First in a series:
The Good, The Bad and The Indifferent – The Parade of U.S. Presidents
Preface: Our current president has not disappointed me. His pageantry of corruption and moral depravity has exceeded the expectations promoted by his candidacy and backed by his earlier reputation. Stunned that he was elected in the first place, outraged and committed to resistance the first year, I have not lost my resolve. But, I’ve also begun, perhaps as refuge from the storm, to ask bigger questions. What about previous ‘bad’ presidents? How have we survived them? Were any truly ‘good’? And, is the Office of the U.S. Presidency foolproof?
Murders, rapists, bigots and greed-driven scoundrels march right alongside idealists, patriots, philosophers and deeply devout men in our 229-year parade of U.S. presidents. Most march on both sides of the aisle, good and bad. It’s a fascinating history, rife with questions. All flawed, all men, all white, except one, have they led and defined our country or have we simply survived them? And, when we take a close look at many of the past presidents we have to ask the same question many of us ask of the current one: What were American voters thinking?
In the 1884 Presidential Campaign Grover Cleveland was accused of having raped a woman and abducting the resulting child fifteen years earlier while Sheriff of Erie County, NY. Cleveland responded with a tactic redolent of Trump’s ‘Lock Her Up’ strategy accusing his opponent of corruption — “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine.” Voters ignored Cleveland’s immorality and celebrated the end of his bachelorhood when he wed a 21-year old his first year in the White House. While in office, he appointed two racists to the Supreme Court (Lucius Lamar, who opposed Black voting rights after the Civil War and Melville Fuller who upheld Jim Crow laws) and reinforced the Chinese Exclusion Act. What were voters thinking?
In 1912 they elected Woodrow Wilson. He had a PhD from Johns Hopkins and had been President of Princeton, so perhaps voters were easily duped the first time around but they re-elected him in 1916 after he’d already proven himself to be a paranoid racist. During his first term Wilson’s first official act was to have curtains installed in the White House so that his all white staff would not to subject to the sight of the black servants. He also refused to impede the ruthless rampage of the KKK by making lynching a Federal crime. He stood by while cops beat peaceful women marching for the right to vote, using a broad interpretation of the Espionage Act of 1917, which forbade the use of “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States. He was duplicitous and power-hungry. While president of Princeton he wrote: “I cannot imagine power as a thing negative and not positive.” In his 1912 campaign he claimed he was a pacifist. As soon as he took office he authorized the military occupation of the Dominican Republic as well as the invasion and subjugation of Haiti (which cost the lives of some 2,000 Haitians). Historians often portray Wilson as a two-faced man. What were voters thinking?
At least they saw the error of their ways with Herbert Hoover, before giving him a second term. When the nation was gripped with widespread poverty and unemployment after the Wall Street Crash in October of 1929, Herbert Hoover’s response was to blame Mexican Americans, using Federal Troops to expel over a million, citizens and non-citizens alike. And he continued to oppose relief programs for the poor even when nationwide unemployment hit 25%. A very wealthy mining engineer, he had built a sterling reputation as the ‘Great Humanitarian’ spearheading relief efforts in Europe after WWI’s devastation, but his charity never extended to his fellow Americans. He famously said, “If a man has not made a million dollars by the time he is forty, he is not worth much.”
Admittedly, without being able to immerse ourselves in the lifestyles and the politics of a given time period, it is presumptuous to think we can understand what voters were thinking. And, the further back we go the more challenging it is. But, while we can make a case – albeit a shaky one — for voters growing more enlightened as times have changed, we still need to be honest about our predecessors’ choices.
Up to our 12th president, Zachary Taylor (1849-1850 – president for 16 months), we, sitting here in the 21st Century, cannot really know what was in the minds of voters. But we can assume they were motivated in large part by their own self-interests. They elected slave owners Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk and Taylor, the last to own slaves while in office.* John Adams and his son John Quincy, who both hated slavery, were the only two exceptions. Those who didn’t own slaves themselves chose candidates largely by the folklore legends derived from their military prowess.
(*Grant inherited a slave but freed him prior to the Civil War; we’ll deal with Andrew Johnson later).
Early Americans wanted land. Their leaders espoused national expansion with high-minded policies like The Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. As they stole more and more Native land, the tribes fought back. So men like Andrew Jackson, ‘Old Hickory,’ who lead half a dozen tribal slaughters during and before the Seminole Wars was a hit. The same was true of William Henry Harrison, famous for taking on Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe, inspiring his Presidential campaign slogan ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler too.’ With Harrison dead thirty-one days into his first term, his VP John Tyler fulfilled their ‘Anti-Indian’ policy by forcibly evicting four thousand Seminoles from their homeland in Florida to ‘Indian Territory’ out west, just as Jackson and Van Buren and done with the Cherokee. Voters identified with ‘The Indian Problem’ and voted for the men who bragged of their genocidal solutions.
It’s easier (though still not forgivable) to identify the base instincts of the Americans who voted for the first dozen presidents. Though the Abolitionist Movement had already gained traction when our country was founded, it was not widespread. The majority of voters — believed what the government codified and what their religions reinforced – that the African race was inferior and the Natives were nothing but savages. But remember, eligible voters were all white and men only – like the presidents they voted for. (Originally, they had to own land as well.)
Leading up to the Civil War slavery became the hot-button issue. Presidents got into office by how well they danced around the issue. Zach Taylor opposed slavery purely for economic reasons. But he avoided the issue and won the 1848 election as the heroic general who had just won the Mexican-American War. When he died sixteen months into office, Millard Fillmore the ‘thumb-twaddler’ espoused slavery as a states rights issue but signed the Fugitive Slave Act pissing off Northern Abolitionists opposed to sending escaped slaves back to their owners. His successor Franklin Pierce, an alcoholic mourning his son who died in a train wreck just after he took office, mucked up things further by signing the Kansas-Nebraska Act which meant each new state decided slavery for themselves; he named Jefferson Davis as his Secretary of State. (Does this ‘policy by cabinet choice’ sound at all familiar?)
At this point in pre-Civil War history all I can see is voter confusion. Like many today, Americans were torn between voting their conscience on a single issue (slavery) or voting for someone who might heal the country’s vehement contention over the issue. Even states like California (admitted to the Union in 1850) argued the issue of whether or not to become a slave state. Campaigning in the midst of that confusion James Buchanan promised to serve just one term and to end anti-slave agitation. He won California, Iowa, Illinois and Pennsylvania and swept the Southern states. He then supported the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case which declared that negroes could not be citizens therefore they had no status in the Federal courts or in Congressional legislation. The Chicago Tribune summed up the reaction of Northern Republicans: “We must confess we are shocked at the violence and servility of the Judicial Revolution caused by the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States.” By the end of Buchanan’s term (1861), reacting to North’s increasing anti-slavery vehemence, seven southern states had seceded from the Union.
Along came Lincoln, a prairie lawyer and one-term Congressman, with: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”
Lincoln was elected on the strength of his personality. By 1860 the telegraphed has revolutionized news gathering. When Lincoln or his political rivals conducted public debates, major city newspapers would carry their speeches in entirely in the following day’s edition. So along with his reputation for honesty, voters found promise in his intellect and powerful oratory. Though his victory was entirely due to the strength of his support in the North and West (the South already in the process of secession), the 1860 Presidential Election was a clear example of voters electing the right man at the right time for the right reasons – a great moment in Presidential politics.
Voters can’t be blamed for his successor, Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s 2nd term VP who took office after his assassination. Lincoln himself was to blame. Wooing Johnson to balance the ticket in his 1864 re-election bid, he went so far as to exempt Johnson’s home state of Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation. Johnson gave a drunken speech at Lincoln’s second inauguration and after taking over as President six weeks later, fumbled post-Civil War Reconstruction so badly, Congress impeached him. The Senate would have removed him from office except for their fear of Ohio Senator Benjamin Franklin ‘Bluff’ Wade.
As President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Wade was, with no VP in office, next in line for the Presidency. A vocal supporter of women’s suffrage, Wade was deemed too radical. All that was needed was one more Senate vote and Wade would have taken office – and women might have had the right to vote fifty years sooner.
So, not all bad presidents – or the good candidates who never had a chance – were the fault of misguided voters. But, before we continue with the line-up of good, bad and indifferent presidents let’s address the job’s inception, its intent and purpose. What is the president’s job description? What should we expect from our nation’s leader?
The University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School’s ‘Exploring Constitutional Conflicts’ site provides a clear explanation of the U.S. Presidency’s origin:
“The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 gave surprisingly little attention to the executive branch of government. In contrast to the protracted debates over the powers of Congress, the powers of the president were defined fairly quickly and without much discussion. This might in part be due to the reluctance of delegates to offend George Washington, the presiding officer of the Convention, and the man all delegates assumed would be the nation’s first president”.
Today when we cast our vote for president we believing we’re choosing ‘our new leader’, the most powerful person in America – and, in times past we boosted his title to ‘The Leader of the Free World.’ But, imagine what it was like two hundred thirty years ago for Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and their colleagues. Authors who had become overnight sensations across the nation and throughout the western world with the Declaration of Independence, they needed one hell of a sequel after Washington led them to an astounding victory over Great Britain. They put complete trust in Washington, focusing their energies on the principles that would define their shared vision of a democratic republic.
On the flipside, historian Jack Rakove called the creation of the presidency the framers’ “most creative act” –
“In Article II of the new Constitution, the framers offered the world something entirely new: a chief executive whose power came from the people rather than heredity or force. The Constitution, however, provides little hint that the president would become as powerful as he has in modern times. The framers obviously assumed that the legislative branch would be much more influential. Madison wrote that it would ‘rarely if ever happen that the executive constituted as ours is proposed to be would have firmness enough to resist the legislature.’”
Over the nation’s long history, with only short interruptions, power has flowed increasingly to the Executive Branch. The reasons for this are numerous, but include the successful exercise of power by ambitious presidents from Lincoln to the two Roosevelts, the growth of the administrative state in the 20th century, and the realization that Congress is ill-suited compared to the President to make timely responses to national security threats.
Each early president set new precedents for the office. The U.S. Presidency continued to evolve by the force of personalities and principles of the men who served – by the parade of ‘The good, the bad and the indifferent.’ Which is why it deserves further examination.
I admit to cherry-picking historical facts that spoke to the morality of past presidents. By doing so I overlooked their contradictions — good men exercising bad judgment, bad men doing good and complicated men doing both good and bad. Some of the presidents I’ll examine next in this series:
FOOTNOTES ON PRESIDENTIAL FACTS:
- If you did the math in my opening paragraph, you noticed that 229 years (since our first president) doesn’t take us back to 1776, the date we mark as the birth of our country. That’s because during the thirteen years from the Declaration of Independence through the Revolutionary War and the drafting of the Constitution the United States did not have a president. If Hamilton had had his way, we never would have. He campaigned for a ‘monarch-like’ leader. After arguing out all the Articles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the first Electoral College voted unanimously for General George Washington. He was sworn in as our first president on April 30, 1789.
- The continual reference to which number each president is – in history and in modern journalism – creates ongoing confusion about how many U.S. Presidents there have been. Listing Kennedy as our 35th . . . Obama as our 44th, and Trump as our 45th, leads us to believe that forty-five men have been POTUS. Not true. Grover Cleveland, the only one to serve two terms non-consecutively, is counted as both the 22nd and the 24th president. Some historians argue that William Henry Harrison, the 9th, shouldn’t be counted at all since he died thirty-one days into office. So, since we’re obliged to count Trump, forty-four (or 43 if you discount W.H.H.) men – and zero women – have lead our nation.
>> MORE TO COME IN THIS SERIES <<
Is the U.S. Presidency Foolproof?