found their impeachable offence. On February 24, 1868, roughly three years in to Johnson’s presidency, Congress voted 126-47 in favor of impeachment.

The demographics of the Senate did not bode well for Johnson. Needing a 2/3 vote for conviction, the Senate was comprised of nine Democrats and 45 Republicans, three of the Republicans were “Johnson Republicans.” The defense seemingly needed to swing seven votes. The trial would go on for over two months in the spring of 1868. It was a hot ticket and those who were able to get one eagerly attended.

As the trial wore on and the vote neared, it became clear that it was going to be close and would likely come down to the Republican from Kansas, Edmund Ross. When Ross stood to say “not guilty” in front of a silent room it was all but over. Although derided by Republicans at the time, history began to view Ross’s vote as courageous. Future President John F. Kennedy included Ross as one of eight Senators featured in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage. However, strong circumstantial evidence suggests Ross along with John Henderson (Missouri), Joseph Fowler (Tennessee), and Peter Van Winkle (West Virginia) was bribed. There also appears to have been six more no votes bought if needed. The bribery was likely executed by the so-called Astor House Group with help from Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Edmund Cooper. William Seward and Johnson likely had knowledge of the general scheme if not the particulars of it.
Senator Edmund Ross

Despite his victory over the Radicals and escape of complete political disgrace, there was no chance Johnson would be reelected. The Democrats did not even nominate him for the election of 1868 in which Ulysses Grant soundly defeated Democratic nominee Horatio Seymour. After the election Johnson returned to Tennessee with a bitter taste in his mouth. He sought political redemption in the form of a Senate seat running in 1869 and 1872 before winning a seat in 1875. He died of a stroke during a recess four months in to his term.

I would like to end this post with the same paragraph that David Stewart ended his book with. I find the quote especially poignant now, at a time when Americans are so down on our elected officials.
Americans, perhaps all people, expect historical crises to be met by heroes – Washingtons, Franklins, Lincolns, and Roosevelts. A nation learns a great deal more about itself and its system of government when a crisis has to be met by people of lesser talents. In the impeachment crises of 1868, none of the country’s leaders were great, a few were good, all were angry, and far too many were despicable. Still, we survived. 

June 16, 2016

ASIDE: Jefferson Davis - President of the Confederacy

Had he been born half a century earlier maybe Jefferson Davis would be remembered more like his namesake, Thomas Jefferson. He had a storybook presidential upbringing. Born in 1808 in western Kentucky, Jefferson was the tenth of ten children. His father moved the family nearly 600 miles to Louisiana shortly after Jefferson’s birth and then again, less than a year later, to Mississippi. When Jefferson was seven, his father decided he needed a proper education and sent Jefferson on a 500-mile trip to a Catholic boarding school in Kentucky without telling his wife. On the trip Jefferson spent several memorable weeks at the Hermitage. General Andrew Jackson was a bonafide American legend fresh off of his victory at New Orleans.

Jefferson’s older brother, Joseph, was a major force in his life and became a surrogate father.  Joseph encouraged Jefferson to continue his education. Jefferson attended Transylvania University and West Point, where he was a middling student. Jefferson was a West Point contemporary with his future general Robert E. Lee, though the two were not close. He did become close friends with Albert Sidney Johnston and Leonidas Polk, who would also go on to serve as generals under Jefferson.

After graduating from West Point Jefferson was stationed in Wisconsin. It was true frontier territory. The commanding officer at the fort was future president Zachary Taylor and Jefferson soon fell in love with his daughter, Sarah. As discussed in the post about Taylor, he did not want his daughter marrying an Army man due to the family pressures of military life. Jefferson resigned from the military and married Sarah. Malaria struck shortly after the wedding killing Sarah.

Jefferson and Varina's wedding photo. There's something
about this photo I find intriguing.
Joseph was a wealthy planter with thousands of acres of land along the Mississippi River near Vicksburg. Joseph gave his brother some land where he built his plantation, Brierfield, in the years following Sarah’s death. Jefferson met and married the much younger Varina Howell during these years. The age difference, tension between Varina and Joseph, and Jefferson’s military service would strain the early years of their marriage. However, the two were devoted to each other and her ability to raise their children and advocate for her imprisoned husband in the years after the war are admirable. Her life as a writer living in New York after Jefferson’s death seem interesting. I intended to learn more about Varina following the president project.

Joseph encouraged his brother to pursue politics and was elected to the House of Representatives during the Polk administration on his second try. Less than one year in to his term the Mexican War broke out. Davis resigned his seat to serve as a colonel much to Varina’s vexation. In Mexico, Davis led the Mississippi Rifles who would famously be the first to breech the walls of Mexican stronghold, “the Tannery”, at the Battle of Monterrey. The Rifles also fought gallantly at Buena Vista. In short, the war could not have gone better for an up-and-coming Democratic politician. Davis was appointed to Mississippi’s vacant Senate seat upon his heroic return home and then won reelection. At this point the Compromise of 1850 was the hot-button issue de jour and David bitterly opposed it. Davis hated the legislation’s implicit abandonment of the Missouri Compromise, but the real reason he could not support the Compromise of 1850 is that it would admit California as a free state throwing off the senatorial balance between free and slave states. Shortly in to his elected term as Senator he resigned to run for governor of Mississippi and his candidacy was to serve as a referendum on the Compromise of 1850. Jefferson lost narrowly as his opposition successfully labeled him a secessionist despite Davis’s painstaking parsing of the difference between the right to secede and the need to secede. No one could know at the time how this portended the future.

Following his gubernatorial defeat, Davis worked to get a Democrat back in to the White House campaigning for Franklin Pierce. When Pierce defeated General Winfield Scott he rewarded Davis with a spot in his cabinet as Secretary of War. As secretary, Davis worked to modernize and increase the size of the Army that would go on to defeat his Confederate troops a decade later. Davis also played an important role acting as liaison between Pierce and the congressional supporters of the regrettable Kansas/Nebraska legislation.

Davis returned to the Senate after the Pierce administration ended as the country careened toward Civil War. In a period of escalated congressional rhetoric, Davis was by no means a fire-eater (the nickname given to nineteenth-century Southern secessionists). He did not believe that South Carolina should secede on its own and he did not believe any state should secede until no hope of peace remained. In his last address to the Senate he said that Republicans had forced upon the South a choice it did not want to make.

Davis returned home to Brierfield and awaited word from Montgomery, Alabama where delegates from six slave states were meeting to draft the specifics of what would become the Confederate States of America. Davis was a relatively easy choice for President given his military acumen, knowledge of government, and history of political moderateness. The Confederate government mostly mirrored the United States government, however the Constitution “clarified” the protection of slavery and importance of states’ rights.

The conventional way we tend to think about the Civil War is that the Confederates got off to a hot start knocking the Union on to its heels before the Union was able to gather itself, find a suitable leader in Ulysses Grant, and then take the fight to the South. At least that’s how I think about it. While this is the general pattern it’s a decidedly Northern perspective. The prospects were not nearly so rosy despite early victories at Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff. Davis’s Confederacy had about 40% of the North’s population, which was really about 30% when only White males between the ages of 18 and 45 were counted. The Confederates had about 10% of the North’s industrial capacity and about half of the railroad density of the North (rails that were primarily manufactured in the North and Great Britain). Davis also had a hard time dealing with the financial constraints of war. Very little internal financing was ever raised through bonds and there was no serious attempt at taxation until it was too late. The Confederacy instead turned to the financial tool of failed regimes throughout history, printing money. In 1861 prices were rising and by 1862 there was severe inflation that would only worsen throughout the war.

Davis in his presidential
As a wartime president Davis had to be a more reactionary than proactive executive. Many of the initial Confederate soldiers were on 1-year enlistments and the Army began to deplete as the war dragged in to its second year. Davis pressured Congress to pass a law requiring 18 to 35 year-old white males to serve; this was later raised to 45. This was the first national conscription law in American history. Another law passed by Congress, the “20 Negros law,” stipulated that there must be at least 1 white male for every 20 slaves on plantations. This gave rise to cries of “a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.” While Lincoln is often criticized for his suspensions of habeas corpus Davis also utilized this, though far more conservatively than his Northern counterpart. The last aspect of his presidency that I found particularly interesting was the attempts at a social safety net. Realizing the hardship of war and the need to keep Southerners ideologically united, Davis advocated a 10% in-kind tax on surplus agriculture to be distributed to soldier’s families as well as assistance to those who lost property to the government for military purposes.

A discussion of Jefferson Davis is not complete without discussing slavery. When I compared him to Thomas Jefferson in the first paragraph I said that had he been born earlier, perhaps he would be remembered differently. The fact was that Davis lived in a time when much of the country no longer felt slavery could be tolerated and his views towards blacks remained barbaric. Davis believed that slavery was “the most beneficent form of government that has been applied to those who are morally and intellectually unable to take care of themselves.” Davis believed that slavery was “a moral, a social, and a political blessing.” The other side of this is that, as far as Southern slave-owners went, Jefferson and his brother Joseph seem to have been benevolent. In a rare arrangement, Jefferson’s most trusted slave, James Pemberton, managed his other slaves during Jefferson’s frequent time away from Brierfield. Joseph would sell his plantation to one of his slaves, the remarkable Benjamin Montgomery, after the war.

With the Army of the Potomac breaking through General Lee’s lines, the Confederate government had to abandon their capital of Richmond. It was April 2nd, 1865. Davis’s government retreated 145 miles southwest to Danville, Virginia. When Davis was informed of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, eight days later, the government retreated farther to Greensboro, North Carolina where they were not particularly welcomed and worked out of railroad cars. It was in Greensboro on April 13th that Davis read the terms of surrender at Appomattox and realized that it was definitely over. Davis’s political family now moved on as fugitives and were forced to camp out during the week-long trip to Charlotte. In Charlotte he learned of Lincoln’s assassination. On April 26th Davis’s crew retreated on another week-long trip to Abbeville, South Carolina staying in private homes along the way. Davis’s group began to break apart as Union troops advanced. There was no longer any pretense of organized government as Davis and a small group headed toward Washington, Georgia where Varina was. Davis and his Secretary of Treasury even assumed false identities on this leg of the retreat. Upon reaching Washington, Davis learned that Varina had already left. He decided to pursue her group. The two groups met around May 7th and would be captured, two days later, in the woods of South Georgia.

Davis spent about two years imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Virginia. Notable advocates of his were Caleb Cushing, Franklin Pierce, Jerimiah Black, and Horace Greeley. Once freed, Davis made several attempts at employment both in Europe and America, including briefly serving as president of Carolina Life Company. Davis didn’t involve himself in politics post-imprisonment, however he was the subject of much political mud-slinging including barbs from a young Teddy Roosevelt who compared him to Benedict Arnold.

Davis as an old man.
Davis’s last public speech was to a group of young men in Mississippi City and it is a fitting way to move on from the Civil War presidents. In the speech, an 80-year old Davis told the young men, “…the past is dead. Let it bury its dead, its hopes and aspirations; before you lies the future – a future full of golden promise; a future of expanding national glory, before which all the world shall stand amazed. Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feelings, and to make your places in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished – a reunited country.”

Those words are a worthy legacy to leave behind.

May 25, 2016

ASIDE: The Lincoln Assassination

John Wilkes Booth was in the crowd when Abraham Lincoln delivered one the most famous speeches in American history, his second inaugural. It was a golden opportunity to eliminate the great oppressor. He regretted not seizing it. When Richmond fell less than a month late, Booth was in New York. Crushed by the news, he returned to Washington and was subjected to celebrations and the news that General Lee had surrendered to General Grant’s army at Appomattox. It was too much to take and time to act. Perhaps if something could be done quickly, to throw the government into chaos, the Confederacy would have one more chance to inflict a devastating blow to the Capital.

Booth was from a family of well-known actors. Here he is pictured next to his
brothers Junius Brutus and Edwin (who amazingly once saved Robert Lincoln's life).
The renowned actor had been working on a plan to kidnap Lincoln for some time, perhaps six months, and had made contacts south of the Potomac River where he’d planned a sort of reverse Underground Railroad that would be used to ferry Lincoln to the deep South. By chance, on Good Friday, Booth learned that Lincoln and General Grant would be at Ford’s Theatre that night for a showing of Our American Cousin. He had only hours to devise a plan. Along with Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt Booth masterminded a plan whereby Booth would assassinate Lincoln and Grant at the theatre, Powell would assassinate Secretary of State William Seward with Herold acting as his guide to the city, and Atzerodt would assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson. It would all happen at 10:15 that evening. The famous actor knew Our American Cousin well. He knew that the play’s biggest laugh-line, “you sockdologizing old mantrap!” would occur right around 10:15 and that the laughter in the theatre would provide enough noise to mask the shot.

The afternoon of the April 14th was a busy one for Booth. He met up with the innkeeper Mary Surratt and asked her to deliver a package with his spyglasses to her inn in Maryland for pickup that evening as well as guns and ammunition that he’d previously stored there. Mary also made sure there were a couple of bottles of whiskey ready for him. Booth then did preparation inside of the theater, including storing a plank of wood inside the box Lincoln and Grant would share. The wood would lock the door behind booth preventing anyone else from entering. Booth also went to the hotel where Vice President Johnson was staying and left his calling card with the note, “Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you home? J. Wilkes Booth.”

Late in the afternoon Booth observed Grant and his wife leaving town. It was a setback for Booth, but as far as he knew Lincoln still planned to attend. The night did not go as planned. Atzerodt got drunk and then got cold feet. At the Seward house, Powell talked his way inside and up to Seward’s room. Seward’s bodyguard, son, and daughter held off Powell and though there were substantial injuries, no one died. During the commotion Herold panicked and abandoned Powell. Not knowing the city well, Powell’s abandonment virtually assured his capture. Booth had no way to know any of this had happened and when he accomplished his mission, leapt from the President’s box and shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” to the stunned audience he had reason to believe he had eliminated the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State.

Booth’s theatrical leap from the Lincoln’s box proved costly. Booth’s boot poetically caught on an American flag draped from the box, he landed awkwardly breaking his leg. While adrenaline fueled his escape from DC and in to Maryland where he eventually met up with Herold, his broken leg slowed their escape which would require a speedy crossing of the Potomac to safer country. Booth and Herold first went to Dr. Samuel Mudd’s farm where he received treatment for his leg and crutches. Mudd instructed them to go to seek help from Captain Samuel Cox whose farm was a difficult journey through the Maryland swamps. Given Booth’s condition, Mudd recommended a layover at the home of William Burtles. When Booth and Herold ran in to a free black man named Oswell Swann who knew the swamps, they paid him to guide them directly to Cox. Cox brought the fugitives to the man who could get them to Virginia. Thomas Jones was a sort of Confederate secret agent who specialized in smuggling people and material across the river during the war. He was in need of money given the lack of employment opportunity from the Confederate army as well as the loss of value of the Confederate bonds he’d invested in. Jones hid the men in a pine thicket for five days, waiting for the right time. During those mind-numbing days Jones brought them food and, most importantly to Booth, newspapers. It was here that Booth first realized that the country at large did not see him as a modern-day William Tell or Brutus, as he fashioned himself, but as a cold-blooded murderer. He had turned Lincoln in to a martyr.

Booth and Herold hid in the thicket for five days as Union manhunters swarmed around. Finally, Jones sensed an opportunity and saw them off in a canoe with instructions on how to proceed. Using candlelight sparingly to avoid detection, they incredibly rowed the wrong way and after an entire night rowing ended up back in Maryland. Luckily for the two men, Herold knew the area and brought them to a sympathetic home where they stayed until the following night. By the time they reach Virginian soil 9 nights had passed.

The men made their way about 20 miles south to the Rappahannock River where a few Confederate soldiers helped them cross and then guided them to Richard Garrett’s farm where they introduced themselves as the Boyd cousins, Confederate soldiers returning from the battlefield. Thomas Jones proved to be Booth’s savior after the broken leg setback, but the Confederate soldiers would be a curse. The Colonel Lafayette Baker’s Sixteenth New York Cavalry was searching on the Virginia side of the Potomac based on a tip and made their way to the spot where Booth and Herold had crossed the Rappahannock the day before. Inquiring about recent crossings Baker learned that two men, one with a broken leg, crossed the river southbound with three Confederate soldiers the day before. Baker had no doubt it was Booth and feared he was being protected by the Confederate army.

By this point Garrett had become highly suspicious of the so-called Boyd cousins and informed them they would not be welcome after that night. He relegated them to the barn. That night the Sixteenth thundered past the Garrett Farm to the village of Bowling Green where they believed they would find Booth. Instead they found the Confederate soldiers, one of whom, Willie Jett, betrayed Booth immediately. The Confederates agreed to lead the Cavalry to Garrett’s farm. Unbeknownst to Booth and Herold, they had been locked inside the barn by their suspicious host. When the Cavalry arrived Booth and Herold were trapped and refused to come out. Baker decided to smoke them out and Herold submitted. However, Booth appeared to want to go down with the ship. Peering through the barn’s slats Boston Corbett claimed Booth was about to take a shot and decided to shot first. He delivered the fatal shot.

Booth survived for several hours on the Garrett’s porch. His last words as he stared at his hands were “useless… useless.”

Surratt, Powell, Herold, and Atzerodt hanging at Fort McNair.
For their roles in the assassination plot Surratt, Powell, Herold, and Atzerodt were sentence to death by hanging. Mudd and two others involved in the planning received life in prison. The man who held Booth’s horse outside of Ford’s Theater received six years. Thomas Jones kept his secret for 18 years, then wrote a book detailing his role in the escape.

Lincoln’s assassination was a turning point in American history. It provides a clear point where the Civil War era ends and Reconstruction begins. The assassination also created Lincoln the myth. Lincoln was from the frontier, he was a surprise candidate, was elected by plurality, spent his entire presidency at war with people he viewed as his constituents, suffered many personal and political setbacks during his presidency, faced a revolt in his own party leading up to the 1864 election, and was facing the daunting task of reconstruction once Lee’s troops surrendered. It was not at all obvious to all of his contemporaries that only Washington would rival his claim to the greatest to ever hold the office. Politicians caught up in the whirlwind of mid-nineteenth century American politics saw a dangerous radical if they were Democrats or a dithering hack unable to capitalize on a golden opportunity if they were Radical Republicans. But as time passed and wounds of Civil War and Reconstruction began to heal, Lincoln’s legacy has become crystal clear; and the man who saved the nation died for its sins. This is because of Booth.

March 24, 2016

16) Abraham Lincoln - Father Abraham

In 1809, the president who saved the Union was born in Kentucky. The first true Westerner to ascend to the nation’s highest office had a hardscrabble, frontier upbringing. They moved from Kentucky to Indiana where Abe’s mother died. Unable to raise a family on his own, Abraham’s father went back to Kentucky to marry Sarah Bush Johnston. They returned with Sarah’s three children and luxuries that the Lincoln’s never had such as beds, a table and chairs, and utensils. Sarah treated her step-son with kindness and love that young Abraham affectionately returned. Throughout adolescence Lincoln’s relationship with his father deteriorated and shortly after the family moved again, this time to Illinois, Lincoln moved out at 21 years old and without any prospects.

Lincoln's "rail-splitter" image was an
important part of his appeal to voters.
It was during these years that the “Rail-Splitter” came to be. Lincoln worked on the river, tried carpentry, operated a general store, surveyed land, joined a militia to battle local Indians, was a postmaster, gravitated toward law, and eventually got involved in politics. Lincoln spent his twenties living a frontier life centered around the town of New Salem, Illinois but his political aspirations soon saw him elected to the Illinois legislature and, partly thanks to his political maneuvering, to the new capital of Springfield.

Lincoln served eight years in the Illinois legislature as a staunch Whig while building his law career. During this time, he was also engaging in a rocky courtship with Mary Todd which caused mood swings and severe bouts of depression. In his last year of the legislature he and Mary finally wed and Lincoln had to find a way to support his family. When the law practice he was involved in dissolved he decided to begin his own law firm and partnered with William Herndon. The partnership was successful and Herndon, and ardent Whig and abolitionist, helped encourage Lincoln’s political aspirations.

In 1847, at the age of 47, Lincoln ran for and won a seat in United States House of Representatives. Lincoln served only one term, however his actions while in the House are interesting. In Congress the debate over the Wilmot Proviso was raging. Lincoln believed that slavery should be left alone to die in the South and did not participate in these debates. However, on five occasions when the Proviso came up in a roll call, Lincoln voted in favor. During his second session Lincoln was more active and involved himself in the fight against the slave trade in Washington DC, viewed by many as a national embarrassment.

Lincoln did not run for reelection as his stance against the Mexican American War was unpopular in his district. He did not hold public office again until he was elected president 12 years later. Lincoln and Herndon continued to build their law practice during this time, however Lincoln was involved in building the Republican Party in Illinois by stitching together anti-slavery factions in the state. During this time Lincoln ran against Stephen Douglas for a Senate seat. While Lincoln did not win the seat, he did engage Douglas in their famous series of debates which helped to crystallize the Republicans as the anti-slavery party. Additionally, these debates catapulted Lincoln in to the national spotlight. Seizing on this newfound fame, Lincoln accepted an invitation to speak in New York City. It was 1860, a presidential election year, and Lincoln traveled to New York City and delivered his lauded Cooper Union speech. The location of the speech was as important as the content because New York City was the home turf of the presumptive Republican nominee, William Seward.

Lincoln rode the momentum from the Douglas debates and Cooper Union speech to the 1860 Republican Convention which was conveniently located in Chicago. Lincoln was not a front-runner, but also not a dark horse. He ticked important boxes with his opposition to the expansion of slavery and support of internal improvements. However, there was a chance that the upstart Republican Party may actually take the White House so they needed a candidate who could build a big enough coalition to win the general election. Lincoln was likely to attract former Whigs, given his strong Whig credentials. Secondly, while he opposed the controversial Know-Nothing Party, he wasn’t openly confrontational to the sizable nativist movement in the country. Lastly, Lincoln could deliver Illinois, a state the Republicans needed. Lincoln grabbed the nomination and then won a wild general election in which the vote was split between four candidates. As president-elect, Lincoln was acutely aware that he had garnered less than 40% of the popular vote and was by no means a consensus president. He went on a whistle-stop tour of the Northern states to build unity.

Lincoln was immediately the subject of derision as he snuck in to Washington at night due to rumors of an assassination plot in Baltimore. He regretted the show of weakness. Following the oath of office Buchanan was able to drop the Charleston Harbor crisis in Lincoln’s lap which went on to consume his first month in office. When it became clear that the nation was at war, the North rallied around the administration quickly filling Lincoln’s request for 75,000 volunteers. Unfortunately, Northerners expected a quick routing of the Southern troops. As the war dragged and the Confederate army notched key victories many turned on Lincoln. During much of his presidency Lincoln existed in a space where he was despised by the South, too radical for Northern Democrats, not radical enough for the abolitionist wing of the Republican party, and too hesitant in his handling of his troops. During mid-term elections Lincoln was rebuked with heavy losses in the House of Representatives, however Republicans importantly held on to their majorities in both houses thanks to the departure of Southern legislators.

During the war Lincoln never legitimized the Confederate government. He would refer to the “insurrection” or “rebellion” and when left with no other way to describe his adversary he would refer to “the so-called Confederate States.” He refused to refer to Jefferson Davis as a president. On the other hand, Lincoln utilized many war time measures. Captured Confederate soldiers were treated as POWs, not as criminals. Additionally, the occasional suspensions of habeas corpus and most importantly the Emancipation Proclamation were war time measures designed to weaken the South.

Speaking of the Emancipation Proclamation, it is important to understand what it was and what it was not. The Emancipation Proclamation did not end or outlaw slavery. It did establish the freedom of slaves in certain rebellious states and called for the acceptance of those newly freed slaves in to the armed forces. Additionally, the Proclamation tacitly established that abolishment of slavery was a precondition for reunion, at least on Lincoln’s watch. Congress did not vote on the Proclamation, Lincoln just declared it as a war-time measure. He worried about the ambiguous legal status of freedmen once the war came to a close and worked to use the Proclamation as a stepping-stone for the eventual 13th Amendment to the Constitution that would pass Congress two years later and permanently abolish slavery. Chicago mayor and former White House Chief of Staff to Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, is famous for saying “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” I think this is a great phrase to synthesize and simplify Lincoln’s presidency.

The physical toll that the stresses of war took on Lincoln
are evident in these two pictures. To the left is a picture
taken in 1861, shortly after taking office. The picture on the
right was taken in 1865, about two months before his death.
Between the Emancipation Proclamation and the passing of the 13th Amendment much happened. One significant event came during a lull in the war during 1863. Lincoln had been looking for a chance to give a public address on the significance of the war and got a chance when he was invited to the dedication of the graveyard at Gettysburg. Lincoln may have been tweaking his words up until the day of the address, however he had already arranged much of his carefully worded address. He was scheduled to speak after the eloquent retired politician Edward Everett. Everett spoke for over two hours, leaving many in the crowd unprepared for Lincoln’s brief remarks. So brief her his remarks that a photograph was not taken. Witnesses offered conflicting reports on what Lincoln said and how he said it; Was he reading from notes? Was he interrupted by applause? Did he say “under God”? That his words were extraordinary quickly became apparent as its text was printed in papers across the country. What I find most beautiful about these words was his use of “Four score and seven years ago”. By establishing 1776 and the Declaration of Independence as the birth of our nation and not the signing of the Constitution in 1789, Lincoln was driving home his philosophy that until Jefferson’s words “all men are created equal” were fulfilled, the nation had not met its purpose.

Lincoln dealt with rumblings of a contested nomination for the Republican nomination. Some Republicans even held a dissident convention in which John Fremont was nominated, but the party ultimately rallied around Lincoln and he easily defeated his former general, George McClellan. One interesting note from Lincoln’s second election was his passivity at the nomination of Andrew Johnson as his Vice President thereby replacing Hannibal Hamlin. Some suppose that Lincoln wanted to distance himself from Hamlin’s extreme (i.e. abolitionist) views on slavery. Lincoln was known to joke that he didn’t fear Confederate assassination attempts because they feared Hamlin more than him.

There is so much more to touch on with Lincoln. I’ve hardly discussed Mary and haven’t mentioned his children. There’s Lincoln’s struggle to find generals he could work with and trust, his premonition-like dreams, the reconciliation of views that would be considered racist today with the image we have of the Great Emancipator. In the last couple days that I read Lincoln’s biography I trying to decide how to compare Washington and Lincoln. Washington created the country while Lincoln saved it. It finally occurred to me, not that this is an earth-shattering revelation, that the country needed both of them. They are great because of each other. Without Washington, there would likely have been no United States for Lincoln to lead and without Lincoln, Washington’s creation may have been destroyed. Both were undoubtedly the perfect person at the perfect time for the country.

Given that I wasn’t looking much beyond Lincoln and the Civil War when I began this project, I’ve decided to linger for a while. My next two books will diverge a bit from the regular pattern. I’m going to read James Swanson’s Manhunt to better understand Lincoln’s assassination and the subsequent search for his killer. Then I’m going to read William Cooper’s biography of Jefferson Davis to better understand Davis and “the so-called Confederate States.”

March 4, 2016

15) James Buchanan - 10 Cent Jimmy

In the introduction to this blog I posed three random questions to illustrate my presidential illiteracy: “…what did James Monroe do? What was going on during Buchanan’s presidency as the country moved to the precipice of civil war? Who the heck is Chester Arthur?” We’ve answered the first question already and now it’s time to move on to the second.

Buchanan is the third oldest president at
the time of their inauguration. However,
the current front-runners for the 2016
election, Donald Trump and Hillary
Clinton, would both be older.
In 1791 James Buchanan was born in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, about 40 miles west of what would become the deadliest battlefield of the Civil War. It would be another 66 years before he reached the White House and in that time Buchanan witnessed and participated in much of the American experiment. In all likelihood his family met President Washington when he stayed at Buchanan’s uncle’s tavern during the Whiskey Rebellion. Buchanan began practicing law out of college but quickly became interested in politics and sought a seat in the state assembly. His electioneering consisted involved a stint volunteering in the War of 1812 where he saw no fighting. From the state assembly, the young Buchanan went on to serve in the House of Representatives for four terms representing the dying Federalist Party before being elected as a Democrat for his fifth and final term. While in the House, Buchanan became wrapped up in the “Corrupt Bargain” which gave John Quincy Adams the presidency over Andrew Jackson in the 1824 campaign, he tangled with another young congressman and future president James Polk, and he chaired the Judiciary Committee during his final term.

When Andrew Jackson was elected Buchanan was asked to serve as Minister to Russia. The Russian post was political exile and it indicates that Jackson may have put some stock in the rumor that Buchanan was involved in the Corrupt Bargain. His Russian job lasted less than two years, but it was a difficult two years to be away from Pennsylvania. During that time two of his siblings married; his mother, brother, and good friend died; and another friend became critically ill. Adding to the distress, he learned that his sister had married into a slave owning family, potential political dynamite for the ambitious young man. Buchanan quietly arranged to buy the family’s two slaves into freedom. With his personal affairs sorted out, Buchanan turned his attention to an available seat in the US Senate which he would hold for the next decade. Buchanan’s time in the Senate was a golden age for the institution. He served with five future presidents; Van Buren, Tyler, Polk, Fillmore, and Pierce; as well as the “Great Triumvirate” of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun. Buchanan was very much a legislative role-player during these years and never sponsored any important bills or involved himself in any high profile debates.

The 1884 election of a Democrat, James Polk, brought about patronage for Buchanan and he was asked to join the cabinet. He wavered, hinting he might be more interested in a seat on the Supreme Court, but ultimately joined as Secretary of State. His time in the Polk administration was anything but a honeymoon. The two men often disagreed and Polk’s diary indicates that he did not trust Buchanan. The next Democrat in the White House was Franklin Pierce and he appointed Buchanan to Minister of England. This was another post that Buchanan wasn’t thrilled with, but accepted nonetheless.

Buchanan’s removal from American politics during the Pierce administration proved to be fortuitous. The Kansas-Nebraska Act led to a bitter fight staining those associated with Pierce’s administration. In fact, Buchanan had the good fortune to be removed from domestic politics during the four great political crises of his age. Buchanan was between the Pennsylvania Legislature and the House of Representatives during the Missouri Compromise; during the nullification crisis he was serving in Russia; and during the Compromise of 1850 he was not serving in Fillmore’s Whig administration. This string of good luck undoubtedly aided his electability in 1856.

Political cartoon from the election of 1856 depicting
Fillmore as the level-headed option between
abolitionist (Fremont) and status quo (Buchanan) forces.
By the election of 1856, there was no doubt that it was Buchanan’s turn as the Democratic nominee. He squared off against the Republican John Fremont who ended up splitting votes with Millard Fillmore running for the American (or Know-Nothing) Party. The Republican Party’s platform called for the arresting, jailing, and possibly execution of those who supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In short, the Republican Party platform seemed to criminalize Southern slaveholding states and the mere election of a Republican was likely to push a teetering country into disunion. Under those circumstances Buchanan went about setting up his administration. He formed a cabinet excluding Northern and Southern partisans. The mood in Washington was dour at the time of his inauguration and it did not improve. His presidency began with the Dred Scott decision, ended with an impending battle in the Charleston Harbor, and was absorbed by the Kansas controversy throughout. In Kansas rival governments had set up in Lecompton (pro-slavery) and in Topeka (anti-slavery). Buchanan’s support of the Lecompton constitution using a pedantic legal argument split the Democratic party and stranded Buchanan’s administration as the country headed toward Civil War.

Buchanan struggled with the constitutionality of South Carolina’s secession and the reality of conflict at either Fort Sumter or Fort Moultrie. He also struggled with what the Federal government could legally do in dealing with secession in the event of, or absence of, armed rebellion. On the day after Abraham Lincoln was elected all federal employees save the post office workers resigned in South Carolina. It was the beginning of the end. His cabinet imploded and Buchanan worked to at least prevent Fort Sumter from turning into a battle until after he left office.

In hindsight, war was likely inevitable by the time Buchanan ascended to the presidency. Buchanan was a compromiser and a compromiser was not going to be the person to save the union. Like many Americans at the time, Buchanan felt slavery would die away if the country could just run out the clock. Whether or not this would have happened is irrelevant, to modern eyes (and many contemporaries) the inhumanity of this policy is difficult to see beyond. However, the way Buchanan is derided as the country’s worst president seems unfair to me. I think Pierce’s leadership was much weaker. Buchanan has the historical bad luck of being followed by one of the two greatest leaders to hold that office. Buchanan may have been dealt an unwinnable hand, but so was Lincoln and he still won. For that reason, history has judged Buchanan harshly.

With 15 presidents down, it is finally time to move on to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

January 24, 2016

14) Franklin Pierce - Poor Pierce

With nearly two feet of snow covering the ground out my window, it seemed like an appropriate time to sit down and write about our only president from the Granite State.

Roy Nichol’s biography of Franklin Pierce was one of the more enjoyable during this project so far. I’ve said before that the presidents leading up to Lincoln were the ones I dreaded. I thought I may get bored of the project and give up. However, this well written and researched book is a fascinating way to both learn about an obscure president and provide context to some events leading to the Civil War whose names you remember from history class.

While not a prerequisite for the presidency, Pierce was also born in a log cabin. He grew up in New Hampshire as one of Benjamin and Anna Pierce’s eight children. Benjamin was a veteran of the Revolutionary War where he fought at Bunker Hill. He also served as Governor of New Hampshire. Legend has it that while Franklin was a schoolboy in New Hampshire a speaker came and told his class that if the children aim high in their studies the future President may be sitting in that very room.

Benjamin sent his son north to Bowdoin College in Maine where Franklin did not sufficiently focus on his studies. When his junior year began class rankings were released and Franklin learned he was last in the class. With prodding from classmates Franklin dedicated himself to his studies, rising to fifth in the class by graduation. Franklin made a lifelong friend while at Bowdoin who went on to gain more lasting fame. The author Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, was a lifelong defender of Pierce even dedicating one of his final works, Our Old Home, to Pierce against the advice of his publisher.

After college Pierce moved to Hillsborough, New Hampshire and began learning law. He involved himself in local politics and was elected to the state legislature, eventually being voted speaker. His constituents then elevated him to the United States Congress where he served in the House during Jackson’s administration. He was a “devout hero-worshiper” of Old Hickory and did a great deal of fighting Jackson’s Bank Wars in the House. In the House Pierce would help to draw up the “gag-rule” which John Quincy Adams famously fought against. Pierce’s work on the gag-rule, which effectively barred debate of slavery in the House, and his disdain for abolitionism, which he saw as a grave threat to the Union, were early signs of Pierce’s states’ rights leanings which tarnished his image in posterity.

Like true Jacksonians, New Hampshire Democrats believed in office rotation and their senators typically served only one term. Pierce’s turn came in 1837. In an otherwise unremarkable Senate career, Pierce had to confront slavery again when he voted against a proposal to table a bill to abolish slavery in Washington DC. This vote came despite his dislike of abolitionists as his association with the gag-rule was giving material to abolitionist at home who claimed that Pierce was suppressing their First Amendment right to petition.

While a member of the House, Pierce married Jane Appleton. This was an odd choice as Jane was “shy, retiring, frail… with strict ideas of propriety.” She was also extremely devout. If you took the opposite of each of the preceding attributes you would have a fair description of Franklin. Jane did not like Hillsborough, so the family relocated to Concord. Their first child died in infancy and their second died as a toddler, their third, Benjamin, became an obsession for Jane and Franklin. Jane did not like Washington and was often ill, she spent much of his Senate term back in Concord. When his term ended, Pierce returned and established his law practice. This was a rare happy period for the Pierces. From 1842 through the first half of 1847 Pierce was the most prolific trial lawyer in Concord. Pierce, who battled alcoholism, was not drinking during this period. Jane also seems to have been happy and relatively healthy during these years. Pierce remained active in politics and became a local “party boss”. The surprise election of James Polk in 1844 was a fortuitous turn for Franklin who benefited from patronage as Polk named him district attorney for New Hampshire.

The Battle of Chapultepec, not as magestic when you're laid up with
Montezuma's revenge.
Then came war with Mexico. Growing up with a military hero father, Pierce longed for battle glory and volunteered immediately. He was promoted to Brigadier General, this was likely political given his limited military background, and given a command. Pierce labored to pull together recruits given the unpopularity of the war in New England, but by May 1847 he was ready to set sail. Pierce did not find glory in Mexico. He would find himself in three battles. At the Battle of Contreras, he was injured. The story that stuck with him from the war was when his horse threw him at Contreras a regular yelled to Pierce’s friend, Major Truman Ransom, “take command of the brigade, General Pierce is a damned coward.” This story was repeated by political enemies throughout his career. Again he was injured at the Battle of Churubusco and then finally at Chapultepec, where Ransom lost his life, Pierce was laid up with diarrhea and unable to participate. He held out hope that he would fight at the ultimate battle in Mexico City, however he arrived just in time to see the Mexicans surrender.

Back in New Hampshire Pierce resumed law and politics, the election of Zachary Taylor was a disappointment, however New Hampshire voted Democrat in no small part thanks to Pierce’s efforts. By the time the election of 1852 rolled around there was some talk that Pierce was a potential candidate, he demurred publicly. While he was by no means a major player on the national stage, the Democratic Party was fraying over slavery and Pierce’s Northern routes and Southern sympathies made him an attractive compromise candidate. Pierce was nominated on the 35th ballot of the Democratic convention. Pierce defeated fellow Mexican War general Winfield Scott and won the presidency.

Shortly after his election, tragedy struck when a train that Pierce, Jane, and Benjamin were on derailed. Everyone on the train walked away except for Benjamin, who was decapitated in front of his parents. The Pierces went into a state of deep morning, a state that Jane would never exit. Soon thereafter Jane learned that Pierce had sought the presidency more than he let on to her. This was something difficult to forgive given how opposed she was to returning to Washington.  It is likely that Pierce entered the White House to assume his duties in a state of depression.

Shortly into his presidency, Pierce traveled to New York for the World’s Fair. He wanted to preach states’ rights and the importance of securing the Union. Pierce was sick much of the trip and a letter from a congressman to James Buchanan reveals how Pierce was coping:
“I deeply, deeply, deplore his habits. He drinks deep. My hearts bleeds for him for he is a gallant and generous spirit. The place overshadows him. He is crushed by its great duties and he seeks refuge in…”

The most memorable chapter of American history from the Pierce presidency was the signing of the Kansas/Nebraska Act which created the two states. The act called for popular sovereignty in the two states. Opponents of the act called this a repudiation of the Missouri Compromise, supporters said the Compromise of 1850 already nullified the Missouri Compromise. Proponents of slavery and abolitionists alike began piling into Kansas in hopes of swinging the vote. The ensuing clashes, dubbed Bleeding Kansas by John Fremont’s failed Republican bid for president in 1856, stained Pierce’s legacy and hurled the country closer to Civil War.

Pierce was not nominated by the Democrats in 1856. He had become so unpopular throughout the North that during the mid-term elections the Democrats lost every free state except California and New Hampshire – this after carrying every Northern state but Vermont during his election.

Pierce loathed the Civil War. He had focused his presidency on trying to keep the Union together and he believed the war to be senseless. He blamed abolitionists for the death and destruction. However, when Confederate plans to attack Washington were revealed, Pierce spoke on the need to defend the country “at all hazards” and he never justified the secession of the South. This did little to change public perception of Pierce. He inability to hide his disdain for Lincoln didn’t help public perception. He called Lincoln a tool of the abolitionists: “to the extent of his limited ability and narrow intelligence their willing instrument for all the woe which had thus far been brought upon the country…”

In late-1863 Jane died, the next spring Hawthorne died, in the summer political enemies circulated an old letter Pierce had written to his then Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, purporting to show that Pierce supported secession. The next spring came Lincoln’s assassination and Pierce’s depression and alcoholism began to take hold. His liver held out for four more years while he remained somewhat involved in political issues of the day and became involved in the church.

Pierce's life was tragic and his presidency was unsuccessful. However, it is important to understand his times as the prelude to the Civil War and it is important for one studying the presidents to understand the man, as it is a painful lesson in the burden of the office.